Shaji crouched in the shadows of the alleyway, waiting for the perfect, opportune moment. The fewer opportunities there were for things to go wrong, the fewer that would go wrong. He'd been waiting for some time now, watching several almost-opportunities go by, knowing that if he tried to move on one of them he'd get caught for certain. No, it had to be perfect.

Like now.

Rising with a speed at odds with his thin, malnourished appearance, Shaji darted out across the bazaar and shoved into the lady and her entourage, sending them crashing into the jeweler's stand. Bits of shine and sparkle flew, drawing the attention of everyone in the vicinity. Shaji ignored the sudden rush toward the fallen gems, instead darting aside and knocking over several more people on his way to the baker's stand.

In the thick of the chaos, he used his self-made distraction to grab two loaves of bread from the small shop and two fruits from a nearby produce merchant on his way back out. In no time at all he was spotted, he always was, and the chase began.

Shaji darted down an alley, throwing one of the fruits back over his shoulder as a brief distraction and stuffing the two loaves of bread into the waistband of his pants. The first of his escape routes was a rope hanging down the side of the building. It snapped when he grabbed it, despite the fact that he'd checked it over just this morning and it had been perfectly sound. The delay barely slowed him down at all, however, as he'd been anticipating such a problem and had seven more escape routes detailed out and at least five more 'emergency' routes in case those seven all failed as well.

He lost another fruit and was on escape route number six before finally his luck held and he escaped from the irate merchants chasing him. Cautiously he made his way through the city on a careful, roundabout course before sitting down on a rooftop far from the bazaar to consume his purloined breakfast.

For almost as long as he could remember, his life had been like this. One moment of ill luck after another until he'd finally learned how to prepare for every possible thing to go wrong, then over-prepare, until at last something had to go right. Even his horrible luck couldn't seem to keep up with Shaji's careful, meticulous planning.

Still, it was a hard life. Somewhere in the dim mists of his oldest memories he sometimes recalled that it hadn't always been thus, but most of the time he passed it off as simple wistful longing. He was nothing more than a street urchin, one of the cast off and mostly forgotten bits of trash that comprised the underworld of the great city of Rhydia. It was foolish to dream of anything more than food for his stomach and a safe place to sleep.

Finishing his food, stomach content for now, Shaji began making his way across rooftops and awnings, looking for anything that might provide a little bit of extra for him. Extra food, extra shelter, maybe even a little bit of money. Though who knew what he'd do with something like that. What use had a street thief for pretty things?

Money, though, could be used to purchase food in the legal way. Perhaps it might be worth the risk after all. It wouldn't really hurt just to look. He could stay up high and watch the people moving through the marketplace, playing his odd games of trying to imagine what each was like when they left the bustle of the outer city and traveled back to their homes.

There were a number of interesting persons, two who held themselves in such a way that they might actually be minor nobles. There was one man dressed in the somber, utilitarian costume of the desert tribes; Shaji decided he was a Sheik, and stalking the two nobles for some slight they'd given against his clan. Perhaps one of them had misused his daughter. Yes, that sounded appropriate. Now the Sheik had declared a blood feud and had followed them into the city to seek his-

Wait a moment. Shaji sat up, peering down at the sea of turbans and headcoverings, spotting the one that was oddly shaped. It was far too large to belong to anyone but the Sultan, but the Sultan seldom left the palace and besides that the color was too dark and it was lopsided at that...

Shaji dropped down onto an awning to get a better look, blinking as he realized what exactly he was looking at. That was no turban at all, but what was probably the strangest and ugliest western-style hat he'd ever seen. Its owner clearly had abused it considerably over time, to judge from the faded, battered, and lopsided look of the thing. If it were Shaji's, he thought he'd burn it rather than to disgrace himself by wearing the thing in public.

The ugly hat's owner, however, didn't seem to mind at all the sorry state of his headcovering. He was dressed nicely, and in the local style, save for that horrible hat. His skin was several shades lighter than Shaji's, though not light enough to be completely western. Mixed blood, perhaps. What could be seen of his hair from beneath the truly hideous hat was a dark reddish-brown and fell in a more or less straight fall to his upper back. Brown Shaji had seen before. The red was new, and interesting.

Most interesting, however, was the man's jewelry. Rings, bracelets, necklaces. The man wore multiple of each, all set with one or more jewels. While Shaji didn't know all that much about the worth of the different colors of gemstones, he did know enough to realize that only the nobility or the particularly wealthy from amongst the merchants ever wore their wealth so, and they always had many bodyguards about them. This man had none.

So, he was either very foolish, or very confidant in himself, Shaji decided. Or both. Certainly he carried himself in a casual, unconcerned manner as he flitted from stall to stall, examining the wares with only a moment's thought before moving on to something different.

A cocky, wealthy westerner with no guards. Shaji licked his lips. It was almost too good to be true. The man wasn't paying attention to anything. Stealing one of those baubles would be easy, even with his luck. He could see a good six escape routes readily available with another six or seven that would be reachable with a minimum of effort. Easy.

Tempting. The city guards didn't much care for foreigners, even if they were wealthy. Particularly if they were wealthy. Rich foreigners were often quite rude, at least the ones that came every month or so to visit the Sultan were. That made it far more likely that any pursuit that might be given to catching him would be only halfhearted at best.

The idea just wouldn't leave him alone. If he sold one of those pretty baubles he could purchase real meals for a month! Maybe more. Far too lucrative of an opportunity to pass up.

Shaji maneuvered himself into position, recalculating every possible escape route complete with alternates, taking into account the positions of everyone in the market and how quickly they could move. When he was ready, he leapt.

The man in the strange hat never saw him coming, never saw the quick hand that snapped out and pulled two of the glittering bracelets from his wrist. Shaji was halfway across the marketplace before the surprised cry even rang out, and well into the shadows of an alley when it happened.

He stopped. Utterly and completely. No matter how he tried to move, his body would not respond. Sheer terror filled him. No wonder the cocky foreigner had seemed so confident. He had no need for such mundane things as bodyguards. This was magic that held him fast in its grip.

Footsteps behind him. He couldn't turn, could barely blink, but he knew what he'd see if he could. The foreigner. The Sorcerer. Shaji paled.

"Well, you sure are fast," a rich, lilting, humor-filled voice announced as those footsteps drew nearer. Shaji had never heard its like, not even in the minstrels that he could occasionally hear when skulking about the doorways to inns. Did all magic-makers have voices like that?

"And thin," the voice continued conversationally. "I don't think you're getting near enough to eat. Probably why you wanted my bracelets, hmm?" He came into view from Shaji's left, not looking remotely upset about the attempted theft of his jewelry. Rather, he almost looked happy.

