The American woman standing near one of the stands in the marketplace was the giveaway that Abd al-Rashid bin Tannous was in the right place. Abd al-Rashid, in the glow of the cultural tolerance that he was ordered to take upon himself, repressed all of the negative thoughts about the almost certainly godless Western harlot that stood before him, while simultaneously trying to repress a sense of pride at doing so. He could tell her American origin from…well, it was nearly sweating from her pores. The inappropriate dress, the stern, impertinent, rude glare at the men walking past her.
"You would be the guide I was instructed to meet?" Abd al-Rashid said.
The American woman's visage took on the serene awe that is only found in the faces of children who have recently soiled themselves and individuals completely non-fluent in a language that is being spoken to them. "I rated Josephine," she stumbled through. "I…evaluating Josephine? I Josephine named." She paused, then shook her head.
Abd al-Rashid began to politely walk her through conversational Arabic when the world around him grayed out slightly, faded; it didn't pass away completely, but it gained a perceptible sheen of unreality. In the gray fog, Abd al-Rashid heard a voice speaking to him.
My name is Josephine, the voice said. You'd be doing me a wonderful favor if you could get very, very startled by all of this now and move on to the "acceptance" stage post haste. I'm attracting enough attention as it is without you going apoplectic or drooling.
Once the voice stopped, the world returned to normal. Abd al-Rashid was immediately cognizant of the stunned, nearly-idiotic expression on his face, and regained his outward composure as quickly as possible. "You, ah, you are a mind-reader?"
The woman paused for a moment, looking at Abd al-Rashid closely, as though inspecting his face for blemishes. Sorry, it takes a moment for me to decode your thoughts. Yes, a telepath. Before you start, yes, I'm aware of the hadiths forbidding and condeming telepathy. Let me assure you that I am not of the devil Shaytan, that none of my thoughts are manipulated by him, and that I will not use this ability for spying or infiltration in your presence. Though I cannot universally say the same for the individuals we are about to meet.
Abd al-Rashid was quickly adapting to the rather unusual situation, accepting the fading and refocusing of reality around him as necessary. "Do I need to speak for this to work?"
It helps, Josephine said. Helps you focus thoughts into coherent words. I can work around its absence if you're uncomfortable, though.
"No, no, it's fine," Abd al-Rashid said. "Shall we proceed?"
Yes, certainly, Josephine said. We need to enter the aperture. Close your eyes. Abd al-Rashid did so. Clear your mind. I need you to focus on a very specific thought. Abd al-Rashid nodded.
I want you to think about the first time that you realized that, one day, your mother was going to die.
Abd al-Rashid looked at Josephine, cocked his head to one side, frowned, then closed his eyes again. A moment passed.
A short whistling tune came from behind where Abd al-Rashid was standing. He opened his eyes, turned, looked behind him. There was an enclosed market stand where one had not been previously. Josephine walked past him into the opening. When did these stands start being enclosed? Abd al-Rashid thought before following.
The building looked about the size of Abd al-Rashid's small apartment bathroom in Shemiran from the outside, but once he crossed into the stand, the world behind him faded away into nonexistence. Suddenly, without looking around, without needing to look around to confirm, he knew that, if he were to turn around, the doorway he just walked through would gone. He knew he was surrounded on all sides by an infinite space exactly similar to the clay brick world he saw in front of him. And he knew that if he were to turn around and walk away, he could spend the entire remainder of his natural life searching and he would never find anything in that infinite space other than the man — no, the boy, possibly eleven years old — sitting placidly in front of him, smoking a cigarette.
Josephine spoke in English towards the boy, who glanced briefly at her before wincing and looking away. The boy said some words in return to her in English. The back and forth continued for a few moments before Josephine nodded and walked past the boy, disappearing a few seconds later.
"Wait, where did —"
"You need to hope you know what you're doing," the boy said in perfect, unaccented Istanbul Turkish, staring into space in a trancelike fashion. "Whatever plan you have in mind, she has planned ten ways to kill you without deviating from whatever expectations are had of her. She is trying very hard to behave like a human being, but some part of her knows that it will never be successful, and will certainly never balance out the things she has done. She has a self-control that will never belie how close she is to snapping and taking everyone around her down with her."
Abd al-Rashid continued staring, never having closed his mouth from any of the previous three miracles he had witnessed in the past ten minutes. "Did you read my mind?" he asked.
"Hmm?" the boy said, snapping his eyes on Abd al-Rashid before taking a drag from his cigarette. "Oh, I could give a aşk meleği göt lalesi less regarding how you handle her. I simply distrust anyone with too much hava for me to even look upon them. Now siktir git to House Afsenah so I can discorporealize this aperture and this child's form. Just walk past me like the gerçeklik bükücü did and be on your way.
