Authors: Liz Williams
“I am not sure, mind,” the
“I know. But you said you heard
“Rumours are like dandelion clocks. They spread on the wind. There is no substance to them.”
“But sometimes seeds take root, and there are dandelions all over the city, Perra.”
small solar face turned up to hers. “As I told you, a demon says that there was something by the Eastern Wall last night. It attacked a woman and lost a hand.”
“Who was this demon?”
“Only one of the small, the lesser, not a duke or an earl. Those would not talk to me, I am too lowly. But the little spirits like to gossip. It had no reason to lie.”
“They can be malicious.” Yet this tale sounded too specific, somehow. She thought of Roke, the blood snatcher, and felt herself grow still. Who had he been? She was still sure that she’d seen him somewhere before, but an odd dizzy moment blanked him out. Now that she thought back, he was becoming difficult to recall.
“It spoke of cold,” the
said, then fell silent. “The woman is an alchemist. The demon could not remember her name.” It looked briefly disapproving. “They have minds like mayflies.”
“We’ll take the ferry anyway,” Mercy replied. “It will be a nice day out.”
With the rest of the passengers—mainly Easterners, in all manner of dress—Mercy and Perra queued briefly, then climbed the walkway to the ferry. Standing in the prow, Mercy could see the canal snaking across the city, all the way through the Western Quarter to the banners and flags of the East. And then, with a creak, the ferry cast off.
• Eleven •
In his laboratory, back at the Court, Deed held the phial to the light and smiled. Alchemical science tells us that there are demons in the blood, and all manner of spirits flock to its red light, drawn like moths to fire. He was looking forward to seeing what might be attracted to the blood of Mercy Fane, what manner of thing might be conjured out of it.
Mercy Fane. Until now, she’d been just another Librarian and not particularly worthy of attention. But that was before she met the disir. Deed wanted to know whether there was a connection: was she a recruit of Loki? Was it just chance that she’d been in a flower attack? If Mercy decided to investigate the disir’s presence, Deed wanted her under observation.
He took a dropper and extracted a small quantity of fluid from the phial, then set it into a glass dish. Around it, he drew a triangle in chalk, then stepped back. Another circle, and then he spoke a word and set the chalk alight, a fire that flickered across the floor in eternal containment. Deed, in shirtsleeves, raised his hands and uttered the name of Mercy Fane, three times. The blood hissed and writhed.
“Come on,” Deed said, enticing. A shadow fell across the blood and stepped forth, coming up abruptly against the triangle’s invisible wall. “Oh,” said Deed, intrigued. “Now what might
But in fact, he knew all too well. The thing was tall, grave, golden-eyed. It had a long muzzle and graceful hands. A wolf-headed man.
“Now,” Deed said. “You’re from the north. One of the wolfclans. What were you? Her grandfather?”
“I shall not speak,” the wolfhead said, glaring.
“Oh, but you will. Don’t be difficult. It’s boring. You know what I am.”
“Loki’s blood,” the wolfhead said, and growled.
“Of course. I am disir, but not only disir: I have many ancestors, just as your bloodchild Mercy does. They don’t concern you. But you concern me. I need information. Who was your daughter, your son?” He spoke another word, forcing names from the wolfhead’s mouth.
“Ativana. Soreth. Greya.”
“Greya Fane,” Deed said. A piece of puzzle had fallen into place. “Aha. Yes, that would make sense. She went out on the
I recall. Nearly a year ago. So noble, heading out into the unknown on the ship that searches for the Skein. I’m sure we’ll all be interested to see if they make it back alive. So Greya Fane is Mercy’s . . . what? Mother? Aunt? I will have to check.”
“Not . . . touch . . . ” the wolfhead slurred and Deed looked up in surprise. “Still here? Well, can’t have you running off to little Mercy, can we?” He snapped fingers, intoned an incantation and the wolfhead was snared in silvery bonds, threads of fiery shadow that snaked around the spirit’s form until it was wrapped as neatly as a fly in a web. “Gone!”
And it was. The chalk triangle flared up and out. Deed sank to his haunches and crouched in the circle. Time to do some thinking.
