Read Worldsoul Online

Authors: Liz Williams

Tags: #fantasy

Worldsoul (3 page)

And certainly not: magician.

What did Suleiman
want
? The summons, sent by dove the day before, made Shadow uneasy; it was not like the Shah to have much to do with her profession. He had his own necromancers and thaumaturges, and Shadow doubted she could offer anything they could not. But it was intriguing, all the same, that the Shah would consider hiring a woman. If hiring was what he had in mind.

She would soon find out. Turning the corner of a row of stalls, she saw the Has rising up before her, hidden in the Medina’s heart. The market had grown up around it, concealing it in onion layers, but the Has had come first, hewn out of the rock two thousand years before. Its doors were as old-oak so pale and hard that it looked more like carved stone, taken from forests that had long since passed out of existence, and decorated with an intricate repetition of calligraphic patterns in a language older than Arabic. She’d heard that every panel was a spell. Perhaps so. She could not deny that she was eager to see inside the Has, after moving around it for so many years. There were numerous stories . . .

Time to find out. Shadow raised a hand and knocked, once, then diffused the veil to thinness.

“Salaam aleikum,” she said, when, after a moment, the doors opened.

“Salaam. You are the alchemist?” A woman, very old, her face unveiled but shaded by a black headscarf, her skin so lined that she might have been the same age as the doors. But she opened them easily, and they looked heavy.

“Yes. I was told to come at noon.”

“Good, and here you are, a little early. Well, come in.”

Shadow had expected something different from the Has’ personnel. Male, she’d thought, and disdainful. Somehow, she’d expected resistance. But this old lady was perfectly courteous and it was hard not to respond to that.

“Rakhmet,” Shadow said and passed within.

Inside, a cool, dark hall led into sunlight, surprising in the centre of the Medina. Shadow blinked. She could see a tree, starred with lemons. The plash of a fountain echoed through the hallway like a cascade of arpeggios from a lyre.

“Follow me, please,” the old lady said. Shadow did as she was bid, walking down the panelled hall and into the courtyard. Here, like parts of the Medina, all was blue and gold. The courtyard was tiled, and this must be more recent than the Has itself, for passages from the Koran flowed across the walls, the calligraphy bright liquid gold against the blue. Shadow looked up into the midday sky, colours reflecting those of the courtyard so that the two seemed to spill into one another.

“This is—pleasant.”

The old woman clapped her hands. A girl appeared, clad head to foot in drifting green. She carried a tray, on which rested two tea glasses, also green with golden filigree, and a pot of tea. The astringent sweetness of mint filled the courtyard. Setting the tray in front of Shadow, the old woman disappeared. A cloud passed across the sun, Shadow blinked again. When she opened her eyes the Shah of Has El Zindeh stood before her, subtly attired in a grey robe.

“The Alchemist Shadow.” Suleiman gave a bow, which Shadow returned, more deeply.

“My Shah. Thank you for the tea.”

Suleiman smiled. “Ah, you’re most welcome. I thought—a noon meeting, where everything can be clearly seen. I hoped you would appreciate the symbolism. But it
is
hot.”

In that case, Shadow wondered, why not keep to the cool of indoors? She suspected that despite this earnest avowal of a love of clarity, there were things inside that Suleiman might not want her to see. She took a sip of tea, in response to his waved invitation.

“Enjoy,” the Shah said.

One of the many advantages of a veil, under normal circumstances, was that it enabled one to see and not be seen. But Shadow was not confident that Suleiman could not glimpse behind her veil and she did not dare insult him by thickening it further. She studied him anyway, covert and careful. Impossible to tell where he was from, how old he might be. He had an accent, but it shifted, and she could not place it. A placid face; thin, a great many angles, and sad green eyes like old jade. His skin was neither dark nor pale, one of the thousand shades of sand. He carried sorrow with him, a weight of pain, and again, she did not know why. There were stories, but there were always those.

“You will wonder why I’ve asked you here.”

“I do,” Shadow acquiesced.

“You are an alchemist.”

“That is so.”

“You deal with transformation, so I am told?”

“It is the essence of alchemy,” Shadow said, polite.

“Can you transform the living?”

