Cave of Clutter

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On some days Isabelle and Jason would do almost anything to avoid their school work, even if it meant technically doing more work. This time the distraction was going through the boxes they kept in the spare bedroom, separating things they wanted to keep from things they could get rid of. Clothes, books, toys, pictures, and knick-knacks were spread all over the bed, all over the floor, and on the nightstand. The siblings were standing in the middle pulling items out of the boxes and adding to the pile.

Nesrin was leaning on a wall in the closet. “If you’re determined to get things out of this room, I would happily put them in my storehouse in the hidden realm. There’s more than enough space.”

Jason chuckled. “Must not have as much in it as this.”

“Oh this is nothing. My people have millennia to accumulate possessions. It’s what led to the misconception that we can magically create unlimited wealth.”

“Thanks, Nesrin,” Isabelle said, “but we really do need to get rid of some things.” She held up a battery-powered lantern without glass. “I mean seriously, why do we even have this?”

Jason held up a two feet tall plush clown on a stand. “Probably the same reason we have this.”

Nesrin walked out of the closet and picked up a house coat with a red and white rose print. “What are you going to do with the stuff you don’t want?” She slipped the sleeves over her arms. “Surely you’re not going to just throw it out.”

Jason sat the clown down and picked up a cookbook. “Of course not. We’ll probably find somewhere to donate it.”

Nesrin found the sash to the robe and tied it around her waist.

Isabelle stopped and looked at the box. “Or we could sell it; get a little extra cash for school supplies.”

Jason snorted. “Who’d buy any of this?”

“People like us that stop whenever they see yard sales. I bet we could do pretty well from all this old junk.”

Nesrin reached into the air. Her eyes flashed gold and she produced a dollar bill. “You can start with this house coat.”

Isabelle took the dollar and held it up. “See?”

“Where would we have the sale, though? Our lease doesn’t let us sell things in the complex.”

Nesrin was looking at her new robe in the hall mirror. “You can rent a booth at the flea market for thirty dollars a day. Forty for a weekend.”

Isabelle squirmed. “I wonder if it would be worth it.”

Nesrin came back in with her hands in the robe’s pockets. “If you want more of a profit you could take some things from my storehouse. Some of my junk would be quite valuable by this society’s standards. I’ll take you there and you can have your pick.”

Jason and Isabelle shot each other excited glances.

“That would be worth doing just to see the place,” Jason said.

Nesrin smiled. “Excellent.”

She made several motions with her right hand and her eyes took on a steady gold glow. Soon the bedroom began to fade away and a circular wall of bookcases took its place. As soon as the bookcases were in place a small, light brown bird fluttered in and landed on Nesrin’s finger.

Nesrin kissed its beak. “Hey, Lind. These are my roommates Jason and Isabelle. Guys, this is my pet nightingale Lind.”

Lind fluttered around the two new arrivals, then flew in front of them, looking them in the eye. Finally she flew back to Nesrin and nodded her head before perching on her shoulder.

“We’re in the library right now. The main display area’s this way.”

She led them through a winding line of books that went on for several yards before opening into a room that was part museum, part warehouse, and part bank vault. The first thing Jason and Isabelle saw was a crimson steam locomotive.

“Do you like it? It’s a Jones M2 class from England.”

Jason ran up and almost climbed into the cab. “You have a train?”

Nesrin patted the front of the engine. “No, only the engine. For a full train I would also need some coaches or freight cars.” She pointed to a long wall lined from floor to ceiling with wooden filing cabinets. “Those drawers contain multiple types of currency. Don’t mess with them, and don’t touch any locked chests or doors. Other than that, anything you can easily carry is yours.”

Isabelle walked forward slowly, unsure where to start. The first thing she came to was an Easter tree decorated with Fabergé eggs. “You’re sure you don’t want any of this?”

