Where Agrasset Lies

Where Agrasset Lies

Invent the maddest first sentence ever and then write the story that leads up to that scene.

When I finally escaped the charge of the Desert Djinn, Zhod the Unsettling he was scrutinising the interior of his loincloth for a troublesome flea while engaged in barter with an incontinent sand lizard named Wasir the Keeper in a vault below the fabled spice city of Agrasset.

As they bartered the heat from the shimmering sands I slipped away, unseen but not unnoticed.

The day the Desert Djinn plunged into the well of my young life all in my village warned he would leave it poisoned and dry. Only Al Hadi knows if they would be proved right for any encounter with a Djinn sends the water of your soul on a wilder rockier course.

‘He turned a man into a sardine.’ Malika vibrated with excitement.

‘Where?’ was my first question as I made fast the gate to the goats’ pen. I had never seen a sardine but thought it a kind of fish.

‘In Vis.’

‘There is no sea near Vis,’ I said. ‘How?’

‘He is a fierce Djinn, Fennec,’ proclaimed Malika, two or three years my elder and knowledgeable in the ways of men and animals. ‘He can command a man to become any kind of hawk.’

‘Why?’

‘It is his nature. He exists to unsettle things.’

‘Who?’ It should have been my first question.

‘Al Hadi save us! Zhod the Desert Djinn,’ Malika’s fingers contracted as if they were around my throat. ‘He is here in our town. He speaks in the meeting house tonight. Come quickly.’

Dusk is short in the northern deserts and as Malika spoke the word ‘Zhod’, so night nuzzled around us.

The meeting house was crowded and teeming with voices. I squeezed to the front between hips and cloaks, collecting cuffs and curses on the way. One man, blue hooded, grey bearded, with pale eyes, added words to his cuff; ‘Take care herder, the Djinn taught a dog to talk in Djedet last year. What tales would your goats tell of you?’ He laughed lewdly.

A tall powerful man stepped before the crowd, who were quelled by his appearance. He had high nostrils, swollen lips and long-lashed eyes. A shaggy topknot of cinnamon hair sat upon his otherwise shaven head and he stank worse than the dung-heap in my goats’ pen.

‘It’s Imnas,’ Malika whispered, ‘strong as a camel.’

Another man glided through the crowd and though he must have pushed me, I felt but the brush of soft fur. He joined Imnas and faced the crowd, smoothing sleek whiskers. He put a slender finger to his lips in a hushing gesture. The finger was topped by a curved tapering sharpened nail. Slit green eyes wandered over the men before him and as each was touched by that gaze, their words dried up like last season’s wadi.

‘Sabo’ Malika named him, running a finger across his own throat, his young eyes fixed upon the murderous blade in the man’s belt; half sickle, half hatchet.

The silence had barely taken root before a crash broke it. A group of Berbers close to me were sent sprawling to the floor as a small cloaked man dropped upon them from I knew not where. The Berbers scrabbled away from the newcomer fingers flicking gestures at him to ward away evil. The small man clutched at their robes. His eyes and head rolled around as if possessed. His mouth snapped open and shut, baring filed teeth.

‘Quism, the imp’, yelped Malika, and formed his own hand into the camel’s head, pointing it at the snapping man.

Men gaped and cursed and the crowd reshaped with a gap around Quism. As my eyes returned to the front of the room I saw that a new figure stood between Sabo and Inmas. A slight blur of mist seemed to hang upon him. He was dressed in Tuareg blue with its indigo stains on his features. To my young eyes he looked old for there was grey in his two-pointed beard. His eyes were so hooded that I could not see his pupils and he stood bone still. The clamour of the room quieted as others noticed his presence.

‘Silence before Zhod,’ roared Inmas needlessly.

Zhod’s creature Quism bounded up and in two leaps was perched on a high narrow niche in the wall, tongue lolling between his sharpened teeth. A black silence afflicted us.

After long moments Zhod pointed and spoke, ‘That’s the one.’

