S. A. Chakraborty continues the sweeping adventure begun in The City of Brass, conjuring a world where djinn summon flames with the snap of a finger and waters run deep with old magic; where blood can be dangerous as any spell, and a clever con artist from Cairo will alter the fate of a kingdom. Read an excerpt from The Kingdom of Copper, publishing January 22nd with Harper Voyager!
Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad—and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.
Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of a devastating battle, Nahri must forge a new path for herself. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family—and one misstep will doom her tribe…
Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid—the unpredictable water spirits—have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.
And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates… and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.
Nahri closed her eyes, lifting her face to the sun and enjoying its heat on her skin. She inhaled, savoring the earthy smell of the distant mountains and the fresh breeze off the lake.
“They’re late,” Muntadhir complained. “They’re always late. I think they like the sight of us waiting in the sun.”
Zaynab snorted. “Dhiru, you haven’t been on time for a single event in your life. Is this truly a fight you wish to pick?”
Nahri ignored their bickering, taking another deep breath of the crisp air and reveling in its stillness. It was rare she was allowed such freedom, and she intended to savor what she could of it. She’d learned the hard way that she had no other choice.
The first time Nahri had attempted sneaking out of the palace had been shortly after the night on the boat. She had been desperate for a distraction, aching to wander parts of the city she’d yet to visit, places where thoughts of Dara wouldn’t haunt her.
In response, Ghassan had her maid Dunoor brought out before her. He hexed the girl’s tongue for not reporting the Banu Nahida’s absence, stealing her ability to ever speak again.
The second time, Nahri had been moved by a surge of defiance. She and Muntadhir were soon to be wed. She was the Banu Nahida. Who was Ghassan to lock her away in her ancestor’s city? She had taken better care, making sure her companions had alibis and using the palace itself to cloak her in shadows and guide her to the most unused of corridors.
Still, Ghassan had found out. He dragged in the sleeping gate guard she’d tiptoed past and had the man scourged before her until there was not a strip of unbloodied skin on his back.
The third time, Nahri hadn’t even been sneaking around. Newly married to Muntadhir, she had merely decided to walk back to the palace from the Grand Temple on a sunny day, instead of taking her guarded litter. She’d never imagined Ghassan—now her father-in-law—would care. On the way, she’d stopped inside a small café in the Daeva Quarter, passing a lovely few moments chatting with its surprised and delighted proprietors.
The following day Ghassan had the couple brought to the palace. This time, he didn’t have to harm anyone. Nahri had no sooner seen their frightened faces than she dropped to her knees and swore never to go anywhere without permission again.
Which meant she now never turned away a chance to escape the palace walls. Aside from the royal siblings’ squabbling and the cry of a hawk, it was entirely silent, the air wrapping her in the kind of heavy peace Nahri rarely found these days.
Her relief didn’t go unnoticed.
“Your wife looks like someone just released her from a century in prison,” Zaynab muttered from a few paces away. She kept her voice low, but Nahri had a talent for listening to whispers. “Even I’m starting to feel bad for her, and one of the vines in her garden ripped my cup from my hand the last time we had tea.”
Muntadhir shushed his sister. “I’m certain she didn’t mean it. Sometimes that just… happens when she’s around.”
“I heard one of the shedu statues bit a soldier who slapped her assistant.”
“Maybe he shouldn’t have slapped her assistant.” Muntadhir’s whisper turned sharper. “But enough of such gossip. I don’t want Abba hearing things like that.”
Nahri smiled beneath her veil, pleasantly surprised by his defense. Despite being married now for nearly five years, Muntadhir rarely defended her against his family.
She opened her eyes, admiring the view before her. It was a beautiful day, one of the few in which not a single cloud marred the bright, fathomless blue of Daevabad’s sky, and the three of them were waiting at the front of the city’s once grand port. Though the docks were still serviceable, the rest of the port was in ruins and apparently had been for centuries. Weeds grew through the cracked paving stones and the decorative granite columns lay smashed. The only hint of the port’s ancient grandeur was behind her, in the gleaming brass facades of her ancestors on the city’s mighty walls.
Ahead was the lake, the misty-green mountains of the opposite shore melting into a thin, pebbly beach. The lake itself was still, its murky water cursed long ago by the marid during some forgotten feud with the Nahid Council. It was a curse Nahri tried very hard not to think about. Nor did she let her gaze drift southward to where the high cliffs beneath the palace met the dark water. What had happened on that stretch of the lake five years ago was a thing she didn’t dwell on.