Up close, the hat was still ugly, though the man beneath it was not. He had brilliant green eyes that sparkled with some inner fire that reminded Shaji of an old, half-forgotten memory of sunlight striking emeralds. Those had lit up much like this man's eyes did now. They were about of an even height, he and the foreign sorcerer, though where Shaji's constant struggle to get enough to eat had left him thin and gaunt, the sorcerer by contrast seemed sleek and strong. Though still thin.

Casually the man plucked the pilfered bracelets from Shaji's hand, replacing them back on the wrist from whence they'd been taken, and then suddenly Shaji could move again. He backed up, glaring warily.

The sorcerer laughed. "I don't bite, you know. Well, not unless you ask nicely. What's your name?"

Shaji's eyes darted around, noting all possible escape routes, though the practical side of him said that running would be pointless when the man who faced him could stop him without ever having to touch him.

"... Shaji," he said finally, wondering just what the sorcerer was up to. He hadn't called for the guards yet, so perhaps there was some hope that his horrid luck hadn't managed to get him in too much trouble.

"Shaji, huh?" the sorcerer repeated thoughtfully, testing the way the name felt, shrugging after a moment. "Well, close enough, anyway. That's quite some enchantment you've got on you, Shaji. Nasty piece of work. Who on earth did you piss off so badly that they'd curse you like that?" he inquired.

Shaji blinked. "Enchantment? Curse?" he echoed, feeling very much as though he were caught in a dream. His life was simple. Sorcerers and enchantments and fiery, emerald-green eyes had no place in it. Still, a curse would definitely explain why things had always been so difficult for him.

"You mean my bad luck," he said finally.

The sorcerer grinned. "Yup. Fascinating thing, that. Never seen its like. Did you steal from another sorcerer, or what?"

Shaji scowled. "Not that I know of. You're the first one I've met. I've always been like this," he retorted.

"Hmm..." the sorcerer mused, tilting his head this way and that to examine Shaji. For a moment it almost seemed as though the hat leaned forward to conduct an examination of its own, though that had to be a hallucination. Even in the wildest stories of sorcerers and magic-makers, he'd never heard anything about sentient hats.

"I can take it off, if you want," the sorcerer offered finally, "But we'll have to go back to the inn. Whoever cast it did a pretty thorough job of it and I'll need a few spices to break through the warding." He grinned. "Whoever did it sure didn't want anyone to be able to remove it, that's for sure."

Puzzling through the sorcerer's confusing statements, Shaji frowned slowly. "You can make it so I won't have bad luck anymore," he said carefully, "But I have to follow you to the inn where you're staying?"

The sorcerer grinned. "Yup. Wasn't planning on picking up anything major today so I left my bag in my room. It's got everything I need."

Shaji scowled. "How do I know you're not just trying to take advantage of me?" he demanded. Men had tried in the past, many times, before he'd figured out how to make himself look unappealing with bits of dirt, soot, and stone powder.

"If I really wanted to take advantage of you," the sorcerer pointed out, "I could just spell you so you couldn't move again and do whatever I wanted."

He did have a point, Shaji had to admit. He didn't know all that much about sorcerers outside of a few tales of the legendary ones, but he'd already experienced one of this man's spells and he had the feeling that it hadn't been remotely difficult. He'd heard no magic words said, after all, and the man hadn't had much time at all to cast his spell... Just how powerful of a sorcerer was he dealing with?

"All right," Shaji said finally, lowering his guard just a little. "Lead the way, sorcerer."

The sorcerer blinked, then laughed again. "Atalaya," he corrected with a brilliant smile. "My name is Atalaya."

"Fine then," Shaji said, trying not to sound sullen. "Lead the way, Atalaya."

Laughing with some obscure, personal amusement, Atalaya did just that.

Surprisingly, Atalaya was not staying in one of the more expensive inns in Rhydia but a smallish establishment that, while clean, wasn't particularly elegant. Somehow he'd expected something a bit more... flamboyant. Something to match Atalaya's over-the-top manner and glittering jewelry.

He did have a private room, tucked away in the back with a single window overlooking a small, narrow street. It was on the third floor, though Shaji was fairly certain he'd still be able to get in if he wanted to.

Provided the crazy sorcerer hadn't rigged it somehow. Shaji wouldn't put it past him, for the amusement factor he'd undoubtedly get if for no other reason. From what he'd been able to discern on the way over, Atalaya's philosophy in life seemed to be that if it wasn't fun, it wasn't worth doing.

Crazy sorcerer. Still, if he really could fix the foul luck that had been plaguing Shaji all his life, he couldn't be completely worthless.

Atalaya flopped down onto the floor as soon as they entered, crawling underneath the sagging pallet in the corner that, while rather worn and sorry-looking, was still a better bed than Shaji could ever remember sleeping on.

"Ah ha!" the sorcerer announced, voice slightly muffled from half his body being beneath the furniture. "Found it!"

Shaji watched skeptically as Atalaya scooted backwards out from under the pallet, sitting up and brandishing a plain, battered carry sack that looked to have taken almost as much abuse in life as the ridiculous hat. He wondered if the man did that on purpose, and if so, what sort of insane purpose it would be.

"Now then," Atalaya mused, rummaging around in the sack for a moment, impossibly managing to fit his entire arm in the thing as he did so. More magic, Shaji thought. "Where did I... ah." The sorcerer pulled out a number of odd-looking herbs and three sticks of incense, one of which he handed to Shaji. "Here, hold this."

The remaining two sticks were set aside in favor of Atalaya crumbling the herbs over Shaji's head. They tickled his nose. He scrunched it up in an effort not to sneeze. "Um."

"Just a moment," Atalaya stated, idly rubbing one of the rings on his right hand. Pale blue smoke emerged from the gemstone, circling around the sorcerer before slowly condensing into the figure of a man.

Or not a man, Shaji realized, but one of the legendary djinn. Who was Atalaya?

The djinn was slightly shorter than Shaji and Atalaya, though considerably better built than either of them. He was dressed in a lavishly embroidered vest and pants, complete with matching gold shoes, and wore almost as much jewelry as the sorcerer. He was also blue, which shifted into the most dizzying patterns of blue and green around his abdomen that disappeared into his pants, finally ending up completely green on what Shaji could see of his feet. His ink-black hair was all pulled up atop his head, revealing sharply pointed ears, and his eyes gleamed like polished gold.

"You called, oh mighty one?" the djinn said sardonically, crossing his arms and looking pointedly at Atalaya.

The sorcerer grinned. "Be nice, Rahdi," he admonished playfully. "I need a third to break a spell. Here."

