Sunday, June 5, 2011


Bassam was in his workshop when Safa awoke, stiff and sore, in their bed to the sound of wings flogging air. She shook her head. The metallic clang of hammer on nail echoed through the apartment. She stretched, savoring the delicious ache of tortured muscles slowly uncoiling. The tympanic thumping of her new heart sent quiet little shocks through her chest. Safa yawned, kicked free of the tangled sheets and slipped out of bed. The morning sunlight slid across her skin as she hunted through discarded clothes for something clean. She found an unstained robe hung over the back of a chair and threw it on. It was novice brown, but her black philosopher's robes hadn't arrived yet. She snatched a softening peach from the low stone counter where Bassam did his baking and padded barefoot down the rickety wooden steps behind her reagent cabinet to the basement workshop.

The mingled stenches of tanned leather, gutted fish and wet sawdust assailed Safa's nostrils as she pushed past the heavy tapestry at the base of the stair. Bassam's workshop was a square dirt-floored space twenty paces to a side, its walls occupied with low wooden benches and pegboards where the countless tools of his artificery hung, all polished to a ruthless sheen. A small forge bulked in one corner beneath a canvas-covered vent, its coals glowing cherry red. Stout beams, transmuted by Safa from cheap pine to solid granite, supported the ceiling. Bassam was at his lathe in the center of the room, whistling as he worked the treadle Sawdust flew as the arch he was shaping scraped back and forth across the lathe's steel blade. He grinned, catching sight of Safa, and the arch came to a halt in its leather braces. He removed his protective goggles. “It should be ready for next week,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder at the half-assembled skeletal sphere of oak and iron looming behind sagging canvas sheets at the back of the workshop. A bench beside it held a score of fine-ground glass lenses pillowed on crushed velvet. A battered wicker chair sat despondently within the sphere, joined by heavy chains to its higher supports so that it hung hammock-like at the center of the construct.

Safa clasped her hands together. “It's beautiful.”

Bassam went to the lenses and slid one carefully from its velvet cushion. He turned back to her, grinning. “Once the mountings are finished they should rotate smoothly. You'll use the pedals on the chair to switch between lenses.”

Safa joined her lover at his workbench, sliding her arm around his as she bit into the peach she'd taken. She leaned against him. “It's all very clever. I'm afraid I'm but a poor woman and can't fathom the complexity of your craft.” She kissed his neck with juice-stained lips.

Bassam assumed an air of ponderous dignity. From the pocket of his loose work robe he produced a foot-long ruler which he tapped against the largest of the sphere-cage's iron supports. “It's all terribly academic,” he drawled, affecting a passable imitation of the Coven's Master Historian, the ancient and universally disliked Ustad Babar. “The iron superstructure focuses your raging ego into an alchemical medium which, when interpreted by the lenses, will allow mere mortals to apprehend your closeness to godhood and thus attain a proper state of awe.”

Safa laughed and punched Bassam in the ribs. She slipped free of him to pace around the sphere, pushing past the musty canvasses around it. Its four thick iron legs were worked to resemble crows' claws. The whole ponderous contraption stood almost eight feel tall. Its wooden frame, built within the larger iron one, was joined to the chair's base by a series of oaken poles connected by leather straps to the chair's pedals. The frame itself was a series of interlocking runners, dowels and mounts so clever that Safa had trouble tracing its convolutions. She ran a hand over one of the curved iron bars. It was rough and cold against her palm. “It really is beautiful,” she whispered.

Bassam replaced the lens in its cushioned box. “How long until you return to your lessons?”

“Three days is usual for a new philosopher. Sharif will inspect the battery and then I'll stand for examinations. I think Omar wants to take me on as his apprentice.” Wings beat at the edges of Safa's thoughts in a sudden storm of feathers, glossy black as midnight. She pinched her nose between thumb and forefinger until they faded.

A heavy hand descended on her shoulder. “What is it, darling?”

