This story is paired with “Aladdin” from 1001 Arabian Nights. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
If you’ve heard my story—the tale of Aladdin’s Lamp (and you probably have)—most likely you got it jumbled. First, the title is “Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp”; second, in the original telling, the way Scheherazade recited it, it began, “Once upon a time there was a Chinese boy named Aladdin.” That’s right: a Chinese boy. During the centuries through which the chronicle of my adventure has been passed on, I became Middle Eastern and the story lost its way with revisions and adaptations. I would like to give it to you as it really happened. I think you will still regard it as remarkable. There are large portions of the tale the storytellers got right, but they were not accurate about everything. And revisions continue to multiply.
I am Gan Shen, which means “Adventurer” or “Adventurous Spirit.” I suppose my parents gave me that name because my father’s trade as a merchant sent him across the Silk Road every two years. From age five on, I accompanied our caravans. Sandstorms blew. We travelled long stretches of desert and lay at the mercy of capricious weather; once a blizzard swept down out of the mountains during the month of May and almost killed us all. Still, it was worth it. If you made it through, you could gain 100% profit. Silk brought that kind of return; so did porcelain. Along the way we met and traded with Indian and Arabian merchants. When we arrived in Baghdad, we sold our goods for considerable mark-up, loaded items from Europe and merchandise from the Arab lands, and headed back. We always made splendid gains despite the cost of horses, supplies, and soldiers to protect us. I think Father gave me my name in the hope that I would be adventurous enough to continue the business after he was gone. When the merchants in Baghdad translated it, they called me “Aladdin,” which means “great soul” or “soul of God.” As with many things pertaining to me, they got it sort of right, but not exactly right.
My family grew wealthy. We delivered goods to the Emperor himself. That was how I met the Princess Lien Hua.
Her name meant “Lotus Flower,” and she truly was as beautiful and delicate as a lotus. We came to the palace to offer goods to the Emperor and often introduced travelers who had paid to make the journey to China with us: European envoys, Nestorian monks, representatives of the Middle Eastern powers, which, since the fall of the Abbasid dynasty, had turned from a powerful empire to a chaotic ménage of warring tribes. We also traded with merchants from Christian Europe who were allowed to live and trade in Muslim territories. It was during a session with some Christians that I first met Lien. She had friends who were Nestorians and she wanted to know about the Christian religion. The monks spoke Arabic, which I had learned as a child and spoke fluently. So I interpreted for her. Their conversations, long and involved, gave me ample time to gaze on her.
In the palace, you have to be careful. If you gaze too much, or at the wrong person, the Emperor might have you killed. Still, my eyes inevitably wandered to her delicate form, her beautiful face, and her glossy hair. She often caught me looking at her. I quickly turned my eyes down when she noticed me, but I knew she saw I had been staring. When I got a summons to the palace a few days later, I thought my end had come. I arrived and a servant girl took me to see the Princess.
She sat on an ornately carved chair. Her golden dress reflected the light of two flame pots on either side of her. Her lips and nails were painted red, her skin powdered so it looked pale. Her hair, elaborately coifed, crowned her beauty. Two serving women stood behind her. I knelt.
“Rise,” she said. “You are Gan Shen.”
“And ever your slave, Lady Princess.”
“I have enough slaves and don’t need one more,” she said. “I want you to tell me about the Christian religion.”
I’m not a Christian. In fact, I’m not religious at all. I don’t believe in anything supernatural—at least I didn’t back then. But I knew a lot about the Christian religion because we often travelled with Nestorians on our journeys to Baghdad and often stayed in their churches, monasteries, and in villages where most of the inhabitants followed that sect of Christianity. I had learned much about their beliefs. The Princess invited me to sit, folded her hands in her lap, and told me to proceed.
I told her what I knew about the Christian faith. She listened intently. I had to restrain myself and deliberately avert my eyes so I did not look upon her improperly. Despite my resolution and the fear that brought it on, I did not entirely succeed. A couple of times I looked up and met her eyes. She did not seem angry because I did so. Once she laughed when I dropped my gaze.
