Isabelle and Jason walked through the apartment’s front door to the sight of the place seemingly cleaning itself at an intense rate. It stopped and Nesrin appeared directly in front of them.
“Hey. You’re back. School must be over for the day.”
They walked past her with raised eyebrows.
Isabelle put her bookbag down on the kitchen counter. “Um, yeah, it’s 3:45, this is always when we get back on Thursday.”
Nesrin picked the bookbag up and handed it back to Isabelle. “You didn’t want to go study at the library, or go out for dinner, or something?”
Jason tried setting his bookbag down on the floor next to a stool. “If we had we’d’ve probably texted you. What’s up with you?”
Nesrin had gotten a sponge and was wiping where Isabelle’s bookbag had been. “It’s nothing personal. It’s just that I got a message from my sister Ceylan warning me that…” Nesrin gasped as an explosion sounded in the hallway. She dropped the sponge and stood straight as a seven feet tall woman made of fire walked into the room. The woman had on a plain golden crown. Nesrin’s jaw tightened. If the visitor appeared in this form she was expecting a formal introduction. She took in breath for the long list of names and tried to remember the order they went in.
“You are in the presence of Her Exalted Highness Samira Sila the Rebellious, Worthy Queen of the Hidden Ones and the Hinn, Claimant of Earth’s Moon and Venus, Fire of King Harun’s Fire, Withstander of the Great Capturing, Jailer of the Seven Kings and King Harun, Builder of the Great Hall, The Patron of Liberty, The Unseen Conqueror, The Wayward Comet, Muse of Creators, Deceiver of Humans, and Performer of Myths.”
Nesrin stopped for breath again. “She’s also my mother, so I’m excused from having to bow, and since you’re human, so are you.”
Samira clapped. “Well done, My Dear. I have courtiers who haven’t memorized my titles so well after centuries. Now, introduce me to your new friends.”
“Of course. These are Jason and Isabelle Clements. They attend a university in town. In fact, they were just leaving for class.”
Isabelle slung her bag over her shoulder and Jason grabbed his off the floor. Isabelle said “We were, yes. It was lovely to meet you, Your Highness.”
Jason slightly bowed. “Yes, a true honor.”
They started to back away.
Samira chuckled and moved toward the living room. “Oh Nesrin. You’re so cute when you try to lie. Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. I expect that would have fooled anyone but your mother. Even your friends did tolerably well. I am impressed.” Her flames began to flicker and her appearance morphed into that of an Arabian woman similar to Nesrin, though a few inches taller and a bit older, with hair the color of red wine. She was wearing blue eyeshadow and dark red lipstick. She also kept her crown on. She sat down in an armchair and motioned to the couch across from it. “Sit. Let’s talk like a normal family.”
The three roommates looked at each other, then slowly made their way to the couch.
Samira put her right leg over her left and sat back in the chair. “I assume, Nesrin, that you’ve figured out I’m here to ask you for something.”
“Naturally. I was just wondering when you would get around to the asking.”
Samira drummed her fingers on the armrest. “I want you to impersonate me in the Great Hall while I do a bit of hunting here. I would have Ceylan do it, but her absence would be too noticeable. I know you naturally revert to your human form because of your father, but I suggest wearing your hidden form if you’re going to be me. I’ve made a show of wearing different bodies lately, so no one will question it. Ceylan can tell you what you need to know about the schemes and agreements currently keeping our society afloat.”
Nesrin’s hands were clasped in her lap, with her nails digging into her skin. “This ‘hunting’ of yours, is it related to the disturbances you mentioned last time we spoke?”
“It is. For years the only one of our people I’ve sensed in this area is you; now suddenly the energy level has spiked and stayed uncharacteristically high.”
Nesrin leaned forward. “Since I live here anyway, would it not make more sense for me to investigate the disturbance, and you stay at the Great Hall?”
Samira chuckled. “When have I ever done anything that made sense? In all seriousness, though, if this is what I suspect I want to watch it for myself, and you won’t have any problems as long as you listen to Ceylan. I also want you to take your friends with you. I know they were in your storehouse last time I saw you, so clearly they can handle our realm.”
Isabelle and Jason visibly tensed, and so did Nesrin. She put a hand on each of their shoulders. “Why?”
“I have my reasons. Besides, wouldn’t you enjoy the company? Now I’m sorry, but we really do need to get moving along.”
