Monday, October 22, 2012
Zari and the Djinn
There once was a young man who lived with his aging mother in a cottage by the sea. They were not a rich family, and their seaside cottage was old and could hardly withstand the seasonal sea storms.
But the young man, Zari, always repaired their home after the coastal storms came and blew upon the beach. His mother, who was a caring but dependent woman, was often ill. So it was up to Zari to feed her and take care of the house, for his father was a seaman. Because of this, Zari's father would be away from home for months, sometimes years, at a time.
Not far from Zari's home, there were seaside cliffs, tall and white in the sun, and high above was the great city known as Cormisel, one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Though Zari was technically a citizen of the great nation of Ajazil, things like that meant little to him, for he was a humble fisherman, and a commoner at that. Worldly politics and national borders did not concern him or his mother.
But Zari often looked to the bluffs far from home, staring up at the shining towers and immense buildings. He was never a boy to complain about his life, for his mother was always grateful to him, and his father (what little he saw of him) had taught modesty and humbleness to be virtues. But still, Zari wished that one day he himself would live a better life in Cormisel.
Today's catch was not very lucky. Zari started his way back home after many hours of fishing with only a few skinny blue herring and a spiny bloatfish. Neither of these fishes were particularly appetizing, and the bloatfish was difficult to prepare. But that was because here, down on the beaches, very few fish lived, since most of them were netted by the rich fisher boats that patrolled the sea just off-shore. It was sometimes hard to catch enough food for Zari to even feed his sickly mother.
It was nearing sunset. As Zari walked along the beach toward his shaky cottage, he left shallow footprints in the sand that were quickly washed away by the waves. Sometimes Zari would be able to catch a few sand crabs on the way home, but today he forgot to bring a bucket with him.
When Zari returned to his home, he found his mother, ill as usual, in her bed. She called to him and asked that he rub her aching shoulders. After tending to her, Zari would see to their dinner - a salty fish and kelp stew, which was common for them.
"Has there been any word of your father?"
"No, mother." Zari knew that his father was never on any kind of schedule. But his mother was forgetful and rarely had a clear head when she was sick, and she was sick often.
Zari had nearly finished preparing the salty stew when there was a knock on the door. He dropped his wooden ladle in the pot and turned to see his mother jump up in her bed. Opening the door to their single-room cottage, Zari was not surprised by the visitor.
"Come in, Ravi," he said, and the new man, almost the same age as Zari, came through the door and took off his wide sunhat. They lived in a warm climate where snow was known only as a word to describe the far off nations to the west. Ravi was dressed in minimal, loose-fitting clothing like Zari, and they shared a dark, bronzed complexion. Onlookers might suspect the two young men were brothers.
"Heya Zari," said the visitor, and then to Zari's mother, he said "Good evening, Mrs. Zeela." Ravi seated himself comfortably on the floor near her bed, where he usually sat. Zari's mother seemed disappointed, but in her delusion she seemed to forget why, and then instead inquired how Ravi had been.
"Busy," was his reply as Zari ladled fish stew into three wooden bowls. "The mines have been short of hands these last few tendays, which means us miners hafta stay in there for extra hours. The overseers threaten to whip us like the foreign slaves!"
Zari came over and handed both his mother and his friend a bowl and spoon. Zari's family was so poor that they had no table, and instead ate while sitting upon the floor, except for his mother, who ate in bed.
"I don't envy you, Zari," said Ravi. "Being a fisherman down here isn't easy. But if ever you're thinking of changing paths, come with me to the mines sometime. You'll earn more than whatever fish bait you sell to the passing merchants."
"I've told you," said Zari calmly as he too was seated, his own bowl in hand. "I can't work at the mines; I'd be away from mother too long. She needs me nearby."
"That's true," said the mother between sips of soup.
"Mm," said Ravi, opting to not linger on the subject. To him, it was obvious that his mother would not be recovering any time soon, and chances were that Zari himself would die while taking care of her, since she occupied most of his time and ate most of their food.
Instead they talked of other things. Ravi shared stories and jokes as told by the other miners, but Zari could not contribute much to the conversation. Very little happened in his dull life. He awoke each morning, checked the nets and cages he had set up along the shore, fished for whatever sea creatures he could find. And, whenever he could, he sold whatever he could to strangers who sometimes traveled along the beach. All the while, Zari would return home several times a day to feed and look after his mother.
It was not unusual for Ravi to visit and partake in what little stew Zari had to offer. But he never complained, because he was glad for the company, and Ravi had a talent for bringing a smile to Zari's ever-frowning mother.
"I spoke to another physician before I came to you tonight," Ravi told his friend on his way out. They stepped out of the cottage in case the mother would hear, even though Ravi knew she would not understand what she was hearing from them.
"What did he say?" asked Zari hopefully.
"He said the same as the others, friend. That he likely wouldn't take your mother as a patient if your current physician - a respectable man, I might remind you - can do very little. And besides, everyone else costs more than you or I could hope to afford."
"My mother will recover, one day."
"Perhaps, Zari." Ravi paused. "But, perhaps not. Just remember that I'm here for you in case anything happens, yea?" Zari nodded, not wanting to think of what Ravi was implying, and his friend departed into the night.
The next morning was the healer's routine visit. Zari did not leave the home that morning in order to greet and receive the physician, like usual.
They went through the normal examinations, and after awhile the physician took Zari aside.
"She has not improved," he said in a low tone. "In fact, she has gotten worse. Her body is not responding to the treatments, and her mind is suffering as a result."
"What else can we do?"
"There are other treatments, but they are costly," said the physician as he packed his instruments into his specially made travel case. He tucked a monocle into his great sash and straightened his robes, brightly colored and ornamented with dangling trinkets - signs of any learned and affluent man.
Zari was at a loss for what to do, and before the morning was out, his mind was occupied only by thoughts of how he could possibly help his mother. The doctor left the lonely cottage and mounted his horse, following the long trail that would lead back to Cormisel. He whistled happily as he went.
That evening, Zari was out late, for he had caught no fish and cast his line again and again. He sat upon the edge of a rocky outcropping, where he could reach deeper water more easily.
For whatever reason, no herring nor bloatfish or even urchins would take to the bait, and before long the sun had set and the two moons shined brightly in the sky. As the sea waves crashed upon the beach, a wind picked up and blew sand into Zari's face, and he dropped his fishing pole down into the water below him. He cursed, knowing that he would have to make himself a new one.
Stripped of his tools, bereft of a catch, and filled with despair, Zari started his way back home. Descending the rocks, he lost his footing and stumbled down the last two steps, crashing upon the sand below.
He cursed again. Zari cursed the gods that so laughed at his fate, he cursed the ocean and its stupid fish, he cursed the moons and their dazzling light, which had so distracted him when something shiny sparkled in the sand...
Zari hefted himself up, not bothering to wipe the wet sand from the side of his face. He walked over to the shiny object and kneeled to pull it out of the sand, but it was larger than he first suspected.
Using both his hands, Zari dug around the object in order free it from the clutches of the beach. It wasn't huge, or heavy - only about the size of a mango, but made of metal, and beautifully intricate. Zari had no idea what the object was made out of, nor for what purpose it could possibly have been made. He'd never seen anything like it in his life, but somehow he knew it was valuable.
The fisherman turned the object over in his hands. It almost resembled an egg, though the complicated, metallic surface gave him the impression of clockwork. It was quite solid, though, and rather heavy. Then he felt something move inside as his probing fingers somehow activated a mechanism he could not see.
The clockwork egg shuddered and little holes opened, releasing the hiss of steam. The heat caused Zari to drop it in surprise, but the object did not fall to the ground. Instead, it hovered in midair, spinning in place, faster and faster, until there was a blinding flash a crack like thunder. Zari dove for the sand, covering his head.
"By the GODS!" came a booming voice, echoing across the beach. Zari was startled more by the voice than the curious lights and sounds from the object, and he looked around him. He was alone.
"I say, you there, boy," came the voice again, deep and boisterous. Zari stood up and looked around again, until his eyes rested on the clockwork egg.
"Yes, you. Come hither, eh?" said the egg. The fisherman couldn't believe his ears.
"Are you ... a sea ghost?" he asked the air.
"What!? A ghost? No, I'm not a--just come here, will you?" Zari cautiously approached, and peered into the still floating thing, now opened in the same way that a bulb burst into a flower. "You see this blue gemstone in here?" Zari nodded. "Touch that with your thumb. You didn't finish opening up this prison--I mean lockbox here. Let me out and let's talk, eh?"
Zari had heard stories about sea ghosts, spirits that would trick sailors to their deaths. He'd never been told about magical, metal eggs and demanding, disembodied voices, though. Whatever this was, Zari figured he'd had enough bad luck for the day. What did he have to lose? He pressed a thumb against the blue gemstone, and the 'lockbox' snapped shut - with his thumb still inside.
"Now, you're going to feel a slight pinch..." Zari screamed as something sharp bit. He could feel blood well out, and the box hummed with warmth.
"Ahh, now that's more like it."
Another flash of light, and the egg was shattered completely. When Zari opened his eyes and blinked several times, the object was gone. In its place, hovering before him, was a man.
