The Tale of Shir Shaheen and the Caravanserai – Chapter 5: The Smoke of Hell

“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.”

Again Shaheen neither turned nor spake, so Roshan stole cautiously forward, set the letter down at Shaheen’s side, securing it with a piece of broken stone, then crept back to the arch.

“Grandmother begs I be allowed to attend upon thee again tomorrow, sir, in the hope of then receiving thy reply.”

Still Shaheen spake not, so Roshan went to leave, yet only three steps did he take before stopping. “I would have sought thee had Grandmother not sent me, for greatly have I desired to thank thee again. More, I wished to call thee friend. For though my friendship may be of little value to thee, poor and worthless as I am, thy friend shall I be always.”

Then he left indeed. And Shir Shaheen – who for countless years had hated humans, for had they not betrayed his brother and destroyed his city? – did he feel pride at the boy’s regard, and shame at his own boorishness? So it may be. Certain it is that he felt torn, for he wished both to read the letter and to rip it apart unread; he longed to know what the lady had writ yet despised himself for that longing.

Torn he remained, for the flames of rancour die not easily and long had their smoke poisoned him, so when next day Roshan again climbed the tower, the letter still lay beneath its stone, untouched.

“Sir, I know thou wouldst not disdain such a noble and learned lady as my grandmother, so it must be my offence which leaves her letter unread. If I offend thee further by relating its purport, I beg forgiveness, but in addition to expressing our undying gratitude for thy care and courage, she hopes thou wilt join us for the feast of New Year which fast approaches, and though our celebrations shall be not of the splendour thy eminence deserves, the honour of thy presence would elevate them far beyond our merit.”

Shaheen’s face the boy could not see; he knew only that silent Shaheen remained, seemingly impassive. “I’ll not intrude upon thee longer now, but I beg leave, sir … friend … to attend upon thee a final time tomorrow.”

So he left. And Shir Shaheen, whose tongue had been constrained more from newly raised remembrance than from the baleful smoke of his hatred, was left alone with long-buried memories of New Year festivals in Paridiz – feasting and fellowship, poetry and music, rituals of atonement and forgiveness, belonging and shining hope – and his heart ached.

When next Roshan climbed the tower, his grandmother’s letter was gone, now secreted within Shaheen’s silken turban. In its place the boy set a package.

“Sima has sent sweetmeats for thee, sir, of several different sorts, of which she hopes some will please thee. And she has charged me to say that though she greatly fears the camel spiders, if it gives thee pleasure to loose them in her kitchen she will bide content, for she is ever in thy debt since thou hast saved her mistress.

“And sure I am, dear sir, that all the pastries shall delight thee, for Sima has no equal in their making. She could have stayed in Gorj since every noble house wished to acquire her skills, but she refused to quit my grandmother, whom she has served for forty years. Glad I am for her sacrifice, for she keeps Grandmother company better than could I. They talk together much of the days when they were young.”

Long did Roshan pause, then, his voice low, “It is hard to be alone.”

And Shir Shaheen, who heard his pain and knew it also for his own, said “It is.” Then, “Sit, boy. Within the chamber if thou dost fear the heights, and I will join thee there. For thy servant should know which sweetmeats best I like, so thou must tell her, once we have tasted all.”

So the morning passed with djinn and boy eating of the pastries and talking of them, and when eating was done, the talking did not stop. Roshan’s tongue ran the longer, and again each morning that followed as more sweetmeats were shared, yet little by little did he draw from Shaheen the details of his capture and imprisonment within the city, his loss of power, and the sorcerer’s strange binding.

In all Shaheen had done in the weeks since he had freed himself from the sorcerer’s desert glass, always had he wondered whether each new deed would be the one thing no other djinn had done which would free him. Now Roshan quizzed him as to actions done and undone, ever suggesting further deeds to attempt, eager for Shaheen to gain his freedom – “For when thou art free thou shalt exact revenge upon the vizier of Gorj, and one of my enemies shall be destroyed.”

Roshan no longer sat within the chamber but with Shaheen on the balcony, creeping day by day, inch by inch, ever closer to the edge, though he confessed he feared such heights. “But Grandmother says we must confront our fears and hatreds, for they are formed of smoke from the fires of hell, sent by the Evil One to blind us to what is right. Like to that pillar of smoke, perhaps,” the boy added, pointing to a column of grey vapour which writhed and roiled on the horizon, defiling the heavens, “for my heart misgives me strangely at the sight. And what fire could burn there in the desert’s heart?”

“No mortal fire,” said Shaheen, grave and watchful. “That is the smoke of hell if any is, for it bears within it a pairika, of all demons the most subtle and most deadly. And if I mistake not, it speeds towards us.”

Roshan leapt up. “I must warn Grandmother and Sima.”

“Fear not for them,” said Shaheen. “Thou alone might be endangered wert thou but a little older. We are safe enough from her coils.”

The column of smoke advanced towards them until it reached Paridiz, where it first circled the city walls, then flowed upwards in a spiral, rising to a great height, before descending to be level with Roshan and Shaheen, facing them. Tendrils of smoke issued forth, nearing almost to Roshan before flowing back. Then the whole column came swirling about the tower and into the gilded chamber where, amid the scents of hyacinth and rose, the pairika appeared before them in human form, clad only in wisps of smoke.

“I have conquered!” cried the pairika. “All the enchanted can sense the barrier around the city, but while others tremble, fearing to approach, I alone have breached it. Am I not magnificent?”

