The Genie’s Gift
The Genie’s Gift is a lighthearted action novel set in the fifteenth-century Middle East, drawing on the mythology of The Arabian Nights.
Thirteen-year-old Anise, shy and timid, dreads marrying the man her father chooses for her. Her aunt tells her about the Genie Shakayak, the giver of the Gift of Sweet Speech. He lives high atop Mount Quaf, many weeks’ journey across a barren desert. The way is barred by a dozen dangers and trials. But those few who cross the desert and defeat the guardians of the mountain receive their reward. From that day forward, their words drip like honey from their lips, charming all who hear them, and no one can deny them anything they ask.
Anise is determined to find the genie and ask for the gift, so she can control her own future. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers? Will she ever reach the top of Mount Quaf—and if she does, can she convince the Genie to give her the gift?
Anise knew the candy must be enchanted. The genie cook always put some kind of protection on the food, so no one could eat it until he said so. Would it stick her jaws together so she couldn’t speak? Turn her lips and tongue blue? Taste like camel dung? But Anise didn’t want to wait until after the wedding. She was hungry now.
None of the guests were watching, so she edged closer to the tray full of lokum. She freed her hand from her long, draping sleeve and edged her fingers toward a jelly candy flavored with rosewater.
Anise jumped at the shout. She blushed and hid her hands behind her back as she turned. When she saw the tall woman who had called her, she relaxed. “Aunt Farasha!”
Farasha’s strong, brown hands took Anise by the shoulders. “Oh, you do look healthy. How are you, my dear?”
Anise looked up into her face. “Hungry. I wish we’d start.”
Aunt Farasha laughed. Unlike most women she wore a simple smock, cinched with a silver belt, over her baggy red silk pants. Anise glanced down at her own elaborate, buttoned coat, heavy with embroidery. The curved-up toes of her slippers were stiff with gold thread and tiny polished stones. They were beautiful, but she had to walk carefully to avoid tripping over her own feet. She wished she could kick off the shoes and run barefoot as she usually did.
She looked back at her aunt. “You look comfortable, and also lovely.”
Aunt Farasha tossed her head so the dangling golden coins on her headdress jingled. “Don’t I, though? I picked this up in Anatolia. I think peasant clothes can be as fine as anything from Constantinople or Baghdad, though your mother looked as shocked as if I’d come with my ankles showing.”
Anise inhaled her aunt’s expensive perfume, full of exotic spices and musk. “You’ve been traveling again? I want to hear all about it.” She sighed. “It’s the closest I’ll ever get to an adventure.”
“My dear, adventures are always waiting for those who want them. Do you want one?”
“Yes… and no. I wouldn’t know how to have an adventure. I’ve hardly been out of the family compound, except to go to the public baths.” Her high collar suddenly felt too tight. She cleared her throat “But I’m thirteen. That means marriage soon, and children, and running a home…. Let’s not talk about it. Tell me one of your stories.”
“Of course, my dear.” Farasha reached for a piece of lokum.
Anise held her breath, waiting for the explosion, for the food to turn to worms.
Farasha’s fingers closed over a sweet. Nothing happened. She pulled. Still nothing happened. The lokum wouldn’t come off the tray. “Demons and dragons!” Farasha swore. “That Majid!”
Anise exhaled. “That’s not so bad. I suppose he couldn’t risk humiliating our honored guests.” She giggled. “I was afraid to try it. At New Year’s, I stole an almond pastry and I couldn’t stop talking. I had to say every single thing that came into my head. I’ve never been so embarrassed. Plus, it’s really hard to chew while you’re talking.”
Farasha smiled. “I wish I’d seen that. Well, let’s sneak into the kitchen and see if we can snatch a treat Majid hasn’t charmed yet. And then we’ll find a quiet corner of the orchard, so my dear brother doesn’t drag you away from my dangerous influence.”
Aunt Farasha linked her arm through Anise’s and they slipped out of the main house, leaving behind the sounds of musicians warming up. As they crossed the courtyard to the kitchen building, Cassim trotted up to them. “Aunt Farasha!”
She kissed his cheek, though she wasn’t really his aunt. Cassim’s mother had been Anise’s wet-nurse, making Cassim like a brother to her. That meant Anise and Cassim could never marry, so he was one of the few males Anise was allowed to see.
“We were going to get something to eat,” Anise said.
“Good luck. I tried it, but Majid is standing guard. He’s in a frenzy with all these people here.”
“Dear boy,” Aunt Farasha said, “I have been tricking household genies since long before you were born. Leave it to me.”
