Drabble: Proposal

Gobelen had warned us that an old enemy of his named Wathanni might come looking for him. At the time I was unconcerned. Now that I’d been encased in a pillar of charcoal, I was more concerned, and slightly frustrated that I could still hear the two of them eating and talking.

“Gobelen, do you remember the last time we had a meal together like this?”

“Oh yes. It was just before you had me imprisoned in that infernal bottle.”

Wathanni laughed. “Quite right. Strange how easy that was to arrange, but that’s of no consequence. Have some bread; I assure you it’s excellent.”

“I notice there is no salt. I suppose you remain devoted to some unholy purpose.”

“Naturally. My name does mean ‘heathen’ after all.”

For a time I only heard silence, then the air hummed with a voice like a song.

“You never even wanted the title. The life you asked for was one of humility and freedom. Why not yield to the one who desires the authority you consider a burden? I vow you would have all the freedom you dream of. When my shadows cover the world they will leave you untouched.”

Again I only heard silence, and the longer it lasted the more panic set in.

Drabble: The Power of Alhana

Hi everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and post. Part of the reason (among other things) is that I spent a few days at the Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society convention in St. Louis, Missouri, where I had the opportunity to read a selection of my flash fiction as part of a panel. It was my first time participating in a reading of that sort, so it was a thrilling experience. The flash fiction sequence I read reused some of the posts I’ve published on here, and also featured new material centered on the characters, so I thought I’d post the new scenes here as well, starting with this one. The previous posts that appeared in the sequence are: Meanwhile, The Bottle Opens, Reentering the World, A Hidden Image, and The Traveler.

 

 

Fire flashed from Alhana’s eyes, and Gobelen was forcibly changed back into his human form, which began aging swiftly as the building around them turned to dust that blew into the wind. The clouds turned to rocks and began falling around them while the ground evaporated like steam.

“Look around you, Mithal, and alter what you see if you can. You may the Caliph of all Jinn, but I am the Prophetess to the Caliph, and you will hear my words if I must lock you in a thousand bottles first. Do you yield?”

“Cease your signs, Prophetess, I yield.”

The world began returning to normal. Alhana’s eyes dimmed as her power was reigned in. “Good. You will accompany me to the Great Hall, where we can discuss matters in a manner befitting the dignity of our powers.”

It wasn’t until Gobelen nodded that she returned him to normal as well.

Stand alone drabble: Nesrin’s Comet

When Nesrin looked into the burning rock hurtling towards her, she was grateful to have her uncountable siblings around her. One hidden one acting alone can only divert a comet with monumental effort, but a large gathering of them can manage quite easily.

She heard her mother say “Wait till it comes through the clouds to give it time to burn off, then we’ll all charge it together and send it away with one strong push.”

Nesrin could already feel the heat starting to dry her skin. Even so, she was so entranced by the white shine of the flames on the apparent smoothness of the stone that she would have forgotten to change into her hidden form if one of her brothers hadn’t yelled “Nesrin, change before your flesh burns.” Shaken into reality, she glanced at her newly red arms. She shifted to her other self without thinking. Her mother had told her that her hidden one half made her immortal, but she hadn’t fully understood what that meant until she’d put her human half to the test.

Nesrin’s Journal – Origin Story

I was born in Karatepe, in the southern region of what is now Turkey, though neither of my parents lived there originally. My mother spent her early life in the area around Persia. She was not born of a mother as I was; she was created in fire.

This was during the time when hidden ones dwelled only in the Rig-e Jenn and had a greater dependence on humans. A delegation came to King Harun and said “We have written the treaties you asked for with the children of Adam, but they request evidence of the strength of our union.”

In response King Harun called for one of his servants and said “Find me thirteen jars of olive oil.”

When the servant returned with his oil, the king removed some of his own flame and used it to set the oil alight. The flames grew and finally began to take shape. The shapes flickered between various forms; doves, horses, perytons, spriggans, and finally settled onto nine women and four men of fire who stepped down from their jars and looked around.

Harun said “These are Sila; beings like us who will marry humans and give them children, thus creating a firm bond between our two peoples. They can change their shapes to make this arrangement agreeable, and you will have no trouble sealing your treaties.”

