“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.
Roshan did not immediately return to his pacing, perhaps hoping Shaheen might at last reveal what he knew of the spectral tower, for he had no doubt that Shaheen understood all. No doubt, either, that it was connected with the sudden violence which had marred the city some weeks past – men and women had run mad, cutting themselves with knives or throwing themselves from roofs; children had been killed, even babes in arms, by their own families. At Shaheen’s order, the streets around the shadow-tower had been cleared, the buildings destroyed, and a boundary some hundred paces from it patrolled by guards. Yet though the deaths had since abated, a miasma of unease still lay over Paridiz.
But Shaheen remained silent, so Roshan turned and continued his pacing, as well as his fretting upon the many other matters which beset him. The revision of the city ordinances for one, the replacement of certain officials for another, and the caravanserai for a third, since he had yet to consider the plans for its second enlargement, required as a result of the further increase in trade to and through Paridiz. The masters of three caravans were even now arguing as to which should take precedence in the stables and kitchens, and Roshan knew he should go down to prevent them coming to blows. The auditors for the vizier of Gorj were there as well, examining the year’s accounts and trying to squeeze a few extra drahms of profit for the vizier’s coffers.
Yet despite the city’s woes and his duties, Roshan’s eyes were ever turned to his own house where Setareh, heavy with child, continued to worry and suffer, for the babe was long past the expected date of his birth, almost as though he feared to leave the safety of his mother’s womb.
“The physician says …” began Roshan, his voice trembling. “He says he will have to cut Setareh open if tomorrow there is still no sign of the child emerging, for both their lives will be at risk if longer it is delayed.”
“Take heart, dear friend,” said Shaheen. “The babe will be born tonight.”
Roshan twisted round, hope in his face and voice. “Truly? Is this thy doing?”
“Even now he hurries to meet thee.”
And so it proved, for that night a son was born to Roshan and Setareh. Naveed was he named, and child and mother thrived. The long-planned celebrations were muted, though, for that same night came more violent deaths in Paridiz.
In the weeks after Naveed’s birth, busy was Roshan – no longer distracted by fears for his beloved wife, he gave his full attention to the concerns of the city. And if he felt aggrieved that Shaheen did little by day but dawdle in the city’s gardens, occasionally pruning the almond trees and roses, and by night nothing but stare at the tower of darkness, he made no complaint.
Long days he worked, rarely returning home before nightfall. So he was absent the evening that terror struck.
“Lord Roshan!” cried a servant, rushing to him as he stood in the courtyard of the caravanserai settling a dispute between two merchants. “Come quickly! Thy wife has been injured, her maid killed, and thy son taken.”
Roshan sped home as if his heels had wings. There he found Setareh lying upon a divan, pale and insensible, and the Lady Farzaneh sponging blood from her face. The cradle beside them was empty.
“She yet lives,” said the Lady, “though I fear the injury to her head is grievous. She and her maid were thrown against the wall by the man who took Naveed.”
“How was a stranger permitted entry to our home?” demanded Roshan, kneeling by Setareh and taking her hand.
“He came not as a stranger, but in the semblance of Shir Shaheen.”
“It was not I,” said Shaheen, who had silently appeared in the chamber, still dressed in his gardening robes, his pruning knife yet in hand.
“That do we know, dear friend.”
“Magic then was used to counterfeit thy likeness,” said Roshan. “Who can have done such a thing?”
Shaheen made no reply but leaned over Setareh and brushed her forehead with his fingers. “Nothing can I do for her maid,” he said, “but Setareh’s hurts will heal swiftly and trouble her not.” He straightened. “As for Naveed, have no fear. I will find him and return him home.”
“I will come with thee,” said Roshan, rising.
“Nay, dear friend, for thou canst not go where I must. Remain here and comfort thy wife when she awakes.”
With that, Shaheen disappeared. Nor was he then seen on the streets of Paridiz, for he had work to do beneath the city before he sought entry into the tower of darkness.