Zari blinked again. Mostly a man. The top half was most certainly manlike, but below the waist was wavy and misty. His skin was the color of brass even in the moonlight, and his ears looked like the fins of a fish. As Zari stared, he noticed that the man's skin was scaly, also like that of a fish.
"Gratitude a thousand fold, master," said the ghostly man, bowing low. There were webbed dorsal spines protruding from his back as well.
"My name is Zari," said the fisherman, holding his thumb in the other hand. "What, by the gods, are you?"
"Master Zari," said the being, displaying a wide smile. His teeth were pointed and his thin mustache stretched around his lips. "I am a sea djinn - a marid, to be precise! Surely you've heard of us, yea?" For a moment, Zari forgot his bleeding hand.
"I know this story!" he exclaimed. "I release you, and in exchange you grant me three wishes!" The marid maintained his smile, but his eyelids went half-mast.
"...Not exactly," said the marid. "How is it everyone here's _that_ version? Anyway, listen, this's how it works. You scratch my back I'll rub your shoulders, y'know? I don't mind telling you I have no love for this...lockbox you found - and for that I am thankful, I assure you. You wouldn't believe the smell that builds up in there.
"Right, wishes. I'll grant you your heart's desire, this is true - and it isn't limited to three. My powers are vast and my intellect unhindered! I have the strength to shape dreams into reality, I have the ability to..."
"Get stuck in a lockbox," said Zari.
"Long story. Let's just say my last master and I had...disagreements. But hey, no-one's born an expert, amiright?" He leaned in and nudged Zari with his elbow, a gesture that seemed to the fisherman completely alien.
"Anyway," the marid continued, shrugging off Zari's odd stare, "you must be cold out here. How 'bout we get started so you can head on home?"
"Wait!" said Zari, crossing his arms. "Something isn't right here. I let you out, so you're going to give me my heart's desire? Just like that?" Zari put his thumb in his mouth, which stopped bleeding. "And why the thumb prick?"
"A necessary measure," said the marid. "I am now contractually obligated to help you. I needed a drop of your blood to open the box, thus allowing me freedom, and thus I owe you."
"There must be a catch," said Zari.
"I ought to mention, Master Zari, that after each time you make a wish, I will disappear for awhile. Where I go - now, that's my business - but I will return to you no matter where you are, and will be able to grant you your next desire."
"That doesn't sound so bad."
"Consider the alternative," said the marid, gesturing to the beach around them. "You could've NOT found the most amazing thing in your life here on this beautiful moonslit evening."
Zari sincerely thought he was dreaming. After all, something quite dreamlike had appeared before him. He shrugged and decided, like in any dream, to pursue this and see where it would take him.
"My mother is ill," said the fisherman. "I care for her constantly, and even the finest physician in Cormisel cannot cure her. Make her well, djinn, and I'll believe that this night's exchange was not the result of eating rotten fish before bed."
"To make your mother healthy," intoned the djinn. "Is this your wish?"
The djinn smiled his wolfish smile and spread his arms wide. The skin on his palms glowed with white power and he brought them together in a resounding clap. The sound echoed far across the waves and out to sea like thunder, and Zari looked around him for some other dazzling display of magic. But there was nothing more to see.
"Consider it done. I'll return to you in half the little-moon's cycle, Master Zari."
"Half the little-moon's...you mean a tenday, djinn?"
"That’s marid. And yes, Exactly ten days."
"Well, it was worth a shot, even for a dream. If I wake up and nothing's changed, I won't hold it against you, djinn."
"Marid," was the smiling reply, and it bowed once more. Fading out of sight, Zari was left to stand alone on the beach. Even the egg-box was gone.
When Zari returned to his home, he found is mother asleep. Usually he would have been home earlier, and would have made for her some kind of stew, but apparently she had fallen asleep despite being hungry. He walked up close to her, listened to her breathing, and curled up next to her bed. That night, both mother and son slept with empty stomachs.
The next morning Zari awoke tired and exceptionally hungry. His mother still slept, so he quietly rose from his bedmat and tiptoed outside to gather some beachweeds - if he boiled them long enough, they were be edible. When he came back, his mother was awake, and looked around confused.
"Where was Zari last night?" she asked weakly, her eyes rolling in her head.
"I lost my fishing pole," said the son. "And I couldn't get it back. How are you feeling, mother?"
"Never better," she hacked, and Zari could see that she looked even worse than yesterday. He hurriedly prepared the meager food he could, hoping that enough beachweeds boiled in the leftover stew that had dried along the inside of the cooking pot would be enough to feed them.
It was then that Zari remembered last night's dream, causing him to frown. Even if it were true, that djinn had lied.
A knock on the rickety door caused Zari to start. He looked over his shoulder.
"Has your friend come to join us for dinner again?" mumbled Zari's mother. "He's a bit early, isn't he...?"
Zari left the pitiful soup to simmer and went to answer the door. He was surprised to see who was on the other side.
"I figured it out," said the physician from the previous day, his face stretched from a proud smile. He let himself into the shaky building. "I know what to do for your mother. Tell me, when was the last time she ate?"
"Yesterday afternoon," said Zari awkwardly.
"Perfect," said the physician. "I was going to have to wait for her to have an empty stomach, but this speeds things along."
"What are you talking about?"
"The treatment, boy! Make way!"
"But, we can't afford--" Zari tried to say, but the doctor seemed to ignore him.
"Go busy yourself elsewhere, lad. I need to be alone with your mother for awhile."
Zari had no choice but to comply. He spent the day fashioning a new fishing pole, hunting sand crabs, catching fish, and scouring the beaches for driftwood or debris from Cormisel. Occasionally Zari found something that the city-dwellers had cast into the ocean but proved to be useful to him.
He returned in the evening, just as the sun set behind the western mountains. Zari carried with him more fish and crabs than he had caught in the last several days combined. He was excited, for he would be able to prepare a great meal with all the combined ingredients.
He knocked on the door to his home, and since there was no response, he let himself inside. He found the physician sitting in the house's only chair, near Zari's mother in her bed. Both of them were still.
"Good, you've returned," said the doctor weakly. His face was drawn and his skin pale. "I've done everything I could, performed every ritual I know." He attempted to rise from his seat, but found it difficult. Zari rushed over to assist him.
The physician had a glazed look in his eyes. He didn't say anything else, and appeared to not see the world around him. Zari thought he might be in a trance, or at least exhausted from the exertion of the day. Who knows what strange magic the physician had performed in his absence?
There was no word regarding payment, and Zari did not bring up the topic. He only aided the doctor on his way out of the house, bidding him goodnight, and slowly closed the door behind him.
Zari immediately set to work preparing the food. He himself had hardly eaten all day, but his unconscious mother would probably be ravenous in the morning. Zari resolved to let the stew slow-cook overnight, and ate only a small portion before unrolling his bedmat.
The next day, Zari awoke to see his mother stirring the stew pot over the fire. He called out, startled, for she hadn't left her bed in almost a year.
"I feel fine," she said amiably. Her voice was strong and she had no difficulty standing on her feet after so long being bedridden.
Zari could not believe his eyes. He rose from his bedmat, looked over at her bed, and back at his mother. He lunged to embrace is mother.
"It's a miracle," she said, hugging him back. "The healer did it! I don't know how, but he did it!" Zari nodded, his eyes full of tears. He had forgotten what his mother even looked like when not under bedcovers.
After much laughter, Zari went outside to fetch some fresh water from a spring that ran from the mountains down into the sea. But as soon as he opened the door, he dropped his pale to the ground, and his mother looked, and gasped.
Outside, face first in the sand, was the physician. He had taken only several steps from the hut and apparently collapsed onto the sand. His horse was seen grazing on beachweeds just over the hill.
Zari ran over to him, and found that he was dead.
"What happened to him?" said Zari's mother.
"I don't know," said Zari. "He was the doctor, not I." But inside, Zari was panicking. He knew that law officers from Cormisel would come around looking for the physician. Important missing people do not stay missing for long. So he thought of the only plan he could.
"What are you doing?" his mother asked as he grabbed hold of the physician's feet and started to drag him away from the house. He returned to get a shovel, the only one they owned.
"No, son, you can't..."
"I have to," Zari said as he began digging a hole. "Men with weapons and armor will come after him. And what will they think when they hear that you were healed, but we were unable to pay him?"
"They'll think you killed him," she said. Her mind seemed to be getting clearer by the minute.
"Right," was Zari's reply. "We have to get rid of any trace he was here." Zari's mother looked around, her mind at work. She understood her son's logic, for the city guard were not merciful. People have killed each other for worse reasons.
"Keep digging, I'll be right back," she said, and she set off to catch the physician's horse.
Zari stopped for a moment to look up and see his mother pull herself onto the saddle and start riding away, towards the rocky mountains beyond the beach. Zari would never have guessed she knew how to ride a horse, and never would have expected to see her healthy enough to do so.
The fisherman managed to dig a hole as deep as he could and still be able to climb out of it. He dragged the physician's body over, checked one more time to make absolutely certain that he was dead, and thought about searching his pockets. He shook his head, knowing that whatever items he pilfered from the body might be used as evidence against him later. He heaved the body into the pit and filled it in, deciding to move a pile of tools and other debris he had collected to cover up the site.