Nesrin waved a hand. “Having this much excess for so long sort of removes the fulfillment you get from possessions. The things I really treasure are locked away; anything out here I basically just happen to have.” She picked up a bronze and gold egg with a clockwork design. “You may want to avoid anything too suspicious, though. Sell enough of these and we’ll have federal agents showing up at the apartment.”

Isabelle nodded and backed away from the tree. She walked to a line of tables where Jason was admiring sets of kitchenware from various countries and time periods.

Jason held up a glass chalice. “Okay, I’m convinced. With this kind of merchandise we’ll do great.” He put the glass in his other hand and picked up a plate with swirling blue patterns around the edges.

Isabelle picked up a wooden stand holding a dozen wine stoppers. They were all marble, and carved into the shapes of angels. Perfect.

There was so much they’d have to choose at random. She turned around and caught a glimpse of Nesrin’s wall of money. If what Nesrin said was true, there had to be more money in those drawers than was on the physical planet.

“Hey, Jason, does it bother you that Nesrin keeps that much money under lock and k…?”

“Awe yeah, swords!” Something shiny had caught Jason’s eye, and he’d ducked under the table to make a beeline for the sword display. He picked up a long, curved sword and pulled it out of the sheath. The first thing he did was look at the reflection of his face in the steel. He then proceeded to swish the blade through the air as if he were in a duel. “I think I’ll take this just for me.”

She tilted her head, but didn’t say anything.

Jason tried the sword in his other hand. He slipped it back into its sheath when she saw Nesrin coming with four cardboard boxes.

Nesrin put the boxes down beside the sword case. “I figured you could probably use these. They’ll be here when you want them. I see you found my shamshir. That one has a weird story behind it. It once belonged to King Vologases V of the Arsacid Empire. ”

Jason ran his fingers over the sheath. “Oh that is cool. Why would you get rid of this?”

Nesrin gestured to the room around them. “You honestly think I’ll notice? There’s more here than I ever look at. In your world it wouldn’t just be gathering dust, it would have been dust literal ages ago. This way it can get some appreciation and make you some much needed money. It just makes sense.”

Isabelle held up a hand. “Speaking of things that do or don’t make sense, do all hidden ones have enough money to line a wall?”

“Not all. Jann don’t have any. Most of us do, though. After long enough it just sort of happens.”

“What do you do with that much?”

Nesrin shrugged. “Buy things? I choose to pay rent, and pay for whatever else I need instead of just taking it like most hidden ones do. Most of it just sits with the rest of the so-called treasure unless we’re bound to a master who wants to use it, which I never intend to be again.”

Isabelle’s mouth hung open. Memories raced through her mind of the broken springs in orphanage beds and the chips in the ceilings. “You realize that means collectively your people could actually fix all the world’s problems. Probably you could single-handed.”

“Theoretically, but new ones would just come up, and where would the fun be in a perfect world, anyway?”

“Qué?”

They were interrupted by Lind taking off after a toy dragonfly Jason had sent flying.

Nesrin took the opportunity to say “There’s something I need to go tend to. I’ll be back for you and Jason before long. Feel free to keep looking.”

Isabelle didn’t respond at first, but finally said “Bye.” When Nesrin was gone she looked down. She was still holding the wine stoppers. She put them in a box, then went back to the table and grabbed the heaviest gold plates and cups she could find. After that she found some piles of jewelry and raked in pieces at random.

Jason was playing with some wind-up figurines painted like fifteenth century explorers. Satisfied with the slow, mechanical way they marched, he put all six in his box. While he was still putting in the last one he saw two pewter bookends in the shape of wolves. “Hey, check these out.”

Isabelle smiled. “They’re nice. We’ll get a good price for them.”

“More like they’ll look great holding my books up in my room.”

“Oh venga! This whole thing started with trying to get rid of stuff.”

“And make way for new stuff, like really cool bookends.”

“You… never mind.” She left him alone and grabbed a handful of silk scarves.