The shadow walls of the tower were smooth to his touch, though no human could have felt them; the ghostly steps solid beneath his feet, though no human could have climbed them. Blood-magic pulsed around him without cease, alive with menace and cruelty.
Fear gripped him. What if his plans were ill-conceived, his calculations wrong? Failure would condemn not only Naveed but all Paridiz. He fingered the desert glass in the pocket of his robes as if it were a talisman.
Higher and higher he mounted, the pressure from below, the menace from above, growing with each step. At length the stairway ended and he entered a high-ceilinged stately room, silvered by the moonlight which shone through the shadow-windows.
There before him stood a handsome, smiling figure, arms open wide in greeting. “Shaheen. Welcome. Too long have we been parted.”
Shaheen made no answer, only stared at the figure. At his brother, Safar.
“I had hoped to see thee sooner,” said Safar. “For surely there was no need to wait until both I and the tower were fully fleshed. We could have met in the incorporeal realm.”
Both hands thrust in the pockets of his gardening robes, Shaheen made no answer – beyond doubt Safar knew why he had waited, for djinns were vulnerable only when corporeal.
“Hast thou no questions for me, dear brother? Surely thou wouldst wish to hear of the battle the prince and his foul silver sorcerer forced upon me, which caused the terrible shattering of my tower, and of my escape, only to find myself imprisoned and impotent within the stones of the city.”
“I have come for the babe,” said Shaheen.
“At least let me thank thee for setting me free. The blood spilled at the Gate of the Dead, when thy magic caused the brigands to kill each other, made the first tiny fracture in my prison. Thereafter, all I required was time and more blood.”
Sickness flooded Shaheen. All the deaths, all the horror. All due to him.
“But thou wished to see the child. Here it is.”
Safar moved aside and a veil of smoke lifted to reveal a stone-like table formed of shadows. A sacrificial altar, and Naveed lay upon it naked, whimpering in the chill air. Shaheen tried to send him warmth and reassurance, but he was powerless.
“The child is warm enough, brother. It needs not thy help. But thou hast not asked why I took the brat.”
Both hidden pressure and overt menace continued to mount, but menace was outpacing the other. Shaheen clutched the desert glass. Loath was he to speak, but he needed more time. Ever had Safar loved to talk, revelling in an audience, and as yet no other weapon but words had Shaheen. “Tell me, then,” he said.
“For glory and Paradiz! The city at its height was merely a beginning, the slightest hint of what I can achieve with the secrets of blood-magic. This is what I shall create, what the city shall become.”
Safar waved a hand and images of a city shimmered in the air around Naveed’s body. A city of dazzling white, of soaring towers and minarets and spires, of delicate temples, ethereal mansions, exquisite shrines – stone and glass and crystal, marble and metal, all shone in a glistening, glittering brilliance. A city of surpassing celestial beauty. But cold, hard-edged, unyielding. Lifeless.
“And the price?” asked Shaheen, fearing the answer.
“Children. One, young and high-born to ground the magic – I intended the prince’s son as the begetter, only to be thwarted by his traitorous father. Thereafter, one at the base of each building.”
Shaheen recoiled in horror.
“Come now, brother,” said Safar. “Mortals breed like flies on a bloated corpse; there is never any lack of puling whelps. What matters it if I take some? Are they not sacrificed daily by the humans? Living in poverty and squalor, they die slowly, ever suffering, their deaths meaningless. But the deaths I shall give them will be swift and painless and full of glory, for on them will the magnificence of my city be created.”
“The prince told me that evil walked in Paridiz,” said Shaheen. “I did not heed him. And after, when all believed he had killed thee, I thought he was that evil. But it was thee, only and ever thee.”
“Art thou so very different, brother mine? Recall what the paraika said – thou and she were alike, save thou didst kill with anger in thy heart. So thou and I also are alike. But I have a purpose, and it exalts the killing.”
