issue 8

The Year of Rebellious Stars, by Tanvir Ahmed

These strange and wondrous events took place in ancient times, long ago, when the stars went rogue and the Caliphate was almost torn apart from the Oxus to the Nile.

The lords of knowledge and masters of insight have never agreed on why, after forty years of calm that left all of Persia and Arabia full of plenty, the firmament suddenly revolted. The mosque preachers believe the trouble to have been caused by the masses’ straying from the Beloved Prophet’s law, bringing down the heavens’ wrath. The dervishes disagree, claiming that the tumult was brought on by the death of a pious old woman when a nobleman on horseback knocked her down in the marketplace.

God knows best, dear friends, but this much is certain: one spring night in Baghdad, the City of Peace and Dome of Islam, the chief astrologer burst into the Caliph’s harem looking like he had just eavesdropped on the angels and fled from their deadly shooting stars. Before the guards could prune his spirit from the garden of worldly existence, he reached the Lord of the Age’s presence and gave him his report.

The planet Mercury had gone into retrograde without warning, defying the observational models of the Greeks and the calculations of the Indians and all other reliable sciences. In its unexpected condition, the planet heralded the coming of terrible trouble, all manner of heresies and rebellion: perhaps the end of days.

Now, the Commander of the Faithful was a temperate man, one not easily swayed by grand declarations. But when news came in the morning that the mighty general Mehtar Bahram had struck his banners in the hinterland and declared himself the rightful ruler of the Caliphate, it was clear the heavens were indeed enraged.

Mehtar Bahram’s treachery set the veins of the Caliph’s eyes throbbing. He summoned to his court a host of magicians, soothsayers, and djinn-binders to chart a path out from this predicament. After careful consultation and study, the collection of prognosticators approached the Shadow of God on the Earth with their conclusion: the Caliphate could only be saved from the rapacious insurrectionaries if the king of Adinapur marched against them.

Emissaries sprang from Baghdad like sparks shooting out of a fire, riding the flesh off their mounts. They were given a hospitable welcome in Adinapur: a noble town in the dusty foothills, white as a fat dove, the threshold of which was green with olive trees. Upon hearing the Caliph’s message, the king leapt up to obey, summoning his own chief astrologer to determine an auspicious moment for battle.

The chief astrologer of Adinapur, one Mir Aftab, was a tried and tested sort, a man who did not shoot the arrow of prediction without hitting the truth. He knew the arts of Persian medicine and Nabatean agriculture, and his beard was appropriately long and gray. For three nights he dove into the books of the ancients and scoured the night sky. On the following morning, he entered the royal darbar and prostrated before the felt-covered sandalwood throne.

“If Your Majesty marches from Adinapur before he sees the golden light of Mars with his own eye, he will be devoured by the Parter of Companions and Destroyer of Delights, just as wool is devoured by moths.”

“So when will the golden light of Mars appear?” the king said, frowning.

“In three hundred and nine years, O Refuge of the Oppressed,” Mir Aftab said. “Give or take a year.”

By all accounts, the king of Adinapur was no coward. According to his handsomely-paid court poets, he was a raging lion in battle, tenacious as a bull in heat. The scenes of ruin left by his passing would whiten the hair on an infant’s head. But Mir Aftab’s warning burned in the king’s blood. The chief astrologer had never been wrong before. The king had obligations towards his people. If it were not for a just king on the throne, the strong would devour the weak. What choice did he really have?

So the king stayed in his sandstone palace, in the shade of his blooming orange trees, anxiety tearing at his intestines and consuming his spirit. He could not bring himself to refuse the Caliph’s request, but nor did he wish to destroy himself. The dilemma brought on a combination of insomnia and diarrhea that left the king perpetually wandering his own halls like a messiah roaming in the desert. Eventually he stopped seeing petitioners altogether, leaving the affairs of government to some overworked kadis and corrupt chiefs of police. In the marketplaces and mosques, murmurs of discontent began taking root. Some rabble-rousers with devils nesting in their heads began saying that a king who did not help the Caliph—the rightful successor to the Prophet and embodied font of truth, without whom existence itself would surely crumble—had no business ruling anything or anyone.

