Safa knelt naked and painted before the sixteen elders of the Coven of the Sun, Leng's greatest alchemical council, trying to control her breathing as the temple slaves brought out her birds in their spun-steel cages. Her mouth itched fiercely and the stones of the temple's well of the sun were wet and cold beneath her aching knees. The birds, buzzard, raven and crow, screamed and beat their wings against the bars of their cages as the slaves set them down in a half-circle behind Safa. The Senior Alchemist, Omar, rose from his seat and began to chalk circles on the stones with swift, bold strokes while the other wrinkled Elders watched. Safa struggled to hold still as the elderly alchemist encircled her and then each of her birds in turn. He spent another quarter hour scribbling equations, modifiers and addenda on the wet stone, then straightened with an effort. He turned back to the elders.
“The theorems have been verified,” he said in his low, raspy voice. “Elder Abena, if you would produce the sacred battery?”
Abena, a stately woman in her middle years, stood and descended the broad, shallow steps of the Elders' Dais to where Omar stood with his back to Safa. From her voluminous red gowns Abena drew out a phial of glass the size of a man's clenched fist. The phial was half-filled with thick red blood and a rod of copper ran between its ends, anchoring the hematological charge to the planes of glass. Abena held it reverently in her henna-painted hands. She offered Safa a reassuring smile, then knelt and offered the vital battery to the younger woman. Safa took it, forcing herself to return Abena's smile despite the nauseous churning in her stomach. She dared so much more than her sponsors and elders knew. Her birds' screeches clawed at her ears as she clutched the battery in paint-slicked, oily fingers. Omar and Abena stepped back, making way for the black-robed Master Surgeon in his stark carnelian robes and gilt operating mask with its flat, austere expression. A dead orderly limped dull-eyed behind the ghastly figure, pushing a silver cart laden with copper instruments, necessitated by the nature of the alchemy involved, and little bowls of alcohol.
A hush fell over the well of the sun.
“By the Maintainer's grace, you have learned the ways of the Hundredfold Year,” said Omar. “You will be a daughter of the sun.”
“By the Maintainer's grace, you have adhered to the codes of the Oldest Laws,” said Abena. “You will be a daughter of the sun.”
A light drizzle began to fall. Safa blinked water from her eyelashes. The coven's ancient grandmistress, Farah Kadiz, got slowly to her feet. Her eyes were webbed with cataracts, her skin papery and translucent with age. She leaned heavily on her gilt cane, a shrunken skeleton of a woman in rich robes of red and black. Sorcery and alchemy united in one person. She stretched out a trembling, yellow-nailed hand toward Safa. “By the Maintainer's grace,” she wheezed, “I create you now alchemist, now philosopher, now daughter of the sun.
“Sharif, you may begin.”
The coven stood as the Master Surgeon stepped forward and gestured for Safa to lie down. She did, shivering at the cold of the flagstones. Sharif knelt and made his incision in one swift stroke, cutting just below Safa's left breast. She inhaled sharply, clutching the ice-cold battery against her grease-painted belly. Blood bubbled over her skin in feverish rivulets as Sharif carved. Safa gritted her teeth, eyes watering. Her fingers were numb by the time the surgeon took the battery from her and slipped it into the open mouth of the cavity he had carved into her. The glass was cold against her flesh. It stung, as though a dozen bees had been crammed into the cavity of her breast above her beating heart and then
Pain. Had she ever really felt it before? No. Not like this.
The sky above her, a drab and washed-out circle held within the compass of a hundred feet of mosaic stone, burned with electric light as her limbs convulsed and her brain blazed with new sensations. The battery seared the edges of her open wound, its copper transducer blazing with actinic light as the blood stored in it kindled. Dimly, Safa was aware of her birds being taken from their cages by slaves. A brief pang of guilt lanced through her as the slaves drew their copper knives, but pain burned it away in an explosion of wild color. She heard the thunder of a thousand wings, saw the land wheel beneath her as she soared. Her eyes were unskinned and she saw. Carrion sprawled across the world beneath her as she rode the thermals. All rotting, some of it still alive. Her claws grasped bark. She vomited into the gaping beaks of featherless chicks, ugly and strident.
