#fridayflash: the welcome

One morning, when he had about eight years, the people he had always called Papa and Mama told him he had been found on their doorstep one morning, and now they could no longer afford to keep him. 

Even at the time he wasn't really surprised. He'd figured out long before that they were afraid of him.

He walked out into the dusty streets that day, eyes squinting against the glare of the white buildings, and picked his way past the merchants and beggars with purpose, but no particular hurry.

There were close calls and misadventures, brushes with police and perverts, but somehow he came out of it all more or less intact. By nineteen years (give or take) he had a more or less safe, regular routine.

He'd wake up just before dawn in whatever room he was renting that month. He'd steal some bread or fruit from the landlady for breakfast, slip out into the alleyway, and transform in the nearest shadow.

His animal form was a fox terrier, and the gods must have smiled when they granted it to him, because it was a perfect disguise. He was too small to be turned into food by a beggar, too non-threatening for the merchants to complain about him.

He would make his tour of the market, figuring out where the caliph's guards were patrolling that day. Then he would find another dark alleyway as far away from the guards as possible, return to human form, and choose an empty market-space in which to perform.

The performance itself was all sleight of hand — coin tricks, card tricks, making a walnut borrowed from a merchant vanish, or making the lentils from another merchant pour out of a child's ear. The merchants loved him because he drew a crowd, and the crowds loved him because they liked their entertainment to be clever.

Clever was what the performance was. He always restricted himself to sleight of hand, with no true magic used at all. The audience preferred to be impressed by his technique than astonished by the supernatural, and his early experiences had taught him it was not worth frightening people by showing them something they could not explain. His home city was on a high plateau, a place where "rain" was understood as a word, but never actually seen. Its citizens derived plenty of amazement from the mundane.

If the caliph's guards or the regular police spotted him, he would stop the show immediately and run to one of the many bolt-holes he had established around the city. As soon as he knew he was safe from any curious eyes, he would vanish that day's collection of coins and transform himself into his terrier form. Even if the police did find his hiding-place, they could find no proof of his earnings... or him.

Back in his rented rooms he would hone his secret talents, push himself to new mastery. There didn't seem to be much practical use for these skills beyond avoiding law enforcement, but he pursued them out of academic curiosity. Since, apparently, he was the only one in the world capable of these miracles, it seemed important that he know their extent and measure.

From time to time, for a fixed fee, he would perform at parties for the wealthier classes, never when the caliph was present, of course. His rich patrons would celebrate a matriarch's birthday or the arrival of the spice caravan, and he would make figs appear to pop out of gentlemen's coin-pouches. While he was delighting the guests, he would secretly revel in the lushness of the carefully irrigated gardens. Once he even performed next to a fountain, and clowned around a bit in the spray, much to the guests' enjoyment. It was the first time his entire body had been drenched in water.

The caliph enacted stricter laws against "mobs" and "sorcery". His performances at the market were interrupted more often; his private engagements at the homes of the wealthy more secretive. One time he was hired to perform at a wedding, only to have the police raid the house just before he was about to start. The hosts were devastated that their daughter's wedding had been ruined, and he wisely decided not to demand his fee.

After that the number of invitations to perform at private functions dropped sharply.

He was sitting at a café, nursing a mint tea in the sun-scorched morning, when a voice asked if he would mind company. He looked up to find the voice belonged to a woman whose long hair was a natural red untouched by henna — an impossible rarity in his part of the world. He decided she must be a foreigner, yet she spoke without the slightest trace of an accent.

She asked if he was the street conjurer she'd seen in the market, and although he thought that surely he would remember such a beautiful and unusual creature if she'd actually been present in any of the crowds, he said yes, and yes again when she asked if he performed at private events.

She smiled and said it was her birthday a week hence, and was he free to entertain her guests at the party?

He certainly was.

The afternoon of the appointed day, she met him in the main square, flanked by two men he took to be bodyguards. They led him down the narrow, dusty streets, through so many twists and turns even he lost track of where they were.

It worried him. The streets had been his home since he was a child, and he had the same unease a house-owner would have at finding a secret room.

At last they came to a heavy wooden door, which one of the bodyguards opened. The woman went in first, and smiled for him to follow her. He stepped into a small entrance-hall, followed by the guards.

There was a flash and a lurch, and he was shocked to discover himself standing in an orchard. It was colder than any day he could remember, and when he looked up he saw the sky was a softly marbled grey, and not the relentless blue he had always known.

And there was spray falling on him, just lightly, but he could see no fountain.

"You've led the caliph's men on a merry chase for years," said the woman. "It is strictly forbidden for a wizard to live in a non-magical city. Whatever made you decide to move there?"

"I was born there," he said. "At least I think I was."

The woman frowned. "You think... you don't know?"

"No," he said.

"Odd," said the woman. "Well, within our laws you're free to live here. I'm sure we'll find honest work you'll like."

He barely heard her. "Where is that coming from?" he said, trying to indicate the droplets with his hand.

"Where's what coming from?" said the woman. "I just see the rain."

He turned his face to the sky. "Magical."