Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie…
P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn—available May 11th from Tordotcom Publishing. We’re thrilled to share an excerpt below!
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world forty years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and a familiar person from her past, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city—or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…
Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs. With their ludicrous lengths, ever leading up, as if in some jest. There were times, he thought, he could even hear them snickering. If these stairs had eyes to see, they would do more than snicker—watching as he huffed through curling auburn whiskers, his short legs wobbling under his rotundity. It was criminal in this modern age that stairs should be allowed to yet exist— when lifts could carry passengers in comfort. He stopped to rest against a giant replica of a copper teapot with a curving spout like a beak, setting down the burden he’d been carrying. It was shameful that someone of his years, having reached sixty and one in this year 1912, should suffer such indignities. He should be settling down for the night with a stiff drink, not trotting up a set of ruddy stairs!
“All for king, country, and company,” he muttered.
Mopping sweat from his forehead, he wished he could reach the dampness lining his back and other unmentionable regions that his dark suit, by fortune, hid away. It was warm for November, and in this overheated land it seemed his body no longer knew how not to sweat. With a sigh, he turned weary eyes to an arched window. At this hour he could still make out the sloping outline of the pyramids, the stone shining beneath a full moon that hung luminous in the black sky. Egypt. The mysterious jewel of the Orient, land of pharaohs, fabled Mamlukes, and countless marvels. For ten long years now, Archibald had spent three, four, even six months in the country at a time. And one thing was certain: he’d had his fill.
He was tired of this miserably hot, dry place. Thirty years past they had been ripe for becoming another conquest in His Majesty’s Empire. Now Egypt was one of the great powers, and Cairo was fast outstripping London, even Paris. Their people swaggered through the streets—mocking England as “that dreary little isle.” Their foods troubled his stomach. Their praying came at all times of day and night. And they delighted in pretending not to understand English when he knew they very well could!
Then there were the djinn. Unnatural creatures!
Archibald sighed again, running a thumb across a lavender G stitched into his kerchief. Georgiana had gifted it to him before they’d married. She liked these sojourns no more than he, being left in London, with nothing but servants to order about.
“Just a few more weeks, my dear.” A few more weeks and he would be on an airship heading home. How he would welcome seeing his “dreary little isle,” where it was a sensibly cold and rainy November. He’d walk its narrow streets and savor every foul scent. For Christmas, he would get smashingly drunk—on good, hard English whisky!
The thoughts lifted his spirits. Hefting his bundle, he started up again, marching to the hum of “Rule, Britannia!” But a spot of patriotism was no match for these vexatious stairs. By the time he reached the top, the vigor was leached from him. He stumbled to a stop before a set of tall doors made of dark, almost black wood, fitted into a stone archway, and bent hands to knees, huffing noisily.
As he stood, he cocked his head at a faint ringing. He’d heard the odd sound off and on now for weeks—a distant echo of metal on metal. He’d inquired of the servants, but most never caught it. Those who did claimed it was probably unseen djinn living in the walls, and suggested he recite some scripture. Still, the sound had to be coming from—
The call sent Archibald straight. Adjusting, he turned to find two men striding toward him. The sight of the first almost made him grimace, but he willed his face to composure.
Wesley Dalton reminded Archibald of some caricature of the aristocratic Edwardian: golden hair neatly parted, moustache waxed to fine points, and a self-assurance brimming from eye brows to dimpled chin. Altogether, it was nauseating. Walking up, the younger man delivered a hearty clap to Archibald’s back that almost tipped him over.
“So I’m not the only one late to the company’s soirée! Thought I might have to give my apologies to the old man. But walking in with the little kaiser should save me from a striping!”
Archibald smiled tightly. Portendorf had been an English name for centuries. And it was Austrian, not German. But it was poor form to get riled by a jest. He offered greetings and a hand shake.
“Just flew in from Faiyum,” Dalton related. That explained the man’s dress—a tan pilot’s suit with pants stuffed into black boots. He’d probably flown one of those two-man gliding contraptions so popular here. “I was relayed information of a mummy worth exploring. Turned out to be a hoax. Natives constructed it out of straw and plaster, if you can believe it!”
Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.
“Sometimes, Moustafa,” Dalton went on, stripping off a pair of gloves, “I think you delight in sending me on these fool’s chases.” Archibald had near forgotten about the second man, who stood silent as furniture—Dalton’s manservant, Moustafa, though it was increasingly difficult to find natives for that sort of work. Mummies were hard to come by, as Egypt’s parliament had restricted the trade. Moustafa, however, always seemed able to find Dalton some new lead—each one fruitless and, Archibald suspected, conducted at great expense.
“I only seek to serve, Mr. Dalton.” Moustafa spoke in clipped English, taking the gloves and folding them within his blue robes. Dalton grunted. “Every hand out for a little bit of baksheesh.
As bad as any London street urchin and will rob you blind if you let them.” Moustafa’s eyes shifted to Archibald, the barest smile on his full lips.
“I say!” Dalton exclaimed. “Is that… the item?”
Archibald snatched up the bundle from where it rested. He’d gone through quite a bit of dickering in acquiring the thing. He wouldn’t have the man’s fumbling hands all over it.
“You’ll see it when everyone else does,” he stated.
Dalton’s face showed disappointment and some indignation.
But he merely shrugged. “Of course. Allow me, then?” The heavy doors rasped across stone as he pulled them open.