When she returned to herself the birds were dead in their neatly-chalked circles, throats cut and wings askew, and her entire body was one exquisite ache. The rain, though it had become a downpour, no longer seemed so cold. Safa sucked aired through her teeth, then propped herself up on her elbows. A scar beneath her breast, thick and ropy, was the only evidence of Sharif's incision. The Elders watched her in silence. The Master Surgeon had removed his mask and stood cleaning his instruments in an alcohol solution, ignoring the others. His dead slave scratched fitfully at its battery harness. The rain drummed against the stones and the seated Elders watched like so many solemn statues, shielded from the downpour by the dais's overhang. Old faces full of interest, boredom, lecherous conceit.
“The ceremony is finished,” said Farah Kadiz, tapping her cane against the dais. “You are elevated to the rank of philosopher. Be welcome among us, Safa Khan.”
Safa stood slowly and held out her arms as a slave stepped forward to robe her in black. The material was warm against her skin. “Thank you, khanum,” she said, and bowed. She turned and left the well of the sun, the beat of her new heart a tinny rhythm against her sternum. She fought to keep her pace even, her breathing slow. When she had left the well and its inhabitants far behind she ducked into a lightless alcove and vomited up her little secret. The eyeball landed in her cupped palms in a puddle of bile and saliva. Swallowing it had been an ordeal, and she'd downed nearly a quart of wine before letting Bassam brand her mouth with an alchemical circle to harness its properties to the greater purpose of the ceremony. She grinned, crushed the bloodshot sphere in her fist and flung the jellied remains out the next window she passed. Stepping lightly, she raced through the cloistered halls and burst out the moldering doors of the Tabernacle into the rain. Her blood sang as she raced down rain-slacked steps and turned her face up into the deluge. Her black hair was plastered to her skin, and soon her robes were soaked through. Garden slaves watched her warily as she spun in place, laughing like a little girl. Leng sprawled around the Tabernacle's colorless hill, a vast expanse of Terracotta and cut stone still garish with the trappings of the dead Empire.
It took so little effort to find the birds that roosted in the Tabernacle's eaves and in its ancient bell tower. So little effort to see through their eyes, to hear with their ears and whisper suggestions to their bright, clever little minds. Safa sat down on a marble bench, eyes closed, and with each heartbeat she encompassed more of Leng's bloated expanse. She was the pigeons in the gutters of the street of lepers, the rooks nesting beneath a bridge that spanned the frothing waters of Nura's Regret, the oviraptor lurking half-dead in the alleyway outside the fullery, the old raven perched on a stand in the corner of a cobbler's shop. It had worked.
It had worked.
Bassam was dozing by the darkened window when Safa returned to their little apartment just north of the market. She paused in the doorway, water puddling around her bare feet. Her lover was a tall man, lean and whipcord strong with thick, curly black hair and a thin scar running from the corner of his right eye to his temple. Safa crossed the narrow room in three quick steps, shrugging out of her sopping robes as she did, and slithered into Bassam's lap. Her back fit the plane of his chest as though the two had been made for each other. His arm wrapped around her waist, his hand splaying over the soft skin of her stomach. “You're wet,” he said.
“Aren't I always?”
“Did it work?”
She twisted snakelike in his arms and kissed him, running her tongue over his uneven teeth. “Yes,” she breathed against his mouth. “It worked.”
He fairly flew out of his chair, spinning her as though she were a child. He let out a great shout of laughter, then pulled her close against his body. She tore at his clothes as he covered her breasts in kisses. His hand slid between her legs as she undid his belt and tugged his tunic over his head, trembling as he parted her lips. Hot and moist she moved her hips, sucking hungrily at his neck, his mouth, the curve of his shoulder. “I knew it,” he said as he guided her down to the floor and straddled her, his fingers sliding free of her wet cunt. “I knew it would work.”
Safa shuddered in pleasure as she guided him into her. His familiar length electrified her, sending little tremors down her legs. “Don't stop,” she moaned.
He pinned her arms to the floor and leaned down close to her. The heat of his breath washed her ear. “Now nothing can stop us.”