The plan was made at a time before its faults were widely acknowledged, and so it was agreed to. Before sending them out, the King gave them names, and he called my mother Samira. Clearly he did not know his own clones, or else he would have known that Samira was not so docile as the others.

When they tired to lead her away she refused to go. “Was I made to lead a prisoner’s life? I am fire of the king’s fire and wield more power than any of you. Let the one who makes light of his hands touch me first.” When they moved towards her she created a circle of lightning around herself which removed the tips of their fingers, then she dispersed into a wild windstorm. She re-formed herself on a distant mountain where they would not find her, and thus began an age of exile.

For centuries she traversed Eurasia and Africa, abiding where she liked, and marrying who and when she cared to. Naturally one outcome of this is that I have more siblings than I care to keep track of, and only very few from my father. At one point her travels brought her to the city of Troy, where she discovered that a number of our people had broken Harun’s treaty and were secretly agitating a human war. By now she had become more sympathetic to humans than to her own kind, so she sought to mitigate some of the chaos.

When the infamous horse came through the gates, Samira warned the soothsayer Cassandra about the destruction it would bring, and she went throughout the city warning the people. Only a respected merchant named Cleontes and one other person listened. The other was killed by snakes, but that did not stop Cleontes and Cassandra from plotting together to destroy the pretend gift.

Cassandra told Cleontes “We will act at night when the horse is alone, just before our enemies plan to venture out. You can move about more freely than I. Acquire two axes and two torches. When you see that the people have moved from the horse, come and fetch me, but let no one know what you are doing.”

The plan might have succeeded except that another hidden one named Withanni possessed Cassandra and caused her to rush at the horse alone in the middle of a crowd. Withanni also alerted the people to Cleontes’ intentions, but Mother warned Cleontes that they knew, and he fled in the night.

She took pity on him because he was one of the few who had heeded her warning. When she had helped Cassandra make her own flight, she raced ahead of Cleontes to Karatepe—no difficult task for a hidden one—and when he arrived she was waiting near the city gate in the shape of a woman similar to but different from Cassandra. “Welcome, good traveler. You appear weary. Have you had a long journey?”

“Not long, but hurried, and without sleep.”

She produced a wineskin and a satchel. “Here, let me give you some water and bread. Come with me, and I will show where you can feed and water your horse as well.”

She led him to a well at the center of the town. While he watered his horse she brought him some hay and said “Anything you find in this hay is my gift to you. Use it as you see fit.”

With that in mind, he decided to feed the horse by hand rather than let it graze freely. In so doing he found enough gold coins to buy a house and set up a comfortable life.

Naturally he married her. They integrated well into the workings of their new city, and he set up a successful business as a potter.

I was their firstborn. By your calendar I was born on February 7, 1183 BC. Like all hidden ones I came into the world in smoke and sparks that swirled like roses, but like all humans I also came in with screams and blood. My first movements were abnormally clumsy for a hidden one, and I did not find my voice as quickly as they usually do. I did, however, begin to use my abilities much sooner. They say even in the womb the first time I kicked half the city became invisible, and the second time the streets turned to water. I know those stories are true because I remember. I made the city invisible because I liked playing games, and I flooded the streets because there was a drought. I would have done much more without Mother telling me stories to calm me. She called me Nesrin even then. In English “Nesrin” translates to “wild rose.” I was named after the rose in a story she told me about a nightingale. That story stopped me from creating a lightning storm because I wanted to hear the thunder.

When I was finally born I waved my arms and every hidden one in the country was exposed to the humans around them. I’d been told stories; I knew the hidden ones were supposed to be aiding the humans, and that they continually resisted this order, so I took a stab at correcting that. Sadly that was the last time I got away with such a flippant action, even if Mother had secretly been pleased.

My childhood was pleasant enough. Without Mother’s power to tap into I had to develop for myself, which was unbearably frustrating but also exhilarating. Ceylan was born a year after me, and we had grand adventures together, though those are all different stories. There isn’t time to tell them all now, but I’m sure I will tell them at some point. I tell these ancient stories often so as not to forget them myself. 3201 years is a long life to keep track of, and without my journals I doubt even I would remember all I have seen and done. Some of my stories are not worth remembering, others I have actively tried to forget, but this is one I mean to hold on to.

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?”