Atalaya handed the djinn one of the remaining two sticks of incense, keeping the last one for himself. He stepped to the side until the three of them made a more or less equilateral triangle.

The djinn sighed. "Why couldn't I have gotten a Master who actually needs my services?" he asked mournfully, though he did make a brief gesture, summoning up a softly-glowing triangle on the floor and correcting his position ever so slightly.

"Mother gave you to me?" Atalaya replied cheerfully, removing his floppy hat and tossing it off to one side as he held up his stick of incense. "But if it'll make you happy, you can light the incense."

Sighing dramatically, the djinn did so, all three sticks lighting at once and sending their sweet, pungent smell into the air. Atalaya grinned, blowing softly on his to get the smoke to waft closer to Shaji.

"Spot me," he commanded, briefly serious.

"Of course," the djinn replied with equal seriousness.

There was a moment in which Shaji thought he was going to lose the purloined contents of his stomach, then abruptly he found himself sitting on the floor with the djinn standing over him looking concerned.

"Are you all right?" he asked. "That was the nastiest enchantment I've ever seen placed on a mortal."

"And he's seen a lot in four thousand years of life," Atalaya added, flopping down on the floor next to Shaji. "Give or take. Whoever spelled you sure didn't want it to come off. Stupid thing was set to kill both you and whoever removed it."

Shaji blinked. "Oh." He blinked again. "I'm not dead, I think..."

Atalaya laughed. "No, you're not. And neither are Rahdi and I. As if something like that could pose a problem for me! Pfft." He waved a hand disdainfully. "Amateurs."

The djinn, Rahdi, apparently, seated himself in the air about half a foot off the ground. "I don't think it's so much a case of the caster being an amateur as it is that you are most definitely not," he pointed out.

Shaji looked from one to the other, slowly raising an eyebrow. "I thought djinn were supposed to be, well..."

"Humble and obedient?" Rahdi finished for him, snorting. "That gets old rather quickly, especially when one is stuck with his glory over there for a Master. It's far more fun to argue with him. Particularly when he loses."

"You're just jealous because we outvoted you last time," Atalaya sniffed.

Shaji blinked. "Outvoted...?"

Rahdi rolled his eyes. "Your hat does not get voting rights," he stated flatly.

"Aww, you're going to hurt its feelings!" Atalaya proclaimed dramatically, scooping the hat up off the ground and hugging it to his chest.

Shaji stared, then slowly looked to Rahdi. "Is he always like this?" he asked.

The djinn snorted and shook his head. "No, usually he's worse."

In an incredible display of maturity, Atalaya stuck his tongue out at them. "You're all just jealous because I have a hat and you don't."

"That is the ugliest hat I have ever seen," Shaji retorted. Rahdi winced.

Atalaya stared at him. "It is not," he whimpered, clutching the battered thing closer. "It's beautiful."

"It's old, worn, battered, lopsided, and ugly," Shaji continued, some small part of him feeling as though he shouldn't be insulting the man who had freed him from his lifelong curse. Or so he claimed, anyway.

Atalaya's green eyes looked sad for a long moment, then he suddenly sat up. "Fine then, if you think it's so horrible..."

"Oh no, please Master, don't..." Rahdi tried, though it was too late. The sorcerer tugged sharply on the hat, magic twisting its form until it was twice as large, royal blue with a wide pink band held in place by an enormous purple gemstone, and had an incredibly floofy turquoise feather sticking out of it.

"There," Atalaya stated, plopping it down upon his head. "Not ugly."

Shaji stared. "That may very well be worse..."

The sorcerer grinned. "Of course it is. That's the whole point."

Rahdi sighed and shook his head. "You are insane," he told Atalaya, then glanced commiseratingly at Shaji. "Try not to encourage him. He thrives on it. Are you hungry?"

"Um," Shaji replied intelligently, still distracted by the even-uglier blue hat. "Maybe a little?"

The djinn floated a few feet away and began pulling cooking instruments out of thin air, setting them over a fire which also floated midair and began throwing ingredients into them. Shaji stared. Atalaya's magic had been impressive, but this was taking things too far. Making food from nothing while seated on nothing... Either the djinn was also insane, or he'd been hanging around Atalaya for far too long.

"So," the sorcerer in question asked, scooting closer, "Any ideas why someone would want you ensorcelled or dead?"

Shaji shook his head. "Not really. I'm just a street urchin, and not a very good one at that. Though I suppose I'll be better now."

Atalaya mused, grimacing as his absentminded wiggling proved uncomfortable. "Stupid floor. Too hard."

"You do have a bed," Shaji pointed out.

Atalaya laughed. "That's not a bed," he replied, "That's a sandbug infestation." He stood swiftly, raising his arms and making a brief gesture at the room. Pillows and draperies of every imaginable color popped into existence, silks and satins and materials that Shaji had no name for. The lumpy pallet was gone, replaced by a large, round cushion with more pillows and yards of flowing fabric.

Shaji wondered if the Sultan's palace looked like this. He rather thought that it did, though he somehow felt that the palace would be more color-coordinated rather than the wild rainbow jumble that Atalaya seemed to prefer.

"This is a bed," Atalaya announced, flopping down onto the object in question and squirming around blissfully. From where he was making a rather delicious-smelling meal, Rahdi snorted.


Atalaya cracked open one eye to grin at him. "Of course." He sat up, beckoning to Shaji. "You can come sit down too, you know. There's room for two." He paused, then looked at Rahdi and grinned. "Three."

Rahdi rolled his eyes and threw a small sausage at him, which Atalaya caught deftly and popped in his mouth. "Mmm... Now I remember why I keep you," he murmured around the food.

Slowly, Shaji made his way through the maze of pillows strewn across the floor to perch gingerly upon the edge of the round bed. Or, tried to perch. It was even softer than it had appeared and he tipped over onto the thing, sinking into the luxurious material.

For some reason, it brought tears to his eyes.

"Shaji?" Atalaya asked, concerned, "What's wrong?"

Shaji shook his head, wiping away the disgraceful tears. "Nothing," he lied. "I've just never... it's very soft."

"Benefit of being a sorcerer," Atalaya told him, still watching him carefully. "You can bring your bed with you wherever you go."

"Convenient," Shaji replied, ignoring the man in favor of running his hands along the different fabrics, memorizing their feel. When this dream ended, when he was back on the streets and struggling to stay alive, he wanted to remember what it felt like to be surrounded by luxury.

A silver plate appeared abruptly in front of his nose, filled with a mouth-watering array of foods. He blinked.

"Well?" Rahdi said archly, arms crossed, "You could at least try it after all the trouble I went through making it."

