The Angel of Khan el-Khalili

We are overjoyed to be reprinting “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” by P. Djèlí Clark, set in the same world as Master of Djinn, out on May 11!

The story first appeared in the anthology Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt, edited by Matthew Bright and published by Twopenny Press.

 

 

If you want to find the Angel of Khan el-Khalili, you have to make your way to the market at night. Not when the sun goes down, and Cairo’s masses spill out into the opening shops, where soot-smudged factory workers and well-groomed ministerial clerks mingle at open-air coffeehouses to debate local politics. Not even after the first stars have appeared and, beneath the glare of gaslight, hawkers practice their best chat-up lines to seduce idle wanderers to their stalls—where everything from counterfeit medieval antiques to driveshafts for automated wheel carriages are up for sale. No, to find the Angel of Khan el-Khalili means going to the market late at night, when most of the city have long retired to their beds, leaving the souk to the curious, the adventurous, and the desperate—like you.

For Aisha, you remind yourself. This is for Aisha.

You pass beneath one of the many stone arches that line the night bazaar, and turn down the street of the chai-sellers, where young, strapping men shoulder high-pressure steam urns and pour fragrant tea for their patrons into delicate porcelain cups. You pass through the shop of a gas lamp merchant, whose oval glass lanterns swirl with luminous alchemical vapors that cause them to float about like colorful airborne jellyfish. Exit through the back, and you come out at a rounded yellow door divided into half-moons: the shop of the boiler eunuch mender. He is an unusually tall man, with thickset shoulders that seem unsuited to the gangly body you imagine lies beneath his sky-blue jellabiya. By his dark skin and the carpet of white whiskers creeping along his face, you guess he’s Soudanese. Or perhaps simply Nubian. You can’t tell.

He ignores your first words of greeting as you stand at the threshold of his shop, watching him use a hammer to beat a dented breastplate into shape. Perhaps it’s because of who he thinks you are—a woman out alone at this time of night, unaccompanied by neither a husband or relative. If he could see behind your headscarf and white cotton veil, to the face of a girl barely fifteen, he would know it is worse than that. So, you stand up straighter, fighting the urge to draw the light black wrap more firmly about you or smooth down your green fringed dress, and speak with the authority you’ve seen used by some of the other girls at the dress factory. You think of your friend Zehra, the Turkish girl who’s always going on about the exploitation of the masses and how we need to turn the tables on “the bosses.”

Something in your tone catches his attention. Or maybe he’s simply resting his hands. But the boiler eunuch mender finally stops his work long enough to fix you appraisingly with one eye—the other is hidden behind a silver tubular lens.

“Looking for a boilerplate eunuch?” he asks in a deep baritone that rumbles up from his chest. From the south or no, the accent is pure Cairene. “We have many to choose from, each no worse for the wear. In these modern times, every home in Cairo should enjoy the convenience of a boilerplate eunuch.” His arms gesture about the room, where faceless metal automatons shaped in the likeness of men stand motionless, reminiscent of soldiers awaiting inspection—or corpses arrayed in their tomb. They are of decent quality, even if refurbished from older models and mismatched parts. But that’s not why you’ve come.

“I’m here to see the Lady of the House, uncle,” you say instead.

The boiler eunuch mender continues to stare at you in that appraising way. Sifting and weighing. “What is your name, daughter?” he asks at last.

Beneath your veil, you feel the heat rise in your cheeks. So, you hadn’t fooled him, then. You think of lying, but that measuring stare says he will see it right away. Besides, Aisha often warned that lying was one of the greater sins.

“Aliaa,” you answer, careful not to give your full name. Cairo is a big city, but a family name could tell him everything he needs to know about you. His white eyebrows furrow at your evasion, but he only says: “The Lady of the House exacts a price. You are prepared to pay it?”

You respond with a stiff nod.

More weighing. More sifting. Finally, he stands up from his stool. Did you think this man was unusually tall? No, he is freakishly so, with arms that dangle to his thighs! He leads you past his silent creations to a door at the back of his shop. It is made of weathered brown wood, like the ones you’ve seen in photos adorning temples in Luxor. You’ve dreamt of taking a tram line or airship to visit them one day, and seeing if they whisper with the voices of long-dead infidels, as many say. He produces a golden key from a leather apron at his waist, and fits it into a rectangular slot, pulling the door open. There are a set of stairs that lead downward, illuminated by glowing lamps along the walls.

