Wishtester Chapter 1: Shady Dealings in Shady Alleys

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Wishtesters are the lowest of the low, the most pitiful beggars and crooks living on the fringes of society, and Faruq is itching to become one.

Asking a wish of the Djinn, powerful beings who can grant almost anything the heart desires, is a privilege normally reserved for the exceedingly wealthy. But wishtesters may petition the Djinn without spending a single coin.

The price for wishtesters is far greater than simple gold.

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Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved

A long time ago, in a land lost to history…

Faruq crouched behind an urn almost as tall as he was, the light scent of oranges teasing his nose with every quick breath. He couldn’t let Thamina see him, or he was finished. What kind of luck was this, he thought, that his older sister would be shopping in this area of the market now of all times. She would definitely want to know why he was so far from home, and she would see through any excuse he could come up with.

Wedged between the urn and a table piled with colorful scarves, his face screwed up in discomfort, Faruq could see only dozens of sandaled feet traversing the main market road. When he dared to peek over the urn he had to squint against the midday sun, and the familiar sight of his sister’s pink headscarf was like a beacon. She was bent over examining some fruit. Ahura Mazdaa, he cursed, knowing he couldn’t stay there because even if he turned away, shrewd-eyed Thamina would spot him as she passed his hiding place, and then she would try to force him to go home, not that he would listen. He hated how his sister always bossed him around.

Just as he worked up the courage to dash into the crowd his she looked up, as if she could sense his thoughts. Faruq ducked back down. He took a few calming breaths, once more inhaling the fresh orange scent. He listened, but heard only the noise of the market: vendors calling, hagglers haggling, a street performer warbling off in the distance and a ceaseless, murmuring chatter.Faruq

Faruq wiped at the sweat leaking into his eyes from under his turban and slowly eased up until his gaze just barely cleared the lip of the urn. Thamina weaved her way through the throng, coming his way. He gripped the urn, wanting to take off and get lost in the crowd, but he knew that if she saw him he would just have to explain himself once he returned home. He hesitated, chewing on his lower lip and feeling his legs burn from his half-crouch even as she slowly closed in.

But then a gnarled, brown hand reached out and tugged on his sister’s headscarf. She whirled to face her assailant—an old woman. The noise of the market was too loud for Faruq to hear what the woman was saying, but it was clear by the way she gestured, frantic and desperate, that she was trying to sell something. Faruq grinned and bolted out of the little alcove. He chanced one quick look back at his sister, who was politely trying to disengage herself. For a full minute he pushed through the crowd, ignoring the curses and insults until he felt he was deep enough in the crush of bodies to have lost her.

He maneuvered his way to the edge of the horde and took a moment to reorient himself. Dead ahead were the gleaming white towers of the palace. The main roof and secondary towers were topped off with golden bulbs that tapered up to needle-like points. But the main towers, one at each corner, ended in great bulbs of glass, and the King kept his Djinn enclosed, each to a tower, like giant fireflies. Far above, even in the bright light of day, their flames dotted the sky in red, gold, silver and blue. When he awoke that morning, Faruq’s aim was to end the day tucked into a soft bed within a splendid manor, but as he squinted up at the towers the foolish boy dared hope that if all went smoothly, he would find himself living in a palace of his very own.

Since the palace was to the north Faruq used it to navigate, as everyone knew the wish scribe’s boys congregated in the gray district to the northeast. Old Ayman said they hung around a squat house with a blue door. Ah, Old Ayman. Faruq felt jealousy all mixed up with excitement whenever he thought about the elderly beggar—well, former beggar. Quick as an arrow, the vagrant had become a rich man, and now he lived in a big house right by the water with servants, many camels and goats, and he had just married his second wife.

It took close to another hour of besting the crowds, heat and noise of the market before he finally stumbled on the corridor he was searching for. It was practically deserted compared to the sea of bodies he’d been swimming. Shadows from tattered awnings stretched like lazy black cats across sand-colored buildings, one of which housed a blue door with peeling paint. A group of scrawny young men squatted on and around the cracked and broken steps in front passing the long nozzle of a water pipe. Faruq hung back, pressing up against a wall. He watched how the youths accosted the few people who hurried through the narrow street.

What’s your hurry? Test a wish and you could live forever—have all the time in the world!

A thin, weaselly man in a beige robe and turban slipped out of a shuttered building across the alley. He looked deliberately ahead while striding past the wish scribe’s boys, but one young man who leaned casually against the wall suddenly reached out snatched the weaselly man’s sleeve.

“My friend! Just one wish could change your whole life. No more shady dealings in shady alleys. Conduct your unsavory business under the shade of the palm trees in your courtyard, like all rich men.”

The man shook the youth off and scurried away, chased by the group’s raucous, mocking laughter. And then they spotted Faruq.

“You there! Little brother.” The young man on the wall gestured for Faruq to come closer. “Don’t be afraid, come, come!