Atalaya laughed as Shaji eyed the floating plate mistrustfully, then looked up to send wide eyes in Rahdi's direction. "Don't I get one?" he asked pitifully.

The djinn snorted, arching a brow. "You are not the one most in need of nourishment," he proclaimed dryly.

"I'll make it up to you later?" Atalaya suggested slyly, laughing as the djinn flushed faintly. A moment later a second silver plate appeared before the sorcerer. "Yay!" Atalaya exclaimed, hugging it. "Thank you, Rahdi!"

Rahdi shook his head, smiling slightly, and floated over to perch in the middle of the bed between Shaji and Atalaya. Shaji sampled his meal slowly, savoring every delicious bite, while the sorcerer inhaled his enthusiastically. Shaji still had three quarters of a plate left when Atalaya finished and threw himself into the djinn's lap.

"Love you, Rahdi," he purred.

"Yeah, right," Rahdi muttered, though he didn't object when Atalaya kissed him. "You are traumatizing your guest," the djinn pointed out when they separated.

Atalaya twisted in Rahdi's lap to peer at the crimson-faced Shaji, grinning. "Finish your lunch," the sorcerer ordered, "Then you can have a kiss too."

Rahdi rolled his eyes. "You think kisses solve everything. Has it ever occurred to you that he might not want to be kissed?" he inquired dryly.

Atalaya blinked. "Who doesn't want to be kissed?" he asked, tilting his head at an odd angle to peer at Rahdi before looking back at Shaji. "Do you not want kisses, Shaji?"

Shaji carefully licked bits of fruit juices off his fingers before meeting Atalaya's gaze, unaware of the sight he presented in doing so. "Well... maybe," he replied honestly. "I've never really thought about it much. I had more important things to worry about."

Both the sorcerer and the djinn exchanged brief, solemn glances, then Atalaya ventured softly, "You could stay with us, for a while, if you wanted." He caught the peculiar look Shaji sent his direction and laughed. "And I will keep my hands to myself, if you prefer. Promise."

"And I will make him keep that promise," Rahdi added drolly, "As long as you in turn promise to eat everything I give you. You're far too thin."

Shaji stared at the both of them, one eyebrow slowly drifting upward in patent disbelief. "You're both insane, you know that, right?"

Atalaya grinned. "Of course. Does that mean you'll say?"

It was a bizarre situation to be sure, the demented, red-headed sorcerer and his flippant, irreverent djinn, but there was food, and shelter, and the company wasn't really all that bad, even if they were both completely mental.

"All right," Shaji said at last, "I'll stay."

Atalaya, Shaji quickly discovered, had incredible wanderlust. He changed inns every few days for two weeks, then flew all three of them to India on an enchanted carpet, and then a week and a half later they found themselves in Egypt while Atalaya went swimming in the Nile and spent long hours combing through shops and stands for something he wouldn't reveal to either of them.

"Do you ever wish you were free?" Shaji asked one day while he and Rahdi, the djinn passing for human while they were in public, followed the crazy sorcerer as he wandered haphazardly through the marketplace.

Rahdi shook his head. "I did when I was younger, but once a djinn is freed he loses his immortality," he replied. "I would rather remain a servant than face non-existence. Besides, Atalaya is not your typical Master."

Shaji snorted. "That's true. I don't think he's your typical anything," he observed, watching the crazy man, ugly hat back in its original color scheme and perched securely on Atalaya's head, bargain animatedly with a shopkeeper. "How did you end up in his possession anyway?"

Rahdi laughed, pulling Shaji to one side a moment later as a small chariot came barreling past. The djinn scowled and pointing a finger at the inconsiderate chariot-driver. A few moments later there was a sharp crack and one wheel fell off. "Hmph," Rahdi said, "Stupid man."

Shaking his head, Shaji hid a smile. "I thought djinn could only do magic at their Master's request," he said curiously.

"Ah, our lovable lunatic has given me free reign to do as I please while I'm out," Rahdi replied with another laugh. "He says that it's easier if I do the thinking for him."

That got a laugh out of Shaji, who smiled in bemusement. "Somehow I am not surprised. I'm sometimes amazed he's... well..."

"Not a complete failure as a sorcerer?" Rahdi finished, grinning. "He can be serious when he needs to be, he just prefers to be otherwise. Besides," he spread his arms helplessly, "When he's got the kind of bloodlines that he does, he can't help but be powerful."

Shaji raised an eyebrow. "So magic runs in his family."

Rahdi nodded. "Yes, though I sometimes think he would have been happier without. It is a lot of responsibility, to be who he is, though at present he is doing his best to escape from all of that."

"Escape?" Shaji asked, frowning, "What do you mean?"

The djinn hesitated. "That... Perhaps it would be better if you discussed that with him. It is not mine to say." Rahdi seemed as though he might say more, but whatever else might have been divulged was cut off by the sudden and unanticipated arrival of Atalaya who threw his arms over both their shoulders.

"Ha! Found one!" the sorcerer crowed, grinning broadly, oblivious to the odd looks that followed him wherever he went.

"One of what?" Shaji inquired, turning to peer curiously at him. Atalaya released them both to pull a smallish golden box out of his hat and present it to Shaji with a flourish.

"For you. A present."

Shaji blinked, accepting the box and eyeing it carefully. One could never be too cautious when Atalaya was involved. "What is it?" he asked.

Atalaya grinned. "Open it," he instructed.

With trepidation, Shaji slowly complied, blinking at what he found inside. Rahdi peered over his shoulder, eyes widening as he took in the contents of the box.

"You didn't..." he breathed.

Atalaya positively beamed. "The fellow was positively desperate to be rid of it! I got such a good deal."

Rahdi shook his head. "I'm not surprised. Luck dragons are contraband, idiot."

"Luck dragons?" Shaji blinked. "I've never even heard of such a thing..."

"I'm not surprised," Rahdi told him. "They're nearly extinct. A few of them ended up in the Chinese royal court a few centuries back, but other than that you couldn't find them outside the Hidden Land."

Atalaya stilled as Shaji looked up. "Hidden Land?" he asked.

"Nevermind," Atalaya inserted quickly. "But you should probably get to know him, so he recognizes you. The sleeping spell will wear off once you get him out of the box."

Dutifully Shaji complied, lifting the tiny, five inch creature out of the gilded box. It stirred in his hand, opening iridescent, jewel-bright eyes and blinking at him, then yawning and licking his thumb.

Shaji laughed. Atalaya grinned. "Ha. He likes you," the sorcerer observed.

"Everyone likes Shaji," Rahdi pointed out blandly, though he was smiling. "So, what are you going to name him?"

