Warlords threaten the empire's fragile peace, and the empress is beset by enemies within the court. Even worse, darkness stirs in the deep desert. Ancient spirits long held captive are waking spirits that can destroy Assar faster than any army.
Accompanied by an outcast jinn, Isyllt must travel into the heart of the desert to lay the darkness there to rest once more. But her sympathies are torn between the captive spirits and the order of mages sworn to bind them. And whichever choice she makes could raze the empire to dust.
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The Kingdoms of Dust
By Downum, Amanda
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Downum, Amanda
All right reserved.
Storm and Shadow
1233 Sal Emperaturi
The Çirağan Serai was called a palace, but it was one of the few buildings in Kehribar that had never been one. At the height of the Ataskar Empire every bey and sultan and merchant prince had built a fortress or a manor house, and after its fall they had slowly been repurposed into brothels and hostels and gambling halls. The Çirağan had only ever been a prison.
The dour stone fortress crowned the westernmost of the city’s five hills. Once it had faced a courthouse—a hope of justice, or a mockery of it—but over decades of revolution and power shifts the court had been burned, abandoned, and eventually razed, leaving the prison alone in a wide, desolate yard. The closest neighborhoods on Hapishane Hill were poor and mostly empty, populated with squatters and stray dogs and patrolled by the city guard. The Çirağan wasn’t isolated as many prisons were, but the guards were known for their brutal efficiency. Thieves in dim wharf taverns told of cunning escapes, of eluding traps and outwitting wardens; all their stories were lies.
Few visitors passed the Çirağan’s black gates. Men condemned to its cells were forgotten by their families and friends, mourned for dead. Soldiers came, and inquisitors, and the rare penitent priest, all on strict, well-supervised schedules.
But tonight, as summer rain washed the city and midnight bells tolled the hour, a carriage rattled and juddered up the uneven streets of Hapishane Hill. The driver’s pockets were heavy with silver kurush and his thoughts heavy with the shadow of sorcery, dulling his memory of the night. The faces of his passengers had already faded in his mind.
Inside the coach, Isyllt Iskaldur leaned against the window, wincing at every pothole that jarred her spine and watching the night. Rain softened square buildings and spindle-sharp spires, bled orange halos from scattered city lights—the color of the amber for which the city was famed. Watchfires burned on distant walls, golden pinpricks against the dark.
The lights, the streets, the scents embedded in the carriage cushions were all foreign. Even the rain tasted different, the alchemy of wind and water subtly altered as it blew off the Zaratan Sea. By day she could distract herself but at night homesickness stole over her. Even nights like this, when she had work to do.
Another bone-jarring bounce, and Isyllt’s companion cursed. Isyllt kept her invective to herself for fear of biting her tongue off mid-jolt.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” asked the girl when the road smoothed again. She called herself Moth, though it wasn’t her name. Neither was she precisely a girl, but it was a convenient façade.
“I’ve made the arrangements,” Isyllt said. “Best to keep this quiet and quick.” Wisdom for any jailbreak, even one arranged through bribery and veiled threats instead of swords and black powder bombs. All the same, her tone was chillier than she intended.
“Just because you do stupid things,” Moth replied with equal sharpness, “doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Isyllt smiled ruefully, tugging the curtain shut against the damp. Walking alone into an Iskari prison was unarguably stupid, though nothing close to the stupidest thing she’d ever done. “I promise to come out again.”
Moth’s lips pursed, but she let the matter pass. They’d quarreled more than once about Isyllt’s recklessness and distraction, but since arriving in Kehribar the girl had found distractions of her own. She went out every night, winding farther and farther through the city. Just as reckless, perhaps, but Moth had grown up a street rat. Six months ago she’d been Dahlia, a whore’s androgyne child with a prostitute’s life awaiting her. Now she was an apprentice mage and shed more of her old life with every new place they traveled. She was due her freedom.
Six months ago Isyllt had been a Crown Investigator, student to the spymaster of Selafai. Now she was jobless, her master dead, her home abandoned to ghosts and memories. What was she due?
The carriage slowed, knocking Isyllt’s shoulder against the bench. She snorted humorlessly—due a cut throat or a knife in the back, if she couldn’t shake this maudlin abstraction. She might be no longer employed as a spy, but she wasn’t yet out of the game.
The driver tapped on the connecting panel. Wet wood squealed open. “We’re here, effendi,” the man called. “The Çirağan Serai.”
“Thank you.” Her Skarrish was atrocious, but money eased translation.
“When do I get to meet this friend of yours?” Moth asked as Isyllt opened the door.
“Give us a few hours.” Were they still friends? They hadn’t spoken in years; he might have no desire to see her. It didn’t matter—she wasn’t about to leave him in the Çirağan.
Moth leaned close. Light warmed the curves of her face, still soft with youth. Less so now than mere months ago. “Be careful.”
Isyllt couldn’t say the same in return—prickly adolescent pride wouldn’t allow it. I always am, she nearly said, but they both knew that was a lie. She tugged her scarf higher, hiding her mouth and chin. “Send the carriage back for me.”
Her boots splashed in a puddle as she stepped down and the wet summer night settled over her. The rain had slacked into haze. She rapped on the door and the carriage rumbled into the mist and dark, leaving her alone in front of the bulk of the prison.
Her nape prickled; only the attention of the guards on the watchtowers, perhaps, but she thought not. A shadow had haunted her steps for decads, one she’d had no luck shaking. Fifteen years of good service—as spying, theft, and murder were euphemistically called—had won her enemies, and now she was far from home, far from her friends and allies, with no king to protect her. No one to avenge her.
Isyllt touched the diamond ring on her right hand, the briefest indulgence of nerves, but it didn’t reassure her. Not long ago the stone had been filled with bound souls, ghosts whom Erisín deemed too dangerous to go free. Trapped in her ring, they had served as a power source to augment her own magic, a resource she relied on all too often. In her desire to sever ties, she had released them before she left Selafai.
Like so many sentimental gestures, it seemed quite stupid now. But hadn’t sentiment brought her here? If only doubt were as easy to banish as ghosts. She squared her shoulders and strode toward the black iron gates. She had work to do.
He was dreaming when the guards came for him.
Through the blue shade of fir trees he runs, eyes slitted against the wind, snow crunching underfoot. The scent of pine and winter fills his nose, clean and sharp. He would take joy in running, but for the shadows close on his heels. Beasts that run like men, men that run like beasts, night-shining eyes and snapping teeth, near enough that he feels their laughter and hot breath. Nearer with every step. Does he run on two legs or four? The uncertainty makes him falter, and the hunters have him. Fangs close in on his flesh, dragging him down, and the snow melts under a wash of blood.
Booted footsteps banished the nightmare, returning him to the dank filth of his cell, the weight of stone and iron and old earth enclosing him. The sharp pain in his limbs was only cramp, the moisture slicking his skin fevered sweat. Adam was glad to wake; delirium was crueler than any torture his jailors could devise.
