Chapter Twenty-Eight

Dunya is still the axis of excitement, a nighttime queen, receiving congratulations and counsel with a bountiful hand. She revels in it. Meanwhile riding at her side and receiving only the residue, I am exhausted. With a quick apology, I leave her in their midst and steer Andalib towards Shahryar's solitary figure at the head of the caravan.

I look back at Dunya and then ahead at Shahryar; one, a leader alone, the other a bride-to-be and ringed by people and happy to be so surrounded. Andalib's hooves stamp the sand until I can only hear Shahryar's breathing and wind swishing sand.

"Are you happy?" Shahryar says without turning towards me.

"I did not wish this for my own happiness—but yes, if my sister is happy then I too am happy."

"Women make fools of themselves in the pursuit of small happinesses."

"And how do you know that the world would not be a better place if it were ruled in the pursuit of happiness and not glory and gold?" I retort. My mouth is dry after that outburst and Shahryar's stretched silence clangs in my head.

Shahryar falls quiet, and before he can dwell too long on my insolence, I leap into Zainab's world once more.

"Zainab and the parrot sailed with Kushyar and the ship's crew with no incident for several days. Then, on the third night, when Kushyar and Zainab were keeping watch and the moon loomed large in sky and sea, a dark shadow sprouted beside the dhow.

"Zainab regarded it with a half-sleepy interest, when an immense jagged fin projected above the water followed by a huge, grey body, which would have stretched from the dhow's pointed to bow to pointed stern. Seawater dripped onto Zainab's feet as its sharp-toothed head lifted.

"'Get back!' Kushyar cried, pulling Zainab away from the rails. 'A crueler creature than the shark does not roam the seas.'

"The cruel creature then spoke: 'Oh, lackaday, lackaday,' he said, in a deep morose voice, 'I am no evil creature. Nay, I am the victim of an evil creature!' A small piping voice from somewhere within the water echoed, 'A victim, it is true!'

"Despite herself, Zainab leaned over to hear the shark although Kushyar chided her warningly and the parrot flew to the prince's shoulder for safety. 'What happened?'

"Rolling a great grateful eye at her, he said, 'I was swimming through the seas, as I do, just myself and Barracuda, paying no creature no great harm, when above the water I heard a cry of "Seamaid!" and a great red pain through my fin. See how it is cut and inflamed? I swam away, into the horizon that you are heading into, determined to never return to these cursed waters, but ah, what a storm I encountered, the bubbling inky black water torn up from the sea by the winds. And so, I have swum here, but already, I feel the storm chasing me and now good sir, I bid you farewell but give you this warning: change your direction. You sail towards destruction.'

"The shark swam away, rippling the water behind him in great peaks and deep troughs. When Zainab turned to Kushyar with the shark's advisory, he was incredulous. 'Indeed, and what would you say to the captain? "An immense shark told us a storm was coming"? The sky is clear as far as we might see and the moon hangs luminous. He will not believe you and if you rouse him from his sleep for this, he shall dub you mad and fling you overboard.'

"Zainab would have asked the parrot's counsel, but he could not speak before Kushyar, so Zainab quietly finished her watch. She was awoken late the next morning with a rough boot of a regular crew member in her back. 'Up! A storm is coming. All hands are needed.'

"Zainab tossed a self-satisfied look at Kushyar, who shrugged his brawny shoulders. On deck, the crew worked frantically, tightening and tying coir rigging. The first splashes of rain spattered onto the heaving hull, soaking the cross-stitched hemp cords that bound the floorboards.

"The smallest and sprightliest of the crew, Zainab was sent climbing up the teak mast. She clung tightly as the wind howled and lateen sails bellowed and blew around like white clouds of cotton thunder. Through whorls of rain that pricked her eyes, she could discern little and her voice, high with fright, was lost in the crashing of the storm. Zainab queasily hugged the mast tighter, praying furiously, as the deck rolled far below and the dark sea bubbled in pitched ire. A whip-crack of lightning sliced through the black sky and illuminated the dhow in bone-brittle white. Rolls of thunder echoed, an all-encompassing parade of tablas that rattled the mast and drowned out the cacophony of shouting men and pounding sea below. A frozen blaze of lightning threw Zainab's vision into inverse, but when it faded, she knew what she had seen. 'Land!' she cried to the men below. 'Land!' But they could not hear, not with the shrieking gale and bludgeoning waves.

