Take a peek at Elizabeth Bear’s Book of Iron, the standalone prequel to her acclaimed novella, Bone and Jewel Creatures, out this month from Subterranean Press:
Bijou the Artificer is a Wizard of Messaline, the City of Jackals. She and her partner—and rival—Kaulas the Necromancer, along with the martial Prince Salih, comprise the Bey’s elite band of trouble-solving adventurers.
But Messaline is built on the ruins of a still more ancient City of Jackals. So when two foreign Wizards and a bard from the mysterious western isles cross the desert in pursuit of a sorcerer intent on plundering the deadly artifacts of lost Erem, Bijou and her companions must join their hunt.
The quest will take them through strange passages, beneath the killing light of alien suns, with the price of failure the destruction of every land.
Bijou bolted alone through the marble and lapis corridors of the Bey’s palace like a messenger-boy fearing the back of his master’s hand. The red-black springs of her curls bounced against her skull with each step. Her Northern shoes flapped in her hand; she ran barefoot, bare soles sure on checkerboard floors that had warmed already with the heat of the day. Behind her, something dry rattled as if in pursuit: Ambrosias, one of her artifices.
She didn’t think Prince Salih would allow the photograph to be taken without her. Kaulas, however, would consider it teaching her a lesson.
Servants, ladies, and functionaries stepped aside to clear her path, drawing their robes against the walls. Whatever their rank, they knew it wisest to let a running Wizard pass.
They were dressed sensibly for Messaline’s brutal summer. Bijou sweated already inside her black trousered suit, the height of fashion in clammy Vyšehrad but a ridiculous vanity in Messaline. But not a vanity Bijou was prepared to sacrifice today.
Kapikulu—scimitar-wielding door-slaves, sworn to the service of the martial god Vajhir—stood like pillars to either side of the corridor’s end. Like pillars, that is, except for their coats the color of a sun-bleached sky. They also made no move to stop her, but in their case immobility was informed by confidence rather than caution. In fact, one reached out impassively and pushed open the pierced ivory door before Bijou hit it.
She let her steps slow so momentum carried her into the room beyond and onto its thick-laid carpets where three men waited.
Kaulas the Necromancer—handsome and hollow-cheeked and pale as mutton-fat, raw-boned in his height—stood against an inlaid cabinet, irritably smoking a thin brown cigarette. Each time his long rectangular hand lifted to his mouth, the bones of his wrist pulled free of his shirt-cuff and the sleeve of his suit coat. Bijou met his gaze and felt a chill like iron up her spine, a kind of hard and pleasant independence born in equal parts of her dislike for and her attraction to the man. It was easier not to like him. It kept her from making the mistake of too much vulnerability.
Beside him stood Prince Salih, the Bey’s second son, who was clothed neck to sandals in a linen dishdasha of exquisite cut. In any other company, the prince might have seemed tall: next to Kaulas he was merely not dwarfed. He was a scimitar of a man, and the architecture of his face made him seem older than his years—or rather, timeless. Where Kaulas seemed tense, the prince gave off the relaxed well-being of a cat who had commandeered the best sunbeam. But Bijou knew that like that cat, he had claws: several firearms and a curved sword hung about his body in plain sight. More hung concealed in the flowing robes.
He gave Bijou a sleepy smile, crooking an arm to sweep her into the orbit of Kaulas and himself.
The third man bent behind the massive outline of a camera, fussing with fragile glass plates that must at all costs be protected from light. He was a pet of the prince’s, and Bijou could not remember his name.
“Finally,” Kaulas said, flicking the ash from his cigarette tip into a ceramic teacup rimmed at the edge with gold.
Bijou drew to a halt and drew herself up. The clattering behind her subsided as her familiar beast caught up, reaching the edge of the rug.
“I was busy,” she said. “And I’m here now.”
She clucked to Ambrosias without looking back at it. Ambrosias was an animate, bejeweled skeleton made in the design of an antediluvian centipede. At her summons, it swarmed up her body, the sharp tips of hundreds of feet catching at the fabric of her jacket. Finger-cymbals contained within its structure made a silvery shiver of sound as it draped itself around her neck, light catching on the rough-tumbled surfaces of jasper and agate set in sand-cast copper along its length.
