Read Worldsoul Online

Authors: Liz Williams

Tags: #fantasy

Worldsoul (9 page)

Sephardi spread his hands. He was accompanied, Mercy saw now, by a woman. She was veiled: dressed in a grey tunic and silvery trousers that billowed like a bell. The veil itself covered her entire face, a gauzy blue mist, and nothing at all could be glimpsed behind it.

“This is Shadow,” Sephardi said.

“I’m Mercy Fane. This is Perra. We’ve come—” But there was a flash. Mercy, turning, squinted past the collapsed awning. A lamp hanging above the street illuminated the now-roofless interior of the chaikhana. A pool of light shone on overturned tables and utter chaos. A blossom drifted down, glowing like hot blood, and just as it reached the level of the lamp it burst silently apart, the crimson petals flaring out and setting fire to everything they touched. The awning ignited like dry tinder.

“Oh, shit,” Mercy said, retreating further into the street with the others. Bits of blazing fabric fluttered down.

The veil turned in Sephardi’s direction. “Do we not,” the woman said, “have emergency services?”

“I’m assuming that’s rhetorical,” he replied.

Shadow sighed, stretched out a hand, uttered a long liquid word and the flames subsided into ash.

The core of the blossom had embedded itself in the pavement with a soft, corrosive hiss. The glowing stamen was quivering.


Don’t
look,” Mercy said. She flung up an arm, shielding her eyes, and the thought rushed through her mind,
This is too close, we’re going to get

Her skin was suddenly flushed, her mouth filled with a dry desert heat. She could feel the ends of her hair sizzling. The afterimage of the flash, the white-hot flare of the core, still glared against her shuttered eyelids. But something was between the stamen and herself, a soft rustling wind. Shocked, her eyes snapped open to see she was enveloped in the azure gauze of the woman’s veil. Dark eyes, golden-black, heavily kohled, were staring into her own.

“Good to meet you, too, Mercy,” Shadow said, and to Mercy’s surprise, she was smiling.

They had been lucky, Mercy thought. Shadow stooped to pick up a charred curl. Perfect, the raised lines of the petal still clearly delineated, but as Shadow’s fingers closed a little, the petal disintegrated, showering into a stream of ash.

“Be careful,” Mercy warned, ”Handling those things can hurt you.”

Shadow nodded. “I’ve done it once before. I’m—good with fire.”

“So I saw.” The expression in those troubled eyes was still with her, burned onto her retina like the implosion of the core. “Your veil—”

Saved my life
was one of those things better left unsaid. People could expect the honouring of obligations; you had to watch your spirit, living here.

Shadow made a negligent gesture. “It was for the benefit of both of us.”

“I think,” Sephardi said diffidently, “that perhaps we should find another teahouse.”

They followed a disconsolate crowd of those who had been in the teahouse at the time of the attack, those who had been walking by. Mercy looked at two blue faces, serenely displeased, then at a tall person in black, with a ridged and tattooed skull.

“Too many nightlighters living here,” Shadow said. She nodded in the direction of the skull. “But you can’t prevent people from going about their business.”

“I suppose not,” Mercy said. “And speaking of which . . . ”

“You’ll understand,” Shadow said, “that I’m reluctant to take you to my place. Besides, it’s a mess. May I suggest another chaikhana?”

“We shall be guided by you,” Sephardi told her.

Mercy was relieved that their short trip through the now-crowded streets was without further incident. People were beginning to congregate, knot, then disperse like a kind of tidal flow. Even without the aid of technology, news of the flower attack was spreading throughout the quarter. Shadow ignored covert stares and strode ahead, her veil billowing behind her.

The new teahouse was set into the wall of the Eastern Quarter. Mercy stepped inside to sudden coolness and peace. The chaikhana was spacious, with oak tables and low benches set far apart, and at the end it opened onto a balcony.

“Let’s sit,” Shadow said. Mercy followed her out onto the balcony and found herself gazing out across the expanse of the Great Desert. Dunes hummed and shifted in the tides of the desert, moving imperceptibly, but Mercy knew that if she was to look again an hour later, the landscape would have changed. A kite, in search of carrion, wheeled high above the sands. But the balcony of the chaikhana was shaded and cool.

“Here,” Shadow said to Mercy, “one is able to breathe.”

Mercy knew what she meant.

