/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Earth saga.Halcyon trilogy


Joseph Lewis

Joseph Robert Lewis


Book One: The Burning Sky

Day One

Chapter 1. Taziri

“Once more around the Middle Sea!” Taziri swept up her tiny daughter and carried her around the dining room, through the kitchen, and back again. Menna giggled and waved her chubby arms. After several minutes of dashing around the house, Taziri gently crashed her baby onto a pile of cushions in the corner of the dining room. “And back home to Marrakesh!” Taziri groaned as she straightened up and rubbed her back. “She’s getting heavy.”

Yuba finished setting the table. “You always say that when you come back. You know, she’ll be walking soon,” he said quietly.

“Time flies.” She stroked Menna’s cheek. Time flies, Menna grows, and you, Yuba, what about you? What’s happening to you? His once glorious mane was gone, shaved during her last trip as yet another surprise to come home to. They were all doing that now, everywhere she went. The men were changing. Some things were small, like the shaved heads. Other things were more troubling, like their missing veils.

Yuba paused in the doorway. “I went by the university again this morning. My work is backing up. Trees to move, gardens to plant, and a new fountain to build. They asked when I’ll be back full time, again, but I think they’re just going to replace me soon.”

Taziri sighed. Please, Yuba. Just one evening together as a family without an argument. She said, “I told you, as long as I’m a flight officer, I don’t get to decide my schedule. I’m sorry, but you might just have to let that job go, at least until Menna’s older.”

As Yuba came back into the dining room with the steaming tajine, a booming detonation thundered through the house. Plates and glasses crashed to the floor. Lights flickered. Neighbors screamed. Taziri held her baby girl close to her chest as she knelt down under the dining room table. The ground shuddered again. “Yuba, down here!”

He ducked down beside her and together they huddled around their crying child, listening to the muffled sounds of frightened children and frantic parents in nearby houses. After a moment, Yuba leaned back and surveyed the room, one hand absently stroking his daughter’s hair. “I think it stopped.”

Taziri ran to the front door and looked outside. Uphill to her right she saw townhouses huddled close to the street, their pale brick faces painted red by the setting sun. Spidery cracks lined most of the windows and many nervous faces poked out through open doorways. Above the homes rose the temple and the slender towers of the governor’s mansion gazing out over the city of Tingis. Downhill to her left, Taziri saw the evening sky filling with black smoke rising from the long arching hangars beside the railway station.

“It’s the airships!” Taziri dashed back into the house and knelt by her husband. “Are you all right? Yes? Let me see her. She seems fine. Just let me look at her. I think she’s fine. Right, Yuba, listen, I need to get down there. If the fire spreads…”

“I know.” He avoided her eyes. “Go on. We’re fine here.”

“Just let me get this.” She grabbed the bottom half of a broken glass and began gathering up the smaller shards into it.

Yuba raised an eyebrow. “I said go.”

“You’re sure?” She set the glass on the table.

“Yes.” He stood, their teary-eyed baby on his hip. He cleared his throat and she thought he was going to say something, but then he frowned and turned away. “Go do what you need to do. We’re fine here.”

She kissed them both. “I love you.”

“I know.” Yuba carried Menna back to the bedroom.

Taziri snatched her jacket from its hook by the door and struggled into it as she bolted down the stone-paved street, her steel-toed boots pounding out the rhythm of her strides. She passed men in blue shirts and women in red and green dresses standing in doorways, all gazing down the hill at the angry blaze vomiting a column of smoke into the sky. Some people moved slowly down the street, some even jogged after Taziri, but none kept pace with her.

At the next intersection, she dashed around a motionless trolley filled with gawkers. The electric cables overhead hummed their last faint hums of the evening as the sun vanished, taking their power with it. A tired old siren wailed in the distance and somewhere behind her a bell was ringing. More people were standing in the road now shouting about water and hoses, arguing about pumps and buckets. She ran past them all.

Houses gave way to shops, which gave way to warehouses. Rooftops covered in solar sheets and heavy wires glinted dully in the fading light, and windmills of all shapes and sizes rattled and creaked as they choked on winds laced with smoke and peppered with ash. She almost didn’t see the two homeless men lying in the shadows near an alleyway entrance, and she vaulted over them to avoid tripping and falling. Taziri ran faster, she ran until her lungs burned and her legs burned, and then she was through the gates of the airfield where the air itself burned, clawing at her throat and stinging her eyes.

“My God.”

The field danced with yellow and white flames that rippled and roared as the cool sea breezes swept up the hillside. To her left, the shapes of the train station platform and clock tower stood black against the purpling sky. Smoke and steam billowed ever upward all around her while glowing cinders fluttered down over the grassy field, swirling on the hot winds. Slowing to a walk, Taziri yanked her flight cap from the strap on her shoulder, pulled the padded headgear tight over her head, and wound her dangling blue scarf across her mouth and nose. She lowered the circular lenses of her flight goggles over her eyes and scanned the area. “Hello! Is there anyone here? Hello!”

Three massive hangars stood before her, built wall to wall. The flames and smoke danced and growled somewhere farther down the row, perhaps on the second or third building. As she entered the first hangar, Taziri plunged into a darkness broken only by the dull orange glow prying through the cracks in the wall, bleeding around the windows and doorframes. Even in the shadows, she could clearly see every line and curve of her airship Halcyon filling the chamber. For a moment she paused, staring up at the long gas envelope above and feeling the waves of heat rolling through the hangar.


“Ma’am?” She turned with a start to see a woman wearing an aviator’s orange jacket and goggles identical to her own. Taziri had barely heard her over the growling and roaring of the fire. “Captain?”

“You got here fast.” Isoke Geroubi pushed her goggles up to her forehead. “What happened?”

“Maybe it’s the Crake?” Taziri pointed to the door to the next hangar and they both approached it cautiously as the sounds of falling debris echoed beyond the wall. “No, it’s probably the Grebe. They were due in at sunset. Something must have happened when they landed. A crash. Look, the sprinklers aren’t working! And the fire brigade is taking its damn time. Where’s the ground crew? We need to keep the fire from spreading in here. If we open the hangar doors to cool the chamber, the wind could fan the flames. But once the temperature of the air in here gets high enough, the seals on the Halcyon ’s envelope will crack apart anyway and then, well, boom.”

Isoke grinned. “You engineers are all pessimists, you know that?”

In the distance, something metallic keened and crashed to the ground.

“Yes, ma’am. I suppose you just want to fly Halcyon out of here?” Taziri coughed into her scarf. “I wish you could, but no one could control an airship with all this heat and wind, not even you.”

Isoke winked at her. “Life is full of small challenges.”

“If the fire brigade is on strike-”

“Firefighters can’t go on strike. Not legally, anyway.” Isoke slowly crossed the Halcyon ’s hangar, her eyes darting all about. “One thing at a time. First, let’s see how bad it really is.”

She waved Taziri to follow her to the door. The boiling air shimmered and the sharp cracking of wood echoed in the next hangar. Isoke touched the door handle, then yanked her hand away and shook her head. She motioned Taziri back and kicked the door. It rattled in its frame, but held. She kicked again and the latch snapped free. The door swung wide and smoke belched through the opening, creeping up along the walls of Halcyon ’s hangar. Isoke replaced her goggles and stepped through the doorway. Taziri stood just behind her, peering into the filthy air, struggling to breathe as a warm sweat trickled down her neck.

A sharp cough punctuated the dull roaring and a tall man stumbled toward them out of the smoke. Gray fumes curled off his tattered black coat. The right side of his shaved head and beardless face was a black and red ruin of weeping cuts and scorched skin. His right eye was shut, if it still existed, but his left eye stared at them, a single blot of white in the dark haze. Isoke reached out to catch him as he approached the open doorway.

The firelight flashed on something in the man’s hand as he swung at the pilot. Isoke shrieked, her hands pressed to her face as dark blood spilled over her fingers. She dropped to her knees, and then the floor, her head thumping on the concrete. Her wheezing, gurgling noises barely rose above the roaring flames. Taziri darted toward her, but then froze when she saw the burned man holding the bloody knife at his side. The man lunged forward and Taziri fell back, crashing into the edge of a workbench and knocking a toolbox to the ground. Steel handles and round head attachments clattered across the concrete floor. She grabbed a heavy wrench in her shaking hand and rose to her feet.

Taziri glanced at Isoke still shivering and gasping on the floor, still covering her face with both hands as the pool of blood around her head expanded, and she hurled her wrench at the man. It flew past his head, several hand spans to one side. The brute stiffened as the tool flashed past, and he turned his head slightly but the scorched flesh of his neck refuse to twist that way and he cried out in agony, his empty hand flying up to cover the burnt skin. In that instant Taziri leapt forward and tackled the man to the ground, landing awkwardly across his body. She crawled up to sit on the man’s chest and planted one boot on the hand holding the knife covered in Isoke’s blood.

Taziri drove her fist down into the man’s face. As his head bounced off the concrete floor, a hideous vibration tore up Taziri’s arm, and she slid to one side, cradling her hand against her chest. The burned man lay still.

Coughing so hard her throat went raw, Taziri crawled through the filthy haze toward Isoke. The smoke stung her eyes until they gushed tears, and she tasted only ash and dust in her mouth. The sounds of wood cracking and flames roaring echoed through the hangar, and something heavy fell on her left arm.

The world faded into smears of gray and white.

The world snapped back into focus as hands grabbed Taziri by the arms and jacket, hauling her up and away from the ground. She heard voices all around her now, women and men, all shouting about hoses and pumps. Jets of water hissed in the air and boots pounded the concrete floor. Two men carried her backward across the hangar and outside onto the grass. They pulled off her goggles and scarf and she felt the cool air on her skin. The stars overhead hid behind waves of smoke and bright cinders rained down upon the earth.

Taziri sat coughing on the grass while the two men hovered over her, talking in low voices. She focused on just breathing, on the sting in her eyes and the ache in her chest. Her left arm throbbed dully and her little finger hummed with a slight numbness, feeling fat and rubbery. She stared at her blackened sleeve. I need to tell them something, something very important. There was something they should do, but she couldn’t remember what it was. Something she had left behind.

A moment later the pair stiffened sharply, boot heels clicking, and Taziri looked up to see a young woman approaching. The woman ignored the men’s salutes and knelt down in front of Taziri, peering into her eyes, wiping her face with a damp cloth, asking her questions in a professional monotone. Taziri muttered back her name, her birthday, the queen’s name. Rank and service number? When did you get here? Do you know anything about the two people in the hangar? A man and a woman?

A woman?

“Isoke! He stabbed her! You have to go back for her, you have to help her!” Taziri tried to stand but her legs wouldn’t lift her and the two men on either side wouldn’t let her, and she fell back on her rear, stunned. “I couldn’t reach her! Where is she?”

“They’re working on her now.” The young woman nodded off to her right.

Taziri followed her gaze and saw people in uniforms swarming around a lump on the ground wrapped in blankets. They were all talking at once so she couldn’t tell what they were saying, and they kept blocking her view so she couldn’t see what they were doing. She’s in there, lying on the ground, with strangers tearing off her clothes to try to fix her, like some machine. A wagon backed up to the medics. The uniforms stood, carrying the bundle of blankets between them, and then suddenly they were all on the wagon and it was racing away across the field, turning the corner onto the street and vanishing into the city. Taziri went on staring at the street, blinking dry eyes, swallowing rapidly, and feeling hollow and cold.

“Is she going to be all right?” She looked up but the young woman had already moved on, taking the two men with her. So Taziri sat there, breathing hard, watching the hangar burn as she rested her left arm in her lap and massaged her numb finger. She watched two dozen men pull Halcyon out the opposite end of the hangar and tether it to a mooring mast far from the flames. They ran left and right, shouting at each other, dragging smoking debris, pointing at smoldering furniture. It was all just a stone’s throw away, but it felt like a distant dream, familiar and yet unreal. As the minutes passed, the airfield continued filling with people and equipment while the walls of the hangars gradually disintegrated and collapsed. The fire brigade’s wagons rolled onto the field behind teams of oxen, sooty pumps began cycling, and the men in yellow coats uncoiled the hoses. Water arched through the air and fresh steam blossomed everywhere, filling the field with a new flavor of wet burnt filth. Slowly, the heat faded and the smoke thinned. In just a few minutes, the entire scene was transformed. Flaming havoc receded into the mundane work of dragging debris, dousing blackened objects, and inspecting melted equipment.

Chaotic shouting broke out across the field and Taziri looked up to see a dozen firefighters wrestling frantically with one of the water pump engines. The pistons were cycling furiously, the entire apparatus shaking violently as the pumps worked faster and faster. High-pitched voices barked orders over the screams of two men rolling on the ground, pressing their gloved hands against their bright red, peeling faces.

Taziri was on her feet in an instant, jogging toward the panicking crowd around the engine. The machine hissed and groaned as the pressure built inside it. She broke into a run and snatched up a firefighter’s axe lying in the grass. People shouted, a cacophony of panic and white noise punctuated by the cries of the two men still ignored on the ground. As Taziri reached the outer edge of the circle of firefighters, one of them glanced over his shoulder and they locked eyes for a moment.

“Everybody back!” The man yelled. Half the firefighters stumbled back and craned over each others’ heads to see what was happening, while the other half pushed forward to wave the intruder off.

Taziri plowed through the objectors and lifted her axe above the wagon. She swung once across the main line and smashed a gauge off the pipe. A scalding white jet erupted into the air from the headless junction. Without pausing, she dashed to the end of the wagon, hollered, “Get back!” and brought the axe straight down on the boiler’s drain cap. The small iron lid shattered, releasing a small torrent beneath the wagon, and steam erupted from the withering grass.

The firefighters leapt away from the boiling pool spreading across the ground, and even as the engine cycled slower and quieter behind them, they shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Taziri was already a dozen paces away, heading back toward the grassy patch where she had been sitting a moment earlier. She tossed the axe aside and shouted over her shoulder, “Medic! See to those men!”

A single fire chief still trailed after her. “Lieutenant! You just destroyed my engine!” She pointed back at the machine bathing in its own steam.

Taziri paused to glare back at her. “I broke the two cheapest parts. I’m sure you’ll have it working again within the hour, but those men will be harder to replace unless you see to their injuries, Captain. ”

The fire chief turned away to bark more orders and point at her damaged equipment.

Taziri sighed, feeling all the heat and tension in her back flooding away, draining her, leaving her cold and tired. She walked back toward the spot on the grass where they had put her before, where she had watched them take Isoke away. There was no reason to be there now, but there was no reason to be anywhere now. Not yet. She couldn’t think yet. She stopped to stare at the smoking hangar.

“Lieutenant Taziri Ohana?”

To her left, Taziri saw a middle-aged man in a blood-red coat decorated with brass studs and bars striding toward her. She cleared her throat and dragged a filthy glove through her hair. “Yes?”

“I’m Major Syfax Zidane, Security Section Two, royal marshals. I’m here to oversee the investigation.” He glanced at the hangar. “Sorry for your loss.”

“My loss?” She stared at him as though he had spoken a foreign language. Did he mean Isoke? Or…no, oh no. The other airship crews? Or the ground crew? Or all of them? All of them dead? Taziri wiped a dirty hand across her sweaty face and took a long breath. “Is there something I can do for you, sir?”

“I need to ask you a few questions about what happened here.” He had a deep voice and he spoke just a little too slowly, as though he were just waking up from a deep sleep, or as though he didn’t find the burning airfield particularly interesting.

“Uhm.” Taziri looked away, her eyes itching. She looked back at him, a huge thick-necked man with a sleepy-eyed squint. Since when are men promoted above captain? He must be part of some special transfer program with the army. “Can it wait until tomorrow? I’d really like to go home to my family right now.”

“I’ll get you home as soon as I can.”

She swallowed and nodded. “All right, sir.”

Chapter 2. Syfax

The major frowned at the aviator. She looked like hell. Exhausted, sweaty, red-eyed. Better keep it short and simple before she gets all loopy on me. “We’ve identified the man who attacked you as Medur Hamuy, personal bodyguard to Ambassador Barika Chaou. Do you know either of them?”

Taziri stared past him at the hangar. “No, I don’t.”

“Apparently, they were regular passengers to Espana. Spent a lot of time on trains, steamers, and airships. You ever fly them around?”

Taziri blinked up at him. “No, Espana is the Crake ’s usual run. Isoke and I do the eastern route. Ikosim, Hippo, and Carthage. The Numidian coast.”

“I see.” Syfax glared at the hundreds of people trampling his crime scene. Where the hell is Kenan? Lazy kid.

“Was it the Grebe or the Crake?”

Syfax turned back to the aviator. “What was that?”

“Which ship exploded, sir?”

“Oh. It was the Gilded Grebe. The Copper Crake isn’t here.”

Taziri said, “She should be. The Crake was scheduled to leave in the morning. It was heading back north to Espana, I think.”

Syfax frowned. “Well, it’s not here now.” He glanced left and saw his aide jogging toward him. Corporal Kenan Agyeman barely came up to the major’s shoulder, he had arms like kindling, and he grinned too much. He was grinning now. Syfax turned his back to the aviator and said in a low voice, “Where the hell have you been?”

“Helping the medics, sir.”

“Oh, come on, kid, we talked about this,” Syfax said. “Stick to the job or the general’ll have you back on the frontier guarding rocks by the end of the day.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So what do you have?”

Kenan held out some papers. “Report from Lady Damya’s office. Looks like Ambassador Chaou didn’t show at dinner tonight. No one’s seen her in several hours. And a telegram from Zili. The watchtower just sighted an airship heading south along the coast, but there wasn’t anything scheduled to pass that way tonight.”

“Might be our missing Crake.” The major scanned the reports. “How did you get these if you were helping the medics?”

Kenan pointed across the field. “Well, the telegraph office is right next to the rail station and they still have wounded on the platform there so I thought I should-”

“Kid! I don’t care. Just don’t do it again. Go check on Hamuy. He’s your only priority right now.” Syfax sighed and turned back to the aviator.

Taziri was staring across the airfield. She said, “What happened at the train station?”

Crap, she doesn’t know. Syfax thumbed his nose and said, “About ten minutes before the Grebe exploded, one of the steam engines ruptured in the station. We’ve got passenger cars on their side, chunks of metal everywhere, and twisted up rails. Lots of wounded, mostly people waiting for the eight-fifteen to Port Chellah. No real evidence yet, but I’m looking forward to asking our new prisoner all about it.”

“Lots of wounded?” Taziri continued to stare at the train station roof just visible beyond the airfield fence and hedge wall.

“Lieutenant Ohana.” Syfax leaned forward to catch her attention. “My aide says Ambassador Chaou’s disappeared and we found your missing airship heading south over Zili. So I’m guessing it’s not heading to Espana.” He glanced to the northern sea sparkling in the darkness beyond the train station and the docks at the bottom of the hill. “Any idea where it might be going?”

Taziri shook her head. “If they stick to the coast, then maybe to Port Chellah or Maroqez. I’m sorry. I really couldn’t guess where the Crake is going.”

“But Hamuy might.”

“Hamuy. So, he’s all right?” Taziri’s gloved hands curled into fists.

“Yeah, I’ll be interrogating him soon.” Over her head, Syfax spotted a small commotion by the airfield gates around a pale little man in a gray coat and hat. “Who’s that?”

Taziri looked over her shoulder. “Oh. Our passenger from Carthage. Mine and Isoke’s, I mean. I suppose he saw the fire. We were just stopping here for the night. We’re scheduled to take him to Orossa in the morning.”

“Well, he’s gonna be delayed.” Syfax glanced down at the small pad in his hand. One airship destroyed, one missing, and the surviving captain is in the hospital. Great. “ Ohana, it says here you’re an engineer, but you’re also a qualified pilot, right?”

“What?” The woman looked up at him as though he’d just grown a third eye. “I mean, yes, I am. Why?”

“I’m going after the Copper Crake. Right now. With the station wrecked, the trains can’t get from the sheds out onto the main lines. I’ll wire the marshals in Port Chellah to be on the lookout, but that airship can go anywhere, so I’m commandeering the Halcyon. And you’ll be flying her.”

“I will?” Taziri’s eyes darted around the field at the firefighters, the engines, the piles of debris. She glanced down at her left hand and began rubbing her fingers. “I’ve never made a solo flight, sir. I’m sure there’s somebody else better qualified.”

Syfax frowned at the burned patch of her sleeve. Nah, the medics cleared her, she’s just being fidgety. Come on lady, we don’t have time for this. “Listen, there isn’t anybody else. The Crake’ s crew is flying south and the crew of the Grebe died in that hangar tonight with the ground crew. Look, if you can’t fly the Halcyon, then I’ll just have to get one of my people do it. Kenan’s got some training.”

“No, I’ll do it,” Taziri said quickly. She turned to look up at the city, scanning the grid of roads and roofs. “Right now?”

“Right now.” Syfax gestured toward the Halcyon.

“Can one of your people tell my husband where I am?”

“Sure.” Syfax waved a gray-uniformed police officer forward to collect the address and message.

Taziri gave her the information, then turned and walked woodenly across the grass toward the airship, casting brief glances back toward the street.

Syfax followed her gaze up and across the city, but all he saw were strings of tiny lights twinkling like stars as the last wisps of smoke vanished into the night sky. The electric lights faded quickly and the gas lamps flickered to life, trading one shade of amber light for another.

“Excuse me? Excuse me! What is going on here?” demanded a shrill male voice.

Syfax intercepted the old man in the gray coat and hat. “Crime scene. You’ll have to leave.”

“Crime scene!” The man swerved around the major. “What happened here? Was anyone hurt?”

Taziri said, “Yes.”

“Well, I am a doctor, you know. Where am I needed?”

Syfax raised an eyebrow. “A doctor? Really?”

“Yes. Evander of Athens, physician and surgeon.”

A Hellan doctor? Better than nothing. “Great, doc, I’ve got a patient for you.” Syfax clamped a strong hand on the doctor’s shoulder and steered him to a nearby stretcher surrounded by armed men. “He was burned and beaten. Can you fix him up?”

Evander knelt by the body and began probing inside the shredded jacket and shirt where some crumpled rags and gauze fluttered in the wind. “This is some nice field world. Very nice. Tell me, exactly how much lard did you slather on this man before you tried stitching him back together like an old shoe? What is this, twine?” He glared up at the officers gathered around him.

Kenan winced and looked away.

“Doc, I need to speak to this man as soon as possible.” Syfax knelt beside him. “Can you wake him up?”

“If you wish to hear a great deal of screaming, then yes, yes I can.” The Hellan nodded seriously. “These burns are extensive. I will need to treat them before I even try to wake him. The pain would be unbearable. The shock could even stop his heart.”

Syfax thumbed his nose and frowned. “Then we’ll take him with us and talk to him later. And you too, doc.”

“With you? Where? What’s going on here?” Evander frowned. “I was summoned to your capital by Her Highness, the queen herself. We are leaving first thing in the morning. I’m not going anywhere but Orossa. The matter is quite urgent, which is the only reason why I’m traveling in these damned flying ships.”

“Well, your airship is coming with me and there won’t be a train to Orossa any time soon, so you can come with me now or go find yourself a mule.” Syfax stepped back from the crowd around Hamuy and raised his voice. “This is a matter of national security, and we are wasting time. Kenan!”

The corporal jogged forward.

“Get the prisoner onto the airship. Ohana, prep for takeoff. Doc, I’d like you on board, but I can’t order you to. You can come with us or go the old fashioned way. It should only take a week or so.”

“A week? The old fashioned way? I don’t have time for any of that.” The little man sputtered under his breath in Hellan, and then snapped, “If I it means getting to the capital any quicker, then I’ll come with you.”

Syfax wasn’t paying attention. Of course he’s coming with us. He watched Kenan struggle with the unconscious Hamuy for a moment, then reached down and helped haul the body across the field and through the narrow door of the Halcyon ’s gondola.

Dark wood panels and dark brass trim lined the edges of the narrow cabin with tiny electric lights gleaming and reflecting in every little nook and corner. They dumped Hamuy on the hard deck with a thump as the doctor shuffled in behind them and slid back onto one of the upholstered benches in the rear of the cabin.

And how are you doing, little lady? Syfax stared at the back of the woman’s head in the pilot’s seat. Taziri wasn’t moving. The lieutenant sat with one hand on the throttle and one on the flight stick, feet flat on the pedals. A faint hum ran through the cabin, but no steam engine huffed and no heat rolled off the rear wall. Aw crap, she’s a zombie.

Syfax stepped over Hamuy and leaned his head into the cockpit. “We’re ready to go whenever you are, lieutenant.”

“I’m ready. We’ll be lifting off on my mark,” she said. The men outside lashed the lines to the Halcyon ’s outer rails and jogged away. Taziri settled back into the seat and flexed the pedals, rotating the forward propellers back and forth just outside the cockpit windows. She wrapped her scarf loosely over her mouth and nose with one hand as she flipped a few switches on the engineer’s station with the other. Then she angled the propellers down and eased the throttle forward. “Mark.”

As the grass lay down in rippling waves behind the wash of the propellers, the world dropped out from beneath the ship and the bright chaos of the airfield shrank and vanished amidst the countless tiny lights of Tingis. Syfax glanced from the dozens of wavering needles in the gauges to the silk tell-tales flapping outside the cabin, and let his feet feel for the tremors in the hull as the wind buffeted and whirled around the airship. Smooth ride. Maybe she’s going to be all right after all.

Taziri dimmed the overhead cockpit lights, leaving only the instruments glowing, and their eyes began to adjust to the darkness. The compass needle in front of her spun lazily. “Major, we’re coming about to proceed south to Zili.”

“Good. Get this thing up to full speed and keep an eye out for the Copper Crake.”

Taziri nodded and eased the throttles forward. Syfax stepped carefully back into the cabin, one hand always gripping the overhead rails for balance. The floor shuddered and shifted ever so slightly with the wind and the irregular surges from the engines.

“Now.” The old Hellan reached under his seat and pulled out a black leather bag. “Let’s see about this wretch.” He knelt beside Hamuy and began pulling out his supplies. “I can treat the burns, somewhat. He’ll be horribly disfigured, but he may live. Maybe. The bruises are ugly too. We can assume a concussion, at least.”

“When can I talk to him?” Syfax peered down at them.

The doctor rolled up his sleeves. “Ask me again in an hour.”

Syfax caught Kenan’s eye and pointed at him to stay with the doctor. Then the major returned to the cockpit and squeezed into the empty engineer’s seat. The glowing needles on the console shivered behind their glass faces and the tools stowed in the netting swung silently overhead. “This must be the quietest airship I’ve ever been on.”

“We hear that a lot.” Taziri glanced at him. “Please don’t touch anything, sir.”

He grunted and took his arm off the console. “Quick to launch, too.”

Taziri nodded. “Major, if you don’t mind my asking, what exactly is the plan? Even if we find the Copper Crake, I can’t force them to land.”

“I know. That’s why I only brought one man with me.” Syfax stared out through the wide windows at the perfect blackness outside. The cockpit lights were just bright enough to keep his eyes from focusing on whatever lay below them. “We’re just backup at this point. I’m counting on the police in Port Chellah to spot the Crake and intercept the ambassador.”

“Do you think the ambassador was kidnapped?”

“Maybe. Maybe Hamuy turned on her. Or maybe he was following her orders. Too early to say, really. Blowing up a few engines and killing a bunch of passengers is a good way to scare people, keep them from traveling, that sort of thing. Standard terror tactic these days. We had something similar down in Acra a few months ago. Pastoral extremists.”

Taziri looked up to her right at the small mirror mounted on the wall where she could see the cabin behind her. “Back in the hangar, he didn’t even say anything.”

Syfax nodded slowly. Here it comes.

“He just walked up to her and stabbed her. He didn’t even hesitate. He just stabbed her. She wasn’t even armed.” Taziri took a long, deep breath and exhaled against her scarf. “You hear about these things happening in Persia or Songhai. But it doesn’t happen here. Not even in the riots. Stabbing a woman in the face? You don’t see that. You don’t even hear about that. Ever.”

“I know.”

“I’m sure you do, major.” She looked back at him.

“Listen, I want you to put Hamuy out of your mind, Ohana.”

“Out of…?” Her hands shook above the controls for a brief moment, snapping into fists, and then gripping the sticks again. “He’s lying right there. He’s right there behind me. The man who…and I-”

Syfax nodded. “Ohana, I get it. Trust me. There’ll be plenty of time for Hamuy later. He’s not going anywhere, and your captain has the best doctors in Tingis patching her up as we speak. But right now I need you to focus on flying this boat. Can you do that for me?”

She swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. How’s that arm?” He nodded at her left hand.

She wiggled her fingers on the throttle. “Fine, sir.”

They sat together in silence, staring out into the darkness below the wide curve of the gas envelope. Grassy hills and swaying trees slid past them to port while the distant glitter of moonlit waves to starboard revealed the Atlanteen Ocean churning and foaming from the shore out to the end of the world. When his eyes finally adjusted, Syfax picked out the pale line of the railway snaking along the coast and the flickers of light in cottage windows on the slopes above the beaches. Small fishing boats dotted the sands, their mooring lines stretching up to the rocks. A few clouds hid patches of stars, but he could see well enough to tell that the Crake was nowhere in sight.

Less than an hour passed before the doctor thumped up behind them and sniffed loudly. Evander wiped at the stains on his fingers with a filthy rag. “I’ve done all I can for the moment. He’ll live, for a while at least. How long, I can’t say. In a hospital, maybe a few weeks. Here?” The doctor shrugged. “I gave him something for the pain.”

Taziri looked back. “He’s not in any pain?”

“I didn’t say that.” Evander smirked. “He’s conscious, more or less. You can try talking to him, for what it’s worth.”

“Thanks, doc.” Syfax stepped back into the cabin. Hamuy’s good eye wasn’t quite open, his breathing was quick and shallow, and his fingers were trembling. As Syfax knelt down, he pressed his palm against his prisoner’s chest. “Medur Hamuy, I’m Major Zidane.”

The man grunted. “Redcoat.” His voice was all phlegm and gravel.

“That’s right. I bet you don’t like Redcoats, do you?”

“Don’t like any of the queen’s dogs. Least of all you, Zidane. I heard about you. What the hell are you doing in that coat? Not enough girls ordering you around in the army?” Medur grinned, and then suddenly screamed, his bloodshot eyes bulging from their sockets and he twisted to stare at his right hand.

“Kenan.” Syfax glanced over his shoulder. “Watch where you’re stepping.”

“Sorry, sir.” The corporal removed his boot from Medur’s bandaged fingers and grinned sheepishly. “I guess I wasn’t looking.”

Did he do that on purpose? I still can’t tell if this kid’s a goofball or a serious player. Syfax turned his attention back to the man on the floor. “Now, Medur, tell me about what happened tonight. The train station. The airfield. You gone all pastoral now? Down with the machine menace and all that?”

“What do you think, Zidane?” Hamuy stared dully at the ceiling, wheezing. “It was a job. A little fire, a little wet work. Easy money.”

“Not easy enough. You should see your face,” Syfax said. “You killed a dozen civilians and put three dozen more in the hospital. All the trains are stuck behind a pile of twisted steel and only this airship survived. Who paid you? Ambassador Chaou? What was the big plan?”

“Yeah, she paid me. Not enough for this shit though.” Hamuy coughed, his whole body convulsing with each hack and gasp. “I dunno what her plan was, but my plan was to get away and get paid. Didn’t plan to get roasted.”

“Nah, I guess not.” Syfax watched the man’s trembling fingers. How much of this is an act? How dangerous is he still? Well, if the reports from Numidia are anything to go by, pretty dangerous. Syfax considered the thin cords wrapped around Hamuy’s wrists. “Tell you what. How’s about we get you into something less comfortable?” He tugged a pair of steel handcuffs from his coat pocket. “Doc, stand back. Kenan, roll him over. Lieutenant Ohana?”

She looked up at him in the mirror by her head. “Major?”

“We could use a hand back here.” Syfax pointed at the man under his knee.

Taziri took her time extracting herself from the pilot’s seat and stepping back into the cabin. She said, “I should really stay at the controls.”

“I’m just switching his cords for cuffs. It’ll only take a second.” Syfax leaned back. “Kenan?”

Kenan grabbed the prisoner’s arm and flipped him over to lie face down. The corporal leaned forward, putting his full weight on Hamuy’s shoulders. The prisoner grunted and coughed. “Ready here, sir.”

Syfax yanked Hamuy’s hands up and pulled a thick bladed knife from his belt. “Ohana, sit on his legs.”

Taziri nodded and pinned Hamuy’s feet to the floor. “Okay.”

Syfax cut away the cords to reveal two bruised wrists. In that same instant, the legs beneath Taziri’s knee snapped up and she toppled forward into Syfax and the two fell over onto Kenan. Hamuy bucked at the waist and again at the knees, flopping like a fish on the deck while two men and a woman scrambled and tumbled on his head and back. It only took him a moment to get his hands under him and the prisoner surged up from beneath all three of his jailers, roaring. Syfax shoved Taziri toward the back of the cabin as he stood up and buried his fist in Hamuy’s stomach. The burned man folded, but grabbed the major’s coat to hold himself up. He swung at Syfax’s head, but Syfax grabbed the fist in midair and twisted it around behind Hamuy’s back. The prisoner screamed and Syfax felt the sickening crustiness of the man’s burned flesh sliding between his fingers. He slapped his other hand across Hamuy’s forehead and bent his head back, baring his burnt throat.

The major was just thinking it might be time to back off when Taziri yanked a wrench off the engineer’s console and smashed it across Hamuy’s jaw. The force of the blow sent Taziri stumbling across the cabin as Hamuy dropped to the deck in a heap of twisted, bloody limbs. Syfax let him fall and in the seconds that followed all he could hear were three people gasping for breath.

“Ohana.” Syfax wiped his hand on his coat. “You almost killed my prisoner.”

Taziri turned to stare up at him. “That’s unfortunate, sir.”

She’s still in revenge mode. That’s the last thing I need. “You mean it’s unfortunate that he almost died, or that he didn’t quite die?” Syfax knelt down and cuffed Hamuy’s hands behind his back. “Get back in the cockpit, lieutenant.”

She went back to her seat in silence. Syfax made sure Kenan still had his head on straight and left him to guard the unconscious prisoner. With Evander lying across the upholstered bench at the back of the cabin and snoring violently, Syfax found a shortage of seats so he went back up to sit in the engineer’s chair.

Hours passed. The ship shuddered, the engines droned, and the clouds parted to reveal a sea of stars ahead, as much as could be seen around the edge of the gas envelope. The landscape below offered only dim and ragged shapes that might be trees and snaking lines that might be roads. The ghostly outlines of Zili and Lixus came and went, along with other smaller fishing villages. And from time to time, they would pass over the tiny blue light of a marker tower leading the way south along the coast.

“What’s that?”

Syfax looked back and saw a sleepy-eyed Evander kneeling on the padded bench and pressing his face to the window. “That right there. That light. What is that?”

Syfax leaned across the cockpit to peer at the dull orange glow on the ground. It flickered once, twice. “A fire. A big one.”

Chapter 3. Taziri

Ever so gently, Taziri eased the Halcyon to port to pass over the wavering firelight blazing half a mile from the coast line. As they came closer, Syfax stuck his large shaven head into the cockpit beside her and said, “Take us down. I wanna check that out.”

She frowned behind her scarf. With each passing second, the shadowy shapes on the ground became more distinct and suddenly she recognized the broken lines of an airship gondola on the hillside. “Major, I’d rather not get too close. I can’t see the ground clearly and there could be trees.” Taziri began easing back the throttles. “Maybe we should come back in the morning.”

He looked sharply at her. “Not a chance. If that’s the Crake, then the ambassador can’t be far away. Land the ship, Ohana.”

Taziri nodded. “Yes, sir.” She worked the pedals and the throttle, and after a quarter hour of gently sinking down over the rocky slope, she flipped the propellers over and pinned the airship to the ground. There weren’t any trees nearby but she did see several jagged stones poking up from the earth, large enough to pierce a gondola deck by several feet. She stared at one particularly sharp rock a few yards to her left. “If the wind picks up, we’re going to slide around on this gravel, sir, and that would be a very bad thing.”

“I’ll be quick.” Syfax unlocked the door and stepped out onto the earth.

“Watch out for the bats!” Taziri watched him through the open doorway. He swayed and grabbed the side of the gondola and the aviator smiled. He’s landsick.

“What bats?” Evander asked.

“Oh, she means the flying foxes,” Kenan said. “They can be a little nasty, but the fire should keep them away from us here.”

“Flying foxes?” The Hellan stared. “Am I misunderstanding you? Foxes?”

“No, they’re just big reddish bats that look like foxes. They eat birds, mostly.” Kenan held out his hands a meter apart. “About that big.”

The doctor shuddered.

Taziri smiled as she watched Syfax jog up the slope into the wreckage where the flames were already burning low and dim. She slid over to her seat at the engineer’s console and busied herself with routine system checks. Her hands glided across the dials and lights. Everything was fine. Everything was just the way it should be, except for the empty seat beside her. She scratched at the tip of her little finger, but felt almost nothing. I can’t remember if that’s good or bad. Hopefully the major will turn me loose soon so I can get the Halcyon home and under lock and key, and then get to a doctor. She glanced back at Evander. My doctor.

Taziri climbed back into the pilot’s chair and fiddled with the throttles and fans to hold the airship steady against the stiffening night breezes coming in off the ocean. Behind her, Evander snorted in his sleep and Kenan chuckled softly at the old man. “I wish I could fall asleep that fast.”

Syfax shouted from the darkness, “Doc!”

Taziri jerked upright and twisted around in her seat. “Doctor? Doctor? The major wants you out there. Doctor?”

Without moving from his prisoner’s side, Kenan leaned over and shook the Hellan’s foot. Evander snorted and opened his eyes. “What?”

“Major Zidane needs you out there.” Taziri pointed at the burning debris outside.

The old man grabbed his bag and shuffled out the door into the night. She watched him trudge up the hill and disappear behind the bulk of the wreckage. A long minute passed in silence. Taziri glanced at Kenan but couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say, and the sight of Hamuy sleeping peacefully on the floor just a few feet away made her stomach turn.

When she looked outside again, the doctor was leading the major down the hillside toward the Halcyon at a brisk jog. Syfax had a body lying across his arms. Both of them were glancing up at the sky and the major was shouting, “Move it, move it!”

The doctor coughed as he stepped inside and Taziri watched the marshal set a young woman in an orange jacket down on the floor just behind her. “Ghanima!” She leapt out of her seat and knelt over the unconscious girl to wipe the soot from her face. Taziri glanced at the doctor. “How is she?”

“Fine.” Evander dropped back into his seat, dabbing at the perspiration on his brow with a small cloth. “Not even a bruise, I don’t think. Just that lump on her forehead. She’ll wake up in the morning right as rain. The damn bats were only interested in her dead friend.”

Taziri looked from one man to the other. “Bats? Major?”

Syfax shrugged. “Yeah, half a dozen of the bloodsuckers were out there. Real nasty ones, too. They’d already gotten to the other pilot. We’re done here. You can lift off.” He followed her into the cockpit and sat beside her. “The extra weight won’t be an issue, will it? I know you have limits on these things.”

“No,” she said, turning the propellers over and easing the throttle forward. “We’re still well below maximum. You didn’t find the ambassador?”

“Nah, she’s gone, and no hope of tracking her without a dog.” Syfax shook his head. “Your friend here was awake when I found her. She said the ambassador shot the Crake ’s captain just before they crashed.” Syfax thumbed his nose and leaned back into his seat. “I waved off the bats long enough to get a look at the captain, too. She was shot in the back, so I’m guessing there wasn’t much of a struggle. The girl here must have dragged her body out of the wreck after the crash.”

“Ambassador Chaou shot the captain?” Taziri stared at the Copper Crake as it slowly dropped down out of sight and then she peered out over the dark landscape in search of a figure, a woman running away, a woman that she could land the Halcyon on. “Why would the ambassador steal an airship? She flies all the time. The Crake was practically her personal airship anyway.”

“Yeah, I know,” Syfax said. “Chaou must have stolen the gun from one of Lady Damya’s guards to commandeer the airship, probably just before she had Hamuy start the fireworks.”

“But why? Why blow up the train station? Why kill all those people? Is she a pastoralist?” Taziri asked.

“All good questions. She might be working with the Bafours. Hell, she might even be a Bafour. God knows we’ve got plenty in country. Or maybe she was heading for the Songhai Empire when things went sideways.” Syfax thumbed his nose. “She might have even shot the captain by accident. Never forget your SCARFs, lieutenant.”

“Scarves? What’s that mean?”

“Stupid, Crazy, And Random Factors,” Kenan answered from the cabin. “Crimes that just don’t make any sense.”

Taziri digested that for a moment. It’s bad enough that people are dying on purpose. But by accident? The thought of her life being snuffed out by an evil killer was tragic, yet somehow it was a possibility she could live with. But the thought of having her whole world and future snatched away forever because of some idiot making a mistake? A hard pain formed in her chest and she thought of little Menna giggling and clapping her chubby hands. “So, major, where do we go from here?”

“Where is here?”

Taziri tapped the map pinned to the wall beside her. “Here, just past Marker Seven. Nothing but grass and sand between here and Port Chellah.”

Syfax nodded. “SCARFs aside, maybe Chaou wanted to ditch the airship here outside the city. She figured we’d be looking for it and for her. She forced the captain to land, then shot her and the balloon, and went the rest of the way on foot.”

Taziri shook her head. “No, she had an airship. She could go anywhere in the country in a matter of hours, and anywhere in North Ifrica in a matter of days. I doubt she was worried that someone in Port Chellah would point up in the sky and say, I think that’s her!” Inwardly, she winced. Damn it, this isn’t just another chat with Isoke. He’s a major.

But the major didn’t seem to notice or care. “Yeah. So there must be something in Port Chellah that she needs more than she needs an airship.”

“Maybe,” said Taziri. “It’s still a long way to walk on terrain like this. It’s pretty hilly down there. Lots of gravelly, sandy slopes. Easy to break an ankle in the dark.”

“Then get us to Port Chellah and we’ll catch her as she stumbles back into civilization.”

“Will do.” She pressed the throttles forward and the propellers droned louder.

“You still holding up all right, Ohana?”

“Professional counseling, sir?” Taziri glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and managed a wry grin. “It’s under control, really. I’m fine.”

“Of course you’re not fine,” he said. “Hell, you just watched your boss get knifed in a burning building a few hours ago. But I’m not talking about Hamuy or your friend. It’s getting late and you weren’t expecting to be flying tonight. You must be tired.”

“Hungry, mostly.” A sudden cramp in her thigh made her twist her leg and she grimaced. The pain slowly receded and she tried to relax her muscles. “I’m fine.”

“We’ll set you up in a hotel as soon as we get to town. Dinner’s on me.”

“Is that before or after we catch Chaou?”

“We? No.” Syfax shook his head. “Once we land, Kenan and I will deal with Hamuy and Chaou. Tomorrow, you can take the doc to Orossa and get back to your regular routine.”

Taziri nodded, and then frowned. “I didn’t know there was a marshal’s office in Port Chellah.”

“There isn’t, not yet anyway, but the local police answer to us in emergency situations. I’ll rally the troops to catch Chaou. Sometimes it pays to be Section Two.”