The boiler eunuch mender does not accompany you, but you offer him a little coin for his troubles; it’s only polite. As the door closes behind you, your mind wanders to stories of unfortunate servants, sealed alive in the tombs of ancient despots too selfish to make their own lonely journey into death. You are surprised at how long it takes to reach the bottom, and you wonder how this space came to be. Did the boiler eunuch mender dig it out himself? Perhaps his automatons did: the last slaves of Egypt, destined to toil without respite. Or, more probably, as so much of Cairo, and the Khan in particular, this has always been here: built by some Fatimid caliph or Mamluk overlord for a long-forgotten purpose.

Whatever the case, it now houses a different occupant.

The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is a towering giant. Even bowed as she is, her head near brushes the ceiling. Her body is wrought of iron and brass: a living statue in the form of a lithe woman constructed of clockwork machinery that hums and moves to its own metronomic rhythm. Shimmering silver wings lay folded on her back, a bundle of metallic feathers inscribed with turquoise script that shifts and writhes before your eyes. She sits amid a bed of brocaded cushions on a mammoth moss-green divan, chin propped upon a fist in a thinker’s repose. A draping skirt of gold conceals her legs and feet, falling in cascades to flow upon the ground below. You crane your neck to gape up at her, too taken at first to speak and lost in her terrible beauty.

Angels arrived in Cairo some forty years past. Your parents had been children then, but they still tell you stories of al-Jahiz—the disappeared Soudanese mystic, scientist, madman—whose fantastic machines had sent magic pouring into the world with the force of an unstoppered sea. Djinn had been the first to appear, and were in many ways responsible for the great innovations of this age. Their kind you are accustomed to: creatures of flesh and blood, elements of wind and water (or whatever came from smokeless fire) who walk, live, work, and interact among humans. Your family’s apartment sits above the confectionery of an elderly onager-headed Sila. She’s friendly enough, for a djinn, and hands out pink candy dolls to neighborhood children every Moulid for as long as you can remember.

But angels are another matter. They are rarer things, ethereal beings who shroud their bodies behind contraptions of mechanical grandeur and hold themselves apart from mortals and djinn alike. None, not even the religious bodies of Cairo, have been able to discern the reason for their coming. And they have remained equally enigmatic. Some have taken up residence in old palaces and ruins. There are several, you have heard, who now occupy the Citadel outside the mosque of Muhammad Ali. Why this one has decided to shelter in a cellar beneath the Khan would probably befuddle the most learned scholar of the Ulama. All you know is that she calls herself Seeker.

They are not angels. All angels are in Heaven with God.

Aisha’s admonishing voice comes to you even now. She could argue this subject at length, quoting from books you’ve never even heard about. She would explain that angels have no free will and so could not come among mortals of their own choosing. You don’t understand it all yourself. But you try to remember as much and push away the awe that traps your tongue. At least some of it.

“The night’s peace be upon you, Lady of the House,” you call up in greeting.

At your words, the angel’s bowed head lifts up as if from slumber—though you doubt such beings can possibly be bothered with mere mundanities like sleep. You find yourself staring at a midnight-blue mask glittering with flecks of gold. Brilliant light shines from crescent spaces where eyes should be, above a slight nose and full lips pursed in contemplation. The sound of working cogs accompanies four metal arms that unfold and spread out. Her palms open in greeting as from beneath that fixed countenance comes a melodious and matronly, “Peace be upon you, and welcome, daughter.”

That voice is more than you expect. Not at all like a machine, but decidedly real. More than real even. Aisha once bought you a doll that could say “mama” and “baba,” and whose eyes rocked open and closed. This is like that, only now you imagine the doll as a giant and you as its plaything. Somehow you keep your legs steady, and find the ability to speak again.

“I’ve come before you, Seeker, hoping to gain your wisdom.” You remember to add, “If you’ll grant it to me.”