“You don’t need to be afraid of me, Gan Shen,” she smiled. “I don’t bite.”
Because I did not know how to answer, had not expected her to speak mirthfully, and because my mouth often leads a life independent of my brain, I said, “Your great beauty, Princess”—and then stopped, thinking I had just signed my own death warrant.
“If a man gazes at me because he thinks I am beautiful, this is a pleasing thing. It does not arouse my wrath, you silly young man. Continue.”
I went on, almost mad with fear, telling her what I knew. She was curious about the Christian holy women. Father and I had stayed as guests in one of their convents in Central Asia. I told Lien what I recalled.
“Only Father and I were admitted,” I said. “All the others in our caravan camped a distance from their holy place.”
“What were the women like?”
“Wise. You sensed their holiness and sanctity. Yet they were pleasant, intelligent and . . . winsome.”
“I have seen these qualities in the Buddhist and Taoist nuns of our kingdom. I often think I might choose such a path for myself—a path of chastity and contemplation. Such a life would be beautiful.”
She had actually spoken to me. She expected a response.
“It would be a sublime choice, my Princess.”
She laughed again. “It would also be impossible. Father will marry me off, probably soon. I really have no choice in the matter.”
I did not know what to say.
“I will summon you again,” she told me. With that, my audience ended.
I was afraid. You might think her friendliness would assure me, but when you deal with the Emperor, you deal with death. He had more than one daughter, but people said Lien ranked as his favorite. One wrong move, one wrong word, and my end would come. If he even received a report that his daughter was being friendly with a commoner, I would be murdered. I hoped she forgot me. I received a summons a week later. That it came from her rather than from her father relieved my fear somewhat. Still, I had walked on to dangerous ground.
A month later, we made preparations for another journey west. By now we had the routine down. We hired camel men, cooks, soldiers to protect us, interpreters, and additional personnel. Just a few days before we left, I learned that the Princes Lien had converted to the Christian religion.
“How does her family feel about that?” I asked, concerned for her.
“The Emperor isn’t against that particular religion,” my informant said. “The Princess’ conversion to it makes the Nestorians in our kingdom and in Korea loyal to the government. And it gives him someone to parade in front of the European envoys who want to establish their faith here in China. He can bring out Princess Lien and say, ‘We already have a Christian population in our kingdom, so we don’t need your monks establishing monasteries here.’”
I wondered if she would act upon her desire to live a life of chastity and contemplation; if she would enter a convent. I saw her at a convent a few months later.
We had crossed in Bactria and settled down for an extended rest in a city friendly to us. Bactria is a land of many religions—Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Christians live there. My father and I received an invitation to dine with nuns of a community just outside of town. The moment I walked in, I spotted Lien.
I gaped. Father recognized her and bowed. She stopped us.
“Gentlemen, here rank is left behind,” she said in our language. “We are all equal here in this holy place.” She turned to me. “Gan Shen, it is so good to see you.”
“And you, Princess.”
We went into the dining hall. The convent housed only six sisters and three women who lived there as guests. I noticed right away that Lien did not wear the coarse, simple garment the nuns wore. She did not dress opulently, but looked lovely in a simple white frock with blue trim at the sleeves and hem. Her hair, tied up in a braid, not coifed, made her look beautiful in an unaffected way. She wore no make-up.
She sat across from us at the meal. The nuns and guests ate in silence while a young woman read from a scroll—I assume their sacred text. I kept stealing glimpses at her and noticed she was gazing on me. She smiled at me several times when our eyes met. After dinner, we spoke with the abbess, thanked her for her hospitality, and left a generous donation to the convent. As we departed, Lien came outside and waylaid us.
“If I may speak to your son,” Lien said to my father.
After recovering from his surprise, he bowed (forgetting, I guess, she had told him not to do so) and went over to where our grooms waited with the horses.
“The sky is lovely,” she said.
I looked up. Not wanting to appear mutely stupid, I said, “It is magnificent. I’m reminded of the line by Li Po, ‘To meet again and drink another day / Not long from now—beyond the milky way.’”