By the time Nesrin came back they had both filled both their boxes, and Isabelle had found two shoulder bags to fill up besides.

Nesrin surveyed their takings. “Excellent choices, you two. So, you ready to head back?”

Isabelle said “I am” at the same time Jason said “Yeah, I guess.”

Nesrin kissed Lind’s beak and the bird winged away in search of new amusement. Nesrin went back through the motions from before and their apartment began fade into sight.

Jason heaved his two boxes onto the bed. “Now I get to figure where to put all this stuff.”

Nesrin frowned. “You mean until you sell it?”

Isabelle huffed. “Don’t ask.”

Nesrin rolled her eyes with a laugh. She turned to Isabelle. “I suppose you still want to call the flea market?”

Isabelle shook her head. “Actually I think stuff like this would do better in a pawnshop. I’ll find one this evening after I get done sorting through the other boxes.”

“Cool, cool. Well, I better get ready for work tonight. Good luck selling all this.”

“Thanks.” She watched Nesrin go, grateful that they wouldn’t see a lot of each other that night. She picked up a silver candlestick, tracing the design with her fingers. She sat it down and happened to put her hand in her jean pocket. She found the dollar Nesrin had given her for the rose robe.

On second thought, maybe she’d only use half the money for school. Someone else might need the other half. She’d figure that out later, too, while her pollino brother slowly realized he didn’t have room for his two boxes of toys.

Drabble: The Bottle Opens

Opening of the bottle

 

Gobelen’s memories of the dark day were vivid. Then again, he had no way of knowing how long ago that day was when his prison permitted him no light or sound. There was only the voice that had sentenced him to the bottle ringing neverendingly in his ears, and the visions of the lead seal forming over the exit.

Gobelen perceived a deafening crack and blinding light. Could it be…?

Cautiously, he unfolded into the world beyond the bottle. This world was different from the one he’d known. He examined the stars that shown within the walls of the house, then the strange devices that filled the room. He guessed it was a kitchen because of the fruit and bread he saw. He wondered if he’d been kept in Solomon’s palace, or the home of some other great king. Whatever the case, the most important question was how to ensure he did not wake from one nightmare into another.

Julrane 1

 

I decided to do a portrait for Julrane of the Sea Dwellers next because I love this character. She also gets a drabble to herself for the same reason.

***

As soon as Nesrin was asleep Julrane grabbed a flower she’d been hiding and snuck out to plant it. She knew Nesrin was named after a certain land flower, and she’d been fairly confident she could breed a variety that grew underwater. It had taken almost a year of secret nighttime trial and error to create the white and blue-green rose she now held. Now all she had to do was dig in the sand, which she loved doing anyway, and wait till morning for Nesrin to see it, which would be easily the hardest part of the process.

Card Tricks

Nesrin was floating in the living room with her legs crossed as if she were sitting. She was reading The Necromancers while Isabelle and Jason poured over their school books. Isabelle had a psychology final coming up, and Jason was half-way through the rough draft of a business paper. Nesrin had completed her formal education centuries before the modern version of graduate school came into being, and from the sight of her roommates studying she was grateful for the fact. Isabelle had subconsciously twisted her hair around her wrist, and Jason’s laptop keyboard was so covered in scraps of paper and corn chips that Nesrin failed to understand how he saw the keys. At some point they had also scattered plates and containers all over the kitchen. All this on the day it was Nesrin’s turn to clean up the apartment.

She sighed and vanished into the air. A few seconds later she re-entered from the hallway carrying a tray with three pink frozen drinks. She sat one down in front of Isabelle, one in front of Jason, and took one for herself.

“What are these?” Isabelle asked. She tried to pick up her drink, then realized her wrist was restrained and stopped to untie it.

“Strawberry daiquiris; properly strong ones. You both looked near death, and fascinating as I find death, I don’t want to lose you yet.” She produced a deck of playing cards out of her sleeve. “I thought some diversion was in order.”