All the while, the accursed Mehtar Bahram continued conquering the Caliphate’s outlying provinces. The Commander of the Faithful gave his court daily assurances of God’s coming succor while quietly shuffling dinars from the treasury into personal saddlebags. And in Adinapur, the people’s hearts were steeping in unrest. Good listeners, it was a grim situation indeed.

It was around then, in Adinapur, when it seemed that our nations would be stripped of peace like sap is stripped from trees, that someone set out to cheat the stars.

The someone in question was a minor court functionary named Sohail: a scribe in the royal chancellery who could best be described as “adequately competent.” Sohail was a passable horseman, wrote in a legible hand, and was attentive to details in the way specific to one who is perpetually correcting the blunders of one’s overseers. The memorialists note that he made a few valiant efforts at lyric poetry. However, his verses on veiled Persian maidens and slim-hipped Turkish boys alike were notable only for their mediocrity.

Even these crumbs of knowledge would have been lost to the crashing of history’s waves had it not been for a single notion of Sohail’s: that if the king could not march under the stars as they were, the stars had to be changed.

So it was that one evening at spring’s end, while the rest of the court was gathering under a tent for the annual Poetry Festival of the Oranges, Sohail made his way through the old quarter to the Druggists’ Bazaar. He followed the Street of the Dome down until reaching a blue-painted cedarwood door patterned with Solomonic stars. He knocked, counted out a polite length of time, then entered.

The shopfront was a neat space spread with embroidered Bukharan rugs, sunlight creeping through its latticed windows. Scattered among stoppered bottles and sheafs of unbound paper were curios: a brass jar sealed with lead, an iron chest with talismanic flags at its corners, a pair of green copper rings that might have once adorned a giant’s door. A slim figure in a patched robe emerged from the adjoining room, fixing their carefully-angled blue turban.

“It is very late,” the shopkeeper said, without offering a greeting.

“Peace unto you too, Noor,” Sohail replied. “It is a very urgent matter.”

The shopkeeper, Noor, raised an eyebrow. “What, none of the sagacious hakims at His Majesty’s Abode of Tranquility could answer your question?”

“You know, if you think so little of the court’s scholars, you could always come teach them better.”

“And spend the rest of my life competing for position and purses? No, thank you.”

“We have considerably more books. I would think that would tempt you.”

“The whole royal library is not worth a grain of sand if one does not have the imagination to think with them.”

“I think you will need imagination and books alike for the issue that brings me,” Sohail said. “I need to know how to change the stars.”

Noor fell quiet, then said, “You mean to force Mars to appear in the night.”

“Can it be done?” Sohail’s voice was steady, though his heart was bolting like an untrained colt.

Noor looked at him for a long moment. It was the sort of question that got one laughed out of the most liberal-minded philosopher’s gathering. Even (or perhaps especially) among the learned, some truths were unquestionable. The curious student might debate whether existence was eternal or finite, whether the body was resurrected after death or the spirit alone, whether the power of creation rested in the Creator alone or bled through into His servants; but the stars, no. What kind of moron thought the stars could ever be moved?

Had Sohail brought such a possibility up with a court scholar, his sanity would have been called into question, his livelihood put at risk. But Noor was another story. There was not another thinker in all of Adinapur more willing to entertain the impossible, nor one more capable of finding a way to make it real. One did not throw away a luxurious life as a great physician’s daughter to become a scholar-apothecary in the old quarter without thinking creatively.

“Wait here,” Noor said at last, disappearing into the other room. A moment later, Sohail heard the sound of papers being shuffled about.

The call for dusk prayer came and went, then the one for nighttime prayer. Sohail headed out to the mosque before stopping at the shop of Najmoddin the barber-surgeon, which was converted every night into a teahouse by the owner’s wife Asman. He stood in the shadows and sipped from a chipped clay bowl, watching the patrons sprawled upon the cushions and rugs, trying not to think of what would happen if Mehtar Bahram were not stopped.