Several hours later, Zari's mother returned home. Her shimmering silhouette could be seen over the hills, and when Zari saw her, he rushed along the sandy road to meet her.
"Are you alright?" he asked her. "And where's the horse?"
"I feel better than ever," was her confident reply. "And I rode the horse to the Salt Mines, where I sold it to a traveling caravan. They didn't ask me why, and I took the coin even though I sold it cheap."
"Because the lawmen would not only look for the physician, but his horse as well. By bringing it south and west, I left hoof prints in the sand all the way there, and the caravan will lead it along even further." She paused so that Zari could understand.
"We'll tell the lawmen that he rode in that direction, and we don't know where he went."
They ate well that evening and celebrated the mother's miraculous recovery. When the Cormisel officers came to their home, they told the story of how the physician had come, and left, headed south. To where, they did not know, and the officers followed the trail to the Salt Mines, where their trail was lost.
Seven days later, Zari was fishing near the same rocky outcropping from which he had lost the fishing pole that moonlit night. He had been kept busy this last week, but in new ways he never imagined.
He never forgot about the dream he had about the djinn, and counted the days that passed, wondering. Zari sat upon the rocks, staring out at the open sea. He barely noticed the glint under the water's surface tugging on his newly fashioned pole, so absorbed in thought was he.
On the horizon sailed a huge, multi-sailed merchant ship, one of many that could be seen docking with the busy ports under Cormisel's cliffs. Zari had seen those ships sail back and forth, far out at sea, and once held dreams of being aboard the craft. But only recently did he treat such thoughts as less than a breezy whim. With his mother more independent, he was able to divert his attention inward and think about his own wants.
And there was much that he desired.
The tugging on his fishing line was more persistent. He looked down as if startled, and began to reel it in, carefully and skillfully.
The fish tugged back, hard. Zari had to move to a standing position to maintain balance. Then, feeling himself gain ground, he hauled his catch out of the water and up to his face. It was the most peculiar fish he had ever seen.
Gold scales with gemstone-colored fins, tail long and limp in the air, and a set of mustache-like appendages sticking out around its gasping mouth.
"Pretty neat, eh?" said a chortling voice behind him. Zari jumped and turned around.
"You!" he stammered. "You ARE real!"
"Of course I'm real," said the marid, who was floating quite contentedly behind him. His arms were crossed in a comfortable position and that same wolfish grin was spread ear to ear. "I keep my word, after all. Back, after the little moon's cycle."
"What is this thing on my hook, djinn?" asked Zari.
"Marid. And you wouldn't be able to pronounce this little guy’s true name anyway - something only the merfolk can really say, but even they have their own accent - but mortals like you call them reefkoi. You'll never find a fish like that here again; I brought it here all the way from the Alhazian Sea!"
Zari stood quiet for a moment.
"I don't know where that is," said the fisherman.
"You don't know where...you live on a beach and you don't know the seas of your world? The Alhazian Sea is clear across the -- nevermind." The marid watched Zari's eyes glaze over as his interest visibly vanished. "So," he said, reaching up to straighten his mustache. He snapped his fingers and a bubble appeared, and after popping, a mirror was in his hand to help him groom himself. "How're things?"
"Much better," said Zari, feeling and looking a little awkward. He observed every detail, every movement that the marid made; none of them threatening, but somehow alien. The fact that he was speaking to a sea marid still seemed to not sink in. "Our physician arrived unexpectedly and, well, managed to cure my mother in one day. So, my mother is healthy again. In fact, I've never seen her so lively!" He shifted his weight again, as though a child asking for a favor. "I get a second wish now, don't I? Now that you've returned to me?"
"Why, yes of course, Master Zari," said the marid, maintaining his sharp-toothed smile. "Anything your heart desires." Zari wondered if the marid knew anything of the fate of the physician.
"Well, like I said, my mother is healthy again, and for that I am grateful. But it has been difficult, these last days, for now that she is restored, she has turned her attention upon me. We are still poor, and can hardly feed ourselves."
"What would you have me do, young master?" said the marid, discarding the little mirror over his shoulder. He folded his arms again, and when the mirror hit the ground behind him, there was a splash of seawater upon the rock.
"Make me rich," said Zari, a look of greed gleaming in his eye. It was something that might be unfamiliar to anyone who'd known him in the past, but to the marid, it was a very familiar sight. "Make me wealthy, so that I might no longer worry about putting food on my table, fixing my own house, or cleaning my own clothes! I want to dine with Merchant Princes and royalty!"
"To have riches," said the marid, his face turning serious. "Is this your wish?"
The marid's smile returned, broadly displaying all of his sharp teeth. Zari had been staring so long he nearly counted all of them.
The marid unfolded his arms and spread his hands wide, and in a gesture much like before, his palms glowed. This time, however, they radiated red light instead of white. When he brought his hands together into a mighty clap in front of him, a mighty thunderbolt flashed on the horizon, and thunder shook the rocks. Zari looked off and saw that the sky had grown very dark and the sun was being swallowed in rain clouds.
"Best get yourself home," said the marid, "A big storm is coming. I will return to you in one hundred days." And with a deep laugh, another bolt of lightning arced between clouds overhead, flashing so brightly that Zari had to cover his eyes. There was a tremendous boom seconds after that almost made him lose his balance.
When he looked around, the marid was gone, and heavy rain began to fall, so Zari fled as fast as he could back home. Lightning flashed again. If he had looked out to sea one more time, he might have noticed the silhouette of a great merchant ship on the horizon, bobbing upon the waves with ragged sails.
The wind howled and the rain fell like stones. The storm was unseasonably strong, and uncommonly early. Zari knew that only once a year or so was there a tempest like this, but they were fairly predictable. He had not yet reinforced the cottage, and he and his mother huddled inside, hoping their house would hold together.
The walls creaked and the door rattled in its hinges. The roof sounded as though it might collapse at any moment. Rain leaked through the ceiling and pooled onto the sandy floor. Zari could only sit with his mother near the cooking fire, and pray.
There was a loud impact on the door, but amidst the thunder and lightning it was hard to hear. Zari and his mother looked at each other, doubting their ears. There was a second desperate knock. Who could possibly be visiting them this time at night, during a storm like this?
Expecting his friend Ravi, Zari quickly made his way over and heaved open the wooden latch. As he swung the door open, a tall, thick man stood in the doorway, panting in the rain.
The man fell into the house, seemingly losing consciousness as he went, and Zari could barely support the weight. He dragged the man inside as his mother rose from her seat with a gasp. She ran to the man's side.
Zari closed the door, pushing against the wind, and once he had secured it shut, turned to find his mother holding the man's hand to her chest. She was crying. She looked up toward her son with tearful eyes.
"Don't you recognize him?" she said. "It's your father!"
Zari cocked his head. Only now did he in fact recognize him, but it had been years since last he saw the old sailor. But there was no mistaking the star-shaped tattoos under his right ear.
Father, a word meaning the occasional appearance of a gruff, smelly old man who sometimes beat him but sometimes educated him. Zari looked at the shivering form of a man who had once instilled him with fear. Apparently Zari had grown much since the last time he saw his father. He wasn't nearly as large and frightening as he remembered.
"Help me get him onto the bed," said the mother, who ran to prepare the blankets. Zari hooked his arms under his father's and heaved him over. They removed his wet clothing and had him wrapped in the warmest blankets they had.
Thunder clapped once more, and when lightning flashed seconds later, bright light seeped through the cracks of their shaky hut.
"My family," came the weak voice of the old sailor, and he had both his wife and son's undivided attention. "At last, at long last, I return to you."
"You've been gone so long," said Zari's mother. "We were waiting, but always knew you would come home." Zari said nothing.
"The ship," the sailor coughed, "ran against rocks - the whole crew, dead, everyone but me. I swam for shore, lucky to recognize this beach. Home, at last..." He wheezed.
"Rest and recover," said Zari's mother.
"No time," said the father, and he reached weakly for an old sack he was carrying. "My bag, open it."
Zari recovered the bag, untied the laces, and reached inside. His hands grasped something cold and heavy. When he brought it out into the light, his mother looked to him quizzically.
It was a ornate cylinder, long as Zari's forearm and just as thin. On either end were golden caps of twisting wire, both supporting the protective cylinder and providing a beauty akin to nothing that Zari had ever seen. Even the marid's capsule, though alien, paled in comparison to the splendor of this simple, yet beautiful object.
Zari had no idea what it was, but recent experience taught him that interesting things tend to come out of strangely shaped containers.
"Open it," said the father weakly, and he explained that the golden caps could be pulled off of the cylinder. Zari did so, and looked inside. He extracted a rolled up piece of parchment.
"Read it," said the father. Zari, whose ability to read was limited, unrolled the parchment and skimmed for words he recognized. Then, not understanding, he handed it to his mother, who was able to read without any difficulty.
"This is a deed," she said, her eyes widening. "Where did you get this, my love?"