“Sit,” Shadow said, “Please. You are my guests here.”

“Thank you. By the way, they don’t have an objection to my being armed?”

“They’d consider you foolish if you were not.” Shadow ordered more tea and was still for a moment, gazing out across the sands. Then she said, “Rumour moves faster than anything. A pity they can’t harness it to drive engines.”

Mercy laughed. “They don’t refer to it as a ‘mill’ for nothing.”

“Sephardi tells me that you’re seeking information.”

“I’ll get straight to the point,” Mercy said. “Perra, my
ka,
heard that you were attacked last night.”

“Yes, I was. I defeated it. I don’t know what it was. It left a hand behind—I have it in a box, at my laboratory.”

“Left a hand?”

“I sliced it off.” Shadow drew a blade from beneath her veil and placed it on the table, turning it over quickly so that it flickered light and dark. “This is one of my weapons.”

“Impressive. What’s it made from?” She knew better than to reach out and touch, but Mercy could hear the voice of the blade, a whispering, and it spoke of darkness and light, noon and shade. The Irish sword murmured at her side.

“Meteorite iron. It was forged with moonlight and sunlight. It can cut through almost anything. I have many enemies. But I would not,” Shadow said, turning the weapon from side to side, “have wanted to go up against the thing I saw last night with any less a weapon. What’s your interest in this?”

“I’m with the Library,” Mercy said. “I let . . . the thing . . . loose.” She could see Shadow’s eyes on her, from behind the veil. It occurred to her that the other woman might easily think Mercy had sent the thing, and was now checking up on its success.

However, Shadow said, “But not deliberately, I think.”

“No. Not at all.” Briefly, she recounted to Shadow what had happened. When she had finished, there was a short silence.

“You don’t know what it is?”

“No, I’ve no idea. Except that it’s from the north. It wasn’t a Wolfhead. I know what those look like.”

“They are a civilised people.”

“Yes, they are.” Mercy was pleasantly surprised by this; there was a great deal of prejudice about the northern clans, a lot of misunderstanding. “But no, I didn’t recognise this thing and we can’t translate the text that it came from.”

“Then,” Shadow said, “I suggest we use other methods.”

From Shadow’s laboratory, hewn out of pale golden stone and with graceful arches, the view across the desert was angled but, by now, familiar. Mercy, Sephardi, and the
ka
stood across the room, as Shadow opened the leaden box. Shadow had been deceptive: the place was not a mess, and she had obviously made the decision to trust Mercy enough to let her into her home, at least for now.

Mercy was under no illusions. The alchemist did not know her, could not trust her beyond a certain point. Mercy had no doubt that Shadow did not leave her most interesting experiments in public view. She had caught a glimpse of other rooms in the walled-in apartment, doors that whisked silently shut. But the weight of the Library was a compelling authority: Mercy, as its representative, had garnered Shadow’s attention, if not yet her respect.

She watched as Shadow knelt and swiftly scratched a triangle on the wooden boards of the laboratory with the sun-moon blade. A moment later, and the edges of the triangle flared up into light. The alchemist was taking no chances.

Mercy and Sephardi were contained within a separate circle. The
ka,
not as subject to magical pressures, elected to remain outside, perching on the windowsill. Its small face was creased in a frown, or perhaps simply concentration. Shadow fetched the leaden box and placed it inside the triangle, then retreated to the containment circle and spoke a quick incantation. The lid of the box sprang open.

“What I am intending to do,” Shadow said, “is as much science as magic. I want to take a close look at this thing. That means building up an image from its DNA.”

Mercy nodded. “All right.”

She was unfamiliar with Persian magic, with the long streams of syllables, but this was ancient craft. It was linked to mathematics, to gematria, and to the stars, but the magic of the old lands from which this spellwork had come went further, all the way back to the Fertile Crescent, the dawn of Earth’s history. It harked back to the oldest goddesses, women who were half-bird, women who later became demons. Astarte into Astaroth, Prince of Hell. Lilith, and her storm brood of the deep desert. Cybele, Lady of Lions. Mercy did not know whether it was on these that Shadow was calling: in the teahouse earlier, Sephardi had described Shadow as a devotee of Allah, and devout. But she was also a magician, and magicians are pragmatic.