At first he thought it was the daily meal that roused him, but the footsteps were too loud and too numerous and only one rat pressed its cold nose against his neck—they came by the dozens when food arrived. The lock clicked, and the door that hadn’t opened since his cellmate died scraped inward. The unexpectedness of it stunned him as badly as the onslaught of light and sound. Torchlight wedged glass knives behind his eyes, prizing open the seams of his skull.
He lay still as rough hands seized him, though the touch of skin made his flesh crawl. The iron they closed around his wrists was easier to bear. Vermin scurried through rotten straw as the guards hauled him up. He was glad to be rid of the roaches, but he’d miss the rats.
Was he going to the headsman after all? The thought made him stand straighter, though gummy tears blinded him and he ached from the weight of chains. Had they forgotten him while bureaucrats shuffled paperwork? He chuckled, which became a deep, tearing cough. The guards flinched at the sound. Three of them—one for the torch and two for him. Once he might have tried those odds, but it would be suicide now. Or just pathetic.
They led him past a row of iron doors, a row of tombs. Deep beneath the earth, these cells, the bowels of the Çirağan. A place to bury murderers and violent madmen and unlucky mercenaries like him. Screams and curses rose up as the guards’ boots rang on stone, taunts and pleas for attention, protestations of innocence. After the silence of his cell, each shout was another spike driven into his skull. His captors smelled of garlic and paprika, sweat and leather and oiled steel—dizzying after the unchanging stench he’d grown accustomed to.
They didn’t speak, and that was a small mercy. It was effort enough to move his legs. To die like this would be a miserable joke—the gods’ favorite kind.
Down the hall and up a flight of stairs the guards dragged him. They hauled him up the last few steps when he faltered, bruising his arms and stubbing his toes. The slighter one cursed and Adam nearly laughed—all the weight must have wasted off his bones by now.
He dreaded more stairs, but instead they unlocked a door—bronze-bound wood instead of rusting iron—and shoved him inside. He fell with a rattle of chains, scraping hands and knees on the cold stone floor. The room spun and his empty stomach cramped.
The guards spoke and a woman answered—the timbre of her voice sent prickles of familiarity across his neck. Tall and thin, dressed in dark colors. A veil hid half her face.
“Leave us.” Her voice was cold, her Skarrish heavily accented.
“Are you certain, effendi? He is dangerous.” The acrid scent of nerves wafted from the man. They couldn’t fear him, not like this.
“Does he look like a threat?” Adam wanted to snarl at the dry dismissal in her voice; he wanted to laugh.
“As you wish.” The door slammed shut as the guards retreated.
He knelt, head down, letting his eyes adjust to the candlelight. The sight of his hands sickened him: bone-thin and broken-nailed, ragged and embedded with grime. Soft where they had been hard with sword calluses. The manacles hung loose around the knobs of his wrists. Matted plates of hair fell in his face; he was crawling with lice, and glad for once he couldn’t grow a beard.
“I know I’m pretty,” he said when the silence stretched, “but did you have me brought up here just to stare?” He coughed again and spat thick phlegm. He wanted to stand, or at least square his shoulders, but the shakes didn’t allow so much pride.
The woman laughed and stepped closer. Her scent cut through his own stench: clean skin, cool and bittersweet, threaded with poppy oil and cloying myrrh. Recognition quickened his pulse.
“Quietly,” she said, in Selafaïn this time. “I’m not using that name here. You look like you crawled through all nine hells, and a sewer besides.”
“Or a war and an Iskari prison. What are you doing here?”
The light was unkind when she drew aside her scarf—she’d lost weight where she had none to spare, and bruises darkened her cold grey eyes. With her pale skin she looked like one of the bardi beyaz—the white jackal women who prowled cemeteries and sang for those about to die. Small wonder the guards feared her.
He hadn’t seen Isyllt Iskaldur in years—in all his dreams of rescue, freedom had never worn her face. But now she knelt before him and unlocked his shackles.
“I’m not dead, am I?” He could imagine her gaunt, aquiline features on the Lady of Ravens all too easily.
She laughed, but her smile fell away. “Not yet. We’ll see how long you survive my company. Saints and shadows,” she swore, looking closer. “You’re sick.”
He tried to shrug—it became a convulsion. “Prison fever. It comes and goes.”
“You need a doctor,” she said with a scowl.
“I need a bath.”
The room blurred as he rose. Isyllt reached to steady him and he flinched from her hand, from the shock of human contact. He shrugged apologetically, leaning against the wall.
She shook her head with wry understanding. “All right. Bath first. You’re too filthy to die.”
Adam wanted to watch the prison’s black walls fall away, but as they passed beneath the gate the red tide of delirium washed over him again. He saw nothing of their route down Hapishane Hill and into another decaying neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Chills and fever rode him in turns, Isyllt’s voice a pale thread weaving through them. He clung to it. Monsters circled, hungry and waiting, but the scent of her magic kept them at bay.
After the carriage came a confusion of light and voices and falling, hands clutching him at every turn. An echoing building that smelled of moss and wet stone.
“Are you mad, effendi?” A boy’s voice, high with shock. “You’ve brought plague into the house.”
“It’s prison fever,” Isyllt answered. “Burn his clothes and kill the vermin and you’ll be fine.”
An argument followed in bad Skarrish and equally broken Assari. Coins rattled. Isyllt must have won, because the next time the darkness rolled back they were still in the damp place. Adam lay on his back on a hard, thin bench. Water rippled nearby. Either he’d get his bath, or she planned to drown him and put him out of his misery.
“Wake up,” Isyllt said, her voice close above him. With his eyes shut the pain in his skull was bearable. Cold metal brushed his chest and he flinched so violently he rolled off the bench and onto the tiled floor, bruising hand and hip. Isyllt swore and crouched beside him, a pale and dark blur through a film of tears. Lamplight shattered off the folding knife in her hand.
“Your clothes are coming off one way or another,” she said, implacable. “I don’t think you’re in any condition to do it yourself.”
He held up one shaking hand, counted six, seven, eight fingers before his eyes focused again. “Maybe not.”
They were in a private bath, low and dim. Intricate tiles covered the room, chipped now and furred with moss. Pieces had fallen from the mosaicked ceiling, leaving robed figures blind and faceless. The water swirling in the pool was clean, though, and that was all the decadence Adam needed.
“Where are we?”
“A safe house. Just to get you cleaned up—I’m not taking you back to my rooms with fleas. A physician will be here soon.”
She stripped away rotten cloth as she spoke, and soon Adam crouched naked on the slick tiles. Red fever-rash splotched his chest and stomach beneath caked filth; the sickly sweet smell of pus wafted from infected scrapes. Isyllt didn’t recoil, but he read the disgust on her face.
