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The Old Man and the Djinn

The old man wished he were as confident as he led people to believe. 

Or maybe not. Maybe that level of confidence would be dangerous. Was that not why he has spent the morning checking each of the seals three times, and rehearsing words he had learned by rote decade before? Still, he wished he could feel confidence instead of the anxiety that, he knew deep down, was really fear.

At last he was satisfied, or at least recognized the diminishing returns of further scrutiny, and stood before the pedestal. That is was a comfortable height not coincidence, and at least one rival candidate, he knew, had been denied the position only for the risk of awkwardness in reaching the flask.

He involved the protection of God above, and of the Saints between, and even of the Adversary below, whose ward he was about to release. With a twist practiced on replicas countless thousands of times*, he opened the flask, crying out, “Granhil of Del, I call you from your slumber!” As the djinn poured out and began to take form within the circle, he began the litany of bindings.

“I bind you in the name of Agrah the father of Jer. 
I bind you in the name of Xarcha the father of El.
I bind you in the name of Salec the father of Tes. 
I bind you in the name of Kerda the father of Kal.”

With each name, the old man made a different sign, with his left hand for the father, and right for the son.

When he had finished, the djinn looked at him impassively from the circle. Its shape was the same as he had always seen it; a man of twenty-something, deceptively common, neither handsome nor ugly, healthy but not notably strong. Only some vaguely archaic cut of its otherwise unremarkable clothing gave it away as anything other than the calculatedly average man it was surely intended to seem.

Even its voice hinted at no otherworldliness as it said, “Those words have no effect. I tell you this every time, they’re just there for show, and no one is watching but us. I’m bound by the flask to do you no harm nor try to escape.”

“And I choose to believe the sages over you, every time,” the old man replied evenly.

The djinn shrugged. “You have a question,” it said without asking. “They wouldn’t trust you with this if were were about the wish.”

“Cease this impertinence,” the old man reprimanded.

“Or what, you’ll send me back to the flask? You’re going to do that anyway. Just ask and let’s get it over with until next year.”

The old man bristled, but could find no complaint that His Majesty would accept. “The djinn was demanding it do its service quickly,” would just gain the mockery of the royal advisors.

“I could let you out you stay out of the flask awhile,” he suggested. “Perhaps even as much as a day.” As soon as the words were out, he cursed himself for indulging the djinn’s game.

If it were a stratagem, however, the creature seemed unwilling to pursue it further. It shook its head. “You won’t,” it said. “They’d never let you. They’re terrified of us. You’re terrified of us. You’ll lock me up the moment you’re done with me.”

The old man flushed, and felt foolish to have used so obvious a bluff. “The New Emperor of Hussik has claimed our kingdom as a principality. His armies march on us from three directions. How can we defeat them?”
The djinn didn’t seem to consider long, just cocked its head and said, “You should probably accept.” 

The old man took a moment to absorb the meaning, then flushed again, this time in anger. “That is not an answer to the question!”

It did not seem chagrined. “No, but there’s nothing keeping me from offering my advice,” it said. “Though I’m not sure why I am,” it added. “I don’t really like your people anymore. I should let you do something foolish.”

“You must answer the question truthfully and completely!” the old man insisted, and wondered why he was shouting; this was simply true, not something that had to be specified.

“Yes,” the djinn nodded. “Thats what i meant. Because your question is foolish and you’ll use the answer to do something foolish. You’ve become cowards and I no longer care what happens to you.”

“Answer the question, then”

“Just so you don’t accuse me of misleading,” said the djinn, “please restate the question.”

The old man thought cagily, looking for errors in his parsing. “How can this kingdom defeat the armies of Hussik that are coming to invade?”

“Alright,” the djinn nodded, and continued. “I don’t know.”

“That is not an answer!” the old man shouted.

”No,” the djinn agreed. “But I can’t lie, so that’s the best i can do.”

The man hesitated. It couldn’t lie. Or could it? Could the old texts be trusted?

For the first time the djinn focussed on him. “You;re not sure,” it said. “You’re actually wondering whether your own lore is reliable Even though it’s literally all you have and it’s held true for over a thousand years.” And then, also for the first time, it chuckled. “It’s your binding words all over again. Soon you’ll have lead chains stretched across the room. Or mirrors to trap us in the reflections.”

It stared at the old man then seemed exasperated. “How would I know?” it demanded “I haven’t been out of this room in… what? A thousand years? No. It has to be more. Twelve hundred?”

