“So it was, sweet friend, that––”
“Ah, dear friend, greatest and dearest of friends, I have distressed thee. Folly it was, folly and worse, for me to tell a story of such darkness. Thy physician’s stern looks rightly rebuke me, and thy grandchildren’s whisperings show clearly how heedless I have been. Let us call in the young ones again and I shall tell tales of happier times for Shir Shaheen and Roshan, such as the day the vintner came and how the sampling of his wares caused such commotion in Paridiz.”
But the old man in the bed, the dying man, will not be turned from his question. He leans forward from the many pillows that support him, determination in his voice, thin and frail as it is. “It was Safar, thy brother, and thou didst kill him?”
His friend, who has been his friend for more than the lifetime of an ordinary mortal, gives way. “Safar was his name,” says Shaheen. “And once he was my brother. But it was evil I destroyed that night, and glad I am I did so.”
The old man, grandfather and great-grandfather, but still in his heart the boy Roshan, falls back against the pillows. “So many hidden things hast thou revealed in thy tales today, all kept so many long years, weighing upon thy soul. Yet they are but trifles compared to this most bitter secret. How it must have pained thee.” He puts his hand, his aged, wizened hand, upon his friend’s. “Thou shouldst have told me this ere now, so I could have shared thy burden.”
Shaheen cannot meet his eyes. “I could not. Even today, as I began the tales, I doubted whether I could reveal all my guilt and shame. I knew it was Safar before ever I set foot inside his shadow-tower, before ever madness and death came to Paridiz. For when malice laughed as Sima’s blood poured out upon the ground, and the city’s stones whispered of power which could be mine, it was Safar’s voice I heard.
“How could I tell thee I betrayed thy people? Knowing that to destroy him, I must wait until he grew in power and assurance and made himself corporeal, I gave him freedom to drive men to murder. Even then, while thou and thine were safe, I feared to move against him. How could I speak of this?”
“How? By trusting to my friendship.”
Shaheen cannot answer.
“And since now I talk of friendship, I have more to ask of thee.” But a coughing fit shakes Roshan before he can continue. His grandchildren and the physician crowd to his side, but he waves them back, and only Shaheen is allowed to help him drink. And if he is given more than merely wine, then no one, Shaheen thinks, knows of it.
“I am dying,” says Roshan, his voice stronger. “Nay, do not deny it, dear friend. Though, like Scheherazade, thou hast tried to keep death at bay by the telling of thy tales, thou dost know our time together is at an end. Why else hast thou brought the trees into blossom early, but to give me a final gift of their perfume? Why else hast thou now spoken of so much kept hidden for so long?”
He touches the holy book lying in his lap. “I fear not death. Though …” He smiles, and with laughter sparkling in his voice, he is again the boy Shaheen first knew. “Though I will confess to three regrets: that I have not seen thee fly, that I have not flown with thee …” Then, his voice colder, his eyes focussed on a distant enemy. “And that I have not watched the vizier of Gorj bow down before thy puissance and beg for mercy.”
He gestures for another drink of the Tiraz wine, and Shaheen again obeys.
“But I wish to see my dearest Setareh again, and Grandmother and my sons and all the others taken by death who await me in the garden promised to us, more lovely than even the gardens thou hast created here in Paridiz. I am tired. I wish to die.”
“Then shall we never meet again,” says Shaheen, “since I may not join thee there. For djinn are forbid the mortal heaven. I shall be alone.”
“Not alone. Do not my grandchildren ever seek thy advice? And my great-grandchildren, what do they desire more than to sit and listen to thy tales? And who but thee has the stewardship of Paridiz and all its peoples?”
“All I have. But thou art my friend of friends, my truest and most beloved friend, and without thee, I shall be diminished.”
“Shir Shaheen diminished? Never. For is he not the greatest djinn that ever was or is or will be?”
Shaheen shakes his head at Roshan’s jesting tone.
“But as I am thy friend, dear Shaheen, let me die.” He takes his friend’s hand as Shaheen looks away. “Dost think I am ignorant of all thou hast done for me? It is thy magic which has kept me living these too-long years, magic which if thou had hoarded it might have given thee thy freedom. Even now, as the drops of wine touch my tongue, art thou not still sending drops of thy power into my veins, keeping my heart beating? It must end. Great gifts hast thou given with thy great love, but the greatest gift I now ask of thee, sweet friend. Let me go.”
