Aisha forced a smile. “What might that be?” she asked, the tone of her voice bordering on patronizing.
“All that time Ben and I were staying in The Oasis, how come you never made us aware of your presence? We had no idea that this place was inhabited by jinn—we thought it was just home to Jeramiah and his coven. Nobody would tell us why we’d been branded with these tattoos and who’d put them on us.”
“Ah,” Aisha said. “Well, half-blood, we deliberately keep ourselves hidden from new members… It can be quite overwhelming for them at first. Initially we tend to let them get used to their new life here and we try to make sure their stay is as comfortable as possible… then once we feel they’re ready to be introduced to us—perhaps after a few weeks, sometimes a month or two, depending on the person—they are brought down to visit my aunt, Queen Nuri.”
“So that’s why you keep the entrance to your atrium well hidden?” River asked. “So new members don’t come across it easily?”
“Precisely,” Aisha said. “That—and also if there was ever a raid on this place, we would be the last to be found, and the last to be disturbed.”
That last snippet of information caught my attention. “How could this place ever be raided?” I asked. “Isn’t it under your protection?”
“Yes, of course,” Aisha said quickly—a little too quickly. To my surprise, she looked a little flustered suddenly. “I just mean if a vampire happened to be careless and let a hunter capture and gain entrance with him, for example.”
I eyed her curiously, not buying that explanation. The question played on my mind. What being could ever be powerful enough to break in and raid a place protected by an ancient family of jinn?
Aisha changed the subject. “It’s about time for lunch. Why don’t you join us? Queen Nuri will be there, and you’ll get to meet the rest of my family too.”
Lunch. The last thing I felt like doing was sitting down for lunch, but if this was going to be a family lunch with all the jinn present, perhaps River and I would glean some useful information. Besides, River might be hungry.
“Do you want to?” I asked her.
River paused, looking from Aisha to me. “Um… Okay,” she replied.
Aisha looked relieved and forced another wide smile. “Splendid. Unfortunately, Ben only drinks human blood, but you, River, will adore the food. I promise you that it’ll be quite unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before…”
“What do you jinn eat exactly?” River asked, looking rather unsettled.
“Oh, basically the same as humans… But my older sister, who loves to cook and usually plays chef of this place, really has a way with spices.”
“Okay,” River said, still appearing uncertain. “Thanks.”
The jinni led us away from the gardens and toward the kitchen. As we drew near, I thought we were going to enter it, but instead, we passed right by it and she stopped us outside the next door along.
Aisha twisted the door handle and stepped inside. We followed after her, arriving in a grand circular dining hall. Right in the center was a long banquet table. It was immaculately set with golden plates and silver cutlery, and tall vases of irises decorated the center of the table.
Aisha gestured toward the chairs. “Well, take a seat wherever you want,” she said. “Just don’t sit at the head of the table. That spot is reserved for my aunt. We’re a little early, but everyone else will be arriving soon. I’m going to see my sister in the kitchen. Wait here.”
She vanished, leaving behind a veil of mist. River and I looked at each other, then back at the table. I pulled up a seat somewhere along the middle of it for River to sit down, and then took a seat next to her myself. River’s eyes were wide and nervous as she took in the beauty of the room. I reached for her hand and planted a kiss on the back of it. Then we waited for the jinn to arrive.
We weren’t waiting long. After perhaps five minutes, Aisha reappeared with another female jinni and a trolley loaded with steaming pots, jugs, and serving spoons.
“This is Safi, my sister,” Aisha said. “Safi, this is Benjamin Novak and his half-blood.”
I couldn’t miss the way she didn’t bother introducing River properly. I eyed Safi and was surprised by how much older she looked compared to Aisha.
Safi appeared quite uninterested in us. She glanced our way briefly before proceeding to place jugs of deep purple liquid on the table.
The door to the room creaked. I looked round to see more jinn had just entered the room. A lot more jinn. There must have been at least fifty of them. Nuriya and her lover Bahir were the only ones that I recognized, but most of them had similar features to Nuriya—except a handful with lighter hair, who apparently were members of the Nasiri family by marriage rather than blood. The jinn glanced at River and me already seated at the table, before making their way to their own chairs. I groaned internally as Aisha rushed to occupy the other seat next to me before someone else could take it.
Observing these strange creatures closely, I was surprised to see them sitting as if they had a backside. They looked perfectly normal while seated.
Nuriya gave River and me a warm smile.
“Good afternoon,” she purred. She sat down at the head of the table.
I couldn’t bring myself to smile back. The expression I returned looked like more of a grimace.
Once everyone was seated, Safi began making her way around the table with her trolley, delicately doling out portions of food onto each of the plates. She worked with surprising speed, and soon she had reached River. She began planting various preparations on River’s plate—most of which I couldn’t put a name to. There was a portion of steaming white rice, some kind of exotic-looking salad and a type of flatbread, but there was nothing else on her plate that I could recognize by either sight or smell.