The room on the other side was enclosed by a round wall patterned in shades of gold, fawn, green, and umber against a royal blue. The smooth surface shimmered beneath the glare of a hanging brass chandelier cut with small stars in the Arab fashion. Along the sides stood rows of columns, their curving arches bearing stripes of ochre. Quite a show of Oriental decadence that was only fitting for the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz.
A pair of boilerplate eunuchs stepped up, their blank inhuman faces unreadable sheets of brass. Between tactile metal fingers, each automaton held white gloves, black robes, and a matching black tarboosh with a gold tassel. Archibald took his own, slip ping the long garments over his clothing and fitting the hat atop his head—making sure the embroidered gold scimitar and down turned crescent was forward facing.
There were twenty-two men in the hall, adding Dalton and himself. Moustafa had respectfully stayed outside. All were adorned in the Brotherhood’s regalia, some with colorful aprons or sashes to indicate rank. They stood conversing in knots of twos or threes, waited upon by boilerplate eunuchs serving refreshments.
Archibald knew every man here, all of standing in the company—there were no other means of joining the Brotherhood. They called greetings as he passed, and he was honor-bound to stop and give the proper handshake and cheek-to-cheek embrace—a ritual they’d picked up from the locals. Each eyed the bundle, which he assiduously kept from reaching hands. It was tedious business, and he was happy to make free of them, leaving Dalton in their company. Clearing the assemblage, he caught sight of the man he’d come to see.
Lord Alistair Worthington, Grand Master of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz, struck an imposing figure in resplendent purple robes trimmed in silver. He sat at a black half-moon table, in a high-backed chair resembling a throne. Behind him, a long white banner hung from a rear wall, bearing the Brother hood’s insignia.
Archibald could sparse remember a time when Lord Worthington had not been “the old man.” With snowy hair and bold patrician features, the head of the Worthington Company seemed to fit his role as elder priest of their esoteric fraternity. He had founded the Brotherhood back in 1898, tasked with uncovering the wisdom of al-Jahiz—the disappeared Soudanese mystic who had forever changed the world.
The fruits of their labor lined the walls: a bloodstained tunic, an alchemical equation reputedly written by his hand, a Qu’ran from which he taught. Archibald had helped to pro cure most, much as the bundle he now carried. Yet in all their searching, they’d not stumbled across divine wisdom or secret laws governing the heavens. The Brotherhood had instead be come home to romantics, or crackpots like Dalton. Archibald’s faith had dwindled with the years, like the wick of a candle burned too long. But he held his tongue. He was a company man after all.
When he reached Lord Worthington, the old man wasn’t alone. Edward Pennington was there, one of the most senior men in the company and a true believer, though half-senile. He sat between two others, nodding his wizened head as both spoke into his ears.
“The Germans are making dreadful trouble for Europe,” a woman commented, the only one in the room: a dusky-skinned beauty with black kohl beneath her large liquid eyes and braided hair that hung past her shoulders. A wide collar of rows of green and turquoise stone beads circled her neck, striking upon a white dress. “Now the kaiser and tsar trade daily insults like children,” she continued in heavily accented English.
Before Pennington could reply, a man on his other side spoke.
He wore, of all things, the pelt of a spotted beast over his heavy shoulders. “Do not forget the French. They have unfinished business with the Ottomans over Algeria’s territories.”
The woman clicked her tongue. “The Ottomans are too stretched. They expect to regain the Maghreb when they’re up to their ears in the Balkans?”
Archibald listened as the two went on, poor Pennington barely getting a word in edgewise. This pair was a reminder of how far astray the Brotherhood had wandered.
“I only hope Egypt isn’t drawn into your conflicts,” the woman sighed. “The last thing we need is war.”
“There will be no war,” Lord Worthington spoke. His voice rang with a quiet crispness that silenced the table. “We live in an age of industry. We manufacture vessels to traverse the seas and airships to roam the skies. With our manipulation of noxious vapors, and your country’s recovered skills of alchemy and the mystic arts? What new hideous weapons could this age create?” He shook his head, as if clearing away nightmarish conjurations. “No, this world cannot afford war. That is why I have aided your king on the coming summit of nations. The only way forward is peace, or we shall surely perish.”
There was a pause before the woman lifted her cup. “Egyptians are as fond of toasts as you Englishmen. We often say, ‘Fi sehetak’—to health. Perhaps now, we should toast, to peace.”
Lord Worthington inclined his head, holding up a goblet. “To peace.” The others followed, even senile old Pennington. Somewhere between, the old man sighted Archibald.
“Archie! I feared we might not see you! Come on, man. Why, you don’t even have a cup!”
Archibald mumbled apologies, lifting a cup from a boilerplate eunuch. Making the usual formal introductions, he sat beside the woman, who exuded a heady sweet perfume.
“Archie was instrumental in putting together our Brotherhood,” Lord Worthington related. “Oversaw the acquisition of this very house—a hunting lodge built for the old basha. Back then, Giza was still off the beaten track. Archie holds the title of my Vizier, much as…” The old man trailed off, blue eyes twinkling at the bundle leaned against a chair. “Is that… ?”
“It is indeed, sir,” Archibald finished, placing the bundle atop the table. Every eye took in the dark cloth, their conversation dwindling. Even senile Pennington gawked.
Lord Worthington reached out an eager hand, then stopped. “No. We will present this gift to the Brotherhood.” As if on cue, a loud bell tolled, announcing the hour. “Ah! Impeccable timing. If you will give the call to order, Archie?”
