The Forbidden Wish(10) by Jessica Khoury

She snorts and turns away, pocketing the coin, then returns in moments with a bottle. “Your friend Xaxos was in here looking for you a few days back. Didn’t look too happy.”

Aladdin opens the wine. When he offers it to me I shake my head. “Old Xax?” he says casually. “I’ve got no business with him.”

“He’d disagree, I think. He said he hired you for a job—I didn’t need to ask to know what that meant. So you’re still up to your old tricks, then?” She shakes her head. “Anyway, he’s pretty angry with you. Said you pulled the job, then left town. Guards are hunting for a thief too. Offering a thousand gold crowns for his head.” She narrows her eyes. “Did you break into the palace, Aladdin?”

“A thousand crowns?” Aladdin gives a low whistle. “Nearly makes a man want to turn himself in.”

“Of all the stupid things . . .” Her eyes glowering, Dal gives us both a brief, sharp look before going to mop up someone’s spilled wine.

Aladdin finds a table near the central ring, where two men the size of bulls are grappling. One, whose neck is easily the size of my waist, is getting the upper hand. He’s stripped nearly bare, doused in oil to make him slippery. His head, bald but for a long black tail sprouting from the top, gleams like a boiled egg. His opponent, slightly smaller, is on the defensive, holding up his hands to block the bigger man’s blows.

Aladdin watches with disinterest and takes a long swig of wine.

“See that?” He runs his finger over the tabletop, where someone has carved a small symbol.

“It looks like a sewing needle,” I say.

He nods and drinks. His eyes are starting to get foggy from the wine. “Not just a needle. The Needle. The sign of a rebellion that started up years ago. This is where the leaders of the movement met. Here. At this table.”

He traces the needle with his thumbnail.

“My father was the Tailor,” he tells me. “I mean, he was just a tailor at first, but when I was a kid, he started running with these rebels. The king’s vizier was press-ganging peasants onto his warships, rowing them to their deaths in a mad attempt to rebuild the Amulen Empire of the past. My father and his friends protested by burning garrisons and guardhouses, stealing weapons, sabotaging ships.” Aladdin’s face darkens. He leans back and pulls the coin from Neruby from his pocket. I hadn’t even noticed him pick it up. He flips it idly; on it flashes the face of a king who died so long ago, no one in this world would even know his name. “Eventually he got my mother to join in. Soon people were calling him the Tailor, and a reward was offered for his head. His needle became the rebellion’s symbol.”

I listen in silence, watching his hands. They’re clever hands, his nails neat, his fingers long and nimble. He spins the coin and catches it, over and over, as he talks.

“When I was twelve they caught him. Remember that prince in the desert, Darian? His father, our exalted Vizier Sulifer, held me and forced me to watch as my parents’ heads were cut from their shoulders. Darian was there. He laughed at me when I began to cry.” Aladdin makes the coin disappear up his sleeve, then takes a long drink of wine. “Afterward, Sulifer made me pick up their heads and hold them so he could drive stakes in them. He let them stand there in the city square for weeks.”

I lean back, my hands in my lap. “Why are you telling me all this?”

He shrugs and sniffs. “You wanted to know why I . . . almost wished for Darian’s death.” The wine is nearly gone, as are Aladdin’s wits. “Ever since I was young, people thought I’d be the next leader of the rebellion, that I’d rise up and fight. They think I should be the one out there breaking people out of prison and stopping bloody plagues. They think I’ve wasted my life, becoming a thief and a criminal. Well, I’ve no interest in fighting for lost causes that only get people killed. All I want is to avenge my parents, not start a war we can’t win.”

I lift my face. He’s staring at me with drunken intensity, his lips a thin line. “And now,” he goes on, “I find out I don’t even have the guts to go through with it. I had Darian right in front of me! And I couldn’t even . . . I failed them.”

With a sigh, I pull the half-empty flagon from his fingers, drinking simply so that he cannot. The wine is cheap but strong, burning my throat, though it will have no effect on my senses.

A roar from the ring next to us draws Aladdin’s attention. The fight has ended, and the smaller of the two men lies unconscious on the floor in a puddle of sweat and blood. The victor raises his beefy arms and bellows in triumph.

“Who will face Ukkad the Bull?” cries a ratty man who climbs into the ring. “Twenty gold pieces to the victor! Five to the loser!”

Aladdin starts to turn away, but then the crowd on the opposite side of the ring parts, and a fighter steps out and nimbly climbs into the small arena. A murmur of laughter ripples through the audience, and Aladdin rises to his feet, his eyes widening.

It’s a slender young woman of seventeen or so. She wears a simple top cropped just above her navel and a long linen sarong held up by a leather belt. The skirt exposes one long, athletic leg, and save for a simple gold chain around her ankle, her feet are bare. She sheds her cloak and drapes it neatly over the rope surrounding the ring and then stretches her arms in front of her and tips her head to each shoulder, cracking her neck. She is pretty, her thick dark hair tied back in a simple braid and her eyes entirely smeared with kohl so it looks as if she’s wearing a mask. She smiles at the Bull and bows, spreading her leather-wrapped hands wide.

I glance up at Aladdin and see his eyes alight with interest.

Aladdin waves Dal over. “Who is she?” he asks.

She rolls her eyes. “I don’t know. Some East Sider, I’d guess. She’s been out here every night for two weeks, brawling and then vanishing. Doesn’t even collect her winnings.” Her tone turns sour. “I’d keep my distance if I were you. That one’s likely to break your arm if you anger her.”

The tendons in the Bull’s neck bulge as he turns red and roars, “Who makes a mockery of me? I came here to fight men, not little girls!”

The girl spits at the ground between them, still smiling. “So did I, but it seems we must both leave disappointed.”

The crowd gasps, and the Bull’s eyes nearly pop from his skull. Aladdin pushes through to the edge of the ring, and I scramble to keep up, looking wistfully toward the door, but it seems my master is intent on watching these events unfold. Resigned, I lean on one of the wooden posts supporting the rope perimeter and turn my attention back to the girl.

They have begun circling one another, their stances wide and tense, their eyes locked, but the Bull still seems hesitant, as if he thinks this is all a prank.

“You should go back to baking bread,” he says. “Or do you make your coin by warming beds? Perhaps once I’ve broken your pretty nose, I can use my winnings to have you warm mine.”

“I don’t go in for livestock,” she returns.

With a wordless roar, the Bull charges. The audience holds its breath. Aladdin tenses, an enthralled smile tugging at his lips.

For a moment it seems she is finished, but at the last moment the girl smoothly dances aside and drives her elbow into the Bull’s temple, knocking him off balance.

The crowd erupts back into life. The fights at the other rings have suspended, and now everyone is focused on the central match. Wagers are drawn—overwhelmingly in the Bull’s favor, but a few adventurous spirits bet on the girl. Aladdin’s hand goes to his pocket, and he pulls out the Nerubyan coin, thoughtfully considering.

“You wouldn’t,” I say.

“What? I like her style.”

“That coin is quite possibly the last remnant of a once-mighty civilization that existed for hundreds of—”

“A gold on the girl!” Aladdin calls, catching a bookmaker’s attention.

I sigh and turn back to the fight.

Around and around they dance. She is a mouse desperate to avoid the stamping feet of an elephant, and the longer she evades, the more tired she gets. The crowd is frantic now as more money is thrown on the Bull. Aladdin leans in and mutters, “Come on, come on . . .”

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