“Nothing I didn't expect,” said Safa. She turned to Bassam and hitched her lips into a radiant smile. “I'm going upstairs to make tea. I want to try something after breakfast.”

Her lover glowered at her, dark eyes narrow and suspicious. She kissed him on the cheek and retreated back up the stairs to their cramped apartment where she hung a kettle over the hearth and spent a quiet while prodding at the coals with an iron poker. Sparks danced up from the reddish dregs of their last night's fire After a while the kettle began to whistle and Safa removed it. She made tea. The room smelled sweet. She stood bent over the counter, gripping it tightly as the wingbeats in her head grew in volume. Buzzards croaked. Songbirds warbled to one another, wooing blindly. Owls shifted in their musty parliaments, deaf to the clamor of Leng's daytime bustle.

And then she was soaring over the city on coal-black wings, riding the thermals in the bellfounders' quarter. Her eyes picked out even the meanest details of the streets below. Lepers reaching out with rotten hands for the alms of passers-by. A lizard no longer than a man's thumb basking atop a tiled roof, near the chimney. A noblewoman in her howdah raising a finger dusted with powdered poppy to her lips. She flapped her wings and the city wheeled beneath her. The raven's bright, hungry mind turned its attention to the spires of the Tabernacle of Learned Wisdom. In minutes it was there, hopping along a windowsill outside the office of one of the Elders of the Coven. A huge man in black robes sat bent over a desk incongruously small. He was writing in a cramped, spidery hand. His lips moved in time with his quill. The raven cocked its head, watching.
Safa watched through its bright black eyes.

...cannot sacrifice any more of our alchemists. They are needed here, to guide and instruct the next generation of novices through the difficulties of our art. Your Holiness, I beseech you-

Safa lay gasping for air on the kitchen floor, her ears full of screams and scrabbling claws. She sat up, smoothing her robe with unsteady fingers. Was the Hierophant demanding aid from the Elders' council itself? Had some of them already pledged themselves to the brewing war? She took a long, steadying breath. More time. More reconnaissance around the Tabernacles. Once she had mastered her new gift, she could begin to exploit it in earnest. Until then she would go slowly. Carefully.

Everything, her father had once said, comes to she who waits.

Three days passed in a pleasant blur of wine, work and lovemaking. The battery became a familiar sensation, its cold presence in her breast as natural as breathing. She ventured out to the market several times for fish, fruit and bread, but otherwise she closeted herself with new, unproven theorems and the design for the alchemical overlay she would need to complete Bassam's machine. It was a staggering work of art, the centerpiece of their plan. If it worked, it she could sync it perfectly to the precepts of her illicit totemic linkage, the depth of her scrutiny of Leng great and powerful would be without limit. The Hierophant, the Elders, the merchants' guilds, the tradesmen and the mullas would stand beholden to her. Enough with seniority. Enough with corruption. Enough with posturing, with empty words, with the entrusting of godly knowledge to priggish idiots.

It was time for something different.

On the morning of her third day of rest a messenger in novice brown rode from the Tabernacle to invite her formally to her examinations. He also delivered six new black robes embroidered on the collar and back with the suns of Coven and Confederacy. Safa felt a perverse thrill of triumph as she cinched one of the soft, flowing gowns over her underrobe. It felt like water against her skin. She closed her eyes and inhaled its flowery scent.

Sharif's surgery was bare and cold. The Master Surgeon greeted her masked and robed in white, his dead servant standing blank-eyed and expressionless at his shoulder. “Please,” he said, gesturing to a padded iron chair. “Disrobe and be seated. I must wash.” He swept out of the room, leaving Safa to undress herself. The dead servant stared at the wall as she folded her clothes and placed them on the low bench that ran along the stone chamber's north wall. She sat in the chair, knees together, hands clasped together on her thighs. Pickled organs floated opposite her in jars of milky fluid. Silvery instruments gleamed on a velvet-padded stand. Wild thoughts chased each other through Safa's head. What if he discovered the circle Bassam had branded into her mouth? It was still apparent, if only faintly. What if he somehow detected her trick with the eye? She would be scourged. Expelled. The room seemed suddenly small and claustrophobic.