Archibald rose to his feet, waiting for the bell to stop before shouting: “Order! Order! The Grand Master calls the Brother hood to order!” The din died away as men turned forward. At this, Lord Worthington rose bringing the table to their feet as well.
“Hail! Hail! The Grand Master!” Archibald called.
“Hail! Hail! The Grand Master!” the room responded.
“Thank you, my Vizier,” Lord Worthington said. “And welcome, brothers, to this momentous gathering. Ten years we have carried out our quest to walk in the footsteps of al-Jahiz, to uncover the mysteries he laid upon the world.” His left arm gestured to the banner bearing the order’s insignia, and the words Quærite veritatem written in golden script. “Seek the Truth. Our Brotherhood is not bound by robes, or secret words, or handshakes, but by a higher and more noble purpose. It is important we remember this, and do not lose our way between bombast, and ritual!
“The world sits at a precipice. Our ability to create has exceeded our ability to understand. We play with forces that could destroy us. This is the task the Brotherhood must take up. To recover the most sacred wisdom of the ancients, to create a greater tomorrow. This is what we must stand for. This must be our greater truth.” The old man’s fingers moved to the bundle. “What better emblem of that purpose than what we have procured today.” Pulling back the cloth, he lifted out its treasure. “Behold, the sword of al-Jahiz!”
Gasps went up. Archibald could hear the woman murmur what might have been a prayer. He could not fault her, as he looked upon the finely wrought hilt that held a long slightly curving blade—all a shade of black so dark it seemed to drink in light. “With this holy totem,” Lord Worthington declared, “I rededicate the purpose of our Brotherhood. Quærite veritatem!”
The gathering was set to return the rallying cry—when there came a sudden knock.
Archibald’s eyes went to the doors with everyone else’s. The knock came again. Three times in all. The doors shook with each blow, like a great hand pounded upon them. A bout of silence followed—before they were forcefully thrown open, one nearly coming off its hinges as the bar that bolted them snapped like a twig. Cries of alarm followed the sound of shuffling feet as men backed away from the destruction.
Archibald squinted to find a figure stepping through the archway. A man, garbed all in black—with long billowy black breeches tucked into boots, and a shirt draped tight across his torso. His face was hidden behind a black mask, with only his eyes revealed through oval slits. He stopped at the broken doors to survey the room, then lifted a gloved hand to snap his fingers.
And there were two of them.
Archibald glared. The man had just… doubled himself! The twin figures regarded each other, before the first snapped his fin gers again. Now there were three. Snap! Snap! Snap! Now six of the strange men! All identical and seemingly pulled from air! As one, they turned masked face upon the stunned gathering, and crept forward like shadows. New distress gripped the room.
Men stumbled back at the strangers’ silent approach. Archibald’s mind raced, grasping for sense. This was a trick. Like he’d seen performed on the city’s streets. These were locals—thieves perhaps? Thinking to rob some wealthy Englishmen? When the six reached near the center of the room they stopped, still as statues. The odd standoff was broken by Lord Worthington’s outraged voice.
“Who dares trespass this house!” No answer came from six sets of unblinking eyes. Lord Worthington rapped the table in anger. “This is the sacred place of the Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz! Be on your way, or I shall have the authorities lay hands upon you at once!”
“If this is the house of al-Jahiz,” a new voice came, “then I am here, by right.”
A figure strode between the broken doors—a man, tall and draped in black robes that flowed as he walked. His clasped hands were concealed behind gloves of dark chain mail while a black cowl covered his head, hiding his face from view. Even still, his presence filled the chamber, and it felt to Archibald as if a weight had been borne down atop them.
“Who are you to claim such a right?” Lord Worthington demanded.
The strange figure took his place at the head of his companions, and gave answer by pulling back his cowl. Archibald’s breath caught. The man’s face was concealed by a mask as well—carved in the guise of a man and adorned in strange script that appeared to move upon its golden surface. The eyes behind those oval slits were black pits that burned cold.
“I am the Father of Mysteries.” He spoke in deeply accented English. “The Walker of the Path of Wisdom. The Traveler of Worlds. Named mystic and madman. Spoken in reverence and curse. I am the one you seek. I am al-Jahiz. And I have returned.” A stillness descended like a heavy shroud. Even Lord Worthington seemed at a loss.
Archibald gaped, too stunned to do more than stare. It was a bark of laughter that jolted him.
“Nonsense!” someone shouted. Archibald groaned silently.
Dalton. The man shouldered his way forward, pushing past others to stand before the black-clad figures, staring down their leader with all the impertinence of aristocracy and youth. “I know for a fact you are no al-Jahiz! Brothers! Look over this specimen. Tall, with long arms and legs, a build typical to the tropical climes of Soudanese Negroes. But I contend al-Jahiz was no Negro, but in fact, a Caucasian!”
Archibald willed Dalton to stop. For the love of God. But the fool carried on, gesturing dramatically at the stranger. “The true al-Jahiz descends from the rulers of old Egypt. That is the secret to his genius! Were you to place him on Baker Street or among the teeming crowds of Wentworth, I daresay he would be indistinguishable from any other Londoner! I state with conviction that beneath this mask is not the fair complexion shared by our own Anglo-Saxon lineage but instead the sooty, low-browed countenance—”
Dalton cut off as the stranger, who had stood quiet, lifted a chain-mailed hand. The sword in Lord Worthington’s grip sud denly began to hum and vibrate. The noise grew to a whine, so that the old man shook with its movement. With a sharp pull, it tore itself free, sailing through the air until it was caught by the stranger’s outstretched fingers. His hand closed around the hilt, and stepping forward, he lowered the blade at Dalton.
