“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.”
“Now must the young ones leave, as I would not have them hear my next tale. For though great happiness did Setareh bring to Roshan, darkness yet threatened them and all Paridiz.”
Dusk was falling, and throughout the city lights appeared, save at its very centre. For where Safar’s shining tower once had stood, darkness now reigned. Atop his own tower Shir Shaheen held a shard of desert glass, part of the crystal in which the vizier’s sorcerer had long ago trapped him, and as he turned it over and over in his hand, he watched the darkness.
His day had been spent labouring among the qanats beneath Paridiz, as each day had been spent for the past several months, ensuring fresh water flowed everywhere, bringing with it the ancient earth-magic; ensuring also that he could, at need, quickly redirect the waters and seal outflows to create the pressure for one more fountain.
He had done all he could. Nothing now was left but to watch and wait.
Behind him, Roshan paused in his ceaseless walking to and fro and stared towards the centre of the city where wraith-like shadows were forming a demonic simulacrum of Safar’s tower. Unnatural, unholy darkness swathed its ghostly walls, and fear bled from it.
“An illusion, I doubt not,” said Roshan, “but it seems almost that the shadows have become thicker, more solid.”
“It is no illusion,” said Shaheen.
“Hark, dear friend. The daughters of thy grandchildren whisper amongst themselves, for they feel too long have I talked of battles and bloodshed and they wish to hear of gardens and nightingales and pretty things. So of gardens and nightingales and pretty things shall I speak. Yet must I talk of shadows, too, and a time when Roshan was ensnared and Shir Shaheen was called upon to free him.”
The chariot of time rolled ever on in Paridiz. More people came to live in the city – not only from the impoverished townships at the desert’s edge, but from Gorj itself. More buildings were rebuilt, more noise echoed from the houses, more stench rose from the streets; laws were made, taxes introduced, officials employed.
Roshan grew taller and broader, his chin boasting the beginnings of a dark beard. His grandmother grew a little frail, with more grey in her hair, more lines upon her face. Shir Shaheen alone seemed unchanged, yet in him was the greatest alteration – no longer did he hide away upon his tower or conceal his true self in an old man’s guise; no longer did resentment of the humans gnaw at his heart.
Yet ease was not his, for though he had cleansed the city, the blood-magic remained, and with more humans to prey upon, its resurgence was quickening. Already bloodshed and aggression, even murder, had shown its ugly face in Paridiz, and whether some humans were brought to violence by the whispered promises of power which they heard without awareness, or the brutality of some humans fed the blood-magic, the result was the same.
“Let me wrap this blanket about thy shoulders, dear friend of my heart, for gentle as the zephyr is which brings the perfume of blossom to us, I fear it may chill thee. So is it always, even in the least of things, good and evil ever intermingled. And so Shir Shaheen and Roshan found when once again the vizier of Gorj moved against them.”
Shir Shaheen breathed deep as the breeze played around his tower. He no longer controlled the desert winds, yet still they sought him out, bringing news and the clean smell of the open sands for which he yearned. And if, as now, they brought tidings of evil, he had come to expect no less.
He sat in the shadows of the open-arched chamber atop his tower, not on the parapet where he was wont to sit. Too many eyes now could see him there, for too many people now lived in Paridiz – agreement had easily been reached with the men of the desert towns, and their folk had swarmed to the city.
Rarely now did Shaheen leave his tower, and then only to tend his gardens or to sit with the still-grieving Lady Farzaneh and let her talk of Sima. Many were his reasons. The new humans, for one, for though allowing them to settle in the city was his own idea, yet still did their presence disturb him. Shame was another, for close had he come to murder and betrayal, and guilt stung him when he talked with Roshan.
“Ah, beloved friend, how sweet is the scent of hyacinths this gentle breeze brings to us, and the pomegranate and almond trees also have blossomed early, sending forth their perfume for thy delight. How different their fragrance from the stench which once assailed Shir Shaheen and Roshan as they stood in Paridiz and waited for battle to come to them.”
Midnight was long past when Shir Shaheen shed his eagle’s form, became incorporeal and slipped into the stone to begin the descent of his tower. Warm was the stonework, yet not from any lingering of the day’s heat. It seemed to him akin to something like a fever, one he had sensed elsewhere in the bones of Safar’s city in recent weeks. Was Paridiz itself now ailing as so many humans intruded on its peace?
Awaiting him at the tower’s base was Roshan, a scarf wound about his nose and mouth. “Friend Shaheen, with all thy great magic, canst thou not contrive that our enemies alone, and not ourselves, are beset with the reek of the foul concoction thou and Sima have created?”
“Give thanks the stinkpots are far distant and the wind blows away from us, so it is no worse. Riven with sickness are the men approaching from the north. Many will proceed no further.”
“And the men from the south?”
“Will be here within the hour.”
“Then, my friend, let us ensure all is ready for them.”
“Ha! Such commotion, dear friend! I should be annoyed at this interruption to my story, but thy laughter at the turmoil caused by the escape of thy great-grandson’s pet cheers my heart, so I set all rebukes aside and forgive them both. And though the boy’s lizard is no great adornment to thy room nor like to take much profit from my tale, it displays none of the malice and corruption of the human lizard who once visited Paridiz. But let me tell the tale of that malign creature, and of Shir Shaheen, the lion who stood against him.”
The last departing caravan was now far beyond the city’s gates and the nearest group of men still some leagues away. So when Shir Shaheen left his tower – where long had he studied the approaching men with the keen vision of an eagle’s form – he took a lion’s shape and raced and roared through the streets of Paridiz, scattering the snakes and lizards that lay basking in the sun.
Rare now were these hours when the city belonged to him and his friends alone, for the success of their caravanserai was beyond all expectation, beyond even the ever-buoyant hopes of Roshan. Adil, the caravan master, had told his fellows of the venture and nothing loath were they to see it for themselves, especially if it might disoblige the vizier of Gorj. Curiosity there was, for who could fail to wonder at the tales of the lost city and what had now been wrought there; interest, too, in seeing the widow and grandson of the great Lord Roshan. Yet when curiosity and interest were satisfied, still the merchants came for the sake of profit and the shorter journey through Paridiz.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.