"She shrieked as something soft and warm collided with her face.

"'Zainab!' a familiar voice squawked.

"Blindly, she reached out and grabbed hold of the wind-swept parrot. 'I see land!' she cried. 'You must descend to tell them,' the parrot responded, but Zainab closed her eyes and shook her head, too frightened to loosen her grip around the mast even as it shuddered once more in the wake of drumming thunder.

"Only with the comfort of the parrot's gentle words did Zainab manage to lower herself from the swaying mast, but by that time, the winds had grown too strong to resist and they had decreed that the dhow would be blown to the mangrove-clad isle and whether or not the ship survived the impact was none of their concern.

"And so, Zainab, the parrot, Kushyar, and the rest of the crew, watched with horror, as the exposed tree roots of the mangroves and the thin strips of beach rushed closer and closer unto them.

"The dhow cracked against the shallow coral reefs and skidded across storm-packed sand, narrowly missing the mangroves. Zainab lurched against Kushyar as the impact trembled through the ship. Waves heaved against the vessel, inching it up the beach. Unable to put the ship back to sea and unable to stop its beaching, the captain ordered the anchor dropped and the crew below deck to dry.

"When the rain's pounding finally ceased, Zainab emerged to a sun shining with cheery heat and an answering mist rising from a jewel-like jungle. Following the sailors, she stepped off the dhow and into the sinking white sand, a portion of the hull snapped, for the cords that had bound it had disintegrated in the storm. Moans of fear passed through the crew. Did this mean they were well and shipwrecked?

"Ever level-headed, the captain said, 'Perhaps the denizens of this isle have some knowledge of shipbuilding, enough to make these small repairs These are indeed small repairs,' he said heartily in response to doubtful faces, 'that we could even perform ourselves if it came to it. But if expert hands are available, I have no doubt they would readily render us the service in exchange for some cinnamon or turmeric. You two—Zain and Kushyar, go into the jungle and if a shipwright is to be found, find him!'

"And so, their feet stumbled against the sand until they sank into the sweet-smelling loam of the rough-shod jungle trail and fat drops of cold water spilled from green leaves and onto their heads. Warm boggy air left Zainab pearling sweat over her nose and across her back. The jungle vibrated with animal noise: the high-pitched chatter of birds, the winged whirr of insects, the hiss of snakes, and soft padded footsteps, shadowing closely, sprinting away all the while leaving the uncanny feeling that they were being watched. They drank from a thin silver stream and then followed it deeper still into the forest, until the jungle dimness suddenly dissipated and the zeal of a tropical sun at its zenith left them momentarily blinded.

"A white marble medina of stairs and houses wound up a hill to a vast palace surrounded by white walls. But despite the sloping roofs of houses and the minarets of mosques, the city was unnaturally still, supernaturally silent. Zainab's skin prickled.

"'Perhaps the townsfolk are napping.'

"'Perhaps,' Zainab agreed, although she did not quite believe that inhabitants could leave a city so lifeless.

"They wound up the hill and the medina remained eerily quiet, with not even a sleeper's sigh disrupting the quietude. Finally, the last threshold left to them was the immense palace gate, a great arch of white marble, studded with blue and green tiles that gleamed like gems. Strangely, it was unguarded, unpopulated, although the palace, like the rest of the medina, was swept of palm debris and the walls appeared freshly scrubbed.

"'We are being watched,' the parrot whispered in her ear. She hesitated beneath the epistyle, but Kushyar strode within boldly as though as a once upon a time prince of one kingdom he had the right to enter all the palaces in all the worlds. Knowing that she did not want to be left alone in this eerie place, Zainab quickly followed him.

"A booming voice abruptly resonated through the shuddering marble and although Zainab clamped her hands over her ears, the words throbbed into her: 'Who dares enter the Palace of the Queen of Djinns?'