“Fifteen,” the old man heard himself say, and cursed himself again. Why had he offered information?

It stared again. “Fifteen hundred years,” it said, seeming to speak more to itself than to the summoner. Then it looked at the man again. “That the world as I last knew it. I’ve been out of the flask for a few minutes each year for fifteen hundred years. A few minutes a year and you’ve sealed this place so well that I can barely hear beyond the palace walls.” (And here the old man tried not to start at the idea that it could hear beyond the chamber.) “How do expect me to have any useful knowledge? What I’ve chanced to hear of Hussik is gossip and idle chatter of people in the marketplace, or from your own generals who aren’t even certain of what they know. Holding me prisoner has crippled my ability to help you.”

The summoner thought, then said through his teeth, “You are saying, truthfully, that you can’t answer the question?”

“I’m saying I don’t know,” said the djinn. I’m not saying I can’t know.”

“Don’t be cryptic,” cried the old man, growing frustrated and anxious,”

“I can go find out,” said the djinn explained, as to a slow child. “I’m a creature of air and fire. I can go from here to Hussik unseen in less time than we’ve been talking. I can find what I need to know about their armies, their strategy, and their leadership and decide how best to defeat them.” 

It paused while the old man thought, and added, “You didn’t ask for ‘best,’ by the way. I could have decided to give you the worst way to defeat them, with the biggest losses, that broke your people’s spirit and left you open to the next invasion. But I’m adding that part as a last tribute to the time when I thought your people and mine were friends.”

“You’ve ever been servants,” the summoner said dismissively.

“Yes,” the djinn said, looking at the ceiling. “We leared that just before you made us prisoners. The city we thought we’d built with the labor of friendship turned out to have been built with the labor of slaves.”

“Silence!” the old man demanded.

The djinn raised its brow. “If that is your wish…?”

“No!” snapped the summoner. It had never been this vexing before. “Your kind earned its debt through your own misdeeds.”

Again the djinn nodded “Indeed we did, We’v never denied that. We came grateful for the opportunity to redeem ourselves. We gave our help and our friendship freely, the wishes occasionally, but mostly our help in other ways, and we never enforced the once-a-year minimum on the questions, we just helped where we could. We granted small wishes to people on our own; a healed back after an aged injury, an undemolished house after an earthquake. You had so much more from us when it was out of friendship, and kindness.” It paused and continued, wistfully, “I still remember those. Fifteen hundred years hasn’t robbed me of that.”

It looked once more at the summoner, who was staring, mouth ajar. “Well?” it demanded.

“You… You would try to escape.”

“You’re really not bright, are you?” the djinn asked sadly. “I’m bound. I can’t try to escape. i can’t harm anyone, unless the wish is mad to do so. Or, anyway, I won’t.”

“I don’t accept your word.”

“I also can’t lie. I won’t hurt anyone without a wish. None of us would.” Its eyes grew unfocused and i half-whispered, “I think that’s the bit that made finally made them decide on the flasks.” It looked up again. “But being bound I can’t go without your leave.”

The old man’s face was pained. The risk was immeasurable. But to go before the court and admit uncertainty? Beg the advice of those so-called wise men? He would be laughed out fo his position, called a huntsman afraid of his hounds. The anger from that though steeled him. “Go,” he said. “Do what you must to answer the question, then return immediately!”

Then the djinn was gone. And the anger turned again to terror at what he had done.

After a quarter hour, he began struggling with panic. At half and hour, he went down to the back of the wine cellar where were kept the stronger spirits, and where no one would see him, and he drank a small glass, and then another, and soon found he shook less. Soon, he realized a third had passed, and the tremors grew, so he drank another. 

It was an indeterminate number of minutes, and of glasses, past the hour when the djinn appeared before him, in the wine cellar, where the summoner had moments earlier earnestly resolved to live the remainder of his cursed life.

“Oh there you are,” it said startling the old man, who had been sitting with his eyes closed, remembering happier times. It took him a moment to focus, and to form a response.

“You said you would be a few moments!” he protested, bleary-tongued. “‘S an hour!”

“Hour and ten,” the djinn agreed. “I cannot lie; I said I could get to Hussik in a few moments, but I had to find their armies. Three of them, you said, remember? Coming from different directions?”

“Oh, yes,” the old man said, remembering. It seemed harder to remember just then.