Jason shook the crumbs and scraps off his computer. “I don’t know. We’ve kind’ve got a mountain of stuff we’ve gotta get through if we wanna pass this semester.”

Nesrin waved a hand. “Oh please. Your paper is a mere fifteen double-spaced pages, and Isabelle knows psychology as well as I know the stories of Scheherazade. Besides, it is not productive to work when your mind is so frazzled. Take a moment to refresh yourselves by playing a game with me, then you can do better work after I leave you alone.” She opened the deck of cards and dribbled the deck from one hand to the other.

Isabelle took a sip of her drink. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to clear our minds for a while.”

Nesrin grinned. “Excellent.” She sat down on the floor and motioned for the other two to come closer. She held the deck in her left hand and performed an intricate single-handed shuffle, which she repeated a few times. When she was satisfied she dealt them all seven cards. “We’ll play Rummy since we have alcohol to hand, and I won’t make us go to 300 points. I’m older than both of you by millennia, so I’ll go first.” She took the top card off the stock and put it face-up on the floor to start the discard pile. She looked over her hand, resisting the urge to rearrange the cards.

Jason and Isabelle were both carefully studying their hands and moving cards, looking for connections and trying to create a sequence. They took their time deciding whether or not to keep a card, too, and if they kept it, they took equally long deciding which card to discard.

Nesrin let them play in silence for a bit. Soon Jason put down a sequence of A, 2, and 3 of clubs. Isabelle had a satisfied smirk on her face, but it was hard to tell if it was fake or not. When Nesrin’s turn came she picked up a card from the discard pile and seemed to look at it absently. “Can I ask you both something?”

Both their eyes shifted towards her.

“Sure, what is it?”

Nesrin discarded the card she’d picked up. “Is it weird that I think about death? Most hidden ones just ignore it since we’re immortal.”

Isabelle crinkled her eyebrows. “Yeah, but you’re half human, too, aren’t you?” She took a card off the stock, glanced at it, and discarded it. “Maybe subconsciously you’re wondering if it’s a possibility for you because of that.”

Nesrin shrugged, assembling some of her cards into a sequence of Q, K, and A of diamonds. “Maybe that is it. That might also explain some of my other non-hidden one traits.”

Jason leaned forward. “Like what?”

“Well, like singing. Hidden ones have inspired songs and poems ever since we began relations with humans, but we are not traditionally singers. Then there’s my love of water, but maybe that one comes from living with merpeople for awhile.”

Jason flung a card into the discard pile. “What?” His eyes ran back over his hand, then shot to the discard pile. “Wait, I put down the wrong card.”

Isabelle shrugged. “Too bad, no redos. Now what was that about merpeople?”

“Well, sort of. They were not what you probably think of when you hear that name. Outwardly no part of them looked aquatic at all, but they lived under the sea. Me living with them seems counterintuitive in more ways than one, since hidden ones are made of fire and humans need air, but I suppose my magic made it possible.” She picked up a card, added it to her hand, and discarded. “It actually happened by accident, but I’m sure the story would bore you.”

“I doubt it,” they both said.

Nesrin shook her head. “You need to focus on your cards. It can wait.”

They both made disappointed faces.

Nesrin tried not to smirk. “Of course, we could always make a bet so you have motivation to stay focused while I tell the story.”

Isabelle and Jason looked at each other, shrugged, then nodded their heads.

“If I win, you two clean up the apartment today. If one of you win, I do it for the next week. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Very well.” Nesrin rearranged her cards. “When I arrived in their city I was still trapped in a lamp after the Great Capturing. The Great Capturing occurred in 945 BC, and I was in my lamp for one thousand years. That’s as much as I wish to dwell on it. Apparently my lamp was thrown into the sea and drifted in the current until it arrived in a sea dweller city. That’s where Julrane found it. She was the simple, curious sort. She would have to be to become so fascinated by an old object she saw in her garden and break the lead seal by picking at it. I was so relieved to be out I would have sworn loyalty to whoever released me. I was lucky it was her.”