She studies you for a moment, then replies: “Many claim to seek my wisdom. But in truth, it is my favors they hope to attain.” Her tone is not harsh or even scolding. Still, you feel your face heat up again. It is not a comfortable thing to hear that you are transparent. But you believe that gaze could strip any soul bare. “Forgive me, Seeker,” you try again. “I mean to say, I’ve come to ask a favor.”

The angel tilts her head slightly, reminding you of a contemplative bird. “A favor asked by one so young? Are you certain, daughter, you would not prefer to inquire after a djinn? They deal as well in favors, with their wishes.” That last word is said with a crisp distaste. “Perhaps you hope to catch the eye of a suitor? Or for great beauty? An assurance of a future with a well-to-do husband? Such mortal trivialities are more their domain than mine.”

You cannot help the frown that captures your face. A suitor? Beauty? A husband? Working girls your age dream of enough money to attend a university. Or the skills to pass a civil engineer job that might lift you out of the doldrums of factory work. The year is 1912, not 1812!

“I haven’t come for a wish,” you state adamantly. Wishes are risky business anyway—undependable and unpredictable. You never can tell what end of the bargain you’ll come out on when dealing with djinn. You hesitate, but bring yourself to say it: “I’ve come looking for a miracle.”

At this, Seeker straightens, so that a bit of light glints from her brass breastplate. “A miracle,” she repeats. There is a savoring of the word. “Quite a favor to ask. You understand that such things come with a price.”

You nod. This is Cairo, after all. Everything comes with a price. You reach into the pocket of your dress and a draw out a bundle of folded notes. The money is all you’ve been able to save away, at least nine months’ pay. There are dreams you have for this small fortune, all lost now. But you offer it forward, praying it’s enough. Your heart falls as Seeker shakes her head.

“Such things are meaningless to me, child,” the angel chides. “What use have I for your mortal trifles?” You pull your hand back, feeling somewhat foolish. Of course. How could you expect that something as grand as a miracle could be bought with money? “I shall set the price of any favor to be granted,” Seeker pronounces. “You accept this?”

“What will the price be?” you ask warily.

“That is for me to decide. Do you accept?”

“But how will I know that I can pay it?”

“All debts owed shall be paid,” she states assuredly. “I shall not ask thrice.”

Thrice? Who still talks like that? A dozen more pertinent questions sit poised on your tongue. Something about this feels even more precarious than dealing with djinn. But her words ring with a tone of finality. She will dismiss you as easily as a stray thought if you don’t give an answer. Of this you are certain. And you’ve come too far to turn back now.

“I accept,” you say, and wait for something momentous to happen, some feeling seared across your soul of an unbreakable holy compact. But there is nothing of the sort.

Instead, the angel says simply: “Tell me then, daughter, what is this miracle you seek?”

You let out a breath you don’t remember holding. “I want you to save my sister Aisha. She’s dying.”

The words bring a flood of memories.

Aisha had worked at the dress factory, years before you began. She’d hoped to go off to university, to study from all those books she liked quoting. Maybe she would become a historian. Or a barrister. There were women barristers now. There was always alchemy. But your family couldn’t afford such things. So, she remained at the factory and tried to hold onto her dreams.

It was Aisha who’d gotten you your job when you came of age. Ever the doting big sister, she’d shown you how to work the loom machines without injuring your fingers. And helped you sew enough dresses to meet the demand of the floor bosses. The work was hard and long, with few breaks, sometimes none for a whole half a day. But Aisha had taught you how to push through it, to hum songs that made the tedious labor pass. How to keep it from your mind so you could sleep and start again the next morning.

She’d been something of a leader at the factory: looking out for those who couldn’t work as fast, making certain everyone worked collectively to meet quotas. She’d convince others to cover the work of women who fell ill or who had to nurse sick children. She’d stood up for all of you, demanding things like safer machinery and threatening to stop work if someone was fired unjustly. She’d even begun to talk about forming a union.

Until the fire.

Women would have died if not for Aisha. The fire that tore through the dress factory might have killed everyone in there, if she hadn’t gone back into the flames. She’d dragged women out, one at a time, braving the worst of the blaze. You remember her carrying you to safety, your lungs filled with smoke and legs unable to stand. You’d looked up through stinging eyes to see her brown skin blistered and cracked. And her long black hair almost all singed away.