By the time Sohail returned, Noor was sitting on the floor, wholly besieged by papers the way the pupil is encircled by the white of the eye. The oil lamps were dangerously close to the assorted stacks. Sohail carefully edged them out of the way before peering down at the sheet in Noor’s hand.

The Treatise on Subjugation, by Ibn Hilal,” he read aloud. “I did not know there was an astrologer by that name.”

“Not an astrologer,” Noor replied quietly. “Ibn Hilal the magician.”

Be sure, my good people, that Sohail was as horrified to hear this as you must be. Whose bowels do not quiver at the mention of that terrifying man, who once escaped the executioner’s mat by throwing a hemp rope into the sky and disappearing up its length? Whose eyes are not bewildered by that trickster whose spirit galloped along the racecourse of devilry, who vanished from the grasp of justice simply by drawing a boat in the sand and appearing on a Basran barge? They say, as you must know, that he achieved these feats and more by marrying the Devil’s own daughter and calling on his in-laws among the djinns for help.

Yet the situation was desperate and Sohail had come for just such thinking. Reminding himself of this, he said, “Did he have a way to move the heavens?”

“If there was such a way recorded in books,” Noor said, “it would be in the royal library, and some dullard would have already found it. If we cannot rely on something already written down, we have to find someone who can teach us something new.”

“What does that have to do with Ibn Hilal?”

Noor turned the sheet in their hand over, tapping a block of cramped text with a finger. Sohail frowned, for the letters seemed to be moving, evading his eyes.

Noor pursed their lips, saying, “I did not say that the teacher was going to be human.”

It is well-known that across the lands of the Caliphate, the jurists generally forbid the summoning of djinns, and the sages do not recommend it for one’s health. Despite such censure, the art has always flourished among the people. Some even say that the Caliph himself maintains a secret cadre of summoners (strictly for defensive purposes, of course).

But necessity makes lawful the forbidden, they say. And so, one scorching afternoon at the beginning of summer, two figures were spotted leaving Adinapur by the Balkh Gate atop donkeys laden with brass bowls, mounds of saffron, and the heart of a freshly slaughtered goat wrapped in palm-leaves.

It had taken forty days for Noor and Sohail to prepare for the summoning. Throughout that period, in accordance with Ibn Hilal’s instructions, they had washed themselves with nothing but a few droplets of frankincense every few days, avoided eating meat and having sex, and kept from uttering any of God’s beautiful names. Doing so had left them both more disheveled than rebellious devils sprung from a magic lamp, and just as ill-tempered. But, Sohail reminded himself, it was preferable to having one’s spirit ripped out and eaten before one’s eyes.

The pair came to their destination as the shadows grew long: a hillock well outside the town, crowned by tamarisk trees and a few broken stones. No one could say to whom the ruin had once belonged, only that it was now known to be a haunt for visitors from the Unseen. Noor and Sohail were depending on that.

Dismounting, they arranged the brass bowls in the approximation of a six-pointed star. As they filled them up with saffron, the stuff clung to their arms and got into their noses. Noor positioned the goat’s heart at the center of the star, then repositioned it, and again. Before the sixth time, Sohail gently took their hand.

“The hour is getting late,” he said.

Noor’s lips thinned. “I have never done this before.”

“That is not, perhaps, the worst thing one can say about oneself.”

“If it goes wrong—”

“It will not.” Sohail had to stop himself from adding, God willing.

“I am saying,” Noor said, with the exasperation of one who has been interrupted all their life, “that you do not have to be here. After all, I am the one doing the summoning.”

Sohail frowned. “I have not let myself smell this horrible for forty days for nothing.”

“Fair enough.”

With a steadying breath, Noor removed their turban and shook out their hair. Sitting on their haunches and folding their hands in their lap, they closed their eyes and began murmuring in the Suryani cant of the Banu Sasan. Sohail took off his own headgear and sat quietly behind Noor, trying not to pray. Overhead, the first stars were cutting through the dark.