Nesrin watched Jason pick up the card he’d accidentally discarded, and the ones that had been put on top of it since then.

“As my smoke folded out of the lamp, it automatically returned to my human form. When my bones and muscles reformed they were surprisingly stiff, but the warmth of the water helped to ease the discomfort away. When my eyes focused I saw a young woman with skin that shone like the moon, and hair that glinted like sapphire as it floated around her. At first I thought she must be a statue; she was frozen from shock.” She allowed herself a chuckle at the memory, but didn’t let it stop her from picking up the 10 of diamonds and putting it in her sequence.

“I said ‘Do not be afraid. I am Nesrin of the Hidden Ones, and bare you nothing but gratitude for bringing about my release.’ After a few moments she stammered out ‘I am Julrane of the Sea Dwellers. You have come to the waters near Persia and Arabia, to the Citadel of Gulfia. Please, let me prepare you a place to rest and some food.’ She led me through the halls of the Citadel, and there were so many people I thought their entire society resided in those walls. The floors were made of pure pearl, and the walls of opulent shells. Despite being underwater, there were silk tapestries depicting scenes of their history.”

Isabelle was looking above her cards at Nesrin. Jason had to nudge her to get her to make a move.

Nesrin continued. “Julrane was generous, too. She prepared me a place in her rooms, and I stayed with her as long as I stayed in Gulfia. On my first night I insisted on becoming her servant to repay her for releasing me from the lamp. She told me that wouldn’t be necessary; she couldn’t imagine herself with a servant. When I pressed the issue she said ‘I will only accept you as my servant in the very loosest sense of the word. If you must serve me you will do so by being my friend and providing me with company while I work in the gardens.’

“I bowed to show my agreement, and she pulled me upright. Our waters were shallow enough that we could see the sun rise and set, so we knew the hour was late and that we should rest for the night. The next morning I began to help her in the gardens. I wasn’t expecting the variety of plants she was able to grow in that place. The entire area was covered in blueish green seagrass, and there were white bushes of anemone, even types of fruit and vegetables.

“She handed me a basket and said ‘If you pick the sea grapes, I shall trim back the kelp and seaweed. Watch out for the waterwheel plant. It has a tendency to tangle around your feet and trap you in place.’ She could have saved her breath; I didn’t watch out and it was only three days before I got my ankles caught like a child. I could have made my feet transparent and gotten out easily, as you have seen, but before the thought occurred to me Julrane said ‘Here, let me.’ There was almost a pleading tone in her voice and it caught me off guard. While she cut me loose I looked around and realized I never saw anyone but us in the gardens, and it dawned on me that Julrane never entertained visitors other than me.

“She had only gotten one foot free when we noticed a light glint across the Citadel walls. We turned and saw a dendan—a vicious creature best described as looking like a giant sideways stingray—coming towards us. Julrane looked me in the eyes and kept cutting away at the waterwheels. I made my foot transparent, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her away from the odious thing just as it swooped through the garden. We watched from above as it circled the Citadel. Without thinking I grabbed the beast by its uppermost fin and wrestled it up into the more open water above the city. Even there its tail threatened to remove the roofs of buildings.

“My people have the natural strength to move castles, but castles are not alive and struggling. The dendan kept bucking and jumping out of the water. At last it knocked me loose and caught me on its tail, then circled its tail around to its mouth. The sight of teeth that size approaching shocked even me. Just then Julrane swam up with a net of waterwheels to tie its tail around its body so that it couldn’t move freely. As soon as she got the net over it the dendan became wild trying to free itself, but it couldn’t make forward movements or mount further attacks. Now that I had the plants to grab onto it was easier to wrestle the creature to a cave where Julrane could trigger a rock fall and trap it in. We had to journey nearly to the open ocean to find one. When the task was done we took our time returning home, congratulating ourselves on our feat. That night we sat up making a tapestry of the event for ourselves to hang in our rooms. I still have the tapestry on my wall. Remind me and I’ll show you sometime.

