Authors: Jessica Khoury
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Copyright Â© 2016 Jessica Khoury
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15106-2
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
SENSE THE BOY
the moment he sets foot in the cave.
For the first time in centuries, I stir.
I am smoke in the lamp, and I curl and stretch, shaking off the lethargy of five hundred years. I feel I have half turned to stone. The sound of his footstep rattles me like a clap of thunder, and I bolt fully awake.
I push against the sides of the lamp, calling out to him, but of course he cannot hear. He is just a common human boy. He cannot hear the cry of a jinni, a lamp spirit, a granter of wishes.
The boy is alone, and I sense his cautious footsteps as he crosses the threshold of the hidden cavern. I reach out with my sixth sense, following him as he steps down the narrow stair cut into the sandstone, his fingers trailing along an ancient wall carved with symbols, their meanings lost to time. How strange it is, Habiba, after my long solitude, to feel his presence here: like a light at the bottom of the dark, dark sea.
I reach as far as I can, sensing his quiet breath, his hammering heart. Who is he? How did he find this place? He is just a boy, a moment in time that will soon pass. I have known a thousand and one like him. I will know a thousand and one more. He is nothing. I tell myself this, so that I will not hope for him. I am not allowed to hope. I am forbidden a wish of my own. And so I will not think of the world above, of the open sky, of the fresh air and the light of day. I will not show how madly, deeply, desperately I want the boy to carry my lamp out of this accursed darkness. Instead, I fold and unfold, I swirl and I curl, waiting with bated breath. My sixth sense is blurred, like watching fish swim in a rippling pool, and I must concentrate very hard to see him at all.
He carries a small torch, which he holds up as he stares into the great cavern, truly no cave at all but a vast, echoing hall, once part of a great palace lost long ago to war and time. Now it lies deep, deep in the desert, one ruin among many, buried beneath layers of sand and memories.
Columns tower over my intrepid visitor, holding up a ceiling lost in shadow. Carvings wind up the pillars: gaping lions, winged horses, dragons spitting fire. Jewels embedded in their eyes glow softly, as if watching the boy with silent malice, just as they once watched the bright and colorful people who lived here centuries ago, before their city sank into the sand. This place is haunted by ghosts, and I am one of them.
“By all the gods,” the boy murmurs, his quiet words drifting through the enormous vault. He holds up his torch, and light spreads from him in a golden pool.
He is right to be awestruck. This is no ordinary hall but was once a sanctum deep inside the royal Nerubyan palace, where long
ago, a beautiful young queen wished for a garden that had no equal, where she could rest and meditate.
It was one of the better wishes I've granted.
The floor is carpeted in delicate blades of grass, each carved from purest emerald. Low, spreading trees with leaves of jade glitter beneath a high domed ceiling studded with glowing diamonds, like stars in a night sky. From the trees hang fruit: ruby apples, golden lemons, amethyst plums, sapphire berries. They glint and gleam, millions of jewels cut with a precision no mortal art could match. Below in the grass glitter delicate blossoms of topaz and lapis lazuli. You must look closely to realize they are not real trees or real flowers but priceless stones all.
The boy walks as one in a dream, not blinking, not breathing. Not a single living plant is to be seen, and yet it seems more alive than any garden in the world above. For the last few centuries, these jeweled fruits have been my constant and sole companions. The greatest treasure in all the world, as comfortless as light to the blind.
The boy lingers too long.
The air is thick with old jinn magic, a vestige of the great war fought here many centuries ago. It clings to the walls, drips from the ceiling, puddles between the golden roots of the jewel trees. It fills the empty ruins already half sunk into the desert, the long crumbling corridors that branch like roots, linking the towers and halls and storehouses. The city is a breath away from collapsing entirely. For five hundred years this magic has churned and coiled in its chambers, building up like gas beneath the earth, waiting for a spark to set it on fire.
This boy is that spark. He will trip a trap set long, long ago, triggering an explosion of pent-up magic, and the desert will bury
us both. I will be lost, a myth, a dream. Trapped forever with myself in this prison of sand and magic. I cannot imagine a more terrifying doom. I thought I had resigned myself to this fate long ago, when it seemed no one would ever find me. Now I know this to be untrue, and that hope has pulsed deep within me like a dormant seed, waiting to flourish at the first sign of escape.