There was a sudden crack, seemingly loud enough to split the earth and shake the stars from the sky. As one, the tamarisk trees exploded, scattering flaming splinters across the hillock. The bowls of saffron were flung clear. An ill wind screamed into being around Noor and Sohail, who avoided soiling themselves only by dint of their innards being drier than bone.

A bolt of lightning slammed down onto the goat’s heart. The bloody piece of meat was immediately vaporized. In its place stood a being eight feet tall, wreathed in a robe made from black clouds, its crackling limbs made of the same storm-stuff upon which it had ridden down. One moment its face was that of a scowling lion, limned by a beard of shadows; the next, it seemed a beautiful woman with a mane of the same impenetrable darkness. Only its eyes remained constant: two coals plucked from the tandoors of Hell.

You dare call upon Khanda-Barq, you rancid heads of dead dogs?” the djinn roared, a torrential spatter of rainwater-spit drumming down upon Noor and Sohail.

 His heart pounding and stomach churning, Sohail managed to glance at Noor. Somehow, the scholar was looking up, meeting Khanda-Barq’s gaze. “O mighty emissary of the Djinn King of Mercury!” they were saying. “We come before you with humility and awe, hoping—”

I do not care for your flattery, human!” Khanda-Barq retorted. “You think your words sweet, but they are fouler to me than the food of Hell! You have summoned me to answer one question—may the answer make you unluckier than the wood upon which criminals are crucified. So ask, and let me go!

Noor stiffened, saying, “How do we change the stars?”

Khanda-Barq drew back, clouds roiling around its hailstone-clawed feet. “What?

“Tell us how to change the stars,” Noor pressed.

Such a thing is not done,” Khanda-Barq said, as if explaining to a child. “Perhaps you would like to know the future? Or some secret that will destroy your rival? Or maybe the location of a hidden cave of treasures—”

Noor shot to their feet. “That is enough! I gave you an offering and you accepted it, Khanda-Barq, so I demand you answer my question.”

The djinn tilted its head to one side, features flowing from one form to the next. “Can you be more specific?

“We need to know how to make Mars appear in the night sky, so that the king might see it,” Noor said.

Khanda-Barq flickered in and out of existence, so quickly that Sohail first thought he had imagined it. But then the djinn said, “I do not have the answer you seek. But I have just now looked around the seven terrestrial climes and eight celestial spheres, and I believe I know of one who might.

“Then tell us who!”

Khanda-Barq considered Noor before it began making a chuffing sound, which Sohail only belatedly recognized as laughter. It spoke a single name and, with a crash of thunder, vanished into the night: leaving behind only the burning dark and the smell of overcooked goat.

As you can imagine, my beloved friends, the donkeys had long since fled. It took Noor and Sohail hours to get back to Adinapur on foot. By the time they reached it, the gates had been shut: everyone in town was asleep, shrouded by the Creator’s covering night. The ragged pair took refuge under the dome of a saint’s tomb in the outlying district, waiting for dawn prayers to be called.

Khanda-Barq had pointed them in the right direction, but before they could proceed, Noor spotted a bathhouse and refused to go on until they paid a visit. Sohail washed himself first, waiting afterwards in the shaded courtyard, trying to focus on the task at hand.

When Noor emerged from the bathhouse, he was surprised to find them wearing a shawl around their head instead of their familiar turban, presenting themselves as a woman. “It will be easier like this, where we are going,” they explained.

Together, they set off into the old quarter as the town began coming to life. From the rooftops they could hear the cooing of pigeons and women chatting with their neighbors. The shopkeepers were opening their doors and perching atop the wooden platforms in front of them, setting out their choicest wares. The pair soon found their way to the Lane of Lamps: a watered and well-swept pathway set with long benches, pots of cold water dangling from a hanging trellis. They made their way to the end of the street, coming to a red-painted gate painted with wide warding eyes. Noor was the one to knock, saying, “Khaja Zohra, we seek an audience!”