“I guess so.”

“Speaking of rallying.” Syfax stood. “I think I’d like another word with Mister Hamuy. He was almost helpful earlier. He might be again.” The major stepped back into the cabin.

Taziri focused on the dark shapes below where the shadow of the Halcyon swam in the depths of the night. She heard a soft footfall behind her and in the mirror overhead she saw Kenan peering out through the cockpit windows over her shoulder. “I thought you’d be helping your boss with his questions.”

“He doesn’t need my help.” The corporal sat down and offered a thin, squinty-eyed smile. “At least, not with that sort of thing.”

“I can believe that.”

“Hey, don’t tell the major, but thanks for your help before, with the wrench.” Kenan ran a thumb along his sharp jaw line. “Hamuy is one nasty customer. He’s got a reputation, you know. A real shady history in the army, among other things.”

“What’s so shady about being in the army?”

“It wasn’t our army.” Kenan’s eyes flicked around the cockpit. “These airships are crazy things, aren’t they?”

“You don’t like flying?”

“Are you kidding? I love it. Dreamed about it since I was a kid. It’s why I applied to the Air Corps, twice.” He shrugged. “But you know how that goes. So how did you get this job? Did you know someone who knows someone?”

Taziri blinked hard, feeling the chill of her tired eyes beneath her lids. “No, actually, I didn’t even apply. I was drafted, sort of. I had just finished school. Electrical engineering. I got a letter that same week.”

“Must have been some letter,” Kenan said.

“Yeah.” Taziri glanced at the needles shuddering in the gauges behind the corporal. “They needed an electrician, and someone read a paper I published. By the end of the month, I was working on the Halcyon. Been on board ever since. Over a year building her and almost five years flying her now.”

“Must have been some paper.” Kenan grinned. “Do you like it? The job?”

“It’s a job.” Taziri looked up and saw the earnest, hungry look in the young man’s eyes. “But it has its moments. I’ve seen a lot of the world in a way most people never will. I’ve seen the topsides of clouds, and shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea, and whole cities laid out like drawings on the ground. But it keeps me away from my family more than I’d like. And there’s always the possibility of instant retirement.”

“What’s that mean?”

Taziri raised one finger to point up at the Halcyon ’s gas envelope looming overhead.

“Oh.” Kenan leaned back in his seat. “I see.”

“Don’t look so worried. We’re perfectly safe.” She shrugged. “More or less. And besides, we’re about to have one of those moments I was just talking about.”

Kenan leaned forward to peer through the windows. “Wow. That’s really something.”

As the last ridge fell away behind them, the lights of Port Chellah emerged from the darkness, a thousand tiny flickers of warm yellows and fiery oranges cascading down the mountainside to the sea. The iron mines offered only a few scattered twinkles half-hidden by the trees, but as civilization traced its way eastward along dirt tracks and steel railways, larger and larger clusters of earthbound stars drew the ragged shapes of factories and workers’ lodges. Tiny red lights glowed on the tops of smokestacks that stood like naked trees in the night, staring at the heavens with their bloodshot eyes. The city spread out across the flatlands, up and down the shore. In the harbor, a hundred barges and yachts and fishing boats bobbed as the sea breezes rippled through a hundred tiny flags and pennants on their masts, all but invisible in the late night gloom.

Taziri stared out over the city. “Yeah, it’s something.”

Chapter 4. Qhora

A thin haze of smoke still hung in the air under the train station roof and police officers dashed from body to body calling for medics and dragging heavy debris into piles. In all the confusion, Qhora walked serenely through the wrought iron gates with Atoq at her side. The huge kirumichi, the saber-toothed cat as the Espani called them, sniffed and cast his unblinking gaze at the dead bodies but he never strayed from her side. Qhora wove a path across the long tiled platform strewn with twisted, blackened bits of metal and wood. Oil lamps flickered on either side of each iron column, throwing waves of amber light across the scene. Women and men in gray and red uniforms stood over the debris, speaking in low voices and pointing at this or that bit of burned trash. The air tasted of ash and char.

Qhora walked along the back of the platform away from the train tracks with Atoq padding silently beside her. At the center of the platform, she stopped to study the blasted remains of the long black machine lying across the tracks. The rails themselves had been bent and snapped and the wooden ties lay tumbled on the side of the line. She knelt down to knead the back of Atoq’s neck. “Do you smell something, boy?”

“He probably smells the blood, my lady.”

Qhora looked up and saw Don Lorenzo Quesada de Gadir striding across the platform toward her. In the deep night shadows, the young hidalgo almost vanished in his long black coat and boots, and his wide-brimmed hat shadowed his pale face. It was moments like this that he was at his most dashing, his most mysterious, and his most exotic. Sometimes Qhora asked herself whether she was only attracted to the man because he was so foreign, so pale, so thin and sharp and cold. Have I merely fetishized him? Would I love the man within if he did not look so alien? Does it even matter anymore? She turned away. After all, he only loves his three-faced god now.

The Espani swordsman circled the huge cat and stood beside Qhora with his hands clasped behind his back. “The police say the explosion killed over twenty people and injured forty others. The station will be closed for several days while they clean this up and repair the rails and other machines.”

“Days?” Qhora stood up as a cold breeze played through her feathered cloak. If we had been early to the station, as I had wanted, we would be lying dead on this platform too. Perhaps there is a time and place for being late. But no. That is no way for a lady to behave. “If we wait that long, then we will arrive late, Enzo. I don’t like to be late. It’s rude.”

“Of course,” Lorenzo said. “But it can’t be helped. The trains can’t leave until the tracks are repaired and the police allow the station to open. The men at the gate say that this was not an accident.”

“This was an attack?” Qhora frowned. These easterners rely too much on their machines. They’re forever breaking down. Even when they work, they need to be pampered like babies with oil and water and coal and fire. Are they so afraid to ride a living creature? “Why would someone want to destroy a train? Or did they mean to kill someone? To kill us?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.” Lorenzo removed his hat and his limp black hair fluttered in the wind against his shoulders. “The people here are all angry at one company or another because there isn’t enough work. There are many poor and starving people in Marrakesh.”

“Not enough work?” The phrase made no sense to her. There is always work. If you need a home, you work to build it. If you are hungry, you work to feed yourself. Life is work. These easterners are fools. Qhora shook her head. “In Espana, everyone says Marrakesh is wealthy. So far, I am not impressed.”

“No, it’s nothing like Jisquntin Suyu, I agree. And Tingis is an overgrown fishing village compared to Cusco. But the Incan Empire is very different from the nations of the Middle Sea.” Lorenzo gestured back toward the gate. “We should return to the hotel, my love.”

He still calls me that, but there is no light in his eyes, no fire in his blood. His soul belongs to his churches and ghosts now, not me. She allowed him to lead her out of the train station. “Enzo, I want to leave immediately. How else can we reach the capital?”

The young hidalgo frowned. “The airships were all damaged in the explosion, I believe, not that we could take Atoq and Wayra in an airship. We might be able to charter a steamer to take us down the coast to Port Chellah where the trains will be running.”

Qhora touched his arm and he fell instantly silent. For all the strangeness of the Espani, for all their primitive ghost-worship and rituals and elaborate clothing, they were extraordinarily disciplined. He was waiting for her to speak, and she wondered how long he might stand there in perfect respectful silence. Lorenzo seemed even more selfless and controlled than his countrymen, though that may have only been due to his youth. Will his zeal and dedication tarnish with age? Qhora shook her head. “No more machines. No more ships or trains. We will ride to the capital and we will arrive on time.”

Lorenzo nodded slowly. “I think we can manage that if we take the old highway due south instead of the coastal route. I’ll see to the horses tonight. We’ll need a small cart for the cages and trunks. Will you need a horse, my lady?”

“No. Wayra is the only mount I need.”

He nodded again. “Xiuhcoatl should be happy, at least. I doubt he would appreciate spending any more time at sea.”

Qhora smiled. The aging Aztec was fearsome on the battlefield, but at sea he was as helpless as a child. She had watched him cling to the railing of the steamer that brought them from Tartessos to Tingis. The memory might have amused her more if it was not accompanied by the foul stench of his vomit on the wind. “I agree.”

They turned left from the train station gates and returned back down the hill to their hotel overlooking the harbor. Dozens of huge steamships lay at anchor like manmade islands in the darkness, but the small fishing boats bobbed and splashed, their rigging clattering in the wind. Angry clouds gathered overhead to swallow up the stars and a light rain began to patter on the cobbled streets. Lorenzo offered her his hat, which she refused. He covered his head, once again hiding his face and becoming a figure of living shadow at her side. She pulled her feathered cloak tighter around her shoulders, but let the drops fall on her hair and face. The water was cold and clean. As the air filled with rain, the smell of the city faded and she inhaled her first breath of fresh air since arriving in this filthy place earlier in the day.

“Did you notice the ambassador’s face this afternoon?” she asked.

“You mean when you showed her the cubs?”

“Yes. She turned white as a sheet. I’ve never seen a person so terrified. She was stammering and shaking. Honestly, they’re only a pair of babies, and caged at that,” Qhora said. “I can’t believe Prince Valero wanted to send a giant armadillo. What sort of gift is that for a queen? No imagination, no respect. He probably wanted to send it just because it’s big, but what use is that? Can you imagine a queen with a giant armadillo lumbering around her palace? I suppose the children could ride it. But the cubs are proper gifts. Once they grow up, they will serve the royal family as bodyguards, hunters, and even gentle pets if that is what the queen wants. Thank goodness I was there to change the arrangements in time.”

Suddenly she sensed an absence. The huge cat was no longer by her side. Qhora slapped her thigh. “Atoq! Here!”

A low growl answered from behind her and she turned to see Atoq standing at the mouth of a narrow alleyway, his head low, his hackles bristling, his massive fangs bared at the darkness. The great cat shifted and hissed, his broad paws silently kneading up and down as he settled into a crouch, ready to strike. The patter of the rain rose to drum louder on the tin and slate roofs overhead.

Qhora drew her dagger from her belt, but Lorenzo swept past her to block the alleyway. He called out, “Who’s there?”

The rain applauded on the street behind them, drowning out all other sounds.

Qhora circled the saber-toothed cat to look into the dark hollow between the two buildings, but she saw nothing, only a black veil shimmering with silvery rain.

Lorenzo stepped back, his breath steaming faintly in the darkness. “Get back!” His slender espada flashed in his hand and he lunged into the alley, vanishing into the deeper shadows. Atoq roared and leapt after him.

Qhora stood in the street clutching her dagger and listening to the hidalgo shout and the giant cat roar. Something wooden cracked and the splinters clattered on the ground. And then all was silence.

Lorenzo emerged from the gloom, his sword sheathed and hidden within the folds of his long black coat. “It was nothing, my lady. Atoq must have smelled an animal or the garbage. Although, I…” He looked back.

“You what?”

“I’m sorry. I could have sworn there was someone in that alley,” Lorenzo said.

She saw the strange glint in his eyes as he stared down the street and over the harbor. “You mean your guardian angel said so?”

He exhaled slowly, his breath no longer visible in the darkness. “I thought I might have heard her whisper something, but with the rain and Atoq growling, I suppose I just heard what I wanted to hear. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen Ariel.” He straightened up and folded his hands behind his back, and suddenly he was her hidalgo again. “I’m sorry, my love. Let’s get you out of the rain.”

Atoq trotted out into the street where he stood and stretched, licking his teeth.

Ariel. What use are ghosts if they cannot even warn you of an enemy? Qhora shrugged and resumed walking. She’d only taken a few steps when three men stepped out from the next alleyway down the street. Through the rain and shadows, the three figures appeared only in shades of gray, charcoal men in colorless clothes. Lorenzo’s espada whisked through the air as he drew it and the young hidalgo stepped in front of her for the second time. Qhora yanked her dagger from her belt and glanced behind them. Two more men stepped out with long jagged clubs in their hands.

“Five of them, Enzo,” she said. “We’re surrounded.”

Atoq growled.

“Yes, we are.” Lorenzo called out to the men in Mazigh, “What do you want?”

One of them yelled back over the hiss of the rain, “Everything you have. On the ground. Now. Or we kill you.”

Qhora barely understood the man over the noise. The Mazigh language was not difficult, but after mastering four tongues of the Incan Empire and then Espani, she was finding it harder and harder to learn new ones. And she hadn’t even tried Hellan or Persian yet.

“We have nothing to give you,” Lorenzo answered. “No money. No jewelry.”

The men didn’t answer. Qhora moved to stand back to back with Lorenzo. Atoq paced forward and the two men on the high side of the street hesitated, glancing at each other. Without turning her head, Qhora said Lorenzo, “Can you fight three men at once?”

“Yes.” There was no pride in his voice, only certainty. In Espana, the young hidalgo was counted among the finest diestros of his generation, a fencing prodigy. She had seen him duel and acknowledged his skill with the tiny espada, but this was no duel and an espada could be snapped by a man with the courage to grab it. For a moment, Qhora wished that Xiuhcoatl had been the one to follow her to train station. Even after two years together, and despite everything else she felt for him, she still hesitated to trust Enzo’s skill over other men’s strength.

Lorenzo dashed from her side down the street but she didn’t dare look back. The two men above her raced forward, both angling toward Atoq with their clubs raised. The beast crouched, snarling, and then he leapt. The man on the right vanished under eight hundred pounds of wet fur and fangs. The man on the left stumbled around the cat and swung his broken board at Qhora’s head. With practiced grace, she whirled her soaking feathered cloak at his face to blind him with a sudden spray of water, then whirled back in the opposite direction, ducking under the club and burying her dagger in his throat as he stumbled past. He collapsed to the ground, choking and clawing at his neck. A moment later he lay still and Qhora yanked her dagger free, unable to tell the blood from the black puddles of filthy street water in the darkness. She looked up to see Atoq padding away from his kill with blood dripping from his fangs and she glanced at the remains of the other man, his shredded belly and intestines spilled across the cobblestones. Atoq sat down and began licking his drenched paw to wash his face.

Turning, she saw the dark figure of Lorenzo standing beside three bodies, his sword already sheathed and hidden in the folds of his greatcoat. The rain fell harder and colder, drumming on her bare head. Qhora slipped her dagger back into her belt and pulled her feathered cloak tight around her shoulders as she walked over to him to look at the men. Clad in patched trousers and stained shirts, armed only with scrap wood and rusted pig iron rods, they lay in a neat pile at the side of the road. Briefly, she wondered if Lorenzo had moved the bodies or somehow contrived to kill them in such a way that they all fell on top of each other. Both seemed equally likely as she knew how much Lorenzo valued cleanliness. She asked, “Are you hurt?”

“No. Are you?”

“No. Who are they?”

He paused before saying, “Desperados. Men who can’t find work, I suppose. It’s not uncommon here. We should not be out so late. It isn’t safe.”

Qhora nodded slowly. “I had noticed that.”

They resumed their unhurried walk through the rain to the hotel. Atoq followed behind them, sniffing about in the gutters and puddles along the way.

“Enzo, I owe you an apology,” she said.

Lorenzo stopped abruptly and snatched the wide-brimmed hat from his head. He stared at her, eyes wide with a strange mixture of horror and confusion. She studied his thin, pale face as the rainwater ran down over his sharp nose and cheeks. Once he had worn a tanned skin and a ready smile, and he was as likely to be laughing as singing when she found him. But now he was merely this, merely a thin figure, dark and quiet, anxious and uncertain. The lines around his eyes had deepened so much in the last few months, aging him beyond what had once been a youthful twenty-five. The rough stubble on his cheeks added a few years of their own.

She said, “I’ve been unkind to you, my love. Over the last year, you’ve done nothing but serve me with great skill and greater patience. And I’ve done nothing but complain. I complain about your boring priests and your bland food, your ghost stories, and even the weather.”

He nodded slowly, his face a blank. “It is very cold in Espana, my lady.”

“But what good does it do to complain about it?” Qhora shivered as a trickle of freezing rain snaked down from her hair along the curve of her spine. “I realize that I’ve been comparing Espana to Jisquntin Suyu, which is unfair. Espana is a strange place, but it is beautiful too in its own way. And your people have many fine qualities. Loyalty, devotion, discipline. Beyond that of my own people, I admit.”

“No, my love.” Lorenzo wiped his gloved hand across his face to push his soaked hair back. “We’re only people, no better or worse than any other.”

“Of course you’re better than others.” Qhora tried not to snap too sharply at him. Sometimes his humility goes too far. “You’re better than these Mazighs. You’ve sung their praises to me for the last two weeks, and here I find a filthy city full of vagrants and killers. No. I’m sorry, Enzo. The Espani are a fine and noble people and I am grateful that you took me in when I had no place to go. And I will be just as grateful to be done with this errand and back in Tartessos, listening to your hymns and ghost stories again. And with a much more grateful heart.”

“I know it’s been difficult for you. Maybe, after we go home, we can find a way to make things more comfortable for you.” He smiled faintly as he replaced his hat and they continued walking, the saber-toothed cat always just a few paces away. “Tonight may count as a ghost story, you know. If Ariel hadn’t warned me, we might have been unprepared. We might have been hurt.”

Qhora pressed her lips for a moment before answering. “Yes, Enzo. But the next time your little ghost friend warns us about something, please have her be more specific about where the enemy is hiding.”

He said, “I will do that.”

They rounded the corner and saw the dark windows of their hotel reflecting the light of the oil lamps hanging across the street.

“Have your horses ready at dawn,” Qhora said. “I want to be on the road as soon as possible. And be certain they give Wayra fresh meat. I don’t trust these Mazighs to keep their filth out of our food.”

“Yes, my love.”

She saw his hand resting on his chest, on the medallion hanging around his neck beneath his shirt, as he stared up at the moon. He isn’t even here, is he? He’s off with his god and his ghosts, hating this life and dreaming of the next one. Enzo, when did I lose you?

Chapter 5. Sade

The porter brought the telegram just as Lady Sade began thinking that it was time to go to bed. She took the envelope, dismissed the man, and went to sit at her desk in the corner of her study. The message was from a certain young woman who worked in the customs office in Tingis, a young woman with the good fortune to receive a second paycheck in return for sending daily reports to her benefactor in Arafez.

Lady Sade sighed as she unlocked the bottom desk drawer and pulled out the translation key. It took half an hour to decipher the telegram’s handful of words and she spent most of that time wondering if this elaborate means of security was really worth the effort and trouble.

Of course it is. The stakes are too high.

The translated message read, “Morning. Copper prices still rising. Storms reported to west. Persian steamer seen in Strait. Afternoon. Chaou met envoys. Brought two fanged cats. Chaou upset. Evening. Train explosion. Airship explosion. Many dead. Hamuy arrested. Chaou missing.”

Lady Sade frowned at those last words. Arrested. Missing.

Damn it, Barika.

She rang a small bell on her desk and a moment later her secretary entered. “Yes, madam?”

“I need a cat, Izza. Two would be ideal, but one will do.”

“Any particular type, madam?”

“Something with large fangs, if possible. Something Espani would be best. At the very least, it must be foreign and about this large.” She held up her hands two feet apart.

“Yes, madam,” Izza said. “I’m not sure how long it will take to secure an exotic animal. When do you need it?”

“Noon tomorrow.” Lady Sade watched the young woman hesitate, swallow, and wet her lips. “Have the cage loaded on my steam carriage, out of sight.”

Izza nodded. “Of course, madam. I’ll see to it immediately. Will this impact your meeting with the police detective? You have that scheduled at noon as well.”

I forgot. I never forget. I’m relying too much on Izza these days. Lady Sade paused. “No, that’s fine. I’ll just bring the detective with me. Two birds with one stone. She doesn’t speak Espani, does she? No, I can’t imagine she does, so that won’t be a problem.”

Lady Sade picked up her translation of the telegram again.

Train explosion. That could mean anything. Damn it, Barika.

“And Izza, we will need to pay a quick visit to the North Station first thing after breakfast tomorrow. I need to see about a train.”

“Of course, madam.”

“Thank you, Izza.”

Izza curtsied and left. Lady Sade leaned back in her chair, idly wondering what lengths the poor girl would go to in finding the animal. I really should get her a gift, or maybe give her an afternoon off sometime. She’s been looking a little tired lately.

Chapter 6. Syfax

“I can’t wait for your captain all night.” Syfax paced the length of the front desk of the Port Chellah central police station. It was a short walk. “I’ve got a prisoner I need to get off the airfield into a cell, and a murderer about to enter the city on foot. You.” He pointed at the young woman at the desk. “Get up. You’re coming with me. Now.”

“Sorry, sir. But I’m the only one here and I can’t go anywhere without Captain Aknin’s order.” The sergeant in gray folded her hands on the desk.

Are you kidding me, kid? Syfax pointed at the bars on his shoulder. “I outrank your captain.”

“And I appreciate that, but you’re outside my chain of command, sir. You’re Security Section Two, we’re Section Five.” The sergeant swallowed, her thumbs fidgeting. “It’s protocol. My hands are tied until my captain gets here.”

“And when will that be? You sent for her over half an hour ago.”

She shrugged and dropped her gaze to her hands. “I assume she’ll be here soon, sir. You know as much as I do. All I can tell you is that the captain was definitely home earlier tonight when I brought her the evening mail.”

Syfax thumbed his nose and crossed his arms. “The mail?”

“Yes, the late correspondence. We usually get a few messages after the day shift has left. There were a couple of telegrams from Tingis tonight.”

“That’s probably my general telling your captain that I’m coming,” Syfax said. “You said a couple of telegrams? What was the other one?”

The sergeant flipped through the papers on her desk. “Here’s the receipt I have from the telegraph office. Two messages, both from Tingis. One from the marshals’ office. One from Lady Damya’s estate.”

“Lady Damya?” Syfax snatched the receipt to read it, but it offered no more information. “What would the governor of Tingis want with a police captain in Port Chellah?”

“I don’t know. It was sealed, of course. I just delivered them.” The sergeant blinked and sat up a little straighter. “Why? What do you think it means, sir?”

Anyone in the house could have sent that telegram, including a certain dinner guest. “I think it means we need to see your captain right now. Let’s go. Now.” Syfax pointed at the door. This time, the sergeant leapt up and led the way out into the night. Striding side by side, their boots clacked on the cobblestones and the sound echoed down the empty streets beneath the silent gaze of dark windows and locked doors. Streetlamps hung only at the intersections, leaving the avenues in between drenched in shadows, and the dim haze that hovered over the city obscured all but the brightest stars.

“It’s just one more block this way.” The sergeant pointed to the left.

Turning the corner they saw a strange shape on the ground, and they sprinted toward the body half hidden in the shadows of a narrow alley. Only one hand lay out upon the street, its outstretched fingers clawing feebly at the circle of lamplight just out of reach. The sergeant knelt at the man’s side and Syfax saw his face, the face of the young officer they had sent out to find the captain half an hour ago. His breathing was faint and ragged and watery. Blood trickled from his lip. When the sergeant took his hand, he showed no sign that he noticed.

The major squatted down to study him. A single gunshot wound in the stomach, a wide pool of blood on the ground already beginning to congeal. Syfax leaned in closer to speak into the young man’s ear, “Hey kid, looks like you tried to take on the whole Songhai army by yourself. You bucking for an early promotion?”

The officer’s lip twitched. “Guess I should have…called for backup, sir.”

“Yeah, looks like,” Syfax said. “What happened?”

“…caught her…leaving…” He mouthed the words as much as whispered them, his eyes already vacant and dull.

“Who?” The sergeant squeezed his hand. “Who did this?”

“Captain Aknin.”

Why am I not surprised? Syfax squinted at the man’s mouth to make sure he caught every word clearly. “Why?”

“…said…mess… clean…” The officer whimpered and gasped. “It hurts.”

“I know, kid.” Syfax grabbed the woman’s arm and tugged her away from her partner. “Have you seen a wound like that before?”

She nodded as the tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Then you know he’s only got a little time left. We can’t save him.”

She nodded again.

“But we can help him.” He raised his eyebrows to emphasize the word help.

Her eyes went wide. “No, we can’t!”

“Look at him again,” Syfax said. “He’s all torn up, his insides are burning, his arms and legs are shaking, and he’s coughing up blood. It’s the right thing to do.”

“It’s…okay,” the man whispered. “Please.”

The sergeant pulled back, sat down against the wall, and covered her eyes. Syfax knelt by the young man’s shoulders and took his head in his lap. The major whispered to him, “Look to your left.”

The officer turned his head and mumbled, “Thanks, sir.”

“On the count of three. Okay?” Syfax placed one hand on the youth’s cheek and the other hand on the back of his head, and pulled sharply. “Three.”

The young man went limp and the sergeant wailed softly at his feet. Syfax closed the man’s eyes and backed away from the alley, leaving the sergeant with her dead comrade in the shadows.

I can’t believe I had to do that. Again. Syfax took a deep breath and tasted the iron and copper tang of blood that hung heavy in the sultry air. These people better pray I don’t catch up to them in some dark alley.

He meant to give her a full minute while he considered his options. After ten seconds, he leaned over her and said, “Sergeant, I need a horse. Now.”

The sergeant nodded and staggered away from the alley, stared around at the empty street for a moment, and then set out to the right. Syfax followed close at her side. “Sergeant, I need your help. I need you to tell me everything you know about this Captain Aknin. Friends, relations, politics, vices, money problems, family problems.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” She sniffed. “I only transferred here last month. I don’t really know anything about her.”

“What about her work? Her routine? Her habits?” He tried to keep his voice low, to avoid barking at her. “Where does she eat? Where does she make the most arrests? Where does she avoid going? What policies has she set for your station? Anything strange at all?”

“Wait.” The sergeant stopped in the middle of the street with a frown.

Syfax crossed his arms and tried to dig the answer out of her head by staring at it. Come on kid, spit it out. He glanced down the road. You really can’t think and walk at the same time? We’ve got killers on the loose. “Well?”

She nodded. “The old tombs down near the beach, along the north shore. When I first started here last month, she had me doing patrols out there to make sure no one was squatting in the mausoleums. Half of them have been broken open by thieves and sometimes people sleep in them now. I’ve had to toss a few people out. The area is too large for the caretaker to watch all of it himself. But last week, Captain Aknin started doing the patrols herself. She said it was too important to let us do it.” The sergeant peered up at him. “That’s strange, isn’t it?”

“Great work, kid.” He beamed as he grabbed her shoulders and got her walking again. “Now get me that horse.”

The stable wasn’t far and the hostler proved a light sleeper. Moments later, Syfax was in the saddle and galloping away with the sergeant still negotiating for the horse on behalf of the Port Chellah police force. When Syfax arrived at the airfield, Kenan stepped out of the Halcyon ’s gondola to stare at the horse. “Major?”

Syfax reined up beside him. “Give your gun to the pilot.”

“My gun?” Kenan frowned over his shoulder at the woman in the cockpit. “Yes, sir.” Two soft snaps released his belt and holster, the heavy revolver dangling from the thick leather strap like a hanged man. Kenan ducked back into the cabin and shoved the belt at Taziri. “The major said to give this to you.”

“What?” The pilot took the belt with a glare and strode out into the night air. “What do I need a gun for? What’s going on?”

Syfax shrugged. “I don’t know what’s going on, Ohana, but people are still getting killed so I don’t want anyone getting on or off that airship until I get back. You’re in charge until then. Kenan, get up here.”

The corporal swung up onto the horse behind Syfax.

Syfax said, “Listen, all I know is that someone in Tingis sent a telegram to the police captain here, and then she killed one of her own officers less than an hour ago. Maybe Ambassador Chaou and the captain are working together. Either way, killing folks in the service is a bad sign.” Syfax paused. “Ohana, if I don’t come back for some reason, I want you to fly straight back to Tingis and report everything that happened tonight to the Marshal General yourself, in person. Understood?”

Taziri looked at the gun belt in her hand, held some distance away from her body. “I’ve never shot anyone before.”

“Hopefully, that won’t change tonight.” Syfax snapped the reins and the horse bolted across the grassy field and onto a cobblestone lane.

Kenan held on to the major as the dark faces of the houses and market stalls flowed past them, leaping into view beneath the streetlamps and vanishing into the shadows a moment later. “Sir? What’s the plan?”

“I hate this crap. Why can’t it just be a straight fight? Why does it always have to be a chase? Huh?” Syfax raised his voice over the clattering of the hooves on the paving stones. “Plan? Arrest Chaou and Aknin. And anyone else working with them.”

“Like who? More police officers?”

“I don’t know. Anyone. Chaou could have contacts or partners in every town in the country. She has money and influence, and she travels everywhere. She’s the worst type of suspect to nail down. All we know is her bodyguard is a terrorist, and Port Chellah’s chief of police just killed a fellow officer for her. Right now, everyone’s a suspect.”

“Are you saying…the Marshal General? The military? The governors?” Kenan asked. “We can’t suspect everyone. That’s paranoid. That’s crazy.”

“Yeah, it is. But that’s the job.”

“So where are we going now?”

Syfax grinned. “A necropolis.”

After only a few wrong turns, they found their way out of the winding maze of the residential neighborhoods and down to the coastal road that shadowed the rail line. Passing the last few brick warehouses, their windows shattered and foundations bristling with weeds and uncut grass, Syfax turned his mare onto a narrow side street that angled down across the tracks to a flat gravelly strip of earth just behind the first few grassy dunes. The street became a winding lane that followed the contours of the land, weaving side to side with an occasional glimpse of the sparkling darkness of the ocean to their left beyond the dunes.

The first tomb stood on their right where the paved lane became a sandy path. It rose like a man-made hill of earth and stone, a round foundation sloping up to a rough cone covered in loose earth and a few wisps of grass shuddering in the wind. Syfax circled the tomb and found the only entrance still sealed with ancient stones and mortar. “Not here.” He kicked the mare into yet another mad dash along the edge of the beach.

Flanking the path were several crumbling stone columns covered in ancient carvings that could no longer be read, except for the vague human figures drawn near the bases. They rode beneath broad stone arches and petrified timbers suspended between the columns, and above the trees to their right the occasional broken tower stood black against the starry sky. A wolf howled and Syfax felt Kenan twisting around behind him, no doubt looking for the animal.

A paved street emerged briefly from the sand, an avenue of pale stones on which the mare’s hooves clicked and clacked loudly, the echoes shuddering between the columns and half-fallen walls that stood between nowhere and nothing, dividing the grassy dunes into meaningless courtyards and rooms. Once the honored dead of the Phoenician princes and priests had lain in this silent city by the sea, but when the Mazigh warlords and queens retook their country they had built a grander walled city for their fallen lords and ladies, leaving the old tombs by the sea all but forgotten. There had been no new additions to this neighborhood in over a thousand years, and treasure hunters had made paupers of the skeletal remains in the great mausoleums. Now, only homeless wanderers and miserable poets visited the dead, and many of them never left.

The second tomb loomed out of the darkness, its entrance black and gaping. Syfax shoved Kenan off and dropped down beside him. With his revolver drawn, he slipped around the wall and inside the burial chamber. The thin light of the stars cast a faint silvery glow over the floor just inside the doorway, but the rest of the space remained hidden. The major heard his footsteps echoing on all sides and in his mind an image of the room formed. Just another empty dome. Beside him, Kenan exhaled slowly, his breath curling in faint white wisps of vapor.

“I hear every single person in Espana has seen a ghost at least once in his life,” the corporal said. “Especially when it’s so cold you can see your breath.”

“In Espana, it’s always so cold you can see your breath. Come on.” Syfax jogged back to the horse and barely waited for Kenan to climb up behind him before they were off down the sandy streets of the dead city.

The light from the third tomb’s entrance cast a long golden banner across the backs of the dunes, illuminating the waving grasses and shivering bushes in the hard-packed sand. A single horse stood behind the mound, half-hidden in the shadows of a stunted and gnarled tree.

Syfax dropped to the ground, yanked Kenan down beside him, and led the mare away from the path, leaving the corporal to find something to hitch her to. The major strode silently up to the mausoleum and peeked around the front. Muffled voices were debating something inside, and judging from how long-winded one of the voices was, Syfax guessed the other person was getting an earful that wasn’t entirely complimentary.

When the corporal sidled up next to him, Syfax gestured around at the front door of the tomb. Kenan nodded. Syfax pulled out his service revolver with a frown. Damn it. The kid’s unarmed. He shoved his gun at the corporal and ignored Kenan’s confused expression.

Syfax drew the wide-bladed knife from his right boot and jogged out to the front of the tomb. Through the open entrance he glimpsed two figures, and one of them was definitely wearing a grey jacket with silver bars on the shoulder. Good enough for government work. He strode past the threshold and Kenan dashed in behind him brandishing the revolver. “Hands up! Royal Marshals! No one move!”

The two women froze. One was shorter and older wearing expensive shoes. The other was wearing a police captain’s uniform. Syfax relieved her of her sidearm. “Good evening, Captain Aknin. Have a seat.” He pointed at a large, jagged rock just behind her.

Captain Aknin sighed and raised her hands in a half-hearted gesture of surrender. “I think I’ll stand, sir.”

“I wasn’t asking.” He shoved her down onto the rock as he checked her revolver. “Kenan, search our other friend.”

“Yes, sir.” Kenan lowered his weapon and approached the older woman in the green dress and gold jacket. “Ambassador Chaou, yes? Where’s your gun, ma’am?” He quickly patted down her jacket pockets and slid his hand around her belt. “The gun you used to shoot the Crake ’s pilot, where is it?” The woman stood quite still, staring across at the major while Kenan searched her.

Syfax saw the twitch in her hand. “Kid, get back!”

The ambassador lurched back to put the seated police captain between her and Syfax. He saw her hand flash through her inner jacket and he heard the click of a revolver’s hammer. The gun emerged in a shaking hand, pointed loosely at the major.

“Officers! Please!” Her voice trembled. “No need for violence, surely. I am Barika Chaou, senior ambassador from Her Royal Highness Din Nasin to the Prince of Espana, His Royal Highness Argenti Valero. My associate here is Captain Aknin of the Port Chellah police.”

“I know all that.” Syfax rested his knife on the captain’s shoulder, his fingers gripping the woman’s collar with the blade close to her throat. He thumbed the hammer on his new revolver and leveled it at Chaou. “I also know you shot a pilot in the back and your bodyguard blew up a couple dozen civilians. And your buddy Aknin here killed one of her own officers tonight,” Syfax said. “It sort of makes me think you two aren’t really cut out for civil service. Drop the gun and show me your hands. Now.”

“No. I’m sorry, marshal. Major, is it?” The gun shook in her hand at her waist, the barrel pointed vaguely at Syfax’s belly and Aknin’s back.

“Major Zidane.” Syfax dropped his own gun as he lunged forward to grab the barrel of the ambassador’s revolver with his right hand while his left hand remained firmly planted on the knife and the captain’s collar.

The ambassador stumbled back but the major held the gun fixed in midair, and as the old woman fell backwards she pulled the trigger. Syfax tried to twist aside as he heard the cylinder turn and the bullwhip crack of the gunshot filled his ears. A hot sting sliced across his belly and Aknin’s head snapped forward. He shuffled back, releasing the revolver to grab at his stomach. Blinking and clutching his bloody shirt, he felt his breath still coming soft and easy. It just grazed me. I’m fine. He looked up and saw Chaou shoving Kenan back into the wall, her gun pressed to his stomach. The corporal’s gun lay on the floor. When did he drop that?

Then the ambassador was gone and Kenan was staring back at him with wide white eyes. He pointed at Aknin. “Her f-face!”

The major pulled back the captain’s head to see the gaping bloody hole where the woman’s nose and eye used to be. “Yeah, that’s not pretty.” Syfax snatched up his own gun as he lunged toward the open doorway. “Wake up, kid! Move it!”

Outside he heard the waves crash on the beach and hiss softly as they slipped back out into the ocean. A horse whickered.

Syfax ran around the side of the tomb in time to see Chaou galloping up the sandy path back to Port Chellah. He bolted through the tall grass up the path and found his own horse where Kenan had tied her up in a thicket. He yanked the cords free, climbed into the saddle, and whipped the mare’s flank. “Hya!”

Syfax glanced over his shoulder at the dark figure standing beside the mausoleum. Sorry kid, looks like you’re walking.

Chapter 7. Taziri

“You’re very quiet, doctor.” Taziri wiped at her eyes with her left hand while her right hand rested on the gun in her lap. She blinked hard and glanced over at the Hellan, who sat with arms crossed and brows furrowed, staring at a blank spot on the floor. Ghanima snored softly on the bench across from him. Hamuy snored loudly on the floor.

Evander yawned. “What am I supposed to say? Clearly this whole country has gone mad and I’m to be treated as a common prisoner along with these murderers and arsonists. It’s your own fault, of course. These machines of yours. You have the power to travel the sky, to kill with a flick of your finger. You’re walking the paths of Icarus and Prometheus. And we all know what happened to them.”

“Not really, no. What happened to them?”

Evander glared at the floor a little harder. “Bad things. Very bad things.”

“Oh.” Taziri blinked hard again and suppressed a yawn. “So how many gods do you people have?”

“You people?”

“Sorry,” Taziri said. “Europans, I mean.”

“In Hellas, we honor the one true God and His three aspects, and all of His attendant saints and angels. How you Mazighs survive without a proper faith is beyond me.”

“Well, we get by.” Taziri offered what she thought was a polite smile. Passengers. So full of opinions, always trying to sound clever, always trying to come across as just another working-class friend with a sincere interest in airships. Except this one, apparently. Taziri wondered if any working-class people had ever even set foot in an airship. And here was a man trying to tell her about God, of all things. Taziri resolved to play nice. “But I suppose I can sort of see the appeal of having all those different characters, with different names and symbols and things. I mean, it doesn’t seem to really reflect the divine unity of the universe, but I’m just an electrician.” She let her mouth run as she looked back over her dark gauges in the cockpit. “Although, it’s probably much easier to explain to your children. I know I’m not looking forward to trying to talk about the holy mysteries with my little girl.” Menna’s chubby little face danced through her mind and her smile warmed.

“Characters?” The doctor screwed up his face into a wrinkly grimace. “Children?”

Taziri winced as she replayed her words in her mind. “Oh! No, I just meant, well, it’s very different, obviously, and I’m sure it works very well for your people in Europa.”

Evander looked up, wide-eyed. “Europa isn’t a country, you know. It’s a vast continent, filled with many different nations and peoples, languages, and religions!”

“Really?” Taziri ran her tongue around her teeth, thinking. “There’s a special airship we built just for exploring Europa, the Frost Finch, specially equipped for the cold weather. I’ve read about their expeditions in the journals. They only found a few villages scattered along the northern coasts, I think. I got the impression there were only a few tribes in Europa north of Hellas and Italia. Big pale brutes like giant albinos, wearing furs and eating bones up on the glaciers.” She paused. “We lost the Finch a few winters ago. They were supposed to survey an island somewhere, but they never came back.”

“Well, I don’t know about any of that. But the cities of Hellas, Italia, and Espana are no mean little villages. And they’re much prettier than this place, I assure you.”

Taziri nodded. “You’re from a city called Dens, right?”


The engineer continued bobbing her head. “Ah, that’s right. Sorry, my captain is the one who’s good with names. I’m better with wrenches.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Evander squinted at her. “I’ve a question for you, since we’ve nothing better to do. If you’re not a soldier, why do you wear all that armor?”

Taziri glanced down at her orange flight jacket. The small steel plates were stitched into the lining of the chest, back, and sleeves. Rolling her shoulders, she felt the weight of the thing dragging her down, making her back ache, and always keeping her just a bit too warm. But for all its faults, she couldn’t imagine being on an airship without it. “It’s just for protection.”

“Protection from what?”

“The engine.”

The doctor slowly turned to look at the silent bulk of the machinery behind him. The maze of chambers and shafts slept in the shadows, visible only as faint metallic glimmers and reflections of the distant streetlamps and starlight. “Why do you need protection from the engine? And more importantly, why don’t I have any protection from it?”

Taziri shrugged. “A steam engine is a lot of moving metal parts, under pressure, very hot. There’s always a small danger of something popping loose, or bursting, or exploding.”

“Exploding?!” Evander sat up straight, his eyes wide beneath his bushy brows. “You never said anything about it exploding! And I was sitting right here, right next to it, all the way from Carthage!”

“Shhh.” Taziri waved wearily at him and nodded at the young pilot sleeping on the bench. “There’s no need to worry. There hasn’t been an accident on a Mazigh airship in over six years. That’s thousands of hours of flight time. We’re very good at what we do. And frankly, the jackets are just to keep the safety inspectors happy. Regulations and all. I doubt they would do much good in a real emergency anyway.”

“Oh, really? What happened six years ago?”

Taziri winced. The two accounts of the disaster played simultaneously through her mind, the official story in the press release versus the contents of the inspector’s report. Duty demanded the official story: “Faulty assembly. The main line valve sealed shut so the pressure in the boiler kept increasing until it burst. The explosion shredded the cabin with all sorts of debris. Shrapnel killed the engineer instantly and injured the pilot, but not badly. No one else was on board.”

The doctor massaged his temples. “You’re all mad.”

Taziri stared blankly at the shackled man on the floor. “Some of us more than others.” She gestured at Ghanima. “How is she doing?” Taziri massaged her eyes again. They were screaming at her for sleep, for darkness, for relief from the cold dry air and the invisible traces of smoke that clung to her jacket.

The doctor knelt down beside the young pilot to examine her. “Sleeping just fine.” Evander shoved himself up on a creaking knee and returned to his seat. “Do you know her?”

“Not really. About as well as anyone else in the Northern Air Corps.” Taziri glanced at the pilot for the hundredth time. She looked so young, her cheeks and nose still ever so slightly plump, her dark brown hair sprinkled with glimmers of gold and crimson, her full lips parted, and a small puddle of drool on the seat cushion under her head. Someone’s wife, or mother, or daughter. “I’m just glad she wasn’t hurt.”

“I’m sure you are.” Medur Hamuy rolled over onto his back and grinned up at them.

“Oh good,” Taziri muttered. “You’re awake.” She showed the gun to the bandaged man on the floor. “Let’s behave, shall we?”

Hamuy contorted the raw flesh around his mouth into a grin. “Where’s the Redcoat?”

“Lonely already?” Taziri kept her eyes on the dark window on the opposite side of the cabin. “Maybe you’d rather have a few more women to cut up.” Her words seized in her throat and her eyes burned and brimmed. A dull heat washed through her skin, yet she shivered.

“Huh. So, flygirl, are you having fun tonight?” Hamuy grunted as he tried to sit up. After several seconds of trying, he gave up and thumped his head on the floor.

Taziri swallowed and blinked, keeping her eyes on the night-shrouded airfield outside. “I’ve had better days,” she said evenly.

“Huh? Oh, right, all the burning and the killing. No, I guess a clever girl like you doesn’t see much of that, do you?” Hamuy shivered. “You should get out more. See the world. The real world. I highly recommend Persia, if you ever have the chance. A man can go far in Persia. In fact, a man can go wherever he wants in Persia. Taverns. Whorehouses.”

“Can a man in Persia go to work without being set on fire or being stabbed to death?” Taziri slowly let her gaze slip down the far wall to the ruined flesh beneath the gauze wrapped around the prisoner’s head. The words falling out of her mouth were dry, lifeless things. Half of her wanted to explode with rage, but the other half didn’t have the energy to move, so she stayed very still and tried not to feel or think too much. “Because lately that’s become something a concern of mine. Dying.”