But then the enchantments twang like the strings of a lute, and my fragile hope grows cold. A wind rises from the darkness, rustles through the stone leaves, until the entire cavern echoes with their clatter. The trap has been sprung.
As if sensing this, the boy hastens onward, past the beautiful trees and flowers, leaping over a stream in which lumps of gold and silver sparkle. The chamber grows lighter as the diamonds above swell with light. It is blinding, harsh. The jeweled garden glitters with razor-sharp edges and points, beautiful but deadly. The boy dodges leaves that cut the air like knives, hissing when one slices the back of his hand.
And at last he arrives at the hill at the back of the enchanted garden, and there he stops beneath the tossing branches of a willow tree hewn from copper, dripping with leaves of emerald. He twists a ring on his finger, his eyes widening as they settle on the lamp.
It sits on a throne-like chair wrought from iron and rubies, the metal twisted to resemble rose vines. Once, the queen of this city would sit here for hours, reading and meditating, but that was a very long time ago. Now there is only the lamp, gleaming in the diamond light. Inside, I expand, filling every inch of the small space with my glittering smoke, urging him to hurry. I pulse with nervous impatience that this chance at escape will slip through my fingers. Never has my lamp felt smaller.
The boy climbs the hill, panting for breath, sighing a little
when he reaches the throne. For a moment he stands there, brushing the dust from his hands, his eyes fixed on the lamp.
The cave shudders. Sand trickles down the walls, tinkles across the piles of golden coin. The enchantments hum, and the jewels on the trees begin to rattle. The boy doesn't seem to notice. He is transfixed by the lamp.
“So this is it,” he breathes.
He reaches out, and I shift from smoke to fire with excitement. When his fingers touch the bronze sides of the lamp, a crackle of energy pulses through me. I can feel his heartbeat through his fingertips, wild and strong.
“What are you?” he whispers. “Why have you been calling to me?”
As if dazed, he runs his fingers along the bronze, his palm tracing the curve of the spout, and at his touch, his human heat courses through the walls.
I simmer and expand. I gather and bunch and ready myself, red smoke turning gold.
The boy rubs the lamp.
And I answer.
I pour upward through the long dark tunnel of the spout. I am a funnel of smoke, a whirlwind of fire. I open myself and multiply, swelling into a great cloud over the boy's head. I press a thousand smoky hands against the stone ceiling of the cave. I roll a thousand fiery eyes and stretch a thousand glittering legs. I unfold and unfold and unfold. How
it feels to be out! I crackle with energy and excitement, my blood lightning and my breath thunder.
I could stretch for hours, relishing the space around me. But because time is short, I shrink and harden, assembling my wayward tendrils. For the first time in five hundred years, I assume the form I love most.
The form of you, Roshana, my Habiba. Sister of my heart. You of the pure heart and the merry laugh, who taught me joy and called me friend. A princess among men, and a queen among her people.
I dress myself with your shape. I take your hair, long and black as the river of night. I take your eyes, large and sharp and glittering. I take your face, slender and strong. Your beautiful body is mine. Your hands, swift and nimble, and your feet, graceful and quick. I wear your face and pretend your heart is mine as well.
And at last, the smoke clears away, and I stand in the garden I created for you. Human to the eye, inside I'm nothing but smoke and power. I stretch and sigh, and slowly, slowly smile at the boy.
He is lying on his back, eyes wide, mouth gaping. Once, twice, thrice his mouth opens and shuts, before he finally chokes out, “Bloody gods!”
This Amulen is young, perhaps seventeen or eighteen summers. His poor thin robes betray a body that carries not an ounce of fat. He is bone and blood and smooth, hard muscle, a boy who has stolen for survival, no doubt, from the fruit vendors and camel drovers and the gutters. Who knows that each day is not a gift but a prize that is to be seized. “You're aâyou're aâ”
Say it, boy
. Demon of fire. Monster of smoke. Devil of sand and ash. Servant of Nardukha, Daughter of Ambadya, the Nameless, the Faceless, the Limitless. Slave of the Lamp.
“.Â .Â .Â a
!” he finishes.
For a second, I can only blink at him, but I recover quickly.
“Tremble, mortal!” I declare, letting my voice echo through the cavern. “I am the Slave of the Lamp, the mighty Jinni of Ambadya. I hold the power to grant your desires thrice. Command, and I your slave shall answer, son of man, for such is Nardukha's law.”
