From the skull of the righteous daughter came the roots of the tree that was the sun, and though her life was extinguished, she lived on. To her, oak-skulled and nameless, the Maintainer gave the Doors of Iron and the corridors between all things.
Alice set the book down on her lap and drew a deep breath. After so long starved of words, even the nameless little volume's enigmatic parables made her feel light, as though they were breathing life back into her. She could only read a few pages at a time without being overwhelmed. The fear that Ahmad would appear from nowhere and snatch the book from her hands dogged her relentlessly. She didn't think she could bear its loss. When the slaves came she hid it under a loose brick in the hearth and submitted in silence to their razors and cosmetics, their milk baths and spiced perfumes. She let them bind her into a silk tama which, while beautiful, was so tight she could hardly breathe. The plain girl who had delivered the book to her had been replaced by two others, younger and prettier. Alice had no way to ask them what had become of her erstwhile handmaid.
What had possessed the girl to bring the book? Certainly they had never shared a moment, never come to any understanding or suffered for one another thoughts of sisterly love. Alice had tormented her slaves, abused them as she was abused, and they had endured her. Now she had a book, a precious escape from her gilded cell, and she had received it from the hands of one to whom she had given nothing but venom. As always, though, the strangeness of the book itself drew her back from her troubled musing. She leafed through its well-worn pages, fingers tasting faded ink. Not for the first time that day she silently thanked her tutors, who had beaten the Machi language into her before her voyage from Maturin to wed Daud Khan. Her lips twisted, forming a bitter grimace.
What the book was about, precisely, continued to escape Alice's understanding. It began with a lengthy tract, written in an obscure form of Machi elegiac, describing in detail the creation of the world by an enigmatic demiurge referred to only as the Watchmaker. It dealt extensively with subjects Alice had seen handled only in the dustiest geological and alchemical texts. The formation of the Four Continents of Cthun, the waxing and waning of the first empires of Man, the Death of the Living Sun and the drowning of the Fourth Continent, Innesia, ancestral homeland of the Thulhun people. Where it differentiated itself from banal religious histories was that no pantheon was given primacy. Priests, it had been Alice's experience, liked to ignore the gods of other priests. The Maintainer's clerics hadn't waited long after the fall of the Empire to tear down every statue of the Three, the ancient gods of Innesia and of Maturin, and even from her room Alice had seen the smoke of Carnassa's burning Tabernacles and the rise of Ahmad's Divided Temple. Priests and prophets were jealous creatures.
The little blue-bound book had no prejudices. In it the Watchmaker gave over command of Cthun's functions to the Maintainer, styled as a sort of lieutenant angel, while other gods descended to live among their subjects. The Three ruled as God-Emperors over Maturin and Innesia. The Legion, mysterious and powerful, chose Aligher as their seat, parceling it out between them. There was a brief mention of Twin Gods of night and day that Ahmad would have killed to lay hands on, and then the poetics wound down into an examination of lesser deities and nature spirits, the mythical asura the alchemists of drowned Innesia had supposedly dealt with in blood, flesh and secrets.
The author, whoever it had been, was eloquent and talented. Their analogies were strange, their metaphors alien, but the text bore scrutiny well. One hundred and twenty-two written pages, plus three more of illustrations of complex alchemical symbol structures. She hadn't read it all, yet. The strange poetry of the first quarter drew her back again and again, entrapping her in parables and flowing verse. At last she came to the furthest extent of what she had read. The Death of the Living Sun. It read:
That slow, bright star
Born of Cthun and Heaven
First teacher of Man
Betrayed by loving neophytes
To flood and death.
Beside the poem was a sketch of a robed man sitting cross-legged on a hilltop, and where there should have been a head there was a burning solar disc. The Living Sun. Avatar of the Maintainer. His ten disciples, the sages of the Three had taught her, had turned against him and tried with a knife of cursed gold to transmute his heart to water and so drown his light, but the avatar's reaction to the forbidden reagent had been violent. His heart, transmuted, had become an inland sea and his killers had drowned with him. Now, of course, the Maintainer's Hierophant reigned in his name from his seat in Leng and the sigil of the sun flew over every great Machi city north of the Mountains of Madness. Why, in the names of the Three, had that slave given her a book of fables?
