The letter offering apprenticeship had not come from Omar. Safa stared at the scrap of parchment, trying to puzzle out why Sharif Anasazi would want anything to do with her. Her performance in her surgical studies had been adequate, but never exceptional, and besides that they had hardly spoken. Yet here was his invitation in his own long, plain hand. Safa dropped heavily into a chair at the small rough-cut table in the kitchen and set the letter down beside her half-eaten breakfast of flatbread, dates and goat cheese spiced with radish shavings.
I, Sharif Anasazi, Master Surgeon, choose as my newest acolyte the alchemist Safa Khan, daughter of the state. Should she wish it, her training will commence on the Day of Visions just after sunrise in the Surgery of the Tabernacle of Learned Wisdom.
In my own hand,
The letter had arrived by pigeon with the dawn, summoning her to an apprenticeship in two days' time. Safa had not told Bassam, still sleeping after a long day at his workshop in the Plaza of Dust. Between his trade as an artificer and his work on the panoculum in the basement of their apartment he had little time for anything but sleep and rushed meals. Safa scratched at her breast beneath her robe, running her fingernails along the line of the scar where her second heart had been implanted by Sharif's own hand. It was true that she and Omar had never been close compared to other senior alchemists and their favored students, but she had always assumed he would take her on out of appreciation. She was the most skilled transmuter to have attended the Tabernacle in twenty years. Everyone said it. Why, then, had the note come from Sharif?
Wings beat around the edges of Safa's thoughts. She saw the city from above, watched coldly its man-clogged streets and soaring edifices of dead stone. Lights twinkled below her like a million eyes. To the east and the south lay the ocean, murderous and impassable save to the albatross. To the west lay the open road, to the north the empty steppe the tribes had abandoned after their conquest. Now only dusty madmen and penniless dervishes wandered there. Sometimes they died in the heat and Safa would swoop down upon them to claim their softening flesh before the jackals came.
Safa blinked and saw the plain wooden walls of her apartment, washed in candlelight. She inhaled deeply and clasped her shaking hands in her lap. Every day it grew harder and harder to fend the visions off. Once it had come upon her in the bath and she would have drowned if Bassam had not hauled her from the copper tub and pounded her back until she'd spat up nearly a liter of water and bile. Afterward she had screeched at him like a crow, struggling to remember words as he held her tight against his chest. He had found reasons to delay the testing of his artifice, the Opticus he had built for her from plans forbidden after the fall of the Thulhun Empire. He was concerned. Afraid. Soon, if he didn't come around, she would have to force his hand. She needed that machine.
A knock at the street door interrupted Safa's thoughts. She glanced up at the narrow wooden door and reflexively turned her outward eyes upon the steps. Birds roosting in the eaves of nearby buildings or preening themselves on washlines and flower boxes gave her a window through which to observe the robed and bald-headed man standing outside her door in the fading light. He was tall and rangy, his robe well-worn by travel. As Safa watched he raised a scarred fist and knocked again, scowling. She withdrew from the birds on the street, cold apprehension gnawing at her stomach. The man was no messenger from the Tabernacle. Standing, Safa retied her stained and unwashed robe, checked her sleeves to make sure her reagents were in place and moved to answer the door. If the man was a problem, she would deal with him herself. Her sweat-damp fingers closed on the door's handle. She opened it.
“Good evening,” she said, her mouth dry.
“Khanum,” said the man, inclining his head. He was taller than he'd looked through the eyes of the birds, his face gaunt and raw-boned, his scalp peeling, his eyes colorless behind wire-framed spectacles. In his long black robes he looked something like a crow himself. “Am I correct in stating that you hold the rank of alchemist?”
“You are, agha,” said Safa. “If you're looking for a transmuter, you'd be better off at the markets in the Plaza of Dust. I don't work freelance.”
The man nodded as though he had expected her response. “You were born in Carnassa, unless I miss my guess.”
“How did you-”
“To Daud Khan's lowborn mistress, Alaya.