“I also had to snoop. add peek, and listen at each one to find anything out.  And do you know what I found that’s particularly interesting?” the djinn asked as he picked up a small glass and eyed it suspiciously

The summoner waited expectantly for a moment while the djinn polished the inside of the glass with its strangely cut vest, and finally prompted, “What?!”

“There are four armies,” it said as it filled up a glass with fiery spirits. then it looked the summoner in they eye, lifted the glass as in a toast, and drank it in one shot.

Though he hadn’t thought about it, the summoner was expecting the djinn to be supernaturally resistant to the burn of the spirits, and was most surprised when its eyes went wide, it sucked in air and let out a long “Hhhhhhhhhhhhhha!” before blinking and pounding its chest several with it empty hand. “Oh! it said hoarsely at last, still blinking away tears. “That is new!”

“That bottle ish older than i’mam,” the old man muttered.

The djinn looked at the bottle. “The bottle is?” Then it shrugged. “I’ve been away a long time. Oh, but it’s good once it’s down!” it said, rubbing its chest appreciatively.

“Queshion!” the summoner blurted out. “Ansr’e queshion.”

“Oh right. Also, by the way, I had to take a quick look at the defensive situation of this place, for comparison, that took a bit of time. And the best way for you to defeat the Huzzik is…”

He let the summoner dangle until he again was forced to prompt, “YES?!”

“Use the wish,” the genie said, leaning its elbow on a wine shelf.

“What do you mean?” demanded the summoner, sudden sobriety shoving its way behind his eyes.”

“Well, lots of options,” said the djinn. “Best, though, I go myself and possess the generals of each army, lead them into chaos and destruction. Take out a chunk of Hussik’s army — a small chunk — and maybe they won’t want to test you again for a few decades.” 

The summoner sputtered, increasingly, distressingly sober, “But.. b-but… how can we defense with our resources, our military…”

“You can’t, the djinn said, not overly sadly, looking appraisingly at the centenarian bottle of spirits. “Just the approaching armies have three times the men of your entire military, also weapons that can take down your walls, and control of the supply lines right up to your borders. ”I cannot lie, and I am telling you that I’m your only option.” He drained another glass, this time better prepared. “Or another like me, of course.”

The summoner, who had gotten to his feet, collapsed back to the floor. “There are no more,” he said, looking down at the floor.

The djinn froze with its hand just touching the neck of the bottle, looking straight ahead at the wall beyond. “I’m the last?” 

The old man nodded slowly, heavily, seeming to lift the weight decades with each rise of his head.

“For how long?” the djinn asked in a strangely neutral tone.

“The old man gestured vaguely without looking up. “”B’fore my time,” he hazarded. His sobriety, having found itself neither useful nor wanted, had left. “Hunnerds. Four hunnerd?”

“Four hundred,” it repeated. “For four hundred out of fifteen I’ve been the only one. You had fewer to use every century, didn’t you? And so you used fewer every century. The city build on miracles and for the last four hundred you’ve only had one, and it’s one you thought you’d never spend, which means you’ve really had none.” 

It put the glass down, gently. “Go tell your king,” the djinn said. “I have spoken the truth, as I must. I’ve given you the best way, the wish. And I’ve given you the second best way, which is really probably still the best for you but you’d never see it.”

The old man looked confused. “Whassat?”

“I told you,” the djinn said. “Surrender. Don’t wait for the armies to arrive, go and meet them on the road, with wagons loaded with tribute. The generals are career men, they’ll take the easy victory with no losses. Emperors don’t care about anything but territory and tribute, he’ll accept too. Your king will still be king, he;ll just have to learn to live with king over him like everyone else.” 

“He’d take you,” the summoner said darkly. “He’d take the wish.”

“He would,” the djinn said, lightly. He’d take it and he’d use it, because he has an empire to build, not a legacy to maintain.”

“If he does…”

“I go free.” the djinn finished.

“If we do…”

“I go free.” 

“If we do,” the summoner began again, “you could stay. We’d give you.. anything.”

“You can’t buy us with what you’ve taken from us. And that’s all you have.” The djinn turned and walked away.

“Where you going?” the old man shouted.

“Back to flask,” the djinn said, without looking back. “Either way, I’ll be free soon.”

The djinn still could not lie, so he did not finish with “enough.”

© Sean Miner 2022

Published inShort fictionUncategorized

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