“Speak another word,” the masked man warned, “and it will be your last.”
Dalton’s eyes went momentarily wide, crossing to look down at the sword’s pointed edge. Once again, Archibald willed the man—for all that was holy—to for once keep his mouth shut! But alas, it was not to be. The natives here often joked of Englishmen too stubborn to heed cautions of keeping out of the punishing midday sun, until they toppled over from heat exhaustion. Young Dalton appeared determined to follow in that trope. Fixing the stranger with a look that carried all the haughtiness of British pride and imperial hubris, he opened his mouth to begin upon another half-baked tirade.
The masked man didn’t move. But one of his companions did. It was swift, like watching stone come to life. Gloved hands reached for Dalton and blurred—sending up an odd wrenching— before the figure flowed back into his statue-like pose. Archibald blinked. It took him a moment to make sense of what he was seeing. Dalton still stood in the same place. But his head had been turned fully around. Or perhaps his body had. Either way, his chin now rested impossibly on the back of his robes—while his arms extended out behind him. He made a full tottering circle, looking almost comical, as if trying to sort himself out. Then stopping, he gave them one last befuddled look before falling flat onto his wrong-way face—the tips of his black boots pointed up into the air.
Around the room men cried out. Some retched. Archibald tried not to join them.
“There’s no need,” Lord Worthington pleaded, face ashen. “No need for violence.”
The stranger turned black pupils to the old man. “Yet there is need for retribution. Upon men who claim my name. Masr has become a place of decadence. Polluted by foreign designs. But I have returned, to see my great work completed.”
“I am sure we can help,” Lord Worthington said urgently. “If indeed you are who you claim to be. If you could show us some sign that you are truly al-Jahiz, then you will have me at your disposal. My wealth. My influence. I would give you all I hold dear if you prove yourself worthy of the name you claim!”
Archibald turned in shock. The old man’s face bore the look of someone who desperately wanted to believe. Who needed to believe. It was the most disheartening thing he’d ever seen.
The black-robed figure stared appraisingly at Lord Worthington, eyes growing darker still. “Give all that you hold dear,” he spoke bitterly. “You would at that, wouldn’t you? I have no more need for anything you can offer, old man. But if it is a sign you require, I will give one.”
The stranger raised the sword, pointing the blade at them. The room went dim, the light filtering through shadows. That unmistakable presence emanating from the man grew stronger, building until it felt to Archibald he would fall to his knees. He turned to Lord Worthington—to find the old man burning. Bright red flames crept across his hands, shriveling and blistering the skin. But Lord Worthington didn’t seem to notice. His eyes stared out at the chamber, where every member of the Brotherhood was also burning—bodies alight in smokeless fire the color of blood. The strange flames left their clothes untouched, but singed away skin and hair as their screams filled the room.
Not just their screams, Archibald realized. Because he was screaming too.
He looked down at the fire wreathing his arms, devouring the flesh beneath his unmarred robes. Beside him, the woman shrieked, her death cries mingling into the terrible cacophony. Somewhere past the pain, past the horror, before the last bits of him were given to the flames, Archibald grieved for his London, for Christmas, for dear Georgiana and dreams that would not be.
Fatma leaned forward, puffing on her hookah. The maassel was a blend of pungent tobacco, soaked in honey and molasses, with hints of herbs, nuts, and fruit. But there was another taste: sweet to the point of sickly that tickled the tongue. Magic. It made the fine hairs along the nape of her neck tingle. The small crowd that had gathered watched her expectantly. A big-nosed man in a white turban leaned so close over her shoulder she could smell the soot that covered him—an ironworker by the stink of it. He shushed a companion, which only made others grumble. From the corner of her eye, she caught Khalid giving both men a withering glare—his broad face drawing tight. Never a good idea to upset the bookie.
Like most, they’d probably wagered on her opponent, who sat across the octagonal table. All of seventeen, she guessed, with a face even more boyish than her own. But he had already men twice his age. More important, he was a he, which still held weight even in Cairo’s flaunted modernity—which explained the smile on his dark lips.
Some more traditional ahwa still didn’t cater to women, especially where hookahs were smoked, which was most. But this seedy den, tucked into a disreputable back alley, didn’t care who it served. Still, Fatma could count the women on one hand. Most left gambling to the men. Three sitting at a far-off table in the dim room were unmistakably Forty Leopards, in garish bright red kaftans and hijabs, with blue Turkish trousers. From their disdainful looks, you’d think them wealthy socialites—not the most notorious thieving gang in the city.
Fatma filtered everyone out—gambling men, smug boys, and haughty lady thieves alike—fixing on the water bubbling in the hookah’s bulbous vase. She imagined it a flowing river, real enough to wet her fingertips as she inhaled its scent. Taking a long pull from the wooden pipe, she let the enchanted maassel work through her, before exhaling a thick column.
It didn’t look like regular smoke—more silver than gray.
Didn’t move like smoke either, knitting together instead of dissipating. It took some seconds to coalesce, but when it did, Fatma couldn’t help feeling a bit of triumph. A vaporous river snaked across the air as a felucca sailed its surface, the triangular lateen sail stretched taut, and leaving ripples its wake.
Every eye in the coffee shop followed the ethereal vessel. Even the Forty Leopards looked on in wonder. Across the table, her challenger’s smile gave way to open-mouthed astonishment. When the magic was spent and the smoke cleared, he shook his head, setting down the tube of his water pipe in defeat. The crowd roared.