Abd al-Rashid was ready to ask who taught this boy to reference the orifices of shamed females in casual conversation, but he was yet more baffled by the terms he had used to refer to Josephine. Too much…aura? he thought. And what is a "reality bender"? He started to ask the boy, but the child stood and walked away from where he was sitting, disappearing in a way that caused Abd al-Rashid to know he would not be coming back.
He looked at the place where the boy had pointed for him to walk, shrugged, and followed.
The feeling of transitioning from that…nether place, or whatever it was, into House Afseneh was much more anticlimactic than Abd al-Rashid had been expecting. He remembered being beside the boy's little table, walking past it. He remembered admiring the fine Persian rug on the floor of the reception room of the House. He then realized that he remembered nothing of the intervening time.
Josephine was beside him. Abd al-Rashid knew this from the sound of breathing. He was too stunned by the scene around him to actually notice anything else. The room was…opulent would have failed to describe it. Fine chandeliers in many different styles hung from the ceilings. The walls themselves were frescoes that seemed to — no, he realized, they really are moving. Incredible.
Serpents in pastels and duller colors slithered in two dimensions across the walls of the room, scales flexing in impossible detail. They crawled across what appeared to be the "ground" of the landscape, which changed from realistic to impressionistic to surrealistic to cubist on each of the surrounding four walls but kept a basic structure to it, though he couldn't tell what similarities he was seeing. Abd al-Rashid had never been a student of art, but just watching these serpents snaking, darting, nipping at each other, and finally joining at the base of an enormous tree that incorporated stylistic elements of all the art in the room, all the colors and cubes and lines meeting in some great Yggdrasil that sprawled across the ceiling, he was torn by the desire to collapse into tears from the beauty of it all and the desire to collapse into a fetal position to hide from the truth of how small he was.
"They are nearly grown now," a voice before him said. Abd al-Rashid was stunned back into the room itself and away from the scene on the walls. An impossibly tall man, seven, eight feet in height, but otherwise perfectly formed, stood before him. "The Lady Josephine recalls, I believe. You were here when they were younger, were you not?"
"I was," Josephine said. "Some years ago. They were barely mobile, mostly just colors and shapeless forms. Will they take humanoid form?"
"I believe so, though the decision will, as always, be theirs," the tall man replied. He walked to where Abd al-Rashid stood and bowed deeply, his head nearly reaching Abd al-Rashid's. His face remained tense as he said, "Malachi Tavana, gracious Majordomo and First Servant of Nuwaz Vizier Afseneh, himself master of the High Estate of the Most Esteemed House of Afseneh, Pearl of the Djinn, Guardians of the Sacred Spheres, Defenders of the Mortal Coil, at your service."
Abd al-Rashid simply stood silently. Josephine said, "Malachi, how many of those are real and how many of those do you just make up on the spot?"
Malachi's face remained serious. "I have never said before and I still refuse."
"The part about the sacred spheres, though. I know you just made that up right then."
"I may have. I may not have. A dedicated servant never tells."
"Well, Gracious Majordomo, would you be kind enough to show us to quarters?"
"Of course, Lady Josephine. You and your guest are always welcome."
Abd al-Rashid found in the three days he spent as a guest that the splendor of the Estate of House Afseneh was innumerable. Volume after volume could be written to record the details of every room of every wing of the House, of which there are many. There may well be no way to count how many rooms were in the Estate, given their changing number. Regardless, Abd al-Rashid had finite time and saw a finite number of those rooms, but the wonders in that place seemed infinite.
At the end of the second day in the House, Abd al-Rashid sat for dinner with the High Court of Afseneh. Nuwaz, the Vizier of the House, sat near what was clearly the head of the table. The chairs were equally beautiful, equally enormous (though more proportionately sized for some of the diners; the majordomo had been asked to join them and, towering over all others in the room, had little difficulty with the seating arrangement). It was clear that there was a symbolic equality in the room, with the Vizier serving as a "chief among equals". One seat at the headmost position was left vacant, food served but with nobody seeming to believe the seat's occupant would be joining them.
"If I may be so forward, may I ask for whom the empty seat is left for?" Abd al-Rashid whispered to Malachi as the food was being served.
"The head seat at the table is reserved for the proper Mistress of the House, the Queen of Afseneh. Šahrāzād, her name is said in the proper Persian."
Abd al-Rashid thought for a moment. "You mean…Scheherazade? Of the One Thousand and One Nights? A fictive princess is your queen?"
"She is the greatest of the fictives," Malachi said, a touch of annoyance in his voice. "And moreover, a fictive capable of creating more fictions. From her, we have learned how to birth new fictions as well. Who better to be honored so?"
