Agent Rodriguez peered through the glass window of the cell door. She preferred not to think of it as a cell but that was the descriptor that fit despite the extravagant furnishings inside. Plush furniture, modern media tech, well-stocked bookcases, and a private bath couldn’t disguise the windowless walls or barred door. Less noticeable, but where the reclining prisoner’s eyes were locked, was the time stream buffering device. It was affixed to the faux chimney column and secured the prisoner in time as well as space.
“He’s been completely silent this time?” Rodriguez asked Agent Webb, the guard on today’s rotation. Rodriguez was distinctly aware of Agent Markham behind her, hanging on her every word.
“Other than thanking me for the food, yes. Even while he slept, no mutterings. He appears—” Webb was suddenly silent.
Rodriguez pulled away from the door and turned towards the older agent. “Yes?”
“Peaceful. He appears peaceful.”
“As I foresaw, dearest and best of friends, my tale of Sima’s sweetmeats did restore thy appetite. So what prodigies of eating wilt thou in thy recovery achieve when now our story turns to the great festival of New Year? And since New Year brings always new hope and new beginnings, what shall I tell of the boy Roshan and Shir Shaheen?”
Many long years had rolled beneath time’s wheel since last had Shir Shaheen celebrated New Year in Paridiz and walked in a garden there beside a human. Then had he roamed the palace grounds beside the prince, the mortal man he’d thought the bosom friend of his brother, Safar; the mortal man who, so soon after, would betray Safar. Now he strolled within a courtyard some twenty paces square with Roshan, his own friend, and memories sharp and bitter rose around him like stinging insects.
Well did Shaheen remember the prince’s words that day. “In gardens are we most near to God, and glad I was that I persuaded thy brother to create so many here in Paridiz. Yet even this great garden now reeks to me of the Accursed One. Evil grows within the city. Canst not feel it?” But Shaheen had not felt it, not known he walked beside it.
Well also did Shaheen remember his own words when he learned of his brother’s fate, for he had cursed the prince and his line, that henceforward their gardens should bring forth only bitter fruit and tamarisk. And as Safar’s magic decayed, and the city failed and the desert claimed it for its own, in those gardens of which the prince had been so proud, naught indeed thrived but saltbush and camel thorn and earth-poisoning tamarisk.
In the forest it was late Summer: the path a dancing dapple of sunlight amidst birdsong and the background rustle of leaves.
In the forest it was always late Summer.
Unvisited by other seasons, the great belt of the Greenswathe encircled Garth, last city of High Men within the Circle Mountains, perhaps the last in the world. Now Sigurd, said to be the oldest of oaks, had sent for me, although there was never any sense of urgency in his communications, as if the sentinel lived life at an entirely different pace.
I raised the apple I was eating by way of salute. “Summoned, I came.”
The voice that issued from the malformed knothole was a low growl. “Havardr, by the Black Falls, sent word of one who spoke to him without speaking. Havardr is now silent. There may be danger.”
“Spoke without speaking? Did he say anything else about who this was?”
“It was a—” Sigurd lapsed into a long melodious flow, typical of their descriptive terms.
I half-turned my head, raised my voice. “Cuyler, I have need of your ears.”
“Here, beloved friend, sweetmeats the kitchens have made for thee to tempt thy appetite, knowing thy fondness for such dainties. Syrup strands and sugared almonds, cardamon pastries and little cakes with pistachio and rosewater. Worthy to be compared even with the delectables the boy Roshan and Shir Shaheen once shared on a tower high above Paridiz.”
Shir Shaheen again sat atop the city’s tallest remaining tower, his senses alive to all that happened both across his desert realm and within the ruined walls of Paridiz. Most particularly aware was he of the scrabbling noises and muffled exclamations from within the tower itself as a determined figure clambered his slow way up past its many hindrances and dangers – fallen blocks of stone, wide fissures in paved floors, missing steps in broken stairways. The boy Roshan had courage, but as for intelligence … Had he forgotten that Shaheen could slip away or disappear in an instant? His evident desire to meet Shaheen could be thwarted even in the final seconds of his approach.
