The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

Chapter One

I SENSE THE BOY the moment he sets foot in the cave.

For the first time in centuries, I stir.

I am smoke in the lamp, and I curl and stretch, shaking off the lethargy of five hundred years. I feel I have half turned to stone. The sound of his footstep rattles me like a clap of thunder, and I bolt fully awake.

I push against the sides of the lamp, calling out to him, but of course he cannot hear. He is just a common human boy. He cannot hear the cry of a jinni, a lamp spirit, a granter of wishes.

The boy is alone, and I sense his cautious footsteps as he crosses the threshold of the hidden cavern. I reach out with my sixth sense, following him as he steps down the narrow stair cut into the sandstone, his fingers trailing along an ancient wall carved with symbols, their meanings lost to time. How strange it is, Habiba, after my long solitude, to feel his presence here: like a light at the bottom of the dark, dark sea.

I reach as far as I can, sensing his quiet breath, his hammering heart. Who is he? How did he find this place? He is just a boy, a moment in time that will soon pass. I have known a thousand and one like him. I will know a thousand and one more. He is nothing. I tell myself this, so that I will not hope for him. I am not allowed to hope. I am forbidden a wish of my own. And so I will not think of the world above, of the open sky, of the fresh air and the light of day. I will not show how madly, deeply, desperately I want the boy to carry my lamp out of this accursed darkness. Instead, I fold and unfold, I swirl and I curl, waiting with bated breath. My sixth sense is blurred, like watching fish swim in a rippling pool, and I must concentrate very hard to see him at all.

He carries a small torch, which he holds up as he stares into the great cavern, truly no cave at all but a vast, echoing hall, once part of a great palace lost long ago to war and time. Now it lies deep, deep in the desert, one ruin among many, buried beneath layers of sand and memories.

Columns tower over my intrepid visitor, holding up a ceiling lost in shadow. Carvings wind up the pillars: gaping lions, winged horses, dragons spitting fire. Jewels embedded in their eyes glow softly, as if watching the boy with silent malice, just as they once watched the bright and colorful people who lived here centuries ago, before their city sank into the sand. This place is haunted by ghosts, and I am one of them.

“By all the gods,” the boy murmurs, his quiet words drifting through the enormous vault. He holds up his torch, and light spreads from him in a golden pool.

He is right to be awestruck. This is no ordinary hall but was once a sanctum deep inside the royal Nerubyan palace, where long ago, a beautiful young queen wished for a garden that had no equal, where she could rest and meditate.

It was one of the better wishes I’ve granted.

The floor is carpeted in delicate blades of grass, each carved from purest emerald. Low, spreading trees with leaves of jade glitter beneath a high domed ceiling studded with glowing diamonds, like stars in a night sky. From the trees hang fruit: ruby apples, golden lemons, amethyst plums, sapphire berries. They glint and gleam, millions of jewels cut with a precision no mortal art could match. Below in the grass glitter delicate blossoms of topaz and lapis lazuli. You must look closely to realize they are not real trees or real flowers but priceless stones all.

The boy walks as one in a dream, not blinking, not breathing. Not a single living plant is to be seen, and yet it seems more alive than any garden in the world above. For the last few centuries, these jeweled fruits have been my constant and sole companions. The greatest treasure in all the world, as comfortless as light to the blind.

The boy lingers too long.

The air is thick with old jinn magic, a vestige of the great war fought here many centuries ago. It clings to the walls, drips from the ceiling, puddles between the golden roots of the jewel trees. It fills the empty ruins already half sunk into the desert, the long crumbling corridors that branch like roots, linking the towers and halls and storehouses. The city is a breath away from collapsing entirely. For five hundred years this magic has churned and coiled in its chambers, building up like gas beneath the earth, waiting for a spark to set it on fire.

This boy is that spark. He will trip a trap set long, long ago, triggering an explosion of pent-up magic, and the desert will bury us both. I will be lost, a myth, a dream. Trapped forever with myself in this prison of sand and magic. I cannot imagine a more terrifying doom. I thought I had resigned myself to this fate long ago, when it seemed no one would ever find me. Now I know this to be untrue, and that hope has pulsed deep within me like a dormant seed, waiting to flourish at the first sign of escape.

But then the enchantments twang like the strings of a lute, and my fragile hope grows cold. A wind rises from the darkness, rustles through the stone leaves, until the entire cavern echoes with their clatter. The trap has been sprung.

As if sensing this, the boy hastens onward, past the beautiful trees and flowers, leaping over a stream in which lumps of gold and silver sparkle. The chamber grows lighter as the diamonds above swell with light. It is blinding, harsh. The jeweled garden glitters with razor-sharp edges and points, beautiful but deadly. The boy dodges leaves that cut the air like knives, hissing when one slices the back of his hand.

And at last he arrives at the hill at the back of the enchanted garden, and there he stops beneath the tossing branches of a willow tree hewn from copper, dripping with leaves of emerald. He twists a ring on his finger, his eyes widening as they settle on the lamp.

It sits on a throne-like chair wrought from iron and rubies, the metal twisted to resemble rose vines. Once, the queen of this city would sit here for hours, reading and meditating, but that was a very long time ago. Now there is only the lamp, gleaming in the diamond light. Inside, I expand, filling every inch of the small space with my glittering smoke, urging him to hurry. I pulse with nervous impatience that this chance at escape will slip through my fingers. Never has my lamp felt smaller.

The boy climbs the hill, panting for breath, sighing a little when he reaches the throne. For a moment he stands there, brushing the dust from his hands, his eyes fixed on the lamp.

The cave shudders. Sand trickles down the walls, tinkles across the piles of golden coin. The enchantments hum, and the jewels on the trees begin to rattle. The boy doesn’t seem to notice. He is transfixed by the lamp.

“So this is it,” he breathes.

He reaches out, and I shift from smoke to fire with excitement. When his fingers touch the bronze sides of the lamp, a crackle of energy pulses through me. I can feel his heartbeat through his fingertips, wild and strong.

“What are you?” he whispers. “Why have you been calling to me?”

As if dazed, he runs his fingers along the bronze, his palm tracing the curve of the spout, and at his touch, his human heat courses through the walls.

I simmer and expand. I gather and bunch and ready myself, red smoke turning gold.

The boy rubs the lamp.

And I answer.

I pour upward through the long dark tunnel of the spout. I am a funnel of smoke, a whirlwind of fire. I open myself and multiply, swelling into a great cloud over the boy’s head. I press a thousand smoky hands against the stone ceiling of the cave. I roll a thousand fiery eyes and stretch a thousand glittering legs. I unfold and unfold and unfold. How good it feels to be out! I crackle with energy and excitement, my blood lightning and my breath thunder.

I could stretch for hours, relishing the space around me. But because time is short, I shrink and harden, assembling my wayward tendrils. For the first time in five hundred years, I assume the form I love most.

The form of you, Roshana, my Habiba. Sister of my heart. You of the pure heart and the merry laugh, who taught me joy and called me friend. A princess among men, and a queen among her people.

I dress myself with your shape. I take your hair, long and black as the river of night. I take your eyes, large and sharp and glittering. I take your face, slender and strong. Your beautiful body is mine. Your hands, swift and nimble, and your feet, graceful and quick. I wear your face and pretend your heart is mine as well.

And at last, the smoke clears away, and I stand in the garden I created for you. Human to the eye, inside I’m nothing but smoke and power. I stretch and sigh, and slowly, slowly smile at the boy.

He is lying on his back, eyes wide, mouth gaping. Once, twice, thrice his mouth opens and shuts, before he finally chokes out, “Bloody gods!”

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