After leaving the Princess in the Genie, Roza had made her way further down the street, towards the place where the main road branched off into little rivulets that wound through the residential quarters of this section of the city. A little way down one of those smaller roads, lined with narrow houses packed tightly against each other, she had stopped before a modest establishment: a two-storeyed affair, the lower floor a shopfront that opened on to the street. The large doors of the shop were closed and locked, but that was no obstacle for Roza.

Bending close to the lock, she whispered a spell unlocking the doors, and slowly pushed one of them open. She slipped into the dark interior and closed the door behind her, shutting herself off from view of the street before snapping her fingers and creating a ball of light. It hovered over her hand.

She stood in what looked like a workshop. The room, clean and large, was lined with shelves, and had two rectangular tables set in its centre. Both were empty now. A door in the wall to her right opened on to a set of stairs that wound up to the living quarters. Set against the back wall was a small glass-fronted cabinet in which the workshop owner stored his most precious lamps, and it was towards this that she moved.

“Were you really going to slip in and out like a thief?” Ismail shut the door behind him, and raised an eyebrow at her.

Roza was annoyed; she had been so wrapped up in the prospect of getting to her prize that she hadn’t even heard her brother coming down the stairs. Still, she could not deny that it was good to see him. She had not visited him and his wife
in some time.

“You look well,” she said, choosing to ignore his comment.

“Samira is obviously taking care of you.”

“When has she not?” Ismail grinned, the hazel eyes that Roza had so envied growing up sparkling, as they always did, at the mention of his wife.

“Speaking of which...I made some delicious biryani tonight. Can I tempt you with some?”

“No, thank you.” Roza threw a pointed glance at the cabinet. “I ate before coming here.”

“I suppose my simple food doesn’t compare to what the palace kitchens serve.” Ismail held up his hands in a defensive gesture, correctly anticipating Roza’s retort. “I know, I know, I sent you there, it’s my fault you’re too spoilt for us now. Don’t think I don’t know it.” His grin widened.

Of the three siblings, Ismail had always been the most light-hearted. Even now, with a business to manage and the mantle of a married man resting on his shoulders, he hardly seemed more mature than he had when he used to sneak out to the desert at night, leaving Roza and Zahir to cover for him. It didn’t hurt that he had also been the best-looking and most silver-tongued among them, which helped him get away with ventures that neither she nor Zahir, much less charming individuals, could have attempted. Ismail had an ability to charm and trick things out of people, but no matter how much Roza prayed or wished for a djinn to show up and grant her wish, the same talent had not been born in her. When she left her home in Kistya, she had left behind praise for her cleverness, not broken hearts or jilted suitors.

“As wonderful as it is to see you, I need to keep this meeting short. I left precious cargo behind.”

“All right, don’t give me details. The less the Imps can pry out of me, the better.” Ismail crossed over to the cabinet and opened it with a flourish. “Behold, sister mine, the thing you have been waiting to get your hands on.” He pulled out an old, thick book, its spine flaking, pages sticking out untidily. When he put it down on the table, it puffed out a cloud of dust.

“Overwhelming, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Roza breathed, hardly able to believe it as she ran her fingers over the fraying cover. The cover was so beaten that the title – if it had ever borne one – had been obliterated. She could see nothing but vague shapes, but they were enough to tell that the book had been written in Ralian, using the characters of her home state. “You’ve outdone yourself, Ismail.”

“I hope not. This was quite simple,” Ismail said, but Roza knew that was not true. Her brother had been in the books and prohibited artefacts trade for only a few years, but from what she understood he had gained quite a reputation already. Most of his wares were sold to third parties, not collected for her benefit. This was the first item he had sourced just for her, and she knew it had been difficult to find. This book, after all, was no longer printed; every single copy of it had supposedly been destroyed during the Imperial family’s purges in the conquered states.

But things had a way of slipping from Imperial hands in Ralia, where nomads roamed the Eastern Desert, and djinns were said to breed.

“What can I do to thank you?”

“Hmm.” Ismail placed a finger under his chin and struck a pose, pretending to be in deep thought. “Well, for one thing, you can promise to use it cautiously. I don’t want to be rescuing you from an Imperial dungeon. Or worse, finding myself in one.”

“I told you, this is only for research.” Roza picked up the book and wrapped it reverently in one of her many scarves. “Why won’t you trust me?” She muttered a spell and the book shrank, allowing her to drop it into a small pouch that hung at her waist. She pulled the strings tight to close its mouth and looked at Ismail. “No one’s ever going to get wind of it. Not even the Princess.”

“I hope not. I know she lets you play with your spells and toys, but the less she knows about me the better.” A slight frown had gathered on Ismail’s forehead, an expression that never sat well on his face, given how infrequently it was there. “It’s still bothering me that someone knew enough about you to suggest that you apply at all.”

“Well, there’s nothing you can do about that, is there? I’m in and I’m likely to stay for a while.” Roza dusted her hands against her skirt, gave her brother a crooked smile. “But if I do disappear one day, I’m glad to know that you’re not going to be storming any Imperial dungeons for me. After all, what would the wife say?” Before Ismail could retaliate, she patted the pouch at her side and said, “I’ll be off. Tell Samira I’ll visit sometime soon.”

“I can’t do that without her asking me what you were doing here at this time of the night.”

“Fine, just tell her I sent a note. Think of something. You’d assume a smuggler would be better at making up stories to tell his wife.” Roza rolled her eyes.

“Yes, but when the wife is Samira...”

“You are just a lovestruck camel-herder.” Ismail magnanimously let the insult slide, probably because it was true, and watched as Roza slipped out of the door.

Now, Roza guided the Princess gently down an alleyway, and stopped beside one of the buildings. As the Princess stood behind her, keeping an eye out for overly curious passers-by, Roza shifted aside some loose bricks at the side of the building she stood before, and carefully pulled out a carpet. “There we go.”

She fluffed it out and the carpet rose before her, flat and drifting at waist height. Roza cupped her palms, providing a footstool for the Princess. Once they were both seated, she whispered another spell, one she had only recently mastered. It shimmered into being around them, a silvery haze that she could just about make out in the light from the pole-hoisted lantern on the main road. When the haze settled on them, sinking into their skin before it winked out of sight, she knew it was safe to move.

At a gesture from her, the carpet rose and soared out over the street, gaining height as it flew. Roza piloted it towards Cavalry Lane in the University Quarter, concentrating hard on maintaining the spell that cloaked them from the eyes of guards in the skies and watchers down below. Behind her, the Princess hummed a tune. The pouch bumped gently against Roza’s hip, reminding her with each touch of the work that lay ahead for her had only just begun.

Excerpted with permission from The Sultanpur Chronicles: Shadowed City, Achala Upendran, Hachette.