Wraiths of Might-Have-Beens

On Fridays Isabelle and Jason both had night class from 6 to 8:30. Their classes were in separate buildings and fairly far apart, so they didn’t actually see each other until Jason picked Isabelle up for the drive home. Considering they lived together, this short break from each other wasn’t a hardship for either sibling.

Jason’s multivariate analysis class was the usual snooze-fest, and as soon as the ten minute break arrived at 7:15 he shot out of the room to the snack kiosk for some coffee and a muffin. He was just opening his muffin when a voice said “Hey Jason.”

He jumped when he saw Nesrin standing beside him, causing him to toss his muffin into the air for her to catch.

“Surprise,” she said as she handed it back.

“Don’t you have to work on Fridays?”

“Ceylan’s filling in for me. I wanted to keep an eye on you and Isabelle, make sure you’re not feeling any adverse effects form prolonged exposure to the hidden realm.”

“Um, should we be?”

“Possibly. Once you have the scent of magic on you it tends to follow you. Problem is that means different things for different people. You haven’t felt or seen anything strange, have you?”

Jason patted his torso and looked at his legs. “Not that I noticed.”

“Good, then maybe you’re okay for now. I’m gonna go check on Isabelle. Let me know if you do notice anything.”

“Oh I will.”

He had a hard time settling down after Nesrin left. He ended up going for a walk down one of the halls he didn’t have class in. Usually he stayed in the section of the building dedicated to business, but now he was in the section dedicated to accounting. Accounting was what he’d almost majored in as an undergrad, before he chose business management.

Just for a distraction he stopped to look at the pictures a professor had taped to their office door. He was reading a comic about accounting when he heard someone walk up beside him and check the professor’s schedule. At first he ignored it, but then he happened to turn and gasped.

The other person was exactly Jason’s hight, had exactly his hair and eye color, and had exactly the same face. The only difference was that the newcomer was wearing a t-shirt with a lot of numbers on it. The other Jason nodded in the original’s direction, then scampered to a classroom at the end of the hall. The original Jason was frozen in place until the new one disappeared at the door of the classroom. He dug his phone out of his pocket and dialed Nesrin’s number.

Meanwhile, Nesrin had found Isabelle outside with her headphones on, practicing her Taekwondo.

Isabelle jumped when she saw Nesrin, but smiled and took her headphones out. “Hey.”

“Hey. You make that look so easy. I’ve never understood how people can lift there legs so high with such ease.”

“You mean in three thousand years you never learned any martial arts?”

“I never had any reason to. We hidden ones can defend ourselves perfectly well without them. Maybe you could show me a few motions?”

“Sure. You stand there and I’ll show you one of the head kicks.” Isabelle started to raise her leg, then stopped. “Your body is physical and solid, right?”

“By now you should know it is. All half human hidden ones have physical bodies.”

Isabelle nodded. She raised her leg to Nesrin’s shoulder, only to have it pass through and send her spiraling forward. She latched onto Nesrin in a scramble to rebalance.

Nesrin smirked. “Of course I can still turn into smoke when I want to.”

Before Isabelle could respond, she heard a voice almost exactly like hers say “Taekwondo only dates back to the 1940’s, but the tradition of what we call martial arts began roughly four thousand years ago.” Isabelle turned in the direction of the voice and found a copy of herself in her Taekwondo robe, with a group of students in front of her. The sight only lasted a second before it vanished like a sandcastle in a wave.

Isabelle tried to look at Nesrin but couldn’t turn her head. “Did… you see that?”

“I saw.” Music erupted from Nesrin’s phone. She saw the caller was Jason and put him on speaker.

“Nesrin? I think I just noticed something. It was like meeting my own reflection.”

“I’m glad you called. I was just about to explain this same thing to Isabelle. What you’re seeing are flashes of alternate timelines. You, Jason, almost majored in accounting, and you, Isabelle, thought about teaching Taekwondo. When you perform actions that reflect those other options, you briefly experience what you could have had. For just a second, the hypothetical comes closer to reality and you can glimpse another life, but it doesn’t last long enough to become real. Most humans can’t actually see their’s, but the more you interact with my world…”

Jason was the first to speak. “So we’re gonna see more of these things?

