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A lesser man would have sent a servant to investigate, but Philemon was the Prince of Tasnim, and he would confront this threat head on.
He rubbed the ring, summoning the djinn guardian. Just because he wasn't a coward, didn't mean he was stupid.
The entry hall was full of dust, turning the people running through it into ghosts and shadows. But ghosts and shadows bent under the weight of whatever it was they carried. Philemon's blood ran cold.
"They can't leave! Don't let them take my treasures!" he shouted.
"As you command, Master," the djinn said, bowing, before disappearing into the gloom.
"Wait. You have to close the door!" Philemon called, but the djinn evidently hadn't heard him, for he didn't return.
"I would only open it again. You can't keep these people here to die," a female voice said. The enchantress.
She strode out of the dust, haloed against the open doorway like some sort of avenging angel. Philemon shrank away from the fury written across her face.
"You don't deserve this city, or my help, or any magical assistance at all. You demanded my assistance, then lied to me, blaming the dried-up wells on everything but your own stupidity. The djinn of the lamp told me everything. You commanded the djinn of the lamp to destroy your own water supply, not some imaginary enemy. Even after I sent him back into exile, you dared to refuse payment for my services. To evict me from your city. It is your city no longer. Your people flee, for the source of its wealth – the water – is gone, and they cannot live here any more. You deserve this."
Philemon couldn't help himself. "The djinn tricked me! He didn't tell me making that oasis would drain the city wells dry. My princess will never marry me if I am the prince of a city of no people. Make him fix it. Or use your powers to fix it!"
Lady Zuleika shook her head. "I do not take orders from you, Prince of Tasnim. Or should that be prince of a dead, dry cave?"
"Fix it!" he shouted. "You said you would help me!"
"I did help you. And I will do you one further favour. The only way for you to understand what has happened to your city's water supply is to inspect it personally, and you shall!" Purple light erupted from her hands, knocking him back against the wall of the well. But the magic kept pushing at him, leaning him back, until…
Philemon screamed as he fell backward into the well, arms flailing for something to stop him from falling to his death, but the well somehow gaped impossibly wide, and he could not grasp anything.
The fall should have killed him, but it just knocked the wind out of him, so all he could do was lie there on his back in a shallow puddle, listening to the sounds of his people deserting him.
A head appeared above. Hers, of course. "Fix your own plumbing problem. But even then, no woman in her right mind will want a toad like you, prince or not. If you ever find some princess who will take pity on you, take you to her bed and willingly lie in your slimy arms until dawn, maybe I'll find it in my heart to make you human again. For her sake."
And then she was gone.
Philemon reached for his ring of office, to summon the door guardian to lift him out of the well. But his fingers were bare – the ring had somehow fallen off.He screamed in frustration, a sound that should have echoed around the underground chamber, striking fear in every heart. But the only sound he heard was a forlorn croak.
* * *
Philemon feverishly searched every inch of the cavern twice over, and still he did not find the ring. He shouted until he was hoarse, but only ominous silence greeted him from above. He feared the city was empty but for him. And the water beneath it was draining away. Even now, the pool that had broken his fall had dried to a couple of shallow puddles.
No matter how high he leaped, he could not catch the lip of any of the wells, which taunted him from above.
But he would not die down here. He was a prince, by all that was holy.
If he could not return to the city, then he would find another way. The water here had travelled some sort of path between the city and the oasis, and where water went, so could he.
He'd follow the water to the oasis and make his way back to the city across the desert.
He set off along the tunnels, following the sound of flowing water in the darkness. If he faltered, he only had to remind himself that he was not destined for an ignominious end, all alone in the tunnels beneath his city. As long as he lived, so did Tasnim. Step after tentative step, he would reach the oasis.
Hours passed, or perhaps it was days. The darkness was as timeless as the desert above, but it would not defeat him.
When he finally did stop, it was because water barred his way. Not the puddles and shallow stream he'd splashed through, but a pool so deep he could not see the bottom. Yet the water glowed as if lit by some magical underground sun.
No, not an underground one, he realised. One that burned down from the sky above. He'd found the oasis, but he would have to swim to reach it.
So be it.
The water was cool against his skin, a sweet caress urging him on. He swam for longer than he expected, but not so long that he felt the burn in his lungs from holding his breath too long. When he surfaced into brilliant sunlight, he let out a shout of triumph. No witch would be the end of him!
Was it his imagination, or did the oasis appear bigger than before? Philemon wasn't sure, but the swim seemed to take as long as his walk through the tunnels. But determination drove him, now more than ever before, and he reached the shore.
Desert sand compressed underfoot, gritty and crumbling between his toes. Huh. He must have lost his shoes somewhere in the dark and not noticed until now. Philemon glanced down, but he couldn't see his toes through the dislodged dust swirling through the water. He stepped out.
Pain burned the soles of his feet, like the fires of hell itself. He bit back a scream and hurled himself back into the water. Slowly, the fire in his feet extinguished in the lapping waters of the oasis.
He would bind his feet with scraps of cloth torn from his robes, the way beggars did, Philemon told himself. Beggars in other cities, for there were none in Tasnim.
He reached for the hem of his robe, but he clutched only air. Now he looked down again, really looked, and this time he couldn't tear his eyes away. No amount of water could hide the green tint to his skin, or the peculiar shape of his feet.
Philemon held his hands up to his face, praying that they would be normal, but his prayers were not answered. His green hands had only four fingers each.
A toad, the witch had called him, not a prince.
She'd turned him into one.
Would you like to read more?
A desert princess. A cursed prince. Can a kiss break the spell?
Once upon a time…
When Anahita picks up a pet frog on her way to marry a distant sheikh, she laughs at his claim to be a prince under a curse that can only be broken by a kiss.
Until he transforms into a man in her tent.
With one man in her bed as she’s preparing to marry another, what’s a desert princess to do?
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