“How did you end up in the Çirağan?” she asked as he lowered himself into the water. Tepid, but it shocked his fevered skin. “Buying you out wasn’t cheap.”
He ducked his head before answering. The plunge sharpened febrile wits. “A border skirmish between Sarkany and Iskar.” He coughed, spat green phlegm. The current carried it away, swirling toward a drain on the far side along with grey ribbons of dirt. “The Sarkens hired me. They lost. Their soldiers were ransomed back—we mercenaries were their blood-price. How long? It was spring when they led us in—”
“Last spring. It’s Merkare now.”
He felt the words like a blow to the chest. Midsummer, the solstice already passed. A year of his life, gone. “How did you find me?”
“Kiril’s agents.” The spymaster of Selafai. Isyllt’s master, and the man she loved. Their falling-out had haunted her during the mission she and Adam had shared three years ago—from the flatness of her voice, not much had changed. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
“Why send you? He must have people in Iskar.”
Instead of answering, she nudged a tray across the floor with the toe of her boot: soap and oils, combs and scissors. Attar of roses, sandalwood, cassia—the profusion of scents made him sneeze. He finally found a dented cake of salted mint that didn’t make his eyes water.
“Your hair,” Isyllt said, crouching beside the pool. “The nits we can kill, but the tangles—” She shook her head.
“Easier to cut it off.” Lather stung his eyes as he ground the soap into his skin. A grey skim of suds drifted across the water.
A smile teased the corner of her mouth. “But a pity.” Her own hair, black as his but finer, slithered free of its pins to trace the square angle of her jaw.
Adam shrugged. “It’ll grow back.”
Isyllt flinched, so soft he barely caught it. She picked up the scissors.
The physician arrived soon after, an old Skarrish man with a limp and teeth stained by betel nut juice; the peppery bitterness of the leaves soaked his skin and wafted sour with every breath. If being roused before dawn to treat foreign spies was unusual for him, he gave no sign. He poked and prodded Adam, tested his reflexes and confirmed the diagnosis of prison fever, as well as weakness from long captivity. For the former he prescribed willow bark, blue mold, and garlic, and for the latter wine boiled with iron nails and milk fortified with beef blood.
“But first,” he told them both, “rest and clean water, and plenty of both.”
Rest was the last thing Adam wanted. From the frown creasing Isyllt’s brow, she felt the same way.
“What’s wrong?” Adam asked when they were alone again, waiting in a threadbare foyer for their carriage. The lightness of his head unnerved him. The slice over his left ear had already scabbed; he’d only flinched from the blades once.
“Someone’s following me,” Isyllt said, tugging her veil up to muffle the words. It couldn’t disguise the tension in her limbs, the haunted, hollow look around her eyes. “It might be the caliph’s people—I’ve been careful, but they’ll find me sooner or later. But someone was watching me in Thesme, too.” Her eyes narrowed. “Maybe all the way from Erisín, but I was too distracted to notice.”
That wasn’t all, but wheels clattered to a stop outside before he could press the matter. He scanned the lamp-pierced darkness as the door shut behind them. A quiet, crumbling neighborhood, cleaner than many, but still layered with smells: animal droppings and human waste; the sour sweetness of rubbish; garlic and spices from nearby kitchens. Overlaying it all was the tang of rain on warm stone—he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed that particular smell.
His back itched as he climbed into the carriage. His hand ached for a sword-hilt, never mind the strength to use it. Isyllt’s blade was a quiet bulge beneath her coat and he’d seen what her necromancy could do, but he’d hate to let one skinny spy do all the work in a fight.
The driver—befuddled but much richer after his unusual night—delivered them to a narrow house on Mulberry Lane. Two-storied and square-angled like so many in the city, with walls of stained ochre plaster and a yard choked with grass and weeds. The windows were dark. Isyllt stroked a finger across the courtyard gate, and the wrinkle between her brows told Adam she was spellcasting.
They stood in the darkness of the overgrown yard, listening to the rustle of wet mulberry leaves and the steady drip from the eaves. Cats fought and courted in an alley, and somewhere a woman sang to a crying child.
“What’s wrong?” Adam asked again, watching Isyllt through swaying leaf shadows. He thought she would put him off once more, but slowly she turned.
He let out a sharp breath. The spymaster had been in poor health, but the tension in her neck didn’t speak of sickbeds and the perils of age. Adam had lost many friends and comrades over the years without a chance to say good-bye; it still stung. The old man had been his mentor once, and later an employer and something like a friend. He reached for Isyllt without flinching, offering comfort, but she didn’t move save to shiver at his touch.
“When?” He withdrew his hand, frowning. He remembered cool pragmatism, but not the icy brittleness that held her now.
“Six months ago. I…don’t work for the Crown anymore.” She looked up, her eyes shining in the dark. “Will you stay?”
Flat and casual, but he could guess how much the asking cost her. He was sick and weak, with no money and nowhere to go, not to mention she had saved him from slow death. None of that could touch the hurt buried deep in her voice.
He remembered his dreams of snow in the mountains, the clean pine chill of the high forests. The nightmares of demons chasing him. The demons would chase him anywhere. The mountains would wait no matter how long he stayed away.
She nodded, and he watched her rebuild herself—spine, shoulders, the self-assured tilt of her head he remembered. She scanned the night one last time and led him into the empty house.
The city slept, stifled by the midday sun.
Throughout Ta’ashlan shops closed their shutters against the glare and merchants retired to uneasy sleep while dogs and beggars curled in the shade. Dust settled in empty streets, undisturbed by feet or wheels. Even the temples of the Unconquered Sun fell silent. This hour was fit only for rest and restless dreams. Jinn dreams, men called them.
Jinn had nothing to do with it, as Asheris al Seth knew well.
He stood in the scant shade of a crumbling mudbrick wall, one eye on the house in front of him and one on the street. A hot breeze stirred eddies of sand, rattled chimes, and fluttered laundry strung on lines, but couldn’t cool the air. Heat-shimmer rose from the rooftops; the sky was a hard ceramic blue, kiln-baked. The street was strewn with crumbled lily petals and scraps of wilted crepe left from the Festival of Inundation that had ended three days ago. The flooding of the Ash and Nilufer offered surety for the next harvest, but did nothing to lessen summer’s grip.
In richer neighborhoods foolhardy tourists might venture out of doors, along with the water sellers and fan peddlers who catered to them, but in the slums of Marqasith Court the residents took what respite they could from the withering heat. There was no one to watch him—his outstretched otherwise senses told him so.
Other senses, those that had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with survival, told him he’d been followed here. Was followed still.
Paranoia, Asheris told himself. His own anticipation run wild. Even if someone were watching, he wore illusion layered with wool and linen. Other mages would be hard-pressed to see his true face; kamnuran would overlook him altogether.
He clenched tingling hands at his sides. The longer he stood here like a fool, the greater the chance that he would be seen. He’d searched too long to lose his quarry now.