Our town’s woodworker, realising that the blue-stained finger indicated him, quavered.

‘Today he spread lies about me.’

‘No, lord!’ quailed the man, around whom a circle was forming, ‘I only repeated stories others told me.’ Inmas and Sabo moved towards him.

‘But still lies,’ Zhod spoke softly, ‘take him out Sabo and remake him as…’ he pondered, ‘a sand lizard.’ The man fought uselessly against Inmas’ grip.

‘If he protests again, transform him first then behead him.’

‘No, I beseech you. I have wives, lord; daughters.’

‘They would surely not want you headless.’

‘Nor would they wish a lizard for a husband, lord,’ sobbed the woodworker.

‘Yet a sand lizard can still worship Al Hadi,’ reasoned Zhod, ‘can he not.’

‘Yes,’ answered the man with care-stained sadness.

‘Go quietly with Sabo. Be a dutiful lizard. Live in your wives’ house. They will still show you homage. Praise Al Hadi each day and go to heaven. Doubtless many beautiful skinks and geckos bide there to attend you.’

The rest of the crowd would not look at the woodworker. Among them all, probably only I had told no tales of Zhod this day.

Inmas and Sabo led the woodworker out and the crowd edged quietly to follow. Many there had never before seen a man transformed into a lizard and felt it an occasion they could tell their sons and grandsons about.

‘Hold,’ said Zhod, ‘go only if you have a powerful talisman like this,’ he held up a golden ankh, covered in marks and inscriptions, ‘beneath your cloaks. Lizard transmutation is potent sorcery. All present not so protected will eat flies for dinner.’

Sighing with disappointment, the room returned to their places. All, save one, with neat black mustachios, whom I did not know. He waved aloft a similarly inscribed amulet of silver, and, receiving a reluctant nod of agreement from Zhod, followed Sabo through the doors.

Zhod addressed the room, ‘One of you will accompany me come the morning into the desert’s heart. We will cross the dry desolation, and come at last to golden minaret-ed Agrasset, city of spice.’

A collective gasp came from the room. Agrasset was to be found in more myths than maps. It was the richest city in all Arabia, rumoured to be built of gold and, men said, it shone silver in the moonlight since its tall walls were encrusted with diamonds. These tales feasted on an absence of true witness for no Tuareg had ever travelled across the burning waste to the fabled city and made the journey back.

‘Who among you will join me on this quest?’ Zhod’s hooded eyes sprang wide and to my seven-or-eight-year-old mind, his orbs filled all my vision. They were red-brown and tinged with fire. ‘Who?’

Every man in the crowd turned or dropped fearful heads, or closed tight their eyes. I span on the spot and collapsed to the floor. A blinking glance at Malika showed he too was outstretched on the earth mumbling prayers. Many were doing likewise and moaning.

I became sure the fiery eyes were locked upon the back on my head, burning into my skull, singeing my blue-black hair. The feeling grew upon me until I could bear it no more and stole a glimpse back through opened fingers. Zhod’s eyes were fixed instead upon another but, at my movement, his head flicked like a horned viper and his gaze stripped me of any sense or thought or words, save these, ‘I, Desert Djinn; I will accompany Zhod the Unsettling across the shifting dunes.’

‘Good, herder,’ he seemed pleased. ‘I bought the smallest donkey. You will fit it perfectly.’

Other heads raised, eyes opened, and turned in indebted wonder to me. Whispered thanks for answered prayers were murmured across the room.

The doors burst open and Inmas and Sabo strode in. A large writhing sand-lizard trailed from Sabo’s right hand.

* * * * *

The next dawn saw a small crowd of well-wishers and the curious gather at my goat pen to witness Zhod arrive leading a tall camel and a tiny donkey. Malika embraced me and warned me to beware of Quism. He looked nervously to the sky as he did so. He told me that Quism had been a man until Zhod drove a daemon into him. Now, by night, he was a man but by day a daemon and flew above Zhod ready to spit on people. All Djinn, said Malika, had half-human familiars and he clearly thought I too would become one such and serve Zhod. None who came expected ever to see me again.