Shaji blinked, glancing briefly at Rahdi before looking back to the miniature dragon exploring his hand. "I get to name him?"

Atalaya nearly giggled. "He's yours. You name him."

Thoughtfully, Shaji watched the tiny creature walk up his arm, wings half spread for balance, and perch on his shoulder like some sort of elaborate decoration. It licked his ear a moment later and he stifled a gasp. "That tickled!"

"Given the rules of the universe," Atalaya observed, "That probably means your ear will be his favorite place to lick."

"Probably," Shaji agreed. He considered a moment, then nodded decisively. "Jawahir," he announced. "For his eyes."

Rahdi laughed. "It's a male," he pointed out.

"It's a pretty name," Atalaya retorted. "And his eyes do look like jewels."

Shaji shook his head in amusement. "Has anyone ever told you two that you're completely insane?"

Rahdi and Atalaya exchanged a glance, then grinned. "Nope!" they said in unison.

They were somewhere in the Himalayas when the first of the nightmares occurred, Shaji waking up freezing cold to the sensation of Atalaya holding him close while the luck dragon licked his fingers.

"Shaji... are you awake?" the sorcerer asked softly, his arms tightening as Shaji trembled.

"I... There was... I was..." He shook his head. "I don't know," he whispered.

Atalaya gently stroked his hair, groping blindly with his other hand for Rahdi's ring. His fingers brushed the gem and the djinn appeared, gold eyes gleaming in the darkness.

"Shaji? What happened?" Rahdi asked, his arms going around Shaji as well.

"Nightmare, I think," Atalaya informed him, frowning ever so slightly. "I'm not sure... but possibly a memory."

Shaji nodded mutely, breathing heavily. "I... I think so. I was very small..."

"What happened?" Rahdi asked again, softer.

Shaji was silent a long moment, sorting through the unsettling images. "I think... I think I saw my parents... and... someone else..."

Atalaya met Rahdi's glance, moving to stroke Shaji's hair soothingly. "I take it this was not a happy memory of your parents," he observed quietly.

Shaji shook his head. "They were dead. The guards were dead too. There was blood... and... and..." He fell silent, swallowing. "I think... I think my uncle killed them..."

Both djinn and sorcerer stiffened. The dragon, picking up on the tension, cheeped worriedly and nuzzled Shaji's hand. He petted it absently, his attention still locked upon what he'd unwillingly remembered.

"Why would your uncle do such a thing?" Rahdi asked, upset.

Shaji remained silent a long time, slowly petting the luck dragon. Eventually he drew in a deep breath, hand stilling. "Because he wanted to be Sultan," he said softly.

Dead silence met his statement as the other two were too stunned to respond for several moments. "Rahdi..." Atalaya managed at last, getting a brief "Right" from the djinn before Rahdi disappeared. He was back a moment later, looking troubled.

"Fourteen years ago the Sultan of Iftikhar, his wife, their son, and the entire royal honor guard were murdered in the middle of the night," Rahdi stated solemnly. "It was deemed to be an assassination by foreign powers and the Sultan's brother was named ruler."

"Khayin," Shaji said quietly. "Uncle Khayin..."

Rahdi nodded. "Yes. Now Sultan Khayin."

Atalaya held Shaji tight, almost possessively. "How did you escape?" he asked.

Shaji squirmed a moment until Atalaya loosened his grasp, reaching up to pull a thin chain out from beneath his tunic. Fastened to the end of it was a simple gold pendant with a small red stone. "My mother gave this to me," he explained. He'd always had it. Many times as he'd grown up he'd wondered why he didn't sell it. Even if the stone was worthless the gold had to fetch some sort of price, but he'd never quite been able to bring himself to do it. Now he remembered why.

Reaching out, Atalaya hovered a hand over the stone, not quite touching it. "A protection charm," he murmured. He hesitated, then added, "From the feel of it, it was never designed for the kind of power it holds. I believe your mother used her dying power to prevent you from sharing her fate."

"So instead, that foul enchantment," Rahdi surmised, scowling darkly. In the dim light, with his eyes glowing golden, he looked almost demonic. "If the constant bad luck didn't do you in, removing the spell would. I do not like this man, your uncle."

"Nor do I," Atalaya added. "I know any number of spells I would like to use on him, should you so wish it."

Shaji watched in silence, contemplating the angry set of Rahdi's shoulders and the burning wrath he could feel in Atalaya's arms around him. He didn't know what he'd done to deserve such friends, nay, companions, but he was touched by their fury on his behalf.

"I am not certain I have any desire to be Sultan," he said at last, "But a murderer should not be allowed to rule Iftikhar."

"Such a thing would bring disgrace to your family's name," Rahdi said quietly. "He will not be allowed to retain his ill-gotten throne."

"What do we do?" Shaji asked softly.

Atalaya's arms around him tightened, and although he could not see it he knew the eerie look that would be on the sorcerer's face. "We plan," he said firmly, "And then we will avenge your family."

Shaji had three more nightmares before they left the Himalayas, nightmares that left him shaking and cold. Atalaya had finally given in and spelled him to dreamlessness, though the spell would gradually fade over time. Human beings required their dreams; to take them away forever would harm Shaji.

None of them wanted that.

Earlier this morning they'd set out again, the magic carpet moving swifter than usual through the clear sky. Shaji had wondered at first why the wind didn't blow them off, moving at the speeds they were, then laughed wryly at himself as he remembered the carpet was magic. No doubt whoever had spelled it had taken the wind into account as well.

He doubted Atalaya had placed the spell on the carpet. It was far too well-behaved for that, unlike the hat which argued regularly with the sorcerer. The one time he'd asked Rahdi about it, the djinn had rolled his eyes and told him that some things were simply beyond comprehension, Atalaya's hat being one of them.

Now the carpet was slowing, dipping down into the desert near where a series of sharp stones jutted out of the sand. When it stopped completely Shaji and Atalaya slid off, the carpet returning to Atalaya's bottomless carry sack. Atalaya held a hand up toward the stones, palm out, and intoned commandingly, "Iftah'li!"

There was a low rumble followed by a sharp crack, then the stones split apart to reveal a steep staircase descending into the earth. Atalaya reached the first step, then paused and turned around to face Shaji.

"The hidden caverns are dangerous," he said solemnly, "So I think... yes." Swiftly the sorcerer reached out and slipped something onto the middle finger of Shaji's right hand.

Shaji looked down, then started. "That's Rahdi's ring!" he exclaimed.

Atalaya nodded. "Rahdi will keep you safe if I cannot. I trust him."