The gate swung open at once. Four veiled figures took Noor and Sohail by the arms, yanking them inside with haste. The pair was hustled (none too gently) down a gloomy corridor, searched for blades, then taken up a side staircase and deposited without comment in a sitting room.

The stuccoed walls were etched with arabesques, lines of gold calligraphy flowing under the ceiling. Painted boughs branched across the ceiling itself, while the overlapping blue-and-gold rugs on the floor gave an impression of waters lapping at visitors’ feet. The morning’s brightness clung to the lattices, while the sweetness of musk hung thick in the air. Across from them sat an older woman veiled in red, who gestured for Noor and Sohail to sit with one heavily-bangled hand.

“Be welcome,” Khaja Zohra said, smiling.

The annalists of the ages have recorded many reports about Khaja Zohra, almost all of them contradictory. Some say the name is actually a title, held by whoever happens to be currently leading Adinapur’s khajas: that community of women who come to this world in male bodies and spend their days dancing to sacred rhythms at weddings, singing holy hymns into the ears of infants, and calling on the Almighty to perform extraordinary healings. Others contend that there is only one Khaja Zohra, whose miraculous powers are so great, she has conquered death itself. God alone knows what is hidden!

“You should know that we do not often allow unfamiliar men into this place,” Khaja Zohra said, looking at Sohail. “A few too many unfortunate incidents of late with upset fathers and brothers.”

There were indeed those in Adinapur who were unhappy to see their sons leave home. Sohail was familiar with such cases, some of which were brought before the king. He had never seen them treated with anything but dismissal, for the community had always been protected by royal decree. With the king in his present state, however, it was small wonder that Khaja Zohra was being cautious.

“We are not here on any such errand, Khaja Zohra,” Noor said. “We only seek knowledge that we have been told you know.”

“And what knowledge might that be?” Khaja Zohra said.

“A way to change the stars.”

“My dear, I am afraid that power lies with Almighty God alone.”

Noor frowned. “We were told otherwise.”

Khaja Zohra spread her hands. “We have always given help to the deserving, but I do not know what to say.”

“It cannot be,” Noor insisted, launching into the story of what the djinn had said.

Khaja Zohra was patient, but not infinitely so. It was clear that she was not convinced by Noor’s account. Sohail could sense her coming dismissal, to be voiced the moment Noor finished telling their tale. He cudgeled his brain for some way out of this predicament, something they had not thought to say. That was when he heard Noor repeating Khanda-Barq’s words, and suddenly interrupted.

“Forgive me for speaking out of turn,” he said, drawing surprised glances from both others. “But the djinn was very specific about what you might be able to do for us, Khaja Zohra. It sent us to you when we asked how we might make Mars appear in the night sky. Are you sure there is nothing to be done?”

Khaja Zohra gave Sohail an appraising look. “You are a servant of the court, is it not true?”

“It is true, Khaja Zohra.”

“Tell me,” she said slowly, “exactly what the chief astrologer foretold.”

“Mir Aftab said that the king will be destroyed if he marches before seeing the golden light of Mars with his own eye.”

When Khaja Zohra smiled, it was like the sun coming out after a storm. “Wait here.”

She rose and spoke to someone behind the room’s door in the flowing cant of the khajas. That person hurried off, rushing back some moments later. Khaja Zohra shut the door and turned back to the pair. In her palm was a tiny glass vial, a few drops of clear liquid inside.

“Perhaps you know, and perhaps you do not,” she said, “that some khajas wish to reshape their bodies to reflect their true selves. Since the beginnings of our community, we have helped fulfill such longings. Once, in ancient times, long ago, there was a wellspring in the mountains, not so far from here: the blessed waters of which might turn one’s dreams to reality. The spring was so wondrous, news of it spread across the seven climes, even to the far country of Greece. When the king of Greece, Alexander, heard of the wellspring, he was possessed of a mad desire to have it. He leapt from his throne and rushed east with his army without even putting on his sandals. He battled his way through the kings of Arabia and Persia and all through the land of the Turks, thinking only of possessing the spring. But our noble ancestors, the custodians of the spring, refused to allow its miraculous waters to be taken by conquest, sullied by some foreign invader. So we bottled what we could and collapsed the very mountainside as Alexander approached. When he found his goal buried under rubble, the Greek king went mad and wandered off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. But we khajas kept the blessed waters, and have been using them ever since, reshaping the world around us—and our own bodies—as we see fit.”