As we moved to the edge of the town two of its ne’er-do-wells approached Zhod. The two beggars were both afflicted, although the extent of their claimed injuries was widely believed to be exaggerated.

One of the beggars pleaded blindness and the other was lame in his leg. Both carried sticks for their disabilities. The blind man asked Zhod to heal them. ‘Give me back my sight oh most fiery Djinn that I may wave you farewell as you set out to conquer Al-Saha. Cure Jadha of his lameness that he – ’

‘I cannot cure you,’ said Zhod and when the small crowd joined in begging him to put the pair out of their suffering, he told them, ‘I cannot cure these miscreants.’

‘You cured a hyena of its warts,’ someone reminded him.

‘The hyena was more worthy and less warty than this pair. It was also son to the hound deity, Saluki, and anyway I did not cure it, I killed it but only at its own request.’

The two beggars were now wavering but the crowd chanted, ‘cure them.’

Turning, Zhod spat ferociously on the eyes of the blind man and almost in the same movement kicked the heel of lame Jadha. The cripple’s stick broke and he fell to the road atop a sharp rock that gashed open his knee. The blind man screamed as the acrid spit burnt into his eye. He lashed out at his healer but could not land a blow, instead swinging into the air. The lame hollered and tore at his sleeve so that he might bandage the lacerated knee and stem the bleeding. Still wailing, the blind man dropped to the street to comfort his moaning and cursing friend. They hugged and each tried to outdo the other in their misery. The crowd cheered uncertainly.

Zhod tugged the camel and we walked on. The crowd stayed by the beggars as they presented livelier entertainment. At the edge of the town Zhod ordered, ‘Down Inmas,’ and the camel dropped to its knees to be mounted. In the distance I could just hear someone shouting that, ‘praise be to Al Hadi’, they could see. I turned and saw one beggar helping the other to his feet. Both were stumbling worse than before and a few of the crowing crowd threw rocks at them. I mounted the donkey and we headed into the blinding, crippling, mocking sand.

As morning turned to blazing noon we stopped in the shade of some overhanging rocks and Zhod handed me some strips of goat meat to chew on. He smelled of warmed cloves.

‘Where are Inmas and Sabo, Master Djinn?’ I asked.

‘With us of course,’ said the Djinn.

‘And Quism?’

‘He watches over us.’

‘What am I to do, Master.’

‘Observe and learn.’

Just before dusk the Djinn led us to a dry wadi but there was a well and two small salt caravans had stopped there before us. ‘Water the camel,’ Zhod ordered me as he dismounted and went to speak to the owners of the caravans.

As I led the camel to water I noticed a pale-whiskered cat asleep on the heap of baskets and blankets fastened to the beast. Later that evening Inmas and Sabo strode into the camp, carrying one of the blankets that had been strapped to the camel earlier. They caused a stir among the nomads and caravan drivers who had not seen them arrive. Inmas cuffed me as he passed, ‘Call that a watering!’ he grunted.

The two undid the blanket and opened it to reveal the woodworker asleep inside. Under Zhod’s guidance they revived him. ‘You were a sand lizard for a day,’ Zhod told him, ‘but a good one, so we have transformed you back into a man.’ He handed him the dried skin of a spiny-tailed lizard. ‘Here is the skin, you shed. Your wives await you a day’s journey north. Go with Al Hadi.’ The bemused man stumbled off.

We camped beneath palms and Quism dropped among us.

All next day I strained this way and that looking for any sign of the Djinn’s three companions following us. I thought I saw some distant figures but the eye-shredding sun plays many tricks and I could not be sure.

I was full of questions to help my learning but Zhod limited me to one a day. ‘Have you been to Agrasset before, Master?’ was my second day query.

‘We Djinn are of the northern desert,’ he answered, ‘we leave the southern reaches of Al Saha to the Afrits and Marids, who dwell there.’

On the third day my question was wasted, ‘What is Agrasset like, Master? Is it truly constructed from gold and rare gems?’