Faruq pushed out his chest and marched over. “Who says I’m afraid?”

The others ignored him, but the one who’d called him over clapped a hand down on Faruq’s bony shoulder, and with his other hand he snatched the proffered nozzle, took a long, gurgling pull then sent smoke curling out of his nostrils to replace the thin line of hair above his upper lip.

“I am Abdul-Aziz,” he said. “So, what will it be for you today, little brother? Immeasurable wealth? The heart of the prettiest girl in town? Or maybe you’d like to add a few inches to your…” He took another drag of the pipe “…height,” he concluded while smoke once more spewed from his nose. He patted Faruq on the head. The boy ducked and huffed in annoyance.

“I want to become a wishtester,” he announced, quite unnecessarily. The rest of the boys ceased their chatter and looked at him with eyes that seemed to gleam white in the dimness of the alley. They grinned like jackals.

“Wonderful!” said Abdul-Aziz. “Right, let us go to see the wish scribes, eh?”

Faruq nodded and grinned, pleased that everything was going as planned. “Are you all wishtesters too?”

The young men glanced at each other, and burst into laughter.

“Not us,” said Abdul-Aziz. “All day we lounge and smoke tobacco, with not a care in the world. We have no need of wishes. But you, little brother, the wish scribes will have something spectacular for you, I’m sure of it. Come! The sooner you get your wish, the sooner you’ll be drowning in riches.” He put a hand to his heart. “I just hope you won’t forget your friend and loyal servant, Abdul-Aziz.” He grabbed Faruq by the shoulders and steered him toward the mouth of the alley.

Wishtester Chapter 2: Slow Down, Stupid Boy

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They soon reached the walkway that led through the outer courtyard to the palace. Green palm trees lined its length, their leaves drooping but vibrant. Never in his young life had Faruq been this close to the seat of the King, and his heart thudded as he set foot on the marble path. It felt almost sacrilegious to walk on the pristine walkway, but sacrilege or not he had to hurry to keep up with Abdul-Aziz.

Once more Faruq squinted up at the towers, but even this close all he could see were colored flames licking and snapping inside the glass. Abdul-Aziz led him past white fountains that gushed sparkling water up at the sky, past rich men and women who whizzed by in blurs of silk and color and perfume, and past dark-bearded guardsmen whose scowls could be seen in their eyes. But not one of those daunting men impeded their journey. Faruq could hardly believe it.

At last they approached a tall archway carved into the white stone of the palace’s outer wall, and grim guardsmen stood on each side, one light as sand, one dark as soil, the machetes that hung from their hips gleaming and their faces alert and hostile as the boys approached. Faruq gaped up at them, sure that his trek had come to an end. And yet when Abdul-Aziz took off his cap and nodded to the men, they inclined their heads back, albeit shallowly, in greeting.

“Another one for the wish scribes,” said Abdul-Aziz, gesturing to Faruq. Both narrowed their eyes at Abdul-Aziz, but the dark-skinned man, who Faruq now saw wasn’t much older than him, harumphed and pulled away from the wall.

“Let’s go,” he said, his voice gruff. Faruq started after him but stopped and turned back when Abdul-Aziz stayed where he was.

“Come on!” barked the guardsman, just as Abdul-Aziz smiled and waved. Faruq scurried after the first guardsman while the other grabbed Abdul-Aziz by the scruff of his shirt and pushed him back the way they’d come.

Alright your business is done here. Get out of my sight.

Faruq’s guardsman took him through the palace’s inner courtyard. If the outer courtyard was lavish, the inner courtyard had it beat twice over. The sounds of the outside world fell away to soft conversation, melodic drums and the soft twang of an oud, but no matter how Faruq looked around, he couldn’t find any musicians. He reasoned that they must be hidden away behind one of the silk-curtained tents that lined the perimeter of the courtyard, spaced out between the palm trees.

The-palace

They traversed a flat, marble bridge over a pool of blue-green water so still Faruq saw his own astonished reflection, as if looking into a mirror, until one of the lilies dotting the water floated by and obscured his face, its aroma light. Such beauty. Such luxury! And they had yet to enter the palace. Women garbed in sheer silk like dancers flitted from tent to tent with golden trays of tantalizing fruit. As they cleared the bridge a woman crossed their path, scenting the air with jasmine and cherries. She gave him a tight smile. Faruq smiled back and reached for a bunch of grapes, but she shook her head, yanked the tray out of his reach, and hurried on to the next tent.

A silk curtain fluttered back, and a man in fine robes of light blue embroidered in gold emerged from one of the gazebos, followed by a boy in a plain white robe waving a palm leaf. The nearby serving women bowed to him, while the boy hurried to keep up with the man’s long strides. As the rich man passed Faruq, his dark eyes scanned up and down, appraising, then narrowed under the shadow of his turban. Faruq lowered his gaze to the white tile of the courtyard.