“Most likely, yes.”

Isabelle shook her head. “Do you have ghost like this following you?”

“Yes, I have them too. The last time we were at the Flee Market I saw a version where I wasn’t released from my lamp until 2018, when an old lady sold it to you and you released me by accident.” She stared into the distance. “Another two thousand years in the lamp. Still, it’s better than some of the other alternatives. You were lucky that your first sightings were neither drastically better nor drastically worse than reality.”

“I see it again!” Jason was watching another copy of himself, dressed in dark pants and a pull-over shirt, walking down the hall with a briefcase.

“Yes,” Nesrin said. “In that version you got an internship at an accounting firm that works for the college. Financially, you’re not totally independent, but you’re not doing bad.” She heard quick footsteps over the phone.

Jason said “Can we talk to these things? Maybe get a few tips?”

“I suggest you don’t try. Any success or failure your alternatives had were based on a different set of circumstances than you’ve created for yourself. What works in one reality might destroy another.”

Isabelle noticed a version of herself sleeping on a bench beside them.

Nesrin saw her move towards the image. “When these appear you have to focus on the real, move forward as if you hadn’t seen them. If you don’t feed the connection they fade away. If you do the result is variable but seldom desirable .”

Isabelle turned away and her other self evaporated.

Jason’s footsteps stopped.

Nesrin smiled. “This will take practice for both of you, but I’ll help you adjust. In time you may find they aren’t so noticeable.”

Jason and Isabelle both murmured agreement, but really that was hard to imagine when they were both looking around for more shadows of different lives.

Lest We Forget

Ceylan stood in silence while Nesrin planted a circle of poppies. She was there mainly for her sister. Ceylan had been in the hidden realm for the War; she hadn’t seen it personally like Nesrin had. Neither spoke, and Nesrin didn’t look up from the flowers, but Ceylan did notice this was the first year Nesrin hadn’t wept while she worked.

Nesrin didn’t stand when she finished. She just looked out over the European landscape, her eyes looking through the present into the past. “I should have cried.”

Ceylan didn’t respond except to put a hand on her sister’s shoulder.

“The things… the people I let… I don’t deserve for the wounds to heal. I should have cried.”

Ceylan shifted closer. “Do you still remember what happened?”

“Too vividly.”

They stood in silence for a moment.

“Would you let it happen again?”

Nesrin breathed out the response like a sacred oath. “Never.”

“Then you’re still doing all you should.”

Nesrin looked up at her sister, then nodded as a single tear fell.

Ceylan Portrait and Character Squeezes

Ceylan

Presenting a portrait of Ceylan, Nesrin’s closest sister and advisor to Her Exalted Highness Samira Sila the Rebellious.

 

Also presenting a sequence of one-clause personality summaries of the main characters and more important recurring characters, just for the fun of it:

Nesrin Halfire – Whatever she needs to be at the time.

Isabelle Clements – Once was lost, now knows where she’s going.

Jason Clements – Impulsive, unobservant, well-meaning.

HEH Samira Sila TR – Can be overcome (barely) only by her descendants.

Ceylan Halfire – Her mother’s child.

Julrane of the Sea Dwellers – The loneliest hearts are often the truest.

The Vengeful Pirate

Been working on a short story for class, and during the brainstorming process I came up with this opening. Don’t know if it’ll end up fitting the story for class, but since it’s close to Halloween, I thought the tone and subject matter made it worth sharing here as a flash fic. 

 

For a time I not only roamed the oceans of Earth, I was everything fearful about them. The seas were my domain and sailors obeyed me. I have taken relatively few pseudonyms over the millennia, and they’ve usually been a variation of my true name, such as ‘Nesrin Halfire’ instead of ‘Nesrin the Half Fire.’ However, I’ve also had a few more strategic aliases, such as Daeva Jonah.

Though it’s spiraled beyond what I planned now, my masquerade was originally aimed at one specific crew of sailors. I figured, if appearing in my hidden form didn’t terrify them to insanity, announcing myself right in my name as the wicked spirit of someone known to cause storms would. Of course it meant pretending I was a man, which in my human form would have meant burdensome costumes, but no one seems to care what you look like when you’re made of fire. I still relish the looks on their faces, especially when I drug them and their ship into the deep with the mere sound of my voice.

