Ah, you flatter me, General. I suspected you would enjoy my little collection; you are plainly a man of discernment.
That one? A gift, a treasured gift to me from the Primarch of es-Kharo. Yes, the current one, the one they call the Golden Tyrant. A nephew, in fact, by marriage. My third husband. It is the obsidian skull of a maelstrom-dragon of the Kharit Wastes. They hunt them there for sport once a year in a festival, the Six Blazing Nights. The teeth—ah, be careful!—the teeth are hot enough to raise blisters, even still.
Of course, the ring. Is it not beautiful? That is the fabled Star of Afiraj; it belonged to my great-great-grandmother. She was—you know the tale, surely, it is a well-sung history—she was a court astronomer and mathematician under the last of the Bharat Emperors. It was the Star she wore the night she assassinated him to liberate the Afiri in the Bloodless Revolution and become the first Afiraj Empress, the matriarch of my line.
A celestial opal, yes. Beneath it is the poison-chamber; the mechanism is extraordinarily cunning. Do you see, with the springs? And there, a few grains of basilisk’s tears remain. Still potent after centuries. The stone is worth all the gold in Tikar, but the poison is priceless. You cannot obtain basilisk’s tears anymore.
Speaking of which, would you care for tea, General? I know this wing of the Dreaming Palace can be cold in this season.
Perhaps later, then.
Indeed, the casket is exquisite. Black swanwood from the Heart-Forest of Diru. Its contents, though, are the treasure. Can you guess?
No, not beads, though they do make fetching jewellery. Look at the colour of this one, the gold and vermillion, the way it traps the light like a flame in its belly.
Ah, did I not say you were discerning? It does look like an eye. Because it is, you see? All of them are. Gods’ eyes, plucked from the Thousand Petrified Gods of Sithara. There aren’t really a thousand, did you know? There were nine hundred eighty-nine before Asho’s curse turned them all to stone. But you know Sitharans.
A tribute, actually, from the Blind Priestess of New Sithara, in honour of our assumption of the Sitharan Protectorate. Their very first tribute; they send a new one each year. The blue jaguar you met in the solar was the latest.
There, yes. You have noticed the urn. I suspected you might. It is the crown of my collection. Ah, don’t touch! It doesn’t look like much, does it? No, I assure you, perfectly ordinary milk-jade. But do you note the mark there, on the belly? That is the seal of an Usrathi temple sorceress of the Unreasoning Age.
Yes. I see that you begin to understand.
That urn contains one of the Three Hundred Nameless, the zhinni bound by the Temple at Usrat. This is the one they called Radiance-of-Dawn, after the sorceresses had stripped her of her name of power and bound her to the urn. The urn was once owned by—forgive me, General, I am going to indulge in a tale now, but I am certain you are a man with an appreciation for history—the urn was once owned by King Matos of Eshut. Yes, on the coast; it was a kingdom once.
He came to the crown at a young age, King Matos. And from that young age he was a grasping man, devoted to his own magnificence. He ruled his people with iron and blood, and sought always to increase his own reach.
How he came to possess Radiance-of-Dawn’s urn is a different story, not a part of this one. But come to possess it he did, and then he did what any grasping man in a story such as this does: he had the urn brought to the highest tower of his palace, the great braziers lit with myrrh. He donned his finest robes and dismissed all of his advisers and hangers-on. And then he summoned the zhinn from her urn.
She arrived, they say, in a cloud of sweet scent and pale mist, with a sound like distant bells. He stood with his back to her, so as not to be deceived by her beauty. When she spoke, her voice was like the low song of a dove. “You have summoned me, and I am bound to grant you three wishes. What is your first wish, O King?”
His reply came easily; indeed, he had hardly needed to think about it. “Zhinn,” he commanded. “I wish for a mountain of gold.”
There was a rushing sound as of a great wind, and the zhinn said, “It is done.”
From outside the palace arose voices in fear and lamentation. King Matos went to the window and gazed out across the roofs of his city. To the north beyond the wall, where once had ranged the farms and villages of his peasants, now a mighty mountain strove toward the sky. Its crags and slopes shone blindingly in the sun: solid, radiant gold.
Matos was dismayed. Not for his peasants and their villages and fields, not for the loss that it meant to the city of that year’s harvests, but because the mountain stood there unattended on the plain, for anyone to approach. He rushed from the room to order his soldiers out to defend it; he would have its slopes guarded night and day.