The air shimmered and sparked, pulling Nahri’s attention to the center of the lake.
The Ayaanle had arrived.
The ship that emerged from the veil looked like something out of a fairy tale, slipping through the mists with a grace that belied its size. Nahri had grown up along the Nile and was used to boats, to the thicket of sleek feluccas, fishing canoes, and loaded trade transports that glided over the wide river in a ceaseless flow. But this ship was nothing like any of those. It looked large enough to fit hundreds, its dark teak dazzling in the sunlight as it floated lightly upon the lake. Teal banners adorned with the icons of studded golden pyramids and starry silver salt tablets flew from the masts. Its many amber-colored sails—and Nahri counted at least a dozen—dwarfed the glimmering decks. Segmented and ribbed, the sails looked more like wings than anything that belonged on a boat, and they shivered and undulated in the wind like living things.
Awed, Nahri drew closer to the Qahtani siblings. “How did they get a ship here?” The only land beyond the magical threshold that embraced Daevabad’s vast lake and misty mountains were vast stretches of rocky deserts.
“Because it’s not just any ship.” Zaynab grinned. “It’s a sandship. The Sahrayn invented them. They’re careful to keep the magic behind them a secret, but a skilled captain can fly across the world with one of those.” She sighed, her gaze admiring and rueful. “The Sahrayn charge the Ayaanle a fortune to use them, but they do make a statement.”
Muntadhir didn’t look as impressed by the lovely ship. “Interesting that the Ayaanle can afford such a thing when Ta Ntry’s taxes have been chronically short.”
Nahri’s gaze flickered to her husband’s face. Though Muntadhir had never directly spoken to her of Daevabad’s economic problems, they were obvious to everyone—especially the Banu Nahida who healed the training injuries of soldiers as they griped about reduced rations and undid the hexes the increasingly frazzled Treasury secretaries had begun hurling at one another. Fortunately, the downturn had yet to largely affect her Daevas—mostly because they’d cut themselves off from trading with the other tribes after Ghassan had tacitly allowed the Daeva stalls to be destroyed and their merchants harassed in the Grand Bazaar after Dara’s death. Why take the risk of trading with djinn if none would stand up to protect them?
The Ayaanle ship drifted nearer, its sails fanning out as deckhands in brightly striped linen and thick gold ornaments dashed about the boat. On the top deck, a chimeralike creature with a feline body covered in ruby scales strained at a golden harness, flashing horns that shone like diamonds and whipping a serpentine tail.
The ship had no sooner docked than a knot of passengers made their way toward the royal party. Among them was a man dressed in voluminous teal robes and a silver turban that wrapped his head and neck.
“Emir Muntadhir.” He smiled and bowed low. “Peace be upon you.”
“And upon you peace,” Muntadhir returned politely. “Rise.”
The Ayaanle man did so, aiming what seemed to be a far sincerer grin at Zaynab. “Little princess, how you’ve grown!” He laughed. “You do this old coin-changer a great honor, coming to greet me yourself.”
“The honor is mine,” Zaynab assured him with a grace Nahri would never have the patience to emulate. “I pray your journey went well?”
“God be praised.” The man turned to Nahri, his gold eyes lighting in surprise. “Is this the Nahid girl?” He blinked, and Nahri didn’t miss the way he stepped back ever so slightly.
“This is my wife,” Muntadhir corrected, his voice considerably cooler.
Nahri met the man’s eyes, drawing up as she pulled her chador close. “I am the Banu Nahida,” she said through her veil. “I hear you are called Abul Dawanik.”
He bowed. “You hear correctly.” His gaze didn’t leave her, the examination making her skin crawl. He shook his head. “Astonishing. I never imagined I’d meet a real Nahid.”
Nahri gritted her teeth. “Occasionally we’re allowed out to astonish and terrify the populace.”
Muntadhir cleared his throat. “I have made room for your men and your cargo at the royal caravanserai. I would be happy to escort you there myself.”
Abul Dawanik sighed. “Alas, there’s little cargo. My people needed more time to prepare the tax caravan.”
Muntadhir’s civil mask didn’t waver, but Nahri sensed his heartbeat pick up. “That was not the arrangement we agreed on.” The warning in his voice was so reminiscent of Ghassan her skin prickled. “You are aware of how close Navasatem is, yes? It is a bit difficult to plan a once-in-a-century celebration when tax payments are consistently late.”
Abul Dawanik threw him a wounded look. “Straight to all this talk of money, Emir? The Geziri hospitality I’m used to typically involves chattering about polite nonsense for at least another ten minutes.”
