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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.
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?”
“How old are you?”
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.
They 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.