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Adijan and Her Genie   Chapter 1    

Adijan sweated as she watched the gate guards search the protesting merchant. She would lose one of her hands if they caught her smuggling. The short shadow of the Ul-Feyakeh city wall provided no shade from the relentless heat. Adijan resisted the urge to adjust the way her fez sat on her head. Concealed under her hat, the packet of strange powder that she must deliver to the house of Remarzaman the enchanter, now seemed to weigh as much as a lump of lead.

"Next," a guard shouted. "You! Move it."

Adijan mustered what she hoped looked like a casual smile springing from an innocent heart and tugged her donkey the few paces forward.

"Well met, oh glorious official of the most wise caliph," Adijan said. "May the Eye bless you and your endeavours this fine day."

The guard grunted and eyed the bags on her donkey. Adijan offered the cloth bill of fare from her employer, the Merchant Nabim. It was always safer to carry something taxable. The excise guards hated nothing more than letting anyone through without collecting at least a copper curl from them. They sometimes searched such people with malicious thoroughness. Adijan surreptitiously wiped a trickle of sweat from the side of her face. The guard poked and prodded the bags. He untied one and sniffed.

"Murris root?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," Adijan said. "The finest and most fragrant you could buy this side of the Devouring Sands. Dried to perfection in the pure air of the--"

"Yes, yes." The guard shoved past her.

Adijan retained her good-natured smile, while silently begging the All-Seeing Eye to speed the inspection to a happy conclusion. Behind her, bad-tempered animals and their owners grumbled in the heat as they waited. Swarms of black flies buzzed around the stinking pats of donkey dung and camel turd. The guards acted oblivious to the seething impatience clogging up the road.

The officials of Ul-Feyakeh were the least corruptible and most arrogant. Adijan had heard fellow couriers whisper about spells placed on the guards. Ul-Feyakeh was, after all, commonly known as the city of two enchanters. With over two dozen years experience of life at its lowest, though, Adijan didn't need to blame magic for any human vice, failing, or folly. With vivid memories of three weeks rotting in a flea-infested jail for attempting to bribe an Ul-Feyakeh night-watchman, Adijan endured the tension and perspired.

"What's this?" The guard jabbed a grubby finger at the leather bag tied at the donkey's shoulder.

"You have a fine eye, glorious sir," Adijan said. "That is the best of the wares I carry. Made from the--"

"What is it?" He tugged at the knots.

"Allow me, enlightened one."

Adijan reached over to loosen the ties. Silk slithered from the leather bag. Edged with a deep border of brightly-coloured embroidery, the red shawl shimmered and shone in the midday sun. Shalimar would gasp to see such finery. Adijan might not earn enough, yet, to buy her wife such a garment, but one day she would. If she successfully completed this delivery to the enchanter, Merchant Nabim would owe her enough that she could buy her own donkey. Then she could work for herself and begin building up her own lucrative delivery business. She just needed to get past this excise man without him finding that packet under her hat.

"This beautiful scarf is a gift that I carry from the merchant, my master," Adijan said, "to the virtuous daughter of his great friend, Merchant Dahan, on the occasion of her wedding to the son of the--"

"Yes, yes. A gift, you say?"

"As splendid and worthy a present as--"

"There is tax to pay." The guard scowled at the cloth bill of fare. "Is this--?"

"At the bottom, oh glorious sir." Adijan flashed him a smile as she knotted the bag ties. "Gift. Lady's headdress. Silk."

The guard grunted. "Thirty-seven curls in all."

Adijan quietly sighed her relief. No strip search this time. She was going to get away with it. Eye be praised! Not only that, but the thirty-seven curls were exactly right. He didn't add on a coin or two for himself. In any other city, the guard would have helped himself to at least a handful of the Murris root.

While grovelling a little more, Adijan tugged a battered leather bag from inside her shirt. She tipped the copper coins onto her palm. Pretending not to be able to count, she watched the guard pick coins from her pile. He scrupulously took thirty-seven without pocketing a couple for himself. Perhaps these excise men were under some enchantment of honesty after all.

