Read Worldsoul Online

Authors: Liz Williams

Tags: #fantasy

Worldsoul (5 page)

Good thing he wasn’t truly human. He thought back to the meeting with Loki. He remembered that the god had told him about a disir, sent into the city. That had to be a priority: he made a note on official parchment, and sent it to the Sept. But for the rest—try as he might, he couldn’t uncork the jar of memory. The old god had programmed him, as neatly as if he were a computing machine. Deed was disir enough to resent this, but man enough to recognise the sense behind it: any conscious information can be extracted under enough torture. The trouble was, how can you trust a trickster god?

The answer was: you can’t.

He sat back in the deep leather chair of his chamber, nursing the whisky. It tasted of peat, of age, of blood. He savoured it with disir senses humans did not possess. Even the disir needed down-time. Deed adjusted the cuffs of his jacket, meticulously picked a speck of lint from the black velvet. He was slightly disappointed when Darya walked in, her clicking heel-taps muffled by the thick carpet. She was smiling, and for a moment, Deed felt something that might almost be described as affection.

“I spoke to True. A dear old man,” she said. Her smile grew sharper.

“You’ve got the permit?”

“Oh, yes, Abbot General. He was so helpful,” Darya said. She sat down opposite, sinking into the seat and taking the glass of whisky that Deed proffered. “We had a most interesting chat and he’s given me a letter. Also he talked to the Librarian in charge of the collection and she’ll make sure that everything goes smoothly tomorrow.”

“Very good,” Deed said. He turned the glass in his fingers, admiring the glow of the whisky in the subdued light. “This Librarian. Do we know anything about her?”

“I’ve done a search of known . . . personnel,” Darya said. “I can’t find a reference to her. Her name is Nerren Bone.”

“Ah, Darya, Darya. If she’s in charge of a collection like the papers under discussion, then she’s almost certainly one of the opposition. But she won’t be able to say the same about us. People are interested in that sort of thing for all manner of reasons.”

“And you, Abbot General?” Darya asked politely, after a short pause. “How was your afternoon?”

He shrugged, thinking of the bone grove, the red-veined mistletoe, the blade-presence of one of the oldest and most dangerous gods of all. “Oh, you know. Quiet.”

• Six •

Shadow stood before the cage, looking in.

“Meteorite iron,” the Shah explained, giving the bars a light tap with an ivory wand. “It’s the only thing that will hold it.”

The cage shook as he tapped it, causing the floor to shudder. They stood in an upstairs chamber, fretworked windows looking out onto the roofs of the Quarter and across to its wall. Sunlight patterned the floor, chequered into diamonds and triangles by the carved wood of the shutters. The room smelled of spice, and smoke, and fire. The room was a prison.

“Let me guess,” Shadow said. “You found out the hard way?”

Suleiman gave his saddened smile. “You might say that. We lost . . . some personnel.”

“Oh, dear.” She looked at the thing in the cage. Impossible to see it directly: this was a thing to be glimpsed from the corner of the eye, and even then it was unclear, an amorphous shifting mass, boiling cloud, a localised storm. It had eyes.

“A djinn,” Shadow said.

“An ifrit, to give it the precise taxonomy. Not a common one, either. This is a rare species.”

“Then why isn’t it in the zoo?”

“People bring me things,” Suleiman said. “Things that they can’t . . . look after . . . elsewhere.”

“Ah,” Shadow said. “Now I’m with you.”

She was not inclined to elaborate. The Shah being a fence, a nexus point between worlds, people must bring all manner of stuff. Girls, guns, drugs, jewels. Stolen heirs. Missing spells. Ifrits.

“Does it have a human aspect? An animal one?”

“Almost certainly, but it hasn’t manifested it yet, despite efforts to force it to do so. A pity. It’s so much easier to engage with something that looks like a man. This is its natural shape—if they can be said to
a natural shape. You might have gathered that this isn’t my normal area of operations,” Suleiman said. “I’m not a naturalist.”

“They’re known to have sentience,” Shadow murmured. “That makes it doubly illegal. Did it come from Earth?”