“That is a wonderful poem.” She moved closer to me. I felt uncomfortable. She noticed and laughed. “You’re still afraid of me?”
“You understand why, Lady Princess.”
“I do, and it’s unfortunate. You are wise and perceptive. Here, I think, you can be more relaxed.”
I gestured at the grooms. “They see us. Word gets back to China easily.”
“What you say is true.”
Wanting to change the subject, I asked her if she had considered joining the community of women here.
“Now that I see the life they live, no. It’s beautiful and glorious in its holiness—but it’s not for me. As Princess, I’ve been cloistered, in a sense, most of my days. Since I’m to be married off, Father protected my purity as much as if I were a nun! I’ll stay here another four months and then return. In fact, I think Father has arranged for me to return with your caravan.”
My father had not told me this. As I marveled, Lien moved in closer. She took my hand.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me,” she said.
“Princess, I do fear.”
She paused and let go of my hand. “I suppose you’re right.”
I thought she might cry. Her forlorn look expressed what I’d felt for her but dared not express, not even contemplate. I hesitated and took her hand. Then—I often astonish myself—I touched it to my lips.
“We should not torment ourselves,” Lien said. “It’s impossible. I’m endangering your life. We need to stop.”
I squeezed her hand. I wanted to kiss her lips, but that would be too dangerous.
“We’ll wish for magic,” she said.
I left her there. The magic came three days later.
If you’ve read the newer versions of my story, you encounter a sorcerer who tricks me into retrieving a magic lamp for him (later stories say I simply found the lamp). I get trapped in a cave but use a magic ring the sorcerer gave me to get out of the cave. There is a djinn in the ring. I still have the lamp, and when my mother rubs it, an even more powerful djinn appears. I become wealthy, marry a Princess, and later the sorcerer tricks my mother into giving up the lamp. The djinn in the ring helps me confront the sorcerer. I kill him and get the lamp back. The sorcerer’s evil brother manages to worm his way into the palace and lurks there to kill me, but the djinn of the lamp warns me, I kill the sorcerer’s brother, and then live happily ever after. I become the Emperor of China after the Princess’s father dies.
Of course, none of that happened—well, some things sort of like that happened, but—and I know keep saying this—the storytellers got the details wrong. I think anyone who reads the summary I just gave can see how busy and overly complex the tale has become over the years. People kept adding details to prolong the telling and create suspense for their audiences. The entire episode of the sorcerer’s brother is made up and tacked on. What really happened is much more simple and direct.
I left Princess Lien behind. As we departed, a servant girl of hers gave me a package wrapped in white silk. Inside, I found a jewel—an opal of great size and beauty. Lien had written “I love you” on a scrap of paper beneath it. I touched the note to my lips. I had often heard that love will find a way. I did not see how love could overcome the complexities that separated Lien and me. But love owns stronger magic than we imagine.
We came to the desert lands north of Persia, traveling the route we always took, and stopped at the oasis of Parvaneth. Locals told us spirits inhabited the area, so we never made camp there; we only stopped to water our pack animals and to rest. The oasis offered shade and water from its many springs and pools. Just as we were mounting up to leave, bandits attacked us.
Tribesmen abound in that area; bandits and brigands roam about looking for easy targets. We withstood their first charge, killing several of them. They took out three of our troop—a soldier and two attendants. We formed a defensive perimeter and easily withstood their second charge, hurting them so much they withdrew. By that time twilight had come. With wounded to care for, and not wanting to risk traveling to the next oasis in the dark, we decided to bed down in the haunted grove.
Everyone feared the djinni that were said to inhabit the place. We built fires, posted guards, and pitched our tents. When no manifestations of the supernatural arose, we relaxed and bedded down, our guard doubled to protect us from a night attack.
I awoke past midnight and went outside to the latrine we had dug. On my way back to the tent, I found myself face-to-face with a woman.
She had brown skin, large dark eyes, and wore a purple garment with a hood. I would have cried out in fear but no sounds would come from my mouth.