Adijan dropped her nearly empty purse back down the inside of her shirt and tugged her donkey away through the open gateway. Silently, she offered up heart-felt thanks to the All-Seeing Eye.

Adijan led her donkey through the maze of narrow, stinking backstreets, avoiding the busy bazaar. She fended off noisy hawkers and shouting beggars. The smoke from a sizzling brazier made her mouth water, but with the packet under her hat, she wasn't tempted to stop and eat.

The pale stone of the wall around the house of Remarzaman reflected the sun in an eye-watering dazzle. Adijan stopped at the tall iron gates and gaped. More like a palace than any normal house, three graceful minarets thrust up from amongst the plethora of arches, tiled rooves, and balconies. Tame peacocks strutted around the fountained pool set in a lawn of dark green grass. There must be a hell of a lot of money in the magic business. Just when she began to wonder how much that packet under her fez was really worth, a brawny man stepped from the shadows at the side of the gate.

"Greetings, oh glorious sir," Adijan said. "I am a courier from the Merchant Nabim in Qahtan. I have a delivery for the enchanter."

"Give it to me." The guard held out a large, scarred hand.

"I'm supposed to ensure that the enchanter--"

"Give it to me."

Adijan offered a polite bow. "Glorious sir, my wise and esteemed master needs proof that I delivered the package. If you were he, would you trust my word?"

The man looked her up and down and spat. He grated back one of the metal gate bolts. "Leave the donkey."

Adijan tied the donkey just inside the gates and trotted after the guard. She craned her neck to see the splendours of the fabulous garden. She had not imagined Paradise itself would contain such a profusion of greenery and flowers--or so many gardeners. The air carried a heavy burden of scents, including the sweet ripeness of fruit. Adijan's stomach grumbled.

The man led her to a shaded side-door and made her wait outside. Adijan sat cross-legged on the dusty mat. One day, she decided, she and Shalimar would live in a place like this. She could probably dispense with the peacocks and their raucous calls, though Shalimar might like them.

Adijan retrieved the precious packet from beneath her hat. Now damp from her sweaty head, it was carefully wrapped in three layers of cloth. It contained a pale yellow powder. Adijan knew because she'd opened it and stuck the tip of a finger into it. It wasn't ground mist-weed pods, because it tasted faintly sour and hadn't affected her vision.

"You are from Nabim?"

Adijan looked up to see a young man in a spotless white shirt and pantaloons with a vibrant blue silk sash around his waist. The upturned toes of his boots flashed with silver-threaded embroidery. There really must be a mountain of money in the magic business if even the enchanter's secretary could afford such princely splendour. His nostrils flared as if someone held a piece of dung under his nose.

Adijan scrambled to her knees and bowed until her forehead touched the ground.

"Oh, great and noble sir," she said, "I humbly beg your leave to deliver a package from my master, the Merchant Nabim, to your master, the exalted enchanter, Remarzaman."The young man snapped his fingers. Adijan surrendered the package. The young man turned it in his hands.

"It has been opened?" he asked.

"No, sir," Adijan said. "But, forgive me, noble sir, for I did, most clumsily, drop it once. The All-Seeing Eye knows that nothing fell from the package."

"Hmm. Well, my master will know if any is missing. Here."

Instead of the cloth of receipt that Adijan expected, the young man dropped a small red leather bag near her hand. He turned to leave.

"Sir!" Adijan called. "Forgive me. My master requires a receipt."

He paused to look back at her with disdain. "This final installment completes the payment. What better proof of receipt can there be than the necklace itself?"

He strode off and signalled to the scar-handed gate guard. With the shadow of the guard falling across her, Adijan bowed low to the young man's retreating back and grabbed the leather bag.

