Note: This was written for the Yu-Gi-Oh Fanfiction Pairings Contest, for the Malik/Shaadi prompt.
Shaadi huddled more deeply into his raincoat and nursed a deep sense of dissatisfaction.
It was his own fault, he knew. He'd let himself get his hopes up. He knew that what he sought was likely in the home of the rich, perhaps even the titled, not in the shabby-genteel middle-class household he'd just visited. Still, he couldn't afford to pass up even the slightest chance, so when the wife of a well-to-do businessman had sent for him claiming there were ghosts in her house, he'd gone without a second thought.
The woman did not have ghosts in her house. What she did have was too much time on her hands, a husband who believed that a woman should do nothing more strenuous or interesting than serve tea to visitors, and a lot of quack doctors who diagnosed her boredom and frustration as "nervous hysteria" and dosed her with enough vile potions to make even the soundest mind start envisioning ghosts. Shaadi had put on a show for her anyway. He'd burnt his incense and rolled back his eyes and chanted sonorously in his native tongue. Then he'd told her gently that her ghosts were benign enough as long as she didn't provoke them by acknowledging them or trying to contact them. He'd also told her that certain medicines could sometimes open the inner eye in those who had the gift, and suggested that if the ghosts continued to trouble her, she should seek the attentions of an apothecary he knew - one who didn't lace his cures with laudanum and opium. Then he'd taken her husband aside and told him not nearly so gently that if he didn't want his wife to end up in Bedlam, he needed to find something, anything, for her to do that would keep her hands and mind occupied.
He should have counted the day as a success. If the woman and her husband heeded his advice, they would both be a lot happier in the long run. They had paid him well for his visit, which would aid him greatly in his quest to keep up appearances, an endeavor that was starting to take up as much of his energy as the work that had brought him to England in the first place. None of that, however, changed the fact that he'd spent all evening on a wild goose chase.
A gust of cold wind, bearing a spray of rain, lashed his face, and Shaadi shivered and tried to angle his umbrella to give himself more protection. How he hated England! He couldn't abide the cold, even now that it was supposedly near the end of winter, verging on spring. Nor could he stand the seemingly endless rain. After the clear blue skies and vast open deserts of his homeland, being surrounded by buildings and overshadowed by clouds and smog made him feel as if he were living underground. The only advantages to living here, as far as he could tell, was that the country was still in the grips of the Spiritualist movement, and that owing to the recent archeological discoveries in Egypt, the English people were avid for all things Egyptian in nature. An Egyptian man who claimed to speak to ghosts could command a fair amount of interest, if he cared to. All the same, Shaadi would have happily traded the Thames for his beloved Nile any day.
He paused at a street corner, eyeing the wet street with distaste and wondering if there was any chance of getting a cab, when he became aware of a presence drawing close to him. He lost interest in the rain and all thoughts of a cab, instead focusing on trying to pin down the source of his feeling.
His uneasy sensation became all too concrete when he became aware of a hand slipping into his pocket. He shouted a curse in his native tongue and batted the hand away. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of someone darting away from him. That wasn't a surprise.
The surprise was hearing a voice say, in the same language he had used, "The same to you!"
Shaadi stared in the direction of the voice. A boy was standing just out of arm's reach, his hair and clothing dripping wet but his attitude defiant. He was thin and dirty, but he carried himself like a king of the streets. His hair was a pale blond, his eyes faded lavender, and his skin was a bronze that spoke all to clearly of where he'd learned to speak Egyptian. For a fleeting instant, Shaadi found himself wondering if at last he'd found what he'd been searching for...
"Who are you?" he asked, still in the same language.
The boy only stared at him for a moment, his expression intent. Then he turned and dashed down an alley and out of sight. Shaadi took a few steps to try to follow him, but he knew it was hopeless. The boy surely knew these streets better than he did, and was less bothered by the rain. If there was ever a break in the weather, though, Shaadi thought he might come back to try to find the boy again. Perhaps he had family who could aid Shaadi in his quest.
Shaadi smiled, grimly. The thought of finding help from his countrymen sounded a lot more likely than there ever being a break in the weather.
Malik perched on a roof, hidden from sight by a chimney and by the fog and rain, and he watched the Egyptian stranger walk away. He hadn't known there were any others of his kind in London, other than the ones who were related to him, and now he was curious about this one. He looked like he had money - not an extravagant amount, but enough to keep him better fed and clothed than most of the people Malik was acquainted with. He wondered how the man had managed.
More to the point, he hadn't given up on getting a bit of that loot for himself. The fact that the stranger had seen him and nearly caught him only made him more determined. He was not accustomed to losing to anyone. Before, he'd just been trying to get enough coin to eat a hot dinner that night. Now it was personal. He followed stealthily after the stranger, leaping nimbly from rooftop to rooftop, never letting him out of sight.
Malik had not always lived on the streets. His father had been a craftsman - not very wealthy, but proud of his skill and well-respected. When he'd gotten word that rich Englishmen were paying hefty sums for ancient Egyptian art - or even imitation Egyptian art - he'd decided to try his luck opening a business in London. He'd hoped that he could sell his art for high prices and make a good living for his family, and perhaps he could have, if Fate had been kinder to him. However, the only ship he'd been able to afford with his meager funds had been a bad one, overcrowded and under-provisioned. The whole family had been sorely weakened by the long trip through the Mediterranean and around the shores of Europe, and by the time they'd arrived, all of them had been exhausted and most of them had been ill. Malik's father had tried to set up his shop, but the wet English winters were hard on his battered and aging body. Both he and his wife had succumbed to illness and died within the year. Malik and his siblings, Isis and Rishid, being younger and more adaptable, had survived, but they had been left in dire straits. With no money left to keep the failing shop open, they'd been forced to go their separate ways in search of work. Isis had been lucky: she'd gotten a job for a far-sighted young businessman who cared little that she was a woman and Egyptian. He only cared that she was well-spoken and intelligent, and who had a knack for guessing which way the market was going to turn that was positively uncanny. Rishid had taken a less glamorous but still respectable job at a warehouse. Malik, though, had never taken to any job, and had instead turned to stealing.