“Listen to me,” the woman said. “I am Parvaneth, guardian of this place. You are Gan Shen—the man of the adventurous spirit?”
“I am he,” I said, able to speak but thoroughly frightened.
“Still your heart. I mean you no harm. You are in love with Lien Hua.”
I felt more stable. “I am in love with her, yes.”
“I will show you a means by which you may win her love and her hand in marriage.”
“How, Lady Parvaneth? Tell me, if you will.”
She gave me the details. I won’t repeat what she said because you know the story of the lamp. Her brother had been imprisoned inside it by a sorcerer. I was to retrieve the lamp and bring it back to her.
“I will try to do as you ask, my lady. Where is the lamp?”
“The sorcerer, Bayandur, has hidden it in a cave. It would be unwise to tell you its location, since he can read thoughts and will sense if someone knows where his treasure trove lies. I will put the location in your heart, Gan Shen. You will know it when you see it. Approach the cave only when the moon is full. Moonlight interferes with Bayandur’s magic and he will not detect you when you enter. Retrieve the lamp. Once it is taken outside the cave, my brother will be free of it.”
I nodded, wondering how this would enable me to marry Lien. I supposed Parvaneth would bring it about by magic. In response to my thoughts, she said, “When you have the lamp, my brother will grant you three wishes. Go now. I have dispersed the bandits. They will do no further violence to your party.”
I stood in the quiet oasis. The fires had burned down low. The stars and moon blazed in the vast dome of heaven. No noise sounded as I made my way back to my tent.
In the morning we set out. I wondered if it had been a dream. We did not encounter the bandits again. The remainder of the journey played out with no incidents. We arrived in Baghdad at the time they were praying their afternoon prayer.
Things settled into the familiar routine. We had done business in Baghdad so long we had contacts, merchants to whom we sold our goods and from whom we bought items to take back to China. The merchants invited us into their homes, entertained us, and extended admirable hospitality. I listened closely for any mention of Bayandur or of a hidden treasure trove, but no one said anything that might help me locate the magical lamp. When we departed, after a month, I still did not know where it was located.
We rode out of Baghdad. On the road we meet a group of Dervishes. They twirled, sang, and spoke in their crazy ecstatic languages. We gave them money. As we rode off, it occurred to me that I might ask them if they knew the whereabouts of the cave. I rode back, telling Father I wanted to find out if they knew the distance to the next water place. I flagged one of them down and asked him if he knew the location of Bayandur’s cave.
“Why would you want to go there?” he asked, the wildness in his eyes diminishing somewhat.
“I have a concern.”
“A day’s ride. It lies in the saddle of two rocks that emerge from the sand by the Hill of the Wild Goats. You may only enter the environs of the cave when the moon is full. No one dares to enter the cave itself.”
I gave him more coins. Parvaneth said I would know the place when I saw it. Now I knew what it looked like. I caught up with caravan. We rode until dusk. Our guides did not want to camp near the Hill of the Wild Goats—“It’s an evil place,” they told us. But darkness had fallen and Father said it would not be safe to continue. The guides warned us not to harm the goats that lived about the rock formation because they were sacred to Bayandur.
“Who is Bayandur?” I asked.
“A sorcerer from Tunis,” they answered. “The goats are his and guard the entrance to a cavern where he keeps his gold. He will know it if one of them is harmed.”
I rejoiced to receive this bit of information. No harm to the goats. The moon was in three-quarters phase that night. Its shining might not completely block his magic, but it would interfere with it.
When darkness had enveloped the camp and everyone slept, I got up, sneaked past our guards, and headed toward the rocks. Moonlight showed the way, but I should have realized Bayandur would guard his treasury. Scorpions and snakes abounded. The only thing that kept me from being bitten or stung was the cold. Deserts broil when the sun is out, but when it sets the cloudless sky lets the heat go upward. Cold that makes one shiver sets in. The vipers and scorpions moved sluggishly from the cold, so I was able to avoid them. I saw a hyena or two, but no other dangerous creatures appeared—until I encountered the goats.