He almost bumped right into the guardsman’s back when they finally came to a small door, dark and hidden among the pillars and bulbous arches that made up the inner courtyard’s wall. An exchange of nods between his escort and the man at the door and they were let inside. Beyond was a stifling, windowless hallway lit only by white light glowing in brackets along the wall. Faruq reached out to touch one of the lights. His hand passed right through the bluish-white orb and he felt no heat. The guardsman suddenly turned around and glared at him.

“You’re a stupid boy,” he said.

Faruq blinked. “What?”

“Do you usually go around touching things you have no idea about? I saw your shadow.” He waved at one of the orbs. “This is sorcerer’s fire. How did you know it wouldn’t immediately incinerate your hand on contact?”

“I…I…”

“How old are you?”

“…I’m thirteen.”

The guardsman scoffed and shook his head before continuing on. Faruq decided not to touch anything else.

The hallway ended in a thick, arched door, tall and split down the middle. All around it a tiled mosaic flashed blue, red, gold and silver in the light of the sorcerer’s fire. The guardsman grabbed a brass ring and gave three fast raps and then four slow ones that echoed in the silence left behind. When at last the door opened a man swathed in white with a crimson turban took up the doorway.

A wish scribe.

His lips pulled back in a knowing smile under his thin, black mustache. “What timing,” he said in a voice like wind caught in a narrow corridor. “I have just the wish for you, my young friend. Can you read?”

“Yes I can,” said Faruq boldly, but a small bolt of panic darted through his gut. His father’s closest friend was a scholar, and had spent many an evening teaching Faruq and his elder sister their letters, but Faruq had always struggled, provoking the man’s temper. Ahura Mazdaa Faruq, my donkey can read this he would say, or he would lament while looking up at the ceiling: Not even the sense of a camel. Still, Faruq would say whatever it took to get his wish.

“Good, that makes things much easier,” said the wish scribe. “Wait here.”

The man ducked back inside in a swirl of white robes, and returned with a small roll of paper.

“Is that my wish?” asked Faruq, making no attempt to mask his excitement. The wish scribe turned up his nose and gazed down at him from hooded eyes.

“It is a wish, for a cousin of the King who has paid more than what a hundred of you is worth for the privilege of our services. And you are not to see it until we near the Djinni. Now come, let us be on our way.”

Faruq should have been surprised, alarmed even, at how quickly everything progressed. After all, there was the rumor of the poor widow with the three young children. The story went that she’d been given the phrase, “I wish to be free of my worries.” She came home to find her three children dead, and she killed herself shortly after.

But that was just a story, whereas Faruq had seen old Ayman with his own eyes. Whenever, like stinging insect bites, his doubts and worries about the notorious deceit of the Djinn invaded, he thought of the smug, triumphant look on old Ayman’s face when he’d returned to Southmarket to gloat, his belly bloated under his silk robes and his fat fingers glittering with rings. If that old fool’s tested wish could turn out to be such a success, so could his.

The wish scribe led the way back through the hallway, and the guardsman brought up the rear. They entered the palace proper, climbing what seemed to be dozens of flights of steps, though Faruq was too dazzled by the spectacle of the palace to keep count.

The walked through smooth, stone archways and along terraces shaded by palms and silk drapes in purple and gold and red. Through a room with jade statues and art on the walls. Through large chambers full of nothing but sunbeams that spilled in through bell-shaped windows. And dark-bearded guards stood sentinel in every room while cream-robed servants bustled by.

When they passed through a hall with windows that opened onto a menagerie, Faruq’s excitement took on a life of its own, devouring what little sense remained in his head. He saw rare animals like elephants and tigers, and others from distant lands that he couldn’t name.

But he could only catch a fleeting glimpse, for as they walked the wish scribe occasionally gestured to one of the guards, and soon Faruq was surrounded, with two men behind him and two in front. Whenever he tried to stop or slow he received a rough shove. Nevertheless, he foolishly hoped that maybe the wish would be to become a King, and then he would have a menagerie all his own.

After a time, they reached the entrance to a tower, and the wondrous sights of the palace gave way to a curving staircase within a shadowy column of white stone. More guards stood by, spaced out every twenty steps or so. Unlit brackets were set at intervals, and the only light came from many tiny windows. As they got higher Faruq stretched his neck to peer out at the view of the city below, but the wish scribe moved briskly, and Faruq had to keep up or risk another shove. He sighed. He would just have to wait until they exited the tower.

But when at last they emerged, the sight before him wiped out all thoughts of a bird’s-eye view. He completely forgot to look around, riveted by the creature towering above him.

Wishtester Chapter 3: Speak Your Wish Clear, Courage Rally

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“She is Marid,” said the wish scribe, now right behind him. Faruq glanced back to see him gazing up at the Djinni. “Beautiful, isn’t she?”