Now he padded after his mark, stepping carefully on the slippery roof slates. He watched the stranger approach a large but rather shabby house and take out a key to unlock the front door. Malik began to shimmy down a drainpipe, planning on getting closer to the house and examining it more closely. He sauntered nonchalantly down the street, eyeing the house out of the corner of his eye as he took its measure.
He was so intent on this that he nearly got run over by someone racing up the street from the other direction.
"Oh, excuse me!" said the other man.
Malik grunted something - not an impolite or impatient grunt, just a noise of "let's just forget about it" acknowledgment.
The other man continued, "I'm looking for the home of a man called Shaadi. Is this it?"
Malik had no idea if this was true or not, but "Shaadi" sounded like an Egyptian name, so he said, "Yes, of course. I was just going in myself."
The two of them mounted the steps together, and Malik took it upon himself to rap briskly on the door. As long as he had attached himself to someone who had official business with this Shaadi, he felt he could get away with it.
The door opened, and Malik was unsurprised to see the Egyptian stranger step out. He looked equally unsurprised to see Malik.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
"I'm here on behalf of Lady Atherton," said the messenger. "She requests your assistance with a matter of great importance. She said you would know what she meant."
"I do," said Shaadi. "Please, step inside while I gather my things." He gave Malik a pointed look. "Both of you."
Malik allowed himself to be drawn inside. The inside of the house matched the outside: it had been grand once, but had been allowed to run down, becoming a bit chipped and frayed around the edges. Shaadi directed the messenger to sit down in the parlor, and beckoned for Malik to follow him up the stairs. Malik hesitated for a moment, then followed. After all, it wasn't like the man could keep him from getting out. If all else failed, he'd smash a window and jump. As it was, he wasn't going to pass up a chance to get a look around when he'd been invited.
But there didn't seem to be any need. Shaadi led him up the stairs and into what appeared to be an office, one crammed with old books, yellowing papers, and assorted oddities, many of which appeared to be Egyptian relics, lovingly preserved. Shaadi took something that looked like a doctor's Gladstone bag from beside the desk and began packing it with candles, prisms, and sticks of incense.
"What's all that for?" Malik asked.
"To impress people," said Shaadi.
"It doesn't impress me," said Malik.
"I am not trying to impress you," said Shaadi. "I am trying to learn why you are in my home, preferably without causing a scene. Why have you followed me?"
"Call it curiosity," said Malik. "I hadn't seen you around before. I wanted to see what you were all about."
"I see," said Shaadi. "And have you convinced yourself that I have nothing worth stealing?"
Malik did not show a flicker of guilt. "I don't know. Some of this stuff would probably sell well enough to earn a meal or two."
"I'd find out if you stole it," said Shaadi.
His tone was mild, but he fixed Malik with a gaze that sent a sudden chill down his back. There was something strange about his eyes. They were as blank and blue as a desert sky, and just as fathomless. Malik decided suddenly that he had no desire to rob this man. He had no doubt that Shaadi would find out, and would find some way to retaliate that Malik would not enjoy. He also decided it was time to change the subject.
"So, what do you do that's got this Lady Atherton so interested in you?" he asked.
Shaadi snapped his bag shut. "I talk to ghosts."
Malik blinked. "You mean like those Spritists or Spiritualists or whatever they call themselves?"
"No," said Shaadi. "The best of them are merely amusing themselves; the worst of them are liars and cheats and worse. I talk to ghosts because I have no choice."
"Looks like it still pays well," said Malik, looking around at the large house and its comfortable furnishings.
Shaadi shrugged. "If I did not put on some airs, no one would trust me. But I am not doing this for the money."
"Then why?" Malik asked. If he could have talked to ghosts, making a fortune would have been the first thing on his mind. He longed to live in a place like this instead of a squalid little garret, and to wear fine clothing and eat good meals. He would have loved to have a carriage of his own - or better yet, one of those new automobiles. If he could have that power...
"I am looking for one ghost in particular," said Shaadi. "I am convinced he is in this city somewhere. I need to find him. Until I do, I must follow every hint and trace of a ghost that reaches me."
"So not only are you trying to find one man in all of London," Malik summarized, "but it's one not everyone can see."
"You understand my difficulty."
Malik ran his hand over the soft leather desk chair. "All the same, I wouldn't mind having your problems."
"Would you care to learn?" Shaadi asked.
Malik looked at him in surprise. "Why would you even offer?"
"Because I could use the help," said Shaadi. "This is a large city, as you point out, and I can't search all of it alone. You know your way around places and have contacts with people where I do not." More softly, he said, "And you are of the blood of the Pharaohs, as I am. You have the right to join the search if you wish."
"And what do I get out of it?" Malik asked. A part of him was tempted. This man was clearly out of his mind, but if there was money in it, Malik might be willing to go along with it for a while. And if the man really was telling the truth...
"I would pay you," said Shaadi mildly. "I can provide you with new clothing, and if you wish, you may have one of the unoccupied rooms upstairs for your personal use."
Malik weighed the offer. On days when he had been able to find honest work, he might sleep at his sister's flat. When he'd been less fortunate, he stayed with Rishid, who didn't lecture him about his life choices the way Isis did. Sometimes he managed a bit of coin to rent a room of his own for a few days. Having a place all to himself, permanently, with new clothes and steady pay thrown in, sounded highly tempting.
"What's the catch?" he asked.
Shaadi's tone was without humor. "You might have to occasionally talk to a ghost."
"Fair enough," said Malik. "What do I do first?"
"You begin," said Shaadi, removing a key from his pocket, "by preparing yourself."