Sharif stepped into the surgery and closed its only door behind him. His hands gleamed with oils. “This is routine, you understand,” he said as he approached Safa. “I must verify that your body has accepted its new heart without complaint.” He pressed a cold, wet hand to her left breast.

“Are they often rejected?” Safa asked.

Sharif removed his hand and bent down to inspect the fading scars beneath her breast. “Not often,” he said. “Sometimes, though, depending on the nature of the totemic synthesis, complications arise. Fevers. Nausea. In some cases the effects are more severe.” He accepted a long, thin silver needle from the dead man's hand. Safa gritted her teeth as he slid the needle's tip gently into the center of her little map of scars. He drew it out and a bead of bright red blood welled up in its place. It ran down Safa's stomach, tracing its way to the contours of her groin where it vanished into the downy hair of her sex. Sharif didn't notice. He had raised the bloodied needle up to the light. Producing from the neck of his robes a little golden amulet, he touched the bauble to the needle. At once the blood became a cloud of lilac petals, falling slowly. Satisfied, he returned the needle to his servant. The dead man replaced it on the velvet stand as the petals drifted to the floor.

“A clean transmutation,” said Sharif. “Your blood remains untainted, the battery walls secure.” He began to clean his hands with a rough white cloth. “I wish you luck in your examinations.”

“Thank you, Elder,” said Safa as she pulled on her underrobe and began to do up the clasps of her philosopher's gown. She left the surgery as quickly as was polite, all the while shivering inwardly at the sight of Sharif's bland, expressionless mask and how much it resembled his slave's grey face.

The Elders' council had scheduled Safa's examination for just past noon in the echoing, dusty rectory on the Tabernacle's fifth floor. Safa arrived disheveled and out of breath with minutes to spare to find Omar, Abena and three other Elders waiting at a long stone table. Omar waved her forward with a long, brown hand. “Be seated, philosopher,” he said, gesturing to a high-backed wooden chair facing the examination table.

Safa sat. The Elders rustled through sheaves of paper, muttering to one another. One, Safa recognized with a start, was the massive alchemist she had glimpsed through the window of his study. After a moment Omar, seated at the table's center, looked up from his notes and said: “You were raised to the rank of philosopher on the sixteenth of Dust in the year 1498 of Our Holy Maintainer. The Coven's records indicate that your blood is untainted by Thulhun filth, that your parentage is acceptable and your tuitions paid by the Bureau of Readiness. These things are in order. The Coven of the Sun will now evaluate your progress as a neophyte of the Hundredfold Year and the Oldest Laws. Are you prepared, philosopher?”

“Yes, Elder.”

The hulking alchemist spoke first, his voice surprisingly high for a man of his size. “What are the Oldest Laws?”

“The immutable precepts of Alchemy,” said Safa. “The ten thousand base substances and their reagents, created by the Maintainer for our use.”

Abena drummed lacquered nails against the table. “Which transmutations are forbidden?”

“Thought, age, memory and distance.”

Ustad Babar spoke next. Safa fought the mad urge to giggle at how closely Bassam had captured his voice. “Which reagents must never be employed?”

“Gold, for it touches with Hell all that it transmutes. The brain of Man, for it is a font of madness.” She swallowed, hands clasped tightly. “The eye, for its sight is bound to alien flesh.”

There were other questions. Endless reams of them. What reaction does bone occasion in seasoned wood? How much blood is required to transmute nine pounds of flesh? What order of purity is required in bronze for the transmutation of a heart? At what temperatures is such purity achieved? Safa answered them all mechanically, reeling off lists of memorized facts. They were impressed. She could see it in their weak, blinkered eyes.

They could not hear the wingbeats echoing from the rectory walls.

No comments:

Post a Comment