“Rummy.” Nesrin concluded her story by putting her entire hand down and revealing a sequence of 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, and A of diamonds. There was no sense counting points. Jason had only put down two small sequences, and Isabelle hadn’t put any cards down at all. Nesrin reached out in a lightning movement and collected the cards. “I’m holding you two to our bet. Sorry to make more work for you now of all times.” She put her cards back in their box and flashed a crooked grin at Jason and Isabelle.

Isabelle made a ‘give me more’ motion with her hands. “So, why did you leave? Did something happen to Julrane?”

Nesrin took a swig from her drink. “Julrane eventually met the fate that all mortals do. I did not find it so interesting that time. Gulfia didn’t have the same luster without her, and I felt an irresistible urge to return to the surface and find some of my brothers and sisters. I did try to go back there, but found that human explorers had pillaged the city for the shells and pearls of its buildings. Now even the ruins have been wiped out by drilling and pipelines. I still have my tapestry, though. Not all of the treasures were lost.”

The two siblings looked down, as if a decent response could be found on the floor.

Nesrin stood. “Now, you two better get back to your work, and don’t spill those drinks on the floor; you’ll just have to clean them up.” She returned to her room while Jason and Isabelle stretched and started to move.

Half way through getting up Isabelle stopped and looked back at Jason. “We have to clean the apartment now.”

Jason replayed the card game in his mind. His mouth dropped as realization dawned.

Isabelle nodded in the direction of the hallway. “Bein jugado, Nesrin. Bein jugado.”

Meanwhile

Periodically I’ll also post drabbles from the world of the stories, such as this, to build the world and add to the character list. These will function as a side series that occurs (mostly) concurrently with the main series, and focus on a different set of characters from the longer stories. So, without further ado…

 

 

We stared at the bottle on the table, as if we were waiting for the lead seal to disappear on its own.

“Should we open it?”

I let out a deep sigh. “I don’t know. On the one hand, the poor genie’s been in there like three-thousand years. On the other hand, what happens if they flip and destroy humanity for revenge?”

“But wouldn’t they have to obey us as long as we have the bottle?”

“Based on the stories, some would and some wouldn’t. Anyway what would we do with that much power?”

“I don’t know, maybe do something about that world peace thing?”

“That’s what we hope we’d do, but the thing is power corrupts, and lots of power really corrupts.”

He nodded. “So should we open it?”

Today we have a character portrait of  Nesrin, and also my first attempt at drawing a character on a digital program.

Nesrin

The Illusionist and the Siblings

Isabelle and Jason generally agreed that the main reason for going to the local flea market was to people-watch. They admitted the place sold unique items, but they couldn’t get past their grandmother’s assertion that flea markets were called that for a reason. They were definitely leery of any second-hand merchandise, which was annoying since they liked that kind of thing anywhere else. Then again, the point was probably moot anyway, since two grad students like them couldn’t afford to do much more than look.

Their new roommate Nesrin, however, loved flea markets. It wasn’t so much the stuff at the flea market she liked, just the general look and atmosphere of the place itself. Periodically she would go just to walk around and see what she could find, and this time she’d dragged Isabelle and Jason along to get them out of the apartment.

They were in what could loosely be called the food court. Isabelle and Jason were sitting across from each other at a bench while Nesrin went to get an ear of roasted corn. Isabelle was watching Nesrin move forward in line. She was standing by the open side of the building, and Isabelle was trying to get a glimpse of her in sunlight.

She leaned closer to Jason. “Have you noticed that Nesrin doesn’t really have a shadow?”

“Of course she does; she has to.”

