Ilyas watched Majeed walk away and felt the tension leave his body. At least he had peace now. He roamed among the stacks, picking up every book on jinn he could find and placing a stack of a dozen on the table. He eyed the book titles critically and then walked to the shelves across from his table. Just general information on Mystics. He picked a few of those up as well and then looked out of the window. It wasn’t sundown yet. He had time.
He saw an ethereal, humanoid form from the corner of his eye and turned his head sharply to look at it full on, but it was gone. He tucked the books he’d chosen under his arm and walked toward his table. There was the form again. It appeared to be examining the books he planned to look at. Ilyas smiled, but he didn’t want to let the jinni know he’d seen him. At least not yet. He had too much to read. He paused and turned to a nearby shelf, still watching the jinni. As if knowing he was being observed, the jinni looked over his shoulder for a moment and then moved toward the door Majeed had exited. Ilyas allowed himself to wonder what the jinni was doing and if he realized he wasn’t quite invisible. Apparently whatever was affecting the other Mystics’ power was affecting the jinni’s as well.
Ilyas looked around for the jinni again before he sat at the table. It was near the spiral staircase watching him. At least Ilyas thought the jinni watched him. It was too far away for him to see its facial features, and since it wasn’t completely corporeal, that made it more difficult. From what he could see, the jinni was pale, bald, and wearing white. Ilyas hadn’t seen many jinn, but he knew they looked nothing like this one. Why did this one look different? Ilyas sat down and opened the nearest book.
It detailed how the dragon gods created the jinn from strong winds and fire and then realized that the jinn were so powerful that they rivaled the gods. Before the jinn could rebel, the dragon gods harnessed their power by giving them the nature to serve others. Their induced servitude made it possible for the gods to build great cities and monuments. Ilyas flipped through the rest of the book, which went on to name the cities and monuments. Nothing else about jinn. He opened the next book. It was called Djinnestan. He flipped through that one. He knew all about Djinnestan. It was the alternate world the dragon gods had created for the jinn. The book showed pictures of the world’s wonders and gave details on jinn culture.
“Hmmm,” Ilyas said. He put the book into the pile he wanted to check out. “Knowing about jinn culture might be useful in this case.”
The temple bell tolled the hour, and Ilyas looked out of the window. The sky had a slight orange tint to it. Good. He still had time. He yawned and stretched his neck and shoulders, which had begun to ache from leaning over the books. “Now what about the three wishes?”
He searched the tomes for a title that would give him a hint about jinn and wishes and settled on an old dusty one that made him sneeze. The jinni appeared to his far left, and Ilyas watched him from the corner of his eye, smiling. Were all jinn so shy? Why was he so curious about Ilyas, anyway?
Ilyas opened the book and read the chapter titles. His stomach turned. The book was directed toward a jinni’s master, and the author portrayed jinn as lowly servants who should be contained in bottles and treated like chattel. Still, he couldn’t deny his curiosity. If a jinni was responsible for the human disappearances in the city, then knowing how one became master to a jinni might be useful. He turned to that chapter and read that when a jinni and its master touched, both would feel a tingling sensation. After that, the master had power over the jinni and should contain it in a bottle right away. Then it was time for the three wishes. Ilyas closed the book on his finger and shook his head. He knew humans could be cruel and greedy. He knew it all too well. To take advantage of a being who already had a desire to serve felt wrong to him. He opened the book again. He had to learn about the three wishes.
The wishes originated with a jinniyeh called Ruqayyah, who’d been forcefully trapped in a jinn bottle by a rogue dragon god. She had no master, so being trapped meant that anyone who found the bottle would own her. One thousand years passed before someone found her bottle, and she’d been aware of her imprisonment the entire time. Once her new master found her and released her from the jinn bottle, she offered him three wishes in gratitude.
Ilyas narrowed his eyes in suspicion. His great-grandmother, when she was lucid, used to tell Ilyas and his brothers stories about Mystics. The jinniyeh’s name triggered Ilyas’s memory. His great-grandmother’s version of Ruqayyah was much different. The jinniyeh hadn’t been grateful, and her master had demanded three wishes, since he was the one who’d released her. Since then, future jinn masters expected and demanded the same.
Which story did he believe? He mulled it over as he stared out the window at the city. He didn’t like the idea of anyone, no matter what the gods thought of them, being bound to servitude. Mystic, human: there were differences, of course, but it still gave him a feeling of disquiet. He stretched and yawned again and then froze when he felt fingers run through his hair and heard a gasp. Was that? He smiled and looked back at the jinni, who’d backed away as if burned. “There you are.”