Hamuy chuckled and then shuddered. “Dying?” He clucked his tongue. “Don’t see much dying either, do you? I guess you’re more of a talker, eh? Just like the queen, all words and no fight. You like words, don’t you?”

“Not right now, I don’t.” Taziri let her finger slip a little closer to the trigger.

“Mm. You’re still angry about your little friends back in that hangar, aren’t you? Well, if it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t personal. Just a job.” He shivered.

Taziri blinked hard again. “Doctor? Why is he shaking like that?”

The older man roused himself slightly and muttered, “The burns. Nerve damage. Burns can get progressively worse if not properly treated. As the minor burns spread, the pain will get worse. As the major burns spread, the pain will fade away as the nerves die.”

“Oh.” The engineer wiggled her numb finger. “Hey. Hey you.” She kicked Hamuy’s boot and the man looked up. “You can talk all you want but I’m not going to shoot you. I’m going to sit here and watch you twitch. You’re probably going to die soon, one way or another. And whether the marshals throw you in prison, or you just shiver and bleed to death on the floor there in a puddle of your own filth, is fine with me.”

“You know, it must be really nice for you,” Hamuy said. “Nice to have all these other people to take care of things for you. Redcoats, police, soldiers. People in uniforms all over the place, all to tell you what to do. To make the hard calls. To get their hands dirty. For you.”

Taziri looked down at the weapon she was petting. A steel barrel, steel cylinder, hammer, trigger, shells, handle, little scratches and dings here and there, a clear fingerprint where her thumb had been a moment earlier. Cold steel. Only three moving parts, because bullets don’t count. It was all wrong. No warm brass, no clicking gears, no buzzing wires. She wanted copper, shades of sunfire and sand. She wanted power and motion, useful things puttering and whirring, gauge needles turning and signals whistling. The gun offered none of those things, none of the images or sounds or smells she loved about machines. It was too simple. It was a cold, dead thing. Closing her eyes, Taziri tore the gun apart in her mind. It was easy, just like her days in school. All machines are nothing more than their parts, arranged in sequence. Before her mind’s eye, the gun came undone. The screws spiraled backward, plates separated, shells slid out, powder spilled upwards. Then the bits hovered in her mind, lonely and harmless. But she couldn’t hold the image of the pieces apart, she had nothing else to do with them and years of training and habits die hard, and so the pieces slid back together and before she could stop it the image of the gun was complete and it was spewing bullets. At people. At Menna.

Her eyes snapped open and she shoved the revolver off her lap onto the seat beside her with a shaking hand. The old Hellan was snoring again. Taziri slowly let her gaze wander to the bench where Ghanima lay on her side, and then to Hamuy, who was lifting his legs up and preparing to kick the sleeping girl in the head.

Taziri’s hand snatched up the revolver, thumbed the hammer, and leveled the barrel at the prisoner’s chest. “Get away from her!”

Hamuy only grinned and in the darkness Taziri thought she saw his boot move.

The bark of the gun snapped Evander and Ghanima up to sit and stare at each other, their hands clutching the edge of the bench cushions. Hamuy fell on his back, a tiny wisp of smoke rising from his chest. Then he groaned and slowly sat back up.

Incredulous, Taziri stood and shuffled closer. Ghanima turned, looking lost and sick, and then she scrambled down the bench away from the prisoner. Taziri reached up and flicked the cabin light on. Hamuy grinned and coughed. Taziri kept the gun pointed at the man’s chest as she knelt down, still staring and frowning. Behind the wisp of smoke was a dark hole in Hamuy’s shirt, and behind the hole was a ring of light brown skin, and in that ring of flesh was a crushed bullet and the bright silver gleam of steel.

“What is that? What’s under your skin?”

“That?” Hamuy’s grin melted into a cold, flat stare. “That’s the future, girl. And it’s nothing compared to what they did to Chaou.”

Day Two

Chapter 8. Lorenzo

The hidalgo sat high in the saddle, his black greatcoat draped over the horse’s rump, the brim of his hat shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun rising above the rim of the Atlas Mountains on his left. After only a few minutes on the road, they were already beyond the last of the small cottages of Tingis. The cobbled street became a broad dusty highway where a glance to the right revealed the thin black line of the ocean beyond the hills but to look anywhere else was to stare into an endless sea of grass and dust. Stunted trees and gnarled shrubs clustered around the rocky dips in the hills and the occasional spoor on the side of road betrayed the recent passage of rabbits and wild dogs, but to Lorenzo Quesada the wind-stroked plain was as alien and treacherous as the jungles of the New World.

No snow, no ice. Animals everywhere, but no tracks anywhere. He sipped from his water skin and unbuttoned his coat, revealing his white shirt and dark blue vest to the warming air. The pommel and swept-hilt guard of his espada bobbed along at his hip, the blade sheathed in supple oiled leather with a tuft of fur at the mouth to protect the steel from snow and rain, though he did not expect either to fall anytime soon.

To his right and several paces behind rode Lady Qhora astride her monstrous Wayra. The Inca called them hatun-ankas, the great eagles. Striding as fast as a horse could trot and towering nine feet above the ground on its massive talons, the animal bore little similarity to any bird Lorenzo had ever seen. But the beasts were feathered and beaked, and they screamed like eagles well enough. Below the neck their plumage was drab browns and grays, but around the head they wore crowns and masks and collars of red and blue and green, as garish as they were hideous. He had once met a man from Carthage who claimed that there were similar striding birds in the east called ostriches, though they were thin-legged and clumsy. The thought of more of these creatures elsewhere around the world was not comforting to him.

Wayra was not clumsy or delicate. She moved with the same powerful grace as her rider, trotting proudly down the road, her head snapping from side to side so she could study the world with her massive black eyes. Lorenzo guessed Wayra’s beak to be three hand-spans long and half that in width, though he had never dared to measure it. In the Empire he had seen Incan warriors riding the hatun-ankas into battle, the feathered monsters screaming as they raced through the forests and across the hills, their stunted wings held tight against their bodies. When they leapt upon the Espani cavalry, the horses were crushed into the dust beneath talons as cruel as sabers and the riders were torn to pieces by iron beaks that could crush a skull or snap a ribcage in a single thrust. And then the hatun-ankas would feed, bright red blood streaming across their pale golden beaks.

Lorenzo nudged his nervous mare a bit farther to the left. In Espana, Wayra had been confined to a corner of a stable where he had rarely been forced near her. The journey across the Strait in the Mazigh steamer had been tense but brief, and the journey to the capital at Orossa should have been similarly swift aboard the train. But now he counted the hours and days of riding that stretched out before him, hours and days of sitting with his head only a few feet from Wayra’s beak.

With some satisfaction, he saw that Lady Qhora was wearing the dark green dress he had given her last winter. White silk and lace covered her neck and chest and rustled at her wrists, ensuring that no man might see more than was proper. But she refused to ride side-saddle, and so the skirts lay in wrinkled disarray across her lap, revealing her soft riding boots nearly to her knees. She had not cut her hair since coming to Espana and now it hung decadently past her shoulders to mingle with the brilliant golds and greens and blues of her feathered cloak. The princess glanced at him and he looked away quickly. I am not a boy any more. If Ariel could tend to thieves and lepers, the least I can do is not lust after Qhora. Love can be chaste and pure. I must try harder. I must pray harder.

Behind them both, Xiuhcoatl drove the wagon carrying their small bags, the two cages, and the sleeping saber-toothed cat. Atoq had leapt into the cart the moment Lorenzo brought it to the hotel, and after sniffing about in the straw and circling several times, the great cat had collapsed in a huff and was soon dreaming, his paws scratching gently at the floorboards.

The old Aztec warrior had shown little interest in the news that the train had been destroyed, or that the airship had been destroyed, or that dozens of people had been killed, or that they now faced a much longer journey across Marrakesh. Nothing ever seemed to interest or trouble the man, but Lorenzo didn’t think anything of it. Xiuhcoatl had left his homeland in some northern province to serve in the great wars in Jisquntin Suyu, and then pledged his service to a young Incan princess only days before she had been forced to flee the city, the country, and then across the sea to Espana. The Aztec did not speak Quechua, though he seemed to understand enough to obey Lady Qhora’s orders. And he certainly didn’t speak Espani or any other language of the Middle Sea kingdoms. Lorenzo didn’t think anything of that either. But he sometimes envied the solitude that the Aztec must have enjoyed behind the wall of his strange language and his jaguar-skin cloak.

No one gives him a second look, thinking him some dull savage. And no one demands anything of him, except for my lady, Lorenzo reflected. To have such clarity of purpose. To be truly free to ignore the world and all its base distractions, to be totally dedicated to a single task in life. What a paradise that must be.

Ahead, the road angled up slightly and Lorenzo nudged his mare into a canter to reach the top of the rise and look ahead. The highway speared across the plains with uncanny precision, drawn by proud engineers and carved across the land by even prouder engines.

Even their roads are unnatural.

A dozen yards to the right, the train tracks shadowed the road with the same precision, the two rails gleaming in the morning light. Lorenzo tugged the mare’s head over so he could look back at the short distance they had traveled already. Tingis still appeared on the horizon, the spires of the temple and the governor’s estate rising proudly against the pale pink sky. He watched the winds play through the tall grasses for a minute as Lady Qhora rode past, and he was about to turn and follow her when a shimmer in the grass caught his eye.

The wind gusted from left to right, from the sea toward the mountains, and the grasses laid down like willing supplicants, except for one place just a few yards from the edge of the road. Down in the drainage ditch, the grass was rippling from north to south. It was bending toward him. Toward his Qhora.

As the horse-drawn wagon rolled by, Lorenzo said in his broken and unpracticed Quechua, “Xiuhcoatl, there are men following us. Be ready.”

The old Aztec nodded ever so slightly as he drove past, and Lorenzo saw him lift the blanket off the seat beside him to reveal his sword. The hidalgo grimaced at the sight of it. It wasn’t a sword at all, only a wooden club studded with obsidian spikes to create a sort of crude blade along its edges. It weighed half a dozen pounds, requiring both hands even from its grim-faced master, and at its fastest it was still as slow as the moon compared to the shooting star of Lorenzo’s espada. But he had seen men dismembered by that sword, their bones crushed, their flesh shredded, their hot blood gushing in a dozen places at once. Lady Qhora called the obsidian sword a macuahuitl. He had never asked what the word meant.

Lorenzo touched the medallion under his shirt. May the Father, the Mother, and the Son spare me such a fate as the macuahuitl.

As the wagon rolled past, he looked over the side at the sleeping mound of Atoq. The great cat would sleep most of the day before wandering out at evening to hunt. Beside him and their bags of clothing and food, the two small cages clacked and thumped against the far side of the wagon. Inside them, the two saber-toothed cubs swatted at each other through the bars. Behind them, Lorenzo saw the strange ripple in the grassy ditch still bending toward them against the wind.

Who can it be now? Do they mean to rob us, or worse?

Ariel’s pale face drifted across his mind’s eye, and for a moment he couldn’t tell if he had really seen her or only imagined it. He swallowed and blinked back the sudden tears.

Ariel, can you see me? Are you watching over me in this strange land?

Only the wind answered him. Lorenzo turned his mare back up the road and came alongside Qhora. “I’d like to put some distance between us and the city before the morning travelers come out. I’d rather they not see us. They might be tempted to rob us, and I’d rather not leave a trail bodies from Tingis to Orossa.”

“If the queen of Marrakesh knew how to provide for her people, or how to police her people, we wouldn’t have to leave a trail of bodies wherever we go,” Qhora said. She glanced at him and her face softened. “But we are here in the name of Prince Valero. For his sake, we will try not to kill too many Mazighs.”

“Thank you, my love.” He nudged his mare into a quick trot just as Wayra broke into a sprint and dashed away down the road with a squawk and a hiss. Glancing back, he saw Xiuhcoatl whip his draft horse into a slightly quicker pace, which would leave him far behind both the hidalgo and the princess in just a few minutes. Lorenzo sighed and lashed his mare into a gallop. “Qhora!”

It took almost three minutes to catch up to the giant bird and catch the princess’s attention. She reined in Wayra and stared down at her escort as he explained the need to stay together with the wagon. As he spoke, he could see the impatience and frustration in her narrowed eyes and pressed lips, but she did not argue as she turned back to join the wagon, which was now hidden by another rise in the highway.

A deep-throated growl echoed across the plain and Lorenzo kicked his horse into another gallop as they passed back over the last hill and saw the old Aztec standing in the wagon’s seat, his obsidian sword glinting in the early morning light. The saber-toothed cat crouched on the ground beside the wagon, terrifying the draft horse into a constant stream of whinnies and sidesteps, slowly pulling the wagon away to escape the growling cat. At the opposite side of the road, two men in faded brown uniforms stood knee-deep in the grass with shining revolvers in their hands.

Lorenzo swallowed. Guns. “Qhora, stay back!” He charged down the hillside and whipped his espada free. Oh Ariel, if I survive this I swear I will never leave home again!

Xiuhcoatl shouted something in Nahuatl that no one within four thousand miles could understand as he jumped down to the ground beside Atoq, brandishing his weapon in a two-handed grip. The huge cat dashed forward to swipe at the first gunman, who stumbled back and fell into the ditch, disappearing under the tall grass. Atoq snarled and paced back to the wagon.

The yards quickly vanished beneath his horse’s hooves and Lorenzo passed his sword to his left hand. With a flick of his wrist, the hidalgo slashed the gunman’s shoulder as he galloped by and heard the revolver clatter on the hard-packed dirt and gravel of the road. Wheeling around, Lorenzo saw the man clutching his arm and jumping back down into the ditch, and the two men scrambled back the way they had come through the waving grasses. When they were out of sight, Lorenzo sheathed his espada and trotted back to the wagon, pausing to hop down and retrieve the dropped revolver. Xiuhcoatl was roughly stroking the cat’s head and patting his side. Atoq purred, butting his head against the man’s hand. And then the cat circled to the back of the wagon, leapt up into the straw, and flopped down again beside the caged cubs.

To his relief, Lorenzo saw that the princess had stayed at the top of the hill, sitting in her strange saddle on her strange beast, the feathers of her cloak fluttering in the cool morning breeze.

The old Aztec warrior dropped onto his seat, picked up the reins, and got the wagon moving again. Lorenzo rode beside him to the top of the rise and Lady Qhora fell into step beside him.

After a moment she said, “They had guns.”

“Soldiers, judging from their uniforms,” he said. “Deserters, maybe.”

“They had guns, Enzo.” She glanced at him. “They might have killed you. We’ve talked about this. You need to be more careful. You can’t fight guns with a sword.”

He said, “No, but I can fight men with a sword.”

“You didn’t kill them. You should have.” Her voice quavered, or at least he thought it did. “Deserters are traitors. Killing them would have been a service to the Mazigh queen.”

Was she this bloodthirsty when we first met? I don’t remember. But that was another life for both of us, in another world. So much has happened, so much has changed. I could never explain to her why I spared these two, or those three men last night. She wouldn’t understand.

Lorenzo reached up to touch the triquetra medallion beneath his shirt. “Perhaps.”

She saw his hand on his chest. “Does it trouble your faith to kill these people? They’re not your people. And they’re not even decent people.”

“It troubles my faith to kill any people. And they are decent people. They’re just going through a difficult time,” Lorenzo said. Do I even believe that? I’ve been hungry, cold, and frightened. I lived on the streets of Tartessos, in the winter, surviving on the charity of others for half a year and never robbed anyone. I crawled through ten miles of vermin-infested jungle with a bullet in my leg and never robbed anyone. “The last time I came here, ten years ago, it was to sing in a choir in Port Chellah. It was different then.”

“You were a boy then. You saw it differently. I doubt the country itself has changed at all.”

He nodded. “You’re probably right. More’s the pity.”

As they continued down the highway, Lorenzo caught sight of a few plowed fields high in the hills to his left, and a few delicate tendrils of smoke from some farmer’s house. Far from the madness of politics. The hidalgo dropped his hand from his medallion. How did life ever become so complicated?

If only I hadn’t met her. He stole a glimpse of Qhora and couldn’t help but smile at the young lady’s profile glowing in the morning sunlight. No, I can’t imagine that.

If only I hadn’t brought her back with me. No, her cousin would have sacrificed her.

If only she would convert, then I could marry her. But that would keep me at court. I would have to keep fighting, and teaching others to fight, and finding myself in these places, forced to kill or be killed.

If only Ariel had never come to me, had never shown me the true path, had never shown me the brokenness of my old life. I could have gone on living with Qhora, loving her, enjoying her, blissful in our sin.

If only.

His eyes darted over to the young woman beside him, her beautiful face so proud and defiant, her glorious feathered cloak shining in the early morning light.

How can I choose between her and Ariel? Between the real world and a holy life? Between happiness and holiness? Between love and God?

How can anyone? He sighed. I suppose most people don’t have to, do they?

Chapter 9. Taziri

After two hours lying on the bench with her eyes closed praying for sleep, Taziri was still unable to drift off knowing that she had only the doctor and the girl to deal with Hamuy. So she lay very still and over the lip of the far window she watched dawn break over Port Chellah, a dim and muted awakening out beyond the eastern ridge that shifted the darkness of night into a world of slate blues and pale morning mists. The gloomy half-light cast the cabin’s interior in a hundred shades of gray that revealed hints of the people around her. An old Hellan man with an enormous nose. A shackled prisoner with a burned face and a metal plate in his chest. And Ghanima, sitting beside the hatch with the gun belt around her waist, peering out across the airfield at something Taziri could not see.

A steady rhythm of footfalls in the thick grass outside drew her gaze to the window. Kenan jogged up to the gondola, little more than a boy in a long red coat, his face sweaty and breathing labored. Taziri sighed. I’m going to have to sit up now. But she didn’t move yet. Five more minutes, please.

Ghanima stepped into the open hatchway. “What’s your name?” Her fingers rested lightly on the butt of the gun.

“Did the major come back?” he asked breathlessly.

“Name first.” Ghanima’s thumb slipped down to the snap on the holster.

“Corporal Kenan Agyeman.” The young marshal stopped, still breathing heavily. “That’s my gun you’re wearing.”

“I know.” She smiled brightly as she returned his weapon. “Taziri told me to expect you.”

“Where is she?”

“Sleeping. I woke up a few hours ago and she explained what was going on. And she needed the sleep more than I did. She mentioned the major, too. He saved my life.” Ghanima glanced across the empty field. “Is he all right?”

“I don’t know.” Kenan peered over her head at the prisoner as he slipped on his gun belt. “We got separated. There was a fight. Ambassador Chaou killed the police captain and took off on a horse, and the major went after her on our horse. I tried to follow them, but they were gone. I’ve been looking for him all night.”

Taziri grimaced as she lay on the bench. Now what? Am I really supposed to take Hamuy back to Tingis and report to the Marshal General? Or should I wait for the major?

“So what do we do now?” Ghanima stepped back into the shadows of the cabin. “Do you have any idea where to look for him?”

“No.” Kenan sat down on the lip of the open hatch and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know. He told Ohana to report back to Tingis if he didn’t make it back. I never thought he wouldn’t make it back. Or that I would if he didn’t.” He squinted over his shoulder at her. “I guess we should go then, but…we can’t just go. The major is here somewhere. We have to find him. And the ambassador.”

“Then that’s exactly what we’re going to do.” Taziri groaned as she slowly sat up on the bench. “We’ll find them both.”

Ghanima nodded. “Well, that’s fine, but what about the major’s orders?”

Taziri shrugged. “He’s Section Two. We’re Section Four. Technically, he can’t give us orders anyway.”

“That’s true,” Kenan said. “Technically. Although, I bet the Board of Generals would see it differently.”

Ghanima raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but where does that leave us? We have a dangerous prisoner and only one gun, and we don’t know where to look, and apparently the police are as corrupt as the diplomats.”

“Exactly,” said Kenan. “We can’t trust anyone right now. We need to find the major, fast.”

“Wait. We?” Ghanima pointed at the man on the floor. “What about him? What about the airship? We’re not police. We’re not even armed.”

Taziri sighed. “Life is full of small challenges.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s just something Isoke says.” Taziri thought for a moment. There’s no good way to do this, is there? “Well, one of us needs to stay on the Halcyon and the other can go with Kenan to look for the major. I know this ship better than you. Are you up for helping him?”

Ghanima nodded. “Absolutely. Besides, I’ve got the best eyes in the Air Corps. Who better for a search detail? Kenan, do you know this town at all?”

“I should. I was born here,” he said.

“Good. Where did you last see the major?”

Kenan pointed out across the field to the west where the streets flowed downhill to the waterfront. “They rode into town along the coast road. I saw them go into the older warehouses and I searched for hours before I decided to come back here. I was hoping he’d be back already.”

“Okay, then we’ll start looking there.”

“But that’s an entire city district, dozens of blocks with hundreds of buildings. Where do we actually start?”

Ghanima smiled. “The closest teahouse. They’ll have heard or seen something, I’m sure.”

Taziri watched them jog away across the airfield and disappear around a distant corner onto some dawn-kissed side street. Alone, she sat and listened to the two men snore until her belly began to grumble and she gently woke the old doctor.

He sat up and yawned. “Is it over?”

“No. I was hoping you might get us breakfast.”

“Oh.” He frowned and wiped at his eyes. “Fine.”

Evander was gone almost an hour, long enough for Taziri to begin worrying what might have happened to him when the little figure in gray appeared at the airfield gates. She took a small paper bundle from the doctor as he stepped inside. “What did you find?”

Evander sat down in his seat at the back of the cabin. “I don’t know. Some sort of tavern, I suppose. What do you call them?”

“A cafe. There aren’t any taverns in Marrakesh.”

“Whatever it was, it was a mile from here and my hip is aching. This was the only thing they had that I recognized. Leftovers from last night, they said.”

Taziri opened the bulging flatbread and found cold yams, rice, and peas. “Thank you for this.” She eased back into her seat, closed her eyes, and began to eat.

“So, do we feed him or is that against the rules?” The doctor pointed at the unconscious man on the floor as he began to shovel food into the gap in his beard.

Dear God, please give me five minutes of silence. Just five. Taziri raised an eyebrow, shook her head slightly, and continued eating.

“Did you hear me? I said-oh, sorry, I forgot you people don’t talk during meals.” Evander sniffed at his breakfast, and then resumed shoveling. “Well, I hope you don’t mind listening while you eat.”

Taziri sighed and tried to focus on biting, chewing, and tasting. Each warm mouthful slipped down into her belly and quelled the angry demons that had been plaguing her since she first leapt up from the supper table the night before. She thought about each fiber and seed entering her body, all the simple mysteries of plants, water, earth, and sunlight flowing into her flesh, the divine energy sweeping through her blood. The infinite names and faces of God traveling from one form of life to another-

“…don’t understand why these things keep happening to me. That’s the curse of being a doctor, you see, you’re too valuable to everyone. Everyone needs a doctor, sooner or later, and if you’re too good then everyone wants you personally, and you end up sailing or flying all over the world to do look at boils and infections and bloody, maggoty messes…”

Taziri slowly swallowed what was in her mouth, turned a little farther away from Evander, and continued eating with her eyes closed.

“…wasn’t so bad in those days, but after the wars with the Persians, well, you can imagine, my services were needed everywhere. They wanted me for everything, every little thing! Stabbings, burnings, limbs hacked off, some clean as a butcher’s stroke, some all torn up and ragged…”

Taziri quickly finished her breakfast and wiped her hand on her pants. “That’s a wonderful story, doctor. I’m sure you’ll do a wonderful job in Orossa.”

“If we ever get there!” Evander wiped his sleeve through his beard, removing some but not all of the food from his face. “I was hoping to arrive by noon today. Clearly, that is not going to happen. Maybe I need to find a train or something.”

“Maybe.” Taziri stood and stretched, and a shadow of movement outside caught her eye. Two men were approaching the airship from the field gates. “Doctor, stay there.” She picked up her long wrench, the one she had identified just a few hours earlier as her new favorite. The strangers were plainly dressed and clean shaven, and Taziri began to relax slightly. Then she saw long knives poking out of the men’s boots.

Evander knelt on the bench and stared through the window. “Trouble?”

“Well, they’re not the ground crew.” Taziri waited until the men were closer and then called out, “Can I help you gentlemen? I’m sorry, but we’re not taking on passengers here. You’ll need to speak to someone at the office over there to arrange tickets. I’m sure something will be available later in the week.” Then she thought of the Grebe and the Crake and realized there probably wouldn’t be another airship in Port Chellah for quite some time unless they came from the Southern Air Corps in Maroqez.

“Medur!” The men paused in the grass to shout. “You in there?”

Hamuy shuddered awake with a sharp grunt. “Eh?”

“Medur! The old cow sent us. Medur!”

Taziri glared down at the man and tried to force him to keep his teeth together with a silent prayer, but a sinking weight in her stomach told her that God wasn’t going to weld her prisoner’s mouth shut.

“Eh?” Hamuy rolled onto his side, squinting and coughing. “Baako? Is that you, you ugly sack of crap?” He grinned at the floor. “I’m in here!”

The men started forward again and Taziri grabbed the hatch and slammed it shut, spinning the lock until it clanged tight.

“What are we going to do?” The doctor pushed away from the window and sat down on the opposite side of the cabin, his back shoved against the wall.

“The only thing we can do.” Taziri fell into the pilot’s seat and started flipping switches. As the electric motors whirred to life, the two men pounded on the hatch, demanding to be let in.

“But we’re tied down to those metal pins in the ground.” Evander pointed to the mooring lines outside. “We can’t possibly take off.”

“Of course we can.” Taziri grabbed one of the heavy levers under her seat and yanked it up. With a sharp click, the mooring rings on the gondola snapped open and the ropes fell to the ground. In that instant, a brisk morning breeze caught the Halcyon, lifting it roughly from the earth and propelling it sideways across the field, away from the men, and straight toward a row of small storage buildings lining the airfield a hundred yards away.

“Uhm…” The doctor began tapping on the window as he stared at the white-washed stone structures rushing toward them. “Up? Up. More up. Up now. Go up!”

“I’m working on it!” Taziri opened the throttles and spun the propellers down. The ship bucked as the engines tried to hurl the cabin up against the huge gas envelope, and after a moment’s struggle against the forces of inertia, the craft began to rise.

“More! Up more!” As though buoyed by the Hellan’s cries, the airship clawed upward foot by foot and suddenly the grass rushing by beneath them gave way to gravel and pavement. And then a rooftop.

A demonic scream of metal scraping on stone filled the cabin as the Halcyon shuddered and rocked. The floor vibrated as the scream stretched out longer and louder. The ship twisted to starboard, shaking harder as the hull ground across the slate tiles and crashed into brick chimneys and copper stovepipes. Taziri clenched her jaw, gripping the throttles tighter and tighter, shoving them against the stops with all her strength. Her left arm shuddered and for a moment her left hand lost its grip, but she forced her fingers closed and held on. Halcyon shrieked louder.

And then all was silence and stillness. They glided effortlessly over the rooftops, and gradually the dull drone of the propellers reasserted itself in Taziri’s ears. Behind them, the airfield had already been reduced to a small green patch amidst the gray roads and pale stone buildings.

“We’re safe.” Taziri released her death grip on the controls and cradled her left hand in her lap. She massaged the feeling back into her palm, though her little finger remained numb and her ring finger was tingling slightly. “No one can touch us now.”

“Lovely.” Evander slumped down on his seat. “Except we’re up here with this bastard and all your friends are down there somewhere.”

Taziri sighed and nodded. “One disaster at a time, please.”

Hamuy snorted, then winced and shuddered, and lay back down flat on the floor.

Chapter 10. Syfax

The major crouched in a dark corner of the warehouse. Leaning against a wooden crate, he felt a splinter pricking him in the back. Around the corner some twenty yards away, Barika Chaou was speaking in a voice too low to hear. There were at least three other people in the building, two men and a woman. Chaou was doing most of the talking. Syfax crept forward and picked out a few words.

Telegraph. Shifrah. Arafez.

The ambassador’s stolen horse whickered softly from some unseen corner. Syfax wondered absently what would happen to his own horse, which he left tied in front of a dingy excuse for a cafe at the edge of the district. Chaou had proven remarkably capable in the saddle, leaving the marshal clattering noisily up and down the empty pre-dawn streets of Port Chellah all alone. A quiet hour’s search on foot had proven more productive.

Syfax held his revolver lightly as he tried to gauge the nature of the conversation that he couldn’t hear. Short sentences with no real discussion, like a commander giving orders. Maybe they’ll break up in a few minutes and leave the ambassador alone. Vulnerable. We can always pick up the small fry later when I’m not outnumbered.

The soft murmuring ended. Footsteps echoed faintly throughout the warehouse, though none approached the marshal’s hiding place. Syfax peeked out and saw no one. He stood cautiously, then crept forward down the narrow space between the stacks of crates and surveyed the area. Nothing. The horse whickered again and the major dashed toward the sound. He rounded a corner, stepping out into the street, and leveled his gun at the small woman about to mount the horse. “Ambassador. Long time no see.”

The older woman froze, and then slowly turned around with hands raised. “Major Zidane.”

“Sorry I’m late, had a little horse trouble on the way over. Why don’t you step back and lie down on the ground for me? Right over there, in that mud.”

Chaou stepped back from the horse. “I really wish you weren’t quite so persistent. You might force me to do something unfortunate. I don’t like hurting people, but I am capable of it, as poor Captain Aknin learned a short while ago.”

“Don’t forget the captain of the Crake. You put a bullet in her, too.”

“I’m not forgetting.” Chaou shook her head sharply. “Just not counting. If it hadn’t been for that stupid girl trying to be a hero, no one would have been hurt and the Crake would still be in one piece. And I wouldn’t have had to spend half the night walking through the woods.”

Syfax scowled. “Seriously? You’re blaming the pilot girl?”

“Please, major. Let’s not get caught up in details. Besides, that’s all in the past now. And as long as you’re pointing a gun at me, I’d like to talk to you about the future. Your future and the future of Marrakesh.” The ambassador leaned back against a crate, but quickly pushed away from it with a frown. “Dirt everywhere, you know. Anyway, as I was saying, I’ve heard your name quite a few times while staying with Lady Damya in Tingis. Everyone seems very impressed with you. So many arrests. But an unusual number of kills. Frankly, the brass seem a little concerned about what would happen if they promote you, but even more concerned about what would happen if they leave you on the street. Does that sound right?”

“It sounds like you really like to hear yourself talk, lady. Now turn around and put your hands at the small of your back, slowly.” He fished around in his pockets for a set of cuffs.

“I’d rather not.” Chaou didn’t move. “Does it seem right to you that your career has stalled because you are, essentially, too good at your job?”

“I don’t question my superiors. They do their job, I do mine. Quick question for you. Who or what is a shifrah? I couldn’t help overhearing you a minute ago.”

Chaou shook her head. “I don’t recognize the word. You must have misheard.”

“Sure I did. Turn around or I might shoot you. Accidentally, of course.” He thumbed the hammer back.

The ambassador gazed steadily up at him. “There is a problem with this country. We have the most powerful machines in the world, nearly limitless natural resources, and the most talented work force in history, and yet we bow to Darius in Persia and curry the favor of the Songhai lords. We go to endless lengths to placate the Bafours, the Kanemi, the Kel Ahaggar, Rome, Carthage, and even the slobbering Silver Prince in Espana. We pay them, we feed them, and we even arm them. Why?”

“I don’t follow international politics. I’m more of a boxing fan.” Syfax rested his finger gently on the trigger. Is she actually trying to talk her way out of this? Or is she just stalling, hoping one of her little friends comes back? “And right now, I’m more concerned with local affairs. Speaking of which, where is your gun?”

“I gave it to one of my friends, someone who can make better use of it than I can. I’m not very comfortable with firearms.”

“Heh. Me neither.” Syfax grinned as he roughly searched the ambassador’s pockets, her belt, her boots, even her hair. “So you really did handoff your gun? Well, I’ll just add weapons trafficking to the list of charges.” He holstered his gun, pulled a set of handcuffs free of his pocket, and closed one of the rings around the woman’s wrist.

Chaou smiled thinly. “Regarding your career, major, I’ll come to the point. I’m prepared to offer you a colonel’s bars on that uniform of yours, a substantial increase in salary, and a position on the Marshal General’s personal staff.”

Syfax grinned in spite of himself. “That is, without question, the single best bribe I have ever been offered. The last scumbag was only willing to spread her legs for me. But I don’t think an ambassador can give me a promotion.”

“No, but the Marshal General can, and I can assure you that she’ll be prepared to deliver whatever I promise.” Chaou tilted her head to one side, bird-like. “Does the offer interest you?”

“I’m still waiting to hear what all this generosity will cost me.” Syfax held the open cuff in his fist, wondering if it made more sense to cuff her hands together or to cuff her to himself.

“Well, it involves you walking out of this place, alive and well, and leaving me and my associates to conduct our business in peace. And of course, I may expect some small favors from you, in your official capacity, from time to time. Naturally.”

“Naturally.” Syfax listened for any sign of a returning associate. They seemed to be alone. “But you recently shot one of your buddies in the back of the head, so I’m not really enthusiastic about being your friend right now.” She’s really doing this. She’s really trying to recruit me. Idiot.

“A fair criticism.” Chaou nodded slowly. “But in my defense, you scared me back at the tomb, and frankly I’m not one for unexpected situations. It’s against my nature. I prefer plans, and alternate plans, and backup plans, and contingency plans. Improvisation is not my strong suit. Successful negotiations with foreign governments are not about tact or grace, they are about planning. Anticipating. Preparing. Which is my way of saying that it is highly unlikely that I would ever shoot you in the back of the head. Although admittedly, not impossible.”

“Well, that much I can believe.”

“You see, major, I’m not in the business of making enemies. I much prefer making allies. We have enough enemies already.”

“If you say so.” He was getting tired of standing around. Cuff her hands together. Definitely. If her friends do show up, I don’t need the dead weight on my arm. Syfax twisted the cuff around, trying to line it up with her free wrist but there was a kink in the little chain.

“Major? Major Zidane!” The shout echoed from the far end of the warehouse.

Syfax froze. Who the hell could that be?

The ambassador raised an eyebrow. “It seems someone is looking for you.”

“It does sound that way.” He flicked the open cuff back and forth in his free hand as he tried to identify the stranger. The yelling voice was closer now, louder and clearer. It was a woman’s voice.

“I can only hope my friends don’t come back to see who is yelling. It poses a dilemma for both of us. A bloody shoot-out would be in no one’s best interests. But if you agree to my terms, everyone walks away in one piece,” Chaou said. “But I’m worried that I can’t really trust you right now, major.”

“Then we’ll just have to risk a little bloodbath.” Syfax dropped the open cuff and reached for his revolver.

The ambassador snaked her hand away and the marshal felt a tiny stinging sensation in his fingertips. A blade? A razor between her fingers? Syfax glanced down but didn’t see any cuts or blood on his hand.

Chaou smiled. “Something the matter, major?”

Syfax shook his hand to throw off the strange tingling under his skin and then he reached for the ambassador again. The older woman smiled and held out her own hand as though to shake his. Frowning, Syfax closed his fingers tightly around Chaou’s outstretched hand.

Pain blossomed through Syfax’s arm and shoulder and neck. Every nerve buzzed and burned and the major tasted copper and oil in his empty mouth. Tiny lights danced across his vision, orange and green and purple. He yanked his hand back and lashed out with his other fist to knock the ambassador’s arm away. Syfax succeeded in hitting the older woman’s forearm as he collapsed to his side, clutching his arm and grinding his teeth, trying to blink his eyes clear of the lights. He opened his mouth, working his jaw to pop his ears. Dimly, he saw and heard Chaou mount her horse and gallop away down the street.

“Major!” Boots thumped and Kenan dashed into view. “Major!”

The corporal dropped to one knee and helped Syfax sit up. The orange and green spots faded and the numb buzzing in his arm gave way to a more painful and distracting ache. Syfax blinked and groaned, and spat. The street spun drunkenly to the left. He swallowed hard and blinked hard, trying to force his body into working properly.

“Major? Are you all right?”

“Mmm.” He nodded. Better not to use words, not yet. He gestured upward and Kenan helped him to his feet. He blinked a few more times and let the world resolve back into the shadowy shapes of warehouses and streetlights and horse dung.

“Major, what happened?” Kenan’s voice was loud, too loud.

Syfax rubbed his ear. “It felt like being stung by a thousand bees, on fire, on the inside. Where is she? Where’s Chaou?” He led the corporal into the street.

“I didn’t see her.” Kenan fell into step behind him. “We came in through the other end of the warehouse.”

“We? You brought Ohana?” Syfax stared down the road in the direction Chaou had ridden. “Where is she?”

“No, she’s back on the airship. I brought Ghanima, the pilot you found in the wreck.” Kenan indicated the figure just jogging out of the warehouse behind them. “I think it was the right choice.”

“Do you?” It wasn’t a question. The kid’s had half the night to come up with a plan and find me, and this is the best he could do?

“She’s really something.”

He glanced at his aide and saw the corporal’s grin. “Kid, we don’t drag civilians into an investigation unless they have something to contribute.”

“Well, technically she’s not a civilian.” He massaged his head and kept grinning. “I mean, she’s in the Air Corps. Security Section Four. Transportation.”

Syfax snapped his fingers in front of the corporal’s face. “Hey. This is not a debate.”

Kenan stopped grinning. “Yes, sir. Won’t happen again, sir.”

“See that it doesn’t.” Syfax studied the young woman in the orange jacket. The girl had her arms crossed and was absently tapping her foot as she glanced around the deserted road. Young, impatient, cocky. All I need right now. “Ghanima, right?”

“Yes, major. We saw two people leaving the warehouse on the other side.” She pointed back over her shoulder. “Kenan wanted to follow them, but I thought where they’d been might be more interesting than where they were going.”

“Good thinking.” Syfax forced a smile.

“That’s when I started calling your name.”

“Not good thinking.” Syfax stopped smiling. “Did you see which way Chaou went?”

“No, sir.”

“Fine.” The major glanced around at the empty street. “This warehouse was probably just a meeting place, not a center of operations.”

“What kind of operations?” Kenan asked. “Did the ambassador say what she’s doing?”

“She spouted some nationalistic gibberish. Nothing concrete. Either of you ever hear the word shifrah? Any idea what that means?”

“No.” Ghanima said, “So where does that leave us?”

“Nowhere, that’s where.” Syfax started walking. “I think Chaou electrocuted me with her hand. How the hell did she do that?”

Kenan cleared his throat. “Actually, we might know the answer to that one.”

“What do you mean?” Syfax kept his eyes on the road, scanning for recent hoof marks.

“Back at the airship, Hamuy got a little out of hand and Taziri shot him, but it didn’t kill him,” Ghanima said. “Hamuy’s got a metal plate under his skin. Armor, surgically inserted. And he said that Chaou had something done to her as well. This must be what he meant.”

Syfax squinted. Armor and electricity under the skin? That’s new. I hate new. “I assume Lieutenant Ohana had a good reason for shooting my prisoner.”

Ghanima nodded. “To save me, sir.”

“Fair enough,” Syfax said. “So, what did you do with him? Toss him in a jail cell? I mean, Hamuy’s not still on the airship with Ohana now, right? You didn’t leave them alone together?” The young officers were very quiet. Syfax glared at them. “Right?”

Chapter 11. Taziri

She kept one eye on her gauges and needles and the sweeping views of the city slowly turning beneath the Halcyon. Taziri kept the other eye on the mirror’s image of Medur Hamuy lying on the floor behind her. “Doctor? How are you doing back there?”

“Hm? What?” Evander sat up and scratched his beard. “What’s going on?”

“I said-oh, never mind.” For the third time that hour, the view of the city below rotated to show her Port Chellah’s harbor. The waves sparkled like diamonds, bright and piercing.

The doctor grumbled something in Hellan before saying, “Have you come up with a plan yet? Some place to go? Someone to talk to?”

Hamuy grunted. “Of course she hasn’t. The idiot is just floating around up here, waiting for someone to come along and tell her what to do.”

Taziri gripped the throttles a little tighter. Her eyes flicked over to the wrench lying on the engineer’s console.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” Hamuy chuckled. “Pathetic.”

Ignore him. “Doctor.” Taziri beckoned Evander to come up to the cockpit with a flick of her fingers. The older man crept around Hamuy and poked over the engineer’s shoulder. “Doctor, we may be up here for a while.”

“How long is a while?”

“I don’t know. The rest of the day?” Taziri shrugged.

“What happens then? We fall out of the sky?” Evander’s eyes opened wide. “We’re going to die, aren’t we? We’re going to fall into the sea!”

Taziri clamped her hand to her eyes and began rubbing them vigorously. “No, we’re not going to fall into the sea. We’re going to find Ghanima and the major.”

“How? From up here, people look like…I can’t even see people from up here.”

“Neither can I. But they can see us and that’s good enough,” Taziri said.

“Oh.” The doctor’s wiry eyebrows rose. “Oh, I see.”

Hamuy snorted. “Yeah, I see, you’re going to wait around until someone comes and finds you. Bravo, little girl. Good plan. Big stones on you. Your husband must be so pr-”

Taziri knelt on the floor, crushing her wrench into the burned man’s throat. She had no memory of leaving her seat or grabbing the tool, and she had no idea what she was doing now, but her blood was screaming, her belly was screaming, her heart was screaming at her to kill the killer lying shackled on the floor. Her hands trembled.

Why did he mention my husband? Does he know where he is? Do his friends know? Are they going to kill Yuba and Menna because I got involved? What do I do? Am I putting them in danger right now?

A breathless gurgle escaped Hamuy’s throat.

“Well?” Evander asked. “Are you going to kill him this time or not? Because frankly, I don’t think you have it in you.”

“I’m one of only six flight officers in the Northern Air Corps. It will take his friends all of an hour to find out who I am and where I live, and less than a day to show up at my home!” Taziri leapt to her feet and threw her wrench aside. “What am I supposed to do? I have a family. He’s a killer! He kills innocent people for money!”

“Lots of people kill.” The doctor spoke quietly. “Lots of people are killed. Every day, out there, back home. Border wars, trade wars, blood feuds. On and on.”

“I don’t care what other people do! I care what he did! He killed Isoke! He killed her!”

“Your captain? From what I heard, you don’t know that she’s dead.” Evander shook his head. “I don’t care. So kill him, or don’t. Whatever gets me to Orossa as soon as possible.”

“We’re not going anywhere.” Taziri paced the length of the cabin. “Hamuy’s already killed dozens of people. Ghanima, Kenan, and the major might be dead, too. All for what? For what?!” She spun and buried her boot in Hamuy’s belly.

The prisoner tried to groan as he doubled up, but he had no breath.

“I sincerely doubt that torture is the road to truth,” Evander muttered. “He’ll just lie. And I doubt they train you pilots how to interrogate prisoners.”

“No.” Taziri ran her fingers through her hair. People are dying. People are really dying. I could die today. They could get to Yuba and Menna tomorrow. What do I do? Why isn’t there someone here to help me? She stared at the empty pilot’s seat. “No, they just train us to fly. But flying should do just fine.” She ducked down and grabbed an iron hook stowed beside the hatch. Yanking the hook, she unspooled a steel cable from a small winch, and Taziri quickly looped the line around the heavy shackles binding Hamuy’s arms behind his back.