The building was one of hundreds like it crowded in the neighborhood: red and ochre brick, walls tilting on their foundations, the roof repaired with palm thatch. Broken shutters dangled from blind windows. The tiny lawn was sere and brown, only one small lemon tree clinging to life. Unlike its neighbors, which might shelter three or more families in such a space, this house held only one heartbeat.
An unlooked-for convenience. Asheris wasn’t sure he trusted it.
The door was unbolted. Skeins of wards draped the threshold, tangled and untidy. He remembered Jirair’s craft as intricate and convoluted, lovely in its complexity—his throat tightened under the ghost of the collar he no longer wore. These spells were too knotted to pick apart, so he simply smothered them beneath his own. Jirair wouldn’t need them again.
Inside, the little house reeked of urine and rot and opium. The front rooms were curtained and shuttered, and the drone of flies carried through dim, fetid air.
For three and a half years he’d searched for Jirair Zadani, the last of a cadre of the old emperor’s mages to escape him. One last piece of vengeance. Jirair had stayed just beyond his reach, running from city to city, hiding in all manner of unlikely places, vanishing for months at a time. Asheris had grown so used to the chase that he nearly hadn’t noticed when Jirair slunk back into Ta’ashlan, settling in Marqasith Court. Who would expect an imperial mage in a tenement slum, after all?
He knew better. He himself survived in good part because no one expected to find a demon in the imperial palace.
Once Jirair was dead, no one else should ever think to.
The ground floor was empty save for filth-soaked mattresses lumped in corners and food moldering in the kitchen. Asheris drew a corner of his scarf across his mouth to lessen the reek of waste and decay and pungent sweetness. He could go longer without breath than any man, but breathing was a dangerous habit to fall out of.
A black cloud of flies followed him toward the stairs. Over their buzzing he heard slow breathing from the next floor, unchanging in its rhythm. The stench changed as he climbed, trading rot for stale sweat and unwashed flesh. The opium sweetness thickened, crawling into his mouth and nose; the heat worsened.
In the upstairs room, sunlight slanted through a broken shutter, thick with lazy spirals of dust. The molten light touched the side of a thin pallet, limned the bones of the bare foot hanging off the edge. Metal and porcelain gleamed on the tiles beside the bed—a discarded pipe. Just past the sun’s reach, Jirair curled against the wall. Asheris waited for a shout, an attack, an attempt to flee, but the mage lay still, with only the glitter of heavy-lidded eyes to show he was conscious at all.
He remembered Jirair handsome and laughing, shining with health and power. Now his brown skin was dry and sallow, stretched over fine bones, his eyes bruised and sunken in their orbits. His hair was hacked unevenly to his scalp—a remedy for lice, or heat, or care. A fly crawled over the ridges of his instep, and he made no move to shake it off. The spark of hate Asheris had nursed so long stuttered as he looked at the crumpled form on the bed.
“Oh, Jirair.” The whisper sank in the stifling air, lost beneath the low drone of insects. “What’s happened to you?”
Jirair stirred as Asheris knelt beside him, golden-brown eyes widening for a heartbeat. One hand rose—in greeting or warding Asheris wasn’t sure. Rings slid around gaunt fingers, the weight of their bezels pulling them down. Diamonds flashed beneath caked filth.
Asheris’s jaw tightened, anger burning bright once more. He remembered those hands well: cradling a cup of drugged wine, offered to a man with a slow smile; lighting sweet incense to beguile a jinni; graceful beringed fingers spreading to show a collar of golden wire, a filigreed prison to cage two souls. The diamonds in those rings were empty now.
“It took you longer than I thought it would,” Jirair murmured, not lifting his head from the sweat-darkened pillow.
“Time doesn’t mean as much to me anymore,” Asheris lied. Immortal he might be, but he could count the days to vengeance as well as any man. His neck itched. Would he be free of the phantom collar when the last of its crafters was dead? He wished he could believe that.
Jirair smiled, a flash of white between cracked lips. His hand twitched toward the pipe. “Or to me, now. But I’m glad you’re here. The poppy doesn’t stop the dreams anymore.”
“Dreams?” It wasn’t his place to unburden a man’s conscience before death, but curiosity pricked him. He hadn’t realized this would be a mercy killing.
“Of the black place. The hungry place.” Jirair’s eyes squeezed shut, creases like dry riverbeds fanning over his brow. “The storm is coming. The ghost wind, the poison wind. Kill me before it comes, please—I can’t bear to see that darkness again.”
“What are you talking about?” Nightmares. The ravings of an opium addict. But Jirair had been a clever and canny mage once, more sensitive than many to the shifting weather of the Fata.
“The Undoing.” His voice was fading, or the insects worsening. “The quiet men showed me. I thought they would protect me from you, but they’re worse. Worse than anything Imran ever did.”
“Protect you from me.” A hard knot tightened inside his chest. “You told them about me?”
Jirair shook his head, stubble scraping the pillow. “I didn’t have to. They already knew.” Skeletal hands closed on Asheris’s wrist. “Kill me now. The storm is nearly here.”
“Who—” The buzzing drowned his voice as well. Not insects. The building sound came from outside. From all around. The room dimmed as a shadow passed over the sun.
“No!” Jirair shouted as Asheris leapt up. “Don’t leave me for it! Kill me first! Please—” But Asheris was already hurtling down the stairs, through the swarm of flies and out the door.
The street lay in sepia twilight. The sun was gone, blotted out by the cloud of sand sweeping over the city with a hollow rush. Shouts rose from nearby buildings, swallowed by the storm’s roar. The wind that tugged at Asheris’s robes was the breath of a furnace. His lips cracked under its touch, sinuses parching; his eyes felt as though they’d boil in their sockets. A simoom, the poison wind that Jirair had named.
He heard Jirair cry out and fall silent. Then the storm was on him, and the world shrank to a fury of heat and sand. Blisters rose on exposed skin, scrubbed bloody by flying grit. Asheris closed his eyes against the scouring wind before it scraped them out.
Simooms killed humans and livestock easily, but the jinn had no fear of them. Before he was bound in flesh, Asheris had danced with such storms across the Sea of Glass. They were kin. So why was his stomach filled with cold, even as the heat bore him to his knees?
He opened otherwise eyes and nearly wept. Past the veil of the Fata, what rolled over Ta’ashlan was not a cloud of dun and copper dust, but a seething inky blackness. Not the absence of color but the antithesis of it. The obliteration of it. The music of the Fata, nearly silent in the cities of men, rose harsh and discordant all around.
The ghost wind. His heart pounded a nauseous rhythm. The black wind that haunted the Sea of Glass. He had never seen it in either of his lifetimes, but in both he’d heard stories. It devoured anything in its path, it was said, men and spirits alike. It poisoned wells and stunted trees, stripped unlucky creatures to bone, and bone to dust. It would take him apart layer by layer.
Asheris drew his cloak over his face and waited for the nothing to devour the world.