He kept his expression blank as he unlocked the drawer where his most valuable and dangerous tools were kept. To tell the truth, he had mixed feelings about this boy. His most rational self was saying that this was a bad, bad idea, and that he should use his skills to eradicate all memory of himself from the boy's mind and send him off somewhere he wouldn't cause Shaadi any more trouble. He could do that. He had that power. The problem was that he didn't want to, and that unsettled him.
Part of it was homesickness. He missed Egypt with an ache that never left him, and he was hungry for anything that reminded him of home. Even a half-wild street boy would do, if he could speak the language Shaadi longed to hear and had skin that was bronze rather than pale. Another part, deeper and harder to acknowledge openly, was that when he had first seen this boy standing so proudly, his form blurred by mist and rain, Shaadi had thought for one moment that he was seeing his lost Pharaoh at last, and that his labors had come to a joyful end. He wanted to cling to that image as a good omen. He had been searching for so long, and had started to lose hope. And then there was the other reason, the one he didn't even want to think about, but the most compelling at all: his strength was not limitless. There was a very real chance that he'd fail in his task, and that someone would have to take up where he left off. The thought was too awful to contemplate, but it was an all-too-real possibility, and it was what ultimately decided him. His pride could be spared. The pharaoh's service could not.
He opened the drawer and removed a golden key in the shape of an ankh. Touching it soothed his nerves as he sensed the power in it.
"Step closer," he instructed. "Ordinarily, I would take the time to train you properly, but I haven't the leisure for that. We must do things the fast and inelegant way."
"What do you mean?" asked the boy, looking nervous now.
"I can use this key to unlock your mind," Shaadi explain. "I will open your inner eye for you, and allow you to see the spirit world. Later, I will train you to open and close that eye at will, but for now, this will allow you to see ghosts as I do without any preparation."
"Right," said the boy dubiously, but he moved a foot or so closer, near enough that Shaadi could reach out to him.
"What is your name?" Shaadi asked him.
"Malik," he supplied. "Malik Ishtar."
Shaadi nodded and touched the key to Malik's brow. "Then, Malik Ishtar, open your eyes!"
There was a flare of power. Malik gasped and staggered backwards, blinking and shaking his head as if his ears were ringing. Shaadi calmly put the key back into its case, and then locked it up securely.
"Now we are ready," he said calmly.
"What the hell was that?" Malik demanded.
"Exactly what I told you," said Shaadi. "You'll see when we get there, if we are both lucky. Now come. Lady Atherton awaits."
They took a cab to the lady's house. Once they arrived, they were admitted into the grand entrance hall. Malik looked around him with an expression of open amazement and desire until Shaadi nudged him sharply.
A servant arrived, looking them over dubiously as he approached.
"Master Shaadi, I presume?" he asked. "Who is this young man? We were not expecting you to bring a guest."
"This is my nephew Malik," said Shaadi smoothly. "He's just come over from Egypt to learn the family trade."
"Of course," said the servant, after a pause. "I will tell the lady you have arrived."
After he'd gone, Malik looked at Shaadi, one eyebrow raised.
"Nephew?" he asked.
Shaadi regarded him blandly. "Everyone is related, if you go back far enough."
A few moments later, the lady herself appeared, wearing the expression of mixed emotions that Shaadi knew so well: fear of whatever haunted her, hope that he would be able to make it go away, embarrassment at being so frightened by something she was half-sure was imaginary, concern that her reputation would suffer if anyone knew that she'd called him here, worry that he would lie or cheat her.
Of that last, there was no danger, not even the danger that he would put her off with a sop as he'd done with the woman he'd visited earlier. There was no doubt in Shaadi's mind that this house was indeed haunted. He could smell it in the air - a blend of strawberry tarts, sweet tea with cream, garden flowers, and the cold earth smell of death. He listened with half an ear as the lady babbled about hearing footfalls where no feet should have been and sobbing in empty rooms.
"I can never find it," she said. "When I'm downstairs, it seems to be upstairs, and when I'm upstairs, it seems to be coming from below."
Shaadi nodded. He'd already worked out where the noise was coming from, but he wanted to see if Malik could find it. In his own language, he said to him, "Do you know where it is?"
Malik frowned, squinting as if trying to make out something through a glare. Shaadi could empathize. The sight had been difficult for him to adjust to as well, when he'd first begun to use it.
"It's a child," said Malik, sounding a little surprised at himself. "A little girl. I can... see her."
That pause had been Malik trying to adjust to the new sense of "seeing". Unlike the view he got through his mortal eyes, his inner eyes would have been seeing multiple times and places at once, a sensation that was more than a little disorienting until one learned to filter it better.
"She was playing tea party," Malik continued slowly. "She was running up and down those marble steps with her teapot in her hands. She spilled tea on her way up, and then ran back down again to get something else - a dish of strawberry tarts - and she slipped on the wet spot and fell. She broke her neck, I think. She died so fast, she never even realized she was hurt. She doesn't know why her parents moved away or where they've gone, and she doesn't understand why she's all alone now..."
"Very good. You see it clearly," said Shaadi, faintly pleased. He should have known his new apprentice would be a quick study. The curiosity and intelligence in his eyes were visible even beneath his veneer of arrogance. "Now we will release the spirit."
He turned his attention to the ghost of the little girl, speaking the words that would make her realize what had become of her and free her to move on to the next world, whatever that might be for her. Shaadi and Malik both watched solemnly as the little girl turned away from them and ran up the stairs to vanish into a haze of light.
Once she was gone, Shaadi turned to Lady Atherton and said in English, "You ghost will trouble you no more."
The lady thanked them both extravagantly and pressed money into Shaadi's hand. He murmured polite phrases until he was able to escape. At least she was grateful enough to give them loan of her cab to get them home.
Once they were settled into their seats, Malik turned to look at him with an expression that was almost accusatory.
"I saw a ghost," he said.
