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.
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 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.