His own thudding pulse filled his ears, competing with a haunting melody picked out on a single oud. Faruq glanced over at Thamina, but she watched with a slight smile on her face, undisturbed. As the play-guard met with the wish scribe, Faruq swallowed again and again, his throat stubbornly dry.
The music faded away, and he gasped with the rest when a dark curtain was drawn back revealing the ‘Djinni’.
The man had his skin painted the dark blue of a clear night sky, and his hair was a straight fall of silver down to his waist. Smokeless blue flame rose from his billowing trousers and engulfed his lower half completely. Faruq could only guess at what sorcery could create such an effect.
The play-guard cowered beneath the Djinni. His fingers fumbled over the paper, just as Faruq’s had a year ago. The crowd was silent but for the snapping of the flames. As the young man read the wish, a slow, triumphant smile took hold of his face.
“I wish to be appealing to all women!”
The crowd tittered, but Faruq felt like a stone had somehow, at that moment, dropped right into his stomach.
“Granted,” boomed the Djinni, arms crossed over his chest. In the next scene, the guardsman was back at the palace. Slow, calming strings of music wafted over the crowd. Every woman that passed by shot the guardsman a look of interest, and he was practically bouncing with excitement to get off duty and visit his love. But before he could leave, one of the wives of a powerful nobleman commanded him to come catch a lizard terrorizing her suite. However when they reached the room she accosted the guardsman, half-crazed with desire. He resisted at first, but she was young with dark, long-lashed eyes and hair like waves of copper.
The guardsman gave in to her kiss. But then her husband came searching for her, and when he saw the two embracing he drew the curved sword from the band at his waist and slashed at the guardsman’s back. The music swelled and picked up speed as the young guard fell to the ground. The crowd shrieked and yelled while the nobleman continued to hack at the young guard, ignoring his wife’s screaming and pleading. The music of the oud came high and fast, the strings jangling, jangling, jangling with every strike. Finally, the last note shivered on the air above the still body of the guardsman. Faruq sat shaking.
As the lamps were extinguished, and the scene faded to darkness, the Djinni’s deep laughter mingled with the night sky. The play’s sad ending drew subdued applause from all but his family, who cheered with abandon.
Faruq wasn’t sure if the throbbing pain around his eyes came from the glare of the sun off the bright white palace, or his crying the night before. This time he felt no fear or awe as he approached. He was too weary. He marched boldly up to the first two guards he saw. They stood stoic and glaring on each side of a tall, engraved arch that led to the inner courtyard, but Faruq wasn’t intimidated. His fine new clothes lent him confidence.
“Do either of you know where I can find Abd-Al-Malik?”
One threw an uncomfortable glance to the other, who answered gruffly.
“But shouldn’t he be on duty?”
“He isn’t here,” said the guardsman, staring straight ahead. Faruq left them and, suppressing the panic roiling inside him, found another guard.
“Can you tell me where I can find Abd-Al-Malik?”
The man’s face soured like he’d bitten into a bad fig. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“But he’s a palace guard, he should be on duty-”
“I don’t know him,” he said, and he too looked ahead, refusing to make eye contact. The panic churned quicker. Faruq glanced around, looking for another guard, and his heart jerked when he saw the same one who had been standing with Malik on that fateful day a year ago. Just as he started forward he felt a hand on his shoulder. Faruq turned and started. It was the wish scribe, Muwaffaq.
“My young friend,” he said with an oily smile, his eyes scanning the boy up and down. “You’re looking well. And how is your family?”
Faruq spoke slowly to keep his voice steady. “They’re doing very well, thank you. My father is working for the Queen.”
“Yes, so I’d heard. I’m happy to hear that all has turned out for the best. It would have been a tragedy if the wish had failed, don’t you agree?”
Faruq said nothing.
“I’ve heard your father is quite the craftsman. I might commission something from him myself sometime soon. He’s one to watch, I think.” He gave Faruq a wink and turned to leave.
“Wait!” cried Faruq.
“What…what happened to Abd-Al-Malik.”
“The guardsman! The guardsman who was watching us…the one who tested a wish…”
The wishcrafter gave him a long, cool look before he spoke. “Why, my boy, I haven’t the faintest clue to whom you are referring.”
He turned and walked off, a pillar of white gliding back into the palace. Faruq closed his eyes and let two more tears slide out onto his cheeks
Back home, he shambled into the family room to find his family engaged in a game. His father looked up at him and started in surprise.
“Faruq! You look awful, what is the matter? Why are your eyes so red like you’ve been crying?”
“I can’t find Malik,” he said glumly.
“Is that all?” cried his mother. “Really Faruq. Stop this whimpering. It’s very unbecoming of a young man.”
Faruq stared at his mother, his rage and sorrow boiling and rising until it burst forth in a frustrated spew.
“The play was about him!”
“What?” His sister sounded confused.
“The play on my birthday, about the young man who went to the wish scribes! It was about Malik. And now he’s dead. He’s dead and it’s your fault, Thamina!”
“But Faruq, that’s nonsense!”
“It is not. I went to the palace to ask for him and no one would tell me what happened to him. They are hiding it! They are hiding the fact that he is dead! All because of a failed wish you drove him to test.”
“Faruq,” came his father’s deep timbre. “Even if that were true, it is not your sister’s fault Malik chose to make the foolish mistake of testing a wish.”
“Exactly.” His sister nodded, a lock of black hair falling free of the purple silk scarf wrapped around her head. “Imagine, testing a wish over something so stupid.” She shook her head.
Her pure, innocent, maddening lack of comprehension and lack of regard for the tragedy of Malik’s demise, in which she had played a main role, made Faruq want to lunge at her and wrap his hands around her throat. The only thing stopping him, more powerful even than his rage, was his guilt, because simmering in his heart of hearts was the fear that the wish had something to do with his family’s callous behavior of late. Faruq clenched his fists at his side, turned and fled the room.