Ah, Nardukha, mighty King of the Jinn. My Master of Masters. Damn
“A jinni,” the boy murmurs. “It all makes sense now.”
He pauses as a string of sand trickles onto his shoulder from above. He brushes it away and steps aside, but it begins to fall all around him. The floor slides, jewels rattling and rolling. He stumbles.
“What's happening?” he asks breathlessly as he climbs to his feet.
“These ruins are old. The magic that fills them is older still, and it will kill you very soon.” No point in blunting the truth. “But if you wish for your life, I will save you.”
He grins, cheeky as a crow. “Why wish for it when I can run? Can you keep up with me, jinni girl?”
At that, I can only laugh, and in an instant bind myself into the form of a hawk and begin winging across the treetops. The branches sway and crack in the gale that sweeps around the room. Jeweled fruit crashes to the ground. The air is filled with the sound of breaking glass and roaring wind.
The boy slides down the hill and sprints through the grass. Branches reach for him, trying to ensnare his arms and neck, but I pull them away with my talons. Shadowy hands reach from the stream and grab his ankles. I beat them away with my wings.
The boy is fast, but is he fast enough? I lead him over and around the piles of treasure, through arches made of glittering, buckling sand. I will credit my young master this: He is quick, and he does not surrender easily.
The exit is not far now. Sand falls in sheets, so thick it beats the boy down and drives him to his knees. He chokes and coughs, his mouth filling with sand. Still he fights forward, his legs straining to
bear him up again. He presses on with his eyes shut, hands groping like a blind man's.
With a swirl of smoke, I shift from hawk to girl, dropping to the ground beside him. I take his hand and pull him along, trying to ignore the warmth of his touch. I have not touched a human inÂ .Â .Â . oh, so very long, Habiba. His fingers tighten around mine, his palm dry and gritty with sand, his veins pulsing with life. As always happens when I touch a human, his heartbeat overwhelms me. It pounds at my ears and echoes mockingly in the emptiness of my chest, where there is only smoke instead of a heart.
There! A gaping doorway, half sunk in sand, which once led to your throne room, Habiba, but that now leads to a dark desert sky bright with stars. The teak door that hung there has long since rotted away, and the stones are chipped and dull, but after five hundred years of lonely darkness, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
The magic makes one last effort to stop us, and this trap is the most dangerous of all. Sand turns to flame, and the flames rush to us hungrily from the belly of the great chamber. But I can taste the sweet night air, and I redouble my efforts to get the boy out alive. If I fail, I know I will never have another chance to escape.
“Faster!” I urge, and the boy glances back at the fire, then scrambles madly on. He moves so quickly he passes me, and now I am the one being tugged forward. The fire licks my heels. I turn to smoke, and the boy's fingers close in on the space where my hand was.
“What are you doing?” he yells.
“Go!” I expand and shift again, becoming a rippling wall of water, pressing against the rush of the flames, holding them at bay. Wind and fire and water and sandâand sky sky sky!
The boy is first to emerge. He leaps out of the door and rolls, clutching my lamp to his stomach. I turn to smoke the moment I am in the clear, a great billow of glittering violet. Flames spew across the sand, like a thousand demon hands rending the earth, grasping for a handhold in the world. Fiery claws rake the desert and scratch the sky all around us.
The boy winces and holds up a hand as a blast of heat blows over him. Tendrils of smoke curl from the tips of his hair where the fire singes it. For a terrible moment, we are entirely encased by flames, and I surround the boy, choking him with my smoke but saving his body from the fire.
And then the magic finally collapses, a blaze that has run out of fuel. Fire turns into the sand it came from and falls in a sparkling white mist around us. The desert swirls around the door and sinks into it, until at last the opening is drowned by sand.
All around us rise the ruins of Neruby, once a vast, sparkling city. Over the centuries it has fallen apart, looking like the skeletal remains of a long-dead beast. Now, those ruins begin to rumble and shake. Massive stones fall from crumbling towers, and walls shatter into pieces. The desert heaves like the sea, swallowing the ruins stone by stone, dunes tossing this way and that. Slowly, loudly, the city sinks beneath the desert, crackling as the last of the old jinn magic burns away.