Yet Shaheen did not slip away nor disappear, not even when Roshan reached the tower’s summit and the open-arched chamber where once a prince had dined. Motionless stood the boy, steadying himself perhaps after the arduous climb, or gazing upon the gilded magnificence that yet remained within and the glory of golden desert that could be seen without. Or, perhaps, consumed with fear and dread at the tower’s height and the lack of parapet around the open balcony encircling it, where Shaheen sat on crumbling stone, legs dangling over the edge.
Several deep breaths did Roshan take before moving to the arch behind Shaheen. “Sir, mighty djinn, pardon I ask for intruding upon thy solitude, but I am sent by my grandmother to bring this letter to thee.” He held the letter out, but Shaheen turned not, nor gave any sign of hearing.
“I ask pardon also for its late delivery. Many days have I sought thee through the city, and though oft-times I saw a mighty eagle here, I did not bethink me of thy wondrous skill in changing thy form. Only this morning, when I saw thee here in human shape, did I understand and hasten to approach.”
Evening darkness thickens its veil over the cloudless sky as the Earth’s heat drives the bats zigzagging higher. Nothing Greg can do about them, except hope they will not cut across his photo. He will have just one chance to snap his dream picture of H-Line’s new hyper-plane on its London to New York flight.
A cream light arcs up from the tree-lined horizon. He predicts its hypersonic flight path and points his camera ahead of the plane, finger ready over the shutter tab. As it comes closer, the cream divides into red on the right and green on the left. The fuselage material is absorbing sun- moon- and star-light, and transferring and changing it into this plane’s navigation lights.
He bites his lip: closing, almost there. He hits the tab.
The hyper-plane flies past in silence.
Greg examines the image on the camera’s screen. Got it after all these months: plane dead centre; its sleekly curved airframe in staggered rainbow colours – red on the plane’s left, orange and yellow lines down its centre, and green on its right side, haloed by bands of blue, indigo and violet. The version on film with the rainbow colours merging more smoothly is a sure prize-winner.
A bat crashes into his hand. His camera falls and bumps downhill. He half-runs, half-slides after it. The camera smashes into a rock, its back opening and the film dropping out.
“Drink a little wine, O friend of my heart; it will strengthen thee further and speed thy recovery. From the vineyards of Tiraz, this is – the best of wines for the best of men, and such a wine as Shir Shaheen would have welcomed the night he and the boy Roshan met and talked a second time in the ruins of Paridiz.”
Shir Shaheen sat atop the city’s tallest remaining tower, brooding, ever brooding. Weeks had he passed there since the killing of the monstrous scorpion, and though every morning the glory of sunrise bathed the desert sands in gold, and every evening the crimson sunset dyed the city walls with rose, his heart danced not. For the desert was no longer his, the city no longer his. The humans were there and immoveable.
Meagre was the dribble of magic left to Shaheen, yet every trespass of the mortals into his realm could he feel. There, the footsteps of villagers seeking the desert’s wealth – animals to kill, oases to despoil; there, the pad of camels from merchant caravans near Gorj carrying wealth across the desert; there, the plod of mules as pilgrims sought spiritual wealth in the holy cities; and there …
Shaheen sat more upright, then turned himself into an eagle, using its keen vision to pierce the shadow of twilight. Yes, there, with the beat of hooves, men on horseback; a dozen, perhaps more. Not soldiers. Not arrayed as soldiers at least, for no spears or metal helms caught the last gleams of sunlight. Nor an embassy neither; no retinue of officials, these plainly dressed, hard-faced men. Bandits. Or men wishing to be thought bandits. And all stealing through the dusk towards Paridiz.
* Winner of the 2021 Story of the Year Award *
All in all, the end of the world turned out to be a little disappointing. Elodie had expected something more dramatic. Spectacular explosions, perhaps, followed by a tunnel of light. She hadn’t even experienced her life flashing by in a wonderful montage of images. No, things just sort of … ended.
Now she floated around in a vast, dark space. At least, something was floating around. She didn’t appear to have a body, so it must be her conscience. Her awareness, so to speak. Because she was definitely aware. It was rather interesting.