Before she untied her donkey, Adijan quickly tucked the small bag into her secret pocket. This unexpected return delivery would surely add a few copper curls to the sum she had already accumulated from Merchant Nabim. Together, the enchanter's bag and the cloth of credit from Nabim comprised the key to her prosperous future. In the small pouch that Shalimar had sewn inside the front of her long shirt, the precious load should be safe from pickpockets and muggers. Anyone looking hard enough to see the bulge below the waistband of her pantaloons would mistake it for something definitely not worth trying to steal.

The house of Merchant Dahan shrank in Adijan's estimation after visiting the enchanter's home. She received a generous ten curl tip from the merchant's wife for delivering the scarf and a plate full of food from the kitchens. She gobbled the food and completed her job by surrendering the donkey and the other bags of wares to Merchant Nabim's warehouse. Tempted though she was by the lure of a drink and pipe of mist-weed at a wine shop, Adijan coaxed an immediate delivery to Qahtan out of the warehouse factotum. The best he could offer was a heavy bag crammed with copies of receipt rolls and tally sticks. No donkey. She'd have to shoulder the bag herself and earn only a meagre handful of curls. Still, Adijan gratefully accepted the load. Having travelled to Natuk before coming to Ul-Feyakeh, she had already been away from home for seven days. She missed Shalimar. Adijan wanted to see the look on her wife's face when Adijan showed her their new donkey. If Adijan haggled hard enough, she might have enough left over from buying the animal, paying for a week or two stabling, and discharging their rent arrears with the landlord, to buy Shalimar some cloth for a new dress.

Adijan hefted the bag and whistled to herself as she passed along the harassed lines of merchants and couriers waiting for inspection at the gates of Ul-Feyakeh. The excise men didn't care what went out of the city, so there would've been little chance of being apprehended even if she had a sack full of stolen gems on her back.

As she trudged the dusty road to Qahtan, Adijan refined her dreams of a delivery and courier empire that would stretch across all the known lands between the Western Ocean, the Black Wall Mountains, the Devouring Sands, and the Endless East. Her income would rival that of the sultan himself. She would buy a house like Remarzaman's--only bigger. Shalimar could fill it with orphans, stray dogs, song, and happiness.

Not many miles passed, though, before Adijan's daydreams gave way to speculation about what sort of necklace she was carrying from the enchanter that was worth more than one payment of illicit material.

###

Adijan picked her way amongst the tumble of boulders beside a dried stream bed. The sinking sun cast long, concealing shadows. She selected a spot where she was hidden from casual observation. This route was not as notorious as some for cut-throats, brigands, and slaver gangs, but Adijan chose her risks according to the likely profit in it. This journey's success depended on safe arrival not speed. She'd rest for the night and let those more desperate for haste run the gamut of a knife in the dark.

Adijan let the bag fall from her sweaty shoulders. It thudded on the dusty ground. The shadows of the boulders congealed around her as the last brilliant slivers of the sun quenched against the hilly horizon. Adijan untied a worn blanket from her waist, unrolled it, and pulled it around herself. She settled in the twilight with her back to a sun-warmed boulder. Shalimar had laboured long and hard to weave the blanket for Adijan just after they were married. In four years, the vivid colours had mercifully faded from eye-watering brightness, but Adijan wouldn't have travelled without it even had it magically glowed. Her dreams of success included never having to spend more than a day away from home at any one time, unless it were to take Shalimar to visit a famous temple, see a fabled garden, or meet the sultan.

Grinning at the memory of Shalimar's sunny smile, Adijan tugged the leather bag from its concealment within her clothes. Another of her personal golden rules about risk was never to carry something without knowing what it was--especially if she had to try to smuggle it past a city's guards.

Small enough to sit easily in her palm, the bag was warm from being close to her body. The soft, supple red leather was the highest quality, though it bore no tool work or adornment. Adijan held it up to the failing light. She squinted at the thin thongs holding the end closed. It looked like a straightforward knot, but since it came from the hands of an enchanter, she couldn't take anything for granted. A necklace, the young secretary had said. Adijan would've expected something larger than what she held. She hefted the bag. Gold was heavier than this. This bag would barely hold a cheap string of little glass beads.