Ambrosias was made of the vertebrae of horses and the rib bones of cats, articulated to a ferret skull. It stretched three canes in length. When Bijou turned, it twisted around her body like a spiral staircase. She composed herself in a posture that might not look too stiff, even though she must hold it for as long as it took the photograph to develop.
“There,” she said. “I’m ready. Gentlemen?”
Ambrosias hated the flash. It clicked in distress, but held still because Bijou asked it to. Bijou was less irritated, but she too was glad when they finished and the prince sent the photographer on his way. She disentangled herself from Ambrosias, stretching the cricks of immobility from her spine. She let the bone centipede rattle to the floor like a chain of beads, and was about to suggest food when more running footsteps interrupted them.
These were the strides of a messenger, and one seemingly on urgent business. His feet slapped across stone to the carpets, where they were silenced. He ducked his head before Prince Salih, dropping to a knee.
“Salih Beyzade,” he said. “There are foreign sorcerers to see you.”
The prince’s reputation meant a certain number of people with complicated problems sought his attention, sometimes unannounced. Because those problems were often the sort that no one but the prince and his Wizardly associates could assist with, he made himself considerably more accessible to the people than his father or older brother.
The people stood in enough awe of the prince—not to mention Bijou and Kaulas—that few of his supplicants abused the privilege. Most people considered it unhealthy to come to the attention of a Necromancer—even one who, under the prince’s auspices, had devoted his tenure in Messaline to errantry and the noble deeds of an adventurer.
If foreigners had come in search of the prince, the odds were very good that something was very wrong.
Excellent. Bijou was in the mood for an adventure.
Stiffly, she permitted Kaulas to take her elbow and guide her, following the prince’s long strides, to an audience chamber in the outer circle of the palace. The chamber was warded with sigils of lead and gold worked into walls and door, and glass spell-catchers hung in each narrow window, sparkling in the slanted light.
Two women and a man waited there, all three as pale of skin as Kaulas the Necromancer himself. Bijou felt the possessive pressure of his hand against the small of her back. She didn’t think he tensed with recognition.
Foreigners, indeed. Foreign Wizards, if Bijou was any judge. And apparently the door guards had suspected the same, if they had ushered the three in here. Their stance told her more: they covered one another’s backs and blind spots in much the same way that Bijou, Kaulas, and the prince watched out for each other. Adventurers, then—which explained what they were doing so far from home. While reaching Messaline from the North was no longer a matter of weeks or months of travel by ship or train, it still wasn’t the sort of journey anyone would undertake lightly—and by their crumpled outfits and their cramped, stiff expressions, all three of these had been traveling for some time.
Bijou imagined she could smell the diesel and wind of a small aeroplane—like the one the prince maintained—still caught in their clothes and hair. She had experience with the cramped confines of the prince’s craft: the ones available for charter were supposed to be much worse.
It was only natural that foreign adventurers would seek out the local talent. That was what Bijou would have done, if an investigation had led her to…wherever these came from. Having deduced the outline of their need, she turned her attention to the folk themselves.
The man had hair the color of red metal, curling long to his shoulders. Silver streaked the copper at the temples. He wore outlandish clothes, ill-suited to the desert heat: dark-colored pantaloons stuffed into soft brown boots, a patchwork cloak in every color swept off his shoulders. It must be some mark of estate, because Bijou could see the translucent wet splotches on the shoulders of his shirt where it had rested. As he paced slowly beside the women, his stride hitched as if he had a nail in his sole. One shoe was specially constructed to cushion a deformed foot.
He bowed low as the prince entered, flanked by Bijou and Kaulas, and the flourish of his courtesy left Bijou convinced he must be an entertainer or a courtier—if, truly, there were much difference between those two things.
Beside him stood a small woman with straight hair the color of wheat straw and the sand of the deep desert, arms crossed. She had lovely features made harsh by the strictness with which her hair was dressed back into a pony tail, and she wore unfashionable clothes suited for hard traveling, though they were not as archaic as those of the man. As he bowed, she frowned and jerked herself into an unpracticed curtsey, lowering her eyes a moment too late.