Fatma sat back to praises as Khalid stood to collect up his money. Enchanted maassel was a banned substance: a slapdash of sorcery and alchemical compounds that mimicked a drug. The addicted traded away their lives chasing the next great con juration. Luckily, a milder form had been popular back at the women’s college at Luxor. And as a student, she’d taken part in a duel or two. Or three. Maybe more.
“Ya salam!” the kid called. “Shadia, you’re as good as the Usta claimed.”
Al-Usta was Khalid’s nickname. The old Turkish title was addressed to drivers, laborers, mechanics, or craftsmen—anyone re ally who was very good at what they did. She was sure Khalid had never done an honest day’s work in his life. But when it came to handling bets, there was none better.
“One of the best, I tell you,” the bookie added, sitting to count through a wad of bills.
Khalid had come up with that name, Shadia. The big man was her guide into this seedier side of Cairo, where Fatma el Sha’arawi, special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, would draw unwanted attention.
“Wallahi!” the kid exclaimed. “Never seen a conjuring so real. What’s your secret, eh?”
The “secret” was what any first year picked up in lessons on mental elemental manipulation—choose real experiences over imagined ones. Hers had been an uncle’s boat she’d sailed dozens of times.
“As Khalid—the Usta—said, I’m one of the best.”
The kid snorted. “Wouldn’t have figured it.” He tilted a chin at her suit—an all-white number with a matching vest that looked sublime on her russet-brown skin. Fatma ran fingers down the length of a gold tie, certain to show off the glittering cuff links on her dark blue shirt.
The kid snorted again, folding arms across a tanned kaftan.
“How about you give me what I came for, and I’ll send you to my tailor.”
“Gamal,” Khalid said. “Let’s get on with business. Shadia’s been patient enough.”
More than patient. That trait wasn’t her strong suit. But undercover work demanded it. Thieves were inherently distrustful, and only some penchant for their vices ever put them at ease. She checked a golden pocket watch fashioned like an antique asturlab. Half past ten.
“Night’s not getting any younger.”
The kid cocked his head. “What do you say, Saeed? Shadia look like a business partner?”
Gamal’s companion, who sat beside him, stopped chewing his nails long enough to mutter, “Let’s be done with it, okay?” The lanky youth looked even younger than Gamal, with jutting ears and a halo of coiled hair. His eyes never met Fatma’s, and she hoped it was because of the persona she worked to project: a young socialite willing to pay heavily for pilfered goods.
“Then let’s go somewhere private,” Khalid offered. He gestured to a back room and rose to go. Fatma smoothed back her mop of cropped black curls before putting on a black bowler, preparing to stand. She stopped halfway, noticing neither young man had moved.
“No,” Gamal said. Saeed looked as perplexed as they did.
“No?” The way the big man stretched out the word should have cowed anyone. But not the kid.
“Wander off to secret places and you give people ideas. Maybe come up on one of us on our way out and try to find what that secret is. We can conduct our business right here. What’s the big deal? Wallahi, no one’s even paying us any mind.”
Fatma was certain everyone was paying them every bit of mind. In a place like this, you grew eyes in the back of your head, the sides, and the top. Still, kid had a point. She met Khalid’s questioning gaze. He looked ready to snatch the kid bodily out of his chair. But as entertaining as that might be, probably best to not create a scene. She lowered back into her seat. Khalid sighed, doing the same.
“So let’s see it, then,” Fatma demanded.
Saeed unslung a brown satchel from his shoulder and set it on the table. As he reached inside, Fatma found her hand gripping the lion-headed pommel of her cane. Patience.
“Wait.” Gamal put out a restraining arm. “Let’s see the money.”
Fatma gripped tighter. This kid was becoming annoying.
“That isn’t how we conduct business,” Khalid chided.
“It’s how I conduct it, Uncle.”
His eyes fixed on Fatma. “You have it?”
She didn’t answer right away. Instead she met his gaze—until some of his bravado wilted. Only then did she reach into her jacket to pull out a roll of banknotes. The blue-green paper affixed with the royal seal glittered in the kid’s eyes, and he licked his lips before nodding. Saeed looked relieved and drew out an object from the satchel. Fatma’s breath caught.
It looked like a bottle made of metal instead of glass, with a pear-shaped bottom inlaid with flowering gold designs that ran up a long neck. Its surface was tarnished a dull bronze, but she guessed it was brass.
“It’s old,” Saeed noted, fingers tracing the engravings. “I’m thinking maybe from the Abbasids. That’s at least a thousand years.”
Good eye. So under that nervous gaze was a scholar.
“We found it fishing. I was thinking it was meant to hold perfume or used by early alchemists. But this…” His hand went to a stopper at the bottle’s top, running along a jade ceramic seal engraved with a dragon. “Never seen its like before. Chinese maybe? Tang? Don’t recognize the writing either. And the wax is fresh, like it was just put on yesterday—”
“You haven’t removed any of it, have you?” Fatma cut in.
The sharpness in her tone sent his eyes wide.
“Usta Khalid told us not to. That the seal intact was part of the sale.”
“Glad you listened. Or you might have wasted all our time.”
“Aywa,” Gamal sighed. “What I want to know is what’s so special about it? Saeed and I find lots of junk. Every day, wallahi. Everything people throw into the Nile comes up again. We sell them to rich people like you. But no one’s ever offered so much, wallahi. I’ve heard other things—”
“Gamal,” Saeed cut in. “It’s not the time to start that again.”