Adijan gently shook the bag near her ear. No rattle or chink issued from it. After some internal debate, she carefully pressed and squeezed the bag. Her fingertips reported a flattened, circular lump about the size of a copper coin and half as thick as her little finger. A pendant. Her imagination conjured a big, flat diamond or ruby. Yet, Merchant Nabim would not purchase jewellery from an enchanter. Least likely of all was that he would entrust the safe delivery of such a valuable gem to Adijan without first threatening her with six different kinds of painful death if she failed to return.

Adijan frowned and slid the bag back inside her shirt. She chewed a piece of bread and broke off flakes of dried fish, all the while wondering about the mystery bag. Might it be possible that Nabim and the enchanter hoped to deceive everyone, including herself, about its value by not making a fuss about it? She would put no cunning trick past Nabim.

After washing down her meagre meal with tepid water, Adijan curled up on the ground and pulled the blanket more comfortably around herself.

"All-Seeing Eye," she muttered, "I thank you for allowing me to live and prosper this day. I beg you to allow me another such day tomorrow. And, you who know all and see all, I beg you to keep Shali safe and happy. Please don't let my love sit up too late sewing. And don't let Yussuf il-Masouli, our nasty landlord, bother her. I'll pay the rent when I get back. I really will this time. In full. And I also beg your daily benevolence for Aunt Takush, Fetnab, Kilia, and the other women at the friendly house. I thank you. I thank you. I most humbly thank you."

She dozed off imagining what might be in the bag and why Merchant Nabim hadn't told her to expect the enchanter to give it to her to take back to Qahtan.

###

During a restless night, Adijan's curiosity gnawed itself into an obsession. After waking, she hurriedly relieved herself and didn't bother eating before pulling the red leather bag out of her secret shirt pocket. It looked unchanged for having spent the night inside Adijan's pants.

Cautiously, she tugged at the knotted thongs. No enchantment burst around her. Eventually, she had to use her teeth to loosen the ties. After a deep breath, and quick prayer to the All-Seeing Eye, Adijan eased the mouth of the bag open. She waited, tense. Nothing happened.

Adijan up-ended the bag over her lap. A cloth-covered wad dropped onto her thigh. The cloth, of a very fine, dense weave, bore a crossed-pattern of yellow and red threads through it. That must be the enchanter's signature pattern. She could see the dark shadows of painted writing on the inside of the cloth. The cloth wound nine times around the bundle and had its ends fixed by three small yellow seals. They were more flexible and shiny than ordinary wax.

Adijan bit her lip as she stared at the seals. She had risked much to open the bag. Breaking the seals would be madness. Every child learned in its cradle about the dire and everlasting consequences of meddling with the work of enchanters. Unwilling to become a donkey or grow extra heads, Adijan contented herself with easing the folded cloth apart to see if she could glimpse what it held without straining the seals. She licked sweat from her upper lip before she discovered that the elaborate wrapping concealed a pendant on a plain chain. Both parts looked like tarnished brass. That made her uneasy. Very uneasy. No one in their right mind, let alone a fabulously rich enchanter, would go to so much trouble if this really was just a cheap necklace that could be bought at the bazaar for a few copper curls.

Adijan carefully returned the cloth-wrapped bundle to its leather bag, tied the thongs, and stowed it safely inside her clothes. Whatever it was, she'd be happy to get it to Merchant Nabim, take what he owed her, and forget that she had ever held the enchanter's mystery bundle.

Adijan rose and lifted her sack. She travelled less than a mile before a shadow leaped out from the base of a rocky hill. She glimpsed a ragged beard and a large club. Adijan barely began to run when sickening pain smashed into the back of her head.