The jinni fled toward the spiral staircase leading to the balcony overlooking the fifth floor. Ilyas followed him. Soft footsteps sounded as the jinni ascended the stairs. Ilyas climbed the stairs and stopped at a set of six bookshelves arranged into a hexagon. He paused and peered into one of the spaces between the shelves and made out a table with two chairs and a low, cushioned bench. The jinni peeked from one of the spaces, gasped again, and moved out of view.
“I need your help, jinni,” Ilyas said. “Humans are disappearing. I work for a group of Mystics investigating this. They’ve assigned me to research your kind. Please. Some of the missing are women and children.”
Ilyas waited a few more moments, unsure whether or not he should just give up and go home. He looked back at the window. The sun had almost set. The librarian would be up to get him soon. He was about to walk away when a book slid from the shelf next to him and dropped to the floor. He picked it up and examined the cover. It was about jinn culture and unabridged.
“Interesting. This should help me. You have my thanks,” Ilyas said.
As he turned to go down the spiral staircase, he was suddenly aware of a presence. Most Mystics gave him an eerie sensation when he first encountered them, but this was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. This was power. Immense power. Curiosity made him look back at the shelves. The jinni watched him from one of the spaces between bookshelves again. At Ilyas’s approach, the equally pale eyes widened in panic, and as Ilyas entered the space, the jinni backed against one of the shelves, knocking down a chair in the process. Ilyas held up his hands.
“It’s all right. I won’t…can’t hurt you. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I apologize.”
The jinni only gaped at him, so Ilyas went on, his voice soothing.
“I only need information from you. No wishes. Please help me.”
Ilyas watched the jinni watch him. While the jinni looked like a blank slate of a human with near translucent skin and colorless eyes, Ilyas saw the warring emotions on the jinni’s face. Confusion and shock were foremost. The silence dragged on. He needed the jinni’s help. Rohan and the others were relying on him to help solve the case.
The jinni gasped and finally spoke. “Y-you can see me? You’ve been able to the entire time, haven’t you?”
“Please help me,” Ilyas repeated. He dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor. An age-old custom indicating great need.
“What are you doing?” the jinni asked. “Please stand.”
Ilyas looked up at the jinni, who had turned corporeal and held out a pale hand. Ilyas gripped it, and a tingling sensation rushed throughout his body as the jinni helped him stand.
“What was that feeling just now?” Ilyas asked, rubbing his hand.
“You felt that?” the jinni asked, his eyes wide.
“Didn’t you? Wait. Wait. No. This is wrong.” Ilyas felt like the air had been sucked from the room, and his hands trembled as he remembered the passage he’d read a few minutes ago. The sensation went from tingling to heaviness on his back and shoulders, as if a burden had been placed on him. It was harder to breathe than ever, and he sagged onto the cushioned bench, gasping for air and clutching his chest. Black spots danced in his eyes, and he closed them. He couldn’t look at the jinni. Not after what he’d done.
Ilyas was dimly aware of the jinni righting one of the chairs at the table and sitting down, but he couldn’t get himself back under control. The weight increased, and he doubled over. “This can’t be. No.”
“Scholar?” the jinni said.
Ilyas fisted his hands in his hair. He still couldn’t look at the jinni, and he couldn’t be the jinni’s master. He managed to find his voice, and it sounded as hollow as he felt. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. Is there a way to break the contract?”
“You don’t want to be my master?” the jinni asked, standing.
Ilyas took a deep breath and willed himself to calm down. The jinni stood over him, as if guarding him, and Ilyas finally looked at him. His voice shook. “I needed a research assistant. That’s all. I just wanted your help finding whoever or whatever’s making humans disappear.”
The jinni bowed. “If that is what you wish, Master.”
Ilyas stood on trembling legs and took the jinni’s hands. “No, no. I don’t wish for anything,” he said. “I’m not your master.” The tingle returned, stronger, and the weight threatened to force him to his knees. He didn’t want this burden.
“But I’m your jinni. I can give you anything. Just wish for it. This mystery can be solved in a matter of moments.”
“Magic can’t solve it either. At least not according to the Mystic in charge of the investigation.”
“Our magic has weakened. That must be why you could see me,” the jinni said. “Wishes are powerful magic though. You have nothing to worry about, Master.”
The heavy feeling dissipated to a bearable level, and the tingling stopped. Ilyas let go of the jinni, who sat down. “I can’t do that. Call me selfish if you want, but I won’t wield that kind of power over you.”
“But—” the jinni began.