Shaheen, who knows the time is come though still he longs to deny it, bows his head to his friend’s hand and kisses it. Tears of grief and loss slide down his cheeks, tears never before shed for anyone.
In that instant, Roshan’s chamber echoes to the sound of cracking, like glass or crystal breaking, and a sudden breathlessness comes upon Shaheen. His heart races as though a powerful drug has been poured into his veins, flooding his being, and he shivers, in both fear and exhilaration.
Behind him come gasps of awe and wonder. He turns. A ghostly image hangs in the air – the likeness of the sorcerer who captured him so long ago.
“Ah, Shir Shaheen,” says the image, “I wish I could be with thee now, but this shadow-phantom must suffice for this long-awaited message. How long, I wonder? How many years have passed since I trapped thee in the desert glass? The Tears of Safar you and your kind call it, though Safar was an abomination who never shed tears for any. But thou hast. At this moment thou art weeping tears of sorrow for a mortal, the one thing no other djinn has done, and those tears have set thee free from thy imprisonment within the city.
“Much wilt thou have learned of compassion since we met, Shir Shaheen. Forget none of it, and remain a djinn who weeps for humans, not one who slays them.”
Then, like smoke, the vision fades and vanishes from sight.
Free. Shaheen feels it. He trembles again.
“Canst thou fly?” whispers Roshan.
Shaheen does not know, so long has it been, and he fears the crushing disappointment of failure.
“Try,” says Roshan.
With a deep breath and magic flowing through his veins, Shaheen turns himself into a finch. Tentatively he spreads his wings. He rises into the air, clumsily at first, then with more assurance as he flies around the room to the sound of delighted laughter. He darts through the open window, out into Paridiz, flying to its very centre where once towers of evil stood and now a fountain plays. Taking a falcon’s shape, he speeds towards the walls where the sorcerer’s barrier held him, but the barrier is gone and, at long last, he escapes the city. Then as a mighty eagle, swooping, soaring, diving, gliding, he breathes deep of freedom and the cleanness of the desert so long denied him.
Yet though the pent-up yearning for the desert is only part assuaged, he cannot forget his friend, so he turns back to the city.
“I have seen thee fly,” says Roshan as Shaheen again stands beside him. “Now I die content.”
“Not yet,” says Shaheen.
A moment only Roshan needs to understand. He laughs. “Bring me my best robes,” he orders his grandchildren. “Shaheen and I go to see the vizier of Gorj.”
Near a hundred years have passed since Shaheen last flew to Gorj. He has heard the news brought from there, he knows of its decay, but he remains unprepared for the dismal sight. Roshan, who in previous years travelled to his former home, is also shocked, and from the blankets and shawls which swathe him in Shaheen’s arms, he laments its forlorn state, the loss of its beauty.
Few humans now live in the ruins of the lower city, and those mainly brigands and thieves preying upon each other, and preyed upon in their turn by wild beasts and creatures of the night, whose fiefdom it has become. Even the vizier’s palace, perched high on a cliff, has only a fraction of the numbers it once housed, and is itself largely derelict.
Money the vizier has, vast sums received from the profits of the caravanserai at Paridiz, but little has ever left his grasp – his wealth locked in heavy iron chests buried deep within the bowels of the city where he had planned that Shaheen should be imprisoned. Some servants he keeps about him, and many, many guards to protect his hoard, but of Gorj itself he has washed his hands, and all its power and prestige has long since passed away.
From within the palace comes a high-pitched wailing and the sound of running feet. Shaheen alights on a balcony of crumbling stone, then carries Roshan through dilapidated rooms and passages, past terror-stricken servants who flee at the sight of him.
At the edge of the palace gardens, now overgrown and full of hidden menace, Shaheen enters a once-magnificent chamber, its imitation gilt all tarnished, its hangings threadbare, plaster flaking from its walls. In the midst of the decay stands a figure akin to a statue of wax clad in silver robes – a likeness of the sorcerer who imprisoned Shaheen.
A shabby divan rests by a wall. With the merest gesture from Shaheen, it becomes the softest of nests, with blankets of finest goat wool and cushions of damask silk. He gently lays Roshan down. As he turns to the statue, a ghost-image of the sorcerer appears before it.