Goats are nasty creatures, especially billies, but I had not prepared for the type of goat Bayandur kept. Big, mangy, boney, with crazed eyes and slavering mouths, they smelled me and gathered in a semicircle, eight of them, in front of an especially dark place I took to be the cave’s entrance.
I stood still. The creatures glared at me but did not attack. I racked my brain for a course of action. The longer I stood there, the more confident and aggressive they became. One stomped its hoof twice on the ground. The others took a less rigid stance, suggesting they meant to charge at me rather than simply block my path.
I had a dagger in my cloak. If they rushed at me I could at least slash at them. As I felt for the knife, my hand hit against the flint I kept next to it to light fires. The goats looked ready to charge. I got the flint out, knelt, and struck it with my knife, sending a shower of sparks into the dry brush that grew thickly around the black rocks housing the cave.
The sparks caught with no problem. Flames flared. Smoke billowed.
Whatever magic Bayandur had put on the goats, they were—like all animals—afraid of fire. After a dutiful moment standing in the thick white smoke the blaze generated, they bolted and scattered. As the flames advanced, I followed in their ashy wake. The flames lit the face of the rock and showed me the location of the cave.
I had a small lantern in the pocket of my quilted jacket. Lighting it with a spring of burning groundcover, I went inside.
I could stand up in the cave, though the ceiling did not go much above my head. Dry sand formed the floor. I listened and looked about carefully. I saw no snakes or scorpions, but what I did see astonished me.
The locals had correctly informed us about the gold. It lay in heaps all around. I smiled. The cave looked like the treasure horde of a rather small dragon. Boxes overflowing with jewels, various gold vessels, bars of silver, jeweled weapons, and a rack of costly garments filled the space. In a corner of the cave, as if it were of little value, sat a battered brass lamp.
I hurried over and picked up the dull, tarnished vessel. I will admit I filled the multiple pockets of my jacket with coins and jewels and ran out of the cave, the lamp tucked under my arm. The motion of my running apparently activated the lamp. In an instant—no rumbling and no trail of smoke—a figure stood before me, blocking my way.
I had no doubt as to the figure’s identity. He could have been Parvaneth’s twin. He wore baggy trousers, a blousy white shirt, and boots—typical Persian dress. He held up a hand.
“Stay. I want to speak with you, but I’m a little groggy. I’ve been asleep three hundred years.”
How do you reply to a statement like this? I stood still and waited as he slowly came to his full senses. After a time, he focused on me.
“You are Aladdin?”
“I am called that, yes.”
“Thank you. My sister sent you, did she not?”
“You have three wishes.”
“She told me that as well. One wish is all I need.”
“Law requires me to grant you three. It is my obligation and I must fulfill it.”
“The first is that I may happily marry the Princes Lien Hua.”
“Your wish is granted. You will marry her before you return to your home in China. Two wishes are still yours to ask. I will go now.”
“Back into the lamp?”
The djinn laughed. “I was imprisoned in the lamp! I have no desire whatsoever to go back into it. It’s yours to keep—though if you see my sister again, you might give it to her. I think she wants it. Your first wish is granted. When you are ready to ask for the other two, I will know it and come to you. Now I go to see my sister—and my family. Thank you, mortal.”
“What is your name?”
“Navid, I am pleased to have freed you. Go now.”
The look on his face touched me. A powerful djinn, his eyes glistened with tears and his expression was one of thankfulness. He bowed and disappeared.
I stole back into camp and crawled into my sleeping pouch. The stars blazed. The moon had begun its descent toward the horizon.
* * *
We made good time coming back. The weather remained pleasant. Tribesmen and bandits stayed away from us. We entered Bactria and lodged as guests at the convent we had visited before, dining with the abbess and sub-prioress. After we were done, the abbess brought Liu and her serving women out of the guest quarters to meet us.
I stared at her. Her beauty seemed to have increased. Under the moonlight, in the clear air of that open country, she radiated grace and loveliness. She would be my bride. The walls separating us would disappear through the djinn’s magic.