Ilyas sat across from the jinni at the table. “Would you please help me? I’m asking. You can refuse.”
“I don’t understand. Only wishes and death can break the contract.”
“Scholar Bashour?” the librarian said.
“Sundown already?” Ilyas asked. He and the jinni had barely spoken. He had so many other questions to ask.
“We are closing soon,” the librarian said. “Could you continue your conversation in the morning?”
An idea occurred to Ilyas. He didn’t have to treat the jinni terribly. He didn’t want to be his master, but if the jinni chose to be his research assistant, then maybe it would help alleviate his guilt. He turned to the jinni, smiling. “Come with me. You can be my research assistant. My home is large enough for the two of us.”
“Is that your wish?” the jinni asked. He wouldn’t look Ilyas in the eye.
“I’m asking you.”
The librarian gaped at them. “You’re his master now?”
Ilyas sighed at the title. “I didn’t know that was going to happen. Is there anything I can do to break the contract?”
The librarian raised his eyebrows. “You don’t want—what?” the man stammered. He opened his mouth and closed it, staring at Ilyas and the jinni. He found his voice a moment later. “Only wishes and death can break the contract, Scholar Bashour. You really don’t have any wishes? At all?”
“No, I don’t,” Ilyas said. He turned to the jinni. “We should go now. Are you ready?”
The jinni bowed and followed Ilyas and the librarian to the table, where Ilyas gathered the books he wanted to check out. “I’ll take those, Master,” the jinni said before Ilyas could protest.
They walked down to the first floor, Ilyas checked out the books, and then he and the jinni left the library.
Although Ilyas had done well for himself, nerves made his palms sweaty as he and the jinni walked to his home in Al-Timini’s Scholars’ District. He distracted himself by focusing on the city’s sunbaked buildings and the date palms blowing in the warm, gentle breeze. Al-Timini was a hub for Mystics—magical beings of all kinds—and they mingled freely with humans. The temple to the dragon gods lay in the center of the city’s four districts, and the temple bell tolled the evening hour.
Ilyas opened the door to his home, knowing that the jinni must be used to opulence beyond anything he could imagine. His home was humble. Just two stories decorated for both comfort and study. He reminded himself, yet again, to build more bookshelves, since he’d taken to stacking books in any available space. He watched the jinni browse the shelves.
The jinni was shorter than Ilyas by a head. His tunic and pants were white, which only served to make his skin and eyes even more colorless. Gold cuffs circled his wrists and ankles. Ilyas didn’t find him unattractive or attractive. He looked like a blank slate of a human. Did he always look that way? The jinni turned, as if he knew Ilyas was thinking about him.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, his voice monotone, as if that too was a blank slate.
Ilyas gestured at the divan. “Please sit down. What’s your name?”
“What do you wish to call me?”
“Weren’t you given a birth name?” Ilyas asked.
The jinni seemed surprised at the question, and his eyes glazed, as if he was remembering.
“My real name can’t be pronounced by human tongues, but the closest to yours is Namir.”
“Nice to meet you, Namir. I apologize for not asking sooner. My name is Ilyas Ba—”
“Please, Master,” Namir said, holding up a hand. “Tell me you haven’t given your name to the Mystics you work for.”
Ilyas put his hand over the jinni’s, who stiffened and blushed. Ilyas stroked it to comfort him, but it only served to make Namir more uncomfortable. Interesting. “I know of ancient sorcery. Any Mystic with ill intent could destroy me by knowing my name, but they trust me, and I trust them. They know but cannot use my name.”
“Forgive me, Master. I meant no offense.”
“You haven’t offended me. And please don’t call me Master.”
“But. But that’s who you are.”
“My name is Ilyas Bashour. Call me Ilyas.”
“I’m sorry, Master. That is inappropriate.”
He’d met his match for stubbornness. “I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m not used to this.”
“I’ve never met a human like you before. You apologize to me. You show gratitude. You’re doing so much to help find those missing humans. My previous masters were different. You don’t want to be my master.”
“I don’t believe anyone should wield that much power over another being. I only ask one thing of you.”
“Ask. Not wish. You’re welcome to refuse and go back to the library.”
“Will you stay here with me as my research assistant? I have an extra bedroom, and I’ll even pay you.”
“No wishes? Not even one?”
Ilyas smiled, and Namir focused on his lap. “Nothing. If it pleases you, I’ll try to think of something. So will you stay here?”
Ilyas groaned inwardly at the title, but it was obvious that Namir was going to use it no matter what Ilyas wanted.
B. Leslie Tirrell