The third woman made no obeisance. She was tall, and skinny as a tentpole, which only reinforced the apparent youthfulness of her features. Dark hair coursed unfettered over her shoulders. Bijou remembered from somewhere that these northerners had two words for black, dividing it into the red-black of a black horse’s hide and the blue-black of a black bird’s wing. This would be the latter, the raven-black.
Her sharp-featured face wore an even sharper expression, and she was so clad as to remind Bijou of a magpie: a white, embroidered waistcoat or bodice buttoned over black blouse and scandalous black trousers not too dissimilar from Bijou’s.
Bijou recognized the dark-haired woman as the leader, and not the sort who made obeisance to just anyone.
“Well met, Beyzade,” she said to the prince, her words exotic and sharply accented with the rough vowels of Avalon. “Your reputation is wide. Your companions must be Bijou the Artificer and Kaulas the Necromancer, then? You are the famous Wizards of Messaline—defenders of the downtrodden, avengers of the despised?”
“You have us at a disadvantage,” Kaulas said, glancing at the prince first to check his humor.
“Not for long, I’m certain,” the woman said. “This is Riordan, a bard of my acquaintance, and the Wizard Salamander. And as for me—” she smiled, and stepped forward more fully into a fall of sun. Bijou caught the sparkle of sideways light through a peculiarly colored iris. The woman had one green eye, mossy and soft—and one the hard amber of a serpent’s. The evil eye. “—I’m certain your confusion will remedy itself soon enough. Or is it possible that my reputation has not reached so far as Messaline?”
She wore a dagger in a brass-bound sheath at her hip like a tribeswoman or a barbarian, and she carried herself like a queen. That, the magpie wardrobe, and the mismatched eyes, were the clues Bijou needed to put a name to her—though in truth the young woman did not much resemble the descriptions of the storied Hag of Wolf Wood.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first thing a storyteller had gotten wrong. Or oversold for drama.
“Maledysaunte,” Bijou said, pronouncing it carefully in five syllables. Mal-eh-thuh-saun-teh. The Wizard with no Wizard’s name, no Doctor and a pseudonym, as the Uthmans did it, nor cleverly suggestive noun, as was the tradition of Messaline. The Wizard who had trained herself, without benefit of ancient customs and institutions.
The young woman’s face split with a wide, amused grin. “I guess it is rather obvious if you stop to think it through—”
“That’s a fairy tale,” Kaulas scoffed. “She’d be five hundred years old now, if she ever existed.”
“Six hundred,” Maledysaunte said. “And twenty-three. I know, I don’t look a day over a hundred twenty. I’m a sport: my brother and I both were. Neither one of us aged much past maturity. I imagine he’d still be alive, too, if I hadn’t killed him.”
That was the root of the Hag’s legend. She had been supposed to have sorcerously killed her half-brother, Aidan the Conqueror, when he would have made the tiny, sea-wracked Isle of Avalon into an empire to rival the ancient power of Danupati. That was all history, however. Most Messalines would not know that the Hag of Wolf Wood supposedly dwelt in Avalon still, secure in her cursed forest.
But most Messalines were not Wizards. And any given Wizard tended to know the history of magic, even magic of faraway lands and centuries.
“I see,” said the prince. “And what brings the three of you to the City of Jackals? And, as importantly, to my friends and me?”
The Wizard called Salamander flipped her hair over her shoulder and spoke her first words. Her voice was quick and light, wry with self-mockery. “We’re searching for the city of Ancient Erem,” she said. “We understood this was the place to start looking. And as fellow adventurers, we would like your permission to proceed.”
“You’re fools,” Kaulas said.
Bijou thrust her hands into her pockets, amused and irritated, as Prince Salih shook his head.
“Ancient Erem,” the prince said, “is not the sort of place into which one trips lightly.”
Maledysaunte paced quietly, three steps to and fro. Her arms remained folded across her bird-slight bosom. “But it is a place into which others have tripped, your highness. You and your friends, most famously.” One of her hands unwound itself from the tight, defensive wrap to gesture widely, scooping them all in. “The tale of your exploits there, and how you ran the nefarious Dr. Assari to ground and brought him back in chains, has traveled far.”
“Then so have the tales of Ancient Erem’s dangers,” Kaulas said.