“I don’t know. There are very few ifrits on Earth any more. The oil business, you know, and less . . . 
forms of Islam. Somewhere else, perhaps.”

“I am not a naturalist, either,” Shadow said, although she had a nasty feeling where the conversation might be heading.

“No. You are an alchemist. You change things, as we have mentioned, in the universe’s refining fire.”

“I change
” Shadow replied, more sharply than she had intended. “Not living beings.”

“And yet,” Suleiman mused, “it is well known that the alchemy of the East is concerned primarily with the transformation of the human soul.”

“Something that the alchemist willingly undertakes,” Shadow said. “Not something that is done
someone. Besides—” She should not ask, she
not ask, and yet curiosity drove her to it, backed her into the corner of the question, “What do you want it changed into?”

“No,” Shadow said, an hour later, for perhaps the dozenth time. “I cannot do it.”

“Cannot? Or will not?”

“The latter. It’s against my vows.” She hoped he couldn’t hear the weakness in her voice, for she could not help wondering
what if, what if
? That was the problem with science; it was so rarely pure. But surely that was the essence of the battle, that one must struggle with the baser instincts of one’s own nature, transform them into the gold of mercy and compassion? In that, at least, Suleiman had been correct in his views on alchemy. If she had wanted to go down the left-hand route, she’d have joined the Court. Rumour had it that they had no such scruples and Shadow knew that rumour was right. She picked up her glass of tea, newly refreshed by the silent green-clad serving maid, and stared into it as if it might furnish answers. In the corner of the room, a plangent note came from the cage as the ifrit struck the bars.

“Against your vows? Or are you simply afraid?”

O Allah, thank you for not making me a man,
Shadow silently prayed. She could afford not to sink under a weight of pride. “Of course I am afraid. What do you think, my Shah?”

Suleiman smiled. “I think anyone in your position would be afraid. Anyone who was either intelligent or sane.”

Shadow could not, however, say that what really scared her was the knowledge that he would force her to do it. The only question was how. She had isolated herself over the years: parents dead, family estranged, lovers nonexistent. Mariam Shenudah was her only real friend and Mariam, thank God, was well protected: as the Vice Chancellor of the quarter’s principal university, she was in too prominent a position for frivolous attacks. Shadow couldn’t afford to risk other people and that was an old sorrow. But that she had been brought this far, that the Shah had showed her what was within the cage of meteorite iron—that meant that Suleiman would not take
for an answer and
was the only answer she could give.

“You’d be rewarded, of course,” the Shah nudged gently.

Of course. And he’d have a hold over her forever. This was illegal, and more than illegal, it was wrong. She had some ideas as to why Suleiman wanted the ifrit to be transformed, and none of them were good.

“Your generosity is well known,” Shadow responded, automatically.

“Oh, come now,” the Shah said. “You don’t need to take refuge in platitudes. Will you do this for me, Alchemist Shadow? You can quite literally name your price.”

“May I ask a stupid question?”

The Shah’s courteous silence told her that there was no such thing.

“Have you considered bringing in the Court? I’m assuming that politics precludes it, which is why this is a stupid question.”

“It is not, but you are right. Even if relations were cordial, which they are not, I could not trust them, and I do not want them here within my walls—there is too much that they might glean. Besides, I believe in keeping things in the family, as it were, and there is bad blood between myself and the Abbot General.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

A struggle, that was what she had told herself. It did not take long. “I can’t,” Shadow said. “You do understand? I took certain vows and I cannot transform a living thing—I could easily kill it. You have told me that you wish to make it into a man. I do not think I have the skill.”

“They say you are the best,” Suleiman said.

“Then they don’t know what they are talking about, whoever they are. With gold, yes. With jewels, yes. Give me a lump of lead and ask me for a sapphire, you have it, my Shah. But this—no.”

Suleiman inclined his head. “Very well. I understand your reservations, even if I do not agree with them. I need not caution you to say nothing of this, to anyone. Now, we both have work to do.”

“I promise you my silence,” Shadow echoed, although she knew, as did he, that this was only a preliminary skirmish. The war was yet to come. As a servant girl ushered her through the door, a shaft of fragmented light fell on the girl’s face, illuminating it briefly through her veil. Milky eyes stared straight ahead, seeing nothing. Shadow nodded once, as she walked through the doors of the Has.