“What are you doing?” Evander sat up a little straighter.

“Getting answers.”

Hamuy grunted. “I won’t talk.”

“Because you’re loyal to Ambassador Chaou?”

“Hardly,” Hamuy said. “It’s bad business. If you get her, I don’t get paid.”

Taziri slipped back into the cockpit, her face blank and eyes dull. With a few rough kicks against the pedals and shoves on the throttles, she drove the Halcyon down out of the sky below the smokestacks and towers, sweeping low over the water so that the masts of the fishing boats whisked by just beneath the airship’s belly.

Then the engineer stalked back into the cabin and wrenched the hatch open. A blast of cold, salty air whirled through the cabin, whipping clothing and hair into wild torrents. Taziri stepped over the prisoner, bent down, and began shoving.

“What are you doing?” Hamuy shouted over the wail of the wind.

“Asking questions.” Taziri shoved the heavy man across the floor to the hatch. “I want to know why there’s a plate in your chest. I want to know why Chaou stole an airship. I want to know where the major is.”

“Go to hell!”

Taziri planted her boot against Hamuy’s back and stared out the open hatch at the sparkling waves of the harbor below. She turned to look the doctor in the eye. “I…I’m only doing this to help the others.”

Evander shrugged.

Taziri swallowed and kicked the prisoner over the hatch threshold. The winch cable snapped taut, dangling the man just below the gondola. Taziri laid her hand on the winch switch, and began flicking the release off and on, and off, and on. She watched as Hamuy fell a few feet and stopped short, fell a few more and stopped again. Each time his head and legs flopped violently, until he was hanging far below the ship, flying just above the water, his body folded in half with his shackled hands and rear end in the air and his face and feet in the briny spray.

“I’m waiting!” Taziri hollered out the open hatch.

A babble of noises answered her, any one of which might have been a man’s voice or the crash of a wave. Taziri locked the winch and paced back to the cockpit where she took the controls and began reviewing the needles on her gauges and meters. A moment later, she felt a tap on her shoulder. “Hm?”

“Aren’t you going to pull him up and see what he says?” Evander asked. “You know. Lower him, raise him, threaten him. I’ve seen such things before. Up and down.”

“No, I think down is best for now.” Taziri watched the corridor of steamers and yachts crisscrossing the bay. She tried to focus on guiding the airship gently around the harbor traffic below, and she tried not to think about Isoke clutching her face with blood-soaked hands. Her mind danced from one person to another. Yuba and Menna. Syfax and Ghanima. All in danger, from fire and knives and guns, and psychopaths.

“You know, miss.” Evander eased down into the engineer’s seat beside her. “All that salty water is going to aggravate his burns. Terribly. The painkiller I gave him last night probably wore off quite a while ago.”

“Oh.” Taziri glanced down at the narrow window by her feet, usually consulted during takeoffs and landings. Now it showed her the man dangling just above the water. A white-tipped wave reached up and slapped the man’s head, leaving him spinning wildly on the slender cable. Hamuy screamed. That should bother me. But it doesn’t. Taziri nodded. “I see.”

Ahead, the golden line of a beach grew larger and dark specks of driftwood took shape on it. Taziri throttled up and throttled back, her fingers playing restlessly on the handles. Finally, the last sailboat fell behind them and the water’s blue grew paler and brighter. Taziri kicked the pedals and the Halcyon nosed up. As the drone of the propellers faded to a whisper, the airship came to float high above a sandy strip of beach speckled with rocks and flotsam and gulls.

Taziri sat and absently rubbed the two numb fingers of her left hand as she stared out over the railways and grassy fields to the south. To the east, the hills rippled up beneath forests into the rocky ridges around the canal. Looking down, she flexed her hand and found her wrist didn’t quite bend all the way forward or back. It felt a bit cold and hollow. Taziri gently shifted her burnt sleeve, but felt no particular pains in her arm. It can’t be that bad. As soon as this is over, I’ll take a look. As soon as Halcyon is safe back at home.

The engineer stood, straightened her jacket, and shuffled back to the open hatch. She flicked the winch switch and listened to the tiny motor winding up the steel cable until a dull thump signaled the arrival of Medur Hamuy against the gondola’s hull. Taziri locked the winch again and squatted down by the hatch where she could see her prisoner’s soaked back pressed up against the hatchway. “So. Whenever you’re ready.”

At first, there was nothing. Then she heard some coughing and spitting. Eventually, Hamuy stuttered, “Th-they’ll…k-k-kill…m-me.”

Taziri squinted out across the bay. “We can do it again. We can do it all day, actually. I’ve got nothing else to do right now.”

Silence. The engineer and doctor exchanged a dull look. Taziri felt her insides quivering like a frightened bird. What the hell am I doing? Dragging a man through the bay?

He killed all those people! He could kill more. And he knows who I am, where I’m from. Yuba and Menna…

Taziri swallowed the lump in her throat and exhaled slowly.

Yuba and Menna.

The whirlwind in her head subsided.

Yuba and Menna.

They could die. She could come home and find them dead, murdered by a monster just like Hamuy.

They have to be stopped. All the monsters have to be stopped.

A cold steeliness calmed her hands and steadied her voice. “How’s that salt feel?”

“There’s…l-lots…of th-them.” Hamuy’s voice shook. “Rich. P-Powerful.”


“I don’t know! Th-th-they hate foreigners, b-but they h-hate the queen more.” Hamuy wheezed for a moment. “I just, I just work for Chaou.”

“All right. So where are they?”

“I don’t know!” Hamuy whined. “I–I just w-w-work for Chaou.”

Taziri rubbed her eyes, trying to decide what to ask. “Well, where does Chaou go when she visits Port Chellah? Any special friends?”


“Where does she go?”

“N-nowhere!” Hamuy’s voice was almost lost to the wind. “We don’t c-come here. She’s the ambassador to Espana. We’re either up north or down at the capital.”

Taziri frowned. You’re an engineer, so be an engineer. Pick the problem apart to find the solution. We need more information. “Tell me about the metal plate in your chest. I assume you were there when they put it in.”


The doctor leaned forward to look at the prisoner’s back. “He may be unconscious.”

“Medur?” Taziri reach down to slap his wet shoulder. “Who put the plate in your chest? A doctor? A friend of Chaou’s? Give me the name.”

After a bit of retching, Hamuy said, “An Espani called Medina. Elena Medina.”



Taziri stood and hit the winch switch. The little motor whined as it hauled its load up over the hatch’s lip and into the cabin. Hamuy howled as his raw arm and shoulder dragged over the threshold. The winch clicked off, leaving the prisoner to huff and wheeze and shudder on the floor.

“That’s a start.” Taziri rubbed her eyes, then leaned out and pulled the hatch shut. The cabin suddenly plunged into a warm silence as the cool sea breezes vanished. She avoided looking at the shivering mound of cloth and flesh on the cabin floor. “We’re missing something. I doubt Chaou murdered her way out of Tingis just to visit Port Chellah. Crashing the Crake was a mistake or an accident. She must be going somewhere else, somewhere in the south, and without an airship she’ll need a train or a boat. Maybe a private yacht to Acra or the ferry going up the canal to Nahiz.”

“If Nahiz is on the way to Orossa, then I endorse that theory.” Evander twisted about to peer out the window at the harbor below. “But I see a lot of boats down there. Your ambassador might be on any of them. Or none of them.”

“I know.” Taziri slipped back into the cockpit and gripped the throttles. “And we can’t check them all, or even find them all. But there’s only one ferry and it leaves at noon. So we have a little time.”

“To do what?” Evander asked. “We’re alone up here.”

“I know that too. That’s why we’re going down there.” The engines hummed a little louder and the shadows inside the cabin began shifting and sliding as Taziri turned the airship back toward the city. “The ferry lands at the pier next to the harbor master’s office. That office has a lighthouse tower with a flagpole on top. I’ve always thought that flagpole would make an excellent airship mooring mast. Let’s go find out. We’ll watch the pier. If we spot Chaou, maybe we can find the marshals, too.”

The doctor said, “What if Hamuy’s friends from the airfield find us? This flying monstrosity is hardly subtle or discreet. And what if they have guns? What if they shoot at the balloon?”

Taziri glanced over her shoulder at the Hellan. “Early retirement.”


“I agree,” Taziri muttered. She remembered the soft touch of her daughter’s fat cheeks and the strength of Yuba’s arms around her. “But we’ll just have to take whatever God gives us.”

Chapter 12. Syfax

Striding down the harbor-side road, the major glared up at the sky. He didn’t know whether to be more concerned or angry.

What is that woman doing? Why did she leave the airfield? Why is she racing around the bay? Or did someone kill Ohana and steal the ship?

Anger or concern? He chose to be optimistic. “What the hell is she doing?”

Ghanima sped up to walk beside him. “She might be looking for us.”

“Why? She can’t possibly think she can spot three people from a thousand feet overhead.”

Kenan squinted into the midmorning sun. “We’ve been gone for a while. She probably started to worry about us. All of us.”

“That I believe,” Syfax said. “I shouldn’t have brought her. She was too emotional in Tingis, moody and distracted all night. Probably thinking about her family the whole time.”

“Major, look!” Ghanima pointed up. “She’s coming down over the harbor. Over there!”

Syfax watched the long silvery airship and its dark gondola sweeping in low over the inner harbor, the distant drone of its propellers just barely reaching his ears. “What’s she doing now?”

“Maybe she crossed the bay to get our attention and now she’s going to wait for us.” Kenan glanced around them at the carts and merchants and dockworkers and freight trolleys bustling up and down the lane. The high sun and the rippling waters conspired to flood the city with light, and the smell of salt hung heavy in the air, tinged with hints of factory waste and gull droppings.

“Maybe.” Syfax scanned back and forth across the endless surge of faces around them, hungry for a glimpse of a small woman in a gold coat. None appeared. “Maybe not. Either way, we have to go check it out.”

They continued past warehouses with doors flung open to reveal mounds of ore, piles of crude beams, refined metal sheets, palettes of bricks and ingots, and barrels of powder. Filthy, sweaty men from every nation on the continent groaned beneath or behind some load that gleamed of dull gray, burnt orange, or silvery white. Armored trolleys dark with rust rolled down their tracks along the waterfront behind puffing steam engines. The high-pitched whistles and squeals of brakes punctuated the low murmurs of labor and the chaos of the ships creeping in and out of the quays with engines rumbling and sails luffing in the shifting winds.

On their left they passed a strange calm in the storm of industry. Through the open doorways of one warehouse they saw dozens of men standing in a tight knot. A woman in a green suit was speaking to them, and suddenly they burst into angry shouts, shaking their fists. As the marshals moved on, they heard the crash of a trolley overturned. Syfax glanced back and saw the woman in green running from the warehouse as the men spilled out into the street, hollering at her about hours, wages, and children.

Kenan nodded back at the crowd, but Syfax shook his head. “Leave it.”

As the threesome approached the harbor master’s office, the drab world of industry shifted abruptly into a bright tableau of signs and flags, banners and lights, all welcoming new arrivals to Port Chellah and beckoning them toward inns, restaurants, teahouses, and a hundred shops peddling silly baubles to remind the buyer of their visit. The miserable grunts and shouts of work became happy calls to enter, to buy, to enjoy, and the soft sighs of string instruments escaped from countless doorways. And under the joyful noise was the almost rhythmic entreaties of the panhandlers begging and blessing the passersby.

Syfax frowned at the press of tourists and the colorful snares erected to catch their money. The bureaucratic block of the harbor master’s office squatted between two piers crowded with old fishermen. At the center of the southern pier, little children ran about the carousel that slowly spun and tooted an old song in time with its old huffing engine. A slender white tower rose from one end of the harbormaster’s office to support a glassy sphere where a pale blue light slowly rotated, almost invisible beneath the glare of the sun. And above the lighthouse, lashed to a flagpole, the Halcyon floated serenely as though suspended from the heavens with invisible strings. Then Syfax’s gaze slipped down to the long red and white paddle ship moored just beside the office. A young man in a white uniform stood at the ship’s gangway, smiling very widely and asking people if they were planning to take the noon ferry, which would be departing shortly, as he reminded them.

“Kenan, you and Ghanima go check the airship. If that’s Ohana up there, find out why she left the airfield. And if it’s not Ohana, arrest the piece of shit who stole our airship.”

“Yes, sir.” Kenan started to leave, then paused. “You’ll be waiting here, sir?”

“I think I’ll take a look around and check a few of these boats.” A steady trickle of women and men broke away from the crowded street to display their tickets, trudge up the ramp, and vanish into the ferry. “Don’t do anything stupid, Kenan.”

“Will do.” He blinked. “I mean, I won’t. I mean, yes, sir.”

Syfax watched the corporal lead the young pilot across the street and into the harbor master’s office. When they were gone, Syfax began moving slowly across the stream of pedestrians. At the base of the ferry’s gangway, he muttered a few discrete words to the suddenly anxious attendant, who stepped aside and let him board without a ticket. The cabin was a single chamber that ran almost the entire length of the ship, lined wall to wall with wooden seats half-filled with families, groups of students, lone business travelers, and more bags and cases than he could count. He slipped aside and allowed the travelers to continue streaming in past him.

A woman spoke in his ear. “I would love to believe that you followed me all this way to accept my generous offer.”

Syfax felt something small and sharp dig into his back. Too small for a gun. A knife? Or something electrical?

“But somehow, I doubt that’s why you’re here.” Chaou tugged on his sleeve. “Let’s sit down over there, out of the way, hm?”

Syfax scanned the indicated corner for an asset, an ally, a weapon, or an escape route, but the only people nearby were two old men reading books and tugging at their beards. The major grinned. Hell, it’s only a knife. I can grab the knife and snap her wrist before she can scratch my coat. So let’s see what the old bat has to say.

Dragging his feet, Syfax came to the end of the row and sat down by the window. Outside and far below, the little waves played and rolled between the piers, slapping lightly against the pilings with a thousand tiny bits of trash bobbing around them.

Chaou sat beside him. “You seem to have recovered rather quickly from our little encounter earlier. God must like you.”

Syfax pursed his lips and looked at the smaller woman sitting beside her. Chaou had wrapped a black cloak around her shoulders and only her golden cuffs peeked out from beneath it. “I think God just likes kicking me around.”

“You think so?” Chaou nodded. “And who decides what God likes? Priests, I suppose. Or sometimes queens, or generals, hm? They’re all just people, no wiser than anyone else.”

“Seriously? A sermon?” Syfax turned his attention back to the water where the rainbow rings of oil mingled with the white islands of foam. “I haven’t had a criminal preach at me in over a year. You killers are very spiritual folks.”

Chaou shifted in her seat. “I wasn’t trying to preach. And I’ll thank you not to refer to me as a criminal or a murderer. Yes, yes, I’ve broken laws and people have died.” She sighed. “But now is not the time to dwell on logistics or administrative details. I have larger concerns. And you, I imagine, have one very small concern at this moment.”

Syfax felt the knife point gently nudge his ribs. Around him, the empty seats were quickly filling and the general murmur of excited children, tired parents, and impatient businesswomen continued to grow. “So tell me about these larger concerns of yours. You said something before about our foreign policy?”

“Don’t patronize me, major. I know you’re not alone here.” The ambassador gave him a tired look. “I’m sure you’d like nothing better than to draw me out into some dry, academic debate while your associates discover that you are missing and storm the ship to save you for the second time today. But I’ve sent two of my less lovely employees to ensure our privacy. I’m afraid your friends won’t be interrupting us again.”

“Good.” Syfax matched her look and tone of boredom and annoyance. “My kid wouldn’t let it go to his head, but I’m sure the pilot girl would be a real pain in the ass. That much success in one day, nah, I don’t think so.”

“I’m glad we agree.”

Syfax felt the jab in his side disappear, and in that instant he grabbed Chaou’s wrist and yanked her arm free of the black cloak. The major saw the sleeve of the gold coat and a hand the color of dark sand, and snaking across the lined palm he saw two veins of copper that hid almost perfectly in the creases of the ambassador’s skin. “What the hell is that?”

Chaou’s hand snapped down and pressed tightly against the marshal’s fingers. Syfax stiffened as the burst of electric current buzzed through his flesh. His head snapped back and his skull cracked against the window frame just before the world faded into a bright white haze.

Syfax blinked, trying to refocus his eyes. The world was dim and filled with a dull whisper of many people talking and moving. He remembered the ferry.


A hand clamped down on his own, pressing it onto the armrest. “Good evening, major, I’m glad you could rejoin us.”

“How long was I out?”

“About six hours.”

Syfax sat up sharply, squinting at the shadowy figures around him, fighting with his weary eyes to understand what the bright dots and lines were in the distance. Chaou laughed and Syfax heard the soft hiss of something sliding, and suddenly the world was quite bright again. The ambassador had raised the window shade and Syfax stared out at the blue water sparkling beneath the midday sun.

“Did I say six hours? I can be so careless about the time. You have my heartfelt apologies. I’m afraid you’ve only been unconscious for a few moments.” She patted Syfax’s hand. “Not to worry, you didn’t miss very much. After I relieved you of your sidearm, the ferry captain made a brief announcement, and there was some banging around on deck, and then the ship started rumbling and vibrating a bit. But it’s all settled down now that we’re under way.”

Under way? Syfax glared out the window at the little anchor buoys and crab pot markers slowly gliding past them, rocking as the wake of the ferry rolled up beneath them. The harbor was well behind them already and the open water of the Atlanteen rippled darkly out to the horizon. “Where are we going?”

“The ferry is going up the Zemmour Canal to Nahiz.” Chaou smiled briefly. “I haven’t decided yet where you’re going. My associates would have wanted to throw you into the middle of the harbor, but they’re not here. I dislike killing, especially our own people. Obviously, using Hamuy was a poor decision on my part, from an ethical point of view. From a practical point of view, it seemed very reasonable to employ someone with his particular qualifications.” The woman sighed. “I pride myself on being an excellent judge of character and for knowing how to manage people. It’s necessary in diplomacy, naturally. But I must admit there is a certain class of people that I have some difficulty with. And Hamuy is of that class.”

Syfax gently massaged his temples with his right hand, then looked down at his left wrist, still in the ambassador’s grasp. “What the hell did you do to me?”

“Just a mild electric shock, nothing to worry about. Usually people just tense up when it happens, which is quite a convenient and understated way to respond to physical pain, especially in a public forum such as this. But the device is malfunctioning, thanks to your assault on my person this morning. You gave me quite a worry when you jerked about like that, knocking your head on the wall. You very nearly made a scene.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want that.” Syfax straightened up and studied the crowded deck, but after a moment he gave up hunting for the ambassador’s confederates. She must have more muscle somewhere. His head throbbed, mostly behind his right eye. “I take it you still want me to work for you.”

“Oh, don’t make it sound so formal and dry. It’s more than a business arrangement or career advancement.” Chaou shook her head. “No, it’s much more than that. It’s an opportunity to serve your country in a more noble capacity, to right wrongs on a national scale, in ways that speak directly to the preservation of our way of life.”

“Why do you people always talk in riddles about the evils in society, and your epic solutions that only you can make happen?” Syfax turned his attention to the window and a seagull bobbing on the waves. “I cornered a bomber a few years ago. Pastoralist. He hated machines because they made people lazy. But he couldn’t just come out and say that. We spent three hours in the hot afternoon sun pointing guns at each other and negotiating for hostages, all while listening to him babble on and on about the nobility of labor, the divine calling to sweat and bleed, the purity of living at the edge of survival. Blah blah blah.”

“What happened to him?”

“I shot him.”

“How terrible for you. For everyone.”

“You’re telling me. I don’t like guns. Never did,” Syfax said. “Shooting people doesn’t sit right with me. There’s something weak about it. And I’m not a fan of other people shooting people either. I’m more of a knife man. Any idiot can pull a trigger. But it takes guts to slice a human being open right in front of you.”

Chaou winced. “Yes, well, to return to my original point, your bomber was trying to stop progress, and he was as effective as any person standing in front of a locomotive. I have no such interest in hindering or harming our people. Quite the opposite. I intend to see Marrakesh elevated to much greater heights of power in every sphere of human endeavor.”

Syfax scanned the shifting wavelets, watching for the next yacht, the next fishing boat, the next opportunity to catch someone’s eye and… and what? He frowned and tried to focus on finding Chaou’s backup in the crowd, but there were too many candidates. People sitting quietly by themselves, people chatting, people glancing nervously around, and at least four people who seemed to be staring directly at him at any given time, though two were sleepy-eyed mothers cradling babies in their arms.

“So why did you join the service, major? Was your father in law enforcement? Or were you the victim of some unfortunate crime and vowed to never let such a thing happen again?” Chaou eased her grip on Syfax’s wrist for a brief moment to pat his hand gently, then gripped it again. “You’d be surprised how many people answer one of those two things.”

“Actually, I started in the army, hoping to see some real action. But after a few years, that clearly wasn’t going to happen since we never seem to actually go to war with anyone. So I transferred into Security Section Two.” Syfax kept an even tone as he mentally flipped through the negotiator’s handbook. Keep her talking. Build a rapport. “The pay is good and the work is interesting. Sometimes more than others.”

“And that’s important to you? Being interested?”

“I guess so,” Syfax said. “Killing bad guys is good for the soul, but it helps to keep your head in the game too. Otherwise, after a while, you start to lose focus on what’s important.”

“You’re wrong.” Chaou stared out the window past him. “I feel as passionate about my ideals as I did forty years ago. If anything, the time has only served to sharpen my resolve.”

Syfax glanced down at the ambassador’s wired fingers and said, “I can see that. So what’s the story with your hand? Did you get tired of not having a bunch of wires under your skin? I can see how that might bug you.”

“Hm. You’ve been quite patient and polite about bringing it up, major.” Chaou smiled briefly. “But I’m not going to tell you anything very useful. Suffice it to say, my organization has many enterprises, including medical and scientific research. The device implanted in my arm, well, you’ve felt its effects. There’s nothing more to say about it.”

Syfax’s basic training in electricity had not held his attention as well as weapons, tactics, and criminal psychology, but he managed to dredge up a few facts. “I suppose it’s insulated to protect you from being electrocuted all the time?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “No, the breakthrough being tested was something else entirely. Something new, at the time.”

“Yeah, sure.” What would someone want to test something inside a person’s body? “How long have you had it?”

“Several years. It’s not uncomfortable, actually. But my associate has moved on to bigger and better things since then, and this little device would look like a child’s toy compared to her latest projects.”

“Such as?”

Chaou sighed. “I suppose it would be hoping too much to expect you to stop trying to interrogate me. It is your duty, of course. I respect that, more than you know. You provide a vital service for our people, protecting their lives. I can’t tell you how much I regret everything that happened last night. I had a plan, of course. A very good plan.”

“Right.” Syfax chuckled. They always have a plan. “So what went wrong?”

“My informants were misinformed. Something arrived in Tingis that was not supposed to be there. The plan fell apart and I did not have a contingency. I told Hamuy to make certain no one left Tingis after I departed in the airship. I never thought he would destroy whole engines or airships, or kill all of those innocent travelers.” Chaou swallowed. “The whole night was a dreadful fiasco and I take full responsibility for it. But good people died and now I must continue on or else those deaths are meaningless.”

“Continue on to do what?”

Chaou grimaced and shook her head.

So, she’s a patriotic lunatic, she’s recruiting, and she’s not a big fan of the queen. Delusions of grandeur and dreams of regicide. Always nice when they stick to the classics. Syfax glanced out the window to see the ferry was just entering the mouth of the Zemmour Canal and bearing east to Nahiz. Well, that’s enough of this crap. Time to go.

Chapter 13. Taziri

Kenan yelled over the droning propellers, “We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Taziri waved and watched him and Ghanima climb back down the spiral stairs inside the lighthouse, thumping on wrought iron steps that rang and clanged with every footfall.

“Now where are they going?” Evander asked. “We finally find them and they just run off again. We’re never going to get to Orossa at this rate.”

“They’re just going to get the major,” Taziri said. “It won’t kill you to wait a few more minutes. When they get back, I’m sure they’ll take Hamuy and we’ll be free to go. We’ll tell them about the doctor in Arafez and let them deal with it. All right?”


Two minutes later, Taziri heard the wrought iron stairs rattling again and the two young officers leapt up onto the landing. Kenan waved sharply, gesturing for them to come closer to the lighthouse. Evander pointed at the marshal and said, “What’s he want now?”

“I think they need a ride. Right now.” Taziri steered the Halcyon closer to the tower and then stepped back to the open hatch and kicked the rolled rope ladder over the threshold. “Climb up!” she yelled into the wind. As Ghanima began scrambling up the wriggling ladder, Taziri heard a new pounding and rattling on the spiral stairs behind the marshal. “Kenan! Climb up with her! I can carry you both away on the ladder!”

But the corporal remained on the landing, glancing back over his shoulder at the stairs. As Taziri pulled Ghanima up over the lip of the hatch, Kenan stepped out onto the ladder and yelled, “Go!”

A man’s head appeared at the top of the stairs. He squinted into the sunlight and shouted, “Hey, they’re taking off!”

“Taziri! Go-go-go!” Kenan kicked away from the railing and the rope ladder swung out from the lighthouse as two men dashed out onto the landing. One pulled a short knife from his sleeve while the other drew a gun. “Taziri! Go!”

She dashed to the cockpit to find that Ghanima was already in the pilot’s seat and wrestling with the controls. The young aviator threw a frown over her shoulder. “What is this? It’s all different from the Crake.”

“Move!” Taziri slid into the seat and shoved the throttle forward as the propellers flipped over to thrust down and away from the lighthouse tower. She peered down through the window by her feet to get a glimpse of the corporal, but the ladder swung out of view. “Ghanima, take over. Just hold the flight stick steady and get us into open air. Don’t touch anything else.”

The young pilot took back the seat with an anxious nod. Taziri ran back to the open hatch, noting that the doctor was sitting in the far corner with both hands clutching the handrail by his shoulder. The Hellan’s boot rested on the still-soaking shoulder of the unconscious man on the floor.

Looking down the ladder, Taziri saw they were still perilously close to the tower as the Halcyon ’s engine battled with a light breeze coming in off the sea. The brute with the gun leaned far over the railing trying to grab Kenan’s legs while his friend slashed at the empty air, trying to skewer the dangling marshal.

“Hold on,” said Ghanima. “I’m going to try something.” Halcyon juddered and shook, throwing Taziri to her knees and she grabbed a rail to stop herself from falling out the open hatch. The deck tilted suddenly as the airship began nosing up and Taziri saw the harbor master’s office falling away faster and faster. The rope ladder swung wide and Kenan swung with it toward the great glass eye of the lighthouse lantern. He kicked one of the men on the landing as he crashed into the stone wall beside the lantern and the second man leapt up to grab Kenan’s feet. The marshal yelped and fell several feet before he wrapped both arms around the bottom rung. As the airship rose, the two men rose with it. Kenan shrieked as he was dragged up across the jagged roof tiles and the man hanging on his leg lost his grip and fell back to the landing. Taziri winced as she watched the marshal’s shoulder crash into the flag pole at the top of the roof, and then they were free in the open air.

“Oh no, his arm. He can’t climb!” Taziri fumbled for the winch rope, yanking it free and hurling it down beside the ladder. For a moment, Kenan looked up and she saw how little was left in him. His eyes couldn’t quite focus and his mouth hung open, gasping for breath. As he reached for the winch cable, Taziri almost thought he would fall, but Kenan jammed the cable hook into his belt. She hit the winch switch and the marshal flew up into the hatch. He rolled into the cabin and Taziri slammed the hatch shut with the ladder still dangling outside. “Doctor!”

Evander grunted and knelt at Kenan’s side with his black bag. Taziri got out of his way, hesitated, then went up to the cockpit. “Ghanima, let me take over. Help the doctor. And get the ladder up.”

“Right.” The pilot moved aside and gestured at the switchboard. “You’re going to have to tell me what all this does sometime.”

Taziri took the controls and glanced up at the mirror where she saw the doctor and Ghanima bent over Kenan. Ghanima held Kenan steady and Evander pulled on the soldier’s arm. Kenan gasped and groaned as his shoulder shifted and popped back where it belonged, and then he fell quiet as the doctor fabricated a sling out of bandages.

With restless feet on the pedals and anxious fingers drumming on the throttles, Taziri waited for the marshal to sit up. Through the windows, she saw the harbor waters glittering blue and white around the gray and brown shapes of boats. “Are you all right back there?”

Kenan grunted and nodded.

“Well, we’re going to need a plan, and fast. The major is still down there somewhere, and those two heavies may be looking for him right now. What do we do?”

Kenan-in-the-mirror shook his sweaty head. “I don’t know.”

“Kenan, we have no time.” Taziri looked back over her shoulder. “The major is in danger every minute that we’re up here and he’s outnumbered down there. You said you just left him, so where is he? Where did he go?”

Ghanima slipped into the cockpit and sat down beside her. “We left him near the ferry. He said he was going to check the ships.”

“The ferry.” Taziri unbalanced the throttles and the Halcyon spun a long and lazy half-circle. The view of the harbor below rotated to reveal the lighthouse, the pier, and the empty slip beside it. “Where is it?”

“There!” Ghanima pointed across the water to the far side of the harbor, where the white bulk of the ferry was slowly churning its way into the mouth of the Bou Regreg River heading toward the Zemmour Canal.

“Well, that’s just perfect,” Taziri said. “So either he’s still wandering the docks, or he’s sailing inland, or he’s somewhere else entirely.”

“I think we should go back to Tingis and tell the marshals. Let them figure it out.” Ghanima raised her hands in a helpless gesture. “We’re just pilots. They should have a whole team of marshals and police officers tracking down the ambassador and the major. We should get out of this mess.”

“There’s nothing I’d like more,” Taziri muttered. Menna. Yuba. Isoke. My arm. So many reasons. “Which is why this is so hard to do.” She turned the propellers up and eased the throttles forward, driving the ship down.

“What are you doing?” Ghanima rose from her seat, eyes darting from window to window. “We can’t land there!”

“Of course we can. We shouldn’t. We really, really shouldn’t. But we can.” Taziri watched the shapes below resolve from toys into ships and the ants evolve into women and men. Directly below them, a slender brown finger sharpened into the broad wooden pier where dozens of people, many brandishing fishing poles, were pointing upward or jogging back toward the street. In the center of the pier a ring of bizarre figures became a carousel of tiny wooden sailboats and airships rotating around a central engine, all dressed in waving flags and painted in garish blues, yellows, and reds.

The propellers flipped back down and the Halcyon roared, cavitating violently as the engines chewed through their own downwash, and then the tires thumped down on the pier, which creaked and groaned beneath them.

Taziri winced at the noise. “Now we just need to hold still for a bit without breaking the pier and falling into the water. How about it? Think you’re up for a little parking management?”

Ghanima nodded and quickly took the pilot’s seat as Taziri slipped back into the cabin and spun the hatch wheel to unlock it. “Kenan, I think I might need that gun of yours again. May I?”

The marshal paused, his eyes fixed on the hatch, his hand resting on his holster. With a sigh, he came to life again and pulled out the revolver. “Keep it out of sight, if you can.”

“That’s the plan.” Taziri shoved the gun into her jacket’s inner pocket and ducked out the hatch onto the pier. There was no one nearby, only a few fish in a bucket beside an abandoned net and pole. She jogged up the pier toward the shore, toward the small crowd of gawkers gathered at the edge of the street near the harbor master’s office. As Taziri neared them she scanned their faces, young and old, light and dark, hair and hats and…there they were. Two men shouldering their way through the crowd. The two heavies from the lighthouse, the same pair from the airfield a few hours earlier.

For a brief moment, their eyes met. Then the two men pushed out of the crowd and strode down the pier.

Taziri stopped just beside the carousel, her hand going to the metallic lump inside her jacket. Her mind raced for options as her gaze came to rest on the little wooden airship on the carousel beside her and she frowned. The toy’s design was all wrong, distorted to create a space for a child to sit in the middle of the balloon.

The heavies reached the far side of the empty amusement ride, their weapons held low. They were muttering to each other.

Taziri closed her hand around the gun in her pocket. “Are you working for Ambassador Chaou?”

The men snorted and exchanged another look. “A little slow, aren’t you?” The taller one shouted over the low huffing of the carousel engine.

“So it is her.” Taziri called back, “Where is Major Zidane?”

“Is that what you came back for?” The shorter one with the gun shook his head. “God, Medur must really hate you by now. Coming back for a Redcoat. How stupid are you? You got away, and then you came straight back here for him?” He grinned. “Girl, you are just begging for a bullet.”

“Where is he?” Taziri thumbed the revolver’s hammer.

The two men sauntered around the carousel. The tall one with the knife called out, “I think he’s a few miles back that way.” He pointed at the canal. “Don’t worry. Chaou will keep him company. In fact, she sent us to keep you company, too.”

That little old woman is holding the major? That’s ridiculous, unless… “Is Zidane still alive?”

“Chaou’s got him.” The tall one shrugged. “That little bitch is pretty tough, what with that thing in her arm. I bet she’s zapped the marshal a dozen times by now.”

“Zapped? You mean electrocuted?” Taziri’s mind raced as the fragments of conversation slowly fell into place together.

Wait, what did Hamuy say about Chaou? The doctor did something to her, and it’s in her arm. And it’s something that can electrocute a man as large as the major? A powerful electrical device housed inside a human body. The voltage needed to injure a person would require far more energy than could be stored in any conventional battery. She felt her stomach plummeting into oblivion and her numb fingers suddenly felt cold. She could only come up with one explanation.

“Yeah, she did it to me once.” The tall one winced. “Or twice.”

“Stop right there.” Taziri drew the revolver and leveled it at the two men. “Just get out of here. Walk away now or I start shooting.”

The knife man said, “Take it easy, flygirl. I think we both know you’re not going to shoot anyone. In fact, I’ll bet that’s the first time you’ve ever held a gun, isn’t it?”

“Actually, it’s the second.” Taziri swung the weapon to the center of the carousel and started firing. Bullets pinged and thumped against the engine, and one of them burst the oil pan into a small fireball, and another shot ruptured the boiler. The metal barrel tore apart and a roaring gust of steam rushed out directly into the rising curtain of flaming oil. The burning wave swept across the carousel, igniting the rotating dais and all of the tiny wooden ships on its rim.

The men’s eyes went wide as the crimson flare painted their faces in red and yellow. They dove over the railing to plummet into the harbor below as the flaming thunderhead rolled across the pier and set fire to the rail. Taziri threw up an arm to shield her face from the heat as she stumbled back down the pier. She paused to watch the little wooden airships crackle and snap, bathed in flames and spitting cinders. Then she put the gun away and jogged back to the Halcyon.

She leapt into the cabin, ignoring Kenan’s demands for his gun and the doctor’s mad sputtering in Hellan. Taziri crossed the cabin and put her boot on Hamuy’s crusty black hand. “You said before that they did something to Chaou. They put something electrical in her, didn’t they? When did they put it in her? When? ”

Hamuy grimaced and looked up through heavy lids. His face shone with sweat and his eyes twitched. “Four or five years back, maybe?”

Taziri straightened up and backed away. Without looking at the marshal, she handed back the warm revolver. In the cockpit, she took the pilot’s seat and slowly draped her scarf across her face as she took the controls.

“Taziri?” Ghanima leaned over her shoulder. “What was that all about? What does it mean?”

“It means this is my fault and I have to fix it.” She shoved the throttles forward and the Halcyon rose off the pier to the very soft droning of its propellers. The view spun quickly to the left as they turned toward the walled canal. Taziri kept her eyes on her instruments. The view below shifted slowly from the sparkling blue of the harbor to the gray tiled roofs of the city to the green fields that lined the canal, while above them a white sun baked the sky into a vast and colorless expanse.

Ghanima tapped softly on the engineer’s console. “How exactly is this your fault?”

“Not everything.” Taziri tensed. “Or maybe everything. I don’t know. But the major is in danger because of me.”

“All right. And that has something to do with the shock gizmo in Chaou’s hand, I get that. But what does that have to do with you, exactly?”

“To incapacitate a big gorilla like Zidane, you would need a huge shock. So that device must have a high-capacity battery.” Taziri swallowed. “And the only person who’s published a design for a high-capacity battery in the last five years is me.”

“What? How do you know?”

“You don’t follow the journals, do you?” Taziri frowned and ran her tongue around her teeth. “Do you know what happened to the Silver Shearwater?”

“It exploded over the Tingis harbor. Some sort of engine problem.”

She smiled sadly. Close enough. “I was just finishing school when it happened. I was studying electrical engineering. For my final thesis, I wrote a paper proposing a new type of high-capacity battery design. It got shouted down in the journals by several big names at the university, but a few weeks later I got a letter from Isoke Geroubi, captain of what was left of the Shearwater. She read my paper and wanted me on the team rebuilding her ship. After the primary construction was complete, she dismissed the rest of the crew, and she and I built the engine by ourselves.”

Ghanima shook her head. “Why would she want an electrician? I mean, no offense, but there isn’t that much in the way of electrics on a…” She snapped around to stare at the outline of the engine behind the cabin, and then slowly turned back to look at her. “What did you do?”

Taziri said, “We perfected my battery idea. It wasn’t cheap, but it turned out to be fairly easy. The new battery provides enough power to drive the electric motors on the propellers for days.” She cleared her throat. “It works. No dangerous boiler, no waiting for it to heat up. Instant acceleration, high torque. And with a large array of solar sheets on the top of the balloon, you can charge the battery all day long and fly forever without landing.”

Ghanima pointed to the back. “But you do have a boiler. It’s too small, but it’s right there.”

Taziri shook her head. “That’s just a decoy for the safety inspectors. Although, we did realize that we can use the turbine as an emergency generator to recharge the battery in a pinch. So it’s not completely useless. But there’s no water in it right now. Too much weight.”

“And you’ve been keeping it a secret this whole time? Why?”

“It was all part of Isoke’s plan. After the Shearwater disaster, she wanted to make airships safer by getting rid of the whole steam engine. But since the Air Corps wanted to downplay any talk about airships being dangerous, no one in the Corps was willing to help her. Politics. So she went outside the bureaucracy and recruited me. In fact, she was the only person who thought my battery might work. Isoke thought they might pay attention to the idea if we proved it, so we were going to keep the Halcyon ’s engine a secret at first, and then after a few years we would unveil it as a proven prototype with thousands of hours of flight time. No one would be able to question our track record,” Taziri said. “We just needed another few months. She was so excited about it. She was working on a speech for the big unveiling.”

Ghanima nodded slowly and cast her a few brief, uncomfortable glances. “I’m sorry. I don’t know her, but…I’m sorry. I hope she’s all right. At least she was right about the idea. I mean, the Halcyon works, right? You can still unveil it and change the Air Corps.” She rattled her orange flight jacket. “And if the engine can’t explode, then maybe we can stop wearing all this heavy armor, right?”

Taziri smiled again briefly. Smiling felt wrong when talking about Isoke. Her throat began to ache. “I don’t know, I haven’t had time to think about it. But one way or another, the secret’s going to come out when a new captain is assigned to the Halcyon. I mean, if. If she’s not-you know, it doesn’t really matter right now.”

“Right.” Ghanima sighed and picked at an old oil spot on her trousers. “And Chaou?”

“Yeah,” Taziri said. “Well, I guess Isoke wasn’t the only one who took my battery idea seriously.”

“So you think someone put your battery inside Chaou so she can electrocute people?”

Taziri grimaced. “Apparently. The timing is right, five years ago. And they also put that armor in Hamuy. It’s got to be some sort of coated metal to not get infected under the skin. How much would you bet they found the idea for that coating in the journals, too?”

“Yeah, but if these are such great inventions, then how come there aren’t high-capacity batteries and armored soldiers all over the place?”

“My battery got shot down in all the journals.” Taziri chewed her lip. “Or was it? New stuff gets refuted in the journals all the time, but what if these people go around publicly discrediting new ideas so they can privately control the actual inventions for themselves?”

“Maybe, but why? Who is ‘they’? And what do they want?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Taziri said. “We need to get to the major, and then we need to find the doctor performing these operations. Hamuy mentioned an Espani called Medina in Arafez. That’s where we start.”

“So we’re not going back to Tingis?” Ghanima pouted.

“So we’re not going on to Orossa?” Evander glared.

Chapter 14. Qhora

As the sun reached its zenith, Qhora began to finally feel some faint heat creeping in through her feathered cloak and Espani dress. The warmth cradled her, breathing life into her flesh, life she had almost forgotten in the frozen fortresses and churches of Espana. She felt like standing and stretching and running, or at the very least casting off her garments to bathe in the sun. But she couldn’t remove her dress now, and she wouldn’t remove her cloak and be mistaken for an Espani, so she sat in her soft saddle atop her beautiful Wayra and silently prayed to Inti that his heavenly fires would never die.

The Mazigh highway bored her. There were no forests, no rivers, no flocks of colorful birds, no screaming troupes of monkeys, no ponderous ground sloths lumbering through the jungles, no giant armadillos huddled at the waters’ edge, and not a hint of civilization. In the Empire, one could not travel a thousand paces without seeing a shrine festooned with flowers, or an ancient stone monument to some wise sage, or at least a traveler’s marker to tell the distance from one place to another. Lorenzo claimed he could see farms on the distant eastern hills, but here, caught between the towering Atlas Mountains and the restless Atlanteen Ocean, there was nothing but the dead gravel road and the dead metal rails lying in the sun-baked plains.

“We should stop to eat, Enzo,” she said. “Wayra needs a rest.”

“As you wish.” Lorenzo headed back to the wagon.

A high-pitched whistle pierced the stillness of the plain, a steam-powered shriek that echoed across the vast sea of grass. Qhora peered into the distance and saw the black blot on the horizon, just to her right where the two steel rails converged at the bottom of the sky. “Enzo, it looks like we’ll finally get to see one of these trains of theirs after all.”

The hidalgo frowned. “I suppose so. Although, I hadn’t expected to see one here. I assumed they would telegraph the other cities and tell the trains not to come to Tingis with the station and rails destroyed. Clearly, I was wrong.”

“That’s not a crime. Being wrong.” Qhora smiled at him and then turned to watch the distant black dot grow larger and sharper, white steam streaming above it as the clickety-clack of its wheels echoed off the cloudless sky. Wayra swayed beneath her, squawking and hissing at the machine huffing toward them. Qhora patted the hatun-anka’s neck. “Shh, girl. Steady.”

The clopping of hooves told her that Enzo was not preparing her food. “Is there a problem?” she asked without turning.

“Yes.” He drew up beside her again and pointed at the approaching train. “Well, maybe. It’s not a whole train. Only an engine.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Why would Arafez send a single engine to Tingis? I would expect a train full of materials to repair the station, or maybe food, or even soldiers. But why just an engine?”

Qhora didn’t care about the engine. But she saw the anxiety in the young Espani’s eyes and heard the iron creeping into his voice. Over the last year she had all but forgotten who he had been when they first met. Lorenzo Quesada had come to her country full of passion and joy, his tiny whip of a sword as devastating as lightning. He had been loud and brash, his eyes bright, his lips eager to smile, a young man with the sun in his blood. But then they had returned to his homeland, a colorless wasteland of ice and snow where the only sounds were the howls of the wind and wolves.