"You did," said Shaadi. "We were fortunate. I answer many false alarms."
"You really weren't kidding about this ghost stuff," said Malik.
"I never joke about anything," Shaadi replied.
"And you'll teach me to do what you did?"
Shaadi nodded. "If you choose. It will not be easy. If you do not, I can make you forget what you saw here tonight, and you will return to your life as if we had never met."
"No," said Malik firmly. "I'm in."
"Then there are conditions," said Shaadi. "I will give you a room, clothes, and money for food, but I prefer to eat alone. You will not disturb me during mealtimes."
Malik looked puzzled by this admittedly odd request, but he nodded.
"The second condition is that you not tell anyone that you are working for me or what we do together. If your friends and family ask where you are getting your money, tell them..." Shaadi paused, concocting a plausible story. "Tell them you met a wealthy Egyptian trader who wishes to set up a business here. Since he is unfamiliar with the city and does not speak English well, he has taken you on as his valet and errand runner."
"Why?" Malik asked.
"Because if you go around telling people that you've been apprenticed to a ghost speaker," said Shaadi, "either people will think you are mad, which will be bad for you, or that I am corrupting you, which is more inconvenience than I care for."
"Whatever makes you happy, then," said Malik. "It makes no difference to me."
"Good," said Shaadi. "Thirdly... I will be presenting you as my nephew. It will be easier to explain your presence that way. Is this acceptable to you?"
Malik nodded. "Fair enough..." His lips curled in a sardonic smile. "...Uncle Shaadi."
It was all Shaadi could do to keep a straight face.
For the most part, Malik enjoyed his new job. For one thing, ghost speakers seemed to be called out mostly at night, which meant that he could lie abed in the mornings like gentry. He had a room of his own, which he'd never had before - when he'd lived back in Egypt, he'd shared a room with his brother. He didn't even have to clean it. A plump woman and her two rosy- cheeked daughters came in every day to sweep, dust, polish, and generally keep things tidy. He had eight suits of clothes, one for each day of the week and a spare in case of accidents, and even a slightly used pocket watch. He had money to spend on whatever he liked, and he had interesting work to do.
If only he knew what to make of his new employer. The man was such a cold fish, colder even than the rains of this godforsaken place. He never seemed to laugh, or smile, or show any emotion at all. It drove Malik crazy. Here he was, a man of obvious power and intelligence, which he could have been using to accomplish all manner of things. He could have made himself rich and famous, if he'd cared to, so why didn't he? He clearly got good money from these people he cast out spirits for, and could have gotten more if he'd been more insistent or less honest. He just didn't seem to care. He appeared to do nothing that gave him any pleasure, nothing but work or wait for more work.
Or, in cases like tonight, pile work onto Malik. One thing Malik could say for Shaadi's mild demeanor: it made him a good teacher. He was endlessly patient, willing to repeat a lesson over and over for as often as it took for Malik to get it right, and he never showed the slightest sign of anger or frustration. On the other hand, he rarely showed any real signs of encouragement, either. If Malik hadn't found his lessons interesting, he would have probably given up.
If only he could get him to show some sign of life! Malik was a person of strong emotions, himself, and it made him uneasy to deal with someone whose feelings he could not read. He could never feel quite sure if Shaadi liked him, hated him, or was planning to murder him in his bed. Not even this strange new sight Malik was learning could help him. He could sense the power in the man, shining like sand in the sun, smelling of warm stone, but that was all. Sometimes Malik thought he would do anything if it would only get some sort of reaction out of Shaadi.
That particular evening, he and his teacher were in Shaadi's study, where Shaadi was drilling Malik on the different types of spirits he was likely to meet, and what he should do if he met them. Malik was prowling around the room. He didn't mind learning, but he disliked having to sit still while he did it, and Shaadi didn't seem to mind as long as Malik gave the right answers when prompted.
"What's this thing?" he asked, pointing at one of the objects Shaadi had on display. It was a golden wand or staff with what appeared to be a winged eyeball at one end. It was locked inside a case with a glass lid, so Malik assumed it must be valuable.
"A rod of command," Shaadi answered. "In dire need, it can be used to command the living or the dead to do your bidding."
Malik stared at him. "And you just keep this thing lying around?"
"If I ever need it, I will need it urgently. Better to have it where I have ready access to it."
"Unbelievable," said Malik. "You have something like this at your disposal and what are you doing with it? Nothing! Don't you have any ambition at all?"
"My ambition is to serve my pharaoh," said Shaadi mildly.
"There haven't been pharaohs for thousands of years," Malik snapped. "This is the twentieth century. You should be looking out for yourself, not worrying about some pharaoh who's been dead for millennia."
Shaadi looked at him, his eyes accusatory. Malik felt as though he'd crossed some line. He braced himself for a scolding, or even a dismissal.
He was surprised when all Shaadi said was, "Have you ever been to the British Museum?"
"No?" said Malik uncertainly. It wasn't the sort of place someone like him was likely to ever go. If he did, someone would probably decide he was there to steal something and throw him out.
"Then perhaps we will continue your education there tonight. Come." Shaadi stood and began walking towards the door.
"But it's the middle of the night," Malik protested. "It will be closed."
"I have my ways," said Shaadi.
Malik was impressed into not saying anything. If Shaadi could get into a locked museum, he deserved some respect for it.
How they found a cab at that time of night, Malik never knew. Perhaps it was some trick Shaadi hadn't taught him yet. However it was, they managed to get a singularly incurious cab driver to drop them off at the darkened museum. Shaadi led Malik around to a side door, where he cupped one hand around the lock and did something Malik couldn't see with the other hand. The lock came open with an almost inaudible click.
"Teach me to do that," said Malik.
"Maybe later," was the predictably bland reply. Shaadi waved Malik through the door and locked it again behind them.
