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I 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 good 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 a—you’re a—”
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. Jinni.
“. . . a girl!” 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 his smoke-and-fire bones.
“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 in . . . 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 sand—and 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.
The last time I saw the city from above ground, it stood proud beneath a sky filled with black smoke, its air clanging with the sound of fighting and the cries of the dying, both human and jinn. Many died that final day. I should have been one of them.
Now the city sinks once and for all, taking the dead with it.
On his knees, the boy watches with wide eyes, and I swirl above him. Soon the last tip of the last tower is swallowed by the earth, and the city—once the greatest in the world, the city of kings and conquerors—is gone.
The desert ripples, throwing the boy onto his back. I shift to human form and stand beside him, staring at the ground that held me captive for centuries. When the dust clears, there is nothing but a glinting blue stretch of sand, pure and virgin, coursed with wind ripples. The only evidence that there ever was a garden of wonders, the only testimony to the great city lost beneath the sand, is a single pale coin that lies on the surface, winking at the moon.
And, of course, there is me.
One: The Thief
After the battle, the Queen and her warriors entered the throne hall of the vanquished Akbanids, where they found displayed on pedestals of marble all the great treasures of that kingdom. And the Queen, having little interest in the jewels and gold, passed all these by, until she came at last to the center of the room. And there, on a sheet of silk, sat a Lamp of humble aspect, wrought in bronze, and without a drop of oil inside.
With great reverence, the Queen took up the Lamp, and at her touch, from it rose with a glittering cloud of smoke a terrible Jinni. And all who looked upon her quailed and trembled, but the Queen stood tall and trembled not. Yet in her eyes was a look of wonder.
“I am the Jinni of the Lamp,” pronounced the Jinni. “Three wishes shall ye have. Speak them, and they shall be granted, yea, even the deepest desires of thine heart. Wilt thou have treasure? It is thine.”
And the Queen replied, “Silver and gold I have.”
“Wilt thou have kingdoms and men to rule over?” asked the Jinni. “Ask, and it is thine.”
And the Queen replied, “These I have also.”
“Wilt thou have youth everlasting, never to age, never to sicken?” asked the Jinni. “Ask, and it is thine.”
“Does not the poet say that hairs of gray are more precious than silver, and that in youth lies folly?”
The Jinni bowed low before the Queen. “I see you are wise, O Queen, and not easily fooled. So what would you ask of me, for I am thy slave.”
“Give me thy hand,” said the Queen, “and let us be friends. For does not the poet say, one true-hearted friend is worth ten thousand camels laden with gold?”
This the Jinni pondered, before replying, “The poet also says, woe to the man who befriends the jinn, for he shakes hands with death.”
—From the Song of the Fall of Roshana,
Last Queen of Neruby
by Parys zai Moura,
Watchmaiden and Scribe to Queen Roshana
We are adrift on a sea of moonlit sand, the silence as infinite as the space between the stars. The night is calm and deceptively peaceful, the city that stood here just moments ago nothing more than a memory.
Inside, I am roiling with apprehension and dread. Will the jinn know I have escaped? How long until they come running? Their fiery hands could close on me at any moment, their eyes red with fury. I wait for them to drag me down and chain me in the darkness once more, but they do not come.
I lift my head and let out a slow breath.
No jinn are racing through the sky. No alarm bells clang across the desert. And at that moment, it strikes me fully: I have escaped. I have well and truly escaped.
We are surrounded by the sand of the great Mahali Desert, endless sand, sand in hills and heaps and valleys, stained pale blue by the moon. The sheer immensity of empty space staggers me after my long confinement. As the boy catches his breath, I turn a full circle and breathe in the desert night. I had long ago given up hoping that I would ever see the sky again. And such a sky! Stars like dust, stars of every color—blue, white, red—the jewels of the gods displayed across black silk.
I long to stretch myself out, to crawl smokily across that glorious moon-blue sand, spread myself like water, a hand on each horizon. And then up, up, up to the stars, to press my face against the sky and feel the cool kiss of the moon.