Abd al-Rashid, abashed, nodded politely and continued to watch the food be distributed. It had all of the hallmarks of the decadent surroundings; enormous, glistening hogs brought whole to the table, platters and plates seemingly unable to continue supporting the weight of the feast atop them. Among this was brought two plates of equal elegance, but carrying only some pieces of nan-e khoshke-shirin and a bowl of — certainly perfectly crafted — ash-e anār, the pomegranate stew glistening before him. He was about to question the difference between his and Josephine's plates, when he suddenly had a revelation. Oh, of course, he thought, they needed to serve real, physical food for their corporeal guests. The rest of this is all but imaginary. Though the dedication to detail in the olfactory department was…thorough. Abd al-Rashid drooled at the smell of it all.
The meal was generally as he expected it to be, polite enough where the humans were concerned, much more jovial where the djinn were concerned. Much laughter and uproar came from their end of the table, with polite smiles and nods from Abd al-Rashid, who understood little of the cultural context for what they were saying, and Josephine, who was unable to use telepathy to read the minds of sentient concept-beings and didn't speak any of these languages being used.
"So, darling," Vizier Afseneh said (Abd al-Rashid presuming and hoping) in Josephine's direction, "what did you think of the children in the atrium?" His Arabic was crisp and lightly accented, if at all. Malachi translated into English.
"Very well developed. Beautiful, even," Josephine replied through Malachi. "I don't believe I had ever seen djinn children in such a…larval state."
"Wait, I'm sorry," Abd al-Rashid interrupted. "The…those serpents in the reception area, those were…those were djinn?"
Silence, then a soft, deep chuckle from the vizier. "Son, if I may ask, where do you think you are? Physically, geographically, your position?"
Abd al-Rashid gulped. "Well, from the rumors, I would presume that we are underground somewhere. The exact location is a closely guarded secret; the House is reached only through mystical gateways of some kind, whose function and operation are also secrets. All the other djinn Houses are likewise; the Nabhanites in Oman, the Roxelanans in Turkey. I once met a Khotani djinn —"
More chortling from the vizier. "Oh, yes, that must have been quite the experience."
Abd al-Rashid smiled, the least uncomfortable feeling he had had all evening. "Yes. He invited me to his nightly meditation after evening prayer. I hadn't realized he was looking for a sparring partner, or that Khotani 'meditations' can end in death."
The Vizier's chortles turned into guffaws. "They are rather…intense people, yes. Living in caves in the Tibetan mountains will do that to man and djinn alike.
"As for my question, however, it is difficult for you to perceive what this Estate actually is. We djinn, the ones to whom you speak, are sentient, sapient ideas, formed through acts of personal volition into humanoid creatures when we find it convenient, taking…other forms when we wish to do so as well. The Estate in which you are sitting, as well as all of the furniture in it, is made likewise of djinn. Immature djinn, formed through an act indescribable to corporeal beings, taking shapes at the will of their…parents, if you will. The beings will become more complex as time goes on, changing forms and shapes, developing a greater understanding of how to cope with the universe around them. The chair in which you sit is a three-year-old; the rug now bunched up in the legs of the chair and table is two; the floor that both are stationed upon is four weeks old. They are capable of great feats at a young age, but must learn to harness and control it before they can join us."
Abd al-Rashid was stunned. Everything in the Estate was simultaneously now both majestic and…rather disturbing, honestly. Everything alive, everything with the potential for intelligence and self-awareness? He was ready to be horrified when he felt the vizier's hand on his shoulder. He looked down at Abd al-Rashid with concern.
"Child, let me stop you for a moment. I know that Parviz sent you here to apologize for what you said to Agent Faruhar. I will not claim to be thrilled with it. But I am a strong believer in the freedom of individuals to feel and act as they see fit, even in ignorance. And your behavior was ignorant, there can be no doubt. I hope you find Agent Faruhar in your journeys, and I hope that by that time, you will have learned better ways, or at least better restraint. But I will not have an apology from a young man who has not offended me, and you have not offended me."
Abd al-Rashid looked up into that face, twinkling and clearly possessing an ancient nature that the vizier either could not or chose not to hide. "Thank you, lord," he said. "I hope to do better. I hope…I hope to be better. I do regret my words."
The vizier's face lit up again. "This is the best I could have hoped for you, child. Are you finished with the stew? I hoped it was to your liking; I had it brought from a Way leading back to Iran." He picked Abd al-Rashid up and guided/pushed/forced him to the end of the room nearest the hallway, a confused Josephine following. "I would have chosen a Turkish delicacy, but I didn't think your lovely escort here would have been much fond of it. No offense to your cuisines, of course; I simply meant that something a bit…"
They left the room on yet another tour.