Later, he went in search of Darya. He found her in the long, lead-windowed gallery at the top of the Court, looking out over the city. The four o’clock rain had swept over Worldsoul, drenching the roses and oleander and leaving a humid warmth in its wake. He could smell it through the open window and wondered what Darya might be thinking, but only for a moment. Nothing very deep, that was certain. She had cast off her jacket in the afternoon heat and her spine was bare in the cowled blouse that she wore today. He could see the little knobs of her vertebrae protruding through the flesh. Seamed stockings ran down to her high heels, but Deed knew that those heels were her own bones, the spikes of her heels arching her feet and making her teeter. It was appealing, but he knew how fast her kind could run if it came to the chase. Perhaps that would be entertaining, if Darya ever over-stepped the mark. As seemed likely.
He had the satisfaction of seeing her jump.
“Greya Fane. What does the name mean to you?”
“She was a volunteer, wasn’t she? On the
From this quarter, although I seem to recall that she was originally from the Northern Quarter. I saw her name on the list, and I memorised the list. And she is related to Mercy Fane, maybe, whom Nerren at the Library told me about.”
“Quite right,” Deed approved. “If the crew of the
had found the Skein, they would be heroes, but as far as we know, they have not, and thus they are not. They are in limbo, like Odin on the World Tree, waiting to snatch knowledge from the abyss. A nice simile, don’t you think?”
Darya’s face betrayed unease. “No one knows what has become of the
” she reminded him.
“Of course they don’t. It has sailed over the rim of the Western Ocean to try and catch the sun, and if they don’t make it back, which they probably won’t, they will pass into legend themselves, like the Flying Dutchman. On the other hand, if they do come back, everyone will take an interest. But the reason I’m interested in Greya Fane—”
“Is this Mercy Fane?”
“Just so. Well done, Darya. I want you to do some genealogical digging. I want to find out what other relatives Miss Fane might have.”
• Twelve •
Had she not been in pursuit of the creature from the Library, Mercy would have enjoyed the journey along the West-East Canal. She had done it before, and it never failed to be charming. The turrets and towers of the Western Fort were visible above its parkland, as the ferry drifted serenely onward, through rich areas and poor, past city streets and stretches of flower-filled wasteland. From this perspective, the city seemed strangely distant and calm, as if the disappearance of the Skein, the flower attacks, and all the other difficulties that were besetting it had been sealed away behind a glass wall. For the first time in weeks, Mercy felt herself beginning to relax, a completely irrational thing to do under the circumstances. She fingered the hilt of the Irish sword at her hip and pondered. Perra sat beside her on the bench as the ferry wallowed along the canal, occasionally rising up to gaze at some aspect of the changing view that had attracted its interest. Another
accompanied a passenger, a woman in a blue headscarf with a tattooed face, but the two ancestral spirits ignored each other and now that Mercy thought of it, she had never seen
in conversation. Perhaps it was considered impolite. She would ask Perra, when the occasion allowed it.
They were coming to the centre of the city now: the wide circular plaza known as the Heart of the World. Here stood the empty palace of the Skein, built aeons ago of red and black marble, mottled like flesh, its towers arching up into the heavens. A light still burned in the topmost tower, a sacred flame kept alight by servants in vigil for the day when their masters and mistresses returned. Before the palace stood a much more recent statue, a representation of the ship called the
Mercy thought of Greya, and sighed. The statue had emerged out of Worldsoul itself; it had not been commissioned or carved by human hand. One morning, a few months back, it had simply appeared. She watched the statue until it fell out of sight: the bronze sides of the ship gleaming in the morning sunlight, its vanes and sails shifting in the breeze.
They were now in the Eastern Quarter and already the architecture was different: domes and minarets, pagodas and turrets. Some of these buildings had been taken from Earth, others were more recent, but built on ancient lines. Originally, the different peoples of Worldsoul had lived in separate areas in their separate quarters, but without the tensions of Earth, ghettos had not proved viable and now everyone was more muddled up. A good thing, in Mercy’s view. She looked down on a street market as the ferry sailed along an aqueduct, the white roofs of the market stalls bright in the sunlight and allowing occasional glimpses of piles of eggplant, oranges, coriander, ginger . . . all the produce that had been brought in from the fields that week. Beyond the Eastern Quarter lay the Great Desert, the Khaureg, but to the south, the land was fertile. Mercy began thinking about supper: she had eaten out these last few days. It would be nice to have the time to sit down and eat properly at home . . .