"Won it in a card game," said the father. His breathing became heavier, but he forced a weak grin. "Won it for you both. I'm sorry I was gone for so long, but I couldn't return until-"
Thunder clapped and the father's words were lost. Zari could see his lips moving, but could hear no words. Lightning flashed through the windows and cracked walls, and thunder shook the cottage again. When the sound and light had passed, Zari's father lay still in the bed, his eyes closed and his mouth quiet.
Zari's mother took him by the hand and shouted. The father's eyes snapped open.
"I just...just need to rest," he said. Zari's mother sighed with relief, having thought him dead, but Zari took hold of the deed and studied it again. Concentrating, he recognized the characters that spelled out 'Cormisel' and some number amount, though he couldn't tell if it was a large amount of land or not.
The storm continued to rage outside, but Zari did not hear it. He held the deed in his hand, wondering if this was connected at all to the marid's promise.
The next day, Zari was outside under a clear sky collecting debris that had blown in from the storm. Branches and great leaves from the trees upon the far off cliffs lay strewn about, and nearby reeds were left uprooted or sliced from the previous night's winds. Storms generally blew debris from elsewhere to their part of the beach, which often was much to Zari's benefit. Garbage from Cormisel - stretches of cloth, broken planks, torn baskets, and anything else he could find - was often stored or put to use right away.
He was hunched over, gathering sticks and clearing his meager property when he saw his mother leave the cottage and approach him.
"I'm going to the far dunes to collect some peppergrass," she told him. "Your father always loved peppergrass stew. He's sleeping now, check up on him soon. I'll be back after high noon."
Zari nodded his understanding, and watched his mother leave. Though it had been over a tenday, he still was not quite used to seeing his mother in such good health. She stood strong against a sudden gust of wind, the air whipping her long hair about, and Zari marveled as she disappeared from sight.
Some time later, Zari was stooped over, collecting some driftwood that he had kept stacked before the storm, when he heard sounds of marching soldiers over the hill. Several mounted warriors, dressed in emblazoned armor and colorful capes, rode along the path and into view, their steeds snorting in the sun. Zari straightened as he saw them approach. City guard never came this far down the shore unless they had good reason.
He froze as a thought crossed his mind about a certain physician from not so long ago, and Zari wished he had heard the guards coming sooner. If only he had a moment to duck and hide...
"You there, boy!" barked the lead-soldier. Judging from the elaborate feather on his helmet and the embroidery on his cape, Zari knew him to be a captain. With a raised hand signal, the leader brought his armored warriors to a halt.
"Rough storm last night, eh boy?"
"Yes sir," said Zari, keeping his eyes lowered. Shore-folk never stared cityfolk in the eye. The captain looked around, as though searching for something. His eyes rested briefly on the nearly-wrecked cottage.
"We're looking for someone," growled the captain, and Zari suppressed a shiver. "A few ships ran aground. Some Cormisel merchants, but also some ships belonging to pirates."
Zari nearly looked up, but restrained himself.
"We're looking for someone, one of the pirates," repeated the captain. "A man, with stars tattooed under his ear."
Zari shifted his weight, trying his hardest not to look guilty. The captain saw right through it, and smiled under the shadow of his helmet.
"There's a reward," he said, "for anyone with information that might lead to the pirate's capture." The captain leaned forward in his saddle. "A certain rich merchant has a vendetta against the man."
A moment passed, and Zari looked up to lock eyes with the captain.
When Zari's mother returned to their cottage, her son rushed to meet her. He told her that the city guard had come to take her husband away on charges of piracy, and threw her arms up in distress. They hastily prepared to travel to Cormisel, where Zari's mother hoped to plead for the life of her husband. Zari followed quietly behind her.
Along the road, they met Ravi, who was on his way to them for an unplanned visit. Zari's mother explained what happened, and Ravi decided to go with them to Cormisel.
Several hours later, after walking across hot sands and setting bare feet upon the cobblestones of the city streets, Zari, his mother, and Ravi arrived at the main square, where a raised dais had been erected. A row of men stood with their hands bound behind their backs, and thick knots around their necks. Crowds of cityfolk had gathered to witness the spectacle of the captured pirates' execution.
Among the men on the row was Zari's father, and he looked sullenly out upon the crowd that so jeered and hated him, casting curses and insults.
A crier stepped forth and read out the names of the men, as well as their crimes - both proven and assumed. Zari's mother was frozen as she saw her husband make eye-contact with them, and the crier stopped speaking. The crowd fell silent, and the next thing Zari heard was the heavy thud of a wooden lever, and the next thing he saw was a dozen men dropped down shafts. After a few moments, the last man stopped kicking.
Zari's mother suppressed a shriek, for Zari had used his hand to cover her mouth. If she were to wail out loud, then strangers around them would know they were connected to one of the pirates - and who knows what the city guard would do after that?
"Mother," Zari said to her softly, bringing her away from the square and into a small eatery. "Wait here. Ravi, stay here and look after my mother. I will return, shortly."
"Where in the hell are you going?" said his friend. "Your mother needs you more than ever..."
"There is something I must do here before we return home." He spoke confidently, as a man who was sure of his destiny. Things were coming together, in fact, and though he would never tell those dearest to him, he was certain of the fortune awaiting him.
"Where could you possibly..."
"Just watch over her," said Zari. "And order her something nice, but wait until I return before you pay."
Zari's mother, who was in shock from seeing her husband executed, said nothing and held her elbows close to her sides. Ravi complied, and sat beside her, offering silent comfort. Zari left hastily and made his way towards a certain address given him by the city guard captain.
Hours later, Zari returned to his friend and mother. Ravi noticed that his friend seemed different, more confident, somehow. Zari's mother did not notice that they had eaten the most expensive food they normally ate in a year, and Ravi wondered where Zari had gotten the new coins he used to pay for it.
Ravi walked them home that evening, wondering about his friend and why he did not seem upset at the death of his own father. Ravi supposed that it was the shock of everything, and once more told Zari that if ever he needed anything, he had but to ask. And with that, he left them at their seaside cottage.
The next morning, Zari had prepared the finest breakfast he could muster, using the most prized spices they had saved for many years. When his mother discovered that the best food they kept stored was all being used in one meal, she began to protest. He calmly turned to her.
A knock at the door. Zari asked that his mother go and see who it was and, annoyed, she did so.
A man in elaborate, flowing robes stood with a long pipe in one hand and his other hand in his embroidered sash. His beard, waxed and combed to snobby perfection, reached nearly to his waist, and his face had the look of a man who lived his entire life never worrying about keeping his family fed. Or his servants. Or his bodyguards behind him.
The man introduced himself and Zari's mother had no idea who he was, unaccustomed to such a person ever coming this far down from the city. He entered their cottage and looked about to seat himself, but saw there were no chairs, so he remained standing.
"Has Zari not told you?" said the merchant in a booming, joyful voice.
"Told me what?" Zari's mother looked between the merchant and her son, confused.
"Mother," said Zari, "our days of living on the seaside are over. These men have come to help bring us to our new home, in Cormisel."
"The land deed," said Zari. "It was worth enough to start a new life."
"Indeed," said the merchant. "Zari and I have entered a partnership, and I have full confidence that the land is a valuable investment. We'll start a business there, him and me.
"Gather what is most important to you," the merchant continued. "My servants will carry whatever you like."
Zari's mother looked back and forth, flustered, unbelieving. But, within the day, Zari and she were adjusting themselves to soft beds, delicate foods, and enough private space to fit a dozen cottages.
Zari had explained to his mother that he had arranged everything with the merchant, from profit-sharing to living quarters. He explained that the merchant was so intent on getting the deed that there was sufficient leverage to ask for almost anything he wanted. His mother believed him, and never asked of it again.
In truth, the merchant was taken aback by the confidence of Zari when they met the previous day. Zari, so certain of his impending fortune that would be granted by the marid, did not know the true value of the land deed, but had presented himself as though he were already wealthy. He had pushed and negotiated with such confidence that his boldness left a powerful impression on the merchant. As a result, he was swayed by the strange fisherman’s charisma. By the time they had agreed upon acceptable terms, the thought that the merchant may not have been influenced by the marid’s magic did not even occur to Zari.
Thus the mother and son, who had lived months on end on nothing but water-thinned fish stew, became the richest seaside folk to ever take up residence in the great trade city of Cormisel.
Three months later, Zari had since adjusted to the high life. At first, it was difficult for him to have servants awaiting his word and even his own personal chef, having lived at the bottom of society for so long. But he adapted quickly. Within a tenday Zari was walking with the air of a noble about him, and among the first things his mother urged him to do was learn to read and calculate.
The most talented and patient tutors were hired and Zari was well on his way to becoming an educated, shrewd man. He had also arranged to learn the trade from the merchant with whom he was partnered, and in a matter of months, Zari had a very solid future ahead of him. Granted there was much to learn, but he demonstrated an aptitude that was uncommon - he was quickly catching up to people his age who had spent their lives in luxury. Zari revealed ambition that his mother never knew existed, and as a result, his power and influence grew. There were those who believed that, in time, Zari would surpass even the wealthy merchant who had given him his start.
High atop a balcony overlooking the city, Zari was staring off upon the hundreds of rooftops like he did every evening. He always dreamed of seeing the cityscape from a high tower, and ever since getting here, never a day went by that Zari did not spend an hour looking off, listening to sounds of the city. He took in a deep breath - smells of cooking food, wafts of smoke, all manner of shouts as people went about their lives by torchlight on the streets below.