The Silver Prince had bestowed on him the rank of hidalgo, which had seemed grander before she learned it brought no wealth or lands, only an empty title and exemption from the Prince’s taxes. But that was when the light went out of him. Thereafter, she had promenaded for Enzo’s gaunt and grim courts, and sat through the endless sermons of his dismal priests, and eaten his tasteless food. And all the while, she had seen him retreat into a quiet and colorless shell of a man, old before his time, a passionless servant who whispered to ghosts and despaired at the cruel realities of the world. Injustices that once drove him to great deeds now drove him into dark church corners to light candles and mutter to his three-faced god.

“Enzo, do you still love me?”

He swallowed. “I don’t think this is the time or place.”

She looked around. “We’re alone in the middle of nowhere with nothing else to do for the rest of the day. When would be a better time? Perhaps when we arrive in the capital. We can include the queen. What shall I say? Your Royal Highness, I, Lady Qhora Yupanqui of the Jisquntin Suyu Empire, cousin to His Imperial Highness Manco Inca, have ridden the length of your fine kingdom and killed many of your wretched subjects to bring you a birthday gift on behalf of His Excellency, Prince Argenti Valero of Espana. Behold these two young kirumichi hunting cats from my homeland. And may I introduce my escort, Don Lorenzo Quesada de Gadir, a renowned diestro and my lover of the past two years who has recently found religion and now refuses to share my bed. Have you any wisdom that might resolve our impasse, Your Highness?”

Qhora saw the shame in Lorenzo’s eyes just before he looked away. She almost apologized, but she was still angry enough to continue. “He won’t talk to me, except to mutter about his imaginary friend, Ariel, who was so holy and perfect when she was supposedly alive that now he can’t stand anything about his own life.”

“I meant…” Lorenzo broke off to clear his throat and steady his voice. “I meant, we should be more concerned with this engine and why it’s out here, alone.”

Nothing. He gives me nothing. Not even anger. His heart is as cold and dead as his country. She shrugged and turned away from him. “Perhaps we will see the reason when it passes.”

He nodded. “Or maybe we should move off the road until it passes.”

He’s terrified of everything now, even a little machine in the distance. “Is this your ghost talking again? Is she telling you that we need to hide from this engine?”

“No,” he whispered. “It’s too bright, too hot today. I can’t hear her or see her here. I wish I could.” He blinked and looked her in the eye, something he rarely dared now, though he had dared often enough in the beginning.

It’s time I stopped indulging his fears. She said, “No, Enzo, I’m not going to hide in a ditch. We will stay here and watch it pass. You will see. It’s nothing but a machine and a few men, not some unholy monster. And then we will eat.” Qhora folded her hands on her knee and sat as tall as she could.

Behind her, she knew Xiuhcoatl would be sitting just as calmly as she was. He may be old and he may not speak much, but at least I can rely on him. Wayra clucked and hissed, her huge head darting playfully at Enzo’s horse. The mare skittered back a few steps before the hidalgo got her under control. Qhora smiled a little. And at least I can rely on you, Wayra.

The steam engine was much closer now, close enough for her to see its black funnel and gray boiler, and the gleaming steel railings and fittings along its side. The clacking wheels measured out the seconds as the engine roared along, accompanied now by the deep puffing and chuffing of the steam. But just as the engine came near enough for her to see two faces staring back at her from the cab, there was a stutter in the rhythm. She was about to wave to them when she heard the clacking of the wheels and the huffing of the steam begin to slow. A series of short steely squeals burst from under the engine and Qhora saw the wheels locking and shuddering as the train decelerated.

“Qhora?” Lorenzo glanced at her.

She shook her head. “I’m sure they only want to ask for the news, or to see if we need any help. They’re just engineers, Enzo, not soldiers.”

The train squealed to a stop just a few yards from them and three men leapt out with long-barreled rifles in their hands.

Lorenzo’s espada appeared in his hand as if by magic but she reached out to catch the shoulder of his coat, and cried, “No, Enzo! They’ll shoot you!”

He looked at her, his eyes wide. “I don’t care if they do. Run, Qhora. Ride!”

Qhora yanked the man’s arm back and nudged Wayra sideways to drag the mare stumbling away from the side of the road. As Lorenzo shook himself free of her, she leaned over even farther and pulled from his belt the revolver he had taken from the soldiers that morning. She straightened up and got her fingers around the handle. This doesn’t look so hard. Just point the barrel and pull the trigger. She aimed for the center rifleman, still a dozen yards from the edge of the highway.

The man stumbled to a dead stop and held up his hands, clutching his rifle by the barrel. He shouted at her in Mazigh, but he spoke too fast and she couldn’t understand him. “Enzo?”

The hidalgo let his sword fall to his side and he slumped a bit in his saddle. “He says they are soldiers from Arafez. They were sent to escort us back to the city with them.” Lorenzo sheathed his sword. “Lady Sade sent them.”

Slowly, Qhora lowered the gun. Finally, some semblance of order in this country. Perhaps this Lady Sade is a person worth knowing. “Thank them for me, please.”

The three men jogged up the embankment to the road and shook hands with Lorenzo and saluted Qhora. Their leader spoke, this time slow enough for her to follow. “My lady, we have come to bring you to Arafez. If you will join us in the engine, we will be in the city shortly.” He gestured to the locomotive.

She flicked her eyes to the small cab where a sooty engineer was leaning against the railing. She said, “Sir, I thank you for your generous offer, but your engine cannot carry my guards, or my mount, or my gifts for the queen. I will not leave them behind. Please send your engine away. I will come to the city soon enough.” At least, that is what she meant to say. Qhora knew she had conjugated some of the verbs incorrectly and had probably mispronounced some other words as well. It was one thing to impress a foreigner by mastering his language and another thing entirely to appear an ignorant savage who garbles her words.

Better to let Enzo speak for me in the future. Better to appear aloof in my silence than stupid in my speech.

The soldier frowned. “You are certain, my lady?”

She nodded.

“Then we will send the engine back, but remain at your side to ensure your safety.” He snapped another salute and sent one of his men to tell the engineer he could leave. Moments later, the engine was huffing slowly back the way it had come and Enzo was preparing a cold lunch for her and her new guards.

The sergeant called himself Berkan, probably. It had sounded like Berkan, at any rate. His two privates introduced themselves too quickly for her to guess what their names might have been. So she nodded and smiled demurely and allowed Lorenzo to carry the conversation as they ate. A handful of oats went to the horses and a fistful of salted beef was tossed to Wayra, who snatched it out of the air and swallowed it whole. Minutes later their rest was over and Qhora climbed up onto Wayra’s shoulders. Berkan sat beside Xiuhcoatl, apparently unimpressed or unconcerned by the older man’s jaguar cloak or obsidian sword. The two privates climbed into the back of the wagon, discovered what was sleeping in the straw, and clambered up to the front to sit just behind their sergeant, both of them staring pale-faced at the great fanged cat snoring at their feet.

They had only been moving again for a quarter hour when a small rumble echoed across the plain. Qhora looked up, expecting to see dark clouds gathering on the horizon, but there were no thunderheads.

“There. What is that?” Lorenzo pointed to the south.

A small puff of black smoke rose from the sea of grass just to the right of the highway, and Qhora saw an angular jumble of brown shapes crouched beside the tracks and the road. Buildings? A town, out here in the middle of nowhere?

“The train?” Berkan called from the wagon. “Is it the train?”

“I think so,” Lorenzo answered. “The engineer may be hurt. I’ll go.” He lashed his mare into a gallop and dashed away down the dusty highway.

Qhora let Wayra carry her forward a few more paces before her curiosity overwhelmed her and she clucked the great eagle into a sprint. She heard the sergeant call out to her, but she couldn’t understand him and she knew he was only telling her not to go.

Wayra ran swiftly, but not as swiftly as Qhora knew she could run. She wondered if the poor bird had grown weaker after the long months in the cold Espani stable, but then she thought that the hard gravel road might be the real problem. With a nudge to the right side of the highway, Wayra leapt down the embankment, across the drainage ditch, and onto the grassy flat beside the railway. Now they began to sprint, to race the wind. Wayra dug her cruel talons into the soft earth and come as close to flying as she ever would. Qhora let the wind catch her hair and cloak and felt them flapping behind her. She wanted to tear the lace from her throat and the skirts from her legs and ride, ride, ride to the ends of the earth as she had as a little girl in the highlands of a faraway land where men tamed beasts instead of machines.

All too soon, the smoking remains of the engine appeared before her and she pulled Wayra back into a heavy-footed strut. To her left, she saw four long buildings rotting in the midday sun. The windows and doorways hung open and empty, revealing the long dusty hollows of the little market.

Perhaps the farmers in the hills once used this place to sell their produce to travelers or merchants on the road. How long have they stood empty like this?

They thumped through the tall grass toward the smoking wreckage and Wayra lowered her head, hissing. Lorenzo appeared at the edge of the road above them. He dismounted and ran down to stand beside her.

“Do you see him? The engineer?” Enzo jogged around the far side the engine to search.

Qhora let Wayra stalk forward slowly, picking her path carefully around the sharp bits of metal hiding in the grass and the boiling puddles that steamed in the mud.

She smells something. Is it the engineer? Is it blood?

The gray engine looked mostly intact except for the thin gashes in the boiler where the steaming water was trickling out. But as she approached the cab, the full extent of the damage was revealed. A second engine with a smaller black boiler had crashed into the gray locomotive. The black engine’s huge cow-catcher had split the back of the gray engine’s cab in half, peeling the steel open all the way up to the back of the boiler where the gauges and levers now stood nose to nose with the black engine’s head lamp.

The sooty-faced engineer lay slumped over the twisted metal rail, blood dripping from the tips of his outstretched fingers. Qhora whistled for Enzo and continued past the body along the black engine to a much larger cab where she found another unconscious engineer, two groaning men in pale yellow jackets, and a woman in a long white coat lying in the grass.


“The engineer is dead,” he called from the gray engine.

She nodded. Of course he is. That’s what happens to everyone in this country. Well, most of them. She pointed to the men in yellow who looked to be breathing. “These two survived.”

“Who?” He jogged up beside her, then climbed into the black engine’s cab to check on the motionless driver. “He’s dead, too.”

“Check the other men.” Wayra stalked past the engine toward the figure in white spread-eagled in the waving green grass. The woman had a prominent nose, sharp cheeks, wide lips, and a thick mane of black hair bound in a heavy braid. There was a dry and leathery texture to the lines around her mouth and eyes. Qhora decided to risk her broken Mazigh a bit more. “Hello? Are you alive?”

The woman twitched, her eyes fluttered, and she groaned.

Qhora frowned and looked back. Lorenzo was helping one of the men in yellow to sit up. On the road above them, the wagon rolled into view beside the deserted marketplace. Berkan and his soldiers jumped down from the wagon and trudged down the embankment toward the wreck. Qhora turned back to the woman in white and saw that her eyes were open. The woman’s hand darted into her coat as she sat up and a long thin knife caught the sun’s light.

This is getting tiresome. Qhora tore her dagger free of her belt and cried, “Enzo!”

Chapter 15. Lorenzo

Two bullets pinged off the gray engine’s boiler just above his head and Lorenzo ducked back again, clutching his slender sword in one hand and squinting at the wide expanse of grass that offered everywhere to run and nowhere to hide. He scrambled around the front of the engine across the railway tracks and looked up the embankment at the wagon standing in the shadow of the decaying marketplace. Berkan and his soldiers were crouched in the tall grass, rifles at their shoulders, firing carefully at the gunmen hiding in the black train engine. But Lorenzo could not see Xiuhcoatl or the huge fanged cat. And he couldn’t see Qhora.

After a burst of rifle fire, the hidalgo leapt from his hiding place, dashed across the grass, and threw himself down into the dusty drainage ditch a moment later. He paused to catch his breath and listen to the guns bark and crack, the sounds echoing off the pale and cloudless sky. Peering out through the grass, he could just barely see the two gunmen hiding in the cab of the black engine.

It had all happened so fast. The men in yellow woke up. The woman in white woke up. Shouting. Guns. Knives. Running. There hadn’t been a moment to speak or even to think, only time enough to run away and hide, and to listen to the pounding of his own heart.

These are no desperados. These aren’t thieves or even murderers. No common criminal could have taken a train engine from Arafez. No, they’re something else. Mercenaries. Assassins. Someone wants us dead. Someone wants Qhora dead.

He sheathed his sword and scrambled up the slope to the gravel road and then dashed behind the rotting remains of the market plaza. Berkan shouted at his men, and through a crack in the wooden wall Lorenzo watched the soldiers crawl forward down the embankment toward the engine and the men in yellow.

“Qhora?” He scanned the dusty yard between the abandoned buildings, but there was no sign of life. Drawing his espada once more, he crossed the square and began skirting each stable and stall, looking for footprints and listening for footfalls.

She has to be here somewhere. Somewhere close. Dear God, let her be alive.

A man shouted off to the right and Lorenzo ran in that direction. It was Xiuhcoatl’s shout, one the hidalgo had heard before in the New World on the killing fields of Cartagena. He rounded the last market stall and saw the old Aztec slashing his obsidian sword at a tall woman in white. The woman danced back and forth, easily slipping beyond the macuahuitl’s reach. She held a stiletto in each hand, one by the handle and the other by the blade.

Beyond the fighters, Lorenzo saw Lady Qhora mounted on Wayra with the revolver in her hand. She was aiming at the woman in white, but every few seconds she would put her hand down and shout at Xiuhcoatl in Quechua, “Move! Get away from her!”

Lorenzo jogged out from the shadows into the bright afternoon sun with his espada at the ready, and he yelled, “My lady! Don’t shoot!”

He saw her frown at him, but to his relief she lowered the gun into her lap.

Then Xiuhcoatl screamed and Lorenzo saw the thin dagger buried in his throat. He dashed forward even faster. No! When did that happen? How is that possible? The old warrior clutched at his neck with one hand as he tried to swing his heavy sword in the other. He staggered off balance, gurgling, blood streaming from his mouth.

“No!” Qhora kicked her mount into a sprint. With an eagle’s piercing scream, Wayra darted toward the woman in white.

“Qhora, no!” Lorenzo raced toward the killer. “You! Don’t you touch her!”

The stranger drew another stiletto from her belt to replace the one in Xiuhcoatl’s neck and she pointed both blades at him. Lorenzo gauged the distance between them, measuring it out in paces and lunges, in circles of attack, and at the last moment he slid into a sideways stance and thrust his espada at the woman in white. He snaked his left hand around his back to grab at his long black coat and pull it up and away from his legs in a flourish of wool and fox fur. The woman whirled back, dropping her hands to her sides as her heavy black braid and long white coat swirled around her slender figure.

A deep snarling and growling almost drew Lorenzo’s attention, but he remained focused on his opponent. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lady Qhora turn and look in the direction of the trains. “Atoq is among them. It will be over in a moment,” she said.

From the same direction, a man cried out, “Shifrah! Shifrah!” And then his words dissolved into screams, which cut off suddenly, leaving them in silence.

The woman in white flinched at the man’s cries. She shook her head and smirked at Lorenzo. “You’re an Espani diestro, aren’t you?”

“Si, senora.” He nodded curtly. She’s from the east and she’s familiar with professional swordplay. She’ll be more dangerous than any Mazigh soldier. “Have you studied destreza?”

“In Rome, I met a man who fights with a small sword. He taught me a few things. In Italia, they call him some sort of genius with a blade,” she said. “And I admit, his small sword was more impressive than his small sword.”

“Did this man have a name?” he asked. Don’t say Capoferro. Please, God, don’t say Ridolfo Capoferro. Any name but his.

“Fabris. Salvator Fabris.”

Oh, dear God. Lorenzo swallowed. Ridolfo would have been a blessing. If she was trained by Salvator Fabris, then I am a dead man.

The woman lunged at him, swiping at his blade with her knives to close the distance and come inside his striking range. The sight of her flashing hands and weapons emptied his mind of everything he had ever learned. All he could think was:

Salvator Fabris trains princes and generals. Salvator Fabris once slaughtered twelve diestros in a quarter of an hour. Salvator Fabris is the Supreme Knight of the Order of the Seven Hearts. I am a dead man.

“Enzo!” Qhora shouted.

He blinked.

But she is not Salvator Fabris.

Lorenzo slashed at the woman’s hands, pricking the soft olive blurs between the bright steel and the white coat. Splashes of red spattered her sleeves and the sun-scorched grass at their feet. His eyes never left her eyes as he pressed his advantage, driving her back, striding forward with the tail of his coat draped over the crook of his left arm and his sword-hand barely moving at all as the blade leapt like a viper at his command. The woman flinched, grunted and winced, and finally turned to dash back. One of her knives thumped in the dust as she clutched her bleeding hands.

“Do you yield?” Lorenzo asked. His sword arm felt light and fluid, as though the blade itself longed to strike her again and again. He dropped the point of his espada to the ground and let his coat tails fall free behind him to cool his blood and clear his mind.

The woman clutched her hands for a moment, her chest heaving as she struggled to catch her breath. She glanced up at the princess on the huge striding bird monster, and then back at the man holding a sword dripping with her blood. She ran.

Lorenzo watched her plunge into the tall grasses and disappear around the far corner of one of the market stalls. A thump drew his gaze back to the right and he saw Qhora kneeling over Xiuhcoatl. The Aztec lay still, his lips bloody and cracked, his eyes glassy and vacant.

The hidalgo pulled a cloth from his pocket to clean his blade before he sheathed it. He walked slowly to Qhora’s side and said, “I’m sorry, my love. He deserved better. I should have been faster.”

“No. He died fighting. It was what he wanted.” She closed his eyes and stood up. “This death will carry him to paradise. His paradise.” Qhora turned and walked away to look out over the trains. “It’s over. Atoq and Berkan have the engine. Burn his body. Now, please.”

Lorenzo stared after her. Is that all? Is that all you have to say over the body of a man who lived and died at your side? A man who followed you half way around the world, who gave up his people, his country, his gods, even his language to stand by you, to put his flesh between you and death countless times?

He swallowed and stared down at the weathered face lying still in the dust. His own reflection stared up from the dark pool of blood under the man’s head. Lorenzo nodded to himself. Then that’s all there is. He gathered dry planks from the marketplace and fistfuls of dead grass and soon had a small pyre built on the bare earth. He dragged the body onto the rough frame, placed the cruel macuahuitl in the older man’s hands, and draped the jaguar cloak over Xiuhcoatl’s head and chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the body, clutching the triquetra medallion around his neck. “I’m sorry I was not a better friend to you. Alone and friendless in a foreign land. I should have done more. There was always an excuse not to, some petty selfish reason to be busy, to be elsewhere. You deserved better. You were brave and faithful, and you died alone on the far side of the world with no one to say your own prayers over you. May you find better friends and fairer paths in the next world. Rest in peace. In the name of the Father, the Mother, and the Son. Amen.”

When the grass and wood was burning brightly, Lorenzo stalked warily around the empty stalls and stables in search of the woman in white, but her trail was masked by the waving grasses and there was no sign of her in or around the marketplace. The hidalgo stared out across the plains, knowing full well that the woman was still alive and still nearby. But if she really did study with Fabris, then perhaps she was wise enough to know when to fight and when to run.

The hidalgo returned to the black train where Wayra and Atoq were feeding on the men in yellow jackets, who lay in bloody pieces on the grass. He averted his eyes and helped Berkan to stand up. The sergeant had been shot in the shoulder, but seemed well enough otherwise. His two privates lay a few feet away, each with several bullets in their chests.

Lady Qhora stood in the cab of the black engine, studying the pressure valves and hand levers. “We can’t risk the highway any longer. Can we use this machine?”

Sergeant Berkan nodded and climbed up beside her with his one good arm. “Everything looks all right. I think the cow-catcher took the brunt of the collision. Here. If we can just get the pressure back up above the green line, we just change gears and release the brake, and we’ll be in Arafez in an hour or two.”

“Excellent. Enzo, please build up the fire, and then bring down the cages with the cubs. We’ll let Wayra and Atoq follow on their own. And turn the horses loose.” She waved him toward the shovel in the coal hopper. “Please.”

Lorenzo nodded slowly. She keeps saying “please.” She never says that. She’s grasping for help, for friends, for anything certain. And now Xiuhcoatl is gone. She must be feeling so alone and uncertain, and it’s my fault. My fault that I can’t decide what to do with my life. It’s not fair to her. Do I love her enough to let her go? Or do I love her so much I can’t live without her? Where is a priest or a ghost when you need one?

He took his place between the coal and the firebox, and bent to pick up the filthy shovel. “Yes, my lady.”

After enough shoveling to make his back ache and to send sweat pouring down his face, the hidalgo closed the firebox and trudged up the embankment to the wagon. He loosed the horses and hauled the two cages out of the bed. With a satchel of food slung over his shoulder, Lorenzo stumbled back down to the train with a cage in each hand. Berkan sat propped up against the hopper pointing out the various controls to the princess. Atoq lounged in the grass beside his kill, licking his teeth and yawning. Wayra strutted in the distance, clawing at the earth, whistling and squawking.

Lorenzo slid the caged cubs toward the sergeant and climbed up beside them. Berkan talked him through the steps to get the train moving and soon the black engine was huffing south toward Arafez. Lorenzo looked back at the marketplace one last time. Whoever you are, stay away from us. Please.

Chapter 16. Kella

Detective Kella Massi studied every detail of the work tables and bins of parts as she followed Lady Sade and her footman through the workshop. The front rooms had been orderly and sterile, almost resembling a hospital, but here in the back she found a mechanical abattoir of wooden legs, tin hands, glass eyes, and iron bones. A young woman by the window paused in her work to curtsy to the Lady, and Kella saw that she was building a false leg. A very small false leg.

Lady Sade led them through a door and down a hall to the top of a stair that angled down into a shadowy cellar. At the bottom of the stair was a narrow hall past several narrow store rooms behind leather curtains and ending in a massive door bound in iron. A small light bulb fizzled above the door, casting the portal in muted golds and browns. The footman stood to one side, a cage in his hand, a large cat in the cage.

“This is our private facility,” Lady Sade said. “Doctor Medina conducts some rather sensitive experiments here. Her work is taking us in leaps and bounds toward keeping our workforce working. The next generation of prosthetic limbs will be far more than peg-legs and hooks. Doctor Medina is creating mechanical hands and feet that move and grasp just like ones of flesh and blood.”

Kella glanced at the grimy door beneath the flickering light bulb. “I see. And she’s doing this groundbreaking work alone down here in the cellar?”

“She is.” If the Lady heard the detective’s doubting tone, she overlooked it. “And for a good reason. These experiments are unpleasant. The doctor is working with animals at the moment, and there are more than a few people, some in high places, who would strenuously object. They would call it torture.”

“And what would you call it?” Kella tried to sound disinterested.

“Necessary.” Lady Sade remained impassive. “Hundreds of skilled men are maimed in every city in the country every year. Workers on the railroad, in the mines, in the factories, in the quarries. They’re exhausted, eyes bleary, arms weak, fingers clumsy. If we do not find better ways to keep them working, then the number of poor, hungry, and homeless will continue to rise. And frankly, I do not wish to govern a city of cripples and vagrants any more than they want to be cripples and vagrants.”

That almost sounds sincere. Kella said, “So I can expect people to be reporting Doctor Medina for cruelty to animals or something along those lines. How would you like me to handle these complaints?”

“The same way that you handle all of my personal business. With discretion.” She tapped on the door. A moment later the lock clicked and the door swung in on silent, oiled hinges.

The woman inside bowed her head slightly. She was shorter than the Lady, shorter than Kella even, but much heavier. Her jet black hair was twisted up in a clumsy bun on top of her head, and a heavy leather apron hung like a solid column around her. “Lady Sade, it is a pleasure as always. Please, come in.”

Kella followed them into the laboratory, trying not to grimace too deeply at the smell of feces and urine, the slight stickiness of the stone floor, and the terrified squeals and hisses of tiny things in cages. And others not so tiny. Only the center of the room was well-lit and there she saw a large metal table, two stools, and a wheeled tray bearing small knives and needles that glinted in the light.

To her right she saw the bars and corners of the cages, half lost in shadows. Wings fluttered and forked tongues hissed. Small furred creatures whined and yipped. One very large cage in the back caught her eye and she saw an enormous shelled body shuffling in the dark and a heavy clubbed tail banged against the bars. To her left she noted a clutter of machines, great steel and brass cogs and leathery bellows, tubes and wires, vials and jars filled with bubbling fluids, and the faint buzz of electricity. But the machines were tucked back into the shadows, just as the cages were, and Kella couldn’t tell exactly what she was looking at. None of this looks all that dangerous. At the very least, they’re not building guns down here. Maybe this place is legitimate after all. Just disgusting.

The doctor smiled and wiped her hands on her stained smock. “My lady, I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

Lady Sade shifted into a lightly accented Espani, and Kella had to concentrate to follow the rest of the conversation but her self-taught Espani proved adequate. Sade said, “I know, but there’s been a development. We’ll need to adjust your work schedule, doctor.” Lady Sade gestured and her footman stepped forward to place the cage on the table. The white and gray cat cowered in the back corner away from the light.

Kella watched the two speaking. That’s pretty vague and awkward language. What aren’t they saying? And why am I here if they don’t feel comfortable talking openly in front of me?

“Of course, my lady.” Doctor Medina glanced at the cage. “I must point out, it’s quite a bit smaller than the other one. An Espani lynx, is it?”

“It is. And I know. Prepare it the same as the other.”

“Certainly. The same delivery date?”

“No,” Lady Sade said. “Tomorrow evening.”

The doctor hesitated and for the first time betrayed a moment of uncertainty. But she nodded and forced a smile. “Yes, my lady.”

Switching back to Mazigh, Lady Sade said, “And this is a new acquaintance of mine, Detective Kella Massi of the third district police. I thought you two should meet, just in case your paths cross again in the future.”

“Of course. A pleasure, detective.” Medina shook her hand. “Although, I hope we won’t be meeting too often in our professional capacities.”

“We can both hope.” Kella forced a smile.

“I also wanted both of you together to inform you of another problem. I’m sure you’re both aware of the attack on the train station in Tingis last night. Clearly a pastoralist attack,” Lady Sade said. “And later that same night, police officers found two men dead just a few streets away from the station. One appeared to have been mauled by a large animal. An officer said he saw several foreigners with a large dog at the station shortly after the explosion. These pastoralists could be on the move, detective. I’d like you to keep an eye out for any unusual faces in the district this week. It would be particularly terrible if they were to damage this facility or harm the good doctor here. I need her in one piece.” Lady Sade smiled. “We all do.”

“If these pastoralists do show up, it shouldn’t be too hard to spot them. We don’t have too many man-eating dogs in Arafez right now,” Kella said dryly.

“Very good. Well, doctor, I’ll leave you to this.” Lady Sade nodded at the caged lynx on the table. “Detective, if you’ll walk out with me, I have a friend to meet at the North Station.”

Kella nodded and glanced at the small brass clock on the far wall. The North Station? But all trains to Tingis were cancelled today. Unless she’s running a private line?

The detective studied the Lady’s back as they climbed the stairs back up to the warmer air on the ground floor and passed through the back workroom again.

Sade isn’t stupid. Is she feeding me information on purpose? Does she expect me to investigate this doctor, or the Tingis attack, or her friend at the train station? No.

Kella almost stopped when she realized.

She’s testing me. She doesn’t trust me, so she’s taunting me with coded conversations and shady business partners. And I’ll bet that any investigation into her business will end in a dark alley and a bullet in the back of my head.

Outside the prosthetics shop, Kella watched Lady Sade step up into a small coach of oiled teak and polished brass drawn by a massive spotted sivathera. The young woman atop the carriage shook the reins, the long-necked beast dipped its huge antlers, and the coach quickly rolled away down the street. Kella frowned at the enormous steaming pile in the road where the coach had waited, and she turned to join the foot traffic in the opposite direction.

Well, I guess that leaves me with three career-ending options, she thought. After all, anyone crass enough to drive through a working-class neighborhood with a sivathera is just begging for trouble. What sort of woman would I be if I didn’t oblige her?

It was a short walk back to the police station past the lines of people waiting outside the temple for a bowl of stew and a crust of bread, and past the lines of people waiting outside the offices of Othmani Mills for a job smelting brass or weaving cloth. The station house was unusually quiet when she arrived and Kella sat at her desk, staring at her ink-stained blotter and half-chewed pencils.

The man at the next desk said, “Hey Kella, how’d your meeting go?”

“Hey Usem,” she said. “It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.”

“What’s that mean? She wants to pay you under the table for a little private security work?” Usem shrugged. “They’re all like that. I say, take the money and slack off on whatever she wants done. She’ll cut you loose after a few weeks and you walk away with a clear conscience and a pocket full of change.”

Kella raised an eyebrow. “I’m going to overlook how quickly you came up with that little nugget of advice. Just tell the captain that I may not be around for a few days. I’ve got to go keep an eye on a few people of interest.”

“Alone? All right.” Usem shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “Just watch your ass out there. You know what happened to last person who signed up to do odd jobs for Lady Sade.”

“Yeah, I know.” Kella grinned. “That’s why I volunteered for this.”

Chapter 17. Qhora

The first thing that Qhora noticed as they approached the North Station in Arafez was the huge animal standing in the street below the platform. Its shoulders bulged at the base of its long neck, and a knobby rack of antlers crowned its broad skull. Large brown spots covered its tawny hide, and the black harness belted around its belly glistened with fresh oil and polished brass studs. The coach behind the creature appeared just as costly as the harness and tack, though the driver perched atop the coach did not appear very pleased to be seated on it.

Finally, a touch of civilization, she thought.

As the little black engine chuffed and squealed into the station, Qhora noted the tall woman standing on the platform watching them pull in. She wore an elaborately wrapped dress of blue and green layers with a gold chain belt, gold bracelets, and gold bands in her billowing mane of brown and red hair. A young man in a blue suit stood behind her in the stiff pose and vacant expression that Qhora found common to all servants. She glanced at the soldier at her feet and asked, “Berkan?”

The soldier, still sitting on the floor of the cab, craned his neck around to look out. “It’s Lady Sade. I suppose she’s come to greet you, my lady. I think you’ll be staying with her tonight.”

Qhora nodded. At last, a friend. Someone who understands the proper exercise of power. Someone who understands the order of things. “Very good. Enzo, please bring the cubs. After we are settled, you’ll need to come back here to the edge of the city to wait for Wayra and Atoq and bring them to the Lady’s home.” She turned to look into his eyes. “Please.”

The hidalgo inclined his head, his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat.

For a moment she considered reaching out to him, touching his arm, his hand. Maybe look into his eyes to try to see what was going on in that head of his. He’s all I have left now, if I even have him at all anymore. I’ll need to find some time for him later. To apologize, at the very least. I can’t believe I said those things to him. To him!

When the train came to a full stop, Qhora stepped down and approached the tall woman as gracefully and demurely as any creature had ever moved. She smiled and bowed her head and in her clearest Mazigh said, “Good afternoon, Lady Sade.”

“Good afternoon, Lady Qhora.” Sade gestured to her servant and the young man stepped forward to help Lorenzo with the cages. She continued in Espani, “When I heard about the disaster in Tingis last night, I instantly thought of you and your precious gifts for our queen. I sent a telegram, but unfortunately by the time my messenger arrived at your hotel this morning you had already left, so I sent Sergeant Berkan to collect you in this engine. I’m sorry I was not able to arrange a passenger car as well, but there were none available on such short notice.”

“It was just fine. Thank you for your generosity.”

Lady Sade scanned the train behind the Incan princess. “I see only one of your servants and only one of my soldiers. Sergeant, you’re shot.” It was not an exclamation, merely a statement of fact.

“Yes, my lady.” Berkan stepped gingerly off the train and crossed the platform, clutching his arm to keep the weight off his shoulder. “A second engine crashed into ours shortly after we found Lady Qhora. Two men and a woman attacked us. They killed my men, and one of the Lady’s men, but I was able to subdue them, with some help.”

“My bodyguard fought the woman, but she escaped,” Qhora said. “I think we heard her name. What was it, Enzo?”

“Shifrah,” the hidalgo said.

“Unusual name,” Lady Sade said. “Well, Sergeant, I believe you should find your barracks physician as quickly as you are able. You have my heartfelt thanks for your valiant service today and my condolences on your losses. I’ll be certain to commend your performance to your commander when next I speak to him. Lady Qhora, you may join me in my coach. Your man may follow with my footman.”

Everyone bowed their heads and took the lady’s directions without comment. Qhora caught the tired but thoughtful look in Lorenzo’s eyes as he trudged past in silence with one of the caged cubs. Why won’t he look at me? He used to love looking at me.

She climbed into the coach and settled on the narrow velvet seat across from the governor of Arafez. The driver called out, “Yip yip!” and the huge spotted beast lowed in reply. A heavy hoof-step thundered through the floor boards as the coach jerked into motion. The vehicle shook and bounced as it rolled up and down the cobbled streets and only a sliver of light penetrated the velvet curtains covering the windows. Qhora sniffed and her eyes watered at the alcoholic sting of something unnaturally flowery in the air.

Dear gods, is that meant to be perfume?

“So, Lady Qhora, I understand you are a prominent figure in the court of Emperor Manco in the New World. I should very much like to visit your country some day.”

Qhora raised an eyebrow. “I would not advise it, Lady Sade. Most people from the east succumb to the Golden Death shortly after they visit our shores. My escort, Lorenzo, was one of the few men who survived it.”

“The Golden Death?” Sade asked. “It sounds more decadent than deadly.”

Aha! A bit of intelligent conversation should go far with this woman. Qhora smiled and said, “The Espani gave it that name. They said it was a curse from their god for trying to steal our gold. In truth, the disease turns the flesh red as the boils form and then burst. Blood runs from the eyes and ears. And shortly before death, green leaves and vines erupt from the skin and blood-red flowers begin to bloom. Perhaps it should be called the Red Death.”

Sade blanched. “How fortunate that this plague does not affect your own people.”

Qhora shook her head. “It did affect my ancestors long ago, but we cultivated an immunity to it over time. Our sages keep a pure strain of the original disease for ceremonial purposes in a family of small monkeys cloistered in a temple outside Cusco.” Qhora continued smiling. Perfect. Our scientific advances in medicine should certainly impress her.

“Fascinating.” Sade turned her attention to the narrow glimpses of the outside world through the waving velvet curtains. “I have heard that your escort is a well-known diestro. Don Lorenzo Quesada, yes? Was your other companion also an Espani fencing master?”

“No, he was an Aztec warrior. A knight of the Jaguar Order.” Qhora glanced down at her hands folded in her lap and began picking at the lace frills at her wrists.

Was that really what he wanted? To be burned and abandoned on a dusty plain, unmarked and unremembered? We should have discussed such things beforehand. I wonder if I should discuss them with Enzo soon. Just in case.

“Lady Sade, I believe that my life is in danger. I have been attacked three times since arriving in Marrakesh. If not for my companions, I would surely be dead at this moment. Enzo tells me that some of your people…” Careful! I can’t say that she rules over an impoverished mob at the brink of chaos. “…may not wish me to be here, in your country.”

“Ordinarily, I would call that utter nonsense. The people of Arafez, and indeed all of Marrakesh, have nothing but respect and admiration for our cousins across the sea.” Lady Sade gestured vaguely at the veiled window. “We adore the mighty creatures brought back from the New World. For instance, we have several dozen megatheras here in Arafez to power our mills. They’re so much larger and stronger than our native sivatheras. And the young men enjoy riding your nankas. They hold races just outside the city throughout the summer.”

“Nankas?” Qhora asked. “You mean hatun-ankas?” Not even Manco would sell a great eagle to an easterner, or give one as a gift. Only a thief could have brought them back here, and only as eggs or hatchlings. They’re all thieves in this land. “I should very much like to see your races one day. In my country, they are ridden only for war or protection, as befits their noble rank among all beasts and their savage nature as killers.”

“Perhaps we have tamed them,” Sade said. “After all, Marrakesh is a tame land. We have shaped the earth and water to our will. Hills and rivers have become foundations and canals. We have mastered the land, but not ourselves, I’m afraid.”

“Oh?” Qhora leaned forward.

“Well, my dear, for many years our queens have bought peace from the neighboring kingdoms with our machines, but our enemies no longer fear our science. They are building railways in Persia and sailing steamships across the Middle Sea. Soon the skies will be filled with Songhai airships as well. And when we have nothing left to sell, there will no longer be any reason for our enemies to leave us in peace. When they know all our secrets, we will be worthless to them.”

“You fear an invasion?”

“Of course. Marrakesh sits between mountains rich in ore and oceans rich in food. We control the shipping lanes through the Strait. But our ancient allies are weak. Espana, Italia, Numidia. They’re all shadows of what they once were. And we cannot trust anyone else to stand by us without pillaging our resources when our backs are turned. The Bafours and Kel Ahaggar harry our borders already. War is coming, my lady. A terrible war that will be fought with terrible machines.”

Qhora shrugged. “I’m sorry to hear this. I’m rather tired of war, myself. As a child in Cusco, I saw countless civil wars, several of which threatened to destroy my city and my family. As I grew older, the wars moved north and east as the Empire spread across the continent, swallowing up the savage kingdoms on our borders. It was once called the Tawantin Suyu Empire, for its four great nations. Now it is the Jisquntin Suyu Empire.”


“Nine nations,” Qhora said with only a hint of smile. “But then, three years ago, the Espani invasion began.”

“Yes, I’ve read of it. But your Empire triumphed, and quickly at that,” Sade said, her gaze fixed on a sliver of light between the waving curtains. “I suppose the Golden Death defeated your enemies for you.”

“Many of them, yes.” Qhora recalled the bloated and bleeding faces of the white soldiers, their skin bulging and oozing. “But there were still many battles. The Espani brought guns and armor on their ironclad ships, and they built little wooden castles by the sea. But their forces were slow and heavy and cautious. Our riders and hunters were swift and light and fearless. You don’t need swords or cannons to kill a man. A sharp thorn and a drop of venom will do just as well. The hatun-ankas are faster than any horse, and many times deadlier. And the Espani had nothing but little dogs to face the kirumichi.”

“Kiru…?” Lady Sade glanced at her, a quizzical look in her raised eyebrow.

“Kirumichi. The Espani call them saber-toothed cats. The same as the cubs we brought for your queen. Have you ever seen an adult, my lady?”

Sade shook her head.

Qhora beamed. “Then I look forward to introducing you to Atoq, my hunter. He is following us along the train tracks and should be here later this evening.”

Sade froze for an almost imperceptible moment, and then shifted her whole body to face the princess squarely and she leaned forward as she said, “You brought a man-eating war-cat to Marrakesh? Through Tingis?”

“Yes.” Qhora’s smiled faded. She’s afraid. “I assure you, he’s perfectly safe and obeys my every command. He would only kill to protect me, as he did today when the Shifrah woman attacked us.”

“I see.” Lady Sade continued to scrutinize her companion for several long moments, her forehead slightly creased and eyes slightly squinted and mouth slightly frowning. But then she blinked and the dark cloud over her vanished. “Lady Qhora, you clearly have a wealth of knowledge about the world. Few women of power have travelled as far and seen as much as you. Your wisdom and experience will no doubt impress Her Highness in Orossa. You must be looking forward to meeting her when you deliver your gifts from Prince Valero.”

“I am.” Qhora relaxed at the sudden change in the older lady’s demeanor. What just happened? Did she decide to befriend me, or not? Perhaps I can test her. “Although, I must confess, I had heard stirring descriptions of the wealth and power of her country, but thus far have not seen the same country that was described to me. The explosion at the train station, the bandits on the highway. You understand, of course.”

“Of course.” Lady Sade nodded knowingly. “These are difficult times, but all transitions are difficult. You must tear down the old to make room for the new. Everything in Marrakesh is changing, and for some people it is changing too rapidly. The cities, the factories, the jobs. It can be a bit overwhelming.” She smiled. “I know just the thing. I will invite several of my friends to supper with us tonight and we will show you the real Marrakesh, the Marrakesh of the future. And then tomorrow I will escort you myself to Orossa to introduce you to Her Highness. You will arrive refreshed as well as enlightened.”

Qhora smiled in return, but not too brightly. Almost too good to be true. She wants to give me everything I want, everything I might have asked for. Have I found a friend or just another sort of thief, another liar, another viper? Well, if so, then at least this viper doesn’t know that my fangs are sharper than hers. Qhora said, “I can’t thank you enough, my lady. You are as thoughtful as you are generous.”

A few minutes later, the coach rumbled to a halt and the driver opened the door to reveal a paved courtyard bordered by thousands of flowers blooming in freshly mulched beds and on blindingly whitewashed trellises. The house itself walled the courtyard on three sides and rose three stories above the street, three stories of pale granite and gleaming windows crowned with arched red roof tiles. Lady Sade led the way into the house and Qhora followed through room after room of marble tiled floors and lush Persian carpets, slender Hellan columns and dark hardwood stairs, enormous stone and iron fireplaces from Espana, stained glass doors and paper-thin screens, and more types of chairs and tables than she could name. The governor of Arafez deposited her guest in small bedroom on the second floor, promised to send refreshments and her hidalgo as soon as he arrived, and left her to stare at the plush upholstery surrounding her.

Qhora sat down on the edge of the bed, noting the five or six layers of blankets, each of a different color and cloth. Her body sank down into the bedding and she lay back and closed her eyes. Well, perhaps some of these people are wealthy after all.

Chapter 18. Syfax

Black slime and green moss covered the bottom half of the high stone walls of the Zemmour Canal. A golden sun hung high in the sky, bleaching the heavens into pastel blues and yellows. And while there was no spray from the ferry’s huge paddle wheel, the smells of salt and dead fish and wet birds were everywhere, sometimes faint but often with burning acuity. Only a handful of the other passengers had left the main cabin to walk about outside between the warm spring sun and the cold sea breeze, including quite a few elderly couples slowly pacing the length of the deck, their bare feet slapping softly on the warm metal deck plates. Syfax leaned forward on the rail and watched the foamy waves sliding past the steamer’s hull.

“So I’ve been wondering,” Syfax said. “Should I snap your wrist and arrest you now, and sit on you until we get to Nahiz, or should I just stand here and act scared of your little toy until we arrive? I’m not a big fan of babysitting.”

“Of course not.” Chaou stared out across the grassy fields beyond the canal walls. “You’ll do your duty, which leaves me to decide what to do with you now. I don’t want to kill you, major. I hope you believe that. I extended my offer to you more out of hope than anything else. Usually we approach people much more gently and carefully, developing a rapport over time. You understand. More diplomatically. But this has all been a complete fiasco. It’s all the Espani’s fault, really.”

Syfax tried to focus on anything other than the ambassador’s voice. Over the past hour, he had heard the same self-pitying whining and excuses again and again. Hamuy, politics, the queen, the Espani, the weather, the harvest, wages, strikes. At first he had hoped to coax out a few names or dates or plans, something specific so he could round up a few more of her friends, but so far she had been very careful in choosing her words and now Syfax was ready to dump her on someone else. As he listened to the endless shushing of the water against the hull and the low huffing of the steamer’s engine, a distant whine caught his ear. He looked up to the west and saw a small dark shape approaching high above them. “Here comes the cavalry,” he said.