I feel the boy’s gaze on me, and I turn to him. He is still lying on the sand, propped on one arm, staring at me like a fisherman who has unexpectedly caught a shark in his nets.
I return his gaze with equal candor, adding him up. His stubbled jaw is strong and just slightly crooked, his copper eyes large and expressive, his lips full. A small, cheap earring hangs from his left earlobe. A handsome boy growing into a man’s body, already powerfully built. Were he a prince or a renowned warrior, he would have entire harems vying for his attention. As it is, his rough beauty is hidden in his poorly cut clothing. I pick out the scars on his hands and his legs. The gods have been negligent with this one.
With a sigh, I say, “You look like you’ve been kicked by a horse. Here, get up.”
I offer my hand, but he scrambles away, his eyes wild and wary.
For a moment, he and I regard one another silently beneath the pulsing stars. His ragged breathing is laced with fatigue, but he is as tense as a cornered cat, ready to flee, waiting to see what I will do. My head is still spinning from the suddenness of what’s happened: the first human I’ve seen in five hundred years, the mad race to escape the collapsing ruins, the vastness of the desert after so many centuries confined to my lamp. I sway a little, taking a moment to sort out earth from sky.
“I cannot hurt you,” I say. My hands clench at my sides, and I force my fingers to open disarmingly. “The same magic that binds us together prevents me from harming you. Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Have you never seen a jinni before?”
The boy clears his throat, his eyes fixed on mine. “No, but I’ve heard stories of them.”
Turning my back to him, I look up at the stars. “Of course you have. Tales of ghuls, I’m sure, who devour souls and wear the skins of their prey. Of ifreet, all fire and flame and no brains at all. Or perhaps you mean the maarids, small and sweet, until they drown you in their pools.”
He nods slowly and climbs to his feet, brushing sand from his palms. “And the Shaitan, most powerful of all.”
A chill runs down my spine. “Ah, of course.”
“So are they true? All these stories?”
Turning to face him, I pause before replying. “As the poets say, stories are truth told through lies.”
“So are you going to devour my soul?” he asks, as if it is a challenge. “Or drown me? What sort of jinni are you?”
With a curl of smoke, I shift into a white tiger and crouch before him, my tail flicking back and forth. He watches in amazement, recoiling a bit at the sight of my golden eyes and extended claws.
“What are you?” he whispers.
Should I tell him what—who—I really am? That even now, legions of angry jinn—ghuls, maarids, a dozen other horrors—could be racing toward us? If he has any wits about him, he’ll abandon my lamp and put as many leagues between us as he can . . . which would leave me completely helpless. At least while he holds the lamp, I have a fighting chance.
“How did you find me?” I ask. So many centuries, and this hapless young man is the only one to have found my prison. After that final battle, after you fell, Habiba, my kin threw me into the garden I had created for you. Sit in the dark and rot, traitor, they said. And for so many years, I was certain that would be my fate. But then, surpassing all hope, the boy appeared.
“I’m from Parthenia.” At my blank expression, he adds, “Two weeks by horseback, to the west. On the coast. As for how I found you . . . I was led here. By this.”
He pulls from his finger the ring he’d been twisting earlier. He holds it out on his palm, and after a slight hesitation, I pick it up. A tingle in my fingers tells me the ring was forged in magic. There is something familiar about it, but I am certain I have never seen it before. The band is plain gold but for the symbols carved into the inside, symbols that have been blurred by time and fire.
“And you say it led you to me?” I straighten and stare hard at him.
He takes the ring from my palm. “When I . . . um, found it, it began whispering to me. I know it sounds insane, but I couldn’t get it to stop. Even when I took it off and tried to throw it away, I kept hearing it. So I thought, why not see what it wanted?”
“What did it say?”
“It wasn’t so much words . . .” He closes his hand around the ring, looking haunted. “I just knew it wanted me to follow it, that it would lead me to something important. I didn’t know what. Only that I had to find out, like it’d put a spell on me or something. When I found your lamp, it went silent for the first time in weeks, so I guess . . . it was leading me to you.”