Notice I didn’t say, “to their grave.” I made well sure they lived to see the sea dweller  city they’d destroyed for its treasures. A sea dweller from that city released me from the lamp I was crammed into by Solomon. The city was once known as Gulfia; now it’s my locker. There my crew reenact zombified scenes of their crimes until I need them again to track the next offenders.

Drabble: The Traveler

Alhana watched as a ragged, ill-kept jann made his way across the desert. Evidently he was a traveler, destined to roam creation for eternity. Something was off, though. Jann were the weakest order of jinn, but this one had a certain air about him. It felt as if he were radiating power. Alhana walked closer. “Tell me, good stranger, what is your name?”

Without looking at her the jann replied “Gobelen.”

Alhana’s mouth curled and her eyes narrowed. “Is it? Tell me something else, Gobelen. Tell me why an ifrit the likes of Mithal should wish to change his name and masquerade as a jann!”

Mithal mumbled under his breath, but kept moving forward.

“Answer me.”

Mithal stopped and sighed deeply. “Am I to have power over all the jinn but none over myself? To me the life of a jann appears as the splendor of Paradise when compared to the lot you have foreseen for me.”

The Meeting

Nesrin and Ceylan were pacing around the top room of the Great Hall. Ceylan had gotten her sister up to speed on their society’s politics, and their defense for the less than ethical actions their mother was accused of. Now they just had to wait for the remaining five rulers to arrive. Nesrin was still in her hidden one form to pass as Samira, and was already getting tired of it. Isabelle and Jason had looked for a corner to stay in, but the room was a circle, so the plan to stay out of the way hadn’t worked.

Isabelle hated to break their concentration, but also couldn’t take the silence anymore, so she ventured to ask “Why did the other tribes split from your mother’s rule?”

It was Ceylan who answered. “The silliest of all reasons; because of a dispute over what our people should call themselves. Some say we should always use ‘jinn’ because it’s what humans called us first; others say we should adapt to the humans we encounter, or use the name we are most commonly given. I say we shouldn’t use human terms at all. We should call ourselves what we were before our people began frequent dealing with humans; ‘ashrook.’ We…”

Further discussion was cut off as a black dog that walked like a person and a tall man with blue skin came in through one of the room’s smoked glass walls. Ceylan bowed and retreated to where Isabelle and Jason were standing behind Nesrin. She whispered “The blue one is Narong; the black one is Guayota.”

Nesrin’s eyes narrowed. “Tiv enpenst Augusti, Lilit, iw Cassim?”

Jason whispered to Ceylan. “What did she say?”

Ceylan leaned closer to him. “We were expecting five rulers and got two. She asked where the others are using the original language of our people.”

Narong advanced towards Nesrin. “Eleot envorq notive, xyq eleot penstwex ensha valaosdid sqwel eto kal ele okzaxenfo eto zeft oou tuw eto elnis.”

Ceylan explained. “He said the others are engaged elsewhere, but their presence isn’t needed to inform Mother that they are forcing her to step down for her crimes.”

The argument continued with Ceylan translating.

Guayota said “You have appeared in the form of a jann to our subjects multiple times stirring up turmoil. Each time you were found out. Each time you confessed your identity and threatened to use the superior size and power of your kingdom against us if we should attempt retribution. Do you deny it?”

Nesrin said “Yes, I deny it. It is true I can shift my form more easily than most, and because of this I can be impersonated more easily than most. I demand the opportunity to investigate this matter myself and present a case in my defense. I would extend the same right to any of you were you in my place.”

Narong sneered. “The millennia have dulled your mind. You confuse this for the courts of your human husbands. The other rulers are already preparing to release King Harun to stand in your place once we have you in chains.”

Nesrin moved so that her attackers couldn’t see her sister and friends.

Ceylan heard Nesrin’s voice in her head saying “Take the humans and check on Mother’s storehouse.” She grabbed Isabelle and Jason’s arms and they faded out of the room. They reappeared on top of a mile-high mountain of rubies with gold trees. The sky above them was a ceiling of marble. “Mother is called ‘Jailer of the Seven Kings and King Harun’ for a reason. They’re former rulers of our people who were imprisoned during the Great Capturing. She keeps their bottles in a diamond chest inside a vault inside a cave on this mountain. We need to make sure they haven’t been tampered with. Stick close and I’ll get you past the booby traps.”