Maledysaunte cocked her head. All three of the newcomers looked thin and drawn, expressions Bijou was used to seeing on the supplicants who came to seek the aid of Prince Salih’s little band. But the black-haired woman had something in her expression beyond worry and tiredness: a sense of some deep knowledge that made even Bijou wish to recoil.
She said, “We know a little of them.”
“You have a purpose beyond curiosity in going there, of course,” Bijou said. Behind her, Ambrosias chimed lightly as a breeze passed through the chamber. Bijou looked to Kaulas for support.
He did not meet her eyes, but nodded nonetheless. “Your yarn—you should spin it.”
“And see what we catch in its web?” Salamander laughed. She glanced at the bard: he waved her on. Bijou saw Maledysaunte bite her lip to silence herself. “I suppose we do. And if so, it is my tale to tell, though I will not tell it as prettily as Riordan would. We are in pursuit of an adventurer. One of the mystical sort. A Dr. Liebelos by name.”
“How not,” Prince Salih murmured, “when you are adventurers yourselves?”
Maledysaunte met his level look with a faint smile, a glance that said How well we understand each other.
“What has this man done to earn your wrath? And—more pertinently—mine?”
The Wizard Salamander sighed so deeply that her whole chest and shoulders rose and fell with it. “She is my mother,” she said. “But that is not why we pursue her. Nor is wrath, exactly. We pursue her because she has a passion for antiquities. She’s exercised it at several sites in Avalon, and as far east on the continent as the Mother River. With…predictable results.”
Given his sallow pallor, it was easy to see Kaulas blanch. “And she’s gone to Erem.”
“You understand, then,” Maledysaunte said coolly, “why it is we came to you.”
With shaking hands, Kaulas lit another of his sticklike cigarettes. When it was glowing to his satisfaction, he said, “Ancient Erem…” and then paused for a puff or two, as if to steady himself. “Ancient Erem is cursed. Abandoned by the gods. It can only be entered by night, and there are other perils and conditions. Merely reading its script is said to blind the unlucky Wizard or scientist who attempts it. It is infested by ghuls and myrmecoleons, and it’s only the ravages of the amphisbaenae that keep the latter in check.”
“In Avalon,” Maledysaunte said, “there are those who say the same of Wolf Wood, although those legends tend toward dragons and vipers. But I have never found it anything other than congenial.”
Kaulas let the smoke coil about his face like the tendrils of one of the dragons the other necromancer named, but it was the prince who spoke: arch, amused. “And can the same be said by everyone else who has ventured there?”
Maledysaunte’s thin lips pressed thinner, an ugly slash across her face. “They know what they’re getting into.”
“And now, so do you. Artifacts have been retrieved from that place…” Kaulas shrugged. “Does the good Doctor your mother carry casualty insurance?”
“Actually,” Bijou said, “I am curious. The Wizard Liebelos. What is her specialty?”
From the press of Salamander’s lips, Bijou knew that she and her friends had been intentionally withholding the information. Glances passed between them. Infinitesimally, Maledysaunte’s chin dipped—the faintest of nods. So she was the leader of her little group, as Prince Salih was the leader of Bijou’s.
“She’s a precisian,” Salamander said.
It was the rarest of magical specialties. As healers were rarer than necromancers, so the world gave birth to entropomancers galore—and only a very few of their opposites. Or complements, if you preferred—the Wizards whose art and science was that of perfected patterns and perfect numbers, of completed cycles and completed vows. Their magic was powerful and insinuating: it worked through mechanisms as subtle as the layout of rooms in a house or words in a promise. It could take years in reaching fruition, and those affected might never know.
The great precisians of history had propped up crumbling empires and founded colleges that endured a thousand years. They had a gift for making things permanent. Bijou suspected it was good there were so few of them. Otherwise the whole world might find itself trapped in unchanging amber, a fly unable to buzz.
If somebody with such an ability were to master the potent, corrupt powers of ancient Erem…Bijou would have liked to say the implications did not bear considering. But unfortunately, considering it was suddenly her job. The nausea and cold chills just came with the territory.
Should she obtain the powers of Erem, the foreign sorcerers’ nemesis would wield all-too imaginable power.
“Irrevocable curses,” Kaulas said, as if tasting it. “Enduring, impassable structures of death.”