I wonder if he is truly as naïve as he seems. Perhaps he is a simple pauper who stumbled across an ancient and powerful talisman without understanding its true worth. The ring is enchanted, meant to lead the bearer to me. But who created it? It is very old, likely made around the time I was abandoned by my kin in the jeweled garden five hundred years ago. Why hasn’t it been used until now, and why by such an unlikely individual?
“So you followed a magic ring all the way to Neruby, just out of curiosity?”
“Well,” he says gruffly, glancing aside, “it’s not as simple as that. Let’s just say I’m not the only one interested in the ring. I knew it would lead to something valuable, and finding valuables happens to be my . . .” His voice fades and his eyes grow wide. “Wait a minute. What did you say?”
I frown. “I said it’s strange that mere curiosity—”
“No, not that. You said this city was called Neruby.”
“Of course,” I reply.
He sucks in a breath, taking a half step backward, and he scans me head to toe as if just seeing me for the first time. When he next speaks, his voice is tight, excited, breathless.
“I know who you are,” he says.
Something about his tone causes my heart of smoke to flicker in response, and I throw my guard up. “Oh? And who, O boy of Parthenia, am I?”
He nods to himself, his eyes alight. “You’re her. You’re that jinni. Oh, gods. Oh, great bleeding gods! You’re the one who started the war!”
“You’re the jinni who betrayed that famous queen—what was her name? Roshana? She was trying to bring peace between the jinn and the humans, but you turned on her and started the Five Hundred Wars.”
I turn cold. I want him to stop, but he doesn’t.
“I’ve heard the stories,” he says. “I’ve heard the songs. They call you the Fair Betrayer, who enchanted humans with your . . .” He pauses to swallow. “Your beauty. You promised them everything, and then you ruined them.”
A thousand and one replies vie for my tongue, but I swallow them all, bury them deep, deep in my smoky heart. Was it too much to hope, Habiba, that five hundred years would be enough to bury the past? They sing songs of us, old friend. This boy, in his rags and poverty, knows who I am, knows who you were, knows what I did to you. And how can I deny it? Beneath our feet, the ruins of your city lie. He saw them with his own eyes. And why should I hide who I truly am? The Fair Betrayer. The name fits. I add it to the long list of other names I have collected over the years like flotsam in my wake, many of them far less flattering.
Letting out a long breath, I shrug one shoulder. “So what now? Will you toss me away? Bury me again?”
He laughs, a cold, sharp laugh. “Throw you away? When you can grant me three wishes? Would I throw away a bag of gold just because I found it in a pile of dung?” He winces. “I didn’t mean . . . It’s just all so . . . I need to think.”
I watch as he paces in a tight circle, his hands raking his hair over and over, until it nearly stands on end. When he finally stops, I feel dizzy just from watching him. I’d nearly forgotten how frenzied you humans are, always bouncing here and there, like bees drunk on nectar. And this boy is wilder than most, his energy radiating outward, warming the air around him.
He seems to arrive at some conclusion at last, because he stops his mad pacing and faces me squarely, his jaw hardening in resolution. I have to bend my head back a little to meet his gaze.
“So. Three wishes. Anything I want?”
“Anything in this world, if you’re willing to pay the price.”
His eyes narrow. “Tell me about this price.”
With a sigh, I conjure a small flame in my hand and let it dance across my fingers, like a charlatan’s coin. “Every wish has a price, O Master. Seldom do you—or I—know what that price is, until it has already been paid. Perhaps you’ll wish for great wealth, only to find it stolen away by thieves. Perhaps you’ll wish for a mighty dragon to carry you through the sky, only to be devoured by it when you land. Wishes have a way of twisting themselves, and there is nothing more dangerous than getting your heart’s desire. The question is, are you willing to gamble? How much are you willing to lose? What are you willing to risk everything for?”