Of course, I still could not even touch her. How the djinn’s magic worked out was yet to be seen.
We rode to the village. Her entourage awaited her: soldiers, additional servants and attendants, horses and wagons carrying supplies and the Princess’s possessions—and, to my dismay, an official representative of the Imperial government.
He obviously occupied a prominent position in the Imperial ranks. I could tell that from his ostentatious dress. My father knew his name and kowtowed lower than usual. The official knelt before the Princess and greeted her. His greeting was condescending, and his bow suggested Lien should be greatly honored by the fact that he had chosen to do obeisance to her.
“Rise, Du Mu,” she said.
He got up. I could tell he was strong—not one of the weak, effeminate waterflies who inhabited positons of authority in the Emperor’s court.
“Greetings to you, Princess,” he said with a northern accent. “You look well. Has your retreat among the Christians of this land been refreshing?”
“I have cherished it,” she said.
“I am happy to hear this.”
“I introduce to you Gan Shen.”
He smiled. I bowed, though not as abjectly as my father had. I could tell from the look in his eyes that he did not like me.
“You are the young man the Persian merchants have named Aladdin.”
“I am he.”
“You are a valuable asset to our kingdom. It’s vital our merchants keep good relationships with the merchant class of Baghdad.”
This was his way of insulting me. He made a point emphasize that I was of the merchant class.
“Thank you, sir.”
“You know the Princess, I can see.”
“Our family delivers goods to the royal family. I know Her Highness through this.”
He flashed his smarmy smile.
The Princess invited us to dine with her, a pleasant affair but frustrating, since I could not touch her or speak to her unless she spoke to me first. She spoke to me a lot, and Du Mu noted this. He was writing my death warrant in his mind. Lien’s words were like music, her smile like the sweetest Persian wine. I was slightly drunk when I left her tent. Father and his servants went to his sleeping quarters. I yawned as I headed for mine. The yawn died when I saw Du Mu and three armed men waiting for me near the entrance.
He made a gesture. They raised their blades and went for me.
I did not even have time to react. But as their blades descended, the men stiffened and fell down all around me. They were not dead; I could see they were breathing. But they were incapacitated.
Du Mu stood there, his mouth open. I bent down, picked up a knife from one of the immobilized soldiers, went over to him, and slashed a long rent in his silk robes.
“I ought to cut your throat,” I said.
He was too stunned to speak.
“What is behind this?” I asked. “Tell me or you’ll be sorry.”
“One of the serving women said you kissed the Princess’s hand. I was not certain if I should believe her, but the moment I saw you two together I could tell she is enamored of you.”
“We’re in love. I’m going to marry her.”
He looked down at his thugs. “You have magic.”
“Yes—and lot more where this came from.” I gestured at the soldiers. And then I understood. The djinn had promised I would marry Lien. Given the power of his magic, nothing would prevent me from doing so. His magic would protect me from all harm. “I have considerable magic to draw upon—unlimited magic. I meant to wait, but I think I’ll marry the Princess here and now.”
He licked his lips. “This is most unusual,” he said.
“Magic always is,” I answered.
* * *
Lien and I were married at the Nestorian church that served the convent where she had stayed. Knowing the deviousness and cruelty of the Emperor’s officials, I wondered if Du Mu would try to stop us by kidnapping my father or threatening my family. He did nothing like this. Navid’s magic covered all contingencies. The Nestorian Christians were afraid the government might retaliate against them, destroy their village, burn their church or harm the nuns, but I assured them no harm would come to their community; and, after all, they lived in Bactria and not China. I even persuaded Du Mu to stand as a witness at our wedding ceremony.
She and I spent a week together on an estate outside of town. I would have preferred a month of privacy, but we had to get moving and make our way to China before the weather changed. We set off. I rode alongside the wagon carrying my new bride.