“You don’t have to sound so happy about it.” Bijou glanced at the prince for confirmation. His expression gave assent. “I think we can help you.”
Messaline was called the City of Jackals, and jackals in quantity haunted its crooked streets. But Messaline had been built on the ruins of a previous city, a city rarely spoken of, as if to call its name might induce it to wake and shake the living city off its back. Messaline had inherited that city’s epithet; the original City of Jackals was Erem.
And the Erem in whose bones Messaline stood was not even the first Erem. Out beside the erg, abandoned to the endless rippling dunes of the Mother Desert, there was another, even more ancient city—one not so much in ruins as simply abandoned where it stood, hewn from the living rock of a sandstone valley. No one was exactly certain why it had been left for the desert to reclaim, but visiting Ancient Erem was said to be perilous in the extreme. Legend held it to be not merely the haunt of ghosts, but the lair of monsters and of inhuman beasts that dined on human flesh. There were said to be curses there that lay in wait for the unwary, and insects that would burrow into a body and eat the brain from the inside out.
Prince Salih was not the sort to be put off easily by tales of ghuls and myrmecoleons, however. Once the Northerners argued their plan—and Bijou countenanced it—it seemed as if it took fire within him. He would not be content merely to extend them permission and as much of a safe-conduct as he was capable (which meant, in practice, however much the desert tribes might be willing to honor)—no, the prince himself would visit Erem. Again.
As if the first time had not been enough.
Which meant that his faithful friends and adventuring companions, the Wizards Bijou and Kaulas, must accompany him.
Bijou could not argue it: the precisian must be stopped. And surely six of them, half of whom were experienced in the horrors and pitfalls of ancient Erem, stood a better chance than three neophytes. It was the job; it was their duty. To the city and to the world.
Bijou sat before her vanity in the bedchamber she shared with Kaulas the Necromancer, oiling her skin and the roots of her hair in preparation for the desert’s hungry dryness. She smoothed scented oil into her hands, polishing her dark flesh and pale palms to a shine. Behind her, she could hear Kaulas breathing. She watched his tall, spare shadow cross her mirror from side to side as he assembled his kit. They would set off at sunset, when there was light of twilight and then moon and stars to guide them, and they were well-shut of the killing heat of day.
“It’s a fool’s errand,” Kaulas said. Although he, too, was a pale Northerner, his accent was very different from that of the sorceress Maledysaunte and her entourage. Kaulas was not from the western isles, but rather the rich land to the west of the great border city of Kyiv, near Vyšehrad. He’d once shown Bijou on the Bey’s jeweled globe where his homeland lay. It didn’t seem so far away, but Bijou knew it could take months or more of travel on foot to reach it. Even using ships and trains, it would be a matter of at least a week.
She’d imagined a land where everyone had the straight hair and fair skin of her lover. It would be a strange world. Where everyone looked like Kaulas, or Maledysaunte, or (even stranger) the almost-albino coloring of Salamander.
“I’d think,” Bijou said, “that a return trip to a dead city where we nearly died ourselves last time…would be exactly the sort of thing to intrigue a necromancer.”
He snorted. In the mirror, she saw him lift up a length of white cloth, smooth it carefully, and begin winding it about his neck and head so that it covered everything but his eyes.
“Do you think that’s actually an immortal come to seek old Erem?” His voice echoed wistfulness.
Bijou’s fingers curled in irritation. “Maledysaunte? I believe she’s what she says she is. The Wizard Salamander is pretty, don’t you think?”
“That type is at ten-a-penny in my homeland,” he said.
Bijou noticed that it wasn’t actually an answer.
“If she’s immortal…” Kaulas settled a veil over his wrap, binding it in place with a red cotton band. Now faceless except for the squint of his pale eyes and the tanned skin of the bridge of his nose, he turned to regard her in the mirror.
The hostility in Bijou’s expression must have warned him to drop it. She’d known for years that Kaulas was terrified of death: an ironic fear, she thought, for a necromancer. Or maybe one more justified for him than for most people. She didn’t want to hear his conspiracy theories and self-pity about why Maledysaunte had managed to live forever, and he hadn’t.