A small spark flared up nearby, hot and intense for a moment and then dying down to a pulsing glow. Elodie tried to speak, but the words came out as thoughts.
“Hello?” the glowing spot echoed.
“Dost see, dear friend, how the sons of thy grandchildren lean forward? Their sisters weep, but they fret with impatience to hear more of my story. And more of Roshan, I doubt not; the exemplar against whom they will measure themselves. So shall they learn further of the human boy pitted against that mightiest of djinns, Shir Shaheen.”
Torn was Shir Shaheen. He had spent the morning – as every morning for many weeks past – following the boy, Roshan, around the city, waiting for him to fail. After the fruitless wandering – also as every day for the same many weeks past – the boy returned to his room, collected his cup of sand and its seed, and went to sit at his grandmother’s feet to glean more of her wisdom.
Though Shaheen followed him to the lesson, he paid scant attention to her discourse on the secret well of courage mortal men possessed, untested until need arose. For there, lying on its cushion, was the panel of silk embroidered with the sacred names of God. The gift she had made for him. The gift he greatly desired but could not permit himself to accept, for its price – allowing the humans to live in peace in the city – was too high. Yet so magnificent was the panel, so exquisite its workmanship, nor could he bring himself to refuse it. So a bargain he had struck with himself. He would wait until the boy proved these humans were as all humans, mired in falsehood and deceit and broken promises.
Look! These new pills make my hairs stand on end and wave at people. Amazing, right? I don’t mind, but it makes my head itch, although nowhere near as badly as the old pills. Look at them go, luv. Medusa man, right? Thousands of tiny snakes wriggling up top. Unless I wash my hair, and then I can’t do a thing with it.
Sorry, luv. Telekinetic joke. I do that when I’m nervous and it helps to break the ice, and I can do that if I put an ice cube on my forehead. Really, I can break ice a few millimetres from my head, which is pretty awesome. It’s enough to get me over my depression, except that’s probably really down to these drugs that make my hair stand on end. They said this telekinetic thing is a rare side effect. I don’t care.
It’s impossible, right? Waving my hair by the power of my mind? Can’t be done. Well, you just reach over and run your fingers through my hair, and perhaps I’ll trim your nails. Or give me a hug, and I’ll make your hair curl …
Sorry, luv. Yes, I know that was really inappropriate. I’ll just have a bottle of milk and a packet of teabags. I’m just so buzzed that I felt up to leaving the flat. Hey, look, I can raise my eyebrows … and then all my hair at the front … yeah, it’s a fringe activity. Sorry. More telekinetic humour. I don’t often meet new people. How much for the milk and tea? Better make it skimmed.
“Glad am I, dearest of friends, that sleep has eased thy pain. But lie still yet awhile, and let me again transport thee to a time long past when Shir Shaheen cursed and hated all humans. Freed was Shaheen, yet trapped was he also. Freed from the desert glass, the Tears of Safar; trapped within the ruins of Paridiz, the creation of Safar.”
Vengeance had Shaheen sworn against the vizier of Gorj, yet no vengeance could he wreak unless he escaped from Paridiz. Long he considered the sorcerer’s words – that one certain thing no other djinn had done would set him free – yet was he no closer to understanding what he must do nor the intent behind it. But if he could not unravel the sorcerer’s riddle, he could battle the sorcerer’s binding.
With the dribble of magic left to him Shaheen was able still to change his size and shape, though now only in limited ways, and as a lizard he climbed the city’s walls, as a beetle he probed their every cranny and crevice, as a sand fox he dug to their foundations, and in incorporeal form he slipped into their brick and stone.
To no avail. As far as he could reach above, as far as he could delve below, a barrier, invisible, unmoveable, surrounded the city through which he could not pass. With his fists he struck it, with rocks he pounded it, with shards of stone he stabbed it, with a mirror reflecting the sun’s rays he tried to burn holes in it. But not the least mark or dent or scorch did he create. Even when he threw down a wall, though the bricks fell, the barrier remained.