“I think it’s a fine time,” Gamal replied, eyes fixed on Fatma.
“My old setty used to tell me stories of djinn imprisoned in bottles being thrown into the sea—long before al-Jahiz brought them back into the world. She said fishermen would sometimes find them, and when they freed the djinn, it would grant their greatest desires. Wallahi! Three wishes, that could make you a king or the richest man in the world!”
“Do I look like your setty?” Fatma asked. But this time, the kid’s bravado didn’t waver.
“No deal,” he said suddenly. Grabbing the bottle, he pushed it back into the satchel. In her mind, Fatma howled.
Saeed looked flummoxed. “Ya Allah! What are you doing? We need that money!”
Gamal made a chiding sound. “Ah! Wallahi, you’re only smart with books! Think! If this is what I believe it is—what she believes it is—we could use it ourselves! Ask for money to rain from the skies! Or turn a whole pyramid to gold!”
“The two of you are making a mistake,” Khalid warned. His dark face was like a storm, and the white hair that surrounded it bristling clouds. “Take this deal and go your own way. By the Merciful, it isn’t wise—”
“Isn’t wise?” Gamal mocked. “Are you a shaykh now? Going to start reciting hadith? You don’t frighten us, old man. So eager to take the bottle off us when we came to you. Then when we refused, you were even more eager to set up this deal. The two of you in this together? Thinking to cheat us? Best be careful. Might use one of our wishes on you, wallahi!”
Fatma had heard enough. Should have known the kid wouldn’t be an honest broker, not with all the wallahis he threw around. Anybody who swore to God that habitually couldn’t be trusted. So much for doing this the easy way. Reaching back into her jacket, she drew out a bit of silver and placed it flat onto the table. The old Ministry identification had been a set of bulky papers with an affixed daguerreotype. They’d switched to this badge in the past year—with an alchemical photograph melded to the metal. Blowing her cover hadn’t been her first plan. But watching the brashness drain from Gamal’s face was worth it.
“You’re with the Ministry?” Saeed croaked.
“Pretty hard to get one of these otherwise,” she replied.
“It’s a trick,” Gamal stammered. “There aren’t women in the Ministry.”
Khalid sighed. “You two should read the papers more.”
Gamal shook his head. “I don’t believe it. You’re not—”
“Khallas!” Fatma hissed, leaning forward. “It’s over! Here’s what you need to know. There are four other agents in this room. See the man at the door?” She didn’t bother to turn as the two peered over her shoulder. “There’s another talking everyone’s ear off at a table to your right. And a third, enjoying his hookah and watching a game of tawla on your left. The fourth, I won’t even tell you where he is.”
Their heads swiveled about like meerkats. Saeed visibly trembled.
“So here’s what happens now. You hand over that bottle. I give you half of what we agreed on—for making this difficult. And I won’t haul you in for questioning. We have a deal?”
Saeed nodded so quickly, his ears flapped. Gamal was another matter: shaken, but not broken. His eyes darted from her to the badge to the satchel and back. When his jaws tightened, she cursed inwardly. Not a good sign.
In an explosion of movement the kid flipped the table over.
Khalid went sprawling, his chair tipped out from under him. Fatma caught herself before falling, stumbling back. Gamal stood with the bottle in one hand and a small knife in the other. So much for not making a scene.
“Now I make the deals! Let us out of here! Or I break this seal and see what happens!”
“Gamal!” Saeed protested. “We can just go! We don’t have—”
“Don’t be stupid! She’s not going to let us go! They’ll take us in and our families will never hear from us again! Experiment on us! Or feed us to ghuls!”
Fatma frowned. People had very strange ideas about what went on at the Ministry. “You don’t know what you’re doing. And you’re not leaving here. Not with that. Now hand it over. Last time I’m going to ask.”
Something on Gamal’s face snapped. Snarling through clenched teeth, he drew the blade across the wax seal, which broke and fell away.
There was a moment of stillness. The entire ahwa had turned to stare at the commotion. But their eyes were no longer on the small woman in a white Westerner suit, the big man they knew to be a local bookie picking himself up off the floor, or the two young men standing behind an overturned table.
Instead, they stared open-mouthed at what one of the young men held—an old antique bottle pouring out bright green smoke. Like enchanted maassel, but in greater amounts. It formed something that looked more solid than any illusion. When the vapor vanished, a living, breathing giant was left in its wake: with skin covered in emerald scales and a head crowned by smooth ivory horns that curved up to brush the ceiling. He wore nothing but billowy white trousers held up by a broad gold belt. His massive chest swelled and retracted as he took deep breaths, before opening his three eyes—each burning like small, bright stars.
Even in the world left behind by al-Jahiz, it wasn’t every day you saw a Marid djinn simply… appear. The exact scenario Fatma had tried so hard to prevent was now playing out right before her. She allowed a momentary wave of panic, before finding her resolve again.
“Don’t move. Let me talk—”
“No!” Gamal shouted. “He’s ours! You can’t have him!”
“He doesn’t belong to—!”
But the kid was already brandishing the emptied bottle at the djinn. “You! Look at me! I’m the one who freed you!” The Marid, who had been silently gazing across the room, turned his fiery gaze. That should have been enough to make anyone cower. But the kid—quite stupidly—stood his ground. “That’s right! We freed you! Saeed and me! You owe us now! Three wishes!”
The Marid stared at the two, then uttered one word that rumbled and echoed: “Free.” He formed the word again between lips surrounded by a curling white beard. “Free. Free. Free.” Then he laughed, a low bellowing that set Fatma’s teeth on edge.