“Welcome, Shir Shaheen,” says the image. “So thou hast come to meet the vizier. Hear then the message I left for him.”
The statue comes to life with the sound of crystal breaking. “Vizier of Gorj!” it calls, a note of compulsion and summoning in the voice, and the wailing in the palace grows louder. “Once I told thee to heed my words, but I was ignored. Now thou shalt hearken to me whatever thy wish. Magics thou didst demand of me – to imprison the djinn of the desert so the gold from merchant caravans should flow into thy hands, and to give thee life as long as his imprisonment should last. The letter of thy demands I obeyed as was required of me. But the djinn’s imprisonment is now ended, and with it ends the magic holding thee to life. He has won his freedom, for he has learned compassion. Hast thou?”
With a final wailing scream, a man scurries into the chamber. Like a skeleton he is, dressed in the rags of once-fine clothes. The vizier of Gorj.
He stares at Shaheen. “Art thou he?” he cries. “The djinn I had imprisoned? Hast thou heard the treacherous sorcerer’s words?”
“I am,” says Shaheen. “And I have.”
“He deceived me all those years ago.” Laden with anger and self-pity is the vizier’s ragged, rasping voice. “I thought thee trapped forever, and my life eternal. Now I must die because thou hast tricked thy way from thy deserved prison.”
He flings himself at Shaheen, skeletal fingers grasping for the djinn’s throat, but Shaheen vanishes and instantly reappears beside Roshan, so the vizier clutches nothing but air before falling to the ground.
“More deception,” he cries, beating his fists upon the shreds of carpet. “Ever has thy master deceived me as to my rightful profits, and in league with my traitorous guards has he been, thieving my gold from my very coffers. Now at his command art thou come to steal it all from me.”
“None but thee has practised deceit and theft,” says Roshan, his voice harsh. “We would not take a coin of thine were it lying here before us. But the poor of thy city should have profited from thy wealth. I pray that at thy death, they shall reap its benefit.”
“No! It’s mine! Djinn, thou art free because I sought only thy imprisonment, not thy death. Thou art therefore in my debt. Heal me of my human frailty. Give me more life.”
Before Shaheen can speak, Roshan leans forward. “Beg for it.”
“Nay, dear friend,” says Shaheen.
Roshan is unrepentant. “Beg,” he repeats. “On thy knees before the mighty Shir Shaheen, acknowledge his power and beg for his mercy and forgiveness and his help.”
The vizier does, grovelling and weeping, his self-pity laced with spurts of malice. As he pleads, Shaheen considers all the foul things the man has done, the deaths he has caused, the grief. But Shaheen also remembers all the foul things he himself has done, the deaths and grief he caused before his imprisonment. If he has atoned for his sins, it is thanks to Roshan and his grandmother. Though he despises the vizier of Gorj, he cannot deny him the chance to redeem himself.
So he steps forward and touches the vizier, sending a pulse of magic into the man’s meagre frame, much as he has given Roshan for so long. But the magic rebounds, achieving nothing.
The vizier screams, demanding greater magic. Shaheen tries a second time, and a third. With no success.
“I am sorry,” says Shaheen. “I cannot help thee.”
Tearing at his rags, the vizier screeches abuse at Shaheen, then with an ululating shriek, he darts towards the gardens and the creatures lurking there.
Shaheen goes to follow, but the image of the sorcerer speaks again. “Leave him, Shir Shaheen. Time enough has he had to seek atonement. The end he deserves has come upon him. It will be neither swift nor easy.”
Then the image fades and the statue melts into the air.
Roshan and Shaheen are alone. Roshan holds out his hand, which Shaheen takes, kneeling before him.
“Now I die content indeed, my dearest friend,” says Roshan. “Take care of my people.”
Roshan closes his eyes, and with a smile upon his lips and a long sigh, his spirit gently leaves his frail, aged body.
So ends this tale of Shir Shaheen, the greatest djinn that ever was or is or will be. And though tears flow again as Shaheen carries his friend home across the desert, Roshan, as ever, has shown him his path.
For other friends await him in the city, and there are more friends to be made in Paridiz. And more stories to be told of love and friendship and belonging for all who pass through the great caravanserai of life.