“It was thy treachery which brought me to murder, for my anger came only after I thought thee dead at the humans’ hands. Before that, I harmed none.”
“True, thou wert ever squeamish and sentimental. But thou canst not treat humans as though they are our equals. We are djinn.”
“I am djinn,” said Shaheen. “Thou art an abomination.” He shook his head as he recalled his simple-mindedness. “When I saw thee take pains to hide the seven holy wells, I thought it done to prevent the humans polluting them. Now I see thy intent was to suppress the earth-magic which would otherwise have opposed thy evil.”
He stepped closer to Safar. “But if I freed thee without knowing, so also did I free the earth-magic. And I will not let thy evildoing continue.”
“How wilt thou stop me, brother? Turn thyself into a blade and skewer me as thou didst the thrall? Conjure a ewer and throw water over me?” He laughed, the same malicious laugh Shaheen had heard from the stones of the city.
“Brother simpleton, thy water cannot harm me, nor canst thou use thy tawdry silken panel to call upon the ancients’ magic, for my sorcery reigns here within my tower. Thy circumscribed powers, now less than a thrall’s, are all thou hast. And they are not enough.”
Shaheen bowed his head, for all this was true. And yet …
“I have this,” he said, holding out the shard of desert glass. It now shivered in his hand, attuned as it was to its fellows he had embedded in the thin layer of stone beneath the tower. There, the pressure was rising to its peak.
“Thy tears, I thought such glass,” said Shaheen. “Formed when thy tower here burst apart like a thousand suns, melting the desert sands. Tears for the failure of thy city, the loss of its beauty. Tears in which thy soul was imprisoned. But now I see thou wert ever soulless. At thy death, thy magic shall return to the aether, but not thee. For as thou hast acted as a demon, so thy death shall be as a demon’s – utterly destroyed shalt thou be and nothing of thee shall remain.”
Shaheen’s words had the air of prophecy, and Safar shuddered at the glimpse of the oblivion awaiting him.
At that moment, the pressure Shaheen had contrived among the qanats burst the thin layer of stone beneath the tower and the waters from the seven holy wells fountained up in an enormous jet, ripping through the writhing shadows of Safar’s making. Earth-magic and blood-magic clashed and the city shook with the impact and the fury.
The violence of the shock stunned Safar, and he stumbled as his tower rocked beneath his feet. Shaheen flung himself upon his brother. With the desert glass in one hand he tore open Safar’s throat and, with the other, plunged his pruning knife deep into his brother’s chest.
Safar died on the instant, his body shrivelling into nothingness, his magic dissipating. Shaheen threw himself forward and caught Naveed as the altar beneath him evanesced. The tower itself vanished, and Shaheen and a screaming babe plunged towards the earth.
Clasping Naveed tight, Shaheen called desperately upon the silken panel and the magic which flowed through it. Feather-light he made himself and the child as they fell. Then the jet of water caught them and the earth-magic held them, and as the pressure of the water dropped, they were lowered gently to the ground.
A lakelet encircled Shaheen as he stood once more upon the earth. At its edge, at the boundary he had marked, stood Setareh and the Lady Farzaneh and many of the city, and through the water, racing towards him, was Roshan.
“All is well,” said Shaheen as he handed Naveed to Roshan. “He is unharmed. A little cold, but unharmed.”
“Dear friend,” said Roshan, his voice breaking. “I … I cannot … our thanks …”
“No need for words. Return him to his mother.”
Great was the rejoicing as Setareh held her child again, great the praise and acclamation for Shaheen, many the repeated thanks and blessings. When at last Setareh turned for home, Naveed, now well wrapped in shawls, clutched tight to her breast, Roshan put his hand upon Shaheen’s shoulder.
“My friend, however much we thank thee, it falls far short of thy deserving. Our debt to thee can never be repaid. But tell me, what monster was within the tower? What didst thou see?”
“Evil,” said Shir Shaheen. And from that day to this, never again did he speak of the tower of darkness and of the brother he had slain.