Ishaani walked through the bustling market in the shadow of her efreeti guardian, Shadqadir. "I don't like this. It's dangerous, dealing with... these matters... out in the open." She clutched the scroll case close to her chest, though it was already secured across her body on a leather strap and further sealed with magic.
Shadqadir rumbled his volcanic laugh. "You feel unsafe in my company, little Ishi? Have I not protected your family against every harm for six generations?"
The crowded lanes were rather less crowded for them than they were for everyone else, as people gave Shadqadir a wide berth. Genies of all sorts were common enough here in Niswan, but Shadqadir was no aloof marid or benevolent djinn. Efreet were made of fire and fury, and he radiated heat and malice. Though Shadqadir had been a constant presence in her life since infancy, Ishaani still found his burning eyes, razored horns, and knowing grin disturbing at times.
She would never show him fear, though. "I am no longer a child," she snapped. "I'm capable of taking care of myself. I've studied at the—"
"Yes, yes, a House of Perfection." The efreeti yawned, smoke rising from his mouth. "We're all very impressed. You probably thought attending the Monastery of the Unblinking Flame would flatter my fiery nature and stop me from eating your young when the time comes."
"My choice was not influenced by you at all. I chose that House because the study of occult philosophy interests me more than strength of arms."
"Why would you worry about martial skills when you have my powers to command? At least until you spawn."
Ishaani's ancestor had bound Shadqadir to service centuries before, with direct control of his considerable powers passed to the firstborn of his previous owner... but the binding was flawed, and Shadqadir would go free upon the birth of the seventh generation. He made no secret of his plans to take revenge on Ishaani's entire family for his time of servitude once she had a child.
Ishaani had therefore decided to be the last of her line. If she died without a child, he would also go free, but she was young, and had time to work on that problem. If her legacy could not continue in the form of children, she needed to make her mark on the world in other ways. This scroll, found behind a false wall in a forgotten store room deep in her family's estate, presented the greatest opportunity to do that. "Just be watchful, Shad. I am less concerned with assault or theft than with someone overhearing our discussion. We should have found someone to authenticate the scroll who would come to us." The scholar they were going to see had actually offered to come to the estate... in six weeks, when his schedule opened up.
"You made no mention of convenience, Ishi. You asked for the best, and the most discreet. As always, I followed your instructions to the letter."
And not one syllable beyond, she thought. "The best is an Avistani man? I still find that hard to believe."
"Sometimes the perspective of an outlander offers clarity. For instance, as a human, you find Jalmeray to be an isle of wonders and Niswan a city of splendor. You marvel at its golden temples, its graceful pagodas, its perfumed streets, its shining palaces, its bridges and towers wrought of magic and metal together, at all these myriad mortal glories." He gestured widely, sending the people nearby scurrying away. "While I, unblinded by sentiment, hailing from a more rarefied plane, see this place for what it truly is."
Shadqadir sniffed. "Kindling."
They reached a book-filled stall draped in colorful cloth, the largest in a lane full of booksellers, scribes, and calligraphers. A dapper man, paler than Ishaani and elaborately bearded and mustachioed, approached them. "You must be the young lady who wanted to see me. And your companion." He nodded respectfully to the efreeti. "How may I be of service?"
"You are Zotikos the Wise?" Ishaani said.
"Some flatter me so."
She glanced around, then leaned close. "I am told there is no greater expert in the antiquities of Jalmeray dating from the reign of the Arclords."
"This I can confirm."
"I have a scroll that purports to be from that era. I wish to determine its authenticity."
Zotikos nodded. "The world is awash in false treasure maps and forgeries."
"It is a matter of some discretion—"
Zotikos touched a jewel at his throat and the bustling noise of the market vanished, some spell to exclude sound and prevent eavesdropping. "We have complete privacy now."
Ishaani opened the scroll case, carefully removed the document within, and unrolled its delicate length.
Zotikos leaned close, scanned the document, then looked into Ishaani's face. "This purports to be a letter detailing the hiding place of the legendary artifact known as the Scepter of the Arclords, written by a leader of that order before they fled the island."
"Oh good, he's literate," Shadquidar said. "We know what it says. Is it real?"
"Mmm. Probably not. There was a rumor the Scepter had been found recently by an Andoren fool, but that wasn't true, either. May I?"
Ishaani handed over the scroll. Zotikos pinched the document between his fingers, put it close to his eyes, and even sniffed it. She was afraid he might taste the ink. He instead took a round lens from his pocket and gazed through it. After a moment he handed the scroll back. "I don't know if the contents are true, but the document comes from the right period. The quality of the ink, the level of fading, the composition of the paper—it's all consistent with the last years of Arclord dominion over Jalmeray. Even if it's accurate, the Scepter is doubtless long gone, looted or moved—"
"We don't need that kind of advice." The efreeti opened his hand, and gold coins dropped onto the table. Zotikos went to scoop them up and hissed, dropping them, and making the efreeti chuckle. "Those may be a bit warm."
Ishaani glared at the effreeti and said, "Thank you for your help, Zotikos. I can count on your discretion?"
"If not, it can be compelled," Shadqadir growled, and the man looked appropriately worried.
The two of them stepped out of the bubble of privacy, and the sound of the market returned. They walked for a couple of minutes, Ishaani in silent thought as she considered her next moves, and then the efreeti spoke again.
"The terms of my service require me to tell you that man was not actually Zotikos, the Avastani scholar, but an imposter. I suspect he was a rakshasa cloaked in illusion."
Ishaani wanted to stop and look back, but she kept walking as naturally as possible. "How do you know?"
The efreeti chuckled. "I met Zotikos once before, years ago, on an errand for your mother. He initially proved reluctant to turn over a volume she desired, so I persuaded him, and left a small mark on his wrist to remember me by—a brand in the shape of my fingertip. Even if Zotikos somehow forgot me, his flesh would remember our meeting, but the skin was unmarred. I only noticed when his sleeve slid back as he handed over the scroll or I would have alerted you earlier."
"A rakshasa," she murmured. "We can't trust his appraisal, then. The letter may be false."
"Or it's real, and now one of the devil-born knows your quest. Perhaps the fiend even replaced Zotikos in order to meet with us. We arranged this meeting two days ago, after all. Plenty of time for an interested party curious about the scroll to make their own plans."
"How could anyone even know about the scroll?"
Shadqadir shrugged. "Treacherous servants, spies, magical surveillance... your parents are known to dabble in powerful matters, and it wouldn't surprise me if your estate is watched. The point is, we can no longer count on security through obscurity. We now face potential opposition in your quest for greatness." Shadqadir's smile was like a forge fire.
She scowled. "You don't need to look so happy about it."
"Oh, but I am. I'm pledged to protect your life and well-being to the fullness of my abilities... but if sufficiently powerful enemies rise against you, my best might not be good enough. In that case, you could die, and I would be free to eat your family." He sighed contentedly.
She'd heard this sort of thing from him before... but she'd never worried about it until now. "Efreet don't need to eat anything at all," she grumbled. "Let alone my relatives."
He shrugged. "I don't expect to enjoy the process, but a promise is a promise. So. Shall we go out and seize your destiny, Ishi?"
Tales of Lost Omens: Bound for Glory
Thursday, July 4, 2019