‘We shall see.’

On the fourth day, ‘Why are you going to Agrasset, Master?’

‘To purchase scrolls for myself and for each of us – even you, Flea.’ He had taken to calling me ‘Flea’.

Come the fifth day, ‘Why don’t you magic up a desert storm and whisk us to Agrasset, Master?’

‘Sand storms are not a precise means of travel, Flea, we could end up injured or miles from our destination. What a mad notion.’

The sixth day I managed two questions. ‘Did you really turn a man into a sardine, Master?’

‘Did I? Where did I do that?’

‘In Vis.’

‘Oh that’s was what it was; it flopped and flipped all over. A sardine you say; I thought it was some kind of hawk.’

‘And you taught a dog to talk?’

‘No I taught a dog to bark; in Djedet I think. The poor creature was fed up conversing with men, who, it said, mostly swore at it, cursed it for a daemon and ran off. There was more profit in it barking.’

On day seven, ‘Are Inmas, Sabo and Quism your familiars, Master?’

‘They serve me, Flea, as will you once you have ceased to be of help in the daylight.’

On day eight, ‘Will you turn me into a flea, Master?’

‘You are already a flea, Flea, small and insignificant, with few uses save for living at my expense, biting things and being irritating, but I will do nothing; you will turn yourself into a flea.’

‘When?’

‘I imagine your full transformation will happen after we arrive at Agrasset, when you decide you have learnt all you need to know to serve me.’

On day nine, ‘How can I serve you as a flea, Master?’

‘You will live in my loincloth and bite me if ever I am being lied to, Flea.’

‘I have no skill in telling lies from truth, Master.’

‘That is what you are learning, Flea.’

On day ten a sandstorm blew up at our backs. It blasted and flayed us all day. Zhod tied my donkey to Inmas the camel and we sped before and within it. I lost sense of anything other than staying on my donkey’s back. When at last the storm blew itself out at dusk we were deposited in front of a small township of mud-huts surrounded by a low decrepit wall. We left the camel and donkey outside the walls and entered. Inmas, Sabo and Quism emerged soon after, brushing and shaking the grains from their clothing, hair and skin.

‘A grimy, desiccating way to travel, Master, but fast,’ said Inmas, cuffing me, ‘where did you hear of such an idea?’

‘Blown by the storm, we made ten days travel in one,’ replied Zhod, eyes hunting through the shabby battered huts, ‘we are here.’

‘But where is here, Master?’ I coughed through dry sand-scoured lips, ‘this is not Agrasset.’

‘Think you not?’

‘Its walls are not built from gold; indeed they are barely walls at all. And the houses are made of mud encrusted only with camel dung.’

We asked the feeble and frightened men we caught there that night (for most ran from our lights) but they only gibbered, fainted and waved warding gestures at us. Finally, Inmas sat on one and Sabo carved our question in his chest with his sickle blade: ‘Is this Agrasset?’ The man ranted in a rasping pagan language. Quism, who I never heard speak, gestured to Zhod that he understood our prisoner. The imp hopped up to the Djinn’s ear and let forth such a tumult of clicks, hoots, gargled hissing and snorts I thought a flock of hell-borne Marids passed among us.

Zhod reported our prisoner’s words thus, ‘“Fabled Agrasset is the golden city where spice traders mass like locusts, where caravans circle to descend as vultures ‘pon a carcass. It rests many days’ ride to the south.” What say you, Flea, does he lie?’

I could think of no reason why the man should lie but nor did I know if his words had been faithfully rendered. Some perversity or cunning in me made me answer, ‘There are lies here, Master.’

‘Hah!’ roared Zhod, pointing at the prisoner, ‘Spit upon him, Quism.’

The imp bounded across to the man but before he could muster his spit, another swarm of unknowable words ruptured out of the captured man. Quism took these to Zhod’s ear and the Djinn seemed more content with this answer: ‘he says that this is indeed Agrasset.’