Faruq was not at all certain that was the word he would use to describe her. Perhaps she could be, if her eyes, which were dark but glowed like lit coals, weren’t continuously rolling back in her head. Her hair was long and black as tar, and flowed in shining waves down the golden skin of her torso to her slim waist, where it vanished into glimmering gold fire, as did her legs. The fire gave off no smoke, and he could see her clearly through the glass.

How she twisted and writhed. Even her hair seemed to squirm. Slim, metallic fingers, topped in nails that could have been made of black lacquer, scratched vainly at the glass that held her. Now and again she flattened her golden palms against her prison with a thud. Her chest heaved with her breathing, and her full, golden lips were stuck in an ‘O’ shape, a continuous silent scream, for although she twisted and jerked she made no sound save the thudding of her body and squeaking of her hands against the bulb.

MaridFaruq stepped back and bumped right into the wish scribe, who grabbed him by the shoulder. Craning his head back Faruq looked up at the man, at last wary.

“Do you pity her?” the wish scribe asked.

“Yes,” whispered Faruq.

“Foolish. It is the Djinn’s destiny to serve man, yet still they resist with their trickery. This is their punishment for their defiance of almighty Ahura Mazdaa. Do not pity her. Should even one of the Djinn escape their prison I’ve no doubt their wrath would be so great as to wipe this whole country out of existence, out of history even. Do you fear her?”

Faruq swallowed, trying to moisten his dry throat. When that didn’t work he gave up and simply nodded. The wish scribe looked up at the Djinni in her giant glass bottle, a triumphant smile on his face.

“Fear not, she is well contained.” He gestured, and Faruq started, now aware of four imposing figures cloaked in deep blue who stood two to a side around the glass bulb. “Our sorcerers are the most learned on the continent, using the very latest discoveries in the science of magic to keep the Djinn firmly in thrall. They haven’t a hope of breaking free.”

Still, Faruq cringed away from the wild Djinni. She was at least twice as tall as the tallest guardsman. He jerked each time she thudded against the glass, even though it did seem quite sturdy. The bulb rested in a depression that took up the bulk of the tower. It was round at the bottom, and tapered up into a point, like a teardrop, and capped off by a heavy glass ball as big as his head. The wish scribe used the hand on Faruq’s shoulder to push him toward a white podium perched directly in front of the bulb.

“Let us not waste any more time.” He reached into the sash around his robe and pulled out the roll of paper.

“Read it, memorize it, and speak it just as it is written. Should you speak one word, one syllable differently, you will be run through. Do you understand?”

Eyes wide, Faruq nodded.

“Good. Now open it.”

He almost dropped the paper his fingers were shaking so badly, but he recovered it and sent a silent prayer to Ahura Mazdaa in thanks, and then another begging for the wording of the wish to be simple so that he could read it. He was sure neither the wish scribe nor the guards would take kindly to his nerves, and they surely wouldn’t let him back out of the wishtesting now.

Faruq slowly unrolled the paper, and as he saw what was written his heart sank. Not only were there a couple of words he wasn’t sure how to pronounce, but there went his brief dream of becoming a King with his own menagerie. He silently cursed the man who had commissioned such a strange wish. Sweat broke out on his forehead and he glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, he could tell by the hard expressions on the faces of the wish scribe and the guardsmen that he would not be permitted to leave.

The wish scribe caught his eye. “Are you ready?”

Faruq felt his stomach drop. “Could I have some more time?”

The man squinted at him. “Alright, but don’t take too long.”

He focused again on the paper, his lips moving slightly despite himself as he sounded out the difficult words in his head.

Blo-blooood. Ah! Blood! Suffer….su-ffer-ing…

He fought the dread creating pressure in his chest, forced himself to turn back. “I’m ready.”

“Step up to the podium,” commanded the wish scribe. Faruq did as he was told, and jumped slightly when he felt the pointy tip of a machete at his back. He stiffened.

“Just a precaution,” the wish scribe said in his whispery voice.

The sweat tickled as it coursed down the side of Faruq’s face and made a pool at his chin. He breathed deep, looked up at the tortured Djinni…

…and his mind went blank.

Wishtester Chapter 4: Now Watch the Djinni’s Ploy

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Faruq started to shake, fighting to remember what he’d just read not a minute ago. He wondered if his forgetfulness was the work of the the Djinni thrashing above him.

“Get on with it,” said the wish scribe, impatience deepening his sandy voice. Faruq closed his eyes, but that only heightened the poke of the machete digging into the middle of his back. He snapped his eyes open again, scrambling through his brain for the words. Finally he opened his mouth.

“I wish…” he whispered, and as he spoke the words came flooding back.

“I wish for my family and those of my bloodline to never again have any form of suffering.”

Instantly Marid ceased her writhing. She placed her golden palms flat against the glass and fixed Faruq with her lit-coal eyes so that he became transfixed with fear, and in a voice like air and moonlight she spoke one word.