Simooms rarely lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, however, and even the ghost wind proved no exception. It felt like an eternity, but the wind eased, the roar faded, and finally the dust settled as the sun returned.
Roof tiles and shutter slats and laundry from the lines lay strewn across the street. The lemon tree had lost its fruits; they lay scorched on the summer-sere ground. The high thin wail of a child broke the stillness, followed by a man’s keening cry.
Sand sluiced off Asheris’s robes as he rose, glittering with tiny green-black fragments. Glass carried from the deep desert—blood welled in tiny cuts across his hands. His cloak hung in tatters. More blood trickled from his nose, coating his tongue with copper as he swallowed.
A mortal might have died of heatstroke. Being a demon had its uses.
Speaking of mortals— He remembered Jirair’s cry, cut abruptly short, and turned back to the house. His abused sinuses hardly cared about the stink now.
The floor crunched beneath his sandals. Dead flies lay in drifts across the tiles, and more died in a slowing iridescent thrash of legs and wings. Only a handful remained to buzz around him.
Halfway up the stairs, he recognized the depth of silence; he couldn’t hear Jirair breathing. His chest tightened with a curious loss. He’d come to kill the man, but felt now as though he’d failed him. To die alone and in fear…
Asheris froze at the top of the steps. Jirair had died in fear, yes—the stench of panic was unmistakable over voided bowels—but not alone. The mage sprawled supine across the floor, the mattress kicked aside. One hand clutched at his throat, the other lay outstretched. His face was no longer sunken and pale, but purple and swollen. Brown eyes bulged, bloodshot, drug-shrunken pupils locked tight in death.
Dragged from his bed and garroted. Blood seeped from the wire-slice around his neck. The house was empty to Asheris’s outstretched senses. No tracks, no opened windows.
He quashed the uneasy dread that grew where his anger had been, forcing himself to absorb the details instead. Habit kept him away from the body, to keep from contaminating the scene. Which was foolish, he realized a heartbeat later. No other investigator would study this room. No mortician would inspect the body. Jirair would be another addict murdered for his opium, just as Asheris would have left him.
He knelt beside the corpse. He sensed no thaumaturgical residue, but the killer couldn’t have come and gone so tracelessly without magic.
Jirair’s hands, claw-curled and stiffening, were bare; the murderer had taken his rings.
Sunset bells rang long that night, the temple songs loud and fervent. Gratitude, perhaps, that the day had ended with sun instead of storm, or that the singers lived to see it end at all. Hymns could always be heard throughout the city, but tonight the sound rose like a wall, a thousand voices blending into one.
Asheris couldn’t join them, no matter how politic his presence at the empress’s side would be. Every paean to the Unconquered Sun was also a ward, reinforcing the boundary between the Fata and the world of flesh, driving out spirits. And demons. He was strong enough to resist, but the words would close his throat if he tried to speak them. So while the empress stood on a westward balcony and gave thanks for another day, he paced a circuit through her private study and drank the good wine.
The room had no windows, but Asheris felt the light fade, and with it the last peals of bells and voices. A moment later Samar al Seth stepped inside, leaving a veiled and silent Indigo Guard in the corridor. She sighed as the door closed behind her and stripped off her white mourning scarf. Her undressed hair sprang up in a bronze-black cloud, breaking into locks against her shoulders.
“Well,” she said, leaning against the door, “that was unexpected.” The tightness of her shoulders gave lie to her careless tone.
Asheris moved to the sideboard to pour wine from the flagon resting in a basin of ice. Condensation dripped down his fingers, cold and sharp. Samar stripped to tunic and trousers, draping her formal robes over the back of a chair—plain linen, in respect for the dead, thick with embroidery instead of gold or stones. She kicked her sandals toward her desk, flexing long brown toes in the carpet. Every motion was ingrained with the grace of a woman raised from birth to be in the public eye; even her private carelessness was measured and elegant.
Asheris handed her a goblet, chilled metal a sharp contrast to the day’s heat still clinging to her skin. “Unexpected, but not unprecedented.”
From behind a carven sandalwood panel he heard a soft click and mouse-quiet footsteps. A heavy mouse with a limp. He filled a third cup as the panel opened silently, and Siddir Bashari stepped into the room.
Courtiers of the Lion Throne wouldn’t be surprised to find Siddir attending the empress at odd hours. He was a favorite of the court: handsome, charming, kin to amirs and senators and shipping magnates, heir to and free with his family’s considerable wealth. Samar doted on him as she would a favorite cat—her weakness for pretty eyes was well known. What might shock the court, however, was how often Siddir came to the empress through the palace’s web of concealed passages, and how often he brought grim news instead of flattery and smiles.
Siddir bowed to Samar, sacrificing grace and flourish to keep his balance on his injured leg. The wound—a hunting accident, he called it, and that was true if he didn’t specify the nature of the quarry—had been healing well, but now lines of pain were drawn fresh across his face. Asheris’s own cuts and blisters had healed before he returned to the palace, but his skin remained tender and an aching weariness lingered in his bones. Anyone who’d been exposed to the black wind felt it still. Even the empress, safely ensconced in the palace, had a bruised and hollow look around her eyes.
“What news?” Samar asked, gesturing him to a seat a heartbeat after Siddir began lowering himself onto the couch. Siddir had been her friend and agent too long to stand on ceremony; the debts and secrets between her and Asheris also precluded formality.
They were two of the three mortals to whom he’d entrusted his secret. If not for Jirair’s words, he might have thought them the only ones who knew at all. Better, he thought wryly, to be disabused of that notion sooner rather than later.
“One hundred and forty-two dead.” Siddir drained half his cup in one swallow. White mourning ribbons fluttered from his sleeves. “That have been found so far. I’ve heard reports of chaos in the madhouses, and two mages and a priest had to be subdued after they started raving.” His frown deepened. “The temple apiaries are devastated.”
Asheris winced, remembering drifts of dead flies.
Samar sank into a chair, the weary slump of her shoulders quickly hidden. “What were you saying about precedent?” she asked Asheris. “My grandfather and nurses would tell us stories about the ghost wind when we were small, and about the saints who fought it. I thought they were only stories.”
“The lives and battles of saints I can’t speak for. The ghost wind, however, was most recently documented in 1157, seen west of the Ash. University mages made the record, so I’m inclined to trust it. Before that I’ve found records from 1007 and 806. Anything earlier is suspect, considering the archive fire of 799 and Nizam the Second’s attempts at revising history. I can find no other instance of the storm striking Ta’ashlan—they usually seem to fade after crossing the Ash.”
Siddir’s hazel eyes narrowed. “There’s a trend to those numbers I don’t find at all reassuring.”
“Do the archives know what causes these storms?” Samar asked.
“No. But scholars have noticed something.” Asheris pulled a pouch from his pocket and upended it into his other hand. Red and tawny sand trickled into his palm, glittering with green glass. “The storm comes from the Sea of Glass. The cause must be there. I want to investigate.”