For a time he was content, King Matos of the Golden Mountain. But it wasn’t long before word grew of this wonder in Eshut, of the mountain made of gold. There is no plague that spreads so swift as greed, and so it was that war marched on Eshut, the plains beyond its borders swarming thick with the armies of other avaricious men.
King Matos was not afraid; he was enraged. He donned his finery again, burned myrrh in great bitter clouds, and summoned forth Radiance-of-Dawn.
When she came this time, it was on the scent of the electric air before a storm, and when she spoke, her voice was like the cry of a stooping falcon. “You have summoned me, and I am bound to grant you three wishes. What is your second wish, O King?”
“I wish,” he demanded at once, “for the death of my enemies.”
There was a roaring sound as of a great tide, and the zhinn said, “It is done.”
From without came voices raised in terror and despair. Matos went to the window.
In the streets and houses below, in the countryside beyond the wall, in the plains beyond Eshut’s borders, not only the soldiers and spies of other nations but also any man or woman of Matos’s own people who had thought or spoken ill of their king lay dead. The bodies were so many that there was almost no one to tend to them, and those who remained could only carry them, day after day, outside the walls of the city and stack them like wood. Beyond the city, in the countryside and on the plains the armies had crossed, the corpses lay for leagues like a blight on the land, and the air was foul with flies.
For a time, Matos was content with this justice. He sat on his high throne and ruled over his mountain of gold, delighting in his wealth. He ruled his kingdom of the dead, and there was none who would gainsay him.
But again word grew in the world: this time not of the wonder of Eshut but of the horror of it, and of King Matos’s unwise reign. These whispers reached Matos’s ears and he brooded.
He summoned his advisers to him, but those who remained were not the wise counsel they might have been, either because they had never been or because they feared angering the king. Nor would Matos heed any advice that did not please him.
All were in agreement that in order to restore his magnificence and the fame of Eshut he should make his third wish of Radiance-of-Dawn—but what to wish? None could agree. One suggested that Matos might go on making wishes as long as he pleased, if he used his final wish of the zhinn to command her to bestow powers like her own upon him. But the rest of the advisers who remained were sensible enough, at least, to dread what might come if such a wish were granted, and so they wove the subtlest arguments they could against such a thing.
They deliberated for a day and a night before Matos dismissed them all angrily. “The zhinn is mine, and so is the wish. I will decide myself.” And it was this thought—the zhinn is mine—that he clutched at. He threw on his fine raiment once more, went to the high tower and tossed fistfuls of myrrh into the braziers, and summoned Radiance-of-Dawn.
When she came this time it was on the cold, arid wind of the nighttime desert, and when she spoke, her voice was harsh as a raven’s croak. “You have summoned me, and I am bound to grant you three wishes. What is your third wish, O King?”
King Matos drew himself up, and in the voice of a man offering a great gift, he said, “Zhinn, I have decided to join your powers with mine, and to keep you in luxury as my honoured right hand.”
There was a stillness and a silence, and then behind him, the zhinn’s dark voice repeated only, “What is your third wish, O King?”
“Zhinn,” Matos said, “I wish to wed you and have you for my wife and queen.”
There was a rumbling sound as of a great rockfall, and the zhinn said, “It is done,” but there was no one left in the room to hear her.
I imagine that it is dark and strange beyond measure inside the urn of a zhinn, do you not, General? It is said that for the first century or so, anyone who drew near enough to the urn could hear the zhinn’s husband screaming, but it has long since been silent.
I prize it—the crown of my collection, as I say—not for the zhinn. Do I seem so foolish to you, General? No, of course not, as you say, and thank you kindly. No, rather, I prize it for the story, which is why I relate it to you. A great favourite of mine.
Ah, and there is the bell, the luncheon must be ready. We will take some refreshment before we resume our negotiations of this morning, yes? Please, right this way.
Story copyright © 2016 by Wren Wallis
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Luna Lynch
Wren Wallis has previously published short fiction in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Daily Science Fiction. She lives in eastern Massachusetts with a cat named Mouse, a fish named Panda, and a small child who is bad at identifying animals. She is at work on her first novel and is uncomfortable talking about herself in the third person.
Luna Lynch (artwork) is an illustrator, cartoonist, and artist from California. She currently attends art school in NYC where she studies illustration. She’s interested in exploring the bizarre and the unusual, and the beauty that sometimes arises therein. You can find more of her work at lunalynch.com or follow her on Twitter @lunalynchart.