Granted

A second passed with the Djinni’s stare penetrating the boy to his insides, another second gone, and then she took up her flailing again, bumping and squeaking inside her glass prison. Faruq let out his breath. He felt no different. Slowly, he turned to face the wish scribe, who smiled in smug satisfaction, gazing up at the Djinni.

“See how the madness leaves her when granting a wish? It’s in the very nature of the Djinn to serve man, truly.”

“Is…is it done?” asked Faruq.

“Just as she has spoken. Come, my boy, it is time for you to leave. Go home and, perhaps, live a life free of suffering. I will give you an escort.” He gestured to one of the guardsman, the same one who’d lead him inside, and the man stepped forward, scowling. Panic seized Faruq. There would surely be questions if he turned up at home with a royal guardsman on his tail.

“That’s all right, I can get back on my own,” he said. “I know the way very well.”

“Oh no, my young friend. I insist. And from now on we’ll be monitoring you and your family very closely. We need to know if the wish was a success after all.”

He smiled and Faruq suspected it should have been sympathetic, but he’d seen starving stray dogs fighting over scraps of meat who managed to look more sympathetic than that.

“The man who requested it is sick and dying you see,” the wish scribe continued. “So we don’t have much time.” He clapped Faruq on the back, so hard the boy winced at the sting of it. “Let us go!”

* * *

All the way back he relived the bite of the wish scribe’s slap, and as he labored under the hot sun, sweat running into his eyes and down his back Faruq fought tears. This was suffering! It was clear the wish had not worked in the way intended, and he had no idea what trickery the Djinni had employed. He found himself dwelling on the story of the widow and her three dead children, knowing now that he should have considered how the wishtesting could affect his family if something went wrong. The finery of the palace and the success of old Ayman could no longer eclipse his fear, and he wrung his hands and worried at his lower lip the whole way through the market, hurriedly leading the guardsman.

Even at his quick pace it took almost an hour to reach the southern end of the market. His home was a mere ten minutes’ away when a high, female shriek cut through the air, followed by male shouting. A man and a woman ran up to them, jingling with wealth. The man’s eyes flashed and his face was almost as red as his fine outer cloak. The woman had black streaks on her face where the kohl around her eyes had run from her tears. Faruq’s eyebrows rose, surprised at seeing such a fancy couple in his part of town.

“You must help us,” ordered the man. “That scoundrel has stolen my wife’s purse! Let us go after him and get it back!” He emphasized the last three words by jabbing his finger in the direction of a shabby figure darting away into the emptying market.

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you-” the guardsman began, but the woman cut him off.

“You must!” she cried. “He’s getting away! Help us or the King will hear of this.”

The young guardsman hesitated a moment, and then rounded on Faruq. “You stay here,” he said before running off after the couple. And for one full minute, Faruq did stay. Pure indecision held him as surely as if his legs grew straight from the dusty earth. But at last, with a jerking motion like he was tearing his feet from the ground, he bolted off in the direction of home.

“Mamaaa!” he called as he bounded up the hill-side road to his house. He couldn’t help himself: The word burst from him the same way a blow drew a scream of pain. The sandy yard in front of his house was empty save for a bucket that someone, likely Thamina, had been using to wash clothes. “Mama!” he called again, ducking into the dark entryway of his home. He dashed into the main room and froze. His mother sat on the bed, slumped against the brown brick of the wall with her thick legs sticking out before her. Some garment that she had been mending, a scarf or a veil, dangled from her fingers.

Her eyes were closed.

Wishtester Chapter 5: All Seems Well, but All is Not

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Faruq rushed to her. “Mama,” he said, his voice cracking on the word. He touched her cheek, and then jumped back when her eyes flew open.

“Oh! It’s just you, Faruq.”

Faruq exhaled long and loud. “Praise God,” he whispered. “Mama, where are Baba and Thamina?”

She oofed as she pushed herself upright on the thin mattress. “Your Baba is working and Thamina is shopping… Faruq are you all right?” She put a hand to his face and her thick eyebrows furrowed.

“Yes…I’m fine. Sorry to wake you Mama.”

She arched an eyebrow but said nothing. Instead she rocked forward, stood and stretched. “That’s alright, it’s high time I started dinner.” A mewling cry had them both turning to the kitchen, where a scrawny brown cat stared curiously at them. His mother loved animals, and she always put out milk and food for stray cats, and so the creatures were forever traipsing in and out of their house. His mother seemed to be able to tell them all apart, and even went so far as to give them names.

She went over and bent down to stroke the brown cat. “Isn’t that right, Karim? Why didn’t you wake me, hmm?”

His mother cooed and fretted over the cat as usual, and a slight headache began to throb behind Faruq’s eyes as the adrenaline drained from his limbs.