“We won’t be in the sun,” she said, replacing the stopper in her vial of oil. Ambrosias wound scratchily around her ankle, anxious not to be left behind.
“There’s the morning to think of. We were lucky last time. You should prepare for daylight, in case we get trapped there over the day.”
“As long as you’re bringing plenty of water,” she said. “I’ll take some trinkets with me, I suppose.”
She’d crossed the burning sands of the Mother Desert in sandaled feet once, but she’d been following the river then, down from its headwaters in the mountains where she was born. She’d been utterly unprepared and yet she’d survived. Erem, however…
Kaulas was right: it was stupid to let past luck make her careless now. She tucked some useful things into her pockets just in case—filters, a head-wrap, a veil.
She stood. She had changed her clothes to another man’s suit, this one more rugged in its construction and of a lighter fabric: something suited for hours in the saddle and scrambling over rocks. Now she let Kaulas help her into a pale kaftan that would shield her somewhat from heat, wind, and sun. She tugged the sleeves down so only her fingertips protruded, then clucked Ambrosias into her arms. It swarmed up her like vines up a pillar in the rainy season.
“Pass me my sun hat,” she said. “Just in case we’re late coming back.”
When he did, their fingers brushed with familiar electricity…and familiar loathing. She pulled her hand back, knowing all too well that if he was good for her, she wouldn’t want him.
Prince Salih awaited them in the courtyard, behind the wheel of a roadster no one else was permitted to drive. Maledysaunte already sat in the front passenger seat, the Wizard Salamander between her and the prince. In the second row, the red-haired bard had claimed the middle seat. He must have been wearing a sword at his belt, because now he held it—scabbarded and unslung—between his knees.
Kaulas split from Bijou, walking around the car to take the rear driver’s side seat. Bijou settled into silky, squeaking glove-soft leather behind the Hag of Wolf Wood, pleased that Riordan had left her enough room for her hips without having to crowd in beside him. Long-legged Kaulas would be having a more awkward time on the opposite side. Bijou heaved the heavy door into place—it swung smoothly once she overcame its inertia—and made sure it latched. Even as it clicked, the roadster began rolling smoothly forward.
Normally, Prince Salih would not have gone out into the city unaccompanied by body guards—but he had long ago fought the metaphorical war with his father as to whether he’d be taking kapikulu adventuring. He had only won, Bijou thought, because he wasn’t the heir.
The Bey’s sons both loved automobiles. It was in their service that the roads of Messaline had come to be paved, and now Prince Salih’s roadster purred velvety over cobbles laid flat and flush by master masons. They were carved of the same golden stone as so many of the old city’s buildings, but the blue twilight washed away all color, rendering the walls and streets pale and ghosty. Messaline was coming to life with the sunset, the afternoon’s high heat giving way to the relief of evening as a long, dusty, golden thread faded away against the western horizon. The top of the roadster was down: warm, arid wind made the coiled springs of Bijou’s hair sway and brushed her cheeks like dry cloth.
The city stood on the banks of the river Dijlè, just above its confluence with the Idiqlè. Their reliable water in the vast desert was the reason trade cities had flourished and fallen and been rebuilt along their lengths for millennia. They crossed the river on one of Messaline’s four bridges, an arched stone structure so narrow the roadster’s wheels brushed the low walls at its edges. You could turn your head and look down directly into the silty, milky water.
It was fortunate, Bijou thought, that she’d ridden with Prince Salih in enough…varied…situations that she trusted his wheelmanship implicitly. If he’d been going to get her killed with his driving, it would have happened a long time since.
Bijou held her hat in her lap and tugged the caftan’s collar up to cover her mouth and nose. She was paying for her vanity, while Kaulas looked at ease beneath his veils. The streets might be paved, but that didn’t stop the dust from blowing over Messaline’s walls.
The main road south, toward the deep desert, led them along the avenue of temples. Here the thoroughfare was divided, lined on both sides and along the median with date palms and pomegranates, shaded by argan, olive, sugar ash, and lime. Temples rose above the treetops, four large edifices dedicated to the principal gods of Messaline—Kaalha, Vajhir, Rakasha, Iashti—rivaled only by the palaces built to honor the nameless Scholar-God of the Uthmans, who was worshiped here in two or three denominations. Smaller cloisters, chapels, and shrines huddled between those of the major religions like chicks among hens.