Muntadhir’s response was direct. “Perhaps you would prefer my father’s company to mine.”
Abul Dawanik didn’t look cowed; if anything, Nahri saw a hint of slyness in his expression before he responded. “No need for threats, Your Highness. The caravan is but a few weeks behind me.” His eyes twinkled. “No doubt you will enjoy what it brings you.”
From behind the city walls, the adhan sounded, calling the faithful to noon prayer. It rose and fell in distant waves as new muezzins picked it up, and Nahri fought a familiar twinge of homesickness. The adhan always made her think of Cairo.
“Dhiru, surely this can wait,” Zaynab said, clearly trying to alleviate the tension between the two men. “Abul Dawanik is our guest. He has had a long journey. Why don’t the two of you go pray together and then visit the caravanserai? I can take Nahri back to the palace.”
Muntadhir didn’t look pleased, but he didn’t protest. “Do you mind?” he asked Nahri courteously.
Do I have a choice? Zaynab’s bearers were already bringing their litter over, the pretty cage that would return Nahri to her gilded prison. “Of course not,” she muttered, turning away from the lake to follow her sister-in-law.
They didn’t talk much on the way back. Zaynab appeared absorbed in her thoughts, and Nahri was happy to rest her eyes before returning to the always bustling infirmary.
But the litter shuddered to a stop too soon. Nahri jolted from her half doze and rubbed her eyes, frowning as she caught sight of Zaynab hastily pulling off some of her jewelry. Nahri watched as she piled it on the cushion beside her, and then from beneath the brocade-covered seat, retrieved two plain cotton abayas, pulling one over her silk gown.
“Are we being robbed?” Nahri asked, half-hoping it might be true. Being robbed would mean a delay in returning to the palace and Ghassan’s constant, watchful presence.
Zaynab neatly wrapped a dark shawl around her hair. “Of course not. I’m going for a walk.”
“You’re not the only one who wants to escape sometimes, and I take my opportunities when they arise.” Zaynab tossed the second abaya at Nahri. “Quick, put this on. And keep your face veiled.”
Nahri stared at her in surprise. “You want me to come?”
Zaynab eyed her. “I’ve known you for five years. I am not leaving you alone with my jewelry. You’ll be halfway back to your human city before I return.”
Nahri hesitated, tempted. But the terrified faces of the people Ghassan had punished in her place immediately flooded her mind, and her heart seized in fear. “I can’t. Your father—”
Zaynab’s expression softened. “He hasn’t caught me yet. And I’ll take the responsibility if he does today, I swear.” She beckoned Nahri forward. “Come. You look like you need this even more than I do.”
Nahri quickly considered her options. Ghassan did have a soft spot for his only daughter, so after another moment of indecision, temptation won out. She pulled free her most visibly royal jewels, slipped into the clothes Zaynab had offered her, and followed her out of the litter.
With a quiet word and a knowing wink between the princess and one of her guards—Nahri suspected this was far from the first time Zaynab had done this—the two women were pulled into the crush of pedestrians. Nahri had been to the Geziri Quarter plenty of times with Muntadhir to visit his relatives, but she hadn’t seen anything beyond the curtains of the litters in which they traveled and the sumptuous interiors of mansions. Palace women were not expected to mix with commoners, let alone wander the city streets.
At first glance, the Quarter looked small—despite a Geziri family ruling the city, most of their tribesmen were said to prefer the rugged terrain of their homeland. But it was a pleasant glance, nonetheless. Windtowers loomed far above, sending lake-fresh breezes past neat rows of tall brick buildings, their pale facades adorned with copper shutters and white stucco filigree. Ahead was the market, protected from the hot sun by woven reed mats and a glistening water channel cut into the main street, filled with enchanted ice. Across from the market was the quarter’s main mosque, and next to the mosque was a large floating pavilion, shaded by date and citrus trees, where families feasted on dark halwa, coffee, and other treats from the market.
And over it all loomed the stark tower of the Citadel. The home of the Royal Guard, the Citadel threw shadows over the Geziri Quarter and the neighboring Grand Bazaar, jutting up against the brass walls that separated Daevabad from its deadly lake. Nisreen had once told her—in one of her many dark warnings about the Geziris—that the Citadel had been the first structure Zaydi al Qahtani built upon seizing Daevabad from the Nahid Council. He’d ruled from there for years, leaving the palace a deserted ruin stained with the blood of her ancestors.