Outside, the humming throb of the Medina seemed oddly peaceful and Shadow’s sense of oppression lifted. She walked quickly down the narrow streets, leaving the veil in thinness but resisting the pleas and blandishments to buy saffron or linen or beans. Her head was spinning; she needed to get home, to the garret laboratory and silence. Suleiman would take action of some sort. It might be a long time coming or mere hours. This was the trouble. He knew he had her now, and even if it was months before he acted, he knew that the knowledge that he
act was enough to stop Shadow from doing anything unwise. A little alchemical puppet, dancing back through the Medina . . . 

Through the Medina and out. Here, the streets of the Quarter were wider, but not by much. A boy on a brass scooter zipped past Shadow’s feet, nearly knocking her flat. She thought of shouting after him, thought better of it. His eyes, glimpsed in the fleeting rush, had been a deep and fiery gold. She walked slowly back through the afternoon heat and it was quieter now, the Quarter settling down before the evening cool, shutters bolted and doors locked to keep out the sun. She thought of the Has, its deceptive tranquillity, of the ifrit in its cage. She was glad to reach the crumbling tower that contained her own laboratory, to climb the baked earth steps to its summit.

Not many people were prepared to live in the city wall. It added to her cachet, the spice of risks taken, and moreover, because of the danger, it was cheap. Shadow ascended the stairs into darkness and spoke the words that opened the old oak door.

Once inside, she stepped past the table that held alembics and retorts. The morning’s experiment still bubbled, without the aid of flame. Shadow, putting aside the veil, sniffed it, recoiled, and went to the window to throw the shutters open. The wall curved off to her right, with a second tower some distance along its length. Shadow studied this for a moment and then her gaze flew outward, as if drawn by the magnet of the desert. The great dunes stretched to the horizon, endless colours and shadows, rolling up and down in patterns that were different every morning, and yet essentially the same. Shadow drew strength from her proximity to the desert; if she had to live within the city, it might as well be here, perched like a dove in the wall. She stared at the desert for a long time, trying to empty her mind of memories of Suleiman, of the caged ifrit. But it was not until the muezzin sang out across the Quarter, comforting in its regulation of the day, that she was able to gain a little peace, kneeling with her forehead touching the bare scrubbed boards, distantly noting little acid burns where an alembic had splashed, finding within the thread that led to God. And praying for delivery from the attention of Suleiman the Shah.

• Seven •

Mercy and Nerren went down to the security office later that morning, after the Elders had gone, and had spent an hour searching through the records. Their efforts had produced little and the Elders had been predictably querulous. What
it with senior Librarians? They’d presumably had the same adrenaline-filled life as any other staff member, but as soon as they passed retirement age and went on the council they became trembling and sheep-like and nervous. Perhaps it was some kind of reaction? She hoped it wouldn’t happen to her.

If she lived that long. Nerren and herself, by mutual accord, had not mentioned the episode in Section C to the Elders in case someone had a weak heart. Actually, there was a lot of other things they hadn’t told the Elders either, also by mutual accord.

Mercy was trying not to snap, a measure of her frustration. This was not Nerren’s fault, after all. Better to blame the Skein, whose vanishing had led the Library to its current state of instability. But she hated to think that they were failing; they had held the Library together for a year and now it was starting to crack . . .

This was paranoia, she told herself. There had been a few incursions, all dealt with. Library security knew what they were doing. The Citadel inspectors continued to oversee the longer term administration and, as Mercy’s earlier dismay had proved, they made regular checks.

Sulis was there in the office now, an Enforcer with twenty-three years behind her; a big, calm woman in grey. Massive ward bracelets enclosed her thick wrists; her hands were stiff with spellrings.

“It’s unlikely to be connected with the flower raids,” she was saying. Mercy, perched on the edge of Sulis’ desk, nodded.

“That’s what I thought. It feels totally different. This is something else, something from a much earlier time.”
Mind you, we’ve all been wrong before.

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