Malik would have liked to take a moment to look around at his new surroundings. The lights were all out, but ever since Shaadi had done whatever he'd done to open Malik's inner eye, he'd been able to see better in the dark than any cat. If this was going to be his only chance to see the things on display, he wanted to linger a bit and look at them. Shaadi, however, seemed to know exactly where he was going, and led Malik briskly down the hall, forcing him to almost run to keep up.
He was unsurprised to find that Shaadi was leading him to an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts. Malik stepped slowly into the room, taking in the carved stones, the statues, the bits of pottery and jewelry, the mummies in their protective cases, and he felt a chill crawl down his spine. It wasn't so much seeing the objects. After all, he'd grown up in Egypt, and he'd seen bits and pieces of this sort of thing before. His father had made some very fine imitations of some of these art objects. No, what made him shiver was what his new sight was showing him. This place, more than any other he'd ever been in, glowed with an old, heavy energy that covered everything like a fog. It was so thick that it threatened to overwhelm him. He forced himself to narrow his vision, to focus his sight on a single manageable object, hoping to filter out some of that power before it blinded him.
Shaadi stepped to his side and glanced at what he was looking at.
"Shabti," he remarked. "A vessel made to follow a dead man to his tomb. They were intended to serve him in the afterlife."
"I knew that," said Malik defensively. He forced himself to look away from the little statue. "So why did you bring me here? Are you just trying to scare me?"
"I wanted you to see what was at stake," said Shaadi. He began walking slowly across the room. "So many of these things are burial things, taken from the resting places of our kings and queens. Men calling themselves archeologists rob their graves, disturb their spirits, even desecrate their bodies. Rich men hold so-called unwrapping parties where they gather to cut open a dead man's burial shroud to see what lies inside. This island is littered with the souls that were wrested from their places of repose and can no longer find their way out of this strange land and back to their afterlives..."
Malik watched as Shaadi turned to stare bleakly at one of the mummies in its case. His face was as composed as ever, but tears were streaming down his cheeks. Malik was amazed. He'd thought he understood unhappiness. He was unhappy. He was unhappy that he'd been torn away from his home and forced to live in this gloomy wet city, that his parents were dead, that he had been poor and forced to live in the slums, that he was scorned by men who thought they were superior because they were English and he wasn't. Sometimes he'd felt so full of unhappiness that he was sure it would come pouring out of him if you cut him. And yet, Shaadi's grief for these dead kings was as real as the earth they stood on and deeper than the sea, and it made Malik's own grief feel petty in comparison.
"And that's why you're trying to find this pharaoh of yours?" he asked.
Shaadi nodded. "His body was taken from its resting place, and shipped here clandestinely to be delivered to a rich man. I am sure it is in England somewhere, but I have lost the trail. I have been charged with finding him and returning him to the afterlife. Nothing else matters to me."
Now Malik heard a trace of guilt in the man's voice as well. He realized he'd gotten used to thinking of Shaadi as being infallible, all-knowing and all-powerful. It shocked him to realize that Shaadi could fail at something, particularly something he wanted so badly.
"I see," he said quietly. "I think I understand."
Shaadi regarded him thoughtfully. His face was still wet with tears, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Do you?" he asked.
"No," said Malik. "But I understand it's important to you."
"That will have to do," said Shaadi. He turned abruptly. "Let us leave now. I find this place less than pleasant."
"Now, that I understand," said Malik.
He was more than willing to follow Shaadi out of the museum. He was quiet and thoughtful on the ride home. Shaadi seemed to be in a similar mood, gazing pensively out the cab's window and saying nothing. Malik kept stealing glances at him, wondering just what it was he was thinking about. Obsessing over his failures? Lamenting the fates of those spirits he'd seen in the museum?
The visit to the Egyptian gallery may not have convinced Malik to care about the fate of a lost Egyptian king, but it had forced him to confront at least one truth. Shaadi wasn't the cold, emotionless man he'd originally taken him for. Malik was beginning to think that he was just extremely skilled at hiding his emotions. Underneath that still facade, there was clearly a man of strong emotions - as passionate in his own way as Malik was.
When Malik had taken this job, he'd thought mainly of gaining some of Shaadi's obvious power for himself. He'd wanted nothing more of the man than instruction, money, and a place to put his head down. Now he felt a new urge growing inside of him. He would apply himself to his studies more than ever - not because he was interested in guiding ghosts in the afterlife. No, he would study now because he had seen that his teacher was not unfeeling. He could be moved, and be induced to reveal that emotion. Now he was beginning to wonder, somewhere in the back of his mind, if it was possible to make him proud.
"Come have dinner with us tonight."
Shaadi looked up from the newspaper he'd been reading. He always read the papers. There was always a chance that something relevant to his search would crop up. If nothing else, it was a means of learning the names of rich and influential people, which was always useful information to know.
Malik was standing in the doorway, dressed in the coat he wore when he was going out.
"Come to dinner with us," he repeated. "Rishid and Isis and me."
Shaadi shook his head. "I've told you, I prefer to eat alone."
"But they've been asking to meet you," said Malik. "It can't hurt you to do it just once."
"I must politely decline," said Shaadi. "I'm sorry. I would be happy to meet your family another time, but..."
Malik rolled his eyes. "You're unbelievable. What is this, some other ritual mumbo- jumbo you haven't drilled into me yet? Am I going to have to start living like a hermit to get my ghost hunting license?"
Shaadi had to restrain himself from smiling. He felt that a proper teacher would not have let his student speak to him in such a fashion, but the truth was, he found he enjoyed it. His entire life had been one of duty and unquestioning obedience. He did not regret it, but Malik's rebelliousness was refreshing to him. If he could not assert his independence, he could at least enjoy watching Malik do so in his place. Sometimes he found himself deliberately provoking the boy just to watch his reactions. Especially after a day of dealing with the image-obsessed upper crust, Malik's honest reactions could be surprisingly soothing.