###

Adijan woke and groaned. Her head pounded. She lay face-down on the hard-packed ground. A scorpion scuttled away into the shadows when she moved. As she struggled to sit up, a lightning bolt exploded inside her skull. She groaned again and held her head.

All-Seeing Eye, she hurt.

Carefully, Adijan peeled open her eyes to squint. The merciless sun shone from mid-morning high. She had been walking from Ul-Feyakeh to Qahtan. She'd been carrying a sack. It was gone. Brigands. She'd been jumped.

"Camel crap."

Adijan found a nauseatingly tender spot on the back of her head where dry blood crusted her hair. A sore line around her throat was all that remained of the purse she'd been carrying. The bastards had left her without a single copper curl.

"Crap, crap, crap." Adijan's hands dove inside the front of her pants. "Please, Eye, let the bill--Yes! Thank you."

Adijan gripped the debt cloth and the leather bag. The bastards had robbed her of money, sack, food, water, Shali's blanket, and even her sandals. But she could weather those losses with the truly valuable goods safe. She blew a kiss up at the sky.

"I really owe you for this one," Adijan said. "Can I ask for your blessings for yourself, All-Seeing Eye?"

Adijan shoved herself to her feet and picked her painful way across the rocky ground. Stones and pebbles jabbed her soles. A giant hammer thumped inside her head with each step and her mouth tasted like the underside of a donkey's tail. There had better be a village or stream close. She would have to beg for food.

After three long, bruising days, Adijan limped to the southern gates of the walled city of Qahtan.

"Stop." The city gate guard held out a hand. "No beggars, thieves, or riff-raff. Bugger off."

Adijan peered past him to one of his companions with a bushy beard. He'd arrested her half a dozen times. She knew the name of his children. "Corporal Rashid! Has that brother of yours got married yet?"

Rashid looked her up and down. "Adijan al-Asmai. What happened this time?"

"Robbed," she said. "Look, I'm starving. I haven't eaten properly since I left Ul-Feyakeh. And my feet are killing me."

"No point searching you this time, then." Rashid nodded her through.

"May the All-Seeing Eye smile on you and yours," Adijan said.

Adijan hobbled past the men. Though she dearly desired to go straight home to see Shalimar, get her aching belly filled, and her bloody feet bathed, Adijan turned towards the wealthy merchant's quarter.

As she limped around to the rear of the Merchant Nabim's house, Adijan forced herself to ignore the mouth-watering smells of cooking assailing her from every direction. Her stomach growled and clenched, as if to remind her that it still existed. A servant opened the door. He might have shut it in her face had Imru not glanced up from his pile of accounts and beckoned her over. The skinny eunuch looked her up and down.

"What happened to you?" Imru asked.

"Robbed a few hours from Ul-Feyakeh," she said.

"They get much?"

"Everything. Even took my bloody sandals. May they rot in a pit of cobras. Is that water?"

Adijan helped herself from the jar on the table near a neat stack of bill cloths. Imru wrung his hands.

"He won't be happy," Imru said. "Not at all. He particularly asked to know as soon as you returned. He's being unusually secretive. And oddly excited."

"Yeah?"

"As if he were expecting something special. Well, whatever it was, you've lost it. He won't be happy. Not happy at all."

"Maybe." Adijan wiped dribbles from her chin with a sleeve. "The one thing they didn't get was what the enchanter gave me to bring back."

"Praise the Eye!" Imru lifted his hands and shook them.

"Do you know what it is?" Adijan retrieved the bag from inside her clothes and held it up to show Imru. "I had no idea that I was supposed to bring anything back."

Imru shrugged expressively, then sniffed. "You stink worse than a camel with bowel sickness. You'd better give it to me."

"Not likely, old son." Adijan wrapped her fingers around the bag and winked at him. "It's not that I don't trust you, but there's the small matter of a bill cloth for three shiny silver obiks he owes me. If I stink, he'll be that bit more eager to pay up and be rid of me."