These were not the only churches in Messaline. Nobody wanted to walk the width of a great city merely to worship. But it was the highest concentration of monks and nuns in the known world, and Messaline’s tourist industry was notably proud of the architecture.
As the roadster purred past the temple of mirror-masked Kaalha, Bijou realized that a sliver of crescent moon was following the setting sun into the west. Dawn and moonset were Kaalha’s hours, and though Bijou had been raised to different gods in her youth in the two-sunned lands south of Aezin and the desert, she had adopted Kaalha as her patron here in Messaline. Under her breath, behind closed lips, she muttered a brief benediction. Kaulas noticed; she saw him leaning around Riordan to grin at her, only the crinkling of his eyes visible above his dust mask.
She looked away, lips twitching with amusement. Kaulas too had converted to the religion of his adopted city—there was something to be said for honoring the gods who were observing the land where you happened to be—but he preferred the tiger-god of summer and high noon, red Rakasha. And after the traditions of his people, he kept his devotions private.
They motored towards the city gates, which stood open even at night in these times of peace. To reach them, the prince wended through mobs of pedestrians heading out for the night markets—some leading pack animals or pushing barrows—and the inevitable bicycles, dogs, camels, and occasional man on horseback. Here and there, somebody cheered the prince and his entourage. Bijou had never been certain if that was just good politics, or if the people of Messaline really did love the Bey’s adventuresome second son. They’d be even more impressed, she thought, if they knew half of what he’d been up to.
Beyond the walls of Messaline lay hectares of rich farmland, hugging the riverbanks of the Dijlè and the Idiqlè. More date palms, vineyards, and the fallow fields of winter barley stretched to the horizon, shadowy and mysterious in the blue twilight—and then, as time passed, crisp and silver in the glow of the stars.
The roadster was equipped with headlamps. As the light faded from the sky, Prince Salih switched them on. Bijou regretted their dazzle: her eyes adapted to the brightness, so she could not see across the starlit fields. In the mountains of her birth and in the veldt they presided over like so many seated queens, stars were a rare sight, and total darkness rarer still. The single sun of Messaline, and the darkness of its nights, were precious to her.
Soon enough, they left behind the plantings for grazing land. Goats dozed on the rocky ground beside round-roofed cottages. The roadster’s passengers engaged in idle conversation, Prince Salih explaining to Salamander and Maledysaunte what it was that they passed—which village grew olives, and which mined salt—and the names of the mountains in the distance. Riordan was curiously silent, a trait Bijou did not associate with entertainers. Kaulas pulled his veil down to smoke another cigarette.
The road turned away from the river and began to ascend, narrowing into a pass between high stony hills that were mountains only by courtesy. The suspension rattled over ruts and rocks. At the top of the rise, the prince let the automobile roll to a halt on the shoulder. He killed the headlights, and for a moment they sat silently in the desert chill.
It was full dark now, that scraped curl of moon long set, but the stars burned bright and close. It did not take Bijou’s eyes long to adjust, and by the mutters from the front seat, Maledysaunte’s adapted even faster. Necromancers could see in the dark.
Before them, a sea of sand stretched into the distance, heaves and swells robbed of color by the starlight. By day those slopes were red and tawny and streaked black with mica-dust along their lee surfaces. Now they might have been cast in beaten, tarnishing silver: the eternally breaking sand-waves of the seemingly endless erg. Bijou knew it didn’t stretch forever—she’d crossed it once, as a girl who’d seen fewer than twenty harvests—but in the starlight it might as well have.
Riordan shifted on the seat beside her, his knee brushing Bijou’s as he leaned forward between the seats. His flesh felt chill through the fabric of his trousers. She placed a hand on his shoulder to be sure, and felt his cool resilience. Of course, she thought. If you were an immortal necromancer, you would want at least one companion who remembered all the years you remembered, as well.
He smiled at her, the dead shoulder under her hand rising and falling apologetically.
She smiled back. Just because a man was dead was no reason to be rude.
Ambrosias, curled in a heap at her feet, rattled sleepily. “Right,” Bijou said. She jumped up on the seat, sat on the door-edge, and swung her feet over. “No automobile beyond this point.”