Isabelle and Jason glanced at each other and followed her.

Ceylan stopped under a tree with a bronze limb. “The limb’s lost its leaves. The trap’s already been tripped.” She looked inside a hole in the tree. “Empty. The trap didn’t work.” She walked more quickly to the next trap, a rock of red gold. “It’s pushed into the rubies. This one’s been tripped too, but I can’t see faces in the jewels. Seems the other three rulers are fairly resourceful.”

A soft voice said “Or the thief who offered to help them is.” The voice belonged to a figure wearing a black hooded cloak with hanging threads and tears running all down the sides. The other three rulers were standing behind her. Augusti appeared as a very tall man with a third eye, Lilit appeared as a winged woman with the body of a snake from the waist down, and Cassim appeared as something half goat and half lion with the face of a man. The cloaked figure’s sleeve moved and her hand appeared, holding a clay bottle marked “Harun.”

Back inside the Great Hall, Nesrin was teleporting around the top room trying to avoid Narong and Guayota while figuring out how to break her mother’s spell that prevented her from leaving. Narong managed to grab her wrist, but she jerked it free. When she did she stumbled through one of the smoked glass entrances. It dawned on her that Samira’s incantation only prevented her from teleporting out of the room, not leaving it physically. Finally free, she vaporized herself and rematerialized inside the Sanctum of Records, back in her human form. A parchment scroll the size of a tree trunk floated in front of her.

“Okay, it’ll take them maybe a few minutes to sense where I’ve gone. I’ve got that long to figure out who besides me has a grudge against Mother.” She waved her hand in front of the scroll to make it unroll and motioned up with her hand to make the text scroll. She figured she could rule out humans, and she knew few self-respecting hidden ones would disguise themselves as a jann, so the culprit probably really was one. Her eyes landed on a record involving the jann from around the time Samira allowed the five sects to split from her rule.

Narong and Guayota materialized beside her and she had to disappear again. Thankfully she’d had time to read what she needed. She telepathically asked Ceylan “What’s going on?”

Ceylan quickly explained and returned to the situation at hand. “So you have the bottle. It doesn’t mean anything. Only humans can open those things. I can’t even do it because I’m only half.”

Lilit smirked. “Then it’s fortunate that you’ve supplied us with two. Did you honestly not realize we would sense that they aren’t our kind?” She raised a hand and her eyes glowed green.

Jason’s face went blank and he started to move forward.

Isabelle tried to perform a head kick to stop him, but Augusti waved a hand and she found herself hanging upside down in the air.

Nesrin materialized—back in her hidden one form—above Jason and brought him to the ground with her as she fell. “Ceylan, pull back that jann’s hood.”

Ceylan rushed to do so.

Narong and Guayota materialized as the hood came off. It revealed a young woman with hair of ash and a face of smoke.

The five rulers stiffened. Augusti let Isabelle fall. Lilit was the first to speak. “This is the form Samira wore when she was found tampering with our tribes.”

Cassim moved in front of the thief. “Why would Samira orchestrate her own downfall?”

Nesrin stood. “I wouldn’t. This is an imposter working on behalf of Bedeea-el-Jemal, formerly the Princess of the Jann, am I correct?”

The thief shook her head. “Not quite. I am not working on behalf of Princess Bedeea, I am she. When I learned that Samira allowed disgruntled groups to split, I petitioned her to let the jann govern ourselves as we did in the days of old, but she saw fit to deny my request without explanation. However, I remembered that when the first king, Harun, came into power, he allowed my father to retain rule of the jann until father willingly abdicated.”

Ceylan nodded. “So you arranged for Harun to be reinstated in Mother’s place hoping that he would grant your request.”

Bedeea replied “It is as you say. I appeared to Guayota to convince him of Harun’s suitability and offer my services in attaining the bottle. He then spoke to the others.”