“Yes,” breathed Roshan, eyes fixed upon her, and the pairika laughed. And truly she was more beautiful than any Shaheen had known, yet since her beauty came from her powers and the men she had destroyed, that meant she was the more dangerous.

“I will not welcome thee, demon,” said Shaheen. “If thou hast a purpose here, speak it and leave.”

“I bring news from the world beyond these walls, O mighty djinn, and though thou dost not welcome me, what of thy companion?”

Before Shaheen could speak, Roshan bowed to her. “I welcome thee, fair lady, and entreat thee to stay and speak thy tidings.”

“Come then, sir, and sit by me.” Rich carpets and cushions she fashioned from her smoke, and she reclined upon them as the boy rushed to her side. Shaheen followed.

“Thy turban offends me, O djinn,” said the pairika. “Come not nearer.”

“It is not my turban that offends, but the sacred names of God, from whom thy kind are sundered.”

“Dear friend,” said Roshan, “the lady is our guest. Hospitality demands that we respect her wishes.”

Too late Shaheen saw the boy was already caught, his eyes wide with the intoxication of her smoke. Shaheen cursed himself for his mistake, for Roshan’s youth was no protection as the demon laughed and chattered, tightening around him the coils of her deceit.

At length, the sun reached its zenith and Shaheen could speak and know he would be heard. “Thy grandmother waits upon thee for thy daily lesson, boy. Get thee gone.” And though Roshan wished to stay, duty was the stronger.

“So,” said the pairika when the boy had left. “True it is that the great Shir Shaheen is trapped within his brother’s city. His powers gone, too, I ween.”

“Weakened from my glory may I be, but with the holy names my little magic yet eclipses thine. Cease thy seduction of the boy, if thou wouldst live, temptress. I will not let thee harm him.”

“Caring for a mortal, Shir Shaheen? Has the sorcerer who robbed thee of thy power robbed thee also of thy pride and memory? Hast thou forgot thy brother was betrayed by a human professing friendship?”

“I need no reminder of my brother’s fate, but gifts have I taken from the boy’s kin.”

“What of it? Humans deserve not the obligations that gifts bring.”

“Thou art an abomination.”

“No more than thou. How many widows yet grieve for husbands who returned not because thou didst raise storms of sand against them? How many orphans died in poverty? We are kin, thou and I. Our only difference is that thou didst kill with anger in thy heart, but I take life with love upon my lips.”

“Leaving husks of men behind, degraded and defiled.”

“True. They pay for my embraces, and the coin is dear.”

“Hear me well, demon. Touch not the boy, else I will destroy thee.”

“A pity. For thee. For if thou wert to give him to me, I might give thee something in return.”

“Thou hast nothing I desire.”

“Not even freedom from thy captivity? Ah, that has caught thy interest. Know then that the barrier around the city forms a dome, far higher than this child’s tower upon which thou dost sit and lament thy fate. Yet the dome has a gap within it, shaped like a drop of water. That gap leads to freedom. Alas, thou canst not reach it. Not without my aid.”

Freedom. Shaheen’s heart was close to breaking at the thought of it so near. “Help me, and I will find another boy like to Roshan to be thy prey.”

“Nay, this boy or none. His comeliness is not so rare, and many of like intelligence have I found to nourish me. But this boy of thine, he has the seal of greatness upon him, and that shall feed me for many a long day.”

“Avaunt and quit my sight, demon!” cried Shaheen, but though he turned from her, he could not so easily turn from the temptation she had set before him. Freedom would mean betrayal – of his obligations, of his word, of his honour. Of Roshan.

But to be free …

To fly, outpacing falcons. To rule the desert sands. To wreak vengeance upon his enemies.

Evening came and with it Roshan, newly bathed and dressed in finery. The boy greeted Shaheen but distantly, remaining within the gilded chamber where the pairika yet reclined. Long he sat beside her, gazing upon her beauty, and Shaheen’s heart hardened against him – why should he deny himself his liberty, when it was but the consequence of the boy’s own folly?

Then Roshan came to sit beside him. “Dear friend, I bethought me that as the lady pairika can pass the barrier that imprisons thee, she could bear thee through it, to thy freedom. Yet when I sought her answer, she laughing said I must ask thee if thou art yet willing to pay the price. What price is this?”

Shaheen shook his head and would not answer, but the boy pressed him without cease until the words burst forth. “The price is thee, boy,” said Shaheen, stern and harsh. “The demon would seduce thee and use thee and destroy thee. Thy life is the price she demands.”

Roshan nodded. “So I surmised. Then easily is payment made.”

Shaheen reeled back in shock. “Thou canst not mean this!”

“Why should I not? What is friendship if my life I value above my friend’s? Have I forgot who risked his life for mine twice over? But I charge thee, when thou art free, to take revenge also upon my great-uncle, and thereafter to befriend Grandmother and Sima and see them restored to prosperity.”

Struck mute was Shaheen. Never had he expected such nobility in a human, such selflessness and sacrifice. Never since his brother was lost to him had he believed humans capable of true friendship, nor, perhaps, had he himself understood all that such friendship demanded.

So Shir Shaheen went to the pairika and commanded her to leave. Though she argued and cajoled and exerted all her wiles, then cursed and menaced him, Shaheen yielded not. “For my freedom I shall win myself,” he said, “but never upon the life of my friend.”

“Thus did a great and noble heart teach Shir Shaheen of friendship. But could even such a lesson destroy his hatred for humanity, close-nursed as it was for years beyond all counting? So shall we discover as the tale of Shir Shaheen continues.”

© Damaris Browne

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