Shaji was doubtful, but slowly rubbed a thumb over the jewel anyway. Rahdi appeared a moment later, looking slightly disoriented, but smiled when he saw Shaji.

"Ah. I thought he might do that," Rahdi commented, sounding pleased. "The insufferable one can be very predictable at times."

Atalaya snorted. "I'm not sure which is the worse insult, insufferable or predictable," he muttered.

"At least I don't call you stupid," Rahdi said with a smile.

"You wouldn't dare," Atalaya retorted, though he was grinning. "Oh, and Shaji, you'll want to give him permission to do as he pleases, otherwise his powers are bound," he explained.

Shaji blinked. "Oh. Um, Rahdi, feel free to do whatever you like. I give my permission."

Rahdi laughed. "Tempting, Master Shaji, very tempting. But I will behave."

As the implication of Rahdi's response to Shaji's unthinking permission became clear, Shaji's face colored. "Rahdi!" he sputtered. "You really are getting as bad as Atalaya!"

"I beg to differ!" Atalaya and Rahdi protested in unison, stopping and blinking at one another for a moment before laughing. Shaji shook his head.

"You two..."

"I know, I know, we're insane," Rahdi finished for him. "Give us a year or two to work on you, and you'll be just as bad."

Shaji smiled. "I look forward to it," he admitted, prompting faint blushes on the cheeks of the other two, both of whom quickly looked away. Shaji laughed. "Well then, shall we?"

Atalaya led the way down the long staircase with Rahdi at the rear and Shaji between them in the safest position. Atalaya had summoned a small ball of light that drifted a few paces ahead of them, while Rahdi settled for simply glowing a soft greenish-blue.

It was rather amusing to Shaji that he was the long-lost prince who had been under a dark enchantment and yet next to his two companions he felt positively boring. Maybe he could convince them to teach him magic later. If his uncle had been able to cast the bad luck curse on him, then it stood to reason that Shaji should be able to work magic as well.

He hoped, at least. Every day it seemed he felt as though Atalaya and Rahdi would tire of his plain, uninteresting company and go off to more exotic places. Neither of them really seemed to belong to this world, though oddly enough it was the at least partially-human Atalaya more than the djinn Rahdi who seemed to fit in the least.

The staircase finally ended in a small room with a single set of towering stone doors. They were carved with multitude of exquisite images and strange words in a language Shaji had never seen before. Atalaya calmly placed his hand on a section of the frieze and spoke the same word he'd used before. "Iftah'li."

The lettering on the doors lit up in hues of red and gold before the whole thing slowly swung open to reveal what appeared to be an endless sea of sparkling gold. Shaji didn't think there was so much gold in all the world as what he saw in that room; Rahdi snorted, and Atalaya shook his head.

"No," he said softly, "You do not trick me that way. Insaraf, my friend. Show me what I want."

For a moment there was no change, then the doorway seemed to shimmer, the image wavering, before slowly being replaced with a smaller, circular room containing a small handful of objects. A few were still gold, though they were dull with age and barely shined at all. Others seemed to be stone set with jewels, also dull and lifeless.

"Wait here," Atalaya instructed, crossing the threshold into the small room and examining each of the objects contained within, one at a time.

"What's he doing?" Shaji asked quietly.

"Making certain the odds are in our favor," Rahdi replied, speaking just as quietly. "He won't tell me, but I believe he found out something that makes him doubt his ability to win this battle. I cannot think of what that might be, for Atalaya is the strongest sorcerer I have ever known. Even amongst his own people, his power shines."

"His own people?" Shaji repeated, frowning, "What people? Where is he from, Rahdi?"

The djinn winced. "I need to keep my mouth shut," he sighed.

"Rahdi..." Shaji insisted, fingering the heavy ring he wore. Rahdi scowled.

"That's not fair, Shaji," the djinn protested.

"Then just tell me, Rahdi," Shaji said, exasperated. "I've got to know sooner or later, and you guys keep saying things."

Rahdi sighed. "Fine, but when he yells at me I'm blaming you," he muttered. "Atalaya's mother was human; You probably already figured that out. She was a princess from a country somewhere around here. The official story goes that his father kidnapped her, but given that she had my ring in her possession at the time and having met that particular fiery lady, I'm more inclined to believe she went willingly. Atalaya's father, on the other hand..." He stopped and sighed, looking at Shaji.

Shaji eyed him pointedly. "Father...?"

"His father was one of the people of the Hidden Land," Rahdi confessed finally. "You humans have many names for it. Very few mortals have ever seen it. I believe the current 'fashionable' name for it is Shangri-La. Ridiculous, that. Whatever. Those of the Hidden Land are more or less immortal, and their power is unrivalled by anything on earth with the exception, perhaps, of one or two of the most powerful djinn. They rarely leave their valley. Atalaya is... unusual."

"Apparently," Shaji agreed dryly. "The question is, did he leave willingly or...?"

Rahdi smiled sadly. "The choice to leave was his, though the motivation, perhaps, was not. His very formidable grandmother was quite upset that her son chose a bride without consulting her, and a human at that, and was determined to foist a 'proper girl' off on Atalaya."

Shaji raised a brow. "Not sure who to feel sorry for, Atalaya or the girl."

Rahdi laughed. "I don't know. I never got to meet the girl in question. Atalaya just left one day with nothing more than one set of clothes, my ring, and a few of his amulets. The rest he made or acquired during his travels on earth."

"So he can't go home," Shaji said thoughtfully.

"At this point, I doubt they'd let him." Rahdi shrugged. "Probably decide he was 'contaminated' by mortality or something. Crazy, the whole lot of them. You think he and I are bad, you should meet his family. Batshit insane, one and all."

Shaji snorted. "The notion that there are crazier people in the world than the two of you makes my head hurt."

Rahdi smirked. "Want me to kiss it and make it better?"

"What are we kissing?" Atalaya asked curiously, making them both jump as neither had been aware of his return from the stone room. "Can I help?"

"Shaji's head was hurting," Rahdi explained, grinning wickedly. "I was offering to kiss it better."

Atalaya blinked and laughed, throwing his arms around Shaji's neck. "Aw, poor little head. Kisses really will make it feel much better, you know."

Shaji slipped out from underneath Atalaya's arms, grinning as the sorcerer pouted. "What do you know, my head feels fine now. Oh well."

"So, did you get what you came for?" Rahdi inquired curiously.

Atalaya nodded. "Yes. I think we're ready now. Back to Rhydia?" he asked, looking at Shaji.

Shaji nodded. "Back to Rhydia. It's time I paid a visit to my uncle."