“Barely has one, then. I saw it when we were out on the balcony the other day. Her shadow is way lighter than ours, and blurrier. I didn’t pay it a lot of attention until we got out of the car here, but I happened to see it and I swear it didn’t even have a human shape. I mean it did, but all weird, like everything was out of proportion.”

“Shadows always look weird. It just depends where the light source is.”

“Yeah, but it still should’ve looked vaguely like ours. This wasn’t even close.”

“I mean, she is a professional illusionist. Maybe it’s some kind of trick.”

Isabelle crinkled her eyebrows and held a hand out. “Why would she disguise her shadow when she’s not on stage?”

Jason saw Nesrin coming back and mouthed “Ssh.”

Nesrin bit into her corn as she sat down next to Isabelle. “So, what are we talking about?”

Jason answered with “I was just sayin’ I don’t know how you eat food from this place. It’s like buyin’ lunch at a gas station.”

Nesrin shrugged. “I would have said more like carnival food. I’ve seen you ravage a turkey leg at the fairgrounds. Are you really going to tell me this is more sketchy than that?”

Jason opened his mouth to respond, then had to stop because she had a point. Isabelle laughed at his stupid face and nodded in Nesrin’s direction. Nesrin smirked back and returned to her corn.

An unobservant outsider would probably have guessed that Isabelle and Nesrin were the siblings, since they both had black hair and tan skin, which was a stark contrast to the pasty-faced, red-headed Jason. Anyone who took the time would have found out that in actuality Isabelle was Hispanic and Nesrin was Arabian. They would also have found out that Isabelle and Jason weren’t blood siblings either; they were both adopted.

Nesrin finished eating and wrapped the corn cob in her napkin, then tossed it to a nearby trash can. “Come on, there’s a used book stall at the back of this building with a huge selection. I bet you two even find something you like.” She got up and waited for either of them to move. “It’s because I said ‘used,’ isn’t it? Come on, it’s not close to any animal cages, so I promise you won’t come out with fleas.”

Jason and Isabelle shrugged and followed her down the line of waiting merchants. They were both trying to get a good look at her shadow, but in the crowd and the dimness of the building they couldn’t really see shadows at all. Jason noticed Nesrin brush against someone at a stall, and it looked like mist flew out of Nesrin’s shoulder. The other person’s back had been turned, so Jason assumed they’d been smoking until he saw it happen again. This time the other person had been coming towards them, and they obviously weren’t smoking. Jason looked more closely at Nesrin. Now it looked like there was steam all around her body, or maybe like her edges were blurred somehow, like a child had colored her outside the lines.

He nudged Isabelle. “Is it just me, or is Nesrin smoking?”

“Seriously?”

“Not that kind of smoking. I mean there’s smoke coming out her. Watch when she bumps into someone.”

Isabelle watched Nesrin’s hand brush against a stall they were passing. It looked like her whole hand turned into a cloud and reformed on the other side of the stall. “Esto es extraño.”

“But… we’ve shaken hands with her, we just watched her eat. How…?”

Isabelle put her hands around her the back of her neck and ran them down to her shoulders. “That can’t just be an illusion, can it?”

Jason’s shoulders tensed. “Well, she does work in a casino; she’d have to be pretty good for that. Maybe she does it in public to stay in practice?”

Isabelle nodded, but her expression didn’t relax. “Maybe that’s it. She just stays in performance mode. Yeah.”

They tried to laugh at themselves for almost being fooled by the act, but all they got was ragged chuckles.

The vapor around Nesrin stopped when they reached the book stall, and her hands certainly didn’t vanish as she snatched up a paperback copy of The Necromancers to flip through. The previous owner had written copious notes in the margins, which was enough for Nesrin to decide she wanted it, so she set it to the side and picked up a book called Sea Stories. She’d barely looked at the cover when a book of song lyrics caught her eye and she sat Sea Stories down to look at it instead.