Noor’s eyes widened. “You mean to say…”

“We cannot change the heavens,” Khaja Zohra said. “That still lies beyond us, as I told you. But we do not need to. If your friend is correct, the prophecy only demands that the king see the golden light of Mars with his own eye. And that, my dears, has nothing to do with the firmament.”

In the summer of what came to be known as the Year of Rebellious Stars, one morning, as the banner of dawn was unfurled and daylight marched out from the gloomy dark, the king of Adinapur set out for Baghdad with his hosts like the blessing of the south wind. He met the impudent rebel Mehtar Bahram not three leagues from Baghdad, where the upstart’s armies were utterly consumed by the billowing dust of the good king’s horsemen. Mehtar Bahram himself was borne off to Hell by the swift steed of the king’s sword. The king then rode into the City of Peace, receiving a fine robe of honor off the Commander of the Faithful’s own back. The Caliphate was made safe.

The pearl-diving historians who plunge into the oceans of time generally do not connect that victory with an event that took place in its shadow. It seems, a few days before the king of Adinapur rode off to battle, that the daughter of a great physician—one Noor al-Nahar Sajawandiya—came to court promising a cure for His Majesty’s insomnia. The name of Noor al-Nahar’s father carried great weight, so she was permitted to administer her remedy, which included two drops of water to the king’s eyes. Noor al-Nahar promised that within the week, the Sovereign of the Time would recover, if he but swore to take in the night air from atop the roofs of his palace.

It was on one of those nighttime sojourns, staring up at the firmament, that the king of Adinapur glimpsed something: the golden light of Mars, gleaming bright in the star-bejeweled sky.

Mir Aftab and his astrologers were cast into bewilderment, insisting that Mars was nowhere to be seen. Not one other person could confirm the king’s sighting. Far from causing the king to doubt, it only strengthened his belief: Almighty God had sent him a personal sign to indicate the straight path. He was, after all, a great king. All the poets and historians at court said so. One did not remain a great king by doubting oneself.

Never in his life did the king consider that his eye might have been fundamentally changed by ensorcelled waters from a long-lost spring, so that it would perceive, whenever he looked up into the night, the light of Mars.

So the enemy was utterly annihilated, the Caliphate was once more at peace, the hearts of Adinapur’s people were calmed, and the historians moved on to new affairs, as historians are wont to do. Today, they return to the events of that dire year only to bicker about the name. Most say that the “Rebellious Stars” refer to Mercury’s sudden shift that heralded Mehtar Bahram’s revolt. A minority disagrees, saying that the name signals the sudden appearance of Mars, defying the judgment of the other stars.

But, dear friends, you know the truth of it. Leave the historians bending over their musty papers, scavenging for answers among the records of kings. Let the poets chirp themselves senseless as their wealthy patrons’ dinars pile up on their hearts. They can look to the great all they want.

They will not see, as we do, that on the day when news of the king’s victory reached Adinapur, a minor functionary at court politely excused himself from the chancellery and made his way to the Street of the Dome. They will not see how, that evening, he was found sitting in the barber shop-turned-teahouse of Najmoddin and Asman, quietly drinking in celebration. They will not see how the young scholar-apothecary sitting beside him was trying to hide their smile.

They will not see, dear friends—but you can.

Tanvir Ahmed is a scholar of religion who, as a result of working regularly with medieval Islamic manuscripts, spends too much time wondering how to transfer the old warding talismans against paper-eating djinns onto his digital documents. His short fiction has also appeared in Strange Horizons and The Deadlands. His debut novella, tentatively titled The Night Sweeps the Mountains Away, is set to be published with Dancing Star Press. You can find him on Twitter @tnvyrahmd.

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