Read Worldsoul Online

Authors: Liz Williams

Tags: #fantasy

Worldsoul (10 page)

They knew that Mercy was descended from the Wolfhead clans, via Greya Fane. That didn’t mean very much: half or quarterbreeds didn’t usually exhibit the Wolf Clans’ particular brand of magic. As Deed knew well, that magic was heavily dependent on place, on the ice fields and pine forests of the north: wild magic, drawing on earth and sky and all the winds that blew.

So. Greya Fane. But what about the other mother, the woman called Sho? She would, Deed knew, have contributed to Mercy’s heritage—a magical binding, a connection, was usual in such partnerships, even though Mercy would have had a biological father as well and he would need to be taken into consideration. If they could ever find out who he had been . . . Sho herself was, apparently, missing. Looking at the partial family tree, Deed worked out that she had come from the Eastern Quarter, and that gave Mercy links with Eastern magic, too. An interesting combination and one that could prove powerful. Mercy would have skills in a number of areas, otherwise the Library would not be employing her.

“So,” Deed said, aloud. He looked up from the parchments, into a sudden shaft of sunlight. “Time to ask some questions.”

He did not enter the Northern Quarter by the usual route, the North Road that led up from the Heart of the World. Instead, he chose to slip into the Quarter at night, through the Ancestral Gate itself. He was entitled, and its magic would not snare him, but even so, Deed felt a faint prickle of what in a human might have been called fright as he stepped beneath its huge stone-and-iron portal. The ground beneath the Gate was red. This was not, Deed knew, symbolic.

In this district, the buildings of the Northern Quarter were massive, resembling forts, and the castellated pinnacles of the castles of the old Northern lords fragmented the skyline. It was cold, too: snow crunched beneath Deed’s boots as he made his way through the quiet, dark street. He was heading for Bleikrgard, the Pale Castle: not a trip he cared to make, because the northern lords were fractious and twitchy, disliking his kind. Insularity, Deed thought, had long been a problem, and would doubtless continue to be so long after he was gone. But when they had heard what he had to tell them . . . Loki’s plan still itched inside his subconscious, like a burr inside a shirt.

A silvery thread of sound broke the silence: sleigh bells. Deed stepped back into the shadows and waited. The sleigh came around the corner of the street, travelling swiftly. It was drawn by two white deer, with bells woven into their ruffed manes. A woman sat inside it, wielding a whip. Deed, in sudden alarm, took care to wrap invisibility about himself, drawing it up from the snow and the cold air, freezing the world around him, but the sleigh came to a halt nonetheless.

“It’s no use doing that,” the woman called. “You’re perfectly visible.”

Deed sighed. “My apologies.” He spread his hands in deprecation. “I’m used to the West.”

“The West,” the woman said, in contempt.

“I am not a Westerner myself.” Deed, caught off guard, was annoyed to find himself sounding defensive.

“I can tell,” the woman said. “You are disir.”

Deed froze, and not because of the cold. “How did you—?”

“Ah.” The woman laughed. She looked over the side of the sleigh and Deed saw her face for the first time. She was beautiful, but not young. White hair was piled high in a chignon, secured with silver icicles. Her eyes glittered silver in the lamplight.

“What are you?” Deed whispered.

“My name is Mareritt.”

It meant “nightmare.” That placed her as something out of story, and not quite of the world. Silently, Deed cursed. Trust his luck to be badgered by some stray tale.

“You see,” Mareritt said, smiling thinly, “Your kind and I have had a long and profitable history.” He felt her reach out through his own defences, take his name out of his head like someone plucking fruit from a tree. “Where are you going, Jonathan Deed?”

He did not want to tell her, but again, she stole it easily from his mind and laughed at his discomfort. “You can’t have too many secrets from me, Mr Deed. I am inside everyone’s head sooner or later.”

Deed swallowed. Used to being the one in control, he was finding it hard to know how to proceed. He gave silent, fleeting thanks to Loki then, for burying the plan so deep that no one could find it. Then the woman said, “I can give you a lift, if you like?”

Deed opened his mouth to say that he would prefer to walk, but instead he found himself stepping onto the lip of the sleigh and sitting uncomfortably beside her. She was dressed in rags and tatters beneath her cloak, which he could now see was made of feathers, white and black. Swans and crows . . .  but he could not quite place her. She seemed to embody elements of different tales, a ragbag of stories. He glanced behind him into the body of the sleigh, behind the driving seat, and froze.