She looked up from her petting and frowned at him. “You know, Thamina should be home by now with the groceries. Faruq, run to the south end of the market and see if you can find her. She should be on her way home so help her with the bags.”

“Yes, Mama.”

The relief was so overwhelming that it wasn’t until he was back among the yells and chatter and spicy scents of the market that he remembered the guardsman, and instantly dread gripped his insides. As he stood fighting back his panic, Faruq heard his sister calling his name. He turned, trembling when he saw that beside Thamina walked the very same guardsman he’d left behind, and two drooping bags hung from each of the man’s fists.

“Faruq, what are you doing here? Oh no, did mama send you?”

The guardsman squinted at him, and Faruq found he couldn’t look away even as he answered his sister.

“Yes, she’s waiting to start dinner.”

“This is your brother?” asked the guardsman. Faruq tried and failed to read the expression on his face.

“Yes. Faruq, this is Abd-al Malik. He saw me struggling with the groceries and was kind enough to offer to help me take them home.” She flicked her eyes up to the guardsman and back down again, smiling.

On the way home, neither Faruq nor the guardsman mentioned the wish. In fact, Abd-al Malik ignored Faruq entirely in favor of his sister. And when they reached home he politely addressed their mother, asked Thamina if he could come see her again—to which she blushed and said yes—and left, saying he had to return to his duty.

Faruq's house

Soon after, his father returned, and at last they sat at the table on thin cushions, through which Faruq could still feel the warm stones of the floor, scooping up lentil soup with grainy pieces of bread. He fought back tears for the second time that day, only this time they were tears of relief. He couldn’t believe his luck. Everyone was fine, and the secret of the wish remained intact. Perhaps…they need never know.

Once dinner was over, his father stood, groaned and ran a hand through the mass of tight, graying curls on his head. “Back to the shop,” he said.

“What? But the sun is almost set,” said Faruq’s mother.

“Yes, but Bashir’s wife went into labor today, so I said I would come back and finish off the bed stand he’s been working on, otherwise Ghanim wouldn’t have let him leave. Can you believe that?”

“Ghanim is a slave driver,” grumbled his mother as she cleared the table.

“Hmm,” his father hummed in agreement, and then he grinned, his dark eyes twinkling in his sun-worn face. “But you should have seen Bashir. I didn’t know until today someone could look both joyous and terrified at once.” He laughed his deep, hearty laugh. “And the way he ran out of the shop! It reminded me of when Thamina was being born.” He smiled fondly at his daughter, and then at Faruq.

“Well, off I go. Good night my dears, I fear it will be a long night, but no longer than Bashir’s I’m sure.”

Despite his relief at dinner, when night came Faruq couldn’t sleep, no matter how he twisted and turned and squeezed his eyes shut. He lay on his mat listening to the crickets, the bleating sheep and Thamina’s soft snores beside him, staring up into the darkness. His family lived, but he knew the wish had been somehow subverted, and time alone would reveal what curse the golden Djinni had worked on him.

In fact, he would learn the true nature of the wish the very next day.

Wishtester Chapter 6: The Djinn Have Many Tricks

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Thamina was bossing him around again.

“Stop stirring your soup like that Faruq, it will get cold. And look how much bread you have. Next you’ll be asking for more soup because you can’t finish off the excess bread alone.”

Faruq scowled. “No I won’t. I don’t even want it. Mama’s soup is better than yours.”

He expected her to get angry, but she simply shrugged her shoulders and took his bowl. “More for me,” she said, pouring it into her own.

“Hey!” shouted Faruq. He darted a hand out to grab her hair but came up with nothing but air, for she’d dropped a sopping piece of bread in her lap and bent over with a screech to retrieve it. He moved to shove her, but at that moment a cat bit his foot under the table, making him howl.

“Stop all that noise, Faruq!” said his mother.

“But Mama, one of your cats just bit me!”

“Is that right?” she chuckled “Who is it?” she peeked under the table. “Ah! Junah, you’re just hungry aren’t you?” She tsked and fed the cat some bread. Faruq turned back to Thamina, who was contentedly slurping soup from her bowl. In truth Faruq enjoyed Thamina’s soup just as much as his mother’s. He’d simply been fretting over the wish when Thamina scolded him, but he couldn’t ask for seconds now, not after he said her soup wasn’t any good. So instead he positioned his knee and jerked it to the left, intending to knock her in the thigh, but just as he moved she shifted as well and he missed. Faruq let out a frustrated grunt. He just couldn’t seem to get a solid hit on her.

Suddenly, a terribly wonderful thought occurred to him, and he drew a sharp breath. His mother and father were chatting across the table. Faruq bit his lower lip and quickly swung his hand back to slap his mother’s arm, but at that same moment she turned and his fingers brushed just by her. His heart pounding, Faruq looked squarely at his father and aimed a kick right at his folded legs, and screamed when his bare toes were savaged by claws and teeth

“Another cat?!” he yelled.