"You should see the cities further south," came a mocking voice behind him. Zari started, and whipped his head around to view the speaker.
"Of course me!" cried the marid, who floated nearby with his arms crossed. "Did you miss me? You seem to be doing well." Zari nodded, but appeared sullen.
"I am doing well," he said confidently. "Better than ever, better than most of the other people who live here. My mother is healthy and we are richer than I could have ever hoped possible." The marid even noticed how the young fisherman's voice seemed different - city life had certainly changed the lad.
"And yet you are lacking, it would seem," grinned the marid.
"Yes, this is true," said Zari. "For ever since we have risen from the shore and no longer worry about putting food in our bellies or keeping the roof secure over our heads, my mother has done nothing but hound me to find a wife."
"There are no women in your beautiful Cormisel?"
"None that interest me, marid, and none that are interested _in_ me. The court ladies I have met in this city are beautiful, but they care nothing for a man who was once a seaside fisherman." He sighed, reliving the countless conversations. And the rejections.
"Love is a peculiar thing," said the marid. "You cannot grasp it, you cannot study it. There are few who truly know it. And most of _those_ are dead." The marid chuckled, as though remembering an old conversation himself.
"Marid, I tire of the arranged meetings, the lengthy dinners, and the courtship rituals of the bureaucrats," said Zari. "Help me get married, so as to please my mother!"
"To give you a wife," said the marid. "Is this your wish?"
The marid grinned his wolfish grin again, and brought one fist to his mouth. With a long, low breath, he blew into his hand, turning his fingers bright red, as though embers of a blacksmith's forge glowed within.
"Give me your hand," said the marid. Zari tentatively extended his hand, palm up, and the marid took it and enclosed it in his scaly fingers. Zari got the distinct impression that he was shaking hands with a giant fish.
Heat flared through their touch, and for a moment Zari repressed the urge to struggle and pull away, for he felt as though his hand might burn off. But as soon as it came, the heat left, and the marid released his grasp, chuckling and grinning.
"Take care, young master," said the marid, and he began to fade away. "I will return to you in one thousand days. Isn't it time you visit your old home?"
"No, wait, before you go," Zari said. "I have to know! To where do you depart after every wish?" The body of the marid was nearly gone, except for a pair of playful eyes and a wolfish grin hanging in the dark.
"I told you that that was my business," came the voice of the marid. "But for you, I'll make an exception. You're a good client, err, master after all. With every wish I grant you, I am allowed to return to my home for the space in between."
"Return to your home?" Zari asked. "Where is that?"
But there was no answer.
The next day Zari decided the marid's suggestion to visit his old home was a sound idea. It would be good to get away from the city for a time; in fact he hadn't left Cormisel's walls since the day that he and his mother had moved into their new grounds.
Traveling alone, Zari rode upon a purebred steed that was trained to follow his every command instantly. Before coming to Cormisel, Zari had almost never seen horses except those ridden by soldiers and rich-folk. As he comfortably rode his way along the shore, he couldn't help but marvel at how far he'd come.
The old shack that was once his house had been abandoned. There were still piles of debris gathered around where he had left them, but the building itself had become dilapidated without his care. Zari had had many memories of this place, but now it had merely become a memory. He figured it was good to have come merely to remind himself why he had left in the first place.
He pulled the reins of his horse to turn around, and saw a figure walking in the distance toward him. Zari squinted, then smiled as he recognized the figure. Kicking his heels, he road off to meet Ravi over the hill.
As he approached, Ravi habitually cast his glance downward. Zari had forgotten that to his old friend, he might appear like any other noble.
"Ravi son of Lerrav," said Zari, "please, look upon me!" Ravi looked up and smiled a surprised grin.
"Zari! I heard you'd gone back to Cormisel, and your mother too, but I didn't know you were living there." He paused, looking at the horse and the embroidered robes. "Why didn't you send word?"
"Time flows differently in the city," said Zari importantly. He dismounted the horse to stand beside Ravi as an equal. "How is it down in the lowlands?"
"Times are difficult here," said Ravi after a pause. "An awful sickness swept through the miner's camp, and those of us who are not yet ill must toil from dawn til dusk."
"Why're you here, then?"
"Because there's an awful sickness that swept through the miner's camp, and those of us who are not yet ill must toil from dawn til dusk." Ravi grinned, thinking himself clever.
"Come visit us in Cormisel," said Zari.
"Actually, that may be perfect," said Ravi. "In truth, I am not at the mines because my family has sent me to retrieve someone. My sister will be returning to us after traveling abroad."
"I didn't know you had a sister, Ravi."
"She's been to study at an academy in some city far away - I know not the name, Milzin, Marsane, something barbaric and foreign like that. She's on a ship bound to dock in the Cormisel port any day now."
"Come stay with us, then," said Zari. "You can stay under my roof until your sister arrives."
Ravi agreed, and together they made their way back to Cormisel, walking side by side and guiding the horse along.
Ravi could scarcely believe the luxury in which Zari now lived. He and his mother enjoyed such splendor and ease of life that Ravi felt as though he had stepped into a dream. He was treated as Zari promised: like an exalted guest. Ravi was bathed, fed, and given a new set of clean clothing. By the time night fell on the first day, he was dizzy from the experience.
Zari had sent word to the docks to inform them when the next trade ships were scheduled to arrive, a gesture for which Ravi was very grateful. The miner knew nothing of docks or ships, and admitted that were he to attempt it alone, it would have taken him a very long time to find out any information.
The next day, Ravi and Zari stood out upon the docks of Cormisel, awaiting the arrival of the trade ships. It was a fair day, clear and blue, and a sea breeze passed over them, pleasantly cooling from the midday sun.
As the first of the ships was sighted, the docks bustled with activity and crowds gathered. Trading companies mobilized their armies of porters, independent merchants set up their mobile shops, and travelers barked orders at their servants. The place was bustling, and by the time the ships had docked, the port was more crowded than the town square on Two-Moon's Day.
Zari and Ravi waited amidst the crowd. Not until hours of bustling trade had passed did Ravi see a face he recognized.
Zari watched as he and his sister embraced. Apparently she had been gone for years and they hadn't seen each other in all that time. Then Ravi brought her to him.
"Sedah, this is my friend Zari," he said. "Without his help I would still be bumbling with the dock rats trying to find out the right port."
"A pleasure," said Sedah in a pleasing voice. Her accent was strange to him - acquired overseas, no doubt - and Zari looked upon her.
"The pleasure is all mine," he said, smiling.
"No, absolutely not! Have you lost your mind?" cried Ravi. He and Zari stood alone in a room, beyond hearing of anyone except the servant waiting outside the door.
"Ravi, be reasonable," said Zari.
"Reasonable?! My sister has returned to us after being gone for nearly half her life, and on the day she comes home, you want to take her away!" Ravi heaved, his face reddening. "And you call that reasonable?"
"I will provide her a good home, a secure future," said Zari.
"She will have that, on her own. Returning to her home, with her family, where she belongs - we will build our future without your help. You think because you became a merchant overnight, that that makes you better than us? You are not the Merchant Prince! Not very long ago you were just a seashore fisher!"
"And you are still just a miner," said Zari in a level tone. "A miner from a mining family. I offer to help change that. Allow me to marry your sister and I might be able to elevate your family as well..."
"This is, this is madness," said Ravi. He started for the door. "You've changed, Zari. That, or the Zari I knew has finally been revealed. In any case, don't bother visiting us 'lowlanders' again. Stay up here with your mother. At least one of your parents still lives!"
And Ravi left. Zari stood disappointed for a moment, but moreso annoyed. Everything was playing out perfectly - what had he done wrong? Had the marid's magic lost its power? He asked for a wife and a woman was practically delivered to him. Frustrated, Zari went to make certain that Ravi hadn't stolen anything on his way out.
A tenday passed and Zari kept himself preoccupied with business matters. He sought any means to be rid of any reminder of the seaside, of the mines, of everything in his former life. But try as he might, news from lowlands always found their way to his ears.
There was word of an outbreak of some unknown illness that affected most of the mining operation. With the majority of the workers out of commission, the company in charge of the operation was facing ruin. It would not be long before Cormisel, and by extension the Merchants Guild behind the trading fleet, would look to other mines.
There were politics, there were arguments; Zari paid no mind to the rivalries between the mining companies until he heard of an accident that occurred in the salt mine. There was an explosion of unknown origin - Cormisel investigators concluded that a stack of firepowder sticks had misfired. Others suspected sabotage on part of rival merchant lords.
Dozens of workers were killed, and dozens more injured, and it was not discovered until later that Ravi was among the casualties. His name was on the list of those bodies recovered and identified.
When Zari heard the news, he stood to think quietly for a moment. He told his mother what happened, and she wept, for she remembered Ravi only as a good friend who had helped them down on the seaside and knew nothing of the nature of their last exchange.
Zari then sent for a carriage.
The mine site was a wreck. When Zari looked out upon the mountainside, he realized that the reports had downplayed the destruction. From what he could tell, it looked as though half the mountain had collapsed. All around him were groaning workers who had lost limbs or suffered internal damages, with healers making rounds between them. It looked like the part of a heroic war story that was never told to the listeners.