“It has been ages since I have needed to utter this mortal tongue. But I remember what ‘Free’ means. To be unbound. To be not fastened or confined.” His face contorted into something terrible. “But I was not bound, or fastened, or confined. No one imprisoned me. I slumbered, at my own choosing. And you woke me, unbidden, unasked, undesired—so that I would grant you wishes. Very well. I will grant you only one wish. You must choose. Choose how you will die.”
That was enough. People jumped up from chairs and tables and made hasty runs to the exit. Even the serving staff joined the stampede. The ahwa’s owner disappeared into a closet, locking the door behind him. In moments the place had emptied, leaving behind Fatma, Khalid, two young men, and one very ill-tempered Marid. Gamal looked staggered—Saeed ready to faint. Fatma shook her head. This was precisely why you didn’t go around opening up mystical bottles. Why was that so hard for people to understand? Well, time to earn her pay.
“O Great One!” she called out. “I would petition for these two who have wronged you!”
The Marid turned his horned head, that fiery gaze scrutinizing. “You have been in the company of other djinn.” His sharp nose inhaled and wrinkled in distaste. “Among other creatures. Are you a mortal enchantress?”
“Not an enchantress. Dealing with magic is just in my line of work.”
The Marid seemed to accept that answer. Or he didn’t care.
“You seek parley on behalf of these two”—a clawed hand waved at Gamal and Saeed—“fools?”
Fatma bit back a smile. “Yes, Old One. The two fools.” She spared a direct glance at Gamal. “Surely you are magnanimous enough to look past any slight two stupid children could offer one so powerful and wise.”
The Marid ground his sharp teeth. “The dissembling flattery of mortals. That, I also remember. Do you know why I bound myself to slumber, not-enchantress? Because I grew tired of your kind. Greedy. Selfish. Ever seeking to satisfy your wants. I could no longer stomach the sight of you. The stink of you. Your ugly little faces. I slept to escape you all. In the hopes that when I next awakened, you would be gone. Struck down by a blessed illness. Or slaughtered in one of your endless wars. Then I wouldn’t have to hear your monkey-like chatter. Or need speak your inarticulate tongues ever again. But here I am. And you are still here.”
Fatma blinked at the tirade. Of all the djinn these two had to go and wake up, it had to be a bigot. “Right. You can go back to sleep, Old One. You can sleep for as long as you like. I’ll even see that your vessel is sent somewhere far away. Where you’ll be undisturbed.” Maybe the heart of a volcano, she thought idly.
The Marid inspected her the way a butcher might a goat bleating out a proposal to stay the knife. “And why, not-enchantress, should I deign to make bargains? When I could simply pluck your head from your neck? Stain these walls with your entrails? Or fill your belly with ravenous scorpions?”
Fatma didn’t doubt those threats. Of the classes of djinn, Marid were some of the most powerful and ancient—possessing preternatural strength and formidable magic. But if this half-awake tyrant thought she’d wilt under his intimidation, he had another think coming. Tipping back her bowler at an imperious angle, she moved closer to the towering Marid, craning her neck to meet those three burning eyes.
“You’ve been in self-exile in that bottle for at least a thousand years. So let me catch you up. There are more of us chattering mortals than you might guess. Lots more. More of your kind, too, crossed over to this world. Djinn live among us now. Work with us. Follow our laws. You want to smear me to a pulp?” She shrugged. “Go ahead. But you’ll pay for it. And the people I work for, they know how to make even slumbering for eternity in a bottle extremely unpleasant. Try extending that third eye of yours. See what’s become of the world while you slept.”
The Marid didn’t react right away. Finally, he closed both his eyes, at the same time widening the third on his forehead until it flared with brilliance. When he reopened his remaining eyes they looked startled.
“You speak truth. Your kind has truly multiplied. Like locusts! So many more djinn in this world. Working alongside mortals. Living among them. Mating with—”
“Yes, all of that,” Fatma cut in.
“Reality. So that brings us back to our bargaining. I’m sure you’d rather get back to sleep. Wait and see how things pan out. My offer still stands. You have my word.”
The Marid snorted. “The word of a mortal? Empty and weak as water. There is no worth in that. Present me with something to bind. Something that makes your offer true.”
“My honor, then.”
“What is mortal honor to me? You try my patience, not enchantress. Make your offer worthy, or offer it not at all.”
Fatma gritted her teeth. Damn djinn and their bargaining. There was one other thing she could give. Though she loathed it. But her options seemed slim.
“To make my offer true,” she said, “I offer you my name.”
That made the Marid’s eyebrows rise. Djinn were big on names. They never gave their true names, instead calling themselves by geographic locations—cities, rivers, mountain ranges. Either that or majestic titles like the Queen of Magic or the Lord of Thursday. That lot were insufferable. By the look on his face, however, it seemed even mortal names held some worth.
“Your true name,” he demanded.
She bristled at this, but nodded acceptance.
“The offer is accepted. But there is still the matter of granting the fools their wish.”
Fatma started. “What do you mean? We just settled on that!”
The Marid’s dark green lips pursed into a smirk. “Our arrangement, not-enchantress, was your offer that I return to my vessel and you assure me uninterrupted slumber. Not that I spare the lives of these two. The wish is still binding.”
“That was implied!” But even as she said the words, she knew the fault was hers. You had to be careful when bartering with djinn. They took every word literally. Why so many of them in this age made good lawyers. She cursed her mistake and tried to think straight.