It was, really, far too easy to get into the Iftikhar royal palace. Neither Rahdi nor Atalaya had needed to use any magic beyond that which was inherently built in to the flying carpet. They simply flew in through a window and went sailing down the wide open corridors, causing hapless palace servants to dive out of the way as they passed. Shaji managed to direct them as things started to look familiar, eventually bringing the carpet to a stop in a small antechamber that he remembered being just off the main throne room.

"Ready?" Rahdi asked, straightening his clothing. He and Atalaya had opted to play the roles of Shaji's honor guard and had dressed accordingly, as well as dressing Shaji up in the traditional attire of an Iftikhar prince. Rahdi had needed to physically restrain Atalaya from jumping him once Shaji was completely dressed, and the sorcerer was still sulking.

Shaji drew in a slow breath, staring at the doorway beyond which was his uncle, the Sultan, the man who had murdered his parents before his eyes.

"Yes," he said softly, "I'm ready."

He walked calmly and surely into the throne room, drawing more than a few startled looks from the various courtiers and petitioners as he passed them. Bizarre though Atalaya's fashion sense might be, when he actually put some effort into it the results were incredible. Shaji hadn't recognized himself in the mirror, and once Rahdi and Atalaya were dressed up as well... Well. It was fortunate that Rahdi had restrained Atalaya. He'd found it incredibly difficult to stay focused with the djinn and sorcerer looking so breathtakingly magnificent.

Fortunately, they both walked a pace behind him, leaving him free to concentrate on the dark, heavyset man on the throne who had straightened and was staring at him as he approached. When they got close enough to make out facial features the Sultan paled, gripping the arm of his throne.

"Uncle Khayin," Shaji announced with far more confidence than he felt, stopping at the foot of the dais, "I have come to make you atone for your crimes against myself and my family. Confess your misdeeds and relinquish your throne, or I will be forced to make you."

Sultan Khayin swallowed once and drew in a slow, unsteady breath before replying. "Who are you, young man, to call the Sultan of Iftikhar so familiarly? I have no nephews; my family is dead."

"Dead by your hand," Shaji retorted, bringing gasps from the onlookers. "All save for me, who you instead cursed and sent away, hoping that the dark underbelly of the city would do your dirty deed for you. You failed, uncle. I live."

The Sultan's face grew impassive as he carefully masked his expression. "I will not tolerate this slander, boy. Vizier!" he called, glancing briefly at the man standing to his left, "Remove these pests from my presence. Perhaps a stay in the dungeons will cure them of this need to accuse me of lies."

As the tall Vizier stepped toward them off the dais, Rahdi moved protectively in front of Shaji. The Vizier snorted in disdain and gestured, tensing when whatever he'd done was blocked by the djinn.

"So," the Vizier murmured, his voice dark and chilling, "You have yourself a pet djinn... Clever, boy, but your slave will not stop me."

The Vizier raised his arms, an eerie darkness gathering around his hands, then suddenly Rahdi cried out. A moment later the djinn crumpled to the floor, back in his proper blue and green-skinned shape, his face a mask of pain.

"Rahdi!" Shaji cried, kneeling next to the fallen djinn.

"That is enough," Atalaya announced coolly, making a cutting motion. The darkness surrounding the Vizier's hands vanished and Rahdi slowly managed to sit up, leaning weakly against Shaji.

"You..." the Vizier said, frowning, "You are no djinn..."

"No," Atalaya agreed calmly, "But you are. I know you, Sakhar al-Jinni, djinn of the Lamp. By your name I command you, return to thy true form."

Rahdi gasped quietly as the Vizier's face twisted into a grimace of pain and defiance, but whatever spell Atalaya had cast appeared to hold true as the man writhed, slowly changing into a towering, fearsome djinn with skin of red and purple and eyes of fire.

"Foolish mortal," Sakhar roared, sending all of the terrified onlookers running for safety. "With my name you have forced me to reveal myself, but neither you nor that pitiful djinn of the ring are a match for Sakhar al-Jinni! By my Master's wishes, all of you will perish!"

"Yes," the Sultan agreed, his cruelty showing through with all his people fled, "Destroy them, slave."

Darkness and fire erupted from the floor, licking out toward them as if to consume them. Shaji could feel the terrible heat of the flames as well as the frigid chill of the darkness, though neither came close enough to touch him. A very faint, shimmering wall seemed to encircle the three of them, and Atalaya's eyes were glowing a brilliant green.

"Rahdi!" Atalaya called, "Are you all right?"

The djinn slowly got to his feet, aided in part by Shaji, pausing a moment to be sure of himself before nodding. "Yes, I think so."

"Protect Shaji, then," Atalaya commanded, stepping out of the protective circle toward the irate djinn of the lamp. The circle faded as he left, to be replaced with a smaller, gold-tinted one. Rahdi's eyes glowed in their matching color.

The djinn Sakhar snarled, throwing attack after attack at the sorcerer. Fire, snakes, and scorpions. Lightning, swords, and wild beasts. Each vanished as they reached Atalaya or transformed into harmless flowers and butterflies. It seemed as though Atalaya could defend himself well enough, but the constant onslaught left him no time to do anything else.

"Rahdi," Shaji asked quietly, "How do we help Atalaya? How long can he stand up to that djinn?"

"I don't know," Rahdi replied, equally quiet. "Sakhar is legendary amongst djinn. He has no equal. That Atalaya is able to hold his own at all is... incredible." He shook his head. "Perhaps if we were to get his lamp, we could control him, but... that would mean getting to the Sultan, through the fire. I do not think I can deflect all of it. I am only a djinn of the ring. Sakhar is a djinn of the lamp. His power far exceeds mine."

Shaji looked up, through the fire and chaos, to where his uncle sat upon his throne, watching the battle with a single-minded intentness. It seemed so far away. He glanced at Atalaya, disturbed to see the focused, chilling expression on the sorcerer's face. It didn't belong there. Atalaya was always smiling. This was... wrong.

"We have to try," Shaji decided, taking Rahdi's hand. "He's protecting us. We have to do what we can to help him."

The djinn looked once at Atalaya and the wild magical battle, then nodded once. Slowly they began walking, pained concentration etched into Rahdi's face as he focused all the power he had into keeping them alive. Keeping Shaji safe. The heat was almost unbearable, but they were not burned. Slowly, slowly, one step at a time, they made their way closer to the throne and its single occupant.

Sultan Khayin noticed them when they were only a few paces away, jumping up and drawing a small dagger from somewhere within his clothing. "Stay away from me," he hissed.

"Call off your djinn," Shaji ordered, "And I will spare your worthless life."

Khayin laughed arrogantly. "You are in no position to make demands, little princeling. As soon as Sakhar is through with your friend, he will finish what should have been done fourteen years ago."