She waived her left hand, and the trio were gone whether they consented or not.
The three roommates found themselves falling onto the floor of a large, circular room with walls of smoked glass. In the center of the floor was a gigantic oval of wood with six different colored flames painted in a circle in the middle. The ceiling was high, cone-shaped, and made of gold.
Nesrin was the first to stand. “Of course. I should have seen this coming. Not only has she sent us to the Great Hall, she’s sent us to the top room. We’re in the very center of the hidden realm. She thinks this display of power will shut me up.”
Another voice said “And we both know she’s right.”
They noticed a woman standing on the other side of the oval. She looked like Nesrin if Nesrin’s hair were dark red and fixed in a ponytail. She was wearing a long, red robe and a gold pendant depicting a crowned flame.
Nesrin’s face relaxed just a little. “Hello, Ceylan.”
Ceylan smiled. “It is good to see you, Nesrin. Sorry about the circumstances, but I did warn you.”
Nesrin nodded and helped her friends to their feet.
As she did so, Ceylan walked over and took their mother’s crown off Nesrin’s head to hand to her. “You know why she does this.”
“Yes, because I’m one of the handful of her abundant children that doesn’t revel in being her proxy.”
“We don’t all revel in it; some of us just think acceptance is easier than being zapped to the Great Hall at a moment’s notice.”
“It is slightly inconvenient, but I don’t plan on staying.” Nesrin handed the crown back to Ceylan.
“You have to! Mother’s expected to meet with the other rulers in an hour. If you leave I’ll have to start over tracking down another stand in.”
Isabelle said “I thought your mother was the ruler.”
Nesrin waved a hand. “She’s the worthy queen, not the only queen. She was for a time, but she’s allowed certain factions to split in an act of strategic diplomacy. It’s how she got the title ‘Patron of Liberty.’ The leaders convene when their collective comfort demands it. Let me guess; she doesn’t want them to know what she’s doing. That’s why I’m the decoy and my roommates are the extra distractions.”
“Right first time. She’s touchy because it’s about the prophecy.”
Jason raised a hand. “Prophecy?”
Nesrin didn’t even look in his direction. “There’s an ifrit who’s supposed to become the Caliph of all Hidden Ones, but he hates the very idea, and the last anyone heard he was still in a bottle anyway.”
“Until now. There are rumors he’s been released, and Mother thinks he’s the source of the disturbances in your town.”
“If she does anything but watch she’s sillier than I gave her credit for. As long as he isn’t mounting an offensive she needs to leave well enough alone and not tempt fate.”
“I know that, but our mother does what she wants. For us the important thing now is preparing you for your meeting. I’d suggest changing now.”
Nesrin shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not playing the game. We’ve got any number of siblings that would love it; ask one of them.” She grabbed Isabelle and Jason and faded away with them, only to materialize on the other side of the room.
Ceylan crossed her arms. “Think, Nesrin. She cast an incantation to stop you from leaving. You’re stuck here; you might as well do what she wants. Now will you please get changed?” She held out the crown.
“Ugh. Fine.” Nesrin snatched the crown away. Her body burst into flames which formed into a fiery body that was seven and a half feet tall. Her irises had changed from brown to red, and her black hair had become a dancing fire. The shoulders seemed broader than they should have been, but the rest of the body couldn’t be seen because Nesrin’s normal clothes had been replaced with a robe that matched Ceylan’s. Her eyes flashed gold and she produced two red robes and blue and green wigs, all of which she tossed to Isabelle and Jason. “You put those on and pretend to be hidden ones. Having full-blooded humans here isn’t unheard of, but it is needlessly conspicuous. Mother’s got more children than anyone can remember and most of us are half-human, so you can pass as more of our siblings.”
Jason examined what he was expected to wear. “But what if we have to perform magic or something?”
Nesrin looked to her sister. “Ceylan will be watching, she can quietly do whatever needs to be done.”
“Alright,” Nesrin said. “What’s the meeting about?”
“The other rulers believe she’s interfering with their tribes. They’re coming here to determine the truth of the matter and decide on a course of action.”
“That’s what she chose to skip out on?”
“Typical Samira, isn’t it? There’s a lot we need to discuss before they get here. You ready?”
Nesrin looked around at where she was, the disguises Isabelle and Jason were putting on, and the crown on her head. “What choice do I have?”