She could not resist the temptation. “Into what? The dead?” That was easy enough, as he should know.

Suleiman smiled. “That’s a difficult issue, here in our city of Worldsoul. What’s dead doesn’t always stay that way.”

“And equally, when you say ‘living,’ what exactly do you mean?”

“Ah,” Suleiman said. “You see, that’s partly the problem. I think I will let you finish your tea.”

She did so, wondering. The fountain gave a sudden gurgle and rush, sending water drops pattering out across the tiles. Somewhere, high in the eaves of the Has, a bird began to sing. Shadow looked up.

“A nightingale?”

“They’re all around here. Even at noon. Allow me to take your glass. Thank you.” The Shah stood in a sweep of grey. “Come with me.”

His gentleness was deceptive; she was almost lulled. As she followed him across the courtyard, he raised a hand and plucked a handful of sunlight from the air. It dripped down his wrist, honey-thick. Shadow forbore from asking what he was doing. Keeping close behind, she passed from light into shade, the veil gathering a little strength from sudden gloom.

“It’s down here,” the Shah said, over his shoulder. The captured sunlight lit their way.

Curious, she let him lead her along a colonnade and through a door. A flight of stairs led up. At least, Shadow reflected, she was not being taken to the dungeons.

But in this, she was wrong.

• Interlude •

In an iron fortress on the shores of a sea of fire, the Duke was waiting for her audience. It was beneath her to seem nervous, especially in front of the servants. Once, she had commanded twenty-six legions: it would not do to show anxiousness before a maid, and so she stood at the window with her back turned and concentrated on the view. This was, she thought, glorious. It was almost worth being summoned up here in order to see it again. The window was open and she could smell hot metal, the dusty ash of the shore, the eternal burn of the tide. Far away, against a sky the colour of geraniums, she thought she could see a crescent moon, as tiny as a human fingernail.

The Duke rested her taloned hands on the windowsill and basked in the heat. Today, she wore armour of sombre dark crimson and for jewellery, only her carnelian sigil ring. It would not do to be perceived as trying to outshine her mistress and the Duke had every intention of playing it safe. Things were going well. She had a number of amusing little projects going on in the Liminality: work on Earth might have dried up in the last four hundred years but other places were still going strong. There were a number of minor flirtations, including one unexpected one. This was good because really, after a couple of thousand years or so, you’d pretty much worked your way through everyone worth knowing. It was so difficult to meet anyone
new.

“Your Grace?”

She turned. The servant was small and had curling horns, gilded with metal lace; she was dressed in a neat black and white gown. She bobbed a curtsey. “The Prince is ready to see you now.”

“Very well,” the Duke said. She strode through the iron doors at the end of the entrance hall, and bowed. “Madam.”

“Ah. I did hope you’d have the sense to come in
that
aspect.”

“I know you prefer it.” The Duke looked up. In one of the metal panels that lined the audience chamber, her other aspect was dimly visible, hovering about her like a shroud. She dispelled it. Beside her, one of the astrolabes creaked suddenly into position, the tiny planets shifting about their axis. Astaroth made a note.

“Some people think it’s funny to show up in character,” Astaroth said, plaintively. “I really don’t like enormous toads. Or even deer. I mean, do I still go around riding on a dragon?”

“We won’t mention the ‘c’ word, then.”

“Please, dear, no.” The Prince uncoiled herself from her couch and stood. She was taller than the Duke by some three feet, nearly nine in height, and her black hair was coiled around her head in a plait. She wore a black trouser suit: with the dark skin and eyes, she looked like a slice of night. “That’s why I like you, dear. You’re so
understanding.

Astaroth came close, reached out a hand and stroked the Duke under the chin like a favourite cat. Inwardly, the Duke sighed, but Astaroth did have a point: the Duke did understand. Out of the lords of Hell, Astaroth was one of the handful who still had regular dealings with Earth; that old jurisidictory pattern still held. The Duke knew that Astaroth had petitioned the other team for release, as had her colleagues, but she had been told that some line management was still necessary.

The Duke did not fancy being responsible for America, personally. Although other people had a rather worse deal.

“Madam,” she said again.

“I have a problem. I have lost something. Someone has stolen it.”

