As the Sultan’s guards dragged Yusuf through the corridors of the palace, his main thought was a smug sense of satisfaction that he had lasted as long as he had.
He had been a successful spy during his old life as a merchant, but listening in to other merchants’ gossip was a far cry from hiding out in plain sight in the Sultan’s court, smuggling hastily scribbled notes out of the palace in increasingly convoluted fashions. His last report had been rolled up and hidden inside a mango, given to the young son of the stable master who had been told to deliver it to the pale man in the marketplace with the eyes the colour of sea foam. It only occurred to him later that the boy had probably never seen the sea, but no matter. There were no other men like his Nicolò in the city.
He didn’t bother fighting the guards: they were many and he was but one man. A man with a good couple of centuries of fighting experience, but one man nonetheless. No, Yusuf decided that the best course of action was to confront the Sultan face to face. Perhaps he could convince him to kill him by throwing him over the side of the palace walls, save him the bother of having to try and sneak out of the palace later as a formerly dead man. Perhaps he could convince him not to do any killing at all. He could but dream.
The Sultan was lounging on a plush couch when Yusuf was finally brought before him. It was hard to tell where the man ended and the couch began: both were plump and covered in a frankly painful shade of fuchsia.
“The spy, your excellency.” One of the guards not currently occupied in restraining Yusuf introduced him. “Though for who exactly, he will not say.”
“And he doesn’t need to. I do not care who he works for, I only care that he is stopped.” The Sultan yawned. Yusuf didn’t blame him: he himself would much prefer to be in bed at that moment.
“You do not wish to question him?” the guard who had spoken earlier tried his hardest not to sound indignant. From the threats and insults he had spat at Yusuf on their journey over, he had been looking forward to a spot of unpleasant interrogation.
“I won’t talk.” Yusuf said cheerfully. “Might as well just kill me.”
“See.” The Sultan raised an eyebrow at the guard. “Just kill him. Slit his throat in the market and leave his body there for all to see. I wager it’ll be a while before the next spy comes along.”
The lack of torture was good. The method of death was bad. Yusuf couldn’t allow himself to be killed somewhere so public, somewhere where everyone would see him come back to life. Somewhere where the guards would see and haul him back inside the palace to be prodded and poked by the Sultan.
“Wait!” he called as the guards on either side of him made to turn him around and drag him back out of the room. “Wait, please, might I at least be permitted to choose my own manner of death?”
The Sultan held up a hand, stopping the guards. He said nothing, but gestured for Yusuf to keep talking.
“Let me choose how I shall die. Please. Like the story of the jinn and the fisherman.” Yusuf tried, thinking of the story the stable master’s boy had told him only the day before. Surely a man with a taste for theatrics such as the Sultan would be swayed by the thought of recreating a legend?
As the Sultan’s brow crinkled into a frown, Yusuf’s heart sank. A slit throat in the market it was then. He could only hope the others would intervene and take his body away before he came back to life.
“I do not know this story.” The Sultan’s voice brought Yusuf back to the moment.
“It’s good.” Yusuf told him, seeing an opportunity. “I can tell it to you if you like, it’s not very long. We can even turn it into a wager: If you enjoy my story, you grant me the honour of choosing my own method of execution. If you do not, then I readily submit myself to having my throat slit.”
“Your excellency, do not listen to him, he is a snake and a-” the guard who had wanted to torture Yusuf argued, but was silenced by another gesture from the Sultan.
“A wager? I have never had a spy try to wager with me before.” The Sultan sounded amused. “Very well. Tell me this story.”
“Am I to entertain you like this? Restrained?” Yusuf shrugged his shoulders against his guards for emphasis. He was smacked around the head for his troubles.
The Sultan considered him for a moment, then nodded, his mind made up.
“Bind his hands, tie him to a post, and leave us.” He barked at the guards, who followed his orders after only an admirable few seconds of exchanging perplexed looks with each other.
Soon enough, Yusuf was sat quite comfortably on the floor on a cushion almost as large as the Sultan was, the only discomfort being his hands that were tightly bound in a rope, that in turn was tied around a stone column.
“Now. The story.” The Sultan demanded, settling himself into a reclining position on the couch.
“Well.” Yusuf began. “It starts with a fisherman…”
Many years ago, in a far-off land, a fisherman lived on the sea shore. Every day he left his hut and waded out into the ocean, and cast his net four times. Whatever he caught with those four throws he would sell at the market later that day.
One day, the fisherman set out as usual, and cast his net into the sea. Something caught in it, something huge and heavy that he had to pull with all his might just to take it out of the water. When he did, he saw that his net had caught around a dead donkey, decayed and disgusting.
He cast his net a second time, and caught something smaller, something lighter. On inspection it turned out to be nothing but a jar of dirt, worthless to anyone. He tried again, a third time, and this time brought up nothing but shards of glass and pottery.
Before his fourth and final throw, he closed his eyes and whispered a prayer to God.
“And which god would that be?” the Sultan interrupted.
“Allah, of course.” Yusuf replied.
“Good. I can permit a spy to tell me a story for a wager, but not a Catholic spy.” The Sultan closed his eyes and waved his hand in Yusuf’s general direction. “Continue.”
Before his fourth and final throw, he closed his eyes and whispered a prayer to Allah. When he cast his net that time, he brought up a small copper jar, capped with the seal of Solomon. It was no fish, but this jar was certainly worth money, as it was untarnished from its time in the sea and surely contained something exquisite within. Perfume, perhaps? Spices? The fisherman waded back to shore, whereby he sliced off the seal and opened the jar.
All at once a great cloud of smoke emerged, whirling around and around before forming into the shape of a man. The shape of a jinn.
The jinn was enraged, for he had been trapped inside the jar for over four centuries. At first he had pledged to bestow great power on whoever freed him, but as the years passed by his desires twisted and changed, and now he only wanted death, death to the first man he saw on escaping his prison. As he towered above the fisherman, he opened his mouth and sang:
"One hundred years trapped in this jar
Washed up on shores, near and far
I pledged if someone freed me soon
I’d grant unto him a single boon"
"Two hundred years I hoped and prayed
My heart grew weary, my hope did fade
If only a man would break my seal
I’d give him silver, gold, and steel"
"Three hundred years all came and passed
I swore that were I loosed at last
I’d grant the man who set me free
His heart’s content of wishes, three"
"Four hundred years all passed me by
This jar my ground, my walls, my sky
Gone were the thoughts of bestowing reward
Replaced by notions of poison, of sword"
"Oh you who freed me: I’ll take your breath
And offer nought but this: your choice of death"
The fisherman, though of humble means, was of a quick mind. He saw no reason why he should die for being the one to free the jinn, and quickly thought of a plan to trick the jinn.
“Oh.” Yusuf paused his tale and yawned, theatrically. “Oh dear, I can’t quite remember how he tricked the jinn.”
“You can’t remember?! But you started the story!” the Sultan would have sounded more enraged if he too hadn’t been yawning.
“I will remember, I will. I fear I am too tired to remember this very moment, however.” Yusuf yawned again, noting how the Sultan mirrored him. “Tomorrow, though, I am certain I will remember how the story ends.”
“Tomorrow.” The Sultan replied sleepily. “Very well. Tell me tomorrow.”
As the bemused guards escorted Yusuf back to his cell, he was once again filled with a smug feeling of satisfaction that he’d lasted as long as he had. And if he lasted a little longer, Nicolò would come and find him. He’d lasted one night, and felt he could last a thousand more in a similar fashion if need be.