Zaynab chose that moment to take her arm, pulling her toward the market, and Nahri happily let herself be towed. Almost unconsciously, she palmed a ripe orange from a fruit stand as they passed. Stealing it was probably reckless, but there was something so freeing about strolling crowded city streets. It might not be Cairo, but the rustle of impatient passersby, the aroma of street food, and knots of men emerging from the mosque were familiar enough to briefly ease her homesickness. She was anonymous again for the first time in years, and it was delightful.
They slowed to a stroll once they entered the shadowed depths of the market. Nahri looked around, dazzled. A glassworker was turning hot sand into a speckled bottle with her fiery hands while across the lane a wooden loom worked by itself, bright woolen threads wrapping and twisting to pattern a half-completed prayer mat. From a stall packed with flowers came a rich aroma, a perfumer sprinkling rosewater and musk over a glittering tray of molten ambergris. Next door, a pair of hunting cheetahs in jeweled collars lounged on elevated cushions, sharing a storefront with squawking firebirds.
Zaynab stopped to stroke the large cats while Nahri wandered ahead. Down an adjacent lane was a row of booksellers, and she immediately headed for them, captivated by the volumes laid out in rows on rugs and tables. While a few books had an aura of magic, their covers bound in scales and pages shimmering gently, the majority looked human-made. Nahri wasn’t surprised; of all the djinn tribes, the Geziris were said to be closest to the humans with whom they silently shared their land.
She browsed the nearest stall. Most of the books were in Arabic, and the sight sent an odd pang through her. It was the first language she’d learned to read, and a skill she could never entirely divorce in her mind from the young prince who’d taught her. Not wanting to think of Ali, she glanced idly at the next table. A book with a sketch of a trio of pyramids rested in its center.
Nahri was there the next moment, reaching for the book like she might have grabbed a long-lost friend in an embrace. They were Giza’s famed Pyramids, all right, and as she flipped through the pages, she recognized more of Cairo’s distinctive landmarks: the twin minarets of the Bab Zuweila gate and the vast interior of the Ibn Tulun mosque. There were women in the black dresses Nahri had once worn gathering water from the Nile, and men sorting piles of sugarcane.
“You have a good eye, miss.” An older Geziri man ambled forth. “That’s one of my newest human acquisitions, and I’ve never seen anything like it. A Sahrayn trader picked it up crossing the Nile.”
Nahri ran her hands over the first page. The book was written in a script she’d never seen. “What language is this?”
The man shrugged. “I’m not certain. The lettering appears similar to some of the old Latin texts I have. The trader who picked it up didn’t stay in Egypt long; he said it looked as though the humans were engaged in some sort of war.”
Some sort of war. Her fingers pressed harder on the book. Egypt had been freshly subjugated by the French when Nahri left, ruled by the Ottomans before that—it was seemingly Nahri’s destiny to belong to an occupied people wherever she went. “How much do you want for this?”
Nahri narrowed her eyes at him. “Three dinars? Do I look as though I’m made of gold?”
The man seemed shocked. “That… that is the price, miss.”
“Maybe for someone else,” she said scornfully, masking her glee under feigning insult. “I won’t give you a coin over ten dirhams.”
He gaped. “But that’s not how we—”
Zaynab was suddenly there, seizing Nahri’s arm in a tight grip. “What are you doing?”
Nahri rolled her eyes. “It’s called bargaining, sister dear. I’m sure you’ve never had to do such a thing but—”
“Geziris do not bargain in our community markets,” Zaynab said, the words dripping with revulsion. “It breeds discord.”
Nahri was scandalized. “So you just pay whatever they ask?” She couldn’t believe she’d married into such a naive people. “What if they’re cheating you?”
Zaynab was already handing three gold coins to the bookseller. “Perhaps it would be better to stop thinking that everyone is cheating you, no?” She pulled Nahri away and pushed the book into her hands. “And stop making a scene. The point is to not get caught.”
Nahri clutched the book to her chest, a little abashed. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t insult me.” Zaynab’s voice turned gentler. “You’re not the first outspoken fool for whom I’ve bought overpriced human books on this street.”
Nahri darted a look at the princess. She wanted to press her as much as she wanted to change the subject. And that, in essence, was how she felt about Alizayd al Qahtani.
Let it go. There were plenty of other ways to pester her sister-in-law. “I’m hearing rumors you’re being courted by a noble from Malacca,” she said brightly as they resumed walking.
Zaynab drew to a stop. “Where did you hear that?”
“I like to converse with my patients.”