Imru rolled his eyes and grinned, then led her down a shadowy corridor. Adijan limped behind the eunuch past the beaded curtain to the merchant's office. They continued into a part of the house she had not trod before. Servants scurried past them. Most gave Adijan a sharp, disapproving look. None of them would say anything, though, with the eunuch within earshot.

The back stairs rose to a floor laid with carpets. The alcoves in the walls contained statues and bits of expensive-looking brassware. The place smelled of perfumes and incense. Nabim did very well for himself, despite all the rumours about the vast sums his shrewish wife bled from him.

Imru halted at a carved door and signalled Adijan to wait. The eunuch tapped on the door and entered. Adijan studied the hanging on the opposite wall. The dull design of people reading and strolling through gardens notwithstanding, she was prepared to bet her last curl that the tapestry was worth twenty or thirty obiks at least. She might get five or six for it from Dengan the backstreet "used goods" dealer.

"Adijan." Imru crooked a finger from the doorway.

Adijan pulled her fez off and stepped into a bedroom panelled in expensive cedar wood and hung with yet more tapestries. The vast bed, sybaritic with silks, was not at all what she expected the elderly merchant to own--let alone cavort upon with his dried-up wife. It would take pride of place in the best room in her Aunt Takush's brothel. As Adijan bowed to the corpulent Merchant Nabim, she noticed the design on the hanging directly behind him was of nude girls and well-endowed young men frolicking in an oasis.

"You stink," Nabim said. He waved a hand in front of his face.

"My most humble apologies for offending you, oh glorious and magnificent sir." Adijan knelt at the side of the divan and bowed low to kiss the carpet in front of the merchant's silk-slippered feet. "May I suffer a thousand floggings before I enter the gates of Paradise for upsetting you."

"At least a thousand." Nabim leaned towards her and licked his upper lip. "Well? What happened at the enchanter's?"

"Honoured to be of service to you," Adijan said, "I approached the house of the enchanter with--"

"Yes, yes." Nabim held out a chubby hand. He was sweating. "Give it to me."

 Adijan offered the bag. "Glorious and munificent sir, I--"

Nabim snatched it from her. His eyes glittered as he fumbled with the knot in the thongs. Adijan glanced a question up at Imru. The eunuch's shoulders twitched in a fractional shrug.

"A curse on it!" Nabim's thick fingers tore at the ties. "Imru, you useless donkey fart. Get me a knife!"

Imru produced an eating knife and offered it to his master. "Perhaps, sir, I might be able to help--"

"No!" Nabim grabbed the knife handle. "You don't think I'd let you touch this? Ha! As if a eunuch could enjoy--What a joke that would be. Ha ha. But what a waste, eh? A eunuch without a--Got it!"

Adijan watched the merchant pull the cloth-wrapped locket from the slashed ruin of the bag. Feverishly, Nabim broke the seals and tore the cloth off. As if his life depended on it, he ripped his turban from his head and threw it away so that he could pull the chain over his spotted pate and wisps of white hair. Only after he had it safely around his flabby neck did he pause to examine it. The pendant was as unremarkable as Adijan had glimpsed. Nothing about the material, design, or workmanship warranted Nabim's frenzy.

Adijan and Imru exchanged another mystified look.

"Aha!" Nabim snatched up the cloth wrapping and unrolled it. He was breathing hard. The tip of his tongue continually darted across his lips.

Adijan saw that the cloth contained densely painted script, but couldn't read any of the tiny words from where she knelt.

"Paradise," Nabim muttered to himself. "Oh, ho. Honey Petal! She is called Honey Petal. All mine! All-Seeing Eye, you have blessed me beyond all men. How do I summon her? Where does it say--?"

Imru bowed. "Does my master require me to read?"

Nabim looked up sharply. He'd clearly forgotten that he was not alone. "Get out!"

"Yes, master." Imru bowed and signalled to Adijan.