“I asked her to give it to you.”
Alice screamed and fell from her seat by the bone-latched window, her book flying from her hands as she scrambled back over the carpet away from the short, slender girl seated on the edge of her bed. Ahmad's blood was obvious in the slant of her high cheekbones and the gold of her large, almond-shaped eyes. She wore a long, dusty officer's dress sherwani that hung past the knees of her gold-embroidered leggings. “Try to keep it down, Maturi,” said the girl. “I've transmuted your guards' thoughts into dreams, but it won't hold up against anything too loud.” It was said casually, as though the mere idea were not enough to land one in Alchemical Court for infractions against the Oldest Laws.
Alice forced herself to choke down the scream that had been building in her chest. She stood, eyes darting between the girl and the book where it lay open on the carpet, its pages staring blindly at the ceiling. The girl's Maturi was flawless. “You're the Princess? Scheza?”
“And you're my father's favorite whore.”
“Yes,” Alice said dully. There was no anger at that word. Not anymore. “I am. Or I would be, if he paid.”
“Then I pity you,” said the girl, her tone softening. Real sorrow dulled the bite of her caustic smirk. “His affections aren't gentle, are they?”
Horror struck Alice dumb. His own daughter? “Please,” she said, desperate to avoid the crippling monstrosity of the subject. However awful her own suffering, Scheza's must have eclipsed it. “Why did you send me the book? Why would you bother talking to me at all?”
The girl steepled her fingers beneath her chin in a curiously adult gesture. “Did you know that my father permits his other concubines the use of the Palace library?”
A bright stab of anger drove other thoughts from Alice's mind. “What?”
“Yes,” said Scheza. She leaned her chin against her hands and tilted her head birdlike to one side, regarding Alice with unblinking golden eyes. “Of course, none of the others are latent alchemists. That might have something to do with it, Maturi.”
“I'm not an alchemist,” said Alice, her ears still ringing. “All the children at court are tested-”
“For real potential,” Scheza said dismissively. “No government wants a cheap conjuror. The alchemically capable population of Machen is twenty times its number of trained alchemists. Most Covens don't bother with anyone who can't handle a Totemic Binding. Normally, I wouldn't either, but my father had first choice of Carnassa's scholars. Pickings are slim.”
Alice bent to pick up her book, ignoring the loose hair that fell across her face. A wave of dizziness overcame her and she sat down on the carpet, swaying. She stared at the young girl seated on her bed. When she managed to find the breath to speak, her voice was cracked and thin. “I've been his for two years,” she said. Tears slid down her cheeks. She tasted salt. “Why are you here now?”
The girl slipped off of Alice's bed and padded across the floor. Her small hand cupped Alice's jaw, lifting her face up toward her own. Alice felt the chill of a metal ring pressed against her skin. “My father is powerful,” she said. “He knows secrets I haven't uncovered, techniques I have yet to master. He's dueled master alchemists in the Carnificata. His people, and there are millions of them, love and fear him as a manifestation of frightening new gods. He is a Living Sun to them. I, by contrast, am sixteen and a woman. Is it any surprise that I've had to move slowly?”
“What do you want from me?”
The golden eyes widened, as though surprised at the question. “I want to kill my father and bring his accomplishments crashing down around his corpse,” she said. “I should think that much was obvious. Will you help me do it? Even your small potential might be of use.”
Alice narrowed her eyes. Her mouth felt dry. “What do I get?”
The girl stepped back, her hands falling to her sides. “Freedom, Alice,” she said. She paused to open the door. “Keep reading, and make certain my father doesn't see that book.”
The door slammed shut. Alice was alone. She swallowed past the lump in her throat, her eyes straying to the window Ahmad had shut against her forever. Outside lay Carnassa, city of a thousand lights. Outside lay freedom. Her fingers dug into the book's cover, distorting its shape. If she really was an Alchemist, then Ahmad's throat would be the first thing she transmuted. Into shit, if she could manage it. Her hands shook.
She was afraid.