Du Mu and the others feared me—or, I should say, feared the magic I possessed. Circumstance confirmed that an enchantment protected me. No sandstorms blew up even when we crossed areas where at least one could be expected during the time we journeyed. The natural phenomena that usually delayed us—flooding, rainstorms, high wind, blistering heat—did not arise. Everyone was astonished. We made our way back to China in record time, long before harvest season arrived.
News travels as fast as tongues can wag. My marriage to Lien was quickly noised abroad. Du Mu said he would have to commit suicide to avoid torture for his failure to prevent our marriage. I persuaded him to live. When we came to the border of our nation, a company of elite troops descended on us. They charged, but as they drew close to our wagon train they slowed their horses and came to a halt, gaping, bewildered, unable to attack. We passed through them unmolested. Eventually, they rode off. When news of this got back to the Forbidden City, the Emperor and his advisers got the idea I possessed substantial magic and they had better leave me alone.
The people of the villages and towns we passed through greeted us enthusiastically, welcoming us with banquets, fireworks, and gifts. My belovéd Lien had always been popular with the commoners. As we made our way toward Beijing, songs proclaimed her a gentle and compassionate ruler. The further we advanced into China, the more the population lauded us. The Emperor would face a revolt if he harmed me. Navid’s magic had secured us in the face of Imperial power. And, I soon learned, the Emperor had other concerns.
The Mongols, whom we had defeated years ago and who had been quiet for decades, had invaded our northern borders. A recent expedition against them had resulted in a disastrous defeat. They had broken through our defenses at the Great Wall and laid siege to Beijing. The skillful commander of the garrison there defeated them, inflicting heavy casualties on their forces, but in the fight the Mongols captured Lien’s father, the Emperor.
She fell into grief upon hearing of it. I comforted her as best I could, but, as people often do, she harbored irrational thoughts about the matter. It was her fault, she said, that her father had been captured. I knew it would be pointless and insensitive to lecture her. I also knew, of course, that I would use one of my wishes to free him. Navid said he would appear to me when I needed him. Knowing djinn avoided human civilization, preferring arid, open locations, I rode out at dusk to a patch of salt waste where hardly anyone lived, expecting to see Navid and spend my second wish.
Wind, hot from sweeping over barren rock and sand, blew on my face. A few scraggly bushes rose out of the soil; scrub and cacti gave a bleak tint to the grey-brown landscape. I rode along slowly, waiting for Navid to appear. My horse whinnied and bolted. As I reined him in, I saw, up ahead, not Navid but Parvaneth. Two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, stood with her.
I dismounted and knelt.
“Rise, Aladdin,” she said. “We djinn are not impressed by abjection, as you humans seem to be.”
I stood. The boy and girl eyed me curiously.
“Come,” Parvaneth said.
She led me into a silk tent. Two oil lamps lit the interior. In their golden light, Parvaneth’s beauty radiated. Like her, the children exemplified physical resplendence. They had brown skin, dark hair, dark eyes (their eyes were not folded but round like Europeans and Arabs) and their bodies—I would say they were ten years old in human terms—were lithe and graceful.
“These are my children, Arash and Roudabeh.”
I bowed. They grinned at me. Parvaneth smiled with pride.
“Navid is occupied this moment. He has married a beautiful spirit-woman from the Steppe of Russia. I knew you would seek him and I did not want his bliss interrupted, so I am here to assist you with my magic. This way you will not need to expend one of your wishes.”
I could hardly speak but finally managed to stammer, “I am overwhelmed by your generosity, Parvaneth. What must I do?”
“Just stand here.”
I heard horses’ hooves. Years of traveling the Silk Road told me it was a company of perhaps twenty riders. They came to a halt. Soon footfalls replaced the hoof beats. The flap of Parvaneth’s exquisite tent flew open. Two armed soldiers burst in and checked the place. Seeing four unarmed people, one of the troops turned and signaled. A moment later, four richly dressed men, one older and three quite a bit younger, strode into the room. I knew the older man as Esen Taishi, the Mongol chieftain who had led the attack on Beijing.