When he arrived, he sought the foreman in charge, asking for names and the state of things. There was a lengthy exchange, and the foreman's jaw dropped. A servant was sent out, and the foreman could not believe his ears. He went to tell the most recent news to his superiors.
Not long after, Zari was brought to Sedah. Workers were shouting with glee, and she had already heard the news but did not know who, or why, it was happening. When she saw him, she paused.
"Ah yes, you are Zari, my brother's friend," she said, sadly. Her eyes were swollen from several nights crying herself to sleep.
"I'm sorry for your loss," said Zari apologetically, bowing. "I came to see if what I heard was true."
"Many have died," said Sedah. "First the sickness and now this - Ravi was the only person I had left. I came back to an empty home. All my brothers, and my sisters, my mother and my father - everyone is gone!"
"But you aren't alone," said Zari. "Come with me to Cormisel, Sedah." He extended his hand.
"But, the workers..."
"They're my responsibility now. I have bought the company. The wounded will see the finest physicians and will all receive proper treatment until they are once again able to work."
Sedah looked upon the strange man before her. She had only met him twice, yet here he was. She thought of the sad, gray world around her, where the only people around knew of picks and rocks and firepowder sticks, not books and philosophy and art, like where she was schooled. She longed to return to metropolitan life, she longed to free herself of this place.
She took his hand. By the end of the next tenday, Zari and Sedah were wed and living together in Cormisel.
Years passed, Zari was now a prominent member of the Merchants Guild. There were few who did not heed his words, but compared to the Merchant Prince, he was still but a street bazaar hawker. He had power, riches and influence, and at his side, loyal and shrewd, was his wife Sedah.
Utilizing the workforce acquired from the nearly-ruined mining company, Zari had begun his own venture at a separate location. On Sedah's suggestion, Zari sent for foreign geologists, and after a time, he amassed a team of experts from multiple countries. Cormisel was a prosperous city, but any real sense of foreign cultures stopped at the port. What Zari had done was not only unorthodox, but outright frowned upon. After all, what could the rest of the world produce that could not be learned here in Cormisel?
And yet, Zari's team rose quickly through the ranks of other mining companies. It wasn't long before wealth poured in, and Zari was able to invest in other markets. The merchant who had given him his start was among the first to be subsidized.
Zari and Sedah were doing well and Zari's mother had almost nothing to complain about. They lived in an expanded home together with all the furnishings and conveniences expected of an upper-class Cormisel family. Anyone who might have known Zari as the poor seaside fisherman would be hard pressed to recognize him.
Zari himself had nearly forgotten everything. Years in the fast-paced city had molded him into a shrewd man; his resourcefulness as a fisherman was allowed to flourish as a businessman. There were times when he could not even remember the feeling of looking up at Cormisel from the shore, wondering about a better life. Those memories were a husk of the past, and were disregarded as such. His mind had been reshaped to fit the role of a merchant, and the only thing that truly remained of the old Zari was the uncanny ability to predict the storms. This, too, had proven useful when planning shipping routes.
Sedah proved to be a wonderful match for him. She was devoted and strong-willed, quite different from the court ladies the likes of whom Zari often met when attending the upper-class celebrations or business dinners. She displayed a different wisdom that complimented Zari's business sense, and some of the greater fortunes made were possible only with Sedah's advice and direction. This, in conjunction with her loving personality, caused Zari to love her all the more, and he considered himself lucky to have such a woman - such an ally - at his side.
But there was one thing that riches nor power could arrange or provide. Zari went to every physician, every herbalist, every soothsayer - but none could help him and Sedah have a child. For the first time, Zari had marked a secret calendar and counted the days when the marid would return. For the first time, he knew for what he would wish ahead of time.
Time went by and Zari remained busy, negotiating deals and establishing policies, managing his fledgling companies and arranging meetings with rivals, allies, and potential rivals or allies. For many months, Zari would not return to his estate until very late in the evening; sometimes not at all. Several times Zari had to travel abroad personally, and did not set foot back in Cormisel until after tendays of absence. But when he did return, he was always greeted with big smiles and open arms.
According to Zari's records, it would only be several days until the marid's expected return. He purposefully kept his schedule clear, in case the marid appeared a day or two before or after. It was difficult for Zari to be truly alone when home, between his servants around every corner and his mother always on his shoulder like a parrot, squawking about grandchildren and heirs. Strangely, Sedah was not around as often. She had explained that she had business prospects of her own, and was always in the habit of sniffing out opportunity for their company. Zari welcomed her absence; it would make things that much easier when the marid arrived.
He announced to his servants that he would be taking a short, solitary holiday, and within the hour, his luggage was prepared and any traveling arrangements made.
But Zari did not travel nearly as far or as expensively as he lead his family to believe. Sending his own servants home, Zari continued into the city and hid his baggage in an expensive inn. Then, donning a set of commoner's clothes, Zari left through the back door, and took only a small bag of provisions with him.
That evening, he stood upon a sandy dune, staring out upon the ocean. Nearby was a familiar beach, and not far off there stood the remains of an old cottage. The moonslight danced upon the crashing waves and a sea breeze tickled the tall reeds that had taken root on the old property. Zari looked around, a place that was so familiar yet so strange.
He built a small fire from the driftwood and sun dried planks that made up the the old cottage, and huddled by its warmth. Tonight was a cold night, and Zari wanted nothing more than to be back on his estate, warm in his bed with his wife. Thinking of Sedah and seeing her smile gave Zari strength, and he outlasted the cold.
When he awoke, the fire had died to embers and the ground was damp. Wind howled in the sky as a gray, featureless overcast stretched from horizon to horizon. He rose to gather himself, only just realizing how cold it was and how much he would need a fire to dry out.
For two more days Zari waited. He'd finished the small amount of dried food he'd brought, and wondered how much longer he had to wait. By the third evening, he began to wonder if he had miscalculated the marid's arrival...
Until he heard a familiar chuckle.
On the other side of the fire, Zari watched as a grinning mouth and a pair of content, mocking eyes appeared in the air. Not long after, the rest of the marid's golden body came into place, and he materialized in a seated position. Though how a marid like him, who was bereft of legs, could sit, Zari did not quite know. He was too hungry to care, anyway.
"I see you've chosen _not_ to appear behind me for once," said Zari, relieved to see the marid but annoyed to have been waiting for so long. The marid stuck a finger in one ear and made a twisting motion.
"Oh that never gets old, trust me." He looked up after picking what appeared to be an impossibly long strand of kelp from inside his ear. The marid then cast it over his shoulder as though such a thing were normal, causing Zari to forget about his hunger for a moment. It was then that he first seemed to notice Zari huddled under a damp blanket. "Have you been waiting for me here?" he asked casually.
"I have," said Zari, not wanting to elaborate. It was common sense to him to hide his association with a marid from everyone, and he assumed the marid himself was well aware of this. He also assumed it was obvious that he was not enjoying himself out in this weather.
"I have been wondering about your home," Zari said. "It must be a wonderful place for you to want to return there so badly."
"It is a wonderful place," said the marid nostalgically. "Nothing in your world compares. It is, I am, not of this world of solids and gases. Where I come from, young master, there is light but no sun; breath but no air."
"Are you from the bottom of the ocean?" Zari asked. The marid's expression became playful.
"I am from the depths of _the_ ocean, young master. The greatest ocean there is - the ocean of stars. It is as vast and endless as you can imagine, and then further. Beautiful beyond comparison."
"Why must you yearn for it so?" said Zari. "Surely our world has its beauty..."
"Every breath I am forced to breathe here is a reminder of what I miss so much," replied the marid. "And time flows differently. To you, I am gone for one thousand days, but to me it is only as a tenday. And I need much more time..."
Zari decided he could only understand a portion of what the marid was talking about, but he wanted to know more. Time spent learning the ways of mercantilism had taught him to not go into any kind of partnership without knowing all about the other party. It was high time he understood the motives of the marid.
"You told me that the only way you can return to your home is if you grant me my desires," said Zari. "Is that true?"
"It is," said the marid, raising a scaly eyebrow. "Most people don't even question it."
"Most people are fools," said Zari. "I was one once, but am no longer. Tell me more of yourself, _djinn_, or I will keep you here with me." The marid shrugged, as though being threatened were a daily occurrence.
"Very well, but while I'm contractually obligated to help you, I'm not contractually obligated to answer. Magic is a mercurial thing, young master. I will answer three questions." Zari thought carefully for a moment.
"What happened to your last master?"
"He killed himself," said the marid in a casual tone.
"I won't count that as your second question. Sometimes people wish for what they think they need, when it is only what they want at the time. He couldn't handle it. Next question."
"Are all of your answers going to be this vague?" Zari said, slightly annoyed.
"Are all of your questions going to be so simple?" replied the marid, grinning. "That _was_ your second question." Zari wondered whether the playful grin was a natural marid tendency or if just this particular one's annoying trait.
"Tell me how your magic works. Why is it every time I have you grant me my desire, someone I know dies?"