The sleigh was filled with severed heads, perhaps a dozen. All of them were male, and their necks and brows were bound with metal bands, bronze and silver and lead, brass and the soft gleam of gold. Each band was covered with runic signs and Deed felt the tug and pull of magic. Their eyes were closed but they mumbled and muttered to themselves in sleep. The pallid lips of the closest head, bound in tin, smacked with a wet sucking noise. Deed, accustomed to gruesome sights, found himself unable to tear his gaze away.

“These are my kings,” Mareritt said, and laughed. “Do you like them?”

“I—” With difficulty, he wrenched his eyes back to her face. She smiled at him and he saw she had teeth as sharp as his own.

Mareritt cracked her whip and the deer sprang forward in a flurry of snow. Bleikrgard rose up ahead.

• Fourteen •

Shadow should have been suspicious of the woman from the Library, and indeed, retained a certain level of paranoia out of habit. However, when she consulted her intuition, it told her that Mercy was sound, and the presence of the
ka,
Perra, was further testament to this.
Ka
spirits did not take well to evil, sent from the gods as they were. As ancestral guides, they were evidence of a degree of divine faith. Besides, she thought that Mercy would have concocted a less bald narrative, had she been lying.

She checked anyway, leaving Mercy alone in the lab. The Librarian on duty said placidly that Mercy Fane was currently on sick leave, but would be back soon.

Therefore, Shadow had little reservation about taking Mercy to meet Mariam Shenudah. The latter would, she felt, have her own opinions on what had transpired, and if she did not trust Mercy, she would have little hesitation in saying so. And doing something about it.

They had sealed the severed hand in its box. Shadow had no intention of letting it out of the laboratory, but she had taken pictures. Interesting to see what Shenudah would make of it.

They reached Mariam’s apartment close to twilight. Mercy would not, she had told Shadow, be obliged to return to work immediately: she could call in sick, and muttered something about preferring her to do so—something about an inspection. Shadow had not offered to put her up overnight, but had asked Sephardi to find her a room in a nearby guest house. The Librarian had not seemed to take affront at this.

Shenudah lived at the summit of an apartment block, one of the many that had gone up around the Medina in recent years. It was rickety, covered in bamboo scaffolding and tangles of plants where enterprising dwellers had made the most of their balconies, given the lack of a garden. Mercy followed her up flights of winding stairs.

“She says it keeps her fit,” Shadow said over her shoulder.

“I’m not surprised.”

The building creaked and groaned like a ship in a high wind. Shadow was almost relieved when they reached the final flight and an ancient door, incongruous in the modern setting of the apartment block. Shadow knocked, once. “Mariam? It’s me.”

A pause, then the door opened and a small face looked out. Shenudah, like her door, was elderly, but as usual she was dressed with the utmost smartness: a neat black suit with a rose and lily corsage, sheer stockings, high-heeled shoes.

“Good evening!” The voice was brisk and educated.

“Mariam, I’ve brought a visitor. From the Library.”

Shadow was conscious of a piercing stare over her shoulder, then the old woman said, “You look like someone I used to know, once.”

“Who was that, Mrs—er,”

“It’s Dr Shenudah. But you may call me Mariam. Come in.”

On her first visit here, Shadow had expected a motley, shambolic apartment filled with books, but Mariam Shenudah’s home was tidy and controlled. All four walls were covered in bookcases, but these were neatly filed and the books were in alphabetical order, in a range of languages from Arabic to Mandarin. A polished wooden table stood in the centre of the room, bearing a vase filled with roses and the curving statue of an ibis. Shadow looked with pleasure at the familiar deep, rich colours: gold and dun and deep red, rose pink and ivory, the colours of a desert at twilight.

“Sit, please,” Mariam Shenudah said. “I will bring tea.”

“I hadn’t forgotten that the Eastern Quarter runs on tea,” Mercy said, with a smile.

“The West, too,” Shadow murmured.

“Or booze. But I don’t suppose you drink alcohol, do you?”

“No. I am observant. But I don’t object to others doing as they see fit. We all have different paths, after all.”

Once Mariam had brought the round silver tray of tea glasses, she once more looked at Mercy. “Allow me to guess. Your mother is called Greya Fane. She had a partner called Sho.”

“You knew them?”

“Yes, well. Perhaps forty years ago, now. A long time. How old are you, Mercy?”