“Probably not. And the next time I need an airship captured I will have to send more capable persons.” Chaou peered up, her hand still resting lightly on the major’s. “I’m sure the maneuver would be quite spectacular if attempted, but no airship could ever hope to land on a moving boat. At most, they could try to lower someone down with a rope, or lift you away with one, but that would mean flying very low and very close to this large pointy boat and all these trees for several minutes. No, I don’t think your comrades will risk that.”

Syfax glanced once at the small woman and then focused on the airship. What is Kenan up to? The airship continued to grow in size and detail, and attracted the excited waves and shouts of several children standing near the stern of the ferry, but as the minutes passed the Halcyon made no sign of descending or even angling toward the ship. It passed overhead half a mile to the north and proceeded east, the drone of its propellers fading as it cruised over a low ridge on its way to… where? Are they going to Nahiz or straight on to Khemisset?

“You see?” Chaou leaned against the rail, a gentle smile curling the corners of her mouth. “They must be going ahead to Nahiz to intercept us. It’s a small town, with no real means for us to blend into a crowd, so to speak. Especially if they’re standing on the pier, watching us disembark.”

“Yeah, well, unless you plan to hijack the ferry, it looks like your little adventure’s almost over, lady.” Syfax studied the older woman, wondering if she might actually try to hijack the ferry. The longer he looked at the grim-faced ambassador, the less ridiculous it sounded.

Chaou gestured to the people in the cabin. “And inconvenience all these hard-working women and men? Families and business travelers? I wouldn’t dream of it. No, the ferry will reach Nahiz on schedule. I shall simply have to arrange some other means of transportation before we arrive, that’s all.”

“Sure you will.”

“I’ll just have to make do with whatever is at hand.” Chaou turned slightly to study the little crane mechanism holding the ferry’s lifeboat just a few yards away.

Now she’s really getting squirrelly. Time to wrap this up. Syfax whipped his hand free of her grip and lunged at the bulge of his revolver in the ambassador’s coat pocket. His fingers fumbled against the hard edges of the grip, and then a brilliant spidery arc of light struck his arm. He pulled back, whipping his stunned hand to beat the feeling back into it.

“I’m running out of patience, major!” The little woman’s eyes flashed with rage, her lips trembled as she extended the two fingers tipped in copper. “You’re not special, you’re not clever, and you’re not going to trick me or even overpower me.”

Syfax beat his tingling hand against the metal rail and the feeling began to return. “Seriously, lady? I have bowel movements scarier than you. You really think you’ll make it past the marshals, and the police, and the Royal Guards? Oh, don’t look so surprised. I’ve heard all of your speeches before, from other killers and delusional psychopaths. You’re not the first person who wanted to kill the queen.”

Chaou blinked and swallowed.

“All that blather about foreign people and money and machines? You think I haven’t heard that before?” Syfax grimaced. “You’ll be caught, and probably killed. By now, half the country knows you’re missing and half of them probably suspect you caused the mess in Tingis. Dozens dead. Train blown to hell. Airship blown to hell. People don’t like being scared, you know. They’ll crawl through sewers to rip your head off just so they can all sleep better at night, knowing they got their precious justice. You’re living on borrowed time, ambassador. And your little toy can’t hurt what you can’t touch.” He rolled his hand into a heavy fist and smashed it into Chaou’s forearm, grabbed her wrist, and twisted her arm up behind her back nearly to her neck. She gasped and squealed.

Syfax tightened his grip and felt the ambassador weakening, losing her balance. When Chaou’s legs buckled, both of them stumbled forward and Syfax bumped Chaou’s hand against the railing. Instantly, a dozen sharp wails filled the air and Syfax shoved the ambassador away to scan for the source of the cries. It was the elderly couples. All of the little old men and women, the barefoot couples, who had been walking nearby had fallen to the deck, shuddering and wailing, their limbs flopping and twitching.

And then it was over and dozens of horrified and baffled onlookers were bending over the shaken couples, babbling and pointing, passing bottles of water and blankets among them.

“Back away, major.” Chaou stood panting, one hand massaging her neck while the other hovered over the metal railing. “I hated every instant of that, and I hate you for making me do it!” She screamed through a raw throat.

“Get away from the rail!” Syfax pointed at the woman’s hand. “Don’t touch it. You could kill them!”

“You’re the one killing them, major.” Chaou began edging backward, closer to the lifeboat. “Don’t come near me. Don’t do anything. As soon as I’m gone, you can take care of those poor old grannies. That would be best. But if you do anything, anything at all to stop me, I will shoot you.” She touched the bulge of the gun in her pocket.

Syfax raised his empty hands and watched the woman in black glance nervously at the little crane holding the lifeboat. She shook her head and banged her palm on the railing, making Syfax wince. “No,” she said.” You, over the side. Now. Into the water.”

The major cocked an eyebrow, then shrugged. He stepped to the railing and glanced down. Twenty feet into dark churning waters thick with algae and oil stains. Above them, the slick walls of the canal rose ten sheer feet above the water, and it was more miles than he could guess until the next landing or lock. Crap.

“By the time you find someone to fish you out, everything will be over,” Chaou said. “You’ll be working for a very different crown, and nothing you report will matter to anyone.”

His instinct was to make a smarmy retort about how her plan would fail, how stupid it was to leave him alive. Then again, maybe she’s planning to shoot me after I fall in the canal so she won’t have to deal with my body. Glaring at Chaou’s smug smile, he grabbed the railing, hurled himself over, and plunged boots first into the cold black slime of the Zemmour Canal. His last dry thought was, I think she was reaching for the gun.

When his head broke the surface, he felt the trickles of thick pond scum sliding down his scalp and neck. He tried not to think about the other things that might be thriving in the filthy, sluggish waters of the canal. Syfax reach across the oil-stained surface and began swimming, dragging himself up the canal toward the huge paddle wheel churning away to the east. His long red coat quickly swelled and clawed at the water like a sea anchor, and his boots became concrete blocks on his feet keeping his legs down beneath him. Unwilling to shed the weight, he fought across the canal to the sheer stone wall and jammed his fingers into the cracks between the blocks. But the cracks were only a hair deep, clotted and mortared with slick mossy gunk that denied him any hope of climbing out. The major pulled his broad knife from his boot and stabbed at the wall here and there, looking for a few spare inches of purchase. He worked his way left and right, and finally began lurching up out of the water to jab at the higher cracks that were drier and a bit deeper. Each time Syfax fell harder and deeper back into the canal. The stench of rotting wood and bird droppings and spent engine oil burned his nostrils and eyes.

He kicked about and found a sludgy bit of footing somewhere down in the dark at the wall’s edge. Planting his feet deep in the muck, he leapt up one more time. When he jammed his knife into the wall, it slid in to the hilt and stuck fast between two stones, holding the man up with only his legs dangling in the water. Syfax wiggled his naked toes in the cold water and rolled his eyes. “Damn it. I liked those boots.”

After several minutes of swearing and scrambling, he levered himself up on his knife handle and leapt for the top of the wall. He caught it on the second try and hauled himself up onto the warm dry grass. As he lay there, he tugged off his belt and then rolled back over to start fishing his knife out of the wall. It took several minutes and the knife nearly fell back into the canal at the last moment, but he caught the blade between two fingers and pulled it up. Well, that’s better than nothing.

He shrugged off his soaking, stinking coat and squeezed out as much of the canal as he could. Then he slung the coat over his shoulder on the hook of his finger and started walking. He’d only taken a few barefoot steps before he stopped short and looked across the canal at the outline of Port Chellah, far in the distance. Port Chellah, full of horses and trains. Port Chellah, on the other side of the canal.

“Aw, damn it!”

Across the water, a wide dirt road ran parallel to the canal and to his right Syfax spotted two young boys coming toward him. “Hey! Hey, kids!”

The boys stopped and waved. “What?”

“How do I get across?”

The boys looked at each other and shrugged. One of them pointed back toward the ocean and yelled, “Train bridge!”

To the west, the entrance to the canal at the mouth of the Bou Regreg River looked to be at least five miles back, judging by the hair-thin line of the Atlanteen Ocean beyond it. There was a faint arch across the canal back there that might have been the bridge.

An hour to run back there, another hour into town to get a horse, and then over sixty miles on winding roads from Port Chellah to Nahiz. The ferry probably only has forty miles to go.

But how far to the first lock?

Squinting into the east told him nothing except that the paddle wheeler was rounding a slight bend and bearing a bit to the south, judging by the trail of steam and smoke drifting above the canal. How fast do those things go?

He didn’t imagine he could outrun the ferry, especially barefoot. But if the lock is slow enough, then maybe…

Syfax balled up his coat around his belt and slung the whole bundle over his shoulder, and he took off running along the canal using the top of the stone wall as a path. The blocks were warm and smooth, with only the occasional pebble or rusty fish hook to make him swear and stumble. From time to time he would glance at the murky water below and glare.

Twenty years ago you could wade straight across the river in the summer. And now, this.

Chapter 19. Taziri

A steady westerly wind sped the Halcyon on its way and Taziri landed in a grassy field just outside Nahiz a little more than an hour after leaving Port Chellah. Kenan had lingered by the windows, staring down at the murky lane of the canal and the rustling tree tops, peering intently at the ferry as they passed over it. If he had seen anything, he did not mention it. The rest of the flight had been quiet.

Taziri shut down the engines and helped Ghanima lash the airship to a pair of old oak trees at the edge of the field. Kenan hovered in the open hatchway as Evander stumbled out onto the grass, groaning as he stretched his back.

“I guess I need to stay here and watch Hamuy,” Kenan said.

“I guess.” Taziri glanced up the road at the little village around the ferry landing. “It’ll be another few hours before the ship gets here. Is there anything we can do now?”

“Probably not.” He shrugged. “Sort of a hurry-up-and-wait situation. Happens all the time in police work. You can go get something to eat or get some rest.”

Taziri trudged over to him, her hands in her pockets. “Look, marshal, I realize we’re dealing with some very dangerous people, and I’m happy to help out, but I’m a pilot and I have my own responsibilities back home. I’d like to wrap this up as soon as possible. It’s been a long night and a long morning, and I’ve had enough excitement for this year. So is there anything you can do to help get me out of here?”

Kenan shook his head. “Nope. The major is on the ferry with the ambassador. The ferry is slow. We wait.” His face tensed slightly and he nodded toward the village. “Go get some lunch.”

For a minute, she wondered if she had the authority to throw him and his prisoner off her airship and just leave them. I need to deal with that doctor in Arafez. And Isoke needs me. Yuba and Menna need me. These Redcoats are just using me for a free ride and wasting my time. “Come on, Ghanima, let’s go get some food.”

The village of Nahiz had once overlooked the banks of the Bou Regreg River from a hillside several hundred yards away, but after the engineers and masons and dredges had done their work, the village found itself poised on the very edge of the Zemmour Canal. The fishermen had adapted readily enough, finding the stone lip of the canal walls more comfortable seating than the rocks along the old shore and installing makeshift ladders to help unfortunate or clumsy souls back up out of the water. A shaky rope bridge had been suspended between two wooden towers across the canal in the village itself, while a broad stone and iron bridge arched above the canal just south of town. The new landing and ticket office brought a steady flow of workers and peddlers through the village, some heading west for the wealth and promise of the big city, others fleeing east back to their family homes, their reasons and stories rarely offered to strangers.

As they entered Nahiz, Taziri strolled past the landing and confirmed that the ferry wasn’t expected for at least another two hours, and then they wandered up past the waiting horses and stage coaches to the long stone inn across the hillside where the smell of freshly brewed tea and crushed mint spilled out of the open windows. The innkeeper had a tajine simmering, and so they passed a quiet hour savoring lamb stewed with apricots, raisins, and honey dusted with turmeric, ginger, and saffron. They spoke little, and only to compliment the food or praise the bright clear skies above the dark canal.

Afterward, they sat outside with their tea and watched the hustle and bustle of Nahiz on a warm spring afternoon. At first, the stillness of the empty streets was disquieting. Then a single fisherman trudged up the road past them. A few minutes later the same man trudged back down past them to the canal.

“Is your hand all right?”

Taziri glanced down, unaware that she had been rubbing her numb fingers. Her wrist had felt shaky during lunch just trying to hold a glass. She slipped her hand into her pocket and said, “I’m sure it’s fine. I think something fell on my arm in the fire.”

Ghanima nodded. “You seem really eager to get home. Family?”

“My husband and daughter. You?”

“Just my sister. My twin, actually,” Ghanima said. “I’m a little worried. I don’t know what she knows yet about the Crake. I don’t want her to worry about me if someone reports the wreck.”

Taziri nodded. “As soon as we get to a town with a telegraph office, we’ll let the brass know where we are and what’s going on.”


The small talk droned on for the next two hours as the sun inched lower in the sky and the fishermen sauntered up and down the lane in ones and twos, sometimes with a few perch, trout, or eels on a string. Finally, a soft toot in the distance announced the arrival of the ferry and the two pilots shuffled down to the landing to wait. When the steamer pulled in and the gangway was dragged into place, the passengers streamed off with bags and children in tow. A considerable crowd began to form along the canal-side road, but after resituating their belongings and waiting for their companions, the travelers quickly dispersed either into the village or down to the main road and the stone bridge.

Taziri and Ghanima studied every face and figure that passed them, and when the flow of passengers thinned out and finally stopped, they caught the attention of one of the deckhands to ask if there was anyone else left. The young man shrugged and invited them to look around, so they stepped aboard and made a quick circuit of the outer deck and the inner cabin and even tugged at the locked storage bins, but ultimately they were shooed off as the crew got ready to close up for an hour so the boiler could be refilled and the deckhands could get a quick meal.

“Were we wrong?” Ghanima asked. “Maybe those men at the pier lied. Maybe the major and the ambassador never got on the ferry at all.”

“Maybe. Or maybe they got off somewhere else.” Taziri jogged after the last deckhand. “Excuse me! I just wanted to ask a quick question. Did you notice a large man in a red coat with an older woman in a gold jacket?”

The boatman raised a tired eyebrow. “A what? I don’t know.”

“They were supposed to take the ferry in from Port Chellah to meet us here,” Taziri said, forcing a pleasant smile. “But they weren’t on board. Maybe they got off at one of the locks?”

The boatman sighed and appeared to actually give the matter a moment’s thought. “Maybe. I don’t remember a guy in a red coat, but I think an old lady got off at the second lock. I didn’t notice what she was wearing.”

“Oh hey.” A second deckhand, farther up the street, turned to call down to them. “I know who you mean. Yeah, I saw her get off. Second lock, just like he said. Silver hair, right? Black and gold jacket, green dress. I helped her off the gangway.”

“Oh really?” Taziri forced herself to keep smiling. “That’s funny. Did she mention where she was going?”

“Nah, but there’s only the one path over the ridge from there, up to the highway to Khemisset. It’s a long walk, unless she managed to catch the two-thirty stage coach from Chellah to Khem.” The deckhand shrugged. “Course, if she was going to do that, why the hell did she get on the ferry in the first place?”

The two men joined their comrades in the inn, leaving Taziri and Ghanima to exchange confused looks.

“Now what?” Ghanima asked.

Taziri said, “Chaou got off, but the major didn’t. I guess we have to trust that the major is still following her. The only alternative is that he’s lost or dead.”

“Dead? Him? That seems pretty unlikely.”

They began walking back toward the field where the Halcyon waited. Taziri said, “I think we need to stop playing cat-and-mouse with the ambassador. We’re just wasting time now. We’ll go to Arafez so Kenan can turn Hamuy over to the marshals and organize a proper search party.”

“What about the Espani doctor?” Ghanima glanced at her. “Are you turning that over to the marshals too?”

Taziri wiggled her numb fingers. “No. That’s something I have to see to myself.”

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Ghanima said. “Other people took your idea and did bad things with it. That makes them the bad guys, not you.”

“Yeah, I know but…after all those other articles shot down my battery design, I decided to put my notes in the university archive anyway. I figured that someone else might want to see my work. Maybe they could come up with something better.” Taziri squeezed her left hand into a fist. “And I wanted the copy fees. It’s only ten percent, but it’s better than nothing. I had this fantasy that hundreds of other students would buy the copies and fix my battery design and I’d make enough to buy a bigger house.” She shook her head. “I was so stupid. Only one person ever bought the notes. I guess now we know who.”

Ghanima shrugged. “It’s still not your fault that bad people are doing bad things. You need to get over it.”

Taziri nodded to herself. “I’ll try.”

Chapter 20. Syfax

Cicadas creaked on both sides of the canal, filling the forest with a soft white noise that throbbed like an arboreal heart beat. Syfax jogged along the canal wall, never slowing, never stumbling, just putting one foot in front of the other and waiting for something to appear around the next bend. The first lock appeared in the distance and he approached it cautiously, waving to catch the attention of the two older women in the control house. They said the ferry had passed by more than half an hour ago, so Syfax wobbled across the top of the lock gates to the north side of the canal and jogged on.

The second lock appeared suddenly around a sharp bend as the major pushed through some thick branches that tried to shove him back into the dark water below. The lock operators were a young man and a young woman who exchanged nervous smiles a little too often, and Syfax was about to hurry on after they reported the ferry was over an hour ahead of him when the woman said, “You know, you’re probably better off taking the road.”

Syfax glanced around at the thick forest pressing close along the sides of the canal. “What road? A road to Nahiz?”

“Oh no, the road to Khemisset. I mean, there’s nothing in Nahiz. You’re not actually trying to go to Nahiz, are you?”

“No, I’m trying to catch up to someone on the ferry.”

“Oh?” A momentary frown of confusion darkened her smile. “That’s…different.” She suppressed a giggle. “You couldn’t get a horse?”

“I fell off the damn ferry,” he barked.

She flinched and her young man glared at him. “Hey, she was just trying to help. Unless your friend is actually going to Nahiz, then he’ll probably be in Khem long before you catch the ferry. You should just take the path up to the road.” He pointed roughly at the dirt track running perpendicular to the canal up into the trees. “It’s an easy hike. An old lady went up it earlier.”

“What old lady?” Syfax glanced at the path as though expecting to see someone on it.

“Some old lady got off the ferry and took the path up to the road. I told her she was crazy, but she said she would catch the stage coach from Chellah, and I said whatever, and she hasn’t come back yet so I guess she caught the coach. Or she’s walking to Khem.” The young man scowled and went back into the lock operator’s house.

“What did this lady look like?”

The woman shrugged. “Old. Short. Fancy shoes. Little earrings.” She shrugged again and followed her friend inside.

Syfax clenched his fist as his mind raced back to the Phoenician tomb, and the warehouse, and the ferry. Yes, Chaou had worn fancy shoes. “Thanks.” He resettled his bundled coat over his shoulder and plunged into the forest, scrambling up the winding track and hoping that he didn’t plant a naked foot on anything meaner than an acorn.

After twenty minutes of crashing about in the shadows of the trees, he stumbled out into the sunlight at the edge of a grassy field and just a stone’s throw away he saw the broad dirt road running west to east up into the hills.

“How the hell did I end up barefoot in the middle of nowhere?” he muttered. Not seeing anything or anyone on the road, he turned right and set off for Khemisset. “And where’s that damn airship when I need it? There’s plenty of room for it to land out here.”

As the afternoon descended into evening and the major climbed into the hill country outside Khemisset, he saw the grape and olive arbors in the distance. By the time he arrived in the outskirts of the city, the sun was a crimson glimmer on the edge of the world and a sharp chill rode the westerly wind. Syfax trudged straight down the main thoroughfare, ignoring the occasional stares of the people sitting outside their front doors or shuffling home from the factories. He had only been to Khemisset twice before, and briefly each time. Everything looked the same, like every other town in the hills. Frowning, Syfax grabbed the arm of a passing man and asked, “Where does the stage coach from Chellah usually drop folks off?”

The man flinched and jerked his arm away. “Over there.” He pointed up the street at a small square around an old stone well. A single horse was tied to the post there.

“Thanks.” Syfax pulled the stiff bundle of cloth off his aching shoulder, slipped his belt back around his waist, and shook out his damp coat before pulling it on. It weighed twice what it should and stank slightly, but still looked like a marshal’s uniform and that was all that mattered. He marched up to the horse by the well. “Who’s running this operation?”

A middle-aged woman leaning over the well straightened up and nodded. “That’s me. You looking for the coach? It’ll be back in half an hour or so, and then we’ll be doing the evening trip to Port Chellah. You can wait here if you want.”

“I don’t care about the coach. I’m looking for the old lady you picked up on the road.”

The woman’s expression soured. “You a marshal?”

“Major Zidane. Where’s the woman?”

The woman shrugged. “Siman’s dropping her off in town.”


“Ibis Square. The Othmani house.”

“Of course it is.” Syfax grimaced. Only one of the wealthiest families in the whole damned country.

It took more than half an hour to find Ibis Square and Syfax saw the coach heading back to the well long before he got there. Another curbside interrogation of a weary pedestrian pointed him to the massive colonnaded estate house. The courtyard gate was open.

The major pounded on the door and wiggled his muddy toes on the doormat. The girl who answered the door wore a white apron over her gray dress and a weary expression on her young face. She winced at the sight of his feet. “Yes, sir?”

“I’m here to see Ambassador Barika Chaou. Older gal, about so tall.” He held out his hand palm-down. “Probably just arrived.” He peered over the girl’s head into the foyer and the hall beyond it.

“Yes, sir. If you will please wait here, I will speak to the lady of the house.” The maid started to close the door.

Syfax planted a dusty hand against the polished wood. “Nah, I think I’m going to claim a little probable cause and just invite myself in.” He padded across the threshold, across the cold tile floor, across the plush Persian carpets. Each sensation was ten thousand times better than the ten thousand steps that had carried him there from the wall of the canal. “Nice place. Where is she? In here?” He stomped through the dining room past a twenty-foot table beneath a three-tiered chandelier, past the entrance to the kitchen and into a warmly lit sitting room with half a dozen armchairs and lounges arranged around a massive iron fireplace decorated with dancing dragons breathing iron flames into wreathes of iron flowers. The fire was roaring and Syfax slowed as he plunged into the wave of dry hot air.

A rather young woman sat by the fire in a richly upholstered chair, a leathery old thing, massive and padded, that creaked just enough to declare it an antique but not enough to be intrusive. The table at her elbow was hand-carved teak with a marble disk inlaid in its top. A brass lamp adorned with endless filigrees and scrollwork glowed warmly on it. The woman wore a silk robe and slippers woven somewhere in the far east, and a heavy silver necklace of pagan knot-work from some barbarous place to the north, and on the bridge of her nose perched her gold-rimmed spectacles, undoubtedly crafted by the most skilled optometrist in Marrakesh.

“Can I help you, officer?” she said.

Syfax glanced down at the empty chair in front of him. “So are you hiding her, or did she slip out the back? Because I gotta tell ya, I just walked most of the way from Chellah this afternoon and I’m really tired of chasing people.”

“I don’t know who you mean, officer.” She frowned at his feet. “I’m Dona Fariza Othmani, president of the Othmani Mills Corporation. I’m sorry, what service are you with? Ordinarily I might recognize your uniform, but ordinarily our public servants are properly attired, I believe.”

Dona, eh? I guess if you can’t inherit a title, you can always buy one from Espana. He said, “Major Zidane, marshal. And yeah, the smarmy-rich-lady act isn’t going to impress me. Barika Chaou sat in this chair less than a quarter of an hour ago.” He pointed at the dusty seat and dirty scuff marks on the rug in front of it. “So is she still in the house or not?”

Dona Othmani turned her head ever so slightly to the side and called out, “Cyrus? Would you come in here, please?”

Syfax watched the huge man enter at the far end of the room. Cyrus wore a dark gray suit and a pair of dark tinted glasses, and a set of brass knuckles on each hand. The major grinned. “Well, I have to hand it to you, miss, you’re a heck of a decorator. Persian carpets with a matching Persian bodyguard? Classy.” He yanked his broad knife from his belt and let the thick-necked bruiser close the distance.

Cyrus jogged the last few feet and swung a brass-plated fist at the major’s face. Syfax dashed inside his reach so they were almost chest to chest and he slammed his palm up into the Persian’s chin as he buried his knee in the man’s groin. Cyrus fell forward, sliding off Syfax’s shoulder on his way to the floor. The major backhanded the man in the ear as he fell for good measure. Then Syfax knelt, slashed the man’s belt in half, and helped himself to the Persian’s tinted glasses and one of the brass knuckles. “Nice party favors. And as long as I’m here, I think I’ll take a little look around.” He stood up, blinking at the dark blue world through his new glasses.

The young woman stood up sharply from her chair. “Major, this is a private residence. If you do not leave immediately, I assure you that you will be stripped of your rank and thrown in a military prison by the end of the week.”

“Coming from you, that’s actually a fair threat. But I’ve got a killer to catch and the worst thing the brass will do to me is toss me back in the army. Last chance. Where’d you stash her? Upstairs in a bedroom? Out back in the shed? Wine cellar? I’m happy to go room to room myself.” He stepped over the Persian, who had vomited a little on the carpet and was now rising to all fours. “Down, boy.” Syfax kicked the man’s arm out and his face crashed into the leg of the table beside Othmani’s chair. Her tea sloshed in its porcelain cup.

Dona Othmani huffed. “Yes, major, Barika Chaou was here. Briefly. As you observed, she was filthy and I did not allow her to stay here more than a few minutes. She left by the kitchen door just before you arrived and I have no idea where she might be going.”

“What did you talk about?” Syfax wandered over to a tall vase displayed on the mantel above the crackling fire. The heat was blistering to his skin but soothing to his aching back. He placed one finger on the lip of the vase and gently began tipping it forward.

“She was babbling, clearly in some sort of distress. Whatever it was, it was none of my concern and I did nothing to warrant any damage to that antique vase, major.”

Syfax held the vase at a precarious angle above the stone ledge at the base of the fireplace. If Chaou really did slip out, she could be anywhere, but if she’s still in the house then I can wrap this up right here. “What did she say, exactly?”

Cyrus picked himself up off the floor, his legs spread a little too wide, and one hand clutching his jaw. He needed his other hand to hold up his trousers, which had slipped down to his knees as the two halves of his belt flopped out from his belt loops. The Persian looked at his mistress and indicated the marshal with a sharp nod, but she waved him back with a pained frown as she said, “Barika said there had been some trouble in Tingis. I can only imagine she meant the explosion at the train station. I cut her off. I told her I did not wish to know her affairs and would not render her any assistance.”

“Tough break for her. Funny that she thought she might get some help from you, though. How do you know Barika Chaou, exactly?”

“I saw her regularly at various state dinners, festivals, and conferences among people of means and influence. But we had no particular relationship. I was, as I said, quite shocked to learn of the allegations against her regarding the Tingis matter, and I was equally shocked when she appeared in my home here this evening. I take it she is in fact guilty?”


“Ah.” Dona Othmani looked genuinely concerned for a moment. “A tragedy for all involved, without question.”

“Mostly for the people she killed, and their families.” Syfax kept both eyes on the Persian hulking behind her. “So you run Othmani Mills from here? Aren’t your factories all in Arafez?”

“Technically, I’ve retired. As president, I’m really just a figurehead for the company.”

“Aren’t you a little young to be retired?”

Dona Othmani smiled. “Yes, but I’m already the wealthiest woman in the province. I have taken residence here permanently. More time for the children and my reading. It’s quite nice not to be squinting at balance sheets and ledger books, inspecting factories, arguing with foremen, and breathing in their stink. Ikelan trash.”

“My grandmother was Ikelan,” Syfax said as he took his finger away and let the vase shatter on the brick hearth. “Oops.”

The lady glanced at the hand-painted shards on the floor and sniffed. “Then I’m sure you appreciate the dissolution of the caste system much more than I do. This country has changed too much, too quickly.”

“Funny. Your friend Chaou said something just like that to me today.”

“Whatever fringe political views I express are reflections of my birth, major, not my aspirations. Barika Chaou is a grasping little woman who thinks that running errands to the Silver Prince makes her someone of importance,” said Dona Othmani, her eyes narrowing and voice falling to a lower register. “If you really want to find her, just find the governor of Arafez. If Barika is in some sort of trouble, she’ll go scampering back to her mistress for help sooner rather than later. I don’t know what Lady Sade sees in her, but I’ve seen Barika at more than a few suppers at her estate. Are we finished now, major?”

Syfax studied the Persian’s drooping pants and the broken vase at his feet. I’ve probably pushed my luck about as far as it will go here. “Yeah, we’re done. Thanks for your time. I’ll see myself out.”

Outside, the small city of Khemisset was settling down for the evening as the streetlamps sputtered to life and the streets emptied. Down every lane, the smells of supper crept out from the homes of thousands of exhausted men and women. Syfax shuffled back to the well on his aching, raw feet and found the middle-aged woman he had spoken to just swinging up into the saddle of her horse. She told him he had missed the coach back to Port Chellah, but also that the only passengers had been men. She also pointed him across town to another well where the stage coach to Meknes and Arafez usually parked.

By the time he found the other well, the night sky stretched overhead in full black and silver bloom. Their suppers finished, the locals began appearing on the front steps outside their homes to talk to their neighbors. A few men sang an old love song as the marshal trudged by, and later he passed a woman playing a lullaby on her flute. There was no one at the other well, but an elderly man sitting nearby confirmed that the stage coach to Meknes had indeed left around sunset.

“Passengers?” Syfax asked.

“Four or five, it seemed.”

“An older woman in black, gold, and green?”

“Yes,” he said. “I believe there was.”

Syfax trudged into the nearest teahouse and spent the next half hour eating with his dirty, bloody feet propped up on the chair across from him and demanding to know where he could get a horse and a pair of boots so late in the evening.

Chapter 21. Taziri

As the sun sank into the ocean, the Halcyon hovered above the flickering lights of the Arafez airfield. Unlike the field in Tingis with its massive hangars by the shore, here the landing area was an open space ringed with a towering brick wall that not only kept the wild street winds of the city at bay but ensured that a runaway airship would never go farther than the edge of the field. It also cast an impressive shadow, making nighttime landings even more challenging. Taziri thumped her thumbs on the throttles, peering down at the dark landing zone and the tiny figure of the field master waving her lanterns. “We’re cleared to land.”

After a slow descent through a few rough gusts, Taziri planted the ship safely within the field walls and began shutting everything down. Everyone else was stretching and groaning and muttering about food and bed, but Taziri had to meet with the field master, finish her paperwork, and watch the sleepy-eyed ground crew fumbling with the Halcyon ’s moorings.

“ Halcyon?” The field master frowned at her. “Oh, right. The one with the little boiler. We weren’t expecting you until later this month, I think. Where’s Captain Geroubi?”

Taziri cleared her throat. Where is Isoke, really? In a bed or on a slab? “In the hospital. She was hurt in the fire in Tingis.”

“And they let you take her boat up without her? Huh.” She scribbled something on her clipboard and then looked up again. “Ghanima! Good to see you. Looks like whatever happened yesterday scrambled the whole Northern Air Corps. What are you doing on Halcyon?”

The pilot stepped down to the grass and offered a tired smile. “Just helping out some friends. The Crake isn’t exactly airworthy at the moment.”

“I’ll bet. It’s all over the wire, everyone’s talking about it. They say the ambassador’s some sort of pastoralist. Wants to smash all the machines and go live in a cave or something. That true?” The field master had a way of shouting when she spoke and Taziri wondered how much hearing damage the blocky woman had suffered standing around idling airships year after year.

“I don’t know.” Ghanima rolled her head to stretch her neck. “I mean, she never said anything like that around me.”

Taziri stared through the tall gates of the airfield into the distant gas-lit haze of Arafez’s labyrinth of streets and alleys, squares and fountains, all traced and outlined with the flickering lamps. The other women continued with their small talk and gossip, neither one ever glancing at Taziri. Kenan and Evander emerged from the ship a moment later.

“I tied Hamuy to the railings,” Kenan said. “Not that he’s going anywhere. The doc says he’s in pretty bad shape now. Not much time left. So I need to get down to the marshals’ office, report in, bring back some help to move Hamuy, and do whatever else needs doing.” He shook Taziri’s hand. “Thanks for all your help. I’ll be sure to put a good word for you, for both of you, in my report. And you too, doc.”

Taziri nodded. “Good luck finding the major.”

Kenan grinned sheepishly. “I’m sure he’s fine. It’s not the first time he’s disappeared in the middle of a case, actually. Good night, and thanks again.”

They watched the young marshal jog across the field and out the gate.

The doctor coughed and snorted impatiently.

“All right, well, I think it’s time I got these two some food. I’ll see you later!” Ghanima patted the field master’s arm and turned to Taziri and Evander. “Ready to go?”

They nodded as one and Taziri followed the young pilot across the field, through the gate, and into the city. The streets were quiet but not deserted. A small but steady stream of weary laborers and happy young couples made their way up and down every road, voices echoing down the narrow lanes above the rhythmic clacking of hard-soled shoes on the cobblestones. The distant rattle of wagons and carriages chased the clip-clop of hooves, always out of sight, but always within earshot. The neighborhood they found themselves crossing had once been a poor one, a crumbling array of shoddily made single-story homes, which no doubt explained why it had been so cost effective to level several blocks of them to make way for the walled airship enclosure. But now, scattered among the unfortunate remains of the residences there stood a variety of small shops peddling “exotic” foods and “genuine Arafez dresses” intended to entice visitors from distant lands. Taziri squinted through the windows at the shadowed wares within, frowning. More cheap garbage that no one needs.

For a quarter hour, they followed Ghanima as she continued to assure them that the best bed-and-breakfast was just up ahead, while Evander continued to complain about a certain pustule forming on his big toe that he insisted upon describing in clinical detail. But eventually they turned a corner and emerged from a dim street onto a bright little square, a patch of grass and flowering trees ringed by cafes and restaurants with foreign-sounding names, hotels large and small, and as Ghanima pointed out, the best bed-and-breakfast in the city, an unremarkable building bearing a sign that read, “The Brass.”

They were just about to step inside when a soft patter of drums and the faint echo of a familiar song caught Taziri’s attention. She paused, straining to hear over the hundred pleasant conversations drifting across the square, and there it was. The song. A ballad, one her father had muttered under his breath while he worked, a song about a long journey and a happy homecoming. The melody took Taziri back to another time, a thousand worlds and years away, before fires and deaths, to a night just like this one, warm and clear, when she sang that same song to her new husband and life had been so much simpler and easier.

“You go on.” She waved the others toward the door. “I’m just going to walk around a bit. I’ll be back in a little while.” They entered the inn and Taziri continued alone across the square and down another dim road following the sound of wistful voices and soft drums.

The music grew louder with each step and after half an hour of wandering the unfamiliar streets and hearing several more old songs, Taziri stumbled upon another grassy square, this one strung with small lanterns and filled to bursting with cheering, laughing, joyful dancers. There must have been at least three hundred bodies crammed into the square, drawn up into rows, ragged lines of singers, chanters, drummers, and strummers forming a rough ring around a dozen dancers, young men and women performing a routine Taziri did not recognize. She moved quietly among them, feeling terribly awkward though not unwelcome. Many strangers smiled at her, offered her food or drink, and encouraged her to help mark time with her hands and feet. And though she wanted to join them, more than anything she wanted to find a cluster of familiar faces, friends and relatives who would surround her and remind her that she was not as alone as she felt. But this crowd of happy strangers was almost as good. After a few minutes of wandering among them, Taziri found a quiet corner outside the throng where she could watch.

It was a wedding, she realized suddenly as a break in the crowd revealed the bride and groom sitting with their families at one side the dancer’s ring. She smiled.

There were several men leaning against the wall alongside her, and the fellow to her right cleared his throat. “Good evening. Are you family?”

Taziri blinked at the bride and groom. “Oh, no, I’m sorry, I was just passing through and heard the music. I didn’t mean to intrude on a private party.”

The man smiled. “No, you’re very welcome to stay. Half the neighborhood is here.” He leaned a little closer, peering at Taziri’s clothes. “You’re a firefighter?”

“Electrician.” She glanced down at her soot-stained orange jacket. “With the Air Corps.”

“Ah.” The man nodded and returned his attention to the dancers.

“What do you do?” Taziri asked the question for no particular reason, except that having a dull exchange of small talk at a party seemed like the ideal vacation from reality.

“I keep house. Watch the children. We have five.” The man smiled and his whole body rocked slightly with the rhythm of the music.

“Five? What’s that like, keeping house?” Taziri imagined her grizzled, leathery grandfather lecturing her on the value of work, of earning, providing, and supporting. The old man probably would have burst into flames at the suggestion of keeping house. Taziri tried to imagine her grandfather living today in any occupation, but the scenarios all ended with a small bearded man screaming at a world gone mad: What of the castes? What of order and tradition? What of a man’s duty to his family!

“It’s the best. I send the children off to school in the morning, and then spend all day working on the house. We have a townhouse a few streets over from here. Two stories. I just finished replacing all the floors. Beautiful stuff. Next, I’m thinking about building a spare room where the garden is, and then putting a greenhouse on top of that. I’d like to get a fruit tree growing in it. Maybe oranges. I love oranges. Do you like oranges?”

Taziri lost track of the music at the thought of her own home, one level, old creaking floors, a spotty garden in back. Yuba could do so much with our house if he wanted to. He used to talk about it, he had so many plans. But now, I can’t remember the last time he talked about the house or the future.

“I also started making furniture last year.” The man waved at someone across the crowd as he spoke. “Listen to this. I made a table for the dining room that slides open and you can put extra planks in the middle to make the table bigger, for parties. It only takes a minute, no tools. Everyone loves it. I’m thinking about selling them as a side business.”

A side business? Suddenly a hundred tiny ideas that Taziri had played with while flying across the continent were transformed into a hundred tiny business propositions. She could make things, she could sell them. Good things, useful things, electrical things. Just as soon as I find the time. If only Isoke didn’t have so much riding on the Halcyon, I would quit the Corps and Yuba could go back to work and I could start my own store. But even the thought of blaming Isoke made her blush with guilt and she put the whole notion away.

“My wife says I should try it, so I suppose I will.” The man settled back against the wall again and glanced over at Taziri for only the second time. “What does your husband do?”

“He’s the landscape architect for the university in Tingis.” Taziri beamed. “Though he’s only part-time right now, because of the baby. What does your wife do?”

“Accountant.” The man shook his head. “It’s crazy. I went to her office once to see where she works. It was horrible. She sits at a desk, all day. Literally, sitting all day. Almost never stands up. It’s as bad as a factory, but instead of building things, she just adds numbers all day for rich people. And the only time she really talks to another person is during these meetings where everyone sits around blaming each other for mistakes while pretending to be polite about it.” He shook his head again and ran his hands over his shaved scalp. “When she comes home, well, sometimes I think she wants to strangle someone, and sometimes I think she wants to cry. That’s her job. I can’t understand why she does it, but it pays the bills.”

Taziri nodded, not knowing what to say. The flights back and forth between Tingis and the northern cities of Numidia were countless hours of sitting at a station, rarely moving, rarely talking. But there was no arguing with Isoke, in earnest or otherwise. Isoke. She tried to remember her captain’s face, but all she could see was the flick of Hamuy’s knife, and the smoke, and the blood on the floor. She shuddered and turned her attention back to the music.

A young woman was singing a sweet old lullaby, but it ended too soon and a strange silence seemed to emanate from the direction of the musicians as the absence of music made itself felt. Then a terrific booming began pounding and throbbing from the bass drum and Taziri pushed away from the wall, craning her neck to see them, wondering what they were doing. The entire crowd began to cheer like never before, no longer as wedding revelers but as wild youth driven mad with excitement and anticipation. They waved their fists in the air in time with the pounding bass and began shouting to the drummers.

The drummers responded. As a man, they descended upon the taut skin heads with mallets and bare hands in an angry frenzy, a racing and deafening rhythm that Taziri had never heard before, but even as she listened she felt her own feet beginning to rock in time with the fast-paced percussions, and then her hands began to clap in time as well.

Then the strummers leapt into the dance circle, three young men with large heavy lutes strung with gleaming wires that they struck with metal picks, creating a strange and bestial harmony like vicious hornets and stampeding wildebeests all at once. Three more strummers lingered behind them, flicking their fingers across the gleaming strings of Espani guitars. There was no real melody, only the same four chords repeated over and over, yet the crowd grew wilder and louder, calling for more, calling for the song to begin.

A bare-chested youth stepped out from the crowd, his fist beating the air, and his audience shrieked their approval. The strummers reached the end of the fourth chord, and as they returned to the first chord the boy began to sing, but he didn’t sing. He shouted. He hollered. He yelled at the crowd and they yelled back a thousand fold. A man sweats blood on an eastward rail,

And when the steel falls we hear him scream and wail,

So now he sits and starves, and he cries and begs,

Because he lost his legs!

He lost his legs!

Taziri faltered in her clapping and stomping as the words crept into her ears and their meaning snapped into focus. What sort of song was this? She had never heard it before, and yet clearly everyone else here knew it by heart, and they loved it. They loved it like rabid dogs love meat, like flies love garbage, like vultures love carrion. She saw joy and madness in the eyes around her, in the young and old, in men and women alike. She saw rage, a human firestorm surging around a few drummers and strummers, and a screaming boy. A man coughs blood in a miner’s shaft,

And when the rock falls we hear his sobbing gasp,

So now he sits and starves, that’s what fate demands,

Because he lost his hands!

He lost his hands!

The crowd was a single living creature now, an organism that exhaled horror and misery and rage all at once. Taziri winced, shrinking back into the shadows, glancing around for the easiest path out, a path away from the insane creature that had emerged from this wedding banquet. A man weeps blood on the factory floor,

And when the boiler bursts it makes a mighty roar,

It cuts him to the core!

It fills the air with gore!

So now he lies still in his earthen bed,

Because he lost his head!

He lost his head!

To the honored dead!

The honored dead!

Taziri slipped through the back of the crowd, discovered the dark corridor of an alley, and hastened down it, plunging into shadows where the air was a bit cooler and the gentle starlight allowed her eyes to rest from the fiery glare of the lanterns and lamps behind her. The song ended, but only for a moment, as the crowd went on stomping and chanting, the musicians began again from the top. She had to cross a half dozen streets before the sound of it finally faded into the night, leaving Taziri alone in the dark, trudging along unfamiliar roads in the general direction of Ghanima’s favorite bed-and-breakfast. Along the way, she turned the words of the song over and over in her head, wondering why lyrics she had never heard before could sound so familiar. Until she remembered.

On her brief layovers at home, she sometimes read the papers, trying to have some sense of her own country between the long spells in the Halcyon. Among dozens of other things, she saw the tiny, almost marginal notes about recent industrial accidents. The railway. The mines. The factory. Each verse of the song had described an actual event, a man maimed or killed, in just the past few months.

Tomorrow I’m going to find the Espani doctor, Medina. Then I’ll take Evander to Orossa. And then I’ll go home to my family. Things are bad, worse than I thought. I should be home doing something about it.

If I had kept working on my batteries instead of hiding them in an airship, I could have made the world a safer place. Bright clear lights at night, out on the streets to keep people safe and in the factories to keep workers safe. More telegraph lines. Better clocks. Electric safety shut-off switches. So many things I could have been building all this time.

But I didn’t. And now the pastoralists are ready to burn the country to the ground. Innocent people will die. Innocent people have already died.

I could have stopped this.