The princess shook her head. “Your patients should learn to hold their tongues. You should learn to hold your tongue. Surely, I deserve that much for buying you some book about odd human buildings.”
“Do you not want to marry him?” Nahri asked, peeling the orange she’d stolen.
“Of course, I don’t want to marry him,” Zaynab replied. “Malacca is across the sea. I’d never see my family.” Disdain entered her voice. “Besides which, he has three other wives, a dozen children, and is approaching his second century.”
“So refuse the match.”
“That’s my father’s decision.” Zaynab’s expression tightened. “And my suitor is a very wealthy man.”
Ah. Muntadhir’s concerns about the state of the city’s treasury suddenly made more sense. “Can’t your mother object?” she asked. Queen Hatset thoroughly intimidated Nahri, and she couldn’t imagine the woman allowing her only daughter to be packed off to Malacca for any amount of gold.
Zaynab seemed to hesitate. “My mother has a more important battle to fight right now.”
They’d wandered down a quieter street that ran past the Citadel. Its heavy stone walls loomed high overhead, blocking the blue sky in a way that made Nahri feel nervous and small. Through a pair of open doors came the sound of laughter and the distinctive sizzling clash of zulfiqar blades.
Not certain how to respond, she handed Zaynab half of her pilfered orange. “I’m sorry.”
Zaynab stared at the fruit, uncertainty blooming in her gray-gold eyes. “You and my brother were enemies when you married,” she said haltingly. “Sometimes it seems like you still are. How… how did you… ?”
“You find a way.” The words unfurled from a hard place within Nahri, one that she’d retreated to countless times since she’d been plucked from the Nile and dropped in Cairo, alone and afraid. “You’d be amazed by the things a person can do to survive.”
Zaynab looked taken aback. “You make me feel as though I should tell Muntadhir to keep a blade under his pillow.”
“I’d advise against your brother keeping anything sharp in his bed,” Nahri said as they continued walking. “Considering the number of visitors—” She choked, the orange falling from her fingers as a wave of coldness stole through her.
Zaynab instantly stopped. “Are you all right?”
Nahri barely heard the question. It felt as though an unseen hand had grasped her chin, turning her head to stare down the gloomy street they’d just passed. Tucked between the Citadel and the mottled brass of the city’s outer walls, it looked as though the block had been razed centuries ago. Weeds and dirt covered the broken paving stones and scorch marks scarred the bare stone walls. At the very end was a crumbling brick complex. Broken windows faced the street, the black spaces looking like missing teeth in a gaping mouth. Beyond the front portico were the lush tops of wildly overgrown trees. Ivy covered much of the walls, strangling columns and dangling over smashed windows like so many nooses.
Nahri took a few steps in and then inhaled sharply, a buzz racing down her skin. She’d swear the heavy shadows had lifted slightly when she moved.
She turned to see Zaynab had followed her. “What is this place?” she asked, her voice echoing against the stone walls.
Zaynab gave the complex a skeptical glance. “A ruin? I’m not exactly an expert when it comes to moldering buildings in a three-thousand-year-old city.”
The street warmed beneath Nahri’s feet as she stared at the building, hot enough to feel through her sandals. “I need to go in there.”
“You need to do what?”
But Nahri was already walking, thoughts of the princess, even fears of Ghassan’s gruesome punishments all falling away. She felt almost compelled, her gaze locked on the mysterious complex.
She stopped outside a pair of large brass doors. Pictograms were carved into their surface—a leaping oryx and a burning apple, a Daeva fire altar and a pair of scales—and magic all but simmered off the brass. Though Nahri couldn’t imagine anyone living in such a place, she raised a hand to knock.
Her knuckles hadn’t even grazed the surface when the door swung open with a groan, revealing a yawning black hole.
There was no one on the other side.
Zaynab had caught up. “Oh, absolutely not,” she said. “You’re with the wrong Qahtani if you think I’m about to go wandering into this haunted wreck.”
Nahri swallowed. Had she been back in Egypt, this might have been the start of a tale told to frighten children, one of mysterious ruins and terrifying djinn.
Except she was technically the terrifying djinn, and the icy grip the building had on her heart had only tightened. It was reckless; it was an impulse that made no sense—but she was going inside.
“Then stay out here.” Nahri dodged Zaynab’s hand and ducked inside.
The darkness instantly swallowed her. “Naar,” she whispered. Flames blossomed in her palm, throwing light on what must have once been a grand entrance chamber. Remnants of paint clung to the walls, outlining the forms of winged bulls and prancing phoenixes. Pockmarks were everywhere, places gems had likely been pried from the walls.