That got the Duke’s attention.

“An ambitious thing to do!”

“Do you know, that’s exactly what I said. And dangerous, though that goes without saying. Obviously, I want it back.”

“May I ask what it is?”

“No.”

“It’s going to be a bit tricky to find it, then.”

“All I know is that the person who took it has fled into the Eastern Quarter of Worldsoul, in the Liminality. So I immediately thought of you. That’s one of your stamping grounds, isn’t it?”

The Duke bowed. “Yes, indeed.”

Astaroth put an arm around her shoulders. “You see, it’s like this . . . ”

• Four •

Whispering.
Yet when Mercy opened the door, Section C was silent, encased in the gloomy panels of the room. The lamps were still lit, suggesting either that Nerren had not got around to turning them off, or that someone had lit them again, but their light did not touch the echoing shadows of the ceiling. Their bronze fittings gleamed. Occasionally there was a clockwork whir from some piece of equipment. Mercy debated whether to go back and check with Nerren, or proceed, but it did not really make a great deal of difference: something was brewing in Section C and she’d find out what it was soon enough. Hopefully she could sort it out before the Elders arrived. She glanced down at the Irish sword, as if to reassure herself that it was still by her side, and began to walk slowly along the row.

In this part of the Library, the books were all necromantic, and all ancient. Some of the editions were no more than fragments, encapsulated in protective wards and filed face out, so that one could see what one might be dealing with. Many were heavily guarded, glittering or shadowy with spellcraft. The texts here were properly the province of the Northern Quarter, but of course the Library was supposed to be neutral ground, containing
Matter
from all manner of places. It wasn’t the full body of lore, of course. The Court had its own collection of grimoires and who knew what else besides—Mercy would have given, if not an eye, then certainly an eye tooth to have an hour in the library of the Court. Not that it was ever likely to happen. She lingered over Anglo-Saxon annals, over eddur that were fringed and crackling with ice even in the carefully controlled climate of the Library. She did not touch anything, being careful to walk down the middle of the row. Frequently, she swung around, to see if anything might be following, but there was never anything there. Within a few minutes, she was approaching the end of the row, where the oldest texts of all were held. As she walked, she took note of the unusual silence. In ordinary circumstances, the Library was filled with whispers, scraps and rags and tatters of speech, murmured incantations, soon dampened by the spell filters that constantly flickered, electric-azure, across the high dim ceilings. Mercy glanced up: that was wrong, too. The spell filters were still there, but greatly muted to an occasional dragonfly snap. So something had been through here—perhaps was here now—and diminished the filters’ power as well as silencing the other texts. Why would something do that? The answer was obvious, Mercy thought: to increase the power of its own story.

Mentally, she sifted through the kinds of things that could do that. Dark powers, or one of the angelic lords, perhaps, but Mercy thought that would have been more noticeable. Demons, likewise. Demonic incursions were an occasional occurrence in the Library and the filters were usually strong enough to cope: Mercy quite often came in to find a nasty stain on the parquet, still smouldering. In the event of something really unpleasant, the Elders would occasionally counsel taking expert advice from the Court, whose practice was principally with the Goetic powers of Medieval grimoires and whose knowledge of demons was second to none. But that had been in the days before the disappearance of the Skein; now, with them gone for more than a year and distrust ruling all, the two organisations rarely spoke.

And if you asked her, it had been the Court who had sent those demons in the first place.

However, there were any number of things besides demons and angelic powers, things both known and unknown: a person could not read
everything,
after all.

Towards the end of the row Mercy paused and sniffed the air, head up like a hound. Something had definitely been here. She could smell wood smoke and snow, a fresh wild scent in the muted, dusty air of the Library, with an astringency running underneath it—pine, fir? Then a chill brushed the back of her neck, a draught of icy air coming from between the books. Mercy swung round, to find herself facing a sheet of paper—but that was wrong, it wasn’t paper at all, but something thicker, the shade of bone and covered with scratched markings. The draught was coming from the text and it was murmuring. Mercy glanced up at the spell filters and saw a blue electric flicker as something shorted out. The sword leaped in her hand. She braced her heels against the parquet floor.
Something’s coming through.

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