Safa stepped back, a cold lump forming in her throat as the man slipped through the doorway. His shadow fell across her, black-winged and immense. “He kept you in his home for two years and seven days, raised you as his own until the city's noblemen began to whisper that he had lost his edge.”
There had been a house on the bluffs beneath the Floating Palace, a palatial villa with a bright, clear pool for swimming and the smell of ripe oranges from the orchard thick in the air. Slaves cleaning marble floors, women laughing in the baths. Safa put a hand to her mouth.
“He gave you a toy, a little monster made of rags”
No. No. It was impossible. Nobody knew about Baba, hidden safely beneath the floorboards under the mattress. Nobody knew.
“He threw you out into the streets.”
Cold. Hungry. Running fleet-footed from the rapers and the thieves, from the slavers at the market where she went to steal rotten fruit and old bread. Hiding in the alleyways with the filth and the dogs, fighting with other children for the merest scrap of food.
The man seated himself at the kitchen table and set down at his feet a little iron stove no bigger than a teakettle. His colorless eyes continued to pry into Safa's. She hugged herself, reagents forgotten. Birds shrieked at the corners of her mind while their wings battered her thoughts to pieces. “Who are you?” she whispered.
“I am Azurean,” he said.
Safa felt faint. She stumbled to a chair by the window and fell into it, hearts thumping. “Azurean,” she said. “You're dead. Drowned and dead.”
The last Emperor of Thul smiled a gaunt, humorless smile. “The dead have come up from the sea,” he said. “I am Azurean, Safa.”
“Why are you here?”
“To teach you. Cthun will have need of you before summer's end.”
“He is too late, khanum,” said a voice from the stove. “Man's world will burn.”
Safa stared at the little iron box, feeling faint. Outside, trumpets and horns announced the passing of a column of soldiers. They marched past beneath standards flying the Hierophant's blazing sun, boots raising clouds of dust from the parched and sweltering street. Safa watched them go by, trying desperately to think of nothing. Officers on galluses led each company, and after them came white-robed Hierophantic Alchemists seated in howdahs atop the backs of plodding hadrosaurs. The Confederate Anthem, drummed out by a hundred soldiers with cymbals, horns and muleskin drums matched the rhythm of their march. At the head of the column a Marshal with a close-trimmed greying beard and weary eyes rode a roan gelding. Golden spurs gleamed on the heels of his sabatons.
She licked her dry lips. “Why...why me?”
“The Golden Way has opened. The Moth-King comes.”
Azurean leaned toward her. His spectacles slid down his long, thin nose. “He is coming, a hunger from the heart of our drowning world. When the stars align he will be born into Cthun.”
“What can I do?”
“Find him,” said Azurean. “Find his vessel before his rebirth. I have wandered far and wide in search of him, but I have only my failing eyes.”
“You know what I did.” The crow's eye, wet in the palm of her hand as the black bird writhed in its death throes in the dirt.
“I will be your master,” he said, and his voice was frosted steel. “Take the surgeon's tutelage. Learn what you can from him and the rest of that tower of eunuchs and mystics, but know that your true loyalty is to me. Through me you will know power you cannot imagine. Through me you will regain all that your father stole from you, and more.”
The iron stove made a strange sound, almost like a child's cry.
“Don't tell Bassam,” said Azurean, and then he and the stove were gone. A bead of malachite appeared in midair and fell to the ground. It rolled away across the floor, throwing mad shadows over the walls as it went. Safa stood unsteadily, keeping a hand on the table for support. Azurean's seat was empty. The door was closed. Had he dared to transmute distance? Had he dared? She rounded the table on shaking legs and touched a finger to the back of his chair.
For an instant she stood in a different room, a vaulted chamber walled in books with a fire burning merrily in a marble grate. Azurean stood beside it, pouring something dark from a long-necked bottle. He spoke to the fire and the fire answered. And then he was gone and Safa was alone in her kitchen, tears drying on her cheeks. How had he known?
How had he known?