Faintly, above the sound of his own blood thudding in his ears, Faruq heard his mother chiding him. Was it possible the wish had been successful in some way? He thought back, trying to remember the exact phrasing, and like a splash of cold water on the hottest day in summer, realization both shocked and soothed him. The wish had been a success, but not for him. The wording had specified his family, but not specifically himself. Faruq gripped the table, unsure whether he should be outraged or simply grateful that nothing sinister had happened to his family, in fact quite the opposite. As per the wish, they would live out the rest of their lives free of suffering.

What bad could possibly come of that?

* * *

A few more times that week, Abd-al Malik came back to see Thamina and, Faruq knew, to check up on them and make reports to the wish scribes. One day, when Faruq was in the market looking for dried meat for his mother’s stew, a rough hand grabbed his arm and turned him. It was the guardsman.

“I waited to find you alone, because I don’t want your sister to know about your foolish wishtesting. It would worry her.” He glared at Faruq.”What on Earth possessed you to do it?”

Faruq wrung his hands. “An old beggar’s wish almost a year ago has been very successful. I’d hoped to live in a manor like his, or even a palace-”

The guardsman burst out laughing. “A palace! The Djinn are not all powerful Gods, stupid boy. They can neither make kings nor displace them. That is the dominion of the almighty Ahura Mazdaa alone.” He shook his head. “You are summoned. Muwaffaq wants to speak with you. Follow me.”

“Muwaffaq…”

“The wish scribe you spoke with last week. Stop wasting time. Come.”

They found Muwaffaq strolling the palace’s outer courtyard, sitting on one of the marble benches lining the pathway and sipping juice from a lacquer cup. Once again he wore all white with a simple red turban.

“Young wishtester,” he greeted, the delight in his voice evident despite its reedy texture. “Malik tells me you and your family are well…” He smirked at the boy. “And yet you seem to be…suffering a bout of nerves.”

Faruq kept his head down as he admitted that the wish had worked on everyone but him, then whipped it up at the wish scribe’s laughter.

“Yes, yes, it was an eccentric old goat who commissioned that wish. Practically on his deathbed, but he insisted on being exempt. He claimed his suffering was the divine retribution of God for his terrible sins.” The wish scribe waved a dismissive hand. “I’m pleased to know it was granted just as he desired. We don’t have much time, and it’s so gratifying to get a wish right on the first try.”

Faruq only stared at him.

“That is all,” said the wish scribe to the guardsman. “Take him back.”

* * *

The next day, Faruq’s father burst into the house shouting. “Everyone! Come here I have incredible news!”

The family assembled around the house’s one small door.

“What is it, Baba?” asked Thamina.

“Ghanim is dead, and I’m now running the carpentry shop!”

Everyone gasped and his mother put a hand to her chest. “Oh my, that is incredible. But, what of his son? His wife?”

“Dead as well,” said his father.

“Oh,” said Thamina, and then, “Congratulations!”

“Yes a celebration is certainly in order!” cried his father. He reached for the purse at his hip. “Thamina, I want you to hurry and buy a haunch of lamb before the market closes.”

Faruq stared from his father to his sister to his mother, brow furrowed. “But, Baba…how did Ghanim and his family die?”

“Robbers,” said his father, “On the West Road.”

“Hmmm,” his mother hummed knowingly.

“As the senior craftsman, I’m overseeing things for now, but who knows, it could become permanent,” he said.

“Oh I hope so!” cried Thamina as she wrapped a scarf around her head. “Even I am getting sick of lentil soup.”

Faruq still frowned. “But…what about Ghanim and his family?”

“I just said they were dead, Faruq.”

“But…that’s terrible!”

His father looked thoughtful. “I can’t rightly say he will be missed, but perhaps you’re right. In that case, it is my duty to make the shop as successful as possible in his memory, isn’t it? And if we can eat meat every week so much the better.” He winked.

In the end, his father did inherit the carpentry shop and soon after they had meat almost every day. Their clothes became finer and the goods in their home nicer. First a dark, engraved table, then colorful woven curtains and finally soft beds for each of them.

Soon after, Faruq’s father breezed into their home after work one day, grinning from ear to ear.

“We have had a visitor today!” He cried, and grabbed his wife by the wrists, dancing her around the red and gold mat on the floor of their main room.

She laughed. “What has you in such good spirits, my husband?”

He let her go and plopped down on the red cushions Faruq’s mother had arranged in the corner. “A servant of the King came to tell us that the Queen saw one of our designs in the house of an acquaintance, and we are being commissioned to decorate a new guest room in the palace! We are rich my dear!”

He jumped up again and enfolded his wife in a crushing hug which she gleefully returned. His sister rushed in from the back room where the two of them slept. She’d only heard the last part but began dancing and whooping all the same. Faruq beamed. This was what he’d hoped for all along! They would now move into a fancy house with servants, and live out the rest of their lives without care. Well, his family would, but surely they couldn’t just leave him behind. Take that, old Ayman. Satisfaction bloomed like a winter rose inside Faruq’s chest. The wish had been a great success.

