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The Wizard's Stairsby Andrew Knighton
It was Hasam's great fortune, and his great misfortune, to spy Inaya in the souk. She was as beautiful as the dawn, with eyes like midnight and hair as dark. She smiled at him, and the sun rose in Hasam's heart.
They came together in the shelter of a carpet weaver's stall, approaching with tentative steps and trembling glances, and there spoke of the things young people do – the splendour of music, the failings of the old, the futures they planned to weave for themselves. Those fleeting minutes felt like an age in Hasam's life, and when an angry chaperone finally spied Inaya and dragged her away, he followed her home. It was then that he realised who her father was.
The wizard's tower was the tallest building in Baghdad, second only to the Sultan's palace in its grandeur. Walls as pale and smooth as ice ascended to a roof that glowed golden in the sunlight. A thousand colours of glass sparkled in the windows, surrounded by the spiderweb shadows of carved arches. Everyone in Baghdad knew the wizard's tower, and everyone feared it, for the wizard was known to be harsh, with magic that could crumble mountains or flay the flesh from a man's bones. Hasam shook at the sight, at the knowledge that this was where his love lived. But he steeled himself. As long as his heart beat in his chest, nothing would stop him.
That night, Hasam climbed the tower's wall. He had spied Inaya on a high balcony just before dusk, the contours of her body silhouetted against the shining roof. That balcony, Hasam hoped, would lead to her room.
Hasam was not, he would have admitted, the most upstanding of young men. He was kind to his mother, and said his prayers when the call came from the mosque. But he had no knack for the potter's craft, no skill in barter or knowledge of how to scribe. What he did have, what kept him in food and clothes and cups of arak, was the ability to creep and to climb, to get into places he was not wanted. No-one else in the whole of Baghdad could have climbed those mercilessly smooth walls, but Hasam had an eye for imperfections and opportunities. Though it took him all of that spring night, though his arms ached and his fingers were scraped raw, dawn's rays found him sliding over the rail of the balcony and catching his breath on the cool chequered tiles.
"You came," Inaya whispered, silks floating around her as she stepped from her room. She knelt beside him, resting a gentle hand on his chest. Hasam's heart raced at the touch.
"Of course," he whispered. "Who would not?"
"Anyone with any sense, boy." The wizard's voice was as old as the desert and fierce as the desert wind. He emerged from the shadows, a bald figure in long white robes, glaring at Hasam.
"Father!" Inaya turned in fear and Hasam bolted to his feet, instinct resting his fingers on the knife at his belt.
"What are you doing here, little thief?" the wizard snarled.
"I love your daughter," Hasam replied, forcing the words out past his fear. "I came to ask for her hand."
The wizard arched an eyebrow. "For this you would climb my tower?"
"For her I would climb all the towers in the world." Hasam spoke more firmly, spurred on by Inaya's hand as it rested softly in his.
"So be it." The wizard grabbed Hasam and held him out over the edge of the balcony. He dangled for a moment, caught in a grip like iron. Then the wizard let go and Hasam fell flailing through the empty air, the breath bursting from him as he hit the ground.
Dazed and terrified, he stumbled to his feet, trying to shake the black spots from his vision. Nothing seemed to be broken, though his back was a huge bruise.
Ahead of him, the tower's polished ivory door swung open, a black portal through the white walls.
"Every tower in the world," called the wizard from high above. "And then we'll talk."
The doorway was a gaping maw, framed by the sharp teeth of its carved frame. Hasam put one foot in front of the other, and again, and again, until he stood, trembling, on the threshold. He peered into the impossible space of a square hall, wider across than the wizard's tower, with walls of rough grey granite. To the left of the door, a rough wooden staircase led up into the smoke-clogged rafters.
Hasam pictured Inaya in his mind, felt the ghost of her touch on his hand, and his heart skipped a beat.
He stepped through the door.
The inside of the tower was icy cold, a harsh window blowing through unglazed windows. Hasam turned and started up the steps, just as the room's huge, fur-clad inhabitants turned to stare at him.
One grunted something Hasam could not understand, hard, blunt words that rose from curiosity to anger as Hasam continued up the steps. He quickened his pace, boards creaking beneath him, fear pumping through his veins as men with beards as huge as their axes pounded after him.
At the top of the stairs was a trapdoor. Hasam frantically shoved it open and scrambled through, splinters catching in his skin. He slammed the hatch shut behind him and grabbed the first thing that came to hand, dragging a mahogany chest across the hatch. He stood, catching his breath, waiting for the inevitable sound of axes splintering wood. But there was nothing, and when he pushed back a corner of the chest the trapdoor was gone.