Aisha is a hero, people say. A hero who now lays in a hospice bed dying. In a world of djinn and sorcery, your sister is dying. From something as ordinary and commonplace as a fire. The doctor who tended her claimed her injuries were beyond even what could be healed in this age of wonders. It would take a miracle, he’d said gravely. So, you’d come looking for one.

The angel listens in silence as you relate all this, her radiant eyes unwavering and masked face as set as stone. When you finish, she merely asks, “Why you?” Reading your confusion, she asks again. “Why have you come to me? Why has a girl, barely a woman, been set on this task?”

“Because no one else would,” you answer plainly. What you do now is considered forbidden by many. Even your parents, who are not overly pious people, would balk. The angel stares down at you for a long moment before speaking.

“Do you know why I am called Seeker?” she asks.

You shake your head. Angels keep their true names secret, offering up only titles.

“I search for truth,” she explains. “I seek it out. This is my purpose. The reason of my creation.” You have little time to digest that before she continues. “You will be given three chances to give me what I seek. Do so to my satisfaction, and I will grant your miracle. This is the price I set.”

You frown at that. Three chances? “You want me to tell you something…true?”

“A truth,” she clarifies. “From the depths of your soul. Something hidden.”

“You mean a secret?”

“More than that.”

You dwell on that momentarily. When is a hidden truth more than a secret?

“A confession,” you realize aloud.

Seeker gives a deep nod. “Those are the truths we hide most deeply,” she states.

A confession? You have heard that Copts do such things, to their priests, you believe. But you’ve never heard of anyone confessing to an angel. It is a strange request.

“How will I know if I’m giving you the right truth?” you ask.

“You will know,” Seeker replies.

Nodding, you turn inward. A truth from the depths of your soul. Could this possibly be as easy as it sounds? Rummaging through your thoughts, you arrive at something. Perhaps it will be enough. At the least, it can be a test. You clear your throat.

“My first truth,” you say. “I lied to my family to come here.” Seeker receives this in silence. You continue. “They’re all at the hospice, with Aisha. I told them I was going to stay with friends tonight. Instead, I came here.” You feel a bit embarrassed at the admission. It is one thing to know it in your head, but another to speak aloud. “I’ll likely have to lie to them again when I—”

Your words are cut short as Seeker rears up abruptly. You watch, startled, as the breastplate covering her chest begins to move—sliding apart like pieces of a puzzle. Beneath it, nestled among a viscera of gears, is a circle of machinery: a spinning vortex of iron with teeth like an ever-moving mouth. From the center of that maw there is light, blinding and roiling like a violent sea. You step back, ready to cry out when something seizes you.

It is as if unseen hands have latched onto every part of you—limbs and bone, flesh and muscle, blood and nerves. Their fingers dig deep, pulling at you, prying loose some inner part of your being and wrenching it free from its mooring. The pain of that sudden severance consumes the whole of you, and it is a while before you realize the shrieks filling your ears are your own. In your mind, you know it lasts only minutes, but it feels much longer. When the pain finally, mercifully, stops, you fall to the stone floor, panting for breath. You blink up at Seeker, who tilts her head curiously.

“An interesting offering,” she murmurs.

“What?” you manage, trembling. “What did you do to me?”

“You gave me your truth,” she answers in an obvious tone. “I accepted it in my embrace.”

You stare, dumbfounded. Her embrace. Those unseen hands no longer hold you, but a shade of their touch remains. “You didn’t tell me it would be like that!”

“Confession is always painful,” the angel states.

You glare, anger breaking through the hurt as you struggle to sit up. Your gaze goes to the rotating vortex set within the angel’s exposed chest. “What is that thing?”

Seeker looks down, her metal fingers tracing along the rounded edges. “A construct of my own design. A more perfect way for my embrace to extract truth.”

Extract. There is a feeling alongside the lingering pain. A sense of emptiness and loss. You remember something leaving you, and you shudder. “What did…you take from me?” you whisper.

“Only a bit of your soul,” Seeker replies. “Why do you look so? Truth, after all, resides in the soul.”

You clutch at your chest, as if you can retrieve what you’ve lost. What was stolen!  Souls are not things that can be bartered. This is theft. “That’s not what we agreed!” you charge.