She stepped forward, raising her flames. Her eyes widened.
In fragments and shadows, the Nahid’s creation story spread on the wall before her. Suleiman’s ancient temple rising over the heads of its laboring daeva workers. A woman with pointed ears kneeling in a blue-and-gold chador at the feet of a human king. As Nahri stared in wonder at the mural, she’d swear the figures started to move and merge: a scattering of glazed paint becoming a flock of soaring shedus, the bare line drawing of veiled Nahid healers mixing potions filling with color. The faint sound of marching boots and cheering spectators whispered in her ear as a parade of archers trooped by, wearing ceremonial helmets crested with swaying feathers.
Nahri gasped, and as she did, the flame twirled away from her palm, pinpricks of light dancing away to illuminate the rest of the chamber. It was a burst of unconscious magic, the kind she associated with the palace, the stolen royal heart of the Nahids whose power still coursed in her blood.
The murals abruptly stopped moving. Zaynab had entered and was gingerly picking her way over the debris littering the floor.
“I think this place belonged to my family,” Nahri whispered, awed.
Zaynab gave the room a wary look. “To be fair… I believe that could be said of much of Daevabad.” Her expression turned exasperated when Nahri glared. “Excuse me if it’s difficult to be diplomatic when I’m afraid the building is going to come down at any moment. Now can we please leave? My father will have me packed off to Malacca tomorrow if his Nahid gets crushed under a pile of falling bricks.”
“I’m not his Nahid, and I’m not leaving until I figure out what this place was.” The tingle of magic on Nahri’s skin had only increased, the humid heat of the city oppressive in the close chamber. She pulled free her veil, thinking it unlikely they would come upon anyone, and then, ignoring Zaynab’s warning, Nahri climbed over one of the crumbling walls.
She landed lightly on her feet in a long, covered corridor, a succession of sandstone arches separating a row of doors from an overgrown courtyard garden. The walkway was in far better shape than the foyer: the floor appeared freshly swept, the wall plastered and covered in swirls of colorful paint.
With a curse, Zaynab followed. “If I’ve not said it lately, I think I hate you.”
“You know, for a magical being, you have a terrible sense of adventure,” Nahri replied, touching one of the eddies of paint, a blue swell that looked like a wave. An ebony boat was outlined against it. At her touch, the wave rose as if alive, sending the boat careening down the wall.
Nahri grinned. Thoroughly intrigued, she kept walking, peeking inside the rooms she passed. Save for the occasional broken shelf and rotting bits of carpet, they were all empty.
Until they weren’t. Nahri abruptly stopped outside the last room. Far from empty, it was packed. Cedar shelves bursting with scrolls and books covered the walls, stretching to the distant ceiling. More texts were stacked in precarious, towering piles on the floor.
She’d taken three steps inside before she noticed the floor desk wedged between two of the piles. A figure was hunched over its paper-strewn surface: an elderly looking Ayaanle man in a striped robe that nearly swallowed his wizened body.
“No, no, no… ,” he muttered in Ntaran, scratching out whatever he’d just written with a charcoal pencil. “That makes no sense.”
Nahri hesitated. She couldn’t imagine what an Ayaanle scholar was doing in a book-stuffed room in a ruined building, but he looked harmless enough. “Peace be upon you,” she greeted him.
The man’s head snapped up.
His eyes were the color of emeralds.
He blinked rapidly and then yelped, pushing back from his cushion. “Razu!” he cried. “Razu!” He snatched up a scroll, raising it like a sword.
Nahri instantly backed away, brandishing her book. “Stay back!” she shouted as Zaynab ran to join her. The princess held a dagger raised in one hand.
“Oh, Issa, whatever is the problem now?”
Nahri and Zaynab both jumped and whirled around. Two women had emerged from the courtyard so swiftly they might have been conjured. One looked Sahrayn, with reddish black locks that fell to the waist of her paint-streaked galabiyya. The taller woman—the one who’d spoken—was Tukharistani, dressed in a dazzling cape of visibly magic design that fell like a mantle of molten copper across her shoulders. Her gaze locked on Nahri. Green eyes again, the same bright hue as Dara’s.
The Ayaanle scholar—Issa—peeked past his door, still wielding his scroll. “It looks human, Razu! I swore they would never take me again!”
“That is no human, Issa.” The Tukharistani woman stepped forward. Her brilliant gaze hadn’t left Nahri’s. “It is you,” she whispered. Reverence swept over her face and she dropped to her knees, bringing her fingers together in respect. “Banu Nahida.”