Slowly, confusedly, Hasam turned to look around the rest of the room. It was small, wooden, round, a red dusk lapping at its window frames. Two children with pale skin and almond eyes stared at him from a straw bed. Hasam pressed a finger to his lips and, uncertain whether they had understood, scurried away up a flight of spiral stairs.
These stairs led up through a kitchen, a storeroom, and an empty bed chamber before reaching another trapdoor. This time Hasam paused to catch his breath before cautiously pushing open the door.
The next room was the minaret of a mosque, holding an ornate Koran and a surprised-looking priest. Though they had few words in common, Hasam managed to establish that he was in Cairo. The priest blinked in confusion at the trapdoor leading up through his ceiling, but let Hasam go on up with a meditative shrug.
After that came a merchant's tower house, a soldier's watchtower, and a cold, dark space with a bell and a pointed roof. Tower after tower, rising endlessly upwards, until Hasam lost count of the places and lost all track of time. He crept past dogs and guards, ran past soldiers and cooks, tried to reason with panicked housewives and wizened old men. Hours trailed into days. He ate what he could grab from dining tables and cooking fires, slept in abandoned attics and silent cellars. There were, Hasam was starting to realise, many, many towers in the world, and the wizard truly did intend to make him climb them all.
Soon after that realisation he saw the ivory door. It stood in a castle wall, just before the now familiar trapdoor. He peered at its pale panels, at the pointed carvings around the frame. Gingerly, he turned the handle. The door opened on the same Baghdad street where he had started his journey. Homesick and weary from the endless climb, the familiar sight filled him with relief. He was about to step through when he thought of Inaya. He had said he would climb all the towers in the world for her. Had that changed so soon?
Reluctantly, he closed the door on the familiar sounds and smells of home, and headed up through the trapdoor.
Every so often, when he was tired or frustrated, or desperately running from a room's armed and angry owner, the door would appear again, tempting him with the lure of home. At first it was easy to resist, as he pictured Inaya, smiling at him on the balcony he would soon reach. But as the weeks turned to months, and then to years, as his beard grew long and his hair flecked with grey, he began to doubt. He would stop before the door, resting his aching joints and dreaming of the warm, sunny place he had left behind, of his mother and his home. It grew harder to picture Inaya's face, or to cling to the hope of their love. Surely she had forgotten him by now, married some merchant or caliph and given him dozens of fat children.
One last time Hasam stood before that door, peering at the veins standing thick and blue on the back of his hand, stiff fingers clutching the handle. The door swung open and golden sunlight fell across him, bursting like passion across the cold sandstone stairwell in which he stood. His heart soared at the sound of camels, the smell of the desert wind. He shuffled one foot across the threshold, reached out into the warmth.
But as he raised his other foot he felt something touch his hand, a memory of gentle fingers on his skin. A smile flashed across his vision, dark eyes that sparkled like a star-flecked sky. He turned and, purposefully, stepped back inside.
The trapdoor swung back on creaking hinges and at last, with halting limbs, he clambered into Inaya's chamber. His breath caught in his chest as he looked around, taking in the piles of cushions, the wafting silk curtains, the familiar balcony beyond.
A woman lay on a four poster bed. With one wrinkled hand she drew back her grey hair, revealing dark yet shining eyes and a face still beautiful despite all the years.
"You came," she said.
"Of course," he wheezed. "Who would not?"
He staggered to the bed, kissed her forehead, and lay down beside her, their smiles wide, their fingers intertwined together. For the first time since he fell from the balcony, Hasam was at peace.
"I shall sleep," he murmured. "Just for a little while."
She nodded, tears gleaming as she stroked his hair. "Of course."
He closed his eyes.
Suddenly there was nothing beneath him. His legs flailed and he cried out in panic. His eyes shot open and he found himself dangling helpless above the street, held in the wizard's fearsome grip. Over the wizard's shoulder Hasam could see Inaya standing on the balcony, eyes wide with shock but still as young and beautiful as the day they had met.
A fiery glow faded from the wizard's eyes, and he pulled Hasam back onto the balcony. Hasam stared in wonder at the backs of his own hands, young again, smooth and tanned. He touched his face, felt the same supple skin. Already the memory of all those towers was fading to a distant dream.
Inaya threw her arms around Hasam, laughing with joy and relief.
"You'll do, little thief," the wizard said, disappearing back into his tower. "Once you are married you may use the normal stairs."
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