Rebelliousness is not a good quality in this line of work, he reminded himself. A good ghost-talker had to be in control of himself at all times. Any weakness could be exploited by a wicked or mischievous spirit, and such lapses could sometimes be fatal. Shaadi knew he should be trying to school such tendencies out of Malik, not encourage them, yet he could not bring himself to do so.
He is so good at what he does, perhaps there is no real danger, he soothed himself. In the matter of Malik's education, he'd more than exceeded Shaadi's expectations. The trip to the museum seemed to have inspired him. Instead of lazing around all morning and roaming the streets with his friends in the afternoon, Malik had taken to spending all his free time practicing and studying. Surely, Shaadi rationalized, such devotion deserved a bit of a reward. What harm to indulge him a little?
But not with dinner. Never that.
"My health is not what it once was," he demurred. "I'm afraid most foods disagree with me. I would not dream of troubling your family to prepare special dishes just for me, and it would be churlish of me to sit at your table and not dine. No, I will meet your family some other day, just not for dinner."
Malik grimaced, clearly not happy with this answer and also unable to think of a good way to disagree with it.
"You'd better not be lying," he said.
"I am not," said Shaadi, who wasn't. Not really. "I will meet your family some other day, just not for dinner. In the meantime, you shouldn't keep your family waiting." Feeling like he should atone in some way, he added, "Don't stay out too late, though. I hoped to do some shopping later."
Malik perked up marginally at the mention of shopping, and once again, Shaadi felt himself restraining a smile. His protege was intensely concerned with his public appearance, and seemed to enjoy shopping simply as a way of flaunting the fact that he had money to buy things.
"Shopping for what?" Malik asked.
"I have been thinking that as much traveling as I do, I might take your suggestion and purchase an automobile."
For a moment, Malik's expression was one of pure delight. It was swiftly stifled, smoothing over into his usual indifference, but not so swiftly that Shaadi didn't feel a glow at seeing his student so happy.
You indulge him too much, whispered a voice in his mind.
He brushed it aside. It was true that he made house calls all over the city, often at odd hours. Moreover, he'd been realizing that many rich men had country houses outside of the city, places he wouldn't be able to reach just by hailing a cab. An automobile would be immensely useful. He had enough money stashed away to buy one without difficulty. The fact that Malik had been longing for one was convenient but not his sole reason for the expenditure.
"I won't be late!" Malik promised, and bounded out the door, as if by running he could make his dinner hour pass by more quickly.
Shaadi just shook his head. How long had it been since he'd felt so much enthusiasm for anything? Not that he was supposed to feel enthusiasms. His life was meant to be lived in service to his pharaoh, nothing more or less. He should have wanted nothing more than to fulfil his mission.
But it had been a lonely life, serving a master who wasn't there to comfort or encourage him. When there was only one other person who stood by him, sharing in his labors and listening to his grief, it was hard not to want to make that person smile.
Malik felt surprisingly content as he trundled through the streets of London. Warm weather had arrived at last, which meant being in the city was actually tolerable for a warmth- loving creature like him. Also, he was not on his own two feet today. No, he was at the wheel of his new auto. Oh, technically, it was Shaadi's, but the man had neither the knowledge of how to drive it nor the interest in learning how, so it had become essentially Malik's possession. He used it to shuttle himself and his teacher to and from the homes of people who wanted ghosts cast out, and occasionally to Shaadi's apothecary to pick up the odds and ends he used in certain rituals, but he was also allowed to drive it around the city as often as he pleased, so long as he paid for the fuel.
Today, however, was a special occasion. This was the first time Shaadi had sent him out on his own to cope with a ghost. This was one was not in the home of one of the wealthy folks who were likely to have dragged the pharaoh from his rest, so Shaadi had agreed to let Malik deal with it rather than come out himself. Malik was willing to take this as a good sign.
He was further gratified when he was greeted by the lady of the house, who let him in without hesitation. The way she spoke to him, he guessed that she thought he was Shaadi. She'd been expecting an Egyptian man to come rid her of her ghost, and since an Egyptian man was here, he must be the one she'd been expecting. He didn't bother to correct her. Instead, he listened to her complaints - the usual business of noises in the attic and things moving around when no one was looking - and mentally classified what he expected to find. Then he had to stifle a smile. When had he become so accustomed to ghosts that he thought no more about them than about going to a pub to buy dinner? But then, why should he? They had never given him any real trouble. They were generally easy to manage, once you knew what to do about them.
This was a genuine ghost, too. He could tell that much by the smell. Shaadi had taught him to recognize ghosts by their scents, which were usually in evidence even when the ghost itself was hiding. Shades smelled like ashes and candle wax. They were the easiest. They didn't even have proper minds - they were like spiritual stains left on the places they'd inhabited during life, and could be wiped away like spilled water on a tabletop. Haunts were like the little girl he'd seen when his eyes had first been opened to the spirit world. They usually smelled like cold earth, overlaid with the scents most strongly associated with whatever they had done in life: fresh bread for a baker, soap for a laundress, tea and perfume for a society lady, hot metal for a blacksmith, and so on and so forth. And then there were the specters, which were not properly ghosts at all, but a form of wandering spirit that delighted in tormenting humans and often infested their homes to frighten them. They smelled of blood and night air and a hint of something that made him think of rotting flowers.
The scent of the specter was thick inside this house.
He started for the attic. Specters liked attics, and also basements, closets, the spaces beneath beds, and any place that was usually dark and where they wouldn't be disturbed during the day. The woman had said she'd heard this one banging around in the attic, so that was where he'd try first.
The scent was stronger there, hanging so heavily that it almost overwhelmed the other attic scents of dust and mice and gently deteriorating old wood. It was packed full of trunks and boxes, and he could see the scrape marks in the dusty floor where something had been moving them around.