At that, his eyes harden, and I see that he knows exactly what he wants. He turns and begins walking, his steps sliding in the sand. I follow behind, my eyes on his tattered cloak as it snaps in the wind that whips across the dunes. As I wait for him to reply, I pass my little flame from hand to hand.
“You destroyed a monarchy once,” he says after a moment, his voice low and dangerous, a dark current beneath a still sea. “I want you to help me do it again.”
I close my fingers, my flame disappearing in a puff of smoke. “So. You’re some kind of revolutionary, then?”
Again with that short, bitter laugh. He keeps walking, his words carried over his shoulder by the wind. “A revolution of one, that’s me.”
“Very well.” I run ahead of him, turning and walking backward so that I can look him in the eye.
“What is your first wish, Master?”
“Well, to begin with, stop calling me Master, as if I were some kind of godless slaver. I have a name.”
Names are dangerous. They’re personal. And the last time I got personal with a human, it ended badly. The evidence is buried just a few spans beneath my feet.
“I don’t care to know it.” Better that way.
“If I tell you my name,” he says, “you must tell me yours.”
I stop walking. “I don’t have a name.”
He stops beside me, watching me with his head cocked a bit, like a chess player waiting for me to make a move. “I don’t believe you.”
How can one so mortal be so positively infuriating? “Don’t your songs mention my name?”
His lips slide into a half grin, and he resumes walking, the wind blowing his hair across his face. “Not any you’d like to hear, I think.”
He leads and I follow, a boy and a jinni striding across the moon-blue dunes. Beneath our feet, the sand shifts treacherously. Halfway up a particularly steep hill, it suddenly gives way, and I cry out involuntarily as I slide backward.
But suddenly a hand grasps mine, holding me in place, though I have already half shifted to smoke to catch myself.
“Careful, Smoky,” the boy says, pulling me to the top of the dune. “You haven’t granted me any wishes yet. I can’t have you disappearing on me already.”
“My name’s not Smoky.” I yank my hand away. His touch still burns, leaving me shaken, the echo of his heartbeat resounding through me. Looking away, I shake sand from my robes. I’ve transformed my clothes from rich silks to sturdy white cotton, so that I blend into the desert.
“It is until you give me something better.”
“Where are we going?”
“Why? Bored already? I’d think you’d want to stretch your legs after lying around in that cave for—how long were you in there, anyway?”
“Since the war ended. Five hundred years ago.”
With a whistle, he slides down the other side of the dune, and I transform into a small silver cat and spring after him, shifting back into a girl at the bottom.
He stands still for a moment, watching me. He has tied the lamp to his belt, and his hand strokes it absently. It’s an affectation common to Lampholders, and he’s picked it up already.
“How old are you?” he asks.
A cool wind flows between the dunes, pulling my hair across my face and ruffling his patched cloak.
“Three thousand and one thousand more.”
“Great gods,” he says softly. “But you look no older than me.”
“Looks are deceiving.” I don’t tell him that the face I wear is stolen, its possessor five hundred years dead. Of course, I have a face of my own, one slightly younger than yours. I was seventeen the day I was first put into the lamp, when I ceased aging and became the timeless slave I am now. I have little desire to wear that face anymore. It is the one that betrayed you to your death, Habiba. The face of a monster.
At times I feel as old as the stars, but mostly I feel just the same as I did that day—lost, small, and afraid. But I keep that to myself. I square my chin and meet his gaze challengingly.
“Strange,” he murmurs.
“It’s just . . .” He pushes his hair back. “You’re not like the jinni in the stories and songs. That jinni was a monster. You seem . . . different.”
Then he turns and begins trudging up the next dune, wrapping his cloak around him to keep the wind from tearing at it.
I stand still a moment longer, watching him. “Zahra.”
He pauses and looks over his shoulder. “What?”
“My name,” I stammer. “I mean . . . one of them. You can call me Zahra.”
He turns around fully, his grin as wide and as bright as the moon. “I’m Aladdin.”