Sep 19 2013 3:00pm
Book of Iron (Excerpt)
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.”