‘The storm you conjured to bring us to Agrasset, would not dare disobey you, Master,’ said Inmas, as we walked to the settlement’s centre. There we found a square for a market where merchants would set up caravans, but it was barren this night. A large hole had been built into the hard ground where light bled up and steps led down.

We descended before dawn and came into a chamber carved from the rock festooned with drapes and lit by lanterns. A slight fawning man, the best dressed by far we had seen in the town, bent low before Zhod and named himself Wasir the Keeper. His black beard was parted in the middle, being brushed up and into fulsome mustachios. He asked what we brought to trade.

‘Silver,’ said Zhod and pulled out a silver amulet, covered in inscriptions. It reminded me of the one shown by the man with neat mustachios who wished to see the woodworker turned into a lizard and I wondered then what had become of that man. Zhod asked of Wasir, ‘Where is this place?

‘Surely, masters,’ Wasir smiled, ‘you have travelled far, through a sand storm to come here. What was your destination when you set out?’

‘Agrasset,’ said Inmas.

I felt I saw a flash of surprise cross the man’s face at this. ‘Ah Agrasset,’ he mused, his tongue flicking out; ‘yes, some do indeed call it by that name.’

I wondered if Zhod would ask if I thought the merchant was lying but instead he asked, ‘What do you sell?’

‘Songbirds?’ The merchant answered querulously, not so much uncertain as too anxious not to disappoint. He saw the look of bafflement pass Zhod’s face and hurriedly added, ‘What was it you sought, Master?’

‘Scrolls,’ pronounced the Djinn.

Wasir pondered a moment, ‘Yes, Master,’ he said after a thought, ‘come back tomorrow evening, we have the finest collection of magical scrolls to be found in the desert.’

‘Magical scrolls,’ Zhod approved, ‘How many?’

‘Four score and 17; how many do you need?’

‘One such for each of my followers and another for myself.’

‘Even the little grub,’ Wasir pointed at me.

‘Him most especially,’ answered Zhod. Wasir hurried us out of his chamber.

We lodged in large deserted houses around the market square; I with Zhod, our three comrades elsewhere. I slept away that day.

At dusk, we five gathered outside the entrance to Wasir’s vault. The slender man was dressed in elaborately patterned blue and indigo robes, more splendid than the previous night and his turban was the orange of a desert sunset and continued down and around his neck. ‘Masters,’ he greeted us obsequiously, with a sweeping bow, ‘your magical scrolls await you.’

We followed him through the vault to a larger chamber, well lit at the entrance with wall sconces but darkening rapidly as it went further back. We stared. The room overflowed with bird cages, crowding onto each side of the narrow room with a path wriggling between them. The nearest of them, closest to the flames, showed that each of the delicate metal structures had a scroll of paper tightly bundled and tied to the small perch that hung from the centre of every cage.

‘These are Afrit scrolls, masters,’ Wasir clapped his hands, ‘every one as magical as the stardust on an angel’s wing.’

We each went up to examine them. The little doors were locked but none of the cages had a key. Inmas shook one of the larger cages but the scroll was securely fixed.

‘Where are the keys?’ asked Inmas.

Wasir’s tongue flickered in and out, ‘You must each choose your scroll and I will send for just those keys.’

‘How do we know what is written on the scrolls?’ asked Zhod.

‘If anything,’ murmured Sabo.

‘You must trust,’ Wasir’s tongue met his lips, ‘choose and come back tomorrow.’

Inmas had lifted a cage and his powerful fingers scrunched at the bars.

‘Don’t!’ warned Wasir. ‘If you use force the words will flee the scroll.’

‘Too late.’ Inmas’s huge fingers were pulling the scroll through the bars. He ripped open the scroll. It was bare.

‘There, you see. Emptied of words and spoiled forever,’ intoned Wasir. ‘It would hardly be magical if mere force revealed its secret.’

‘Do you know who I am?’ Zhod’s voice was smoked with menace. Shadows seemed to edge towards him and I noticed again the blur of mist clinging to him.