Adijan remained on her knees and lifted the bill cloth. "Oh munificent and glorious sir, you owe me--"

"Out!" Nabim waved a ring-heavy hand while his eyes frantically scanned the cloth. The brass locket didn't even glint in the sunlight as it moved with the rising and falling of his rapid, wheezy breathing. "I'll have you flogged."

Adijan reluctantly withdrew. Imru pulled the door closed behind them.

"He owes me three obiks," Adijan said. "Can you discharge this bill?"

"No. Come back tomorrow. Bathe first."

Adijan trailed Imru back down to the rear door. "What do you think that was all about?"

"The Eye only knows," Imru said. "I've not seen him that excited since the mistress had to leave for a month to tend her dying mother in Sirwah. But I should take consolation that he was so distracted that he may not be as severe on you for the loss of the other goods."

Adijan began to trudge towards the poor district. She didn't have her money, but she still had the cloth. And, in fact, it might be better to wait to collect so large a sum until the morning. Then she could take the coins straight to Okka the donkey breeder and not be tempted to spend it on drink or frivolous trifles. She could still tell Shalimar that they were richer by three whole, shiny obiks. The amount wouldn't mean much to Shali, until Adijan described the donkey she would buy and how much good work she could find for herself.

Now that Adijan thought about it, she realised that Shalimar would probably enjoy going with her to Okka's to pick out the donkey. Shalimar liked petting them. Okka had a soft spot for Shali, as most people did. Yes, it would be a good idea to take Shali with her tomorrow. Okka might be easier to haggle down with Shalimar there smiling at him.

Despite every uncomfortable footstep and a loudly complaining empty stomach, Adijan whistled. She was going home to Shalimar and things were finally looking up. Every other venture Adijan had undertaken might have been dogged with ill fortune and poor judgement, but this time she'd got it right. She had cajoled Nabim into letting her take the risk of a profit-share instead of a flat-fee on several not strictly legal deliveries. By this means, Adijan had compounded her earnings into three whole silver obiks. In just over a month, she'd earned more than she normally would in a year. Shali would be proud of her with just cause.

The streets grew narrower and more crowded the further Adijan limped from the main road. In the shadow of the city wall, the buildings jumbled together cheek by jowl. One person's washing hung in front of a neighbour's window. Naked children ran through the maze of alleys, courtyards, walls, and doorways. Old folk sat under ragged awnings watching the world go by as they wove mats or endlessly turned quern stones to grind flour. Overhead, shouts of angry wives and squealing babies criss-crossed the haze of cooking fires.

"Hey, Adijan!"

Adijan stopped in the doorway of a basket weaver's shop. "Curman, you thief. How's business?"

"Could be better, could be worse," Curman said. "No point complaining, is there? What happened to you?"

"Back from a profitable little trip." Adijan idly fingered a basket.

"Yeah? Shalimar was by a few days ago."

"She need a new basket?"

"She was looking after Asmine," he said. "Izira is sick again. You know how she gets when she's pregnant. We was real glad Shali could keep the girl busy. You've got one of the best there."

"Yeah, I know."

"Not like that brother of hers."

"Hadim?" Adijan dropped the basket. "Where did you see that ball of camel spit?"

"He was here. He was asking if you owed money."

Adijan frowned. "What did you say?"

"That I didn't think that anything between you and me was anything to do with him."

"Thanks. Thanks a lot. You're a good friend."

Adijan limped out.

"Hey!" Curman called. "Is something wrong?"

"I'll catch up with you later."

Adijan hobbled on along the winding street, absently raising a hand or exchanging a word with people she passed. Any thought of her brother-in-law, Hadim il-Padur, folded a frown onto Adijan's face. That the oily creep had been in her neighbourhood, prying into her financial affairs, planted and nurtured a seed of dark annoyance. Shalimar wouldn't have asked him to interfere, would she? Adijan had tried to explain how much she disliked the self-important dung beetle, but Shalimar, who liked and trusted everyone, found it difficult to understand. And, in truth, Adijan didn't have the heart to disillusion Shalimar about the grimy side of human nature. Still, Adijan wasn't going to be happy if Shalimar had borrowed money from Hadim--especially not when Adijan carried three obiks worth of credit bill with her.