“I’m twenty-eight.”

“I knew Greya in the north, when she lived in Aachven. She was a child of the Wolf Clans, as doubtless you know.”

“Yes. They’re my family, but I’ve never met them. Sho and Greya . . . kept themselves to themselves. I’ve never been sure what had gone wrong.” She paused. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know who my father was. Greya chose him because she and Sho wanted to have a child, but I don’t know anything about him.”

How odd Westerners could be, Shadow thought. But that wasn’t quite fair: Sho had come from this quarter, evidently.

Mariam said, “Greya was always—reckless. She took risks—magical ones. She associated with people whom a wiser, older woman would not have gone near, but Greya was young, and I’m afraid she was easily beguiled by glamour. I’m sure you are more sensible, Mercy.”

“I always thought of her as cautious,” Mercy said. “Annoyingly so, actually. But then she bolted into the blue on the
Barquess,
so . . . ”

“Maybe she’d learned from experience, at least until the Skein departed. But when I knew her, she courted risks like another woman might court lovers. There was a forest lodge, a cult dating back to ancient times. Blood magic and sigil magic. Greya became involved. I am telling you this not because of any interest in your family history, but because it relates to your current situation. Sephardi has spoken to me, about the thing you have both seen. I know what that thing is.”

“What is it?” Mercy and Shadow both spoke at the same time.

“Disir.”

Shadow saw that Mercy was frowning. “I know that word. I’ve heard it before, but I don’t know what it means. Is that thing a ‘disir,’ then? What are they?”

“They are the children of Loki, the lord of misrule and more than misrule. Their story says that they were born out of the drops of poison and blood that the god shed when he was chained, springing from the earth and the ice. Their name means ‘the ladies’ and they are essentially ancestral spirits, but some stories are not meant to last. They have curdled and turned foul, like sour milk.”

“And now one of them has escaped from an ancient text.”

“They have bred with men although the Wolf Clans would not touch them, and there are rumours that their descendents are active in Worldsoul. They reap chaos, they are dukes of blood.”

“We need a magic to stop it,” Shadow said. “We can’t have it running around attacking people. There are practical considerations here, regardless of its history.”

“I understand,” Mariam said placidly. She took a sip of tea. “There is a spell to bind them, but it is not easy. It’s blood magic, as I have said, and requires a commitment.”

Involuntarily, Shadow and Mercy glanced at one another. “Whose blood?” Mercy said.

“That would be yours. You released it, Shadow injured it. You both have a connection to it and thus, it is your blood which must be given, but given freely.”

“As long as it’s only a drop,” Mercy said, after a long pause. She did not seem keen; Shadow could not blame her. There was something in her expression which Shadow could not interpret.

“The same for me,” Shadow said.

“Then I will show you the spell,” Mariam told them.

Mercy and Shadow stood side by side that midnight, in the middle of Shadow’s laboratory. Shadow had put the veil aside. Out of respect, Mercy had glanced at her face only once, even though she had seen it before. The alchemist had the fierce profile of a falcon, a curving nose, high-angled cheeks.

She had asked the
ka,
privately, if the alchemist could be trusted. Perra had said that in its opinion, the answer was yes, but Mercy was still unhappy about the blood ritual. Maybe it wasn’t just Greya who was a risk-taker . . .  the thought that she might be treading in her mother’s footsteps was a dismaying one.

The
ka
stood watch as Shadow once again inscribed a circle in fire and placed a silver bowl filled with water and roses before them. They spoke the spell together, Mercy trying not to stumble over the unfamiliar words, and then Shadow took the sun-and-moon blade and nicked first her own palm, then Mercy’s. The drops of blood fell, mingled, into the bowl and the roses went up in a hiss of flame.

“ . . . and I abjure you now, in the name of Solomon the King and the Book of Solomon which holds all the names of God . . . ”

Shadow’s voice, quiet and firm, spoke through the sudden roar of fire. This was the old magic of Asia Minor, winding its way through Europe in the Renaissance and perhaps before, a magic of fire and bare rock and burning sky. Here, on the rim of the Great Desert, it seemed appropriate, Shadow’s voice whispering out of the ages and conjuring ancient names. Mercy looked down into the bowl and saw that the roses were gone; the bowl was bubbling with blood. Her sigilometer was ticking like a metronome, registering magic. Across the room, in the triangle, the writhing mottled form was once again appearing, but this time it was solid.

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