‘Yes, Master,’ Wasir quailed but it might have been an act, ‘you are Zhod, the great Desert Djinn.’

‘I have only to whisper your name, and my demonic imp, Quism, will spit upon you and make you incontinent.’

‘Do not so,’ pleaded Wasir. ‘I am only an honest merchant. Choose your cages and you will see.’

‘Hunt out a scroll,’ barked Zhod. ‘Each of you has a story here that is yours alone.’

As the others moved through the room scrutinizing the bird cages, I caught Wasir staring intently at a cage near the front but hidden below others. I followed his gaze and noticed the cage, a particularly ornate one, still had a key in its lock. I ran over and plucked at Zhod’s sleeve. ‘Master, I have chosen.’

‘The scroll containing your story, Flea?’

I nodded and pointed. ‘And it has a key, Master.’ He followed me to my selection with the key in the lock. Pulling it out from beneath its brethren, we turned the key and the door opened.

Wasir appeared crestfallen at our discovery. He protested, but not too determinedly, ‘You will pay for sight of the grub’s scroll, lord Djinn?’

‘Most surely,’ Zhod waved the concerns away.

I untied my scroll, pulled it from the cage and unrolled it. The scroll was immensely long and covered in small squiggles, symbols and jagged marks, like those left by darkling beetles in the sand.

‘Magical scrolls indeed,’ said Sabo as the others came to study my find.

‘Though it is not Arabic,’ remarked Zhod, holding the scroll to the torches.

‘It is Babelonian, an ancient mystical script.’ Wasir soaked his words in hushed awe.

‘Not one taught to desert Djinn,’ complained Zhod.

‘There is a wise woman in Noulassar, who reads Babelonian,’ Wasir assured him. ‘It’s a town only a few leagues to sunrise. When you all have your scrolls take them to her. All the spice and salt caravans travel on to Noulassar.’

‘Keep it safe, Flea. For these scrolls will reveal our true selves.’ Zhod placed the silver amulet in Wasir’s glistening palm, ‘I will pay for this and four more such scrolls, Wasir.’

‘Alas, Master,’ Wasir pocketed the amulet, ‘this pays only for the grub’s scroll. These are ancient powerful relics. Babelonia was swept away by desert sands centuries ago. I need gold to release any more to you.’

‘What!’ thundered Zhod, ‘Quism!’

The imp bounded onto the merchant’s chest, tumbling him to the rocky floor. Ignoring Wasir’s screams and pleading, Quism spat full in his bearded face. Wasir shrieked as if it was burning coals.

‘You have provoked me too far,’ said Zhod. ‘You are now incontinent, odious cheating trader.’

Wasir seemed grateful worse had not befallen him. Quism leapt away and the merchant righted himself and grovelled before Zhod. ‘I only ask that you pay what I must pay to get your keys, terrible Djinn. I am only the Keeper of the Scrolls, others own them.’

Eventually Zhod relented, four more caged scrolls were selected and Wasir was shown the golden ankh. The merchant, who now refused to stand but debased himself on the floor, opened a secret door at the far end of the chamber and brought forth four birds. He whispered to each of them and then threw each one to the open door that lead to the steps. The birds sped away into the desert night.

‘Each bird flies to a disagreeable and monstrous Afrit,’ said Wasir from the floor, ‘by next dusk they will return with the four keys needed. Our business is done for this night.’

‘Not so,’ said Zhod, ‘we will return at dusk but I have a question for you, Flea.’ All eyes swept towards me. ‘Is the merchant lying?’

I saw Wasir’s eyes turn from surprise, to bewilderment to fear. They beseeched me from beneath his turban. At his other end I smelt the evidence of Quism’s incontinence spell.

‘From the very start, Master,’ I said.

‘I see. What should we do, Flea?’

Three strides took me to the quailing merchant and I put my tiny foot on his neck. ‘This is Zhod the Unsettling, puny vessel,’ my voice was shrill but clear. ‘He has unsettled your town, he so unsettled the desert that it blew us here in a raging storm and he will unsettle you. For cheating him you will crawl forever; make him lizard, Sabo.’