“It is everything we have agreed,” the angel maintains. Her words have the hardness and care of stone. “And you have not yet met our bargain. That truth was by no means sufficient. Mortal lies are, after all, common. You have two chances still. Take care not to squander them.”

Your eyes dart to the stairs. You can bolt from here. Flee the Khan and the bizarre bargain you’ve made with this callous creature. But what about Aisha? You owe her this. Squeezing your eyes shut, you whisper a prayer for strength before opening them again. It is an effort to rise to your feet. When you settle your stare on the angel, you find her looking back, those bright eyes expectant.

You search your thoughts a second time for a truth. It will have to be greater than the last. Something more than a lie. Something you wouldn’t want known by anyone. A true confession. “I’ve stolen,” you blurt out. That one truly fills you with shame. “From the factory. Some of the women know a man who trades in the dresses we make. He pays half a week’s salary for every bundle. I stole dresses for over four months and sold them to make money.” You’d only stopped when Aisha grew suspicious. If she’d ever found out, you didn’t think you’d be able to face the disappointment in her eyes. “I know it was wrong—”

The pain that comes is no less, for all that you have braced for it. There is that feeling again of being caught up by invisible hands, and something being torn out of you, stripped clean like meat from the bone. When it passes, you stumble up to your knees, fighting the urge not to empty your stomach. Your eyes wander back to Seeker. You find the angel staring down at you, that set face devoid of pleasure or pity.

“Not enough,” she pronounces. “You have not yet met our bargain.”

Your tortured body sags under the weight of that judgment. “I’ve given you all that I can,” you breathe.

“No,” the angel counters. “You have not. I seek truth, that which is hidden in the deepest recesses of the soul. Yet you have scarcely plumbed those depths. Instead you throw up what dross you skim from the surface. Lies and thievery.” There is derision in her voice. “You think I am impressed with the banalities of mortal existence? You think this is enough to win my favor?”

“What do you want?” It is a question wrapped in frustration.

“More,” the angel demands.

You glare up in exasperation that fast blooms into anger. “I don’t have more! I’ve given you all I can!”

Seeker surges forward then, bending down so low that her head comes only an arm’s span from your own. The dazzling light behind those crescent eyes bathes you in their brilliance. You put a hand to your face, a feeble shield against that glare.

“I am Seeker,” the angel declares, her voice thundering. “I search for truth. I am drawn to it. Do you think your small mortal soul can conceal itself from me? Do you think I cannot see what you keep secreted in its innermost chambers?”

A coldness forms like a dark pit in your stomach. “I don’t know what—”

Seeker lets out a sharp hiss, cutting off your words with the ease of a blade slicing through poorly stitched cloth. “Do not lie to me.” Each word bears a warning edge. “A girl, barely a woman, sets out to find me. To make a bargain for her dying sister. To ask for nothing less than a miracle. Why you?”

“Because no one else would,” you stammer, that cold, dark pit growing ever larger.

“A lie,” Seeker pronounces. “Even if wrapped in the skin of truth, a lie all the same. I ask again, why you?”

Your eyes cast downward, unable to meet the angel’s scouring scrutiny. You fix on your hands and find them clenched so tight the nails bite into your palms. They are shaking. And the cold pit has grown to swallow every part of you, until your entire body trembles. The tip of a metal finger touches beneath your chin, gently tilting your head back up. The surface of Seeker’s midnight-blue mask is somehow reflective, and there you catch a glimpse of your face—eyes seeping tears that glide down to coat your veil.

“Give me what I seek,” the angel whispers—her voice now turned into a caress and a nudge. “Speak your truth. Allow my embrace.”

The first words are hardest. “I started the fire.” The rest rush out in a torrent.

Work at the factory has never been fair. You labor endlessly, for wages that are a pittance at best. Because you are women, the company pays all of you less. And if you are younger, less still. The machines are dangerous. You’ve seen women scalded by ruptured steam valves or lacerated by weaving looms. The floor bosses don’t care. The company demands they meet quotas, and the lot of them wring every last bit of sweat and blood from each of you.

Aisha had talked of creating a union, and asking for greater rights. But it was Zehra, the Turkish girl, who you thought had the right of it. The company was a machine, she often said, and it would grind all of you to bits if it wasn’t stopped.