Now the huge blue dome of the Medina was visible, rising above the rooftops, and Mercy became aware of a growing impatience. She had a mission, after all, unrelated to what was for dinner. The
seeming to pick up on her mood, sat up straight and stern.
“We are nearly there,” Perra said.
Mercy nodded. The terminal wharf of the Eastern Quarter ferry was now visible, a mass of cranes and scaffolding. The ferry sailed into dock with a brief flurry of activity as it was secured and then Mercy and Perra were heading down the gangplank.
“Do you know where this woman lives?” Mercy asked the
“No, but it should not be hard to find her. She is an alchemist. She has . . . a certain reputation.”
“What kind of reputation?” Mercy asked, intrigued.
“A dangerous one.”
One did not simply enter the Eastern Quarter and start asking questions. First, there was tea. Despite her impatience, Mercy let Perra take the lead. The
found a chaikhana, set into the wall of the Medina where it was safe for a Westerner to go. The heart of the Medina was, so Perra said, best avoided. Mercy was disinclined to argue. She took a seat at the back of the chaikhana, where she could see the door.
“What do we do now?” she asked, in an undertone.
“We wait,” Perra said.
Shortly afterwards, once tea had been brought, a man approached the table. He wore an elegant suit, black, with brilliant white cuffs. Sad eyes gazed at Mercy, from a patrician face. The countenance of the mysterious Dr Roke flashed briefly across Mercy’s mind, but this man did not, on second glance, bear all that significant a resemblance: it was the suit.
“Madam, forgive me. You are from the Western Quarter?”
“Yes. We’re looking for someone.”
“May I ask who?”
“We do not have a name for her. She is an alchemist.”
“Ah.” The man smiled. “Then there is only one person whom you can be looking for. She calls herself Shadow. Would you like me to introduce you to her?”
Mercy smiled. “Forgive me for my incredible rudeness, but what is in this for you?”
“I am a facilitator, you see. A number of individuals have me on commission. I effect introductions, engineer chance meetings, arrange coincidences and synchronicities. My name is Georgiou Sephardi.”
“So if you introduce us to the woman who calls herself Shadow, she will pay you?”
“If she considers you are worth meeting, yes.”
“Well,” Mercy said, after a pause. “Let’s hope that she will. Tell her that we know about the attack last night.”
Sephardi vanished into the maze of the Medina, while Mercy and Perra sipped tea. “This is going too smoothly,” Mercy said. “I don’t trust that.”
managed a fluid shrug. “Such things happen with grace here.”
“So you say.” And then, because that sounded rude, she added, “I am sure you know this better than I, Perra.” The headache was coming back, like an oncoming warning of storms. Mercy frowned. Yesterday—and then, all of a sudden, she knew what was happening.
did not question her. They ran for the door, startling the other customers of the teahouse, but it was too late. Mercy smelled an acrid, fizzy burning, heard a firework hiss, and felt an indefinable sense of wrongness that grew and grew until the explosion itself came almost as a relief.
Not again . . .
Mercy and Perra dropped under a table just outside the door and covered their heads. The world was swallowed in a billow of scarlet and for a second, Mercy thought that she had actually been blown up. But it was only the red awning of the chaikhana, torn free by the flower-blast and floating down to cover the wrecked frontage. There was a minute of intense silence, then screams. Mercy started disentangling herself from the collapsed awning, Unseen hands helped, until she was able to free herself from the weight of the material.
“Are you all right?” Sephardi did not have a hair out of place.
“Yes. Perra?” But she knew that the
being a spirit, would be all right.
“I am here,” Perra said.
“I lament,” Sephardi remarked, “my timing.”
“Maybe it’s not
timing. This happened to me yesterday. Are they following me around?”