The smell of food made Adijan's mouth water, but she forged on past the eatery and the wine shop. A dirty little blur darted in front of her. Fast as a striking snake, the child grabbed a pair of oranges from a tempting pyramid on the fruit shop window sill. The child dashed away even as the first of the remaining oranges rolled. Adijan lunged to grab for some. She caught only two. A dozen more dropped on the ground around her.

"Eye!" Jamaia, the grey-haired fruit-seller, appeared in the doorway. She shook her fists at the fast-disappearing child. "A curse on you! Fleas in your armpits! Boils on your tongue! May your breath turn to camel farts! Little bugger. Adijan, you're a darling."

Adijan handed the oranges to Jamaia and bent to retrieve the rest.

"I know who it was," Jamaia said. She began restoring her pile. "That one will have his hands cut off before he can father any little thieves of his own, you mark my words. The Eye bless you. I didn't think I'd be seeing you again."

"Why not? I always come back. Just like a bad smell." Adijan winked. "These oranges smell good. Ripe. I bet they're as sweet as you."

Jamaia chuckled. "You and your jokes. That tongue of yours will get you into trouble one of these days."

"You wouldn't have been trying to tempt Shali away from me with these, would you?" Adijan hefted one of the oranges. "You know she has a weakness for them."

"As if. That girl has eyes for no one but you." Jamaia polished the last fruit and set it at the top of her pile. "It's going to be quiet without you two around. I told Shalimar to come back and visit. You make sure she does."

Adijan scowled. "Visit? What do you mean? We only live down the alley."

Jamaia looked uneasy and didn't answer. The sprout of foreboding planted at the news of Hadim's activities blossomed into dread. Adijan scuttled away as fast as her sore feet would carry her.

"Adijan?" Jamaia called. "You did know?"

Adijan limped down the alley, scarcely broader than her shoulders, into a small courtyard crammed with lines of washing. Through the fluttering sheets and dripping shirts, she couldn't see the first floor balcony or door to their apartment.

Adijan ignored the squeals of playing children as she limped up the stairs. It couldn't be true. Shalimar must be here.

"Hello, Adijan." Mrs Urdan appeared in her doorway. "Didn't expect to see you."

Adijan ignored her neighbour's open interest as she limped the last few steps to her own door. It was shut. Shalimar might be out working. She did sewing and mending for several people.

Adijan tried the handle. The lock rattled but remained closed. She knocked. The copper symbol of the All-Seeing Eye was gone. They'd bought it together just after their wedding and nailed it to the door. It was supposed to bring good luck to their marriage and home. They'd planned to take it with them to the increasingly grand houses where they would live as they grew wealthier. Now all that remained were two nail holes in the wood.

"Shali?" Adijan tugged on the handle. "Love?"

"She's gone," Mrs Urdan said. "Moved everything out three days ago."

"Eye," Adijan muttered. Her hand on the door clenched into a fist.

"Sad to see her go," Mrs Urdan said. "It's not every day you get such a nice girl next door. Always looking after my Eddin and little Harun for me. I'll miss her. I hope the people who move in won't be like those Fadurs. The noise!"

Mrs Urdan prattled on. Adijan's mind had stopped and stuck at the thought that her wife had gone. Shalimar wasn't there.

"Crap!" Adijan beat her fist against the door.

"She's gone to her brother's," Mrs Urdan said.

"Yeah." That's what Adijan had feared. The little bastard had taken her.

"Quite a bit older than her, isn't he? He's got money, hasn't he? Made it in lamps, I heard. Very dapper. A bit stuck up, but when you wear that many rings, you've a right to be, haven't you?"

Shoulders slumped, Adijan limped back past Mrs Urdan. She had never felt further from success.