What Faruq couldn’t know was that high up on the tower, inside her glass prison, for just a brief moment Marid stilled and ceased her silent screaming. Her golden lips drew together in a vicious smile.

Wishtester Chapter 7: Hearts Reversed, Affections Bought

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Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved

A deep, familiar voice called him from the entryway of his family’s manor, and Faruq smiled. He closed the book he’d been attempting to read, running a hand over the supple green leather before he put it down, and made his way out of the adjoining solar to greet his friend.

“Malik!” he cried, clapping the young man on his back. Though the guardsman was a few years older than him, Faruq had grown tall and gangly in the past year, and now they were the same height. “Thamina is in her room, I think.”

“Yes, I’ll go to her soon, but I’d like to talk to you as well.”

“I see, well come this way.” He lead Malik to the solar and bade him sit on the heavily cushioned bench that protruded right from the wall, then reclaimed his seat on the opposite side. He studied Malik, shaking his head in disbelief that they had become such good friends. Perhaps it was because he came by so often. Perhaps it was because of the doting kindness he showed to Thamina. Or perhaps it was because they were bonded by the secret of the wishtesting.

“How are you, my friend?”

Malik opened his mouth, closed it again and then sighed.

“What is it?” asked Faruq.

“Thamina…she has changed.”

Faruq’s heart beat a little faster. “How do you mean?”

“She isn’t as sweet as she used to be. In fact sometimes she says things that are rude, hurtful even. I don’t know Faruq, maybe it’s a sign that as we grow closer she feels more comfortable speaking freely. Maybe I’m being foolish.”

“No, you are not,” said Faruq quietly. “I have noticed it too.”

Malik was quiet for a moment, hunched over and staring at his folded hands. “Then perhaps it’s an unfortunate side effect of your sudden elevation in life,” he said.

Faruq’s heart continued to thud. “I will talk with her.”

Malik looked up, his eyes full of gratitude. “Thank you, Faruq. No matter how I scold or reason, nothing I say seems to get through to her, but if she hears it from you too, maybe she will listen.”

Before they could talk further, his sister came into the room, and Faruq bowed out to give them some privacy. He took his book and retreated to the courtyard behind their manor. The sun was going down. When he wasn’t hard at work as an apprentice at his father’s carpentry shop, Faruq almost always made sure to get home before sunset. It was his favorite thing to sit on the bench right in the center of the garden and watch as the leaves become shivering black shadows against the blended pink and orange sky. Lately, it was only during these few blissful moments that he truly felt at peace, for while he basked in the glow of the sunset, he could forget the nagging unease that laced his thoughts from morning until night. Malik’s comment disturbed him more than he let on.

So he stilled his mind before the sun’s waning light, but that day his meditation was disrupted by his sister’s voice followed by Malik’s, far off but growing louder. Malik sounded agitated. A wall of potted ferns made a fence between the bench where Faruq sat and the path where the couple came to a stop. They didn’t notice him.

“Thamina, what do you mean by this? Do you realize what you are saying? Or is this a joke?

Thamina“No, Malik. Why would it be? In fact I’ve been considering this for a long time now. It just doesn’t make sense for me to marry you.I should marry a rich merchant’s son at the very least, though I could probably catch the eye of a relative to the King with papa’s connections.”

Faruq’s mouth fell open, and so shocked was he that he sat staring, and yet he couldn’t have been more surprised than poor Malik, who gave no answer for a few heavy seconds. When he finally spoke, his voice was rough as bark. “But what of all we talked about? Our plans together? I don’t have much but, Thamina, all that I have…it is yours! I would climb the palace and bring you the Djinn if I could.”

“But you can’t.”

More silence until he said, like a plea, “Thamina, I love you.”

“I know you do, but a rich man could love me just as well.”

Faruq’s chest squeezed. He felt horrible for Malik, but under that was something more, a surge of that ever-present nagging dread.

With nothing left to say, Malik walked off, his sandals slapping heavily against the ground. He was gone by the time Faruq’s shock could thaw into anger, but when it did, Faruq jumped up from the bench, made his way around the fence of ferns and shouted at his sister’s back.

“Thamina!”

She turned and looked at him in surprise.

“Did you really mean all you just said?”

“Of course I did.”

“But..how can you be so heartless?”

She laughed a tinkling laugh. “You are so naive, Faruq. I wasn’t being heartless, it was the truth.”

“What man would be kinder to you than Malik, Thamina? He worshiped you like an angel.”

“And so too will another man with more money and better standing. Really, Faruq!” She tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and laughed again as she sailed back into the house.

Because of the wish he’d made a year ago, Faruq couldn’t argue with her.