Malik set down his bag, a twin to the one that Shaadi used, and took out a jar of ashes, made from a concoction of herbs, animal bones, and a bit of his own blood, all of them burnt and crushed into a fine powder. He spilled the ashes into a little circle around himself, muttering as he did so. The dead leaves and bones carried a taint of death on them, and when mixed with his blood and formed into a ritual circle, it marked him as symbolically out of the realms of the living, and therefore immune to any physical harm the specter might wish to do to him. Now he could safely call it out and talk to it. He said the words Shaadi had taught him, and was rewarded by the sight of something like a low-lying black fog creeping out from the cracks in an ancient steamer trunk. It gathered itself into a mound in front of him, just barely not touching the border of his circle. Slowly, it formed itself into the shape of a man.
"Why do you summon me?" it asked. Its voice was surprisingly pleasant, as if this were merely a business associate who had been called to his employer's office for a meeting.
"I want you out of this house," said Malik sternly. "You have no right to be here. You aren't wanted here. Go back down into the dark and stop bothering these people."
"And why do you care that I bother them?" the specter replied. Its tone was bored. "They don't matter to you."
"That doesn't matter," said Malik.
"I think it matters very much," said the specter. Its outlines shifted. Now Malik found that he was looking at a mirror image of himself. It was smiling at him.
"What do you think you're doing?" Malik demanded.
"Making a point," said the specter. "You may be able to hide behind that little ring of ashes, but your power only extends so far. I can still feel your fears and desires. I know the taste and smell of them, and you can't lie to me about them. I know why you're here. You're here because of a man who sees you only as his tool - less important to him than someone who died thousands of years ago and never cared about him anyway. You're here because you're hoping that if you keep running his errands like a good little dog, he'll eventually pat you on the head and tell you what a good boy you are."
"Stop talking," Malik snarled.
"Oh, you don't like hearing the truth, do you?" the specter said, grinning. "Well, I'll give you some advice for free. You'll never get him to notice you as long as you keep doing exactly what he says. Why should he notice you when you're doing what you're supposed to, any more than you notice that your auto is running while you drive it? If you want your teacher's respect, do something extraordinary. Force him to notice you. Prove your power."
"Fine," Malik snapped. "I'll start by getting rid of you!"
He spoke the words of power that would bind the specter and send it down into the shadows of wherever it came from. It sank out of sight, still wearing his face, still smiling. Then Malik was alone in the attic, breathing heavily. He scuffed his toe in the circle of ashes, making sure to thoroughly disrupt it so that it couldn't be closed again. The last thing he needed was for something to wander in and get stuck. He wasn't sure what having a ghost trapped in a circle made with his own blood would do, but he doubted it would be pleasant.
He walked back down the attic stairs and told the woman that she would not be bothered by noises in the attic any time soon. She was properly grateful, and pressed upon him what must have been, to her, an extravagant sum of money. Perhaps he looked like he deserved it. The effort of forcing the spirit away had left him sweating and slightly shaky. He told himself that it was only the effort that had done it.
All the same, he drove home in a less cheerful mood than he'd been in earlier. The specter's words stuck in his mind like a burr. He didn't like to think that it was right, but the more time that passed, the more he began wondering if perhaps it was right. He had been doing his lessons well and faithfully for months, often doing more than was asked of him, and had never gotten so much as a smile in response. It was maddening. He knew Shaadi was capable of emotion. Why did nothing Malik did seem to move him? He was never pleased when Malik succeeded, nor did he seem angry or disappointed when he failed. What did it take to get through to the man?
Something extreme, probably.
Malik accelerated the car, weaving recklessly in and out of traffic, frightening horses and pedestrians. He was done being docile. That had never been his style anyway. Tonight, he would do something that would be sure to get him noticed. Maybe Shaadi would never forgive him for it, but by all the gods of old, he was finally going to sit up and take notice.
Malik had learned a few things about locks in his days as a thief. He had gotten, after a while, quite good with them, and even after months of living a more or less law-abiding life, he still remembered how to pick one. Now he stood alone in Shaadi's office, contemplating a small but sturdy lock. It was fitted to a glass-topped case, which contained the rod that Malik had examined the night he and Shaadi had gone to the museum.
By now, Malik was familiar enough with Shaadi's routine. This time of day, he sent Malik out to buy an evening meal for himself, and then he locked himself in his room for about an hour. What he did in there was a mystery - had his own dinner, presumably, not that Malik had ever bothered to check. It wasn't the deed, but the timing that was important. He knew how long it would take to open this box, how long it would take to get where he was going. He would take the rod, he would leave, and within minutes, Shaadi would come out and find the empty box lying prominently in the hall outside his door, with nothing inside it but a note, and he would follow it to where Malik would be enjoying his moment of triumph. Then at last, perhaps, that facade would break, and Malik would have his victory.
The lock came open with the tiniest of clicks. Malik tucked his lockpicking tools back in his pocket and gently lifted the lid. The rod was a beautiful thing, its gold gleaming and polished, but still somehow holding the aura of something very old indeed. This was gold that had been mined and forged in a time and place when it wasn't just a cold dead stone, but the flesh of the gods themselves. He ran his hand over it, drawn into a moment of reverence and reverie. It tingled under his fingers, and when he closed his hand around it, it felt as warm as if it had already absorbed his body heat. For a moment, all he could do was stare at it, reveling in the sensation of holding something so beautiful and powerful.
Then he took it, and he left.
He took the auto to the nearest cemetery. Shaadi had never taken him to one before - he'd said that Malik wasn't ready yet to cope with the many spirits that dwelled there. They would leave him more blinded and dazzled than he had been that night at the museum, when the presence of all those Egyptian shades had nearly suffocated him. Even by day, it would have been too much for him, and now it was evening, when they would be coming out in full force. To Malik's mind, that was as it should be. If he could do this, he could do anything, and with the rod beside him, he was not afraid.