"Ah, now that's an interesting question. I don't know. That part is not under my control; I am but a vessel, and through me your fate is altered with every wish. If you desire something strongly enough, then sacrifice is bound to happen someway or another."
"Could it not be fate that led me to free you from your lockbox?" Zari said with a half smile.
"A question for the philosophers, I'm afraid," said the marid. "And you've already asked your three. It is time, now, young master, for you to ask of me your desire, for the Ocean of Oceans beckons, and if you do not make a wish soon, I will be forced back into the lockbox. Who knows who will discover me after that..."
"Alright!" Zari exclaimed, exasperated from the talk as well as from being cold and hungry. "You know I am a successful man," he said. "I am rich and my wife and mother are happy, but we want an heir. We cannot produce a child, no matter how many herbalists, physicians, or soothsayers I pay for aid." The marid leaned towards him over the fire, still seated but floating in the air.
"What's the problem? Your sheath bereft of a sword?" Zari blinked.
"You aren't _rising_ to the occasion?" Again with the ridiculous, toothy grin.
"You can't be serious."
"It's not that _hard_ of a question..."
"It isn't anything like that!! The physicians suspect my wife to be barren!"
"If you say so," chuckled the marid. "To give you a child. Is this your wish?"
"It is," Zari growled after a moment. The marid raised his arms to begin a gesture. “But promise me one thing before you work your magic!” The marid halted, attentive.
“What is it, young master?”
“Do nothing that will harm my wife.” The marid hesitated.
“I promise that your wife will be safe and healthy when your child arrives.” He spoke seriously, glaring and smiling smugly. “No harm whatsoever.”
Zari paused for a moment, then nodded his assent.
The marid's wolfish grin spread ever wider, and Zari could actually count every one of its pointed teach. The marid reached to pick up a small seashell from the sand and, with a flourish of his other hand, caused it to change form. The shell became soft and colorless, then before Zari's eyes, reshaped itself into a tiny figure. It almost looked like a small figurine of a person...
The marid abruptly squeezed his fingers around the figurine, crushing it, and sprinkled the resultant dust onto the coals. The bits sparkled like tiny bits of firepowder.
Zari waited for a moment, expecting something more dramatic. The marid saw this, and chuckled again.
"That's it?" said Zari.
"Your wife has news for you," said the marid, ignoring him. "I will return to you in ten thousand days, young master."
Zari watched the marid fade away, hearing the echo of its laughter long after he passed. Thunder rolled in the clouds again, and Zari rose from his crouched position to stretch. He looked upward and saw the overcast having grown darker, and hurried to make his way back to Cormisel. As he went, he had an ominous feeling, as though the marid had deceived him. He was aware of the risk he was taking, but more than anything Sedah wanted a child, and Zari wanted an heir.
That evening, after recovering his belongings from the inn and cleaning himself up from several days without bathing, Zari returned home. There, Sedah and his mother were overjoyed to greet him, and Zari embraced them each. He was relieved to see they were in good health.
"How was your trip?" Sedah asked cheerfully. Thunder echoed in the sky above the roof once more.
"Not as relaxing as I'd hoped it would be," he replied shrugging, then he smiled. "But I think it was worth it."
"Go on then," urged Zari's mother. "Tell him."
"Tell me what?" said Zari, trying to act confused.
"While you were away, I visited a healer," said Sedah. "I'm pregnant, my love! We're going to have an heir!"
Zari tried his hardest to act surprised, but he did not have to act overjoyed. That night, they held a celebration, and within hours all the high courts in which Zari was involved had heard the news.
The members of the Merchants Guild, noble houses of Cormisel, and other prominent figures attended the extravagant dinner being held in Zari's own home. People brought gifts, extended congratulations, and even presented a number of potential dealings for the future. Through it all Zari, proud as any father-to-be, stood beside his wife, basking in the attention they received. Behind them, and perhaps most proud of all, was Zari's mother, who was hard at work arranging academy applications and trust funds for the child.
Zari's businesses flourished, and the family became even richer and more important. Sedah was heavy with child, and due within the month. All preparations had been made in advance, and as the time approached, Zari scarcely allowed himself to be anywhere out of earshot of his wife. With the passing of each day, any news, or lack thereof, reached the ears of everyone in Cormisel. It was said that even the Merchant Prince of Cormisel, an austere and near-legendary figure, showed interest.
Then the day finally arrived, and Zari was the first to be informed. He abandoned his work and fled to her side, excited beyond words and worried in a manner that only a father-to-be could possibly know. He arrived to find his wife already being assisted by the finest midwives and physicians that money could buy. After hours of labor the child was born, and Sedah was unharmed in the process. Exhausted as any mother, but strong and in good health. Zari breathed a tremendous sigh of relief, kissed his wife, and at last looked upon his newborn son.
At first, there was confusion. And then there was anger. The child was healthy and Sedah too looked to be recovering, but Zari looked between the two of them with growing fury. The midwives remained silent, and the physician said no words, looking instead to exit the room as quickly as possible.
"How...?" was all that Zari could say. The attendants around the bed trembled.
Sedah was confused, until she too laid eyes upon their son. Her eyes widened, and she fell back on her pillow, and began to weep.
The boy had a strange shape to his skull and jaw line; his hair was an unusual color, and his skin was much, much paler than that of either Sedah or Zari. In fact, the child had a similar appearance of a yellow-haired foreigner.
He looked nothing like Zari.
"Leave us," Zari commanded. The staff fled the room, leaving him, the child, and Sedah, who sobbed even as she cradled the boy in her arms.
He stood for a time, staring at the child. His face was livid, and he quickly lost patience as Sedah tried to speak.
"It was while I was away, on business," he growled, remembering how far he had traveled, how hard he had worked, thinking about her. “Business I did for both of us.”
Sedah nodded pathetically.
"Who is he?" he said lowly. She shook her head, and Zari abruptly shouted for her to answer. "Tell me, or I will kill the child."
Days later, a strange guest made an appearance at Zari's estate. Zari himself waited at the front gate of his manor and warmly greeted the visitor, who did not know the purpose of his being summoned here. He was one of the gold-haired, foreign geologists hailing from a prosperous city far to the south - the same city at which Sedah had studied, Milzane.
The guest was seated, presented with a lavish meal, and engaged in polite, conventional conversation. Zari ate with him alone, and after the two had finished, Zari snapped his fingers. The food was removed, a door to the dining hall was opened, and in a wheeled chair Sedah was pushed into the room. Zari noticed that the guest recognized her, but struggled to hide it. It was all the proof that Zari needed, but still he looked to his wife.
She nodded in confirmation.
"Take him away," Zari said loudly, and another door opened behind him. Several warriors entered the room and surrounded the guest, placing a heavy, gauntleted hand on each shoulder. The geologist protested in confusion, but his words were cut short when a black sack was violently forced over his head. He was then carried off, leaving a trail of muffled shouts. There was no question about his fate in the minds of all present.
Zari called for a sweet pastry and, after eating it slowly, gingerly wiped his mouth with a delicate silken napkin. He turned his attention to Sedah, who remained where she was, the servant holding her wheeled chair in place. Zari’s mother burst into the room from the same door. She was bewildered, flustered.
“Zari!” she cried, panting “I heard! And saw!” She cast her eyes around the room, briefly resting on a trembling Sedah. “It’s true, isn’t it? Everything?”
Zari did no say anything, instead sipping his wine carefully, quietly. His eyes never left Sedah.
“You needn’t have them put to death, my dear! I will never forgive her for doing this,” she cast a hateful glare upon Sedah. “There is no absolution for this lecherous betrayal!”
Zari gave some of the remaining guards and another order. Sedah looked up to see men coming around her. One of them prepared a small, black sack.
“But you don’t have to do this!” cried Zari’s mother. She saw one of the guards lash out and yank the child out of Sedah’s arms, and she screamed. The baby was thrust into a sack entirely, and another black sack went over Sedah’s face. Her screaming, too, was then muffled.
“Not the child!” Zari’s mother wailed. “Unforgivable as this is, you needn’t have his blood on your hands as well! You needn’t become a murderer, Zari, please!” The baby howled and Sedah renewed her efforts to fight free of the bag, but the armored guards held her fast, carrying the other bag carelessly.
Zari finished his wine, rose from his chair, and departed the dining hall, leaving his mother in tears. She was filled with remorse, both for what had happened and for the hasty death sentences.
She hated Sedah for betraying her son, but he did not have to go above the law and put them all to death...
But Zari’s mother was resolute. She loved her son, and trusted his judgement. Surely he was doing the right thing.
That night, Zari stood on a balcony atop the tallest tower of his estate, built according to his specifications. He brooded for a time, thinking over a thousand and one aspects of his life. He stood there for many hours, long into the night. No servant dared disturb him.
Zari’s mother remained with her son, but they hardly spoke. She was appalled at her beloved son’s actions, but loved him all the same. She wished, and waited, for him to come to her, comfort her, like he did in the old days.
She wished, and waited, knowing he would come to her eventually.
Zari’s mother grew old, and died in her sleep while Zari was away on business.
Twenty-seven years later, Zari was alone. He was unmarried and preferred it as such. Never once did he consider remarrying.