“So the wish still stands?” she asked.
“What was requested will be given.”
“But you already set the parameters.”
The Marid shrugged and cast a baleful glare to Gamal and Saeed, who shook visibly. “The asker should have taken more care to specify their wants.”
“So all they can get from this wish is death?”
“What comes to all mortals in the end.”
Hardly fair. But fair usually accounted for little in dealings with immortals. Her mind worked to find a solution. This Marid had lived countless lifetimes and was very good at this. But she was a Ministry agent. That meant protecting people from the world of the supernatural and the magical—even when they ran stupidly headlong into it.
“I have a proposal,” she said at last, taking care with her words.
“For their wish, I ask that you grant these two fools death—as old men, in their beds, at the end of their natural lives.”
It was a beautiful thing to see the arrogance evaporate from the Marid’s face. She expected him to protest, find some little crack in her logic. But instead, he merely nodded—appraising her anew—then smiled a terrible smile.
“Well played, not-enchantress,” he pronounced. “And done.”
A half hour later, Fatma stood, wiping off her badge. Between the table flipping over and the stampeding patrons, it had ended up halfway across the room. Khalid had found it sitting in a pile of spilled charcoal ash.
“There weren’t any other agents, were there?” the big man asked, holding a cup of tea. He’d managed to coax the coffee shop’s owner from the closet and convinced him to brew a pot. Fatma rotated her shoulder, feeling the slightest twinge. She’d injured it on a case this past summer. And though it had remarkably fast, it still flared up now and then. “Good thing they didn’t know that.”
Khalid chuckled, glancing to Gamal and Saeed, who sat dazed as black-uniformed Ministry agents questioned them.
“Good thinking on saving those two. For a while there, I thought that Marid had you.”
“For a minute, so did I.”
Khalid grinned before his face turned serious. “You do know what you’ve done? What you’ve granted them?”
Fatma had known the moment she spoke the words. Gamal and Saeed were all but guaranteed to live to old age. They’d never need worry about being killed by an automobile. Or falling off the ledge of a building. Not even a bullet. The Marid’s power would protect them for the remainder of their mortal lifetimes.
“I don’t think they realize it yet,” Khalid mused. “But they’ll figure it out in time. Saeed, I believe, will put it to good use. The boy really wanted the money for a trade school. Though I think he’d probably be better at a university. But Gamal… that one could steal the eyeliner from your eye, and still not be content.”
“It’s worse than that,” she said. “Their wish grants them long life. But it doesn’t say how. They could live out their whole lives with a terrible disease, unable to die. Same thing if an accident leaves them in unbearable pain. Their ‘gift’ could easily become a prison.”
Khalid slowly lowered his teacup and murmured a prayer.
That was the thing a lot of people didn’t understand. Magic abhorred imbalance. And always exacted a price.
“I’ll keep an eye on them, then,” he said soberly before adding: “Thanks ya Jahiz.”
Fatma nodded at the familiar Cairene slang—evoked with praise, sarcasm, or anger, at the long-disappeared Soudanese mystic. The very one who some forty years past bored a hole into the Kaf, the other-realm of the djinn. She was young enough to have been born into the world left in al-Jahiz’s wake. It was still at times a dizzying affair.
“The kid was right, you know,” she said, eyeing him. “You didn’t have to tip me off. You could have kept that bottle for yourself. Tried to get your own wishes.”
Khalid scoffed. “And risk Muhammad Ali’s curse? God forgive me for such a thing!”
Another bit of Cairene slang. Muhammad Ali Basha, the Great, was rumored to have consolidated his power with the help of a djinn advisor—who abandoned him in his greatest time of need, answering the old Khedive’s pleas with laughter that echoed un ceasing in his head. When the aging ruler was forced to abdicate, many blamed the djinn’s curse for weakening his mind.
“Unlike the young,” Khalid continued, “I know the difference between what I want, what I need, and what might just kill me. Besides, I thought all that business about djinn locked away in lamps was some bad Frenchman’s writing.” He looked to where Supernatural Forensics was gingerly placing the Marid’s vessel into a wooden crate for transport. They’d get a proper seal back on and find someplace to store the thing—allowing its ornery occupant to wait out humanity’s demise.
“Lamps are overdone,” Fatma said. “Bottles, on the other hand…”
She didn’t get to finish as she spotted a man walking toward them. In that red kaftan, not with Supernatural Forensics. At second glance, not a man either—a boilerplate eunuch. By its lithe frame and sleek gait, one of the newer messenger models.
“Good evening and pardon my intrusion,” it stopped and spoke.
“I bear a message for the recipient: Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi. The sender is: Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities.”
“That’s me,” Fatma indicated. A message at this hour?
“The message is confidential,” the machine-man stated.
Fatma held up her badge to the sensors beneath the boiler plate eunuch’s featureless face.
“Identification confirmed.” Its mechanical fingers produced a thin cylinder and handed it to Fatma. She opened the casing and unfurled the note, quickly scanning it.
“More work?” Khalid asked.
“Aywa. Looks like a trip into Giza.”
“Giza? The way you’re going, won’t get much sleep tonight.”
Fatma stuffed the note away. “Sleep is for the dead. And I plan on doing lots of living.”
The big man chuckled. “Go in peace, investigator,” he called as she walked away.
“God protect you, Khalid,” she replied before stepping from the ahwa into the night.
Excerpted from A Master of Djinn, copyright 2021 by P. Djèlí Clark