“Banu Nahida?” Issa repeated. Nahri could see him still trembling. “Are you certain?”
“I am.” The Tukharistani woman gestured to an emerald-studded iron cuff on her wrist. “I can feel the tug in my vessel.” She touched her chest. “And in my heart,” she added softly. “Like I did with Baga Rustam.”
“Oh.” Issa dropped the scroll. “Oh, dear…” He attempted to bow. “Apologies, my lady. One can never be too careful these days.”
Zaynab was breathing heavily beside her, her dagger still raised. Nahri reached out and pushed her arm down. Thoroughly mystified, her eyes darted between the strange trio. “I’m sorry… ,” she started, lost for words. “But who are you all?”
The Tukharistani woman rose to her feet. Her silver-and-gold-streaked black hair was held back in an intricate lace net, and her face well-lined; had she been human, Nahri would have guessed she was in her sixties. “I am Razu Qaraqashi,” she said. “You have already stumbled into Issa, and this here is Elashia,” she added, affectionately touching the shoulder of the Sahrayn woman next to her. “We are the last ifrit slaves in Daevabad.”
Elashia instantly scowled, and Razu bowed her head. “Forgive me, my love.” She glanced back at Nahri. “Elashia does not like to be called a slave.”
Nahri fought to keep the shock from her face. Quietly, she let her abilities expand. Small wonder she thought she’d been alone: hers and Zaynab’s were the only hearts pounding in the entire complex. The bodies of the djinn before her were entirely silent. Just as Dara’s had been.
Because they’re not true bodies, Nahri realized, recalling what she knew of the slave curse. The ifrit murdered the djinn they took, and in order to free them, the Nahids conjured new forms, new bodies to house their reclaimed souls. Nahri knew little else about the process; slavery was so feared among the djinn, it was rarely spoken of, as if simply mentioning the word “ifrit” would get one dragged off to a fate considered worse than death.
A fate the three people before her had survived. Nahri opened her mouth, struggling for a response. “What are you doing here?” she finally asked.
“Hiding,” Issa responded mournfully. “No one else in Daevabad will have us after what happened to the Afshin. People fear we’re liable to go mad and start murdering innocents with ifrit magic. We thought the hospital the safest place.”
Nahri blinked. “This was a hospital?”
Issa’s bright eyes narrowed. “Is it not obvious?” he asked, gesturing inexplicably to the crumbling ruins around them. “Where do you think your ancestors practiced?”
Razu quickly stepped forward. “Why don’t you two come with me for some refreshments?” she suggested kindly. “It is not often I have guests as esteemed as Daevabadi royals.” She smiled when Zaynab shrank back. “Do not fear, my princess, it is otherwise a lovely disguise.”
With the word “hospital” ringing in her ears, Nahri followed at once. The courtyard was in the same sorry state as the rest of the complex, with roots snaking over its shattered blue and lemon-yellow tiles, yet there was something lovely about its ruin. Dark roses grew lush and wild, their thorny vines twining around a long-fallen shedu statue and the air rich with their fragrance. A pair of bulbuls splashed and sang in a cracked fountain set in front of the cascading boughs of a stand of shade trees.
“Do not mind Issa,” Razu said lightly. “His social graces could use some work, but he’s a brilliant scholar who’s lived an extraordinary life. Before the ifrit took him, he spent centuries traveling the lands of the Nile, visiting their libraries and sending copies of their work back to Daevabad.”
“The Nile?” Nahri asked eagerly.
“Indeed.” Razu glanced back. “That is right… you grew up there. In Alexandria, yes?”
“Cairo,” Nahri corrected, her heart giving its familiar lurch.
“Forgive the error. I’m not sure there was a Cairo in my day,” Razu mused. “Though I’d heard of Alexandria. All of them.” She shook her head. “What a vain, upstart youth Alexander was, naming all those cities after himself. His armies terrified the poor humans in Tukharistan.”
Zaynab gasped. “Do you mean to say you lived in the same era as Alexander the Great?”
Razu’s smile was more enigmatic this time. “Indeed. I’ll be twenty-three hundred at this year’s generation celebration. Anahid’s grandchildren were ruling Daevabad when the ifrit took me.”
“But… that’s not possible,” Nahri breathed. “Not for ifrit slaves.”
“Ah, I suspect you’ve been told that we’re all driven mad by the experience within a few centuries?” Razu quirked an eyebrow. “Like most things in life, the truth is a bit more complicated. And my particular circumstances were unusual.”