After five years, the memory of Sedah had faded. After ten years, the memory of poverty was gone. After twenty years, there remained almost no memory his mother, of Ravi, or the seaside. He had even forgotten about the marid.
Zari lived in a cold, echoing palace upon the most beautiful hill in Cormisel. It overlooked the city like a steward, towering over the estates of all the other lords and nobles of the city. But Zari no longer spent time staring out upon the cityscape, no longer took joy in drinking in the awe and wonder of such a place.
He was seated at his desk, one hand propping his head up as he looked at the various ornaments in his study. The walls were lined with books, all of which he'd read, and upon the luxurious carpet there were a number of priceless sculptures and other works of art. Zari was revered as one of the most learned, wealthy, and respected individuals in the entire city. After all, no Merchant Prince was ever undeserving of such reverence.
Yesterday, Zari was present for a dinner with royalty. Something that had lost importance years ago. The day before that, Zari had discussed things with a trusted subordinate regarding the buyout of several fledgling companies that were presenting difficulties to his own empire. Nothing new there.
Zari had the city in the palm of his hand. He had risen from a miserable fisherman to the Merchant Prince of Cormisel, but being someone so important, he had to keep a close watch at his back at all times. Political spies and rival-hired assassins awaited him on every street corner. His friends only ever approach him when they sought money, and no woman - neither brothel wench nor court lady - would look at him. He had seen every magnificent from Cormisel to the Titan's Isthmus. He had everything.
But he was alone. He knew that power and wealth isolated a man; he was peerless, without equal, in stature and prestige. He was alone because he was great.
Thunder rumbled outside, and Zari turned to look out the huge, multi-paned window of his study. It was the season of seastorms, and Zari felt a strange familiarity. Once, in a past life, Zari had reason to plan around these storms, but these days whenever they came the only thing Zari wondered was whether the value of a recently acquired property would change based on damages from the rain.
He could hear the wind picking up outside, listening to the howl grow stronger. His palace was sturdily built, and he stood at the window without fear of debris crashing through. Storms never touched the Merchant Prince's palace on the hill above the city.
Something about the storm interested Zari. He stared at the darkening clouds, watching them swirl and flash with arced lightning. The intensity was growing by the minute, and Zari thought he a glimpse of something amidst the clouds. It was there only for an instant, like a fish darting beneath the surface of a pond.
Thunder roared and the rain picked up, and soon it was difficult to see the rest of the city below. Water crashed against the window, and Zari took a step back. Moments ago, sunlight illuminated the room, but now he was plunged in darkness save the sporadic flashes of lightning. As Zari turned back to his desk, he fumbled in a drawer for a sulfur-stick to light one of his tabletop candles. As he frantically struck the matches, one after another, he found himself growing fearful. Only on the fifth try did he finally produce some light, and with it his fear was under control.
The candle brought little light to the room. In fact Zari could hardly see any better, so wide and tall was his study. He called for his servants, but none answered. Puzzled, Zari strode through the study and towards the hall.
As he rounded the doorway, Zari was surprised to find that all the torches were out, as well. He occasionally felt a gust of wind blow over him but managed to shield the candle. However, in the darkness of the hallway, it did him little good.
He shouted again for his servants, angrily this time. But again, there was no answer. The palace seemed empty and his footsteps echoed out across the marble. He felt as though he were touring one of the great museums that he himself had helped fund for public approval.
It was then that Zari realized he was truly alone. His palace should be crawling with servants and personal guards.
A powerful blast of thunder shook the walls and floor, startling Zari, and he dropped the candle in fright. He cursed, but was relieved that it had not gone out when he stooped over to recover it. When he rose again, the light reflected off of a peculiar thing on the edge of the darkness.
"Who's there?" Zari called, trying to sound confident. With no servants nor bodyguards nearby...where had they gone!?...Zari was already preparing to defend himself. He reached for a knife that he always kept in his sash. It would not have been the first time he would have had to use it.
"That won't be necessary," said a low, chuckling voice. Zari squinted in the dark, and took a step closer. The man before him stood with his arms crossed, and his skin glistened with golden scales. Strangest of all, he had no legs - rather, the golden man was merely a mist from the waist down. Almost like a ghost. Almost like a...
"I..." Zari stammered, "I can't believe I had ever forgotten. All these years... I thought you were a dream. I thought I imagined you."
"Heard it before," yawned the marid. He looked around, as though he were able to see in the dark without difficulty. "I see your environs have certainly changed in ten thousand days. How is your child doing?"
"My child..." Zari stood and glared at the marid. It seemed that he never did truly know the results of the wishes he granted. That or he was being taunted. "Dead," said Zari flatly.
"A pity," said the marid, whose tone did not express any sympathy.
"Yes, pity is certainly the word," said Zari. "I am the Merchant Prince of Cormisel, and I am here, in my great palace, alone. I am the most respected and feared man in this city, but tonight, my servants and guards have abandoned their posts. I know not why they have left."
"There is a tempest coming," said the marid. Zari knew the word, but only from legend. A tempest was a storm of such strength that they rarely ever appeared, and when they did, islands went missing and entire cities uprooted.
“How dare they depart without my leave,” Zari growled. “I’ll have half of their heads on spits for this insolence. Besides,” he added, "there hasn't been a tempest in centuries.”
"There's one now, trust me. You might recall that I am what some folks call a sea djinn, after all. These things I know."
"Where has everyone gone, then?"
"They have fled, as the wise always do."
"Or the cowardly. I am safe in my palace, with or without them."
"True courage, young master, is knowing what _not_ to fear. You would do well to know these things."
Zari tired of the exchange.
"I have no more use for you, marid. With my amassed wealth and prestige, I can do whatever I like, go wherever I wish, and get whatever I want. Thrice I was brought to ruin since I last saw you, and thrice I picked myself up and came back stronger than before." The marid grinned his wolfish grin.
"Then with all your great prestige," he said, "prepare yourself."
Before Zari could respond, another crash of thunder boomed, shaking the earth and nearly causing the Merchant Prince to lose his balance. Something like the collapse of a mountainside echoed throughout the palace, and Zari looked around in alarm.
"That sounded like the west wing," he said.
"What's left of it," smiled the marid, quite calm.
It was then that Zari felt the wind in the hallway, knowing that a huge portion of the palace had been torn open. Another crash in another direction, and Zari felt in his gut that another area had collapsed, though he could see nothing. He ran, leaving the marid in the dark.
Zari made his way to the only place he knew he could survey the destruction: the parapet tower. It was the sturdily built, reinforced remains of an ancient castle that existed from the days when Cormisel was but a small trading colony. Zari was certain that no matter the severity of the tempest, that structure would persevere.
Lightning flashed, thunder slammed and the wind roared. Even as Zari ascended the final staircase, he could hear the elements shaking the stones in their mortar. The last doorway above was threatening to be torn from its hinges. Zari hesitated at the handle, unsure if he would be prepared to see what view from the windy rampart. Then, steeling himself, he unlatched the lock and pushed open the door.
Rain pelted him and the wind swept the folds of his robes everywhere. He had to strain hard to keep from being pushed over. He forced his way, step by step, to the edge of the wall.
Below he saw nothing but water. Raging waves washed over Cormisel, drowning buildings and lapping at the hillside. He looked to his right and saw the west wing of the palace completely demolished. He looked to his left and saw the main hall crushed beneath a fallen tower. It looked as though the waves were getting higher, as though the very ocean were rising up to swallow the city. To swallow him.
And Zari was afraid.
"Djinn!" Zari cried. "Where are you!?"
But the marid was nowhere to be seen.
Lightning flashed again, brighter than the sun and darkening shadows of the ruins below. The water was rushing up the hill, and as Zari watched, his palace was surrounded. Only the highest towers of Cormisel could be seen, and when lightning flashed once more, Zari saw the tower of his old estate. Moments later, it was gone.
He felt the stones beneath him move as the foundation of the parapet was washed in seawater. He ran to the stairwell door and could hear the sound of rushing water and air being pushed up the stairs.
The ocean was impossibly high, now. Zari could almost touch the waves as they pressed against the top of the parapet from all sides...
Then he saw the djinn, unbothered by the rain and quite content in the wind. Zari ran to him.
"Marid!” he shouted. “Help me! Take me away from here!”
“To where shall I take you, young master?” The marid’s voice was clear and rang through the howling gale. Zari did not have to ponder his answer.
“I am peerless, marid! Take me where I will not be alone!"
"To take you somewhere you will be be accepted," said the marid with a raised eyebrow. Lightning flashed behind him, silhouetting the half-body and frightening Zari. "Is this your wish?"
"It is! By all the gods, yes! Hurry!"
"Then take my hand, young master, and I will take you where water can never harm you. Your fifth wish will be granted, and our blood pact will be satisfied at last."
Zari did not hesitate. He clasped the marid's scaly hand and felt cold seawater wash around his feet. The marid grinned his wolfish grin, and then began to cackle in the storm. The last thing Zari thought was whether or not he would return in a hundred thousand days. Or not at all.
Zari felt the rush of fluid around him. The incredible pressure of lightless water pressed on his body and forced its way into his nose and mouth. He could not resist as seawater filled his lungs.
But he did not drown.