Her two roommates tried to forget the spectacles they’d seen a few moments ago by looking for new books of their own. Neither was really as captivated as Nesrin was, and their gazes were wondering to other stalls. Isabelle happened to look over and see a small, ceramic, Spanish-style house. She moved away from the pile of books to the other stall. As soon as she picked up the house she knew she was getting it for the ceramic village she kept on a shelf in the apartment. It was in the perfect style to match the rest of the village.

Nesrin put her books down and walked over. “Do you want me to get it for you?”

“You don’t have to, I can get it.”

“Please, let me. I like doing nice things for my friends.”

“You already gave us a sublease on your apartment.”

“Which you pay for, that doesn’t count. Please?”

Isabelle looked at the house, then back at Nesrin. “Alright, thanks.”

Nesrin smiled and took the house from her. When she paid, Isabelle noticed that her hand went a little too far into the small leather wallet, but that illusion was more commonplace. The gold glow that flashed through Nesrin’s dark brown eyes, however, took her by surprise.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. When they decided to leave Nesrin left them at the front entrance while she pulled the car around.

“See,” Isabelle said, “no shadow.”

Jason shivered. “That’s nothing. She bought me a phone case while you were at the airbrush booth, and I swear her eyes flashed gold when she opened her wallet.”

“I saw that too. If this is all illusions I’ll be extremely impressed.”

The ride home consisted mostly of singing along with the radio; nothing abnormally unusual. When they got home Nesrin sat her bag of books down on the kitchen counter while Isabelle went to put her new house on her shelf and Jason sat down to change out his phone case.

Nesrin didn’t look away from the books she was unbagging when she said “There’s something odd about you two.”

The two siblings froze.

Nesrin flipped through her new songbook. “You started to suspect I was a jinn much sooner than my previous roommates. Usually my job as an illusionist fools people for longer.” She finally looked up at them and saw their mouths hanging open. “I know: why am I telling you this? You’re both watching too closely, and a suspicious audience is what kills illusions. Best to admit it now and save further trouble.”

Isabelle and Jason looked at each other, then burst into laughter.

“Muy brillante. That was one of the best pranks I’ve had pulled on me. You seriously had me going with that shadow trick. I can’t believe you committed to that for a whole week to pull this off.”

“That trick with the smoke was good, too. How’d you do that, anyway?”

Nesrin waited to respond, considering her options. “You don’t believe me, then?”

Jason’s laugh slowed before Isabelle’s did. “You’re serious?”

Both siblings felt the sensation of giant smokey hands picking them up and the world moving around them, but it only lasted about a second and a half.

They were dizzy when everything stopped. Jason started to lean forward, and saw the busy street several feet beneath him. He and Isabelle latched onto each other and backed away from the edge, tripping on a hard, sloped surface behind them.

“Do you believe me now?”

They looked up. Nesrin was leaning on a metal spire picking at her fingernails.

“We’re on top of Big Ben. I think you will agree no one could pull off this kind of illusion with the time and materials I had available.”

A quick look at their surroundings showed that she was telling the truth. Westminster Palace, the London Eye, it was all there.

“So you’re… a genie?”

“Jinn. The word is jinn, at least if we choose not to translate it. The Arabic word ‘jinn’ actually does have corresponding meanings in English. Personally, I tend to use ‘hidden ones.’ I only used ‘jinn’ in this case because I thought it would be the most recognizable to you. Also, I am only half hidden one, on my mother’s side. The other half is human. That’s why I don’t look like a crazy fire person right now.”

Isabelle’s mouth hung open again. “I have so many questions.”

“There will be time enough for that. For now let’s get down from here and enjoy being in London.”

Jason and Isabelle blinked and were on the ground. Nesrin put an arm around both their shoulders and nudged them forward.

“We’ll ride the Eye first. I’ve been wanting to do that.”

They walked a few steps before Jason got up the nerve to ask “So do we get three wishes now?”

Nesrin laughed. “Even if that was a thing, I already rented you an apartment, brought you to London, and gave you a phone case. Don’t push it.”