“I offered myself to an ifrit.” She laughed. “I was a terribly wicked thing with a fondness for tales of lost fortune. We convinced ourselves that we’d find all sorts of legendary treasures if we could recover the powers we’d had before Suleiman.”
“You gave yourself to the ifrit?” Zaynab sounded scandalized, but Nahri was starting to feel a bit of a kinship for this mysterious hustler.
Razu nodded. “A distant cousin of mine. He was a stubborn fool who refused to submit to Suleiman, but I liked him.” She shrugged. “Things were a little… gray between our peoples back then.” She raised her palm. Three black lines marred the skin. “But it was foolish. I set my masters chasing after fantastical prizes my cousin and I planned to retrieve after I was freed. I was digging through some old tombs with my third human when the entire thing collapsed, killing him and burying my ring under the desert.”
She snapped her fingers and a bolt of silk spun out from a basket sitting beneath a neem tree, arching and expanding in the air to form a swing. She motioned for Nahri and Zaynab to sit.
“It took two thousand years for another djinn to stumble upon me. He brought me back to Daevabad, and here I am today.” Razu’s bright eyes dimmed. “I never did see my ifrit cousin again. I suppose a Nahid or Afshin caught up with him, in the end.”
Nahri cleared her throat. “I’m sorry.”
Razu nudged her shoulder. “You needn’t apologize. I was certainly more fortunate than Issa and Elashia; the few human masters I had never abused me. But when I returned, my world was gone, any descendants lost to history, and the Tukharistan I knew a legend in the eyes of my own people. It was easier to begin anew in Daevabad. At least until recently.” She shook her head. “But here I am rambling about the past… what brings you two here?”
“Carelessness,” Zaynab muttered under her breath.
“I… I don’t quite know,” Nahri confessed. “We were passing by and I felt…” She trailed off. “I felt the magic emanating from this place, and it reminded me of the palace.” She glanced around wonderingly. “Was this truly a hospital?”
Razu nodded. “It was.” With another snap of her fingers, a smoking glass ewer appeared alongside three chalices. She poured Nahri and Zaynab each a glass of a cloud-colored liquid. “I spent some time here as a patient after failing to dodge one of my creditors.”
Zaynab took a cautious sip and then promptly spit it most inelegantly back into the cup. “Oh, that’s definitely forbidden.”
Curious, Nahri tested her own glass, coughing at the intense burn of alcohol as it ran down her throat. “What is this?”
“Soma. The preferred drink of your ancestors.” Razu winked. “Regardless of Suleiman’s curse, the daevas of my day had yet to entirely lose our wildness.”
Whatever soma was, it admittedly left Nahri feeling more relaxed. Zaynab looked ready to bolt, but Nahri was enjoying her time more and more with each allusion to Razu’s felonious past. “What was it like back then—when you were a patient, I mean?”
Razu gazed pensively at the hospital. “It was an astonishing place, even in a city as magical as Daevabad. The Nahids must have treated thousands, and it all hummed along like a well-oiled wheel. I’d been hexed with a rather contagious streak of despair, so I was treated in quarantine over there.” She tilted her head toward a crumbling wing, then took a sip of her drink. “They took excellent care of us. A bed, a roof, and warm meals? It was almost worth being sick.”
Nahri leaned back on her palms, contemplating all that. She knew hospitals fairly well; she’d often snuck into Cairo’s most famous—the majestic, old bimaristan in the Qalawun complex—to steal supplies and wander its depths, fantasizing about joining the ranks of the students and physicians crowding its lofty corridors.
She tried to imagine how that bustle would look here, the hospital whole and filled with Nahids. Dozens of healers consulting notes and examining patients. It must have been an extraordinary community.
A Nahid hospital. “I wish I had something like that,” she said softly.
Razu grinned, raising her chalice in Nahri’s direction. “Consider me your first recruit should you attempt to rebuild.”
Zaynab had been tapping her foot, but now she stood. “Nahri, we should go,” she warned, motioning to the sky. The sun had disappeared behind the hospital walls.
Nahri touched Razu’s hand. “I’m going to try and come back,” she promised. “The three of you… are you safe here? Is there anything you need?” Though Razu and her companions were probably more capable than Nahri at taking care of themselves, she felt suddenly protective of the three souls her family had freed.
Razu squeezed her hand. “We are fine,” she assured her. “Though I do hope you come back. I think the place likes you.”
Excerpted from The Kingdom of Copper, copyright © 2019 by S. A. Chakraborty