Shaji reflected later that it wasn't Khayin's mention of his parents' deaths and the nightmarish curse on him that snapped his temper, it was the threat of what the djinn might do to Atalaya. He leapt, ducking under his uncle's hasty swing with ease. Khayin had not grown up in the streets, fighting every day for survival. He did not know how to fight. To stay alive.

Shaji did. He rained blows down upon the man, striking at all those places he knew would cause the most pain. Places that would numb the wrist, forcing a weapon to drop. He stood over the cowering form of his uncle, the fire of an ancient noble line lighting up his dark eyes and running hotly through his veins.

"Call off your djinn," he repeated.

"Sakhar!" the would-be Sultan shrieked, "Protect me!" From within the layers of fine raiment he wore Khayin drew a small golden lamp, clutching it tightly. "Sakhar!"

The dark djinn paused in its barrage, turning to take in the situation on the dais. As it did so, Atalaya's mouth twisted in triumph. From where it had been hidden in the folds of his shirt he drew a bright, glittering golden lamp and held it out toward the matching one in Khayin's hands.

"Takkal'na alaik ktir, Hadir!" he shouted, the words hanging in the air, hot and heavy, as the djinn Sakhar's face twisted from surprise into horror.

"No!" the djinn screeched, trying to run from the sorcerer but getting dragged steadily closer instead. "You cannot! That magic was lost!" Faster and faster he was dragged, fading into a swirl of red and violet smoke as he reached Atalaya that was in turn sucked into the spout of the lamp.

There was silence for a moment, once Sakhar was gone, then Atalaya smiled cheerfully and tossed the lamp up in the air before catching it. "Well, that worked just as well as I'd hoped it would," he commented, hopping up the steps to the dais and flashing Shaji a grin before turning his intense emerald eyes upon the terrified Sultan.

"Your slave is gone," Atalaya announced, all the humor bleeding out of his voice as he regarded the man who had once been a member of Shaji's family. "For your crimes you should be put to death, but I believe I have a more... fitting punishment for you, if Shaji allows."

Shaji nodded slowly. "As you see fit, please, Atalaya," he said quietly.

The sorcerer smiled, but there was no warmth in it. "Then, as you once inflicted upon another, so I now inflict upon you, Khayin of Iftikhar. You will live with this curse until you die, and no one but myself will be able to remove it. May your life be long, and full of suffering."

He made a single, brief gesture, drawing a symbol in the air, then the former Sultan vanished. Shaji blinked at the spot where he'd been, then turned to look at Atalaya.

"What did you..."

Rahdi was the one who answered him, sounding both angry and smug. "He put your curse on the man. The foulest of luck will follow him for the rest of his days, however few they should be," the djinn spat.

"Ah," Shaji nodded thoughtfully. "And the djinn? What happened with the lamps?"

This time Atalaya replied, grinning in that manner of his that usually meant he was up to some sort of mischief. "Ah, that." He held up the lamp in his hand, turning it so they could see. "This is what we went to the cavern for. Long ago it held a djinn, but the djinn was set free, leaving it empty and useless. Still, having once housed a djinn it had some small measure of magic and was kept safe. The spell I wrought transferred Sakhar from Khayin's lamp to this one, giving me power over him."

Shaji blinked. "How did you know my uncle had a djinn? And his name... you knew that too..."

Atalaya laughed. "I am too old not to know to learn everything about my enemy before engaging him," he said in amusement. "Once I knew what I was facing, all I had to do was prepare for it. But you and Rahdi distracting him made everything so much easier."

"Easier, hmm?" Rahdi repeated dryly, "Does that mean you could have taken him out without our help?"

"Of course!" Atalaya proclaimed cheerfully. "What's one little djinn to me? If they're not Rahdi, they're all nothing."

Rahdi flushed and looked away. Shaji laughed at his expression.

"So then," Atalaya continued, turning around to regard the servants and courtiers slowly creeping back into the throne room now that the battle was over, "People of Rhydia, I present to you His Royal Highness, Shaja'a bin Kuwi Al-Khalir, Prince of Iftikhar and your new Sultan, now that your former Sultan is off paying for his terrible crimes."

The people gawked, they stared, and then one by one they came up to touch Shaji, examine him, one or two looking into his face and murmuring quietly that he was the spitting image of his long-dead father. It was rather overwhelming. At the first opportunity he got Shaji retreated into the private section of the palace with Rahdi and Atalaya.

"I don't know if I can do this," Shaji moaned, throwing himself down upon some pillows and hiding his face in one of them.

"Nonsense," Atalaya retorted, sharing a floating bowl of cherries with Rahdi. Shaji vaguely remembered one of them making it appear, but his mind had been overwhelmed by other things at the time.

"You'll be a fine Sultan," Rahdi added, floating over and feeding one of the cherries to Shaji. "You've spent enough time amongst the common people to be sympathetic to their problems, everyone who met you on our travels immediately liked you, and you're handsome enough that the rest will likely follow you just so they can look at you."

Shaji flushed and threw a pillow at him, which Rahdi calmly ducked.

"He does have a point there, I must admit," Atalaya mused, "The scenery in Iftikhar is going to be quite captivating..."

Shaji could feel his entire face heat as he looked from one to the other. "You two are hopeless," he muttered.

Atalaya beamed. "Hopeless! All right! New adjective!" he exclaimed.

"I don't know," Rahdi said doubtfully, "I was rather getting used to 'insane'..."

Shaji shook his head, watching as Rahdi attempted to eat a cherry only to have Atalaya snatch it out of his fingers and pop it in his own mouth. The ensuing fight over the cherry bowl brought a smile to his face, even as he dodged flying pillows and other strange projectiles.

"Atalaya... Rahdi..." he ventured finally, prompting them both to pause with weapons in hand, "I... that is... I know you prefer to wander the world, but I was hoping that perhaps you might consider staying here for a while..." He looked down at his hands, blushing again. "With me."

Utter silence met his request, a silence that stretched out long enough that Shaji ventured a tentative glance up, blinking as he discovered neither of the others where they'd been. A moment later he felt two gentle touches, one on each arm, and discovered that they'd manage to move to either side of him without making a sound.

"I don't know," Atalaya murmured, tracing long fingers down Shaji's arm, "That's quite a big decision..."

"We're terribly accustomed to going where we please," Rahdi continued, stroking Shaji's other arm. "You may need to... convince us..."

A small smile tugged at Shaji's lips as he leaned into their touches. "And how would you suggest I go about 'convincing' you?" he asked, breath catching.

Atalaya grinned, leaning closer so that their noses touched. "We'll show you," he promised.