They wore silk robes, fur-trimmed hats, and jingled with jewelry and ornaments. The moment they laid eyes on Parvaneth, Esen smiled.
“Well, a beautiful captive.” He turned his eyes on me. “And you—if I’m not mistaken, you are the boy who charmed the Emperor’s daughter. He’ll be pleased to see you. Your being flayed alive will amuse him.”
I felt fear, needless to say. Parvaneth, however, nodded to Roudabeh, her daughter, who gracefully raised her hand. The three figures standing next to Esen transformed to snakes. The Mongol ruler screamed and retreated to a corner of the tent. His guards went for their swords.
“Do you want me to turn you to swine?” Parvaneth warned. They hesitated, fearing their leader but fearing Parvaneth’s magic even more. She turned to Esen.
“My daughter transformed your sons into serpents. If you want them back, you had better agree to my terms—and you’d better hurry before they slither into the desert and are lost to you forever.”
It took him a moment to recover his speech, but he made a small gesture of humility to Parvaneth.
“Tell me your name, Lady Djinn.”
“You don’t need to know my name. This young man—whom you threatened to flay alive—will deliver the terms of his choosing. I am his servant.”
Alarmed even more (since he had just threatened me and now found his sons at my mercy), Esen turned to me.
“My terms are simple,” I said. “Give me custody of the Emperor; and cease your invasion of our territory, withdrawing completely, giving up all claims on our land and its people.” I paused just a moment and then added, “And give me your sword.”
He agreed to the terms and handed me his gold-inlaid, jeweled blade. He bowed as he handed it to me. For a Mongol warrior to surrender his sword is the ultimate humiliation, but he knew better than to refuse. In a flash of light, his three sons reappeared, looking about, bewildered. Parvaneth smiled and patted Roudabeh on the shoulder.
“Break your promise in any way,” she told Esen, “and your sons will revert to their serpent forms and live so until they die; and I will smite you with a wasting disease that will consume your life. Bring us the Emperor and depart from here.”
Esen left the tent in great abjectness. A few moments later, two servants brought in the captive Emperor.
He blinked, as bewildered as Esen’s sons had been at their restoration. After a moment, he recognized me. I smiled.
My Lord,” I said, bowing. I glanced back and noticed Parvaneth and her children had vanished.
* * *
Esen left horses for us. He also unloaded all the wealth his entourage had carried and left it as a gift of his goodwill. It was a considerable sum! The Emperor and I rode unaccompanied back to where Lien and my servants had settled for the night. It must have been odd for His Imperial Majesty, who from childhood had been surrounded by servants, guards, slaves, and caregivers, to ride accompanied only by a young man from the merchant class. The night sky arched above us in a beautiful display of stars, a half moon, and silver swaths of nocturnal clouds. The Emperor seemed not to notice its splendor. There certainly were advantages and disadvantages to having power. He would never know the magnificence of the vast steppe between our nations and the Levant. He would not see the mountains of India or the endless plains of Iran and Bactria. My treasures had been different from the ones he knew and, I fancied, richer.
We were back to the settlement where Lien and her attendants awaited me. I returned her captive father to Lien as an unexpected wedding gift.
Esen Taishi kept his word and withdrew from our northern borders. He paid restitution and signed a treaty with us. He was too afraid to cross us in any way. His sons, who lived to adulthood and did not turn into snakes, succeeded their father as rulers and left us alone as well.
I used one of my wishes so Lien and I could have endless life. We have seen history unfold and empires and fall and rise. I still have one wish left. Sometimes I wonder if I might use the last to set my story straight. Of course, I just did so without the use of magic. But writing is magic. Hopefully, many will read this and finally know my tale as it actually happened.
But that last wish is always there.
David Landrum’s speculative fiction has appeared widely—his revised fairy tales have been published in Father Grim’s Book of Stories, Arthur King of the Ages Anthology, The Fairy Tale Whisperer, Cliterature, and in Myths, Legends, and Fairy Tales. His newest novella, Mother Hudla, is a sci-fi retelling of an old story by the Brothers Grimm.