Guayota said “What she says is true. She convinced me that Harun’s rule would not be as effective as yours, Samira, and your kingdom would no longer have the advantage over ours. It’s an idea I still find somewhat attractive, so I suggest putting that bottle back wherever it goes immediately.”

Nesrin nodded to Ceylan, who took the lamp and walked into the cave. She assumed her best impersonation of her mother’s ‘royal decreeing’ posture. “If all of you leave now except Bedeea I may respond mercifully to this.” She wanted to sigh in relief when they all actually left, but didn’t. “Now, Bedeea, rather than exact punishment, I ask that you present your request again in two weeks’ time to my adviser, Ceylan. She will aid you in making your case to me for a second time. Would you find this agreeable?”

“Yes… but I don’t…”

“I will not be called a tyrant, and I would sooner have someone so cunning as a friend than an enemy. Upon reconsidering your request it may be I can grant it, and if not, the least I owe you is open discussion first. However, any further attempts at treachery or rebellion on your part will result in the termination of this offer and immediate retribution. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Very well. You may leave and begin preparing your case.”

Bedeea bowed and vanished.

Nesrin reverted to her human form and leaned against a tree. “I think it’s over for now. You two can take off those costumes.”

Jason was still checking for cuts and bruises. “You think your mom’s gonna accept the rulings you made?”

Nesrin rubbed her own shoulders. “Ceylan and I will have to do some convincing, but I think we can make something work.”

A brown Persian Greyhound walked out of a cluster of trees and nosed Nesrin’s leg.

Isabelle squealed and rushed to pet her. “She’s so cute! You didn’t tell me your mom had a doggy.”

Nesrin rolled her eyes. “She doesn’t.”

Isabelle leapt back with a yelp as the dog erupted into flames and morphed into Samira.

“Well done, Nesrin, very well done.”

“Thank you. How was your trip?”

“Inconclusive. I found evidence that our people have been active in the area, but I couldn’t trace whoever it was. I will continue to monitor the situation, and I will, of course, expect you to notify me if you see anything peculiar.”

“Of course.”

“We will also need to talk more about Lady Bedeea, but for now you are free to return home once you say goodbye to your sister.”

Nesrin wasted no time in exploiting that freedom.

It was early morning when the three roommates made it home. Nesrin mixed them all drinks and they sat out on the balcony to relax. She figured she owed them some explanations, so she started telling stories.

“The ifrit Mother went looking for is called Mithal. The Great Capturing began when he was imprisoned in a bottle by King Solomon. At that time the hidden ones were ruled by a council of seven kings. The drunken fools tried to respond to his capturing with force, but only succeeded in getting themselves trapped in bottles and triggering a siege against our people. The Seven Kings’ predecessor, King Harun, returned to lead the resistance. He attempted negotiation, but talks quickly deteriorated, and he too was imprisoned. Our people were left without a leader; panicked, disorganized, powerless. When Mother saw this she took it upon herself to lead them, and my siblings and I were her generals. She ordered me to infiltrate Solomon’s palace and bring her the bottles containing the Seven Kings, King Harun, and Mithal so they couldn’t depose her when the battle was over. Solomon disposed of everyone else’s lamps, bottles, or whatever else at random, but these nine were marked and kept in a vault. I was discovered and sentenced to a lamp, but I was able to send Mother all of the bottles as I was being imprisoned, except one.”

Isabelle asked “Why didn’t your people just retreat to the hidden realm?”

“The realm is not a complete world. It’s the collective name for niches we have carved out for ourselves in the fabric of this world, mostly in places where your scientists suspect there are pockets of dark matter. When the losses became too great Mother finally did lead a retreat to her storehouse, then she commissioned the Great Hall inside the cave you call Majlis al Jinn so everyone would have somewhere to go until it was safe to move about here again. Now it serves as a peace palace for our society.”

Jason pushed the ice around in his drink. “Be honest, how often are we gonna get pulled into crazy plots on mystical planes?”

“Probably not often. My spying assignment won’t involve travel, and Mother will cycle through a few other siblings before she involves me in anything again.”

The sun started to rise and Jason and Isabelle went to get some sleep. Nesrin let the door close before she added “I hope.”

The Visitor

The Visitor

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.”

Ceylan nodded.

“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?”