Heat still rose from the sun-baked earth, warming Bijou’s feet in her boots even as the dry cold of the air raised goose flesh along her neck and shoulders. She turned to collect Ambrosias: it reared up atop the door and made a bridge to reach her. On the other side of the roadster, Kaulas was opening his door and stepping out with dignity. Riordan followed Bijou, even more nimble. He simply placed a hand on the door and vaulted over, swinging his legs high. Limp he might, but being dead obviously had not affected his agility.
“Shank’s mare?” he asked without pleasure, surveying the slope down to the dunes. The breeze off the desert streaked hair across his face. He wiped it back with his left hand and seemed to test his stride against the sand.
Bijou shook her head, beads clicking in her hair. “We’ve come this way before.” While Kaulas offered Salamander a hand out of the car, she set Ambrosias down beside the road and stretched up tall—or as tall as she could stretch—letting her rings sparkle in the starlight.
Then, with a glance at the prince—who paused in winching up the roadster’s ragtop to nod—she lowered her arms and clapped her hands, glass bangles jangling like wind-chimes.
Maledysaunte shut the car door with a thud as Salamander stood clear. There was a pause, a long silence as the wind died away. Then Bijou heard the clop of hooves echoing along the pass, and a scrape like a stick across a grooved gourd. A few moments longer, and the starlight shone through the rib cages and illuminated the hide-hung skeletons of three horses, an ass, and a camel that made their way out of the rocks at roadside to stand before Bijou. They were all so old and weathered they smelled mostly of dusty leather and sun-drenched stone. One of the horses limped on a broken foreleg: that was the source of the rasping sound.
“You’re a necromancer too,” Maledysaunte said. “That makes three.”
“I’m an artificer,” Bijou said. “I don’t bring the dead back to life, raise shades, or animate corpses. But bones have movement in them, or the memory of movement, and they are happy to move again.”
Maledysaunte’s gaze darted to the side as if something had drawn it. But just as Bijou was about to cry out a warning, Maledysaunte shook her head and pulled her gaze back to Bijou’s face. Bijou, so appraised, felt an unaccustomed chill work through her on spiky spider-feet.
To dispel it, she gestured to Ambrosias. “I can work spells into an armature, and give personality and judgment. Autonomy of a sort. But those—”
Maledysaunte seemed to follow the gesture. “They move by your will. Not undead, just animated.”
“More or less,” Bijou said. “They’ll carry us into Erem, anyway.”
“Can’t we walk?” asked Salamander, frowning dubiously at the camel.
“Only the dead,” Kaulas said portentously, “may walk into dead Erem.” He spoiled it with a laugh—a chuckle, really—at Salamander’s stricken expression. “The camel is most comfortable.”
The camel was most comfortable because the fat of its humps had saponified, so its riders need not rest their seats on its bare spine. But while Maledysaunte would probably find that intriguing, Salamander’s night-shadowed expression indicated that she’d probably rather not know too many of the fascinating details about their mounts.
Prince Salih settled his rifle over one shoulder and circled the outside of the group, scanning the darkness beyond with a hunter’s eye.
Riordan looked from one raddled corpse to the others. “I’ll walk,” he said. “It won’t be a problem for me.”
Kaulas made no comment—no reaction, in fact, at all. Prince Salih looked as if he might say something, but whatever he caught in the faces of those around him convinced him to school his tongue. “Well then,” he said. “That simplifies matters.”
The dead mounts knelt in the road. Bijou moved forward, throwing a leg over the ass, and pulled it upright with the power of her will. Although she was not tall, her feet nearly scraped the ground on either side. Desert-dry hide flaked crumbs away where her weight rubbed it against bone.
Maledysaunte reached out absently, as if brushing spiderwebs or an irritating insect away from her face, but there was nothing there. Kaulas helped Salamander on to the camel before climbing up behind her, steadying her with his hands at her waist.
Well, thought Bijou. Anger, jealousy, even irritation—they all seemed like too much work. She settled her sun hat on her head. It was easier than carrying it.
“Come on,” she encouraged. “It’s not far now.”
Book of Iron © 2013 Elizabeth Bear