This is my fault.

She stopped under a streetlight and looked around at the unfamiliar buildings, their dark windows offering only dim reflections of the cobbled road.

I can’t just go to bed now. I need to do something. I need to fix things. I need to find that doctor. Medina.

Slowly, Taziri turned and headed back toward the marriage celebration still roaring its strange and angry songs into the night.

If they know so much about people getting hurt, then I’m sure someone there will know about the local doctors, especially an Espani doctor.

Chapter 22. Lorenzo

There had been a brief uncomfortable moment in the bedroom as he set the bags down in the corner when Qhora had stared at him with a strange softness in her eyes. She parted her lips as if to speak, but after a brief hesitation she merely thanked him and turned away. So after depositing the cubs and other luggage, and pausing in the kitchen long enough to stuff his pockets with a few rolls, a chunk of cheese, and two apples, Lorenzo returned to the train station.

Standing on the deserted platform, he was grateful for the quiet and the stillness. No people. No fighting. No yelling. No games. Just a broad wooden deck and little dark office, a smattering of early stars in the evening sky, and two iron rails pointing out through an old neighborhood to the vast wilderness beyond the city where two beasts from the far side of the world were slowly making their way south toward their mistress.

A cool breeze rippled through the grassy plains and stirred the dust in the streets. He counted four blocks of small houses between himself and the end of civilization. Four cross-streets and a few hundred homes, but precious few lights and no voices. The hidalgo tugged his hat down firmly on his head and gathered his long black coat tighter around his belly, but he needn’t have bothered. It was only a lifelong habit as the night drew closer, but here in the south the night was scarcely colder than the day. At least to an Espani.

Feeling foolish, he relaxed his shoulders and let his coat flap open as he pulled out one of his apples and began to eat. For a time, he considered walking out beyond the houses to the very edge of the plains to try to catch sight of Atoq and Wayra before they came too close to the city. No, he reasoned, this is where Qhora stepped off the train. This is where her scent will be strongest. This is where they will come.

The sky faded from slate blue to violet to black. As the last glimmer of color vanished from the northern horizon, he thought he glimpsed a small dimple, a tiny black figure that hadn’t been there before.

Well, either it’s them, or it isn’t.

He tossed the gnawed core of his apple off the edge of the platform and began alternately biting off chunks of his cheese and bread. The rolls weren’t as dark or rich as the bread at home and the cheese was far less pungent, leaving the meal somewhat tasteless and hollow. The last apple beckoned from his pocket, but he refrained. His eyes had adjusted to the brightening starlight and now he was certain he could see something in the distance, a hard black shape far out on the train tracks, still small but distinct in the silvery sea of grass that rippled and shivered in the rising wind.

It was a train. He heard it huffing and clacking before he could see the trail of steam above it. Maybe ten minutes away now. Did they send someone to get the other engine from the crash site? He glanced around the empty platform again. If they did send someone out there, they sure forgot to leave anyone here to meet them. No. What if it’s the woman in white?

Lorenzo rested his left hand on the pommel of his espada. I only cut her hand. I didn’t mean to hurt her much, but maybe I should have hurt her a little bit more. Enough to scare her away. He took his hand off his sword. No. No more blood today.

When the train rolled slowly into the station, the trail of steam from the funnel had already been reduced to a few pale wisps in the night air. The wheels hardly squeaked as the brakes were applied and the locomotive halted at the edge of the platform. It was too dark to see much of the boiler but the twisted and broken outline of the cab was distinctive enough. Lorenzo strolled down to meet it, but stopped well away from it. “Hello?”

The woman in white stepped out of the crushed and mangled remains of the cab. In the half light, he couldn’t make out the details of her face, only the pale gleam on her nose and cheeks, and the white bandage wrapped tightly around her left hand. She gave him a long, tired look before shrugging and saying, “You again.”

“Are you all right?”

She held up her bandaged hand. “You’re better than Salvator Fabris.”

He blushed and was grateful for the darkness. “I doubt that.”

“He could never cut me.”

“You were lovers. I doubt he wanted to.” Lorenzo exhaled slowly, praying for a visible trace of his breath, but his prayer went unanswered. It was too warm. Still, he touched the medallion beneath his shirt and tried to imagine what a kind and saintly person would say to this woman. “Why did you attack us?”

“For the money.”

“Our money? Whose money?”

She shook her head. “No names. I still have my knives, Espani.”

“And I have my sword. We both have things. How nice for us.” He gestured down the platform, inviting her to walk with him. “Your name is Shifrah, yes? I’m Lorenzo.”

She stared at him and then at the platform. Slipping her hands into her pockets, she began walking slowly parallel to him, never closer than three yards. “Why are you guarding that savage girl, Lorenzo? For her gold?”

A flicker of anger in him wanted to slap her. But only a flicker. “In her country, she is a princess. And no, she has nothing but her cloak, her animals, and her name,” he said. “She had one other friend, but you killed him today.”

“I did indeed. Will you kill me for that?”

“I don’t know yet.” He really didn’t know and that question loomed large in his mind, not only for his bodily safety but that of his soul as well. “Do you believe in God?”

Shifrah laughed. “Whose god? Yours? The one with the happy little family that came down from heaven to learn what it means to be human?”

“God comes to different people in different guises. You’re a Persian, aren’t you?”

“No,” she said sharply. “I’m a Samaritan.”

“I see.” He frowned. Her answer only raised more questions. The Samaritan sect was tiny, a footnote in the Espani holy text about a group of people claiming to have the only true Word of God hidden away on their sacred mountain and lording it over the Judeans, Syrians, Babylonians, and anyone else who claimed to worship the one God by any name, be it El, Adonai, or Ahura Mazda. Whatever their claims, he knew the Samaritans only to be scholars, not warriors. “I’m sure the path that brought you to this place was a hard one.”

“No harder than most.”

“I didn’t mean the road from Persia to Marrakesh.”

“Neither did I.”

Could she be a holy scholar as well as a killer? He swallowed. Why not? Aren’t I?

“You’re a mercenary? An assassin? That seems a hard road. I’ve killed quite a few people myself. Some were in duels. Most were in war,” Lorenzo said. “But I haven’t killed anyone since I returned from the New World. I vowed not to, though I haven’t told anyone of my vow yet. I’ve even faked killing for the sake of my lady. For her peace of mind.”

“You fake it? For a woman?” Shifrah smiled a flash of white teeth in the darkness. “How perverse.”

From the dark streets behind them, a chorus of little children shouted and squealed and laughed. Lorenzo did not look back toward the sound. “She wouldn’t understand. I thought that my vow would free me from so much sin and darkness, but it’s only plagued me with questions and doubts. Like this one here tonight. You.”

“To kill me or not to kill me?”

Lorenzo stopped and stared up at the night sky. “If I kill you, I break my vow. If I give you to the law, they will kill you, and I’ll have just as nearly broken my vow. And if I let you leave, you’ll only kill others and I’d be complicit in those deaths as well.”

“And now you know why I left my people,” she said. “There are no paths to God, if there even is a God. The high and narrow paths only lead to misery.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” He saw no glint of light on steel but he heard the light flutter of cloth and in an instant he had drawn his espada and parried her stiletto thrust. She stumbled half a step and he grabbed her shoulder and shoved her away as he slipped his sword back into its sheathe and let his coat swallow him up once more.

Shifrah straightened up, the knife still in her hand. “Seriously? Are you going to keep me here all night, blathering on about your three-faced god until I give up a life of wealth and murder for some drafty cloister in Espana?”

A wooden clatter at the edge of the platform drew his glance for an instant, but if there was anything out there it was lost in the shadows. The hidalgo looked back at the woman. “That would solve my dilemma, actually.” He sighed. Each time he blinked his eyes closed it was a struggle to open them again. To lie down, to rest his back, to rest his mind, to retreat from the world, even for a few hours. At that moment, sleep became the ultimate temptation. He said, “So you reconciled a merciful God with a merciless world by renouncing your faith?”

“It was never my faith. It was the faith of the people around me. I was just born there. Faith is just the clothes and food of your homeland, not a shining path to the next world, or some eternal truth. It’s just words and candles and old books no one can read.” Her stiletto dangled from her fingertips. “It’s just like that lie about your precious Son of love and mercy.”

“What lie?”

“That he ever existed!” Shifrah rolled her eyes. “The Mother and Father descended the mountain from heaven with the Book already written in their hands, detailing the lives they were about to live. They never had a child. That was all made up long after their return to paradise. And you know why? So the stinking Italians could corner the market on religious truth and set up their precious pope in Rome.”


“It’s the truth. There is no Son in the original text. I know, I’ve read it!” She looked away and tightened her hand into a fist. She relaxed by small degrees. “You see? This is why I don’t like to talk about religion. So what’s it going to be? Kill me or let me go? If you don’t choose, I will. I’m hungry and tired.”

Lorenzo inhaled slowly. What if I’m already damned? I’ve killed so many. Perhaps there are sins God cannot forgive. And if there are, then my only solace would be in knowing that this woman will never harm another person. He reached for his sword. “This isn’t what I want. But it is the only choice you’ve given me. I’m sorry.”

Shifrah shrugged. “At least you’re not going to bore me to death.” She presented her blade in a formal salute.

He returned the gesture as she broke into a sprint, racing toward him, her soft boots thumping on the planks. Suddenly the patter of her feet was doubled and trebled and Lorenzo knew that they were no longer alone on the platform. A lifetime of training kept his eyes firmly fixed on his opponent, but his belly was knotted with the fear that someone was about to stab him in the back. At the last instant before he would have raised his blade, Lorenzo dove to his right and rolled across his shoulder to the far side of the platform. As he came up to his knees, he saw a silent blur of fur and fangs leap onto the woman in white.

“Atoq! No!”

The saber-toothed cat stood on the woman, crushing her into the platform. He looked at the hidalgo with eyes like shining golden coins. By the light of the streetlamp behind him, Lorenzo saw that the cat’s fangs were still clean. “Here! Atoq, here!” The kirumichi hunter had never obeyed his commands before, but then again, they had never been alone together before and the cat had never shown any interest in the hidalgo, except as a provider of fresh meat and clean water.

The cat glanced down at the woman pinned beneath his paws and roared into her face. And then he padded silently away toward Lorenzo, sat down, and licked his teeth.

The hidalgo exhaled a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. Atoq had never given him any reason to fear for his own safety, but in the absence of affection, the man’s natural fear of inhuman eyes and enormous claws ruled his pounding heart. “Good boy.”

The cat blinked.

“Shifrah, it’s two against one now. If you had any chance before, it’s gone now. Please, see reason. Give up your weapons. Surrender to the police. I’ll come with you to see that you’re well treated, and I’ll even testify on your behalf. Perhaps we can negotiate some lesser punishment at your trial. Prison or labor.”

The Samaritan sat up and slowly got to her feet. “That’s just another sort of death sentence,” she said. “I won’t go willingly. I didn’t cross the width of Ifrica just to rot in a cell.”

Lorenzo circled the cat, who continued to lick his chops and gaze intently at the woman. “Well, maybe we can arrange something else. What you said a moment ago. You could come with me back to Espana. There is a nunnery in Madrid where I have a few friends. You could-”

“Give up my life of crime?” She smiled, shaking her head. “You’re a sweet boy. Some day you’ll make a dim-witted whore very happy, I’m sure. Maybe for a whole month, even.”

The hidalgo threw up his hands. “You want to die tonight? I won’t let you leave. I won’t let you kill anyone else. And the moment we draw our blades, I doubt I’ll be able to control Atoq. He’ll tear you to pieces. You’ll still be alive when he starts to feed on your flesh. Is that what you want? Is that really better than a cloister? Or a prison cell?”

A high-pitched scream split the night sky and they all looked north for the source of the cry. Lorenzo swallowed. The sound was not human. “Shifrah?”

The woman was slowly backing down the platform away from the plains and toward the city. A second scream tore at their ears, followed by three short squawks. Sharp claws skittered and scratched at the cobblestones of the street below them, but the creature remained hidden in the shadows. Shifrah had reached the edge of the platform and was descending the steps to the road. Atoq stood and sauntered toward her. Lorenzo followed them, glancing back at the dark street. Where is she? Is she hungry? And if she is, will she listen to my commands? Idiot. Why didn’t I bring meat for them?

Wayra strutted into the light beneath a streetlamp and paused to examine the ground for a moment. She lifted her head and opened her beak to hiss at the light, and then stalked across the street and leapt up onto the platform, her tail feathers spread wide and her neck plumage puffed and rippling in the breeze.

“Wayra! Here! Wayra!” Lorenzo raised his empty hand. The hatun-anka clicked forward, staring at him with her huge black eyes. “Good girl. Good girl.” He lowered his hands as the avian beast came to stand beside him. She smelled of dung and blood. “Good, okay.” Lorenzo turned to see Shifrah standing at the bottom of the steps. She glanced away up the street.

“Shifrah?” His heart began to pound again. “Shifrah, don’t do it. Don’t run. I’m serious. Do not run.”

The Samaritan glanced at the street again, and ran.

Wayra screamed as she vaulted off the platform and landed in the street only a few yards behind the fleeing woman. Lorenzo leapt down the steps and ran after them both. The wind snatched away his hat and tore at his coat, but the monstrous eagle was too fast, far too fast. He caught a glimpse of Shifrah’s white coat in the distance, and then once more, and then she fell to the ground and disappeared and all he could see were dark feathers and scaled talons.

Lorenzo jogged up to the edge of the street where Wayra stood, her head bowed to the cobbles, but when he circled her he saw no body on the ground. The bird was hissing and pecking at a dark gap between the curb and the cobblestones. The hidalgo knelt down, but he could see nothing in the utter darkness below. The stench of every sort of rot wafted up to him.

He jerked upright. A sewer. He’d heard of such things. A massive river of filth running beneath the entire city. Not the escape route I would have chosen.

As he stood up, Atoq padded up to his side and shoved his head against the man’s hand. Lorenzo saw his hat clenched in the cat’s teeth, and he gently took it and put it on. “Thank you, Atoq. I think you’ve earned your supper.”

Wayra lifted her head and squawked.

Lorenzo glared at the bird. “I’ll feed you, too. Not that you deserve it.”

Chapter 23. Qhora

Time and again she looked to her left, to the empty chair set aside for Lorenzo. Half an hour into supper, as the Mazigh small talk droned on over soups and fruit salads and roast lamb, Qhora was growing desperate for some sense of inclusion. She felt like a creature from one of Enzo’s ghost stories, unable to enjoy the taste of the food, unable to speak to anyone, and generally ignored by everyone.

Two dozen well-dressed women and men sat at Lady Sade’s table and they kept the servants running for Hellan wine, for rags to mop up spills, and for exotic dishes that had not been on the original menu. Twice at least she had looked out the windows to see porters dashing out into the street and dashing back with covered baskets, no doubt from some grocer who was making a fortune on this one evening alone at the cost of a good night’s sleep.

Several times, Qhora tried to get Lady Sade’s attention, only to receive a polite wave and thin smile from the head of the table. She had nearly resigned herself to sitting in prim silence until excused from the table when she suddenly realized the entire conversation had shifted from Mazigh into Espani, though in several strained and awkward accents.

“Lady Qhora, is it true your people ride birds instead of horses?” a thin man asked.

Qhora blinked, momentarily stunned by the sudden inclusion in the discussion. “Yes, that’s true. The hatun-ankas are superior mounts on any terrain and formidable warriors on the battlefield. They were critical to our defense against the Espani.”

“Ah yes, the Espani,” he said. “Curious people. Did you know they spend more than a quarter of all their national revenues on their churches? A quarter! It’s no wonder they’re so primitive. If they invested that money properly in basic infrastructure and utilities, their larger cities would be almost as lovely as ours.”

Qhora gripped her glass a bit tighter. “I find Tartessos quite lovely, in its own way. Those churches are the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. The stoneworks, the frescoes, the statuary, the stained glass, the mosaics. They are all stunning. The Basilica of Saint Paul is without question the single grandest place in the entire world.”

“Well, of course, anyone can pour money into a building. I’m sure Darius has a palace or two in Persia that one might call the grandest place in the world,” a young lady said. “But what about when they’re not praying to their ghosts? No trains, no streetcars, no steamships, no telegrams, no electric lights. They’re living in the stone age!”

The Incan princess cleared her throat. “The Espani live very much as my people do, in that respect. Although I must say, over the past year I have noted a distinct lack of explosions, corpses, thieves, bandits, and vagrants in Tartessos.” She carefully placed a berry in her mouth and chewed while gazing calmly at her plate.

The uncomfortable silence only lasted a moment before Lady Sade said, “Well, our distinguished guest from the New World certainly has a point. We know all too well that recent changes in our laws, and taxes, and foreign policies have had some undesirable effects.”

Qhora nodded. “It must be quite trying for a person of means, responsibilities, and intelligence to be forced to conform to such laws.”

“Quite so.” Lady Sade smiled and exchanged a quick glance with the elderly woman to her left. “But laws change over time with changes in governments. When our ancestors first came to this land, they split with the Kel Tamasheq of the east. Over the centuries, we were invaded, colonized, and mingled with one nation after another. The Phoenicians, the Hellans, the Persians, the Romans, the Songhai, the Espani. Our laws changed, our customs changed. We’ve borrowed more words from other languages than we’ve invented for ourselves. Even the country itself is called Marrakesh today because of some cartographer in Persia, or Eran, or whatever they call it now. Considering our history, I suppose we should be thankful to be living in a time of relative peace and freedom from open warfare.” Lady Sade paused to empty her water glass. “Did you know, Lady Qhora, that even just a few years ago Marrakesh was a very different country? My grandmother was the ancestral governess of Arafez, not its elected executive as I am today. Back then, our people still held to the ancient castes. My family, and all of our friends here tonight, were of the Imajeren. We ruled over Imrad workers, Ineslemen priests, Inadin smiths and artists, and of course, Ikelan slaves. There was far less disorder in those days.”

“The families of Cusco have similar distinctions,” Qhora said brightly. This is going so well. Perhaps this is all she had planned. To let me into this circle of elite and honored families. Of course they are cautious, they have been stripped of their blood rights and proper titles. The lower classes would revolt if they thought their lords and ladies wanted to return to the old ways. This is why I came here. To find these people. My people. “I can’t imagine what would happen to the Empire if we turned our backs on the old ways. It would be chaos, at least.”

“Yes. Chaos. That’s just the word,” said the old woman next to Sade. “It is chaos. Young hooligans running through the streets. Country bumpkins filling up the slums. Idiots in the factories losing hands and feet and eyes. Lines of beggars a mile long, begging for food, begging for clothes. Begging, begging, begging!” She dropped a wrinkled hand on the table and her wine sloshed as the glass shuddered. “And why? Why? I remember when I was a little girl, there were no Europans, no Persians or Eranians or whatever they are, no foreigners at all. The farmers stayed on their farms. The only armed men served the crown, not some bureaucracy. And the poor had the decency to stay in their hovels in the hills!”

Qhora tried not to grin. The old woman reminded her of her own grandmother, an irascible old lady with dim eyes and shaking hands and an iron opinion about everything under the sun. “Well, I’m sure if you present your grievances to Her Highness, she will listen to you. You are, after all, her most respectable subjects. Or is it citizens, now? I’m sure the queen doesn’t want her streets full of beggars and thieves any more than you do.”

“Oh, I’m sure she doesn’t,” Lady Sade said. “And yet, here we are.”

“Here we are,” the thin man echoed. “Hiding in our houses behind our gates and our guards to keep the bloodthirsty rabble at bay. And where is Her Royal Highness? In a palace on a mountain, selling our secrets to the southern kings.”

“Oh, whine, whine, whine!” a young woman exclaimed. “All you do is whine!”

“Well, what else can I do?” he demanded. “I’ve written letters, I’ve met with her in person, I’ve applied for a seat in parliament. It all goes nowhere.” He picked apart a bit of bread on the edge of his plate. “Why? What have you done?”

The young woman’s face softened. “I tried to organize a work gang. My man went about, gathering up the layabouts near my house, intending to direct them to help with the repairs on the Heru Bridge.”


“And the police stopped my man and sent the workers back to laying about in the street begging for…for whatever it is they beg for.” The woman blushed.

Qhora stared. “The police stopped you from putting those men to work? Why?”

“The queen’s law. No one can be pressed into labor, and apparently my man was pressing them too hard,” the woman said with a roll of her eyes. “It’s all nonsense.”

“You’re such children.” The stern-faced gentleman on Qhora’s left sighed through his beard. “Beggars? Thieves? That’s all you ever talk about. Insects! The Songhai lords will give you something to complain about when their airships swarm over the Atlas Mountains next summer. They’ll come by the hundreds, by the thousands. They’ll rain Hellan fire on us from a mile overhead. This city will be nothing but ash by the end of the first day. The streets will run with blood, Imajeren and Ikelan alike.”

“Oh, no, they won’t,” the thin man said with a roll of his eyes.

“Yes, they will. I had supper with the Lord General himself last week. I’ve never seen the man so gray, so wasted with worry. Her Royal Highness has already sold blueprints, materials, and the services of no less than six airship engineers each to Gao and Timbuktu to strengthen her so-called treaties and trade agreements.”

A tense quiet filled the room.

“Then we can all be grateful that Emperor Askia is nothing like his predecessor,” Lady Sade said softly. “Askia is a man of peace and commerce, and religion. He is a builder and a priest, not a warrior. If Askia builds a fleet of Songhai airships, they will carry his people on pilgrimages to the holy cities of Eran. They will not carry soldiers here. God willing.”

Qhora studied the faces around her and saw the proud eyes and sneering faces had all gone pale and wan, throats swallowing and hands groping for wine glasses. “The Songhai must be formidable neighbors,” she said.

The gentleman on her left said, “My dear, under the previous emperor Sonni Ali, the ancient kings of the south were put to the sword and the torch. The Mali. The Mossi. The Dogon. The Ashanti. The Yoruba. He destroyed cities that he didn’t even bother to conquer. Destroyed them just to take their cattle and shut down the old trading posts, to destroy bridges, salt fields, and fill in wells. Sonni Ali made his cities the wealthiest in West Ifrica by driving all commerce across his borders. He drove men as men drive cattle. With whips and hate. History no doubt will remember his genius on the battlefield and his great works in Timbuktu. But I will remember the highways paved in bones.”

“Surely, Her Highness wouldn’t sell your machines to this new emperor if she believed he would use them to invade her own country?” Qhora looked to her hostess. “Would she?”

Lady Sade sighed and offered a meek shrug of her slender shoulders. “I would hope not, but I don’t know. Rome and Carthage are warring over the islands of the Middle Sea using our steamships. Darius is moving his troops across Eran with our locomotives. I just don’t know.”

Qhora played with her tiny fork, the smallest of three on the side of her plate. A grim pall had fallen over the table. Only the clicking of silverware and moist eating noises rustled through the silence like frightened rabbits in the brush. She saw gold rings shake on unsteady hands and painted lips pressed thin, women folding and refolding the napkins in their laps, and men staring vacantly into their empty wine glasses. She cleared her throat and said, “What if you spoke to the Songhai emperor yourselves? Or his lords? What if you approached them with your own treaties? Secured alliances between their cities and yours?”

“What?” The gentleman turned to her, but his frown vanished a moment later. “Ah, I see what you mean. No, unfortunately, any rights we once had to represent our cities independently were lost when the old queen abolished the aristocracy, almost a century ago.” He nodded to himself. “To ally Arafez with Timbuktu would be treason against the crown. Her Royal Highness might not be ready for war with the south, but she would certainly march her soldiers into her own cities.”

Qhora stared at him. “She’s done this before?”

“Last year, the governor of Acra began talks with the Silver Prince over, oh, what was it? Fishing rights around the Canaari Islands, I think. Her Highness sent two legions to quietly remove the duly elected governor and ensure that her citizen-subjects did not object to the sudden change in government. It was a summer storm, just a few days’ disruption and only a handful of shots fired, but Her Highness’s message came through quite clearly.” The gentleman plucked at the frail white hairs on his knuckles and his whole body seemed to diminish down into his chair as he exhaled. “We’re prisoners in our own country.”

“It’s unconscionable!” Qhora slammed down her fork. “It’s unthinkable! This queen is no queen, she’s an incompetent tyrant! So terrified of her own governors that she sends soldiers against her own people? So terrified of invasion that she sells your weapons to your most dangerous enemies? I’m sorry, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, but the time has long since passed when you should have taken action.”

“Action? What sort of action?” Lady Sade looked up from her glass and gestured to the young man who had spoken a few moments earlier. “My friend has just told you what happens when we try to take action. Our messages are ignored, our proposals rejected, our attempts to join her inner councils rebuffed. We can’t even put the homeless to work in our own city. What can we possibly do?”

“When the Espani first came to my country, they were led by four brothers, the Pizzaros. Our emperor, my cousin Manco Inca, was a young man, a naive boy, and he was quite impressed by them. He gave them seats of honor, hung on their every word, drooled over their armor and guns, and buried them in gold. Within half a year, the Pizzaros had become the lords of Cusco, beating our lords and taking their ladies, and Manco all the while pleading and begging for their approval.” Qhora squeezed the fork tighter. “Finally, we could stand it no longer, we could wait no longer. My father and his fellow generals gathered their armies and declared war on the Pizzaros. Manco, of course, remained in his delusion until the last moment, though finally he relented. The war raged for most of a year as we ferreted out every last Espani outpost. Fortunately, the Golden Death had already weakened their ranks and the only real resistance came from the men still arriving on our shores. But we reclaimed our freedoms and our security. And now you need to do the same before a Songhai army streams over your borders, before your families and children are put to the sword.”

“Revolution?” The young man who Lady Sade had pointed out ran his fingers lightly back and forth around the edge of his gold-painted plate. His voice was faint and uncertain, but after he cleared his throat he said, a bit more loudly, “You believe we should publicly oppose the queen? Even to the point of violence?”

“Without question.” Qhora peered into his downcast face and saw what a feeble sheep of a man he was now that he had nothing to bray about. “Your families were great once, but they were not great because of the blood in their veins or the gold in their purses. They were great because they were people who did great things. They united their people, defeated their enemies, raised cities from the plains, and wielded the law as a warrior wields a sword. If you want to reclaim your country, if you want to reclaim your great names, then you will have to do great things, too.”

The older gentleman smiled sadly at her. “If I was a younger man, I might rush off to fight for riches and power. Heaven knows, I probably would have rushed off to fight just to earn a smile from a young lady as pretty as you. But we are not warriors, not anymore. We are accountants and landlords, bankers and industrialists. We wield pens, not swords. We have no armies, no great war-birds or war-cats at our command. And I fear not even the Lord General himself would raise his hand against the queen. He holds his own honor more dearly than his life. No, I’m sorry, Lady Qhora, but this is no longer a land where revolution has any meaning. Not without the masses, anyway.”

“Then raise the masses,” Qhora said. “They’re hungry and homeless. They’re angry and desperate. Give them a banner, give them a leader, and give them a target. They will be your army. No legion will stand against their own brothers and sisters on the battlefield. Then the queen’s army will become yours as well and you may walk into her palace unopposed and put a proper leader in her place. Someone strong and sensible. Someone with pride in your country, with faith in its future.”

“Like who?” the gentleman asked.

Qhora glanced around the table. “I wouldn’t know, I’m still a stranger here. Perhaps someone like our hostess, Lady Sade.” She saw the lady in question blush demurely.

“And how would one go about such a venture?” the elderly lady beside Sade asked. “Gather our people and walk out into the fields with rocks and clubs? Or shut down our factories and wait for the legions to arrive?”

Qhora shook her head. “I don’t think that would be proper, given the circumstances. You need to publicize your goals before the killing starts. Everyone needs to know what is happening and why, or there will be chaos and your cause will be lost before the fighting even begins.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

The princess said, “A declaration of war.”

Chapter 24. Taziri

A middle-aged woman at the wedding had been quick to praise the Espani doctor and just as quick to spout off the directions to her offices. Over the din of the music, Taziri had asked for them repeated, twice, but as she wound through the city she began to suspect she had gotten the last several turns wrong. A strolling policeman was able to set her right and twenty minutes later she found the grimy number plate of the doctor’s office on a large stone building that appeared much older than the row houses to either side of it.

She pounded on the front door, waited, and pounded again. I’m too late, of course. Everyone’s gone home for the night.

Taziri was about to turn away when she heard soft footsteps echoing inside the building and a few moments later the locks clicked and the door swung open. A young woman with grease-smeared cheeks and dark bags under her eyes smiled politely from the shadowed entrance. “Yes?”

Taziri’s empty stomach twisted into a tight lump. Oh my God, this is her. No, wait, she doesn’t look Espani. “Hi. I’m sorry about the late hour, I wasn’t sure anyone would be here. Are you Doctor Medina?”

“No, I’m one of her assistants. We’re closed for the night. I thought you might be a friend of mine bringing a bit of supper, but I guess I’m going hungry tonight. Again.” She stuck her tongue out and grinned. “Is there something I can do for you, or do you want to come back tomorrow when the doctor is in?”

“Uhm. Well, I’m not sure, really. I guess I should come back tomorrow.”

The woman frowned. “What’s wrong with your hand?”

Taziri glanced down and discovered she’d been massaging the numb fingers of her left hand again. Her wrist felt so weak she was almost afraid to lift her hand to wave it. “Oh. It’s nothing. There was a fire the other night and something hit my arm.”

“Did a doctor take a look at it?” The woman stepped out into the street, her frown deepening. “Did they send you here? Why did you wait? You should have come right away. Burns are very dangerous. They’re difficult to assess correctly and they can grow worse if not treated properly.”

Taziri’s first thought went to the shivering wreckage of Medur Hamuy, curled up and shaking like a frightened child on the deck of the Halcyon. My God, could that be happening to me? Could I be dying from this burn? What about Menna? Suddenly her heart was pounding and she had to swallow to clear her throat. “There was so much going on. I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“You didn’t think?” The woman glanced around at the distant streetlamps. “Come inside so I can take a look at it. Come on.” She led Taziri into the cavernous building down a long hallway with a wooden floor that snapped and creaked with every step they took. They passed several open and closed doors and finally came to a large room at the back of the building where a handful of burning candles and lanterns revealed a workshop filled with mechanical bits for peg-legs and hook-hands, some crude and simple made of wood, and others elegant and complex made of shining metals.

“My name is Jedira, by the way.” The woman motioned her guest onto a stool beside a work bench.


“Hello, Taziri. Nice jacket. Air Corps? Is that how you got the burn?”

“Yes. The fire in Tingis.” Taziri grabbed the cuff of her sleeve but Jedira stopped her and together they very gingerly slid the engineer’s arm out of the armored flight jacket.

Taziri went cold at the sight of her arm. The sleeve of her thermal shirt was black and twisted and threaded with blobs of red and white something. Her hands began to shake but Jedira quickly produced a pair of scissors and cut away the sleeve as gently as possible, tugging her skin only slightly as the last of the fabric came away. In the bright light of the lantern beside her, Taziri saw a black band of scorched flesh around her coppery forearm. The color contrast alone brought the taste of bile to her mouth. But as she rotated her arm, she saw that it was no longer a smooth column of flesh connecting her elbow to her wrist, but a gnarled and twisted tree branch. It almost looked as though a small dog had taken a bite out of the underside of her forearm, though the weeping sores and mangled skin appeared miraculously intact. At least I can’t see any muscle or bone. She swallowed hard to get the burning acidic taste out of her throat. “Is it bad?”

Jedira nodded. “I’m sorry. You see this pale area? This means the blood vessels are severed and probably dead by now. There’s no blood getting to your muscle, so it’s dying. Any weakness in your arm or hand?”

Taziri nodded.

“How long has it been now since the fire?”

“One day exactly.”

“Okay.” Jedira selected a magnifying glass from her tool rack and inspected the burn again. “Well, I would guess that the worst is over. Or at least, the worst has happened. Your fingers still have their color, so there’s blood getting to your hand. That’s very good. You could have lost your whole hand.”

Taziri shuddered, unable to process the idea of losing a part of her body.

“Any loss of feeling? Numbness, tingling, coldness?”

Taziri nodded. “I can’t feel these two fingers at all. I can move them, but they feel sort of rubbery or wooden.”

“Well, that might be temporary, but it might not. It means nerve damage. If it’s minor, then it might heal. I really can’t guess, though.”

Taziri reached out slowly with her right hand to ever so lightly touch the burned flesh on her left forearm. It was hot, stiff, and dry, with fibers from her sleeve still embedded in it. “So it’s not going to get better?” What is Yuba going to say when he sees this? It’s disgusting. I can’t let Menna see it. It will give her nightmares.

“After the area recovers from the shock of the burn, and the dead flesh comes away, your skin will adapt. It will dry out and stiffen, sort of like a scar. You’re lucky that it didn’t happen near a joint, like your elbow, or it might have seized up your whole arm as it healed.”

“But I can barely lift my hand as it is. Isn’t there anything I can do?”

“There’s a sink behind you. Run the water over the burn, gently, just for a minute. Don’t rub it or anything. Let’s get it cleaned off.”

When Taziri returned from the sink, she still held her arm away from her body at an awkward angle, not willing to risk moving it and damaging it further. It was still unreal, still a horrible dream and some part of her mind was willing to sleepwalk through it until it ended and she woke to find her arm healthy and whole again.

Jedira promptly fetched a white case from another table and opened it beside them. She produced a roll of gauze and began lightly wrapping it around Taziri’s arm from the elbow all the way to the wrist. “You’ll need to take this off to rinse the area once a day. But the rest of the time you need to keep it covered. Okay?”

Taziri nodded. I can deal with this. It’s just a broken part. Nothing to get worked up about. A damaged arm. Treat it right, follow the instructions, and everything will be okay. I can do that. With the gauze hiding the burn and even camouflaging the deformed outline of her forearm, Taziri felt her nerves settling. It doesn’t look so bad now. Just a bit of gauze. That’s nothing. She flexed her fingers and felt how heavy and clumsy her hand felt wobbling on her wrist. “I can’t support it. I can’t hold it still. I’m not going to be able to use my tools, or…shit. Or fly the ship.” She covered her mouth with her right hand and stared off into space. What am I going to do? How am I going to support Yuba and Menna?

“Now that I can fix,” Jedira said cheerfully. She hopped off her stool and dashed away to another table, and another bin, and another shelf, and returned with a handful of metal parts. She held up an aluminum tube that tapered slightly at one end. “This is a standard medical brace. We use them for all sorts of things, but mostly setting broken bones. Here.” She opened the tube like a clam shell on its tiny hinges and carefully closed it over Taziri’s bandaged arm. Three small clasps closed with sharp clicks. “There. Almost a perfect fit. And now you put on this glove.”

The fingers of the leather glove had been snipped away and thin brass plates had been stitched to the palm and the back of the hand. After Taziri slipped it on, Jedira set about screwing a set of slender rods into place connecting the brace to the glove. When she was done, the rods and plates held Taziri’s hand rigidly in place while allowing her fingers to move freely.

Taziri waved her armored arm around, trying to get used to the weight of the contraption. It was awkward, but not unbearable. And while it was strange not being able to swivel her hand back and forth, with a few tries she found she could easily pick up the tools on the table or from the rack and get her fingers around them to use them properly. “This is great. I can work with this. If I keep this on, will my arm be able to heal? Will my wrist get stronger?”

Jedira pressed her lips and shook her head. “No. You’ll have to keep wearing the brace to use your hand. In fact, with your hand immobilized, what’s left of your wrist muscles will atrophy from lack of use.”

“So…” Taziri stared at the heavy metal thing strapped and bolted to her body. “…so I’m going to have to wear this for the rest of my life?”

“I’m afraid so,” Jedira said. “I know that’s not what you want to hear, but you should count yourself lucky. The injury could have been much, much worse. You’ll keep your hand, and with a little practice with the brace, you’ll probably be able to keep working, too.”

It was too much to think about all at once. The idea of losing her hand, or even dying. The idea of not being able to work and support her family. The idea of becoming one of those people who sits at home all day, every day, alone, waiting for someone to come and help them, to feed them. And now this alternative, this new life with a metal arm.

“Thank you.” Taziri shook herself out of the spiraling questions and images of things that might have been or might still yet happen. “Thank you for this. For everything. Thank you, so much. What do I owe you?”

“Nothing.” Jedira wiped her hands on a rag, smiling. “Everything here is free to the public.”

“But who pays for it all?”

“Lady Sade, of course. She brought Doctor Medina here to help with worker injuries, and the doctor has been training the rest of us to make and use prosthetics. For free.”

Taziri nodded. Medina treats injured workers for free by day. And then what? She puts electrical weapons into patients by night? What is going on here? “Well, if I don’t see the doctor or Lady Sade, please thank them for me. And if you’re ever in Tingis, my door is open to you.”

“Thank you very much. Are you going to be okay with that?” Jedira nodded at the brace. “The rods are stronger than they look, but you’ll need to keep the parts clean, just like your burn.”

Taziri smiled and a warmth filled her cheeks. “Keeping machines running is what I do best. I think I’ll manage.”

The walk back to the bed-and-breakfast was slow and ended with Taziri sitting on the edge of a bed across from a snoring Ghanima. She removed her jacket carefully, sliding it off over the rods and plates. Taziri sat in the pale moonlight and stared at her arm. It was awkward. It was going to be awkward for a long time. But it was okay. She had a long time to get used to it. And time made all the difference.

Chapter 25. Kella

The police station was unusually noisy for a weeknight. Gray-suited street officers dragged in angry teenagers, drunks, and prostitutes every few minutes. But the stream of foot traffic remained confined to the hall between the front door and the overnight holding cells, without a single message coming back to the detectives’ offices. Kella was straightening up her desk for the evening when she saw the desk sergeant coming her way with a young woman behind him. He walked quickly to reach her desk ahead of the woman and he leaned forward to whisper in her ear, “It’s about that special address you mentioned earlier.” He stepped away with a wink and then hurried back to the front desk.

Kella shook the young woman’s hand, noting the worry lines on her forehead and clamminess of her hands. “Miss? I’m Detective Kella Massi. Let’s just go over here to a private room and you can tell me what happened, all right?” She motioned toward a half-open door and the woman went inside, tightly clutching her shoulder bag with both hands.

The electric bulb in the ceiling was burnt out, but a lamp was glowing on the table and the small room was bright and warm. The woman sat down at the table as the detective closed the door behind them. She said, “My name is Jedira Amadi. I’m a medical technician at the prosthetics shop just a few blocks over on Greenwood Road. That’s where I saw it. I mean, that’s what I came to tell you about. I need to report a…a medical crime.”

“Greenwood Road.” Doctor Medina. Kella sat down across from the woman and slowly pulled out a small pad and pencil from her jacket pocket. So it’s started already. Or have they been coming in all along and I’m just now getting in on the madness? “All right. Start at the beginning. Take your time.”

“Well, I was getting ready to close up and go home for the night, about two hours ago, when there was a knock at the door,” Jedira said. “We were closed, but I went to see who it was anyway. It was a pilot with a burn on her arm. It was pretty bad, but I cleaned it up as best I could, and then we got to talking for a little while. Eventually she left and I was getting ready to lock up when I heard a noise in the basement. I went down to see what it was and I found a room.” She stopped abruptly and swallowed, her eyes darting off to the side.

“It was open?” Kella asked. Of course it wasn’t. “What was in the room?”

“The door was locked, but I have the master key for the building so I was able to open it…”

Kella’s pencil froze. Oh crap.

“…and that’s when I saw the cages. Dozens of cages. There were dogs, birds, monkeys, a giant turtle thing, a snake, a cat.” Jedira gestured in a circular motion as though there were more to her list but she couldn’t quite remember what. “Anyway, I tried to open the cages, but they had a different type of lock on them. That’s when I saw the machines.”

Kella rubbed her forehead. “Let’s just back up for a minute. You saw some animals in cages. How does that constitute a medical crime?”

“I’m just getting to that part,” Jedira said. “The machines. They were in the animals. I mean, there were other machines in the room, on the floor, but these machines were different. They were in the animals, detective. They were inside the animals.”

Kella looked in the woman’s wide, pleading eyes and nodded slowly. Okay, you can defuse this. She’s a medic. Break it down for her logically. Take the emotion out of the equation. “Miss, you said you’re a medical technician. I assume your office treats all sorts of patients with all sorts of medical tools.”

“No, no! These weren’t tools. They were, were, I don’t know what they were, but they weren’t the tools or prosthetics we use on people. These were different. Sunken. Into the skin. Somehow.” The young woman swallowed rapidly and rubbed her forehead.

“Okay, so you saw some medical tools or devices that you weren’t familiar with. Who do you work for exactly?”

“No, you don’t underst-Doctor Elena Medina.”

“Ah.” Kella smiled and nodded slightly. “The Espani who does all the free work for injured laborers. I’ve heard of her. All right. I think I’m beginning to get the picture. You were in the office after hours, unsupervised. You entered a room you had never entered before. You found animals being treated with foreign medical instruments, most likely by your foreign supervisor. And now you are concerned about the animals’ well-being. Is that correct?”

“Well, I, I mean, yes, but, but it’s not that simple.” Jedira frowned, still looking slightly green and extremely exhausted. “These weren’t mechanical legs or skin shields. They weren’t on the outside, they were inside, sunken into the skin, with clockworks, moving parts, moving inside them. Hurting them.” Bright tears shone in the corners of her eyes but she knocked them away with a clenched fist. “It didn’t make any sense. That’s not what we do. There’s no good reason for that. Why would she do that to them?”

Kella sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the medical technician. You should be telling me. But I appreciate your bringing this to my attention. I’ll be sure to follow up with Doctor Medina to make sure nothing unethical is going on. All right?” She offered Jedira her standard professional smile, serious but not unfriendly.

Jedira shook her head. “No, I’m telling you, something was very wrong down there. You didn’t see the machines. I could hear them clicking inside the dog’s belly, and he was whining and scratching at it. The whole place smelled like an outhouse, and it was full of these machines I’ve never even seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of strange machines.” Jedira clawed her hands back through her hair. “Doesn’t that concern you? At all?”

“Miss, you just described every hospital I’ve ever been in. It sounds to me like this Doctor Medina is developing some new medical devices or techniques for injured workers and she’s using some new machines that you are not familiar with. Which is not a crime. Tell me, Miss Amadi, are you a doctor?”

Jedira blinked and the look in her eyes hardened. “No. I’m a technician. I make prosthetic arms and legs, and hands and feet, too.”

Kella pretended to scribble on her pad. I’m sorry I have to do this to you. You don’t deserve it, but when does that mean anything anymore? “So you admit you’re not qualified to diagnose a patient, particularly one with unusual or exotic symptoms, and certainly not an animal. And your expertise does not extend beyond arms and legs, does it? But more importantly, you didn’t see any people being treated strangely, did you? Only these caged animals?”

Jedira lips wavered for a moment before any words could come out. “No, I didn’t. But if you would just come with me back to the workshop, I could you show you. Right now. Please, it’s only a few blocks.”

“Why? If you couldn’t assess these animals or identify these medical devices in their bodies, then I doubt I would be able to, and I’ve seen quite a bit.” Kella sighed. “Look, miss, I can tell that whatever you saw was very upsetting, but you need to realize that these things happen. Medical experimentation is often unsettling, but it is rarely inhumane and it is for the betterment of our people, in the long run. Believe me, I see it all the time. I investigate industrial accidents every day.”