They strolled across the tiled courtyard to the kitchen building. “Now here’s what I want you to do,” Farasha said. “I’ll go in and start asking questions about the food. I’ll act like it’s not good enough. He’ll throw me out, of course, but I’ll keep him distracted long enough for you two to sneak in and find a few items that we can test.”
“Test?” Anise asked.
“To make sure they’re good enough to be served at the wedding. I know Majid will insist everything is wonderful, but we really should try things for ourselves. As the bride’s sister, Anise, it’s your responsibility to make sure the food is adequate.”
Cassim grinned. “Test!”
“I’m particularly interested in finding out how the oranges are this year,” Farasha said. “Pick up a couple for me, Cassim. Anise, I’ll leave you to assess the pastries, since that’s your area of expertise.”
“But if we’re caught, we’ll be in such trouble,” Anise said.
“What’s life without risk?” Farasha replied.
Safe, Anise thought, but Aunt Farasha was already entering the kitchen building.
Anise and Cassim stepped to each side of the doorway. Anise glanced at her friend, tall and lanky in his pale blue robe and the white turban that looked even whiter against his olive skin. Cassim crossed his dark eyes and stuck out his tongue. Anise clasped a hand over her mouth to keep from giggling. Cassim could always distract her from her worries. She leaned forward enough to peek through the doorway. Heat streamed from the kitchen, a large room filled with long wooden tables, two ovens and a fire pit. Baskets of vegetables and sacks of grain lined the walls.
Aunt Farasha stopped in the middle of the room. “Where’s that scoundrel Majid?”
“Right here, you old wart.” The genie turned from the brick oven with a fresh loaf of bread. Anise’s mouth watered as its rich scent filled the air. Majid hopped up on a table so he could look Aunt Farasha in the eye. The little genie stood hunched like an old man, his skin the color and texture of lemons. “What are you doing in my kitchen?”
“Checking up on you, you son of a she-ghoul. I don’t suppose you’ve made half as much food as we’ll need.”
Majid crossed his arms and thrust his head forward. “You foul pustule on a donkey’s behind, I’ve been serving this family for generations.”
“What does a gnome know about food?”
Majid flushed, his color darkening like custard scorching. “I am not a gnome!”
Farasha crossed the room to a steaming pot hung above a charcoal pit. “Well, let’s just see what you have here.” Farasha stirred the soup, took a sip from the ladle, wrinkled her nose and added another pinch of some green herb.
“Keep your ugly human hands away from my food,” Majid snapped.
Cassim motioned to Anise and slipped into the kitchen. She took a deep breath and held it as she crept after him. Anise grabbed three shredded wheat fritters soaked in honey and turned to run. She nearly collided with Cassim, who was picking oranges from a bowl. He wiggled his eyebrows at her and then sped outside. Anise took a step after him.
Majid appeared in front of her. “Ah ha, we have a little thieving mouse! Naughty mouse, I’ll call your father!” Majid opened his mouth wide and took a deep breath, as if to yell.
“No, please don’t!” Anise leapt forward and reached out to clap a hand over the genie’s mouth. Her hand hit the genie’s face in a squishy, sticky slap. She’d forgotten she still held the pastries.
Majid coughed. Bits of honeyed shredded wheat sprayed out at Anise. “Oh, so that’s how you want to play!” He grabbed a bowl filled with creamy white yogurt. With a deft flick of his long fingers he dumped it on Anise’s head.
She screeched as the cold yogurt slid down her face and neck and dripped into the collar of her best coat.
“Hey!” Cassim dashed back into the kitchen.
“Oh, you want some too?” Majid darted around the table. “You want a treat? Well, here’s a treat for you!” He grabbed a meat pie and tossed it at Cassim.
Cassim caught the first and the second, which quickly followed. The third hit him in the face and he stumbled toward Anise. His foot slipped in the spilled yogurt and he skidded into the table, clutching the side for balance. A pitcher of peach sherbet tumbled and splashed over Cassim and the floor.
Majid cackled and danced from foot to foot. “You’re next, old woman!” He picked up a clay pot of beans and ran after Aunt Farasha as she dodged around tables. “I’ll teach you to invade my kitchen!”
He backed Farasha into a corner. She grabbed a big bowl from a table and held it in front of herself like a shield.
“Not the firini! Put it down.” Majid leapt toward Aunt Farasha.
Farasha, the genie, the beans and the bowl crashed together in an explosion of food. Bits of beans and creamy saffron rice flew across the room, splattering Anise and Cassim.
They all stood frozen for a moment. Majid groaned. “Oh, no. We can’t have a wedding without firini for dessert.”
“By the sultan’s beard!” a voice bellowed from the doorway. “What is the meaning of this?”
Even before she turned, Anise knew it was her father.