Sculpted brows drew together. “Is there precedent for that?”
He poured the sand back into its pouch and scrubbed his palm on his thigh. “At least two expeditions have gone into the desert searching for the ghost wind. One found nothing—the other was never found.”
“Even more reassuring,” Siddir muttered.
“I think I would survive,” he said dryly, though in truth he wasn’t certain what the ghost wind could do. He’d survived blades and bullets, entropic magic and a volcano’s eruption, but wasn’t ready to believe himself unkillable. “Let me gather mages. The university loves a good fact-finding mission.”
Samar leaned back, staring at her wine cup in silence for a time. “No,” she said at last. “I need you here.” She waved a hand when Asheris opened his mouth, moisture shining on her fingertips. “It’s a mystery worth solving, yes. But even if your trend continues, it will be decades before the storm returns. I have warlords carving up the borderlands, governors banging on the gates, and my brother’s partisans courting my niece’s favor. Help me solve these problems—then you can search the desert for storms.”
She didn’t name the other reason, not even with the twitch of a hand toward her stomach, but Asheris knew.
Ever since her coronation, the senate had pressed Samar to marry again and bear an heir. Amirs and senators paraded eligible sons and brothers and cousins in front of her, but she had yet to find a suitable candidate. Her affairs had been few and far between, and always discreet.
But not always foolproof. A decad ago she had confided to him: She was pregnant, and the father was no one she had any intention of marrying. She had another month, perhaps four decads, to make a decision before her condition became obvious.
Argument would be pointless; he saw that in the set of her shoulders and mouth. Canny pragmatism had kept her alive to claim the throne, but she was kamnur—dim, mages called the ungifted—to the bone. If she had truly seen the storm, her priorities might be different. “And if the storm doesn’t wait?” he asked anyway.
Gold-flecked eyes narrowed. “Then I’ll pray it takes our enemies with it, and saves us the trouble.”
“What can I do?” Siddir asked later, lying in the darkness of Asheris’s bedroom. They nearly always met in Asheris’s rooms—the servants were more respectful of mages’ privacy.
“I don’t know.” Asheris stood by the window, letting the breeze from the garden dry the sweat that filmed his skin. He’d learned to take comfort in mortal embraces, but tonight the touch of flesh only reminded him of death. The taste of semen clung in the back of his throat, salt and decay. Even the green scent of the gardens smelled of rot.
“I could go to the desert, if you think it would help,” Siddir said after a moment of silence. “It’s easier for me to slip my leash.”
“It’s too dangerous for kamnuran. If the storm returns—” His jaw tightened at the thought of Siddir’s brown skin peeling off muscle and bone.
“I’m in no condition to outrun it,” Siddir finished, his voice threaded with frustration.
“You can help me find these so-called quiet men.” Asheris had told Siddir about his final conversation with Jirair, but hadn’t yet shared it with Samar. His place in the Court of Lions depended on secrecy—it would be better if the empress didn’t come to consider him a liability.
He stared at the window, frustration knotting his fists. Siddir, however clever and resourceful, was no mage. And no matter how brilliant Ta’ashlan’s theoreticians and battle mages, they were hampered by lack of exposure to the Fata. In a land where death was taboo, the study of undoing was in short supply. He needed—
Asheris turned, cutting off Siddir’s reply. “No, there is something you can do. A way to slip your leash. If you’re willing.”
“Whatever you need, I can do.”
“I need an entropomancer. I need Isyllt Iskaldur.”
Across the desert, past the rush of the River Ash and the burning wastes of Al-Reshara, an old woman sat beside her mirror in an empty house, waiting for news. Nerium Kerah didn’t study her reflection as she might have decades ago. She had known her share of vanity, but now she felt all her years and battles in her back and hips and spotted, blue-veined hands; she had no need to see them in her face.
Light slanted through the windows, hot and honey-gold, undimmed by the storm that raged far across the empire. If she looked east she might see the stain of its passing across the desert, but that view was of no more interest to her than her reflection. She’d seen the devastation of the ghost wind before.
This was the first time she had caused it.
Nerium shook her head. She was weary enough without regrets. With nearly a hundred years of service behind her, she had seen what the storm wrought—other members of Quietus had not. Perhaps now they would understand what would happen when the old seals, the old ways, finally failed. And fail they would, of that she had no doubt. Other members of the Silent Council deluded themselves that the darkness they bound in diamond prisons would stay bound forever. Or at least another thousand years—it was difficult to maintain personal investment in something that might happen centuries after one was dead. Even she couldn’t imagine she would see the turning of the next millennium. Not in this decrepit flesh.
The voice came from the dark glass, husky and breathless, edged with fear. Nerium winced to hear her daughter afraid, but she counted to ten before she responded, keeping her face and voice calm.
“Is it done?” She brushed the surface of the mirror, and her own tired face gave way to another. Like watching time roll away: the loose flesh of her throat and jaw firmed; close-cropped hair darkened; the lines on her face smoothed. Then the illusion vanished, and the woman in the mirror was herself again. Nerium tried to recall the name her daughter was using now, but it escaped her.
“Yes, it’s done.” Annoyance replaced fear in her voice, but the younger woman’s eyes were wide and dark and shadowed, olive cheeks pale and splotched. “What happened? The storm—”
“Isn’t it obvious? The seals failed. We’ve lost a diamond, years before schedule, and another is close to failing. We’re sealing the breach, but the system won’t last.” The words were dull with repetition by now. With any luck, she’d only have to present this lecture one more time.
“I have Zadani’s rings—”
Nerium shook her head. “Only a stopgap measure. We don’t have enough stones to keep this up, no matter what Ahmar claims. She would scheme and delay us all into oblivion. But we won’t let that happen.”
Her daughter’s head tilted at that we, not bothering to hide her weariness. “What do you need?” She kept her voice pitched low and her eyes flickered to one side.
“You on a ship to Kehribar within three days.” Dark eyes rolled, and Nerium nearly mimicked the gesture. “I don’t ask the impossible.” Sending her best agent to clean up a colleague’s mess had irked her, but it meant her daughter was placed to leave Assar quickly.
“No, only the intensely annoying. What’s in Kehribar?”
“An entropomancer. Isyllt Iskaldur. Bring her to me. Offer her anything she wants. Find the right leverage.”
“She’s under surveillance already, isn’t she? Why do I need to bring her in?”
“Her watcher is one of Ahmar’s pets. I need someone I can trust.” Her daughter glanced aside again, tracking some distant sound. Behind her Nerium could make out red hangings and candles. “Where are you?”
“At church.” She grinned at Nerium’s frown; the temples of Ta’ashlan were also full of Ahmar’s pets. “Shall I ask for absolution while I’m here? Wash the blood from my hands?”
“There isn’t any, is there?”
She snorted. “Of course not. I used a wire.”