All but Zhod gaped. Inmas’s lips parted in shock, Quism gibbered and frothed while Sabo ran long nails through his whiskers before lifting his green eyes to Zhod.

‘Take him outside, Sabo; remake him as a sand lizard.’

Before Sabo could respond, I turned and raced back to the house I shared with Zhod. As I approached I saw a small caravan hung with lights had arrived in the square. I also noticed a straggle of bent angry townsmen staring at the house. I crept close before sneaking inside. Some saw me, some threw rocks but they didn’t follow me in.

I needed to find something and hunted through the chests and rags of the house’s owners until eventually I saw and grabbed what I needed, just as dawn silvered the horizon.

Zhod arrived soon after and I heard him shout at the men outside.

The Djinn stood above me. I reluctantly opened an eye. ‘Wasim chases beetles,’ he told me. ‘You know enough to serve me, Flea. Will you transform into a flea before nightfall?’

‘Yes, Master,’ I answered.

‘Good, I will leave my loincloth out for you.’

‘Yes, Master.’

‘Oh Flea,’ he turned to his straw bed, ‘are you lying?’

I hesitated, ‘Yes, Master,’ I said, before adding, ‘I know not how to transform.’

‘You will find a way and I will have need of you come dusk. As Wasir is now a lizard I have left him the ankh but I still need him to relinquish the keys to those scrolls.’

Before dusk, I rose and watched Zhod. He had an unsettling way of sleeping with his hooded eyes seeming more open than when awake. I found his loincloth, and inside it I placed the big fat flea I had caught the previous night. I quietly left the house. Outside the caravan was making preparations to travel through the night and a bigger and angrier throng of townsmen ranged the square.

I secretly made my way to the steps down to Wasir’s vault. Four bird-cages of assorted sizes stood on a table. Scuttling around on the other cages was a large tapering lizard. It was different to the heavy lizards of our northern desert, slender and a vivid blue embroidered in scaly patterns; its head and neck were the gaudy orange of a desert sunset. Its tongue flicked out as it saw me.

‘Still lying, Wasir,’ I said as I hid behind drapes in the outer room.

After a while Zhod walked past. I did not see him but I smelt warmed cloves. He was followed by the heavy tread of Inmas, the soft padding of Sabo and the gibbering bounding Quism.  Through the door I could hear their questions; demanding the lizard tell whether the four birds had returned with keys.  A peek through the door revealed the lizard, tongue flicking, head shaking and Zhod scratching at his undergarments.

‘Flea suggests he lies,’ said the Djinn, before addressing the lizard again, ‘where, I wonder is the key you used to open the door to your third chamber, Wasir?’ He pointed to the door leading to the room beyond the cages. Inmas threw himself at the door while Sabo sniffed beneath the tables and cages and Zhod quizzed the lizard as it scampered frantically around the room.

Soon a key was found and the door opened. There came the thrum of myriad wings. ‘Marids!’ shouted Sabo and others gasped but instead a legion of songbirds emerged from the room and whistled past me to the stairs and freedom. I followed them, ran after the departing caravan and used a glimpse of the Ankh I’d secreted in my robes to purchase passage to their next stop, Noulassar.

* * * * *

The wise woman finished, turned over the scroll, stared at the blankness on the other side for a moment, then placed it down and turned to her listener. The boy sat open-mouthed at the back of her tents.

‘That is all, little master,’ she said. The boy was dumb, urgently brooding on how it was possible that what she had read to him could be writ upon the scroll he had brought from Agrasset to Noulassar.

‘I have earned your gold. It was a long story but a good one. It ended well for the herder I think, but left me wondering…’

The boy said nothing; he was clutching his head, his eyes wide with disbelief.

‘Do you believe that this Zhod was truly an all-powerful Djinn or was it all a clever lie?’

The boy stammered. He had seen an unsettling blur of mist clinging to the woman and he could smell warmed cloves.

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