Gradually, drawn forth by words, spirals of DNA began to wind upwards in hologrammatic formation. Mercy knew that this was an illusion, but it was compelling. The DNA twisted, turned, and began to fill out into bone and sinew and flesh. As they watched, the figure that Mercy had seen in the Library began to take shape before them. Its bones were long and sharp, the dappled hide too tightly stretched over them so that the thing appeared lightly fleshed, mainly sinew. Its face was human, of sorts. The black eyes, whiteless, glinted with intelligence. Its long hair, also black and matted into ropy locks, fell down its back, Mercy was now able to get a closer look at the tattooed symbols covering its visible flesh. Runes and symbols, ancient in configuration. She said urgently to Sephardi, “Do you have a pen?”

When he complied, Mercy took a notebook from her pocket and began to note the symbols down as accurately as she could. Shadow made the image turn, and it did so, revealing glyphs and spiked sigils down the length of its spine.

“It’s definitely the thing I saw,” Mercy said.

“Good. It’s definitely the thing that attacked me. The question is: What is it?”

“I cannot help you,” Sephardi said. “I am not an expert on the north.”

“I know someone who is, though,” Shadow said. She turned to Mercy. “Have you finished?”

“Yes. Can it speak, Shadow? Can you make it talk?”

“No, this is just an image.” She sounded apologetic. “I’ve tried making them talk before.”

Mercy could not help having the disconcerting feeling that the thing was watching them, linked, somehow, to this conjured representation. But there was no awareness of them in its eyes. “This person you mentioned, who is an expert on the north. Where might they be found?”

Shadow laughed. “You’ll like this. She’s employed by the Library. As a consultant. She’s also Vice Chancellor of the University.”

• Interlude •

She had lived in this apartment for over twenty years, ever since Ibrahim’s death. It would have felt wrong to leave it, as though she were leaving him behind, and she was not ready to do that. Some women married again, but she knew that she would not: the inclination was not there. Besides, his spirit returned to her, on the great days, and although she knew he was at peace with God, she was always happy to see him.

If she had gone to live somewhere else, he would not have known his way around.

With care, because her joints were not good today, she re-arranged the roses in their bowl. Her daughter brought her these, grown in her courtyard garden. They reminded her of sunsets and she loved to look at them.

On this particular evening, she had left the windows open. A ward glistened across the open space, so she was surprised to turn and find someone there.

“Oh!” she said, relieved. “It’s you.” She put a hand to her heart. “For a moment, I thought it was Ibrahim. Or, Allah forbid, an intruder.”

“I am sorry,” her visitor said. “I should have knocked.”

She smiled. “On the air itself? Sit. Have some tea. Or at least, the pretence of tea.”

It was his turn to smile. “I like the smell. I’ll have some, if I may.”

She brought it on a silver tray and they sipped, inhaled, in silence for some minutes. Then her visitor said, “You’re wondering why I’ve come. I’m afraid it’s not good news.”

Her heart sank. “I thought as much. There have been signs, the usual portents. Someone saw a bloodstained lion in the Medina last week. People have had visions. There’s been a great deal of astrological mayhem going on: peculiar conjunctions of the heavens.”

“I can’t tell you what it heralds, because I don’t know. But there’s been a change at the end of the world.”

“That’s not good,” she said. “The end of the world—well, if you walk far enough away from there, you’ll end up here.”

“Something’s happening, Mariam,” the Messenger said. Against the brocaded cushions of the couch, she could see his faint illuminated transparency, visible only in certain lights. This was a projection, if a good one. Messengers can do that, dissolve and reform at will. “Something’s changing,” he continued. “The question is, what?”

• Thirteen •

Darya had done well in the limited time he had given her, but Jonathan Deed had no intention of telling her this. Instead, he frowned down at the collection of parchment that she now placed before him and said, “Is this all?”

She hid her feelings well, but he saw her mouth tighten a fraction and her fingers clench. “It was all I could find, Abbot General,” she said, with a deference which clearly did not come naturally. Darya was learning. Good.

“Very well,” Deed said, with a sigh. “I suppose it will have to do.”

He waited until her bone heels clicked away, then turned back to the parchments. These were fragmentary: Mercy Fane’s genealogy was likely to be held in full by the Library, as the Skein had liked to keep tabs on their personnel, but locating her personal details would be troublesome given the level of security. For the moment, he would work with what he had.

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