“Find Iskaldur. Keep me informed.” Nerium touched the mirror again, and the connection broke. Her own grey and weary face took its place once more in the glass.
Her knees cracked as she rose to dress and her robes weighed heavily on her shoulders. The day stifled, and she would have been just as happy to go to her fellow councillors in a nightdress, but Quietus was fond of formality and comforting rituals.
The light didn’t change, but Nerium felt a shadow gathering behind her. A smell like char and bone and the musk of insects drifted through the room.
“She looks tired,” the shadow said with a voice of rasping sand. “You work the poor child too hard. But you were always careless with your toys, weren’t you?”
She turned, because it was weakness not to look. The creature in the corner was darkness and smoke, roiling like storm clouds within a tall, gaunt outline. His head was a vulture’s, bald and beaked and snake-necked. Ragged wings lay folded down his back, and two pairs of arms crossed his sunken chest.
“My daughter is none of your concern.”
“I’ve always felt a kinship with her. We failed experiments should stick together.” Sunlight glinted on dust motes inside him as he moved forward.
“She isn’t a failure.” From the mocking tilt of his head, Kash knew it for a lie.
“Merely a disappointment, then.”
“I don’t have time to play with you today, Kash.”
“No, nor strength. You’re so tired.” He drifted behind her, resting insubstantial taloned hands on her shoulders. “You’ll wear yourself to rags if you don’t rest.” His wicked beak brushed her cheek. “And when you fall I’ll be there to eat your eyes.”
She shook her head. His taunts had long since lost their power to unsettle her. “Not today, Kash.”
“No? What if I tell the others what you’ve done? I don’t think they’d appreciate your games.”
“You don’t want me to face council justice. You want revenge.”
“Maybe I’ll take whatever I can get. I’m used to scraps and carrion, after all.”
“You’ll get your chance. But not today.”
She turned, his cold shadowy form still pressed against her, and laid her hand against his beak. Under her fingers it was solid as any living bone and chitin. She spoke a word of silence. Kash recoiled, but the spell had already taken. His beak opened in a silent hiss.
Once she would have trusted him to keep her secrets. Once he had trusted her to keep her promises.
With a word of banishment he was gone, and she was alone again.
Her knees and neck ached as Nerium left her rooms, the familiar pains worse than they had been two days ago—the ghost wind’s handiwork. Qais had been spared the worst of the storm, protected by layers of spells, but its shadow lingered.
The mages’ dormitory was silent; even the tall brass-studded doors swung shut behind her with only a whisper to mark her exit. The Chanterie, the red sandstone hall was called, and had been for centuries. Nerium didn’t know the cause, but assumed it was a bitter joke; this was not a place for music.
The courtyard too was quiet, buried under drifts of copper sand. Wide pools lay stagnant, overgrown with weeds and filmed with droning midges. Green water shone gold in the westering sun. Qais wasn’t as deserted as it appeared—farmers and craftsmen and soldiers lived here, servants who should have been tending the pools—but she could go days without hearing anyone. She couldn’t remember when she’d last seen children playing in the desolate streets.
Nerium frowned. She was hardly sentimental about children, but their presence here served a function—fresh life to ward off the constant shadow of decay. Swept streets and clean fountains also served: order combated entropy, and mastery over one’s environment had thaumaturgical benefits as well as aesthetic ones. She would have to speak to the staff—too much was at stake in Qais to let the city fall into disrepair.
The city was a replica of lost Irim, carefully constructed after its doom. As much red sandstone as the survivors could carry away from the ruin had been reused—the rest had been carved from the same cliffs in Hajar. Gardeners bled myrrh trees as they had in Irim, though the Smoke Road that had carried wealth and incense across the desert was long abandoned.
Qais was meant to be a monument to all that had been salvaged from Irim, a memorial for all that was lost. To Nerium it was a sepulchre, another corpse of a long-dead kingdom. The survivors of Irim—the founders of Quietus—could have moved on, but had instead chosen to shackle themselves to the past.
She shook her head. None of her morbid thoughts was untrue, but the black veil of despair that hung over her was another effect of the storm. With the seals’ renewal it would pass. When the moribund bindings now in place were replaced with fresh ones, she might in turn see new life brought to Qais. Or better yet, let the desert claim it once and for all.
She followed a broad, paved lane lined by crouching criosphinxes till she reached the hypostyle, a forest of fat sandstone pillars holding aloft the ceiling of sky. When she pushed aside the ghost wind’s depression, she could appreciate the stillness of the hypostyle, its latticed shadows and carven flagstones, whose lotus patterns appeared and disappeared with the drifting sand. She tried to hold to that stillness as she emerged from the columns and crossed the broad courtyard to the observatory temple, but it was no use.
The Aal, the peoples of Irim and Qais and the greater desert, had been sky-watchers, filling volumes with sidereal patterns and movements. They strove to speak to the stars themselves. This desire for knowledge, surviving records indicated, had brought doom to Irim.
The observatory was a broad building, terraced in a series of receding slabs—nothing like the gilded domes and graceful minarets of modern Assari temples. A wide staircase dominated the front, but couldn’t long draw the eye away from the round tower rising above it. From such a tower the scholars of Irim had sung to the stars.
By the time Nerium climbed the last of the steps, the sky was a wash of carnelian streaked with high, violet clouds. The Reshara desert spread to the northeast, red sand melting into the gloaming sky. Shadowed in the east, as Nerium had thought, by more than dusk; she turned her gaze back to the red stone steps.
Khalil Ramadi waited for her at the top, robed in grey and leaning on his cane. His white hair was long and neatly braided as ever, but thinner each year. Gold flashed in sagging earlobes, the last echo of the flamboyant warrior-mage he’d once been. His brown skin had been creased and weathered for decades, but now pain deepened the furrows around his eyes and pressed his mouth to a bloodless line.
“I’d hoped not to see the storm twice,” he said, offering his hand as she climbed the final step. His fingers were crooked and gnarled, trembling in hers. The band of his smoky diamond ring—twin to her own—pressed into paper-thin flesh; she doubted he could ever take it off.
“We may see it yet again if Ahmar continues to ignore the truth.”
Shoulders once broad and strong hunched further. He had been a tall man—now his curved spine pressed against his robes and bent him as low as she. “I stand with you,” he said quietly as they limped toward the tower door. “But there isn’t much fight left in me.”
Relics, all of us, she thought bitterly. Fit only to be locked away in dust and darkness.
“You deserve rest,” she said. “We all do.” If her plan worked, they would have it.
They entered the observatory tower, but followed the spiral staircase downward instead of up. Quietus had no use for the sky—their concerns were bound in earth. Nerium conjured witchlight as they descended, careful not to show the strain it took to hold the glow steady. Architects were much too fond of stairs.