He pulled his auto into the first conveniently empty spot he came to and trudged his way into the cemetery. Even before he passed the front gates, he could see the misty shapes of ghosts wandering amid the tombstones and even drifting into the street. The gates were closed, but the wall was made of rough stone and he scaled it easily, then dropped lightly down on the other side. He disturbed a haunt, which glared at him accusingly before drifting off somewhere more private.
Malik walked down the path until he reached what he guessed to be the middle of the cemetery. Then he stopped and held up the rod. All around him, ghosts shimmered nervously.
"Come to me," he whispered. "Gather around me."
He felt the rod begin to warm in his hands. All around him, there was a gentle drift of movement, as the ghosts began to be inexorably drawn to him. The shades came first, the wisps and fragments with no will of their own, and they piled around him until they formed a near-solid wall, as if he'd been cocooned in spider webs. Other ghosts came more reluctantly, two or three at a time. Malik watched them with discontent.
"All of you!" he snapped. "I want every last one of you here where I can see you!"
The rod was growing very hot now, almost too hot to touch, but he gritted his teeth and held on. If he let go now, before Shaadi arrived, his efforts would be fore nothing.
More and more spirits crowded around him, so crowded together that they were overlapping, their faces and bodies blurring into one seething mass. It was like being in the heart of a fog bank with a hundred angry eyes.
"That's it," he said. "All of you just stay where I want you."
The ghosts began to murmur among themselves. Malik's hands were sweating now from the heat the rod was generating, and he was finding it hard to continue to hold it. It seemed to be growing heavier, and he was having trouble keeping his grip on it.
Then he saw what he'd been waiting for: a single living man racing down the path through the graveyard. Malik smiled a little. He'd never seen Shaadi running before. He must be in a panic. Malik had scared him. Good.
"What are you doing?" Shaadi shouted at him. "Stop this at once!"
"No," said Malik. "I started this and I will finish it. Watch me, Shaadi - I'll prove to you that I'm every inch the master that you are!"
With arms that trembled with exertion, with sweat spilling down his back and chest, Malik raised the rod high over his head.
"All you spirits gathered here," he shouted, "I command you to leave this earth at once! Go!"
Power coursed through him. Ghosts scattered before it, driven like dry leaves in a storm. They peeled away from him, layer by layer - first the closest and weakest, then those further from him. He found himself laughing as he watched them vanishing, driven away by the force of his will. Soon they was nothing left but a few stubborn holdouts at the fringes of his vison. He made a final push, putting all his will into a wordless determination that there would be no more ghosts left in this graveyard.
Then there was nothing left. Malik stood there a moment, breathing heavily, enjoying his moment of triumph. He turned to see how Shaadi was taking this. Perhaps he would shout - snatch his magic wand back and tell Malik he was too proud and irresponsible to be trusted with such power. Perhaps he would send him away. Or maybe... maybe he would be impressed. Maybe now he would see that Malik was at least his equal, worthy of respect, even admiration.
But when he turned, he couldn't find him. Malik blinked, then blinked again, his mind refusing to process what he was seeing. Lying on the ground where Shaadi had been was a heap of clothing, and nested amid the clothes was a tiny statue of a man, like an Egyptian sarcophagus in miniature. It had broken in two.
And hovering gently over this heap of peculiar objects was a ghost. It glowed brightly against the night sky. It looked at Malik with sorrow and regret in the eyes that had always seemed so blank and expressionless when they'd belonged to a living man.
"Shaadi?" Malik blurted. "What... how...?"
"You commanded ghosts to come to this place," said Shaadi softly, "and so I came to your call. Then you ordered that we all must leave. With all your will behind such a command, even I could not resist."
"But... you're not..." Malik began, and stopped. What was he going to say? That Shaadi wasn't a ghost - hadn't been a ghost? Of course he was. Now it all made sense - his refusal to allow anyone to see him eat, because of course he wouldn't have been able to eat human food, the way he never seemed to sleep, the way he seemed to be so firmly rooted in the past. Malik had seen with his own eyes the glow of ghost-light around him, smelled the hot stone scent of whatever strange half-life he'd been living, and like a fool he'd believed those to be indicators of his power over spirits. He should have realized that the explanation was something much more basic.
"How?" he said at last.
Shaadi stared out into the distance. "Once, many eons ago, I was the servant of a great and good king. When he died, I went willingly with him into the grave so that I could continue to serve him in the afterlife... and when he was wrested from his rightful place, I volunteered to return to this world to seek him." His sigh was a breath of cool night wind. "And I have failed."
"No," said Malik. "There must be some way..."
"It's too late," said Shaadi. "To live once is the natural way of things. To live twice is a miracle. No one gets a third chance. Do not worry. I knew that the day might come when something like this might happen. I have provided for you. You will find papers in my room that will explain why I vanished so suddenly. All my belongings - the house, the automobile, my artefacts, all my savings - will pass on to you. I took great pains to establish that you are my nephew. No one will question your right to inherit. All I ask in return is that you take up the task I leave behind. Find my pharaoh and guide him back to the other side, so that he and I may rest in peace."
Malik wanted to scream that this was not right, it wasn't fair. This was not how he'd planned it at all, and he wanted to take it all back, but all he could find to say was, "This is my fault."
Shaadi shook his head. "No, I blame myself for this. My devotion should have belonged completely to my pharaoh. I never should have allowed myself to care for you as much as I did. Had I cared less, had I been more willing to discipline you, this would not have happened." Then, for the first time since Malik had met him, he smiled. "I am glad that I could leave you the things you wanted. I hope now you will be happy."
The words, I just wanted to make you proud of me, burned on Malik's tongue, but his throat was tight, and he could not say them.
Shaadi's image was growing fainter now, his strength waning.
"I go now to the gods to report my failure," he said. "And yet, I am not as sorry as I should be. I am sorry I did not find the pharaoh, but I will cherish my memories of you. Goodbye, Malik."
Then he was gone, leaving only the memory of that first and final smile.