The idea to smash some of those machines was as much your idea as it was hers. You’d bring it all to a halt. The company would be forced to come to you, the workers who produced their wealth. And from a place of power, you’d make your bargains. The other women would be sure to rise up if given that spark. You’d been convinced even Aisha would see the sense of it.

Only nothing had gone as planned.

The alchemical solution the two of you had cooked up was meant to melt through the gears of the loom machines. It wasn’t supposed to catch fire, creating bright red flames that only spread the more you threw water on them. As you’d tried to flee, how could you have known the floor bosses had locked the doors in the factory that day? They said later to the papers it was to protect against theft. But it was just another way to keep all of you churning out their damn quotas. That day, their greed and your rashness almost proved deadly. You can still hear the screams of the other women, banging on bolted doors that wouldn’t open. You can still smell the smoke and the fire amid their fear. You can still hear your own screams.

The pain this final time is searing: those invisible fingers white-hot knives reaching into the heart of you, diving deep to draw out what you’ve tried to hide away. It feels as if you are being stretched within, almost to the point of tearing. You curl around that pain. You cling to it. And for a moment that seems a lifetime, it is your entire world, blotting out your vision and leaving you in darkness. When your eyes flutter open again, your cheek is flush with the floor as you babble the same words in repetition. “I’m sorry, Aisha. I’m sorry. I’ll make it right. I’ll make it right.”

Slowly, you push yourself to a position of half-lying and half-sitting. You look up to find Seeker once more upright. Her breastplate is slowly closing, hiding that frightful machine mouth away. There is nothing to be revealed in the placid countenance of that carved mask. But when she speaks, there is a tremor in her voice that can only be described as—satisfaction.

“You mortals are such frail things. Motes floating among more worlds than you can possibly imagine. Yet your souls hold the weight of stars. If you only knew…” She trails off, as if having spoken too much.

Angels and their secrets, you think scornfully. But you have no care for any of that. With gritted teeth, and more than some effort, you come to be standing. Not steady, but at least standing. “Have I met our bargain?” you ask tightly, wiping your dampness from your face.

Seeker tilts her head in that contemplative way. “You are angered.” She says the words with genuine surprise. “Are you not made glad in your confession? Is your soul not unburdened by speaking this truth? Atonement is painful, but are you not rendered the better for it?”

You stare at her in amazement. Does she think she’s done you some courtesy?

“Atonement,” you answer, “is gained through asking for forgiveness. And I pray for it every day. You can’t give me that. Pain isn’t absolution. Whatever you think you’ve taken from me, you haven’t unburdened me of anything.” You pause, willing yourself calm before starting again. “What I’ve come here for is restitution. Now, have I met our bargain?”

Seeker is silent for a moment, and you wonder what is going through that indecipherable mind. In your chest, your heart is pounding, but you meet that bright stare with your head held high. And wait.

“Our bargain is met,” she proclaims at last. The breath you release feels as if it comes from every part of you. The angel appears to pluck something from her lips. When her hand lowers to you, it opens in offering. You take what she holds. A stone. Dull-brown and unassuming, it is small enough to fit in your palm. You turn it over, running your fingers along its unevenly smooth surface.

“A bezoar,” Seeker explains. “Grind it to a fine powder for your sister to ingest.”

“This will save Aisha?” you ask uncertainly. “This will heal her?”

“She will make a swift recovery,” the angel replies. “Even her burns. Some might even call it miraculous.”

You glance up from the stone. Had that been a joke? But Seeker is already returning to her earlier repose.

“Farewell then, daughter,” she says in parting. “If ever you find your soul in need of unburdening, I might gladly welcome…savoring…your essence again.” With that, she bows her head, propping her chin upon a closed fist, and is once more still—all to be heard that peculiar metronomic rhythm.

“Not likely,” you whisper. Turning your back on the Angel of Khan el-Khalili (or whatever she is), you make your way up the stairs and back to the boiler eunuch mender’s shop, taking Aisha’s miracle—and your burdens—with you.

 

“The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” copyright © 2017 by P. Djèlí Clark
Reprinted from Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt, ed. by Matthew Bright
Art copyright © 2021 by Kevin Hong

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