The snail-shell spiral ended at a red door. Rock salt, rose-colored slabs veined with crimson and porphyry, banded with steel to hold it to the hinges. The metal showed signs of recent scouring, but rust still blossomed. Salt for protection, to help contain the darkness that slept inside. As much use as a sticking plaster on a severed limb, as far as Nerium could tell, but it was very pretty.
The room beyond the red door was round and domed, like the observation tower above it, and like the tower roughly twelve cubits across—three times the height of a man. In the center lay a black pit six cubits in diameter. Such a small space to hold so much power. So much destruction. Nerium drew a breath, bracing herself as she stepped across the threshold. Behind her, she heard Khalil do the same.
Her witchlight flared as they entered the room, reflected in diamonds set in the curved ceiling. Hundreds of stones, bought and stolen and smuggled over centuries, a fortune to ransom kingdoms. The mages who built the prison had chosen to re-create the night sky—crystalline constellations glittered coldly in black marble, unchanging, locked forever in a night centuries past. Like the salt door, it made no difference that she could see, besides beauty. The power of the stones was real; Nerium nearly staggered under the weight of magic in the room.
A man and a woman waited for them. The woman, Shirin Asfaron, was Quietus’s historian and the third member of the Silent Council who dwelled permanently in Qais. A thin, reedy woman, she had taken on the same yellowed shade of parchment as the records with which she surrounded herself. She inclined her head to Nerium, and witchlight shone against her sweat-slick brow. Her hands trembled at her sides, and the cords of her neck stood taut. She was younger than she looked, but years of living in Qais had taken their toll. She wasn’t as resistant to the constantly leaking entropy of the oubliette as Nerium.
The man, Siavush al Naranj, didn’t turn. He faced the wall, muttering a constant chant of spells under his breath as he replaced a diamond in its stone setting. He was the youngest of them all, Ahmar’s prized pupil, and very clever at bindings—vinculation, as university mages called it.
Ahmar and Siavush claimed holding Qais was an honor, a mark of great strength and trust. That was not untrue, but they were also the youngest and strongest of the circle and meant to remain so. So they lived far from the specter of Irim, guarding Quietus’s interests and their own ambitions, shaking their heads at the fate of their poor fading comrades. Trying to ignore the reality of their oaths.
The object of those oaths lay in the blackness in the center of the room, whispering softly even now. Al-Jodâ’im. The Undoing. The doom of Irim.
In all of Quietus’s years of study, no trace had been found of a greater destructive force, not even the ancient cataclysm that sank fabled Archis. In their desire to commune with the stars, the scholars of Irim called something down from the heavens, and nearly destroyed all of Khemia.
The touch of Al-Jodâ’im crumbled stone and withered flesh. Men and spirits alike disintegrated in its shadow. Crops failed and earth grew lifeless. Plagues sprang up where it passed, spreading lesions and tumors and twisting organs against themselves. In the dark times after Irim, the storms men called the ghost wind had swept across the desert, killing hundreds and stunting the land.
Out of that chaos Quietus had risen, dozens of mages who risked—and often gave—their lives to seal the hungry darkness where it could do no more harm. But Al-Jodâ’im were stronger than any spirits human mages had ever dealt with. A diamond might bind a ghost forever, but even the strongest of mage stones eventually failed under the entropic touch of the Undoing. So a new generation of mages had taken up the burden of Quietus, and then another, for over a thousand years. They pledged service till their deaths, and to uphold the seals above all else. They pledged secrecy too, lest the greed and curiosity of man cause more disasters like Irim. They had been ruled by ennearchs and heptarchs and triads, and even a few autocratic witch-kings.
And now there were five of them. Though only four gathered today.
“Is Ahmar joining us?” asked Nerium when Siavush was nearly finished. She kept her voice light despite her lingering unease. If he’d found signs of her tampering, he surely would have said something by now.
Shirin shrugged. “I’ve heard nothing.”
Siavush stopped chanting and finally turned from the wall. His face too was drawn and damp, his warm copper skin lusterless with fatigue. He held himself straight against the strain, but the glitter of his rings betrayed shaking hands. “She’s busy dealing with the destruction in Ta’ashlan. I speak for her.”
“I’m glad to know how seriously she takes this,” Nerium said dryly. “But of course, I already knew that.”
Siavush frowned. His weight shifted as if he meant to step forward, but thought better of it. No one wanted to stand close to the lip of the pit. “We all take our mission and oaths seriously. A lapse in the seals is nothing trivial. But it’s remedied now.” He waved to the newly replaced diamond. “The seals will hold, with vigilance. Ahmar will replenish our diamonds.”
Nerium wanted to turn away from the faith in his voice, the affection he still felt for his teacher. Those too would wither with time, but the reminder of her long-faded youth stung.
“With vigilance.” She snorted. “With the vigilance of Qais, you mean, while you and Ahmar sip iced wine in the comfort of the cities.”
“I’m hardly sipping wine here, am I?”
“No,” she acknowledged, smoothing her tone. “Your sense of duty is not in question. But all of our burdens could be lessened if we stopped binding ourselves to this carious corpse of a place, and to an expensive and antiquated method of vinculation.”
“There is little profit in changing methods that still work,” Siavush said, “and a great deal to risk if something goes wrong. One broken seal is enough to loose the ghost wind—imagine what could happen if we removed them all. Ahmar and I—”
“You’ve made your feelings clear. As has Ahmar, with her absence from this meeting. If not for my oaths, I would be happy to let you fail. Luckily for the rest of the world, I won’t.”
Siavush’s face pinched. “What have you done, Nerium?”
“I’ve acted, as we should have long ago. I’ve summoned an entropomancer, a vinculator. The best candidate I’ve found in thirty years to help us deal with our burden.”
“That stormcrow spy? You risk everything we work for. We won’t allow it.”
Nerium smiled, sharp and cold. “The majority is mine, Siavush.” She glanced at Khalil and Shirin, who each nodded slowly.
“Nerium is right,” Khalil said, knuckles whitening on his cane. “Something has to change.”
“Enough argument.” Shirin’s voice cracked. “Let’s finish what we came to do, and get out of this tomb.”
Nerium nodded. “Yes. Let’s.” She often wondered if the founders of Quietus called themselves the Silent ironically, or if the quarreling had come later.
Siavush frowned, but finally nodded. The four of them positioned themselves evenly around the black pit. They didn’t hold hands, but their magic commingled and flowed into a circuit.
Her blood beat hard in her ears; under its rhythm, a different music swelled. As she turned her attention to the oubliette, the whisper grew, became a song. Polyphonic, discordant, inhuman, but its meaning was clear nonetheless—loss and loneliness, exile and longing. It scraped and shivered over her skin, ached in the roots of her teeth—it would take them apart, if they let it, layer by layer, muscle and bone, until all that was left was dust.
They hadn’t let it yet.
Excerpted from The Kingdoms of Dust by Downum, Amanda Copyright © 2012 by Downum, Amanda. Excerpted by permission.
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