“But aren’t you a specialist in medical crimes? That’s what the desk sergeant said.”

“Medical crimes?” Kella tried to smile politely. “I’m not sure there’s any such thing. I spend most of my time trying to determine whether accidents were really accidents, and whether a worker or a factory-owner is to blame. There is a fair amount of medical analysis involved, though.”

“Fine, then come to my office and tell me what happened to the animals in the basement,” Jedira said. “Just come and look. It will take two minutes. Please. Just look at them.”

Kella cleared her throat and stopped trying to look friendly. “Look, if I have some time tomorrow, maybe I’ll come by, but I can’t make any promises. We’re very busy with our current case load. I’m sure you’ve noticed all the fights, the vandalism, the injuries. It’s been a rough month for everyone.”

Jedira closed her mouth and nodded, her eyes downcast and long thin fingers curling back around her shoulder bag. “There’s something else. Nitroh. I smelled nitroh down there. Sometimes I smell it on the miners I tend to, so I recognized it. Detective, nitroh is an explosive, not a medicine.”

“I see. As I said, I’ll look into it. If I have time.” Kella led the woman back to the front desk and saw her out. The detective cleared her throat. “In the mean time, I suggest you refrain from exploring your employer’s private rooms, and from making serious allegations against one of the few pillars of our struggling community without any evidence. Good night, Miss Amadi.”

The young woman looked up at her from the bottom of the steps, a horrible mask of defeat and loneliness etched around her eyes and mouth. She nodded once and left.

Kella waited until Jedira turned the corner and passed out of view, and then the detective jogged down the steps and headed off in the opposite direction. Screw this. I’m never doing that again. Lady Sade can find someone else to cover up her shit.

Detective Massi strode through the quiet city streets with her fists clenched in her jacket pockets. She wound her way around slower pedestrians, silently cursing them for existing. Their only purpose in life was clearly to not reach their destinations and thus take up space on the street, just to be in her way. She took alleys and little lanes where grass struggled to grow between the cobblestones, darting through the light of the gas lamps and the shadows. Her steps quickened.

The neighborhoods changed radically, almost from one block to another. Houses alternated between one, two, and three stories, breaking occasionally for the open expanse of a park or square, and contracting into sheer canyons walled in by warehouses and factories. Voices echoed from every direction, along with the clinking of plates and the slamming of doors. People, everywhere. People going home, eating supper.

As they should be. Not poking about in basements.

Kella turned a corner and nodded to the guard at the front gate, who let her enter the courtyard of the private estate. She passed the gardens and fountain and climbed the marble steps in front of the stately manor house, its tall windows glowing with golden lamplight. She rapped as politely as her mood would allow, and when the doorman opened the door he took one glance at her and stepped aside, out of her way. “Supper has just concluded, detective. The lady of the house is in the study to your left.”

Kella crossed the foyer and passed down a narrow hallway where oil portraits hung in near darkness to a small study furnished with padded leather chairs, bookcases bowing beneath weighty tomes, and glass cabinets displaying old Indian crockery, primitive Europan spears and knives, and other exotic antiques.

The two people seated by the lamp in the center of the room looked up at her and set their teacups aside. Lady Sade motioned toward the couch. Kella sat down carefully, trying to look less like an angry police officer and more like an obedient citizen. It proved difficult.

“Detective, good evening,” Lady Sade said. “Have you come to tell us some exceedingly good news about the recent rates of street crime?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“No, I didn’t think so.” Lady Sade glanced at her companion, an older gentleman with a thick black beard, and she picked up her tea. “Is it Chaou? Any news of our missing ambassador?”

“No, I haven’t heard anything about her. This is another matter.” Kella folded her hands tightly in her lap to avoid curling them into fists. “A matter regarding the doctor you introduced me to this afternoon.”

Sade nodded. “And?”

Kella looked at the man, the stranger, but neither of them seemed at all concerned about discussing the doctor openly. “A young woman came to the police station tonight. I was on my way out, another few minutes and I wouldn’t have been there to catch her. She’s a medical technician working for your doctor. She says she saw the animals in the doctor’s basement being mistreated. She saw machines she couldn’t identify.”

“Indeed. Did she now? And what was this young woman’s name?”

The detective narrowed her gaze. “She described, in some detail, the various animals and machines that she saw. She wanted to show me, but I brushed her off and I tried to convince her that whatever she thinks she saw was nothing criminal.”

“Good.” Lady Sade sipped her tea silently. “Do you think she will let the matter drop?”

“No, I don’t,” Kella said. “She was terrified and disgusted. She came straight to the police as soon as she saw that room. I’m guessing she’ll probably tell her friends, or anyone who might be more supportive or sympathetic, and then go back to the police again, possibly with more evidence. She might even try to free the animals herself. She was very emotional.”

“Then we have a problem.”

“My lady, what is this doctor really doing?” Kella asked the question too quickly, before Sade had quite finished speaking. For a moment no one spoke, and the detective wondered if she would be chastised for speaking out of turn. She had heard rumors, only rumors but more than one, that Lady Sade frequently dispatched her private agents to punish those who were even slightly rude to her. Case files full of unsolved poisonings and stabbings washed through Kella’s mind.

But the lady only sipped her tea as before. “What did I tell you the doctor was doing?”

“Research, to help people.” Kella knew she was frowning, but she didn’t care anymore. “Is that what the doctor is really doing? Does she plan to help future patients by inserting these machines into their bodies? And by experimenting with explosive chemicals?”

“You seem upset, detective.” The governor tilted her head. “Why is that?”

Kella glanced down at her hands and forced them open to rest on the arms of the chair. “My lady, when you approached me about performing certain tasks for you, to help you with certain projects, I took that to mean I would be protecting the peace of this city and the security of the country. I was honored. And I understand that difficult times and circumstances require us to make certain sacrifices, to do what needs to be done, rather than what we would like to do.”

“But you no longer feel that way?”

The detective tried to put the words together in her mind as carefully as possible. “I am no longer certain that my actions are in the best interests of public security.”

“And if I explain to you exactly what the Espani doctor is doing, then that will set your mind at ease?” Lady Sade passed her empty cup to her silent companion to be refilled. “Do you want to know everything that I know? Do you feel you deserve to be privy to all of my private enterprises? Or is it that you wish to debate with me how I should conduct my affairs? Perhaps you have studied our national politics, the currents of our markets, the tides of public opinion and morale, and you have some suggestions as to how I might better serve my people?”

“No, my lady.” Kella glanced down, a quiet rage simmering in her chest.

“No?” Lady Sade shrugged her slender shoulders as she received her steaming cup. “As you wish. Then you will simply have to trust my judgment in the matter of the doctor.”

“Yes, my lady.” Kella studied the silent man, trying to place him. His face was familiar, probably from the rough portrait sketches in the newspapers that made everyone look vaguely alike. For a moment, the detective considered formally resigning her special appointment. But then what? A knife in a dark alley to silence me, and someone else takes my place as her errand girl? No, I’ve got to stay inside on this one until I know what’s going on. “I’m sorry I disturbed you and your guest, Lady Sade. It won’t happen again.”

Lady Sade nodded curtly and slid back in her seat, just a bit, and turned her body to face her companion, and Kella sensed that she had been dismissed. She stood, smoothed her jacket, and left.

Detective Massi took the long way home, which was one of several long ways she had deliberately mapped out in her mind for various reasons. This particular long way required her to cross several wide open parks and squares that offered no convenient places to loiter in hiding, and carried her past many long shiny store windows that cast enormous reflections of the streets around anyone who happened to walk by. This was a popular neighborhood, one filled with cafes and teahouses and shops peddling both traditional and novelty items from clothing to mechanical toys. During the day, these parks and squares became stages for singers, storytellers, acrobats, and preachers, and in the evenings they plied their trade all the more fervently, but now, in the dark of night, these places stood empty, swept clean by street workers and guarded only by the silent gas lamps sputtering atop their posts.

It took more than a half hour of meandering through open spaces and past reflective surfaces for Kella to spot the dark figure following her. He walked with a male stride, his posture too correct for the business of lurking and sneaking. He moved from shadow to doorway to corner, silently and swiftly. He clearly thought he knew his business. He didn’t.

Kella felt through the pocket of her gray jacket to the only weapon issued to members of Security Section Five: the police club, a slender little bit of wood with a small iron ring screwed into the business end to lend it some extra weight. The detective wondered how threatening a professional killer would find such a weapon. Her hand slipped around to the small of her back and she pulled out a folded knife and she thrust it into her front pocket. At the next corner she paused, kicked her shoes loudly against the stoop as though to clean them, and then sauntered into an alleyway where she promptly flattened herself against the wall and waited.

A moment later the dark figure flowed past the mouth of the alley, so quickly and quietly that Kella almost missed him, but she stepped out into the street and just managed to tap him on the shoulder.

The man in the black cloak whirled about, and though his face remained shadowed by his hood, the gun in his hand gleamed brightly. Kella grabbed the long barrel of the revolver in her left hand and then dealt the man a vicious punch to the throat with her fist wrapped around her folded knife. The man gasped and stumbled, but did not release the gun, and Kella felt the cylinder begin to turn beneath her fingers. She snapped the gun up and toward him, wrenching it free of his grip and then stepped back, brandishing both her unfolded knife and the gun. “Don’t move.”

The man fell still except for the one hand still massaging his throat. Then he broke into a run and vanished down the next alley. Kella sprinted after him, darting down the alley around discarded bits of broken furniture and piles of rags and wide dark puddles. Ahead, she saw the stranger reach the end of the alley and dash to the left down the street. Kella passed the corner a moment later, ducking as the man in black lunged at her, swinging his fist level with where the detective’s head should have been. Instead, his arm whirled through empty space and his wrist connected with the brick corner of the building, and he cried out. Kella snapped up from her crouch and threw two punches to the man’s stomach, and then kicked his legs out from beneath him.

The man fell to the ground on his rear, not so much moaning as growling through clenched teeth as he squeezed his injured wrist with his other hand. Kella knelt down beside him, leaning her knee against the man’s leg, pinning him in place. She shoved the gun in his face as she unfolded her knife blade. “I said don’t move.”

“I can see why she picked you. Even if you are old.” The man’s voice was strained as he tried not to make any more pained noises. “You’re pretty tough.”

“That makes one of us.” Kella pushed back the man’s hood with the tip of the open knife. An unremarkable male face stared up at her in the lamplight. An adult, but of any age. Neither handsome nor ugly. Nothing memorable about him at all. The perfect agent. “Do you have a name?”

“Not when I’m working.”

“Well, you’re not working anymore. Possession of a firearm and assaulting a police officer. You’re under arrest now, and probably will be for some time.” Kella poked inside the man’s coat with the barrel of the gun, but found no other weapons. “You were going to shoot me? In the street? Seems like a good way to attract a lot of attention. Not very assassin-like. You’d wake people up, they’d coming running to see what the fuss was about. You’d only have a few moments to get away or hide.”

“My orders were very specific.”

“Orders? From Lady Sade?” Kella frowned and nodded to herself. “So were you just lurking around the house waiting for someone to kill, or did she have to send out for you?”

The man merely winced as he continued rubbing his wrist.

“No, I didn’t think you’d want to talk about her.” Kella straightened up and glanced around the empty street. “Not to worry. That’s what cells are for.”

The man managed a wheezy laugh. “I won’t talk in a cell, either.”

“Then you can just rot in one. Either way works for me. Come on, up on your feet.” The detective pulled the man up, wrapped her fingers around the sturdy fabric of his collar, and shoved the muzzle of the gun into the small of his back. “All right, let’s take a walk.”

They set out down the street in single file. The man in black tilted his head back with a raised eyebrow. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in making some sort of deal?”

“Only if you and all of your little friends feel like testifying against Sade before a high court.”

The man snorted. “I was thinking of a different sort of deal. As in, you let me go and I tell you where another of my little friends is right now.”

Kella jerked her prisoner to a halt under a streetlamp. “Where?”

“Let me go first.”

Kella slammed the man into the lamppost. “Where?”

He grunted. “I don’t think you have time to play guessing games. We already wasted a lot of time meandering through this neighborhood. My little friend has quite a head start on you, and she’s very motivated to make a good showing tonight. So let me go and I’ll tell you who the target is.”

Kella shoved the man away, turning him so they stood face to face, and then she shoved the gun into his cheek. “Who is it?”

“Look, I know you’re an honest officer. Make the right call. Let me go. After all, I haven’t hurt anyone, and I’m unarmed. You saw to that.”

“Who is the target?”

The man squinted and pursed his lips. “Third district. Some sort of medical machine shop. One of the employees. A girl called Amadi.”

I never mentioned her name. Sade must have a list of the doctor’s employees. Kella tightened her grip on him. “It’s the middle of the night. She won’t be at the shop.”

“No.” The man smiled and took a small step back from the gun. “So my friend is no doubt running around town at this moment, trying to find where she lives. I got the easy job, killing you. I hate research. Questions. Talking. Boring.”

Kella grabbed the man’s shirt and yanked him forward, and brought the butt of the gun down on the top of his head. The assassin slumped against her, unconscious. She pulled out her manacles and hastily shackled the limp body to the lamppost, and dashed away into the city. All the way back to the third district! Kella glared at the road flying by underfoot. At least she knew the target’s name, the whole name. Jedira Amadi. But she didn’t have an address. Yet.

She pounded up block after block through the fifth district, darting around corners, narrowly avoiding two collisions with young couples walking arm in arm in the dark. As she crossed the avenue that marked the edge of the third district, Kella bent her course east, angling not toward the prosthetics shop but toward the police station. She burst through the heavy doors, drawing stares from the handful of officers still leaning over the papers on their desks, and ran to the records room. The narrow room was little more than a long path for walking between two rows of massive filing cabinets that stretched from floor to ceiling. The detective scanned the drawer labels, then yanked open the city directory. Amadi, Amadi… Jedira Amadi. The address. Five blocks away.

Kella strode back into the main room and pointed at the officers at their desks. “You over there, get down to High Street in the fifth district. You’ll find a man shackled to a lamppost near Carter’s Square. Bring him in. Attempted murder with a firearm. The rest of you need to sweep the streets right now for a lone killer, female, possibly armed with a revolver. Stop and search anyone you find out there. Usem, you’re with me.”

The room leapt to life as officers grabbed their jackets and clubs and lanterns and rushed out into the street. The one officer loped away to the right and Kella led the others to the left into the third district. They jogged through the darkness and puddles of light around the lampposts, crossing streets and squares and alleys. In ones and twos, the officers dashed away in every direction until only Usem was still with her. Finally, Kella pointed out the small door next to a bakery bearing Amadi’s address. The door was locked.

“Jedira Amadi!” Kella pounded on the door. “This is Detective Massi, from earlier. Jedira! Miss Amadi! Open up! Hello? Hello!”

The detective paused as a distant strain of music caught her ear. Someone was whistling a single clear melody echoing faintly down the street. She turned and saw a figure in a white coat in the middle of the road sauntering toward them. A woman, she guessed by the way she walked, and as the seconds passed she saw that the woman was staring at them. The tune warbling out of her pursed lips was a nursery rhyme, a lullaby that had the oddly disturbing sort of lyrics typical of all lullabies, softly bribing the child to be quiet and go to sleep, or else a monster might appear. Kella hated lullabies. She knocked on the door again, but kept her eyes on the woman in white.

The stranger angled toward them. Her whistling grew louder, rising and falling in time with her footsteps, and her hands remained in her pockets.

Kella beat on the door again. “Miss Amadi?”

The whistling broke off, and the detective saw that the woman was smiling, her gait suddenly breaking into a swinging sort of swagger, a lazy swaying accompanied by a cruel grin. “Thank you, for that. The name. It’s always good to confirm the target’s identity through a third party.”

Kella pulled the gun from her pocket and pointed it at the stranger. “Stop right there. Hands where I can see them. Right now, hands up.” Usem pulled out his club.

The woman, still grinning, slowly raised her empty hands. “Hm. The gray coat says police, but the gun says not-police. So one of them must not be yours, and I’m betting it’s the gun. Where’d you get it? Hm? It doesn’t look like standard army-issue. Did you swipe it from a crime scene?”

“Something like that.”

The woman laughed a husky, condescending laugh. She had an enormous hawk-beak nose set between eyes and lips that seemed sculpted to convey only cruel amusement. A thick mass of limp black hair disappeared beneath the collar of her white coat. “That’s Merin’s revolver, isn’t it? The idiot. Using a gun. I told him not to be taken in by all the flashy toys you people have, to stick to the old ways, but no, he had to go and steal a gun. Stupid, even for a Persian. I always knew he’d die young.”

“He’s not dead.”

“Then you’re as stupid as he is.” The woman’s hands drooped below shoulder level. “Very important, very powerful, people have hired me. These people like things done and done properly. On time, as instructed. Merin understands that, so as long as he’s alive, he’s a danger to you.”

Kella heard soft, uneven footsteps behind the apartment door. “And I suppose as long you’re alive, you’re also a danger to me?”

The woman’s hands fell a bit farther and she resumed walking forward. “Very much so, but only for the next few moments.”

“I said don’t move.” Kella strode away from the door into the street. “No one listens to me, no one ever listens to me.” She pointed the gun at the woman’s feet and pulled the trigger.

The cylinder rotated slightly, then clicked back again.

The stranger smiled. “I told Merin not to carry a gun. I also broke the stupid thing when he wasn’t looking to teach him a little lesson. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to actually be here when it failed. You’re not Merin, but you’ll do. The look on your face is precious.” She dashed forward across the small space between them and collided with the detective with two fists and one steel-toed boot all at once.

Kella staggered back and fell to one knee, stunned and gasping, unable to focus on the pains in her chest, stomach, and leg. The woman moved in a swirl of white cloth and blurry limbs, all flying and snapping into position as though God had decreed that her fists and feet belonged in the detective’s flesh and bones at that precise instant, and nothing in creation could prevent them from striking. Amid the flurry, Kella glimpsed a bloody bandage around the woman’s hand.

Usem brought his club down on the woman from behind, but she leapt back against him, inside the sweep of his arm. The detective gasped and dropped his club, and when the woman stepped away Kella saw the knife buried in Usem’s chest.

Kella heard a woman cry out and looked over in time to see the bakery door open for a brief instant to reveal Jedira’s terrified stare, and then the door slammed shut again. The detective refocused on the woman in white and staggered upright just as Usem collapsed to the street, still gasping, one hand gripping the handle of the knife.

Damn it. I can’t help Usem and protect the house at the same time. As she stared down at him, she saw the detective’s hand fall from the knife and he slumped back to the ground. Damn it, Usem. I’m sorry.

She cleared her throat and tried to focus on the woman in white, only barely able to ignore the fresh bruises all over her chest and arms. “You have a strange accent. I would have said eastern, but you don’t seem to like Persians.” Kella shifted, placing herself between the woman and the door.

“Most Samaritans don’t.” The woman surged forward again, fists flying in tightly controlled jabs too fast to count.

Kella took a dozen blows to the head and stomach before she could even raise her arms to shield herself. She barely heard the faint sigh of a blade slipping free of its sheath, and the detective hurled her body to the ground and rolled away.

“Oh no,” the woman said calmly. She held up a long thin knife. “Look. I just chipped the tip against the wall here. I’ve had this knife a very long time. I liked this knife. And I’m running out of knives as it is.”

Kella stood up, this time with her own fat knife unfolded in her hand, its wide blade bright and shiny in the gas-lit haze of the street. “You talk a lot for a killer.”

“I’ve heard that before.” The Samaritan tossed her thin blade aside and quickly produced another identical one from inside her white coat. “But not everyone hides in the shadows, stalking their prey like Merin does. I often work in broad daylight, in public, with more witnesses than you might believe.”

“Oh, I believe you.” Kella wheezed, her chest aching and her head ringing from the last blitzing. A curious green and purple blot drifted across her vision.

“Thank you, for that.”

“You and Merin work together? Partners?” She blinked, trying to get the blot out of her sight. It looked too much like a rabbit.

“Not precisely, no.” The woman ran a finger along her new knife’s edge. “But we run in the same circles. We’re contracted through the same broker.”

“An assassin’s guild, then?” Kella massaged her chest and arms where she could feel bruises of all sizes forming deep in her skin. “Interesting. Tell me more.” Her head was clearing, but too slowly. I can’t beat her.

The woman laughed. “You think you’re buying her time, don’t you?” She nodded at the closed door through which Jedira had momentarily appeared. “Letting her escape out the back door while you distract me?”

Kella froze, a sharp frost blossoming in her gut. “Yes.”

“Well, that might have worked, but I jammed the back door shut before I came around the front just now, so I’m guessing that, at this moment, she’s down in the basement, pressing up against that door, wondering why it won’t open. Alone, in a dead end. Incredibly convenient for me, really. It’s not the cleverest trick, but it does make the job easier.” The Samaritan spun her knife through the fingers of her uninjured hand, dexterously twirling it back and forth. “Speaking of the job, since Merin didn’t kill you, I suppose I’ll be making a bit extra tonight.”

Kella exhaled slowly, raising her hands to meet the next assault.

The woman assumed a similar fighting stance, then smiled and dashed away toward the baker’s door and kicked it in. The rusty lock popped free of the doorsill and the door swung open. A frightened shriek echoed from within. The Samaritan vanished into the dark opening in a flourish of white coattails.

“Stop!” Kella leapt after her, plunging through the splintered remains of the door and gouging bits of skin from her hands and cheek as she did so. “Don’t touch her! Get back here!” She raced down the narrow hall, spun at the end, and dove down a rickety wooden stair into the cold of the basement where she could hear a lone and terrified voice stammering below. At the bottom, she turned the corner and saw the assassin standing in the center of the room and Jedira Amadi backed up against the cellar door that should have let her up into the alley behind the shop. Jedira’s eyes locked with Kella’s for a moment. Tears streamed down the young woman’s face and a wordless pleading babble tumbled from her pale lips.

“Hey!” Kella lunged at the Samaritan’s back, but the killer whipped around and smashed a small bony fist into Kella’s throat. She stumbled back into the wall, stunned, gasping for air, her brain unable to process the chaotic sensations of pain in her neck.

“I just had a wonderful idea, officer.” The woman spun her long stiletto across her fingers. “What if I kill her and frame you for it? That’s much better than an unexplained body in a basement. There’ll be a scandal in the police department, everyone will lose faith in the government, and there will be fear and chaos in the streets. It’ll be fun.”

“Never…happen,” Kella croaked as she shuffled forward, her eyes darting from the spinning stiletto to the killer’s eyes and back. “Now just listen. No one has to die. I…I’m willing to cut you a deal in exchange for your…testimony against her, against Lady Sade. You’ll have to do time for killing Usem, but we can work something out.” The sheer effort of talking around her throbbing throat was almost unbearable.

The woman shrugged. “Or I could just kill her.”

“No!” Kella dashed forward, only to have a steel-toed boot smash into her belly, slamming her back into the wall and blasting all of the air from her lungs. She fell to all fours, trembling, trying to force herself to inhale and breathe even as she tried to stand back up. Suddenly, she realized that she couldn’t hear Jedira crying anymore.

The detective sat up just as the Samaritan stepped on her wrist and jerked Kella’s broad knife away. A fist drove her head back into the floor and the basement exploded in green and purple lights. In a daze, Kella watched as the woman in white plunged the thick blade into Jedira’s body lying spread-eagled on the steps below the cellar door.

The killer paused. “You know, I’d love to leave your own knife in your arm or leg, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t make much sense to the police when they find you, and I would hate to confuse them.” She plunged the blade up into a thick wooden beam overhead. “This won’t make much sense either, but that will just add to the mystery of your raging bloodlust, won’t it?”

Kella staggered up. She took a moment to stare at the dead woman at the other end of the room. Jedira stared blindly up at the ceiling, her throat slit from ear to ear. She’d still be alive if I hadn’t gone to see Lady Sade tonight. “Do you even know why Lady Sade wanted her dead?”

“I do, actually. Not that she told me, but after a while you pick things up here and there.” The woman smiled as she wiped her stiletto on a rag. “She’s an ambitious woman. You’d think with all she has, she couldn’t possibly want more, but she does. A woman after my own heart. And she’ll probably do a better job than that old cow of a queen you have now, so you should be grateful, actually. Until they hang you, of course.” A white boot swung up and kicked Kella back into the wall. The air left her lungs again and for a moment all she could do was try to stay on her feet as she gasped.

“Stop…you.” Kella’s vision went white for a second but her mind was racing. How? How exactly are you going to stop her, detective? You’ve lost. The girl is dead and you’re barely breathing. Some police officer you turned out to be…

“I doubt that.” The Samaritan slipped her long knife away into her coat. “When they come for you, I suppose you’ll try to say that it was me, and not you who did this. A Samaritan woman dressed in white.” She laughed. “They won’t believe you, of course, but it should add a bit to my mystique. You know, for the newspapers. Perhaps I’ll start doing this on all my jobs. I’ll become a legend in my own time!”

“A real professional wouldn’t want the attention.”

“I never claimed to be a professional. I’m just very, very good at this.” Her hand flew out in a blur and Kella had one instant of pain in her forehead before the world vanished into oblivion.

Chapter 26. Sade

As she sat alone in her study with her cold tea cup beside her, Sade leaned back in her chair and rested her eyes. Such a long day. So much done but so much still to do.

Supper had been the highlight, without question. The barbarian princess couldn’t have provided a better performance if she had been coached to it. Still, the night was young. Sade rang the bell on the side table.

Izza entered promptly. “Yes, madam?”

“Is the steam carriage back yet?”

“Yes, madam. It only just returned from taking your dinner guests home.”

“I need to run a little errand in the morning. Very early. I want the carriage ready to leave at four-thirty. And have a couple of the porters ready to accompany me.” She paused as something hideous assaulted her nose. “What is that stench?”

Izza shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, my lady. It was the Samaritan woman. I believe she spent some time in the sewers just before she arrived.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, madam.”

Of course she was serious. Izza was always serious. Sade sighed. “Well, it’s on you too. Please change your clothes. Burn them if you have to. Oh, and you did tell Shifrah that she is not to do any more tasks for Barika?”

“Yes, madam. Although I don’t know that you can trust her not to. She’s quite opportunistic, in my opinion.”

“No, you’re probably right. That’s fine. She’s proven far less than perfect today. She’ll be no great loss when this is over,” Sade said. “See to the carriage and porters, and then go to bed. Four-thirty, Izza.”

“Yes, madam. Good night.”

Day Three

Chapter 27. Syfax

The ancient fortress city of Meknes was a dead end. Syfax found the empty stage coach at a hotel in an older part of town and the driver at the hotel restaurant said, with her mouth full of her very late supper, that she had no idea where any of her passengers had gone. Syfax gave the hotel manager a long, tired look before walking into the street, mounting his rented horse, and trotting back out onto the road to Arafez.

With Meknes a mere twinkle of gaslight in the distance behind him, the major reined in his horse at the top of a hill to stare at the long dark road ahead. Clouds hid the moon, but he guessed it was past midnight. There were no other travelers, mounted or otherwise, at least none that he could see or hear. The road itself was marred by irregular shallow depressions and the deeper ruts made by wagon wheels. But he could hear no engines, no horses, and no padding feet out in the night. Only the wind in the pines and the creaking echoes of the cicadas filled the mountain forest.

His new boots pinched his toes and his heels and stabbed at his arches. They were, without question, the most hateful boots in the entire world. They hadn’t seemed nearly so bad when he paid for them six hours ago in Khemisset.

One day I’m going to write a book about this case, about how I ended up walking across the entire country, alone, destroying my aching feet, to find an old woman with a lightning rod in her hand. I’ll have to make it sound funnier, though.

After an hour on the road to Arafez, he was convinced that he would see no one until he reached the city. There were no houses either near the road or farther out in the woods, and not a flicker of firelight to be seen. The forest walled him in with towering alders and elms that reached across the road to each other far overhead, obscuring the clouds and any hope of starlight. The droning of the cicadas rose and fell as though the forest itself was breathing, loudly, through its mouth. Little else seemed to be awake or even alive. The occasional rustle in the bushes or distant crack of a breaking branch always came suddenly in the quiet.

A low whistle drew his eyes sharply to the right.

Syfax paused. The whistle was too steady and too subtle to be a bird, too solitary and too near to be a monkey. He peered into the shadows on all sides and saw nothing, heard nothing. Instinct drew his hand back to his hip, but it found only an empty holster. Reaching down farther, he yanked his hunting knife out of his boot and then nudged his horse to continue down the middle of the road.

The men stepped out of the leafy shadows calmly and casually, one of them mostly concerned with brushing the dirt off his knees. All of them wore dark scarves wrapped across their mouths and noses. Seeing no guns or blades in their hands, Syfax grinned as he reined up and rested his knife on the pommel of his saddle. “Can I help you fellas?”

One of them, as nondescript as any other, answered in a soft, almost reluctant voice. “Your money, all you have. Jewelry, watch, knife. Anything and everything, on the ground, right now. The horse, too. We don’t want to hurt you. Just leave it all right there, and go.”

“Hey!” A second one leaned toward the first. “He doesn’t even have a saddle bag!” And he made a jerk of his head back toward the woods, and then glanced at the others and repeated the gesture.

“No, wait.” The first one extended an open hand toward Syfax. “Please, anything you have. We just need some food. Please?”

“Who are you guys?” Syfax tried to catch a bit more detail of them in the shadows, something about their hair or clothes, anything at all. Too dark, but who cares? These poor idiots have no idea what they’re doing. “Help me out here. Are you beggars or bandits? I can’t tell.”

“We’re just travelers,” the second one said, fading back just a little more into the darkness. “We’re just trying to get to the border.”

“Don’t tell him anything!” A third one threw his arms up in the air. “How stupid are you? No one’s supposed to know!”

“Why?” The major kept his eyes darting among them, waiting for the first attack, but most of the nine men stayed at least four or five yards away, hands in pockets, eyes on the ground. The first one’s calm, the second one’s scared, and the third one’s angry. The rest just look tired. “Who are you running from? The law?”

“He’s a damned Redcoat!” Scared Man hissed, slinking even farther away. “Look at the coat. He’s the law.”

Calm Man edged forward a bit to look at him. “You’re a marshal?”

“Major Syfax Zidane.”

“Oh, that’s just perfect!” Angry Man kicked a stone across the road and shoved the fellow beside him. “A Redcoat!”

“Where’s your partner?” Scared Man’s voice shook as his footsteps drifted into the brush beside the road. “Marshals always go in twos. Where is she? Where’s the other one?”

“I’m alone.” Syfax slowly opened his coat. “No gun. And I don’t wanna hurt any of you guys, unless you do something stupid. I’m just riding through.”

“Don’t you believe it.” Angry Man grabbed Calm Man’s arm. “He’s one of them. He works for them. He’ll have the police on us in no time if we let him go!”

A general mumbling broke out among them as the men expressed their varying levels of discomfort with being anywhere near an officer of the law. Some of them stepped away, but most just shuffled and wavered in place and looked to Calm Man for a decision. He glanced around himself and cleared his throat. “You really don’t have any money? Nothing at all?”

“Sorry. Spent it all on this horse, and I need her to get to Arafez. You’re not eating her.”

Calm Man hesitated, glancing back toward the darkness where Scared Man had vanished. “Then I guess we’re going to have to tie you up. We can’t let you go and tell the police about us. We’ll leave you in the road so someone will find you tomorrow after we’re gone. You’ll be all right.” He cleared his throat and motioned at the others. “Go on, tie him up.”

For a moment, none of them moved. Then Angry Man stepped forward and the others began moving, arms raised to grab the marshal. Syfax paused, wondering what clever thing he might say to stop this before it started. They were obviously divided, nervous, unwilling, inexperienced. But they were shuffling forward and some of them had rocks in their hands.

A good marshal would know what to say to play them against each other, to get information from them, to control the situation. And as he groped for an idea, Syfax suddenly realized: This is why I’m stuck at major. This is why the marshals don’t know what to do with me. I’m not a good marshal.

He frowned as his ego swirled downward, but the dark moment brought yet another revelation into focus, and he grinned.

But I am a good soldier.

Syfax rolled out of the saddle and brought his fist down on the closest head. He grabbed the stunned man’s shirt and hurled him into the two men on the right. With his knife held blade down in his right hand, Syfax bulled into the closing knot of men and rocks and sticks. There was a brief second of fear, a cold panic in the back of his mind as he felt, really felt, that he was hopelessly outnumbered and utterly alone. But it was only a second. A hot wave of wild rage roared up his spine and down his arms, and he smashed his knife-hand into face after face. The rocks and sticks wailed on his back and legs, and bony hands bit into his arms, but Syfax just kept lunging back and forth, left and right, throwing men off balance all around as he went on shattering noses, splitting lips, and knocking out teeth. And with almost every blow, the blade of his knife sliced a shallow cut across a brow here and a cheek there.

Within half a minute, every bandit’s face was painted in blood and a broken chorus of frightened wails rose over the marshal’s roaring battle cries and the panicked whinnies of the horse in their midst.

“Oh God, my eye! My eye!”

“My nose! I can’t breathe!”

“I’m bleeding! I’m bleeding!”

Syfax shoved the last man down to the ground and surveyed his handiwork. Nine men sitting with hands pressed to their faces, or crawling away from the road, or staggering into the woods. He waited a moment to catch his own breath and wipe his knife clean on a nearby bandit’s shirt, and then Syfax said, “Oh, shut up, you big babies. You’re all fine. They’re just little cuts. No one’s dying, no one’s lost any eyes. And no one’s head is sliced open. Just settle down.”

It took a few moments for the moaning and hyperventilating to subside as the men calmed down enough to inspect the wounds on each other’s faces and pronounce them all superficial.

“Yeah, that’s a little trick I picked up from a gal in Carthage. You cut up the face and everybody panics. You can’t see how bad you’re hurt, and lots of blood in your eyes.” He exhaled and sheathed his knife, suddenly feeling much less pleased with himself. Stupid dirty trick.

To his left, one of the men was sobbing and muttering over and over, “I thought I was going to die, I thought I was going to die.”

“Come on, guys, no one’s dying. You’re all gonna be fine, and hopefully a little wiser in how you go about fund raising.” Syfax thumbed his nose and crossed his arms, waiting.

“You bastard.” Angry Man was on his feet, blood smeared across his forehead and down the side of his face. He raised his fists and slid forward gracefully on the balls of his feet, rocking lightly on his toes. Syfax shrugged. The bandit punched, the marshal parried, he punched again and Syfax caught his wrist, yanked him off balance and landed two sharp blows to his ribs. The bandit grunted and spun, kicking him in the stomach, but Syfax hugged the foot and pulled back, yanking him off balance again and dropping him to the ground. As Angry Man scrambled to stand, Syfax swept one crooked leg out from under him and shot his fist down into the man’s jaw. Angry Man’s head snapped to the side and he fell flat on his back, his head rolling.

Syfax took a step back, breathing long and slow, listening to the heavy pounding of blood in his ears. His calloused knuckles ached, but not much.

Angry Man slowly got to his feet, staggering up inch by inch. “See!” He spat in the dirt and rubbed his jaw. “Like I was saying! They don’t teach any of that fancy stuff to the grunts. Only the officers. And why? The officers aren’t on the front lines, are they? No, they teach the grunts to fight the enemy, and they teach the officers to fight the grunts. To keep us in line. To keep us down!”

He leapt at Syfax, fist cocked to deliver the blow with his full body weight as he descended. Syfax stepped forward inside the attack and shot the heel of his palm straight up under the man’s chin. The bandit’s head snapped back and he dropped out of the air in a pile of trembling arms and legs.

But Angry Man got up again, faster this time, his eyes wild and breathing labored. He was shaking, his legs threatening to twist out from under him. “What are you all waiting for?!” His voice was a pathetic hybrid of a gasp and a croak. “Get him!” No one moved.

Angry Man raised his fists again and staggered forward. Syfax started to tighten his own fist, but the bandit had nothing left. The major took a quick step to the side and gently shoved the man into the horse. He flopped to the ground, unconscious.

Syfax stood over the man for a moment, his hands still raised and ready, his chest heaving, his heart pounding, his breath thundering through his teeth, but the man stayed down. Syfax dropped his hands and stepped back, and waited for his own body to settle. As his pulse slowed the heat rippling across his skin faded, leaving behind only a cold sweat between his skin and the cool night air. He looked around and saw Calm Man leaning against a tree at the edge of the road, a thin red line slashed down his cheek. “I think we’re done now. What do you think?”

Syfax nodded. “We’re done.”

The men withdrew into a cluster around and behind Calm Man, including the dazed and bleeding Angry Man, who hung on the shoulders of his comrades.

“So you’re all on the run?” Syfax grabbed his horse’s reins and patted the nervous animal’s jaw gently. “What did you do?”

“We did what we were supposed to do. We did everything right.” Calm Man’s shoulders slumped and he dabbed at the cut on his cheek with the end of his scarf. “We got jobs, we got married, we rented apartments, and we had children.”


“But all the factories want longer hours, and lower wages, and every day someone loses a finger, or worse. The rent goes up, the food at the market gets worse. We get sick, we get hurt. Every day, everything gets a little worse. So we’re done with it. We’re leaving. Some of us have family in Numidia. They can help us get started out there, farming.”

“You’re leaving? Just like that? A bunch of young, strong fellas can’t balance the books, can’t put a little more time in at work, so you just dump your families and run all the way to Numidia to play farmer?” Syfax spat in the dirt. “You’re pathetic, all of you.”

Calm Man limped forward a few steps, his leg stiff but his back straight and Syfax saw the iron glare in the man’s eyes as he snapped, “Sixteen hours in the godforsaken factories, every day! Sweating to death, surrounded on all sides by huge metal monsters that will tear your arms off if you dare to stretch your aching back. And it’s never enough! We had three families together in one flat, and still we couldn’t put bread on the table! Is that pathetic enough for you? Yes, we’re pathetic, we’re all pathetic, every one of us, slaving away and starving, watching our families starving. Our children starving. It is pathetic. That’s exactly the word, thank you for that. Pathetic!” He stopped to breathe, his chest heaving, sweat pouring down his face. Suddenly his features twisted in anger again. “And we didn’t abandon anyone! Our families are all right down there, waiting for us.” He pointed off into the woods.

Syfax blinked, slowly absorbing the man’s words, painting himself a mental portrait of the conditions he described, wondering how much of it was just angry, youthful exaggeration and self-pity. After a long moment, he decided: Very little. “Show me.”

“Show you?” Calm Man glanced back at the woods. “Oh, you don’t believe me. Yes, then, by all means, come and see for yourself, Redcoat.” He stomped off into the woods, trampling fallen limbs and small bushes with a noisy crackling and snapping. The other men filtered after him, glancing nervously at the major.

Syfax followed them, carefully picking his way in the dark, feeling each step with his toes crushed in his too-small boots. After a few minutes tramping downhill away from the road, he reached a small clearing where the men stood beside their wives holding their children, bony little scarecrows in threadbare rags staring up with wide, white eyes in the dark. There must have been more than forty of them all together.

Syfax stared. All he could do at first was stare. And they stared back, some in terror, some in misery, and even a few in hope. “You don’t have any food at all?” He asked softly, his eye locking momentarily with those of a little girl clinging to her mother’s neck.

“Enough for tomorrow, maybe.” It was a young woman who answered, short and slight, with close cropped hair. She rose to her feet beside the Calm Man and handed him a small boy, whom he held close to his chest. “We didn’t have much to sell for money for food in Port Chellah. It’s been slow going. We’ve been walking for two days now. I don’t know how much farther it is to the border.”

Two days? It’s only taken me twelve hours to get here from Chellah. Syfax tried to speak, but an ache seized his throat and the words stuck. How far to the eastern border beyond the Atlas Mountains? Five or six days for a healthy man, but for this bunch? Two weeks? More? “Far. It’s a long way still from here.”

The woman nodded. “We’ll make it.”

No, Syfax thought, you won’t. “Maybe you don’t have to go that far. Maybe you can find better work in Arafez. Or even back in Meknes. You could be farmers right here in Marrakesh, if that’s what you want. You don’t have to leave the country to find work.”

“Yes, we do.” The woman reached back to hold her man’s hand. “This place is killing us. All of us. We can’t do this anymore. We can’t be here anymore. Even if we could be fishers and farmers, our children would end up in the factories some day, somehow. They’ll run off to the city to get rich, and they’ll die in some accident, alone, forgotten. We’ve seen it happen to our friends, to their children. It doesn’t matter what we do, what we say. Sooner or later, the city kills everyone.”

The major scanned the crowd of faces in the darkness, dappled by the deeper shadows of the leaves waving in the wind overhead. He said, “There’s always the army. The army was good to me.” They began to groan and mutter. “No, listen to me. My father worked the docks in Tingis all his life. We had nothing, but when I joined the army I got everything I needed. A home, a job, a future. You could have that, your children could have that.” His words were drowned in more muttering and vague curses against the army, and they battered about old stories of military experiments, expeditions lost deep in the Europan wastes, men and women slaughtered on the Songhai hills alone and forgotten because war had not been officially declared. “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Syfax said to no one in particular. “But for your children’s sake, I’m asking you, don’t try to reach the border. Not on foot. It’s too far.”

“So you say.” Angry Man was awake and alert, wiping the blood from his face and leaning against a tree. “Why should we believe you?”

“Because I don’t want these kids to starve to death, you fucking idiot.” The words made the ache in his throat even worse as he glanced about at those children scattered around him, huddled in the dark forest. “Because there has to be some other way, a better way, for all of you. Think about it. You can’t get to Numidia on grit and will power. You need food and water. With no food you’ll be dead in a week, and with no water you’ll be dead in half that time. If you step up the pace you’ll get to Arafez tomorrow. I hear they’ve got plenty to give folks who’ve lost their jobs and their homes. The temples will give you food. You can stay there a few weeks at least, work on the road crews or the rail crews, and save up some food. And better shoes. You have to try. For the kids.”

The young woman looked sharply at the little boy clinging to his father’s chest. “Maybe.”

Syfax took a long, deep breath, wondering what else there was to say. He couldn’t think. His muscles were sore and a few dozen fresh bruises all over his body were starting to throb. His eyelids were growing heavy and the long road to Arafez still lay before him. “I need to go. I won’t send any police looking for you. Just don’t try to rob anyone. And think about Arafez. It’s only a little way up the road. You can get what you need there.”

A few voices muttered and a few heads nodded. Syfax took several steps, backing away from the grim congregation in the dark grove. As he passed a short woman holding hands with two tiny girls, he had a sudden urge to grab the children and carry them all the way to the city himself, to put them into the hands of someone, anyone, who could feed them. And their mother. And their friends. If there had only been one or two, he would have done it without discussion, without even thinking. But forty?

Long years on the Songhai border had taught him not to play the numbers game. Not to calculate. Not to weigh two evils against each other. Just do your duty. He trudged past the two tiny girls and found his horse where he left her at the edge of the road. He mounted, gave one last look at the trees hiding two score beggars and starving children, and he rode away.

Chapter 28. Taziri

Taziri awoke with a gasp, her heart racing and her face dripping with sweat. The nightmare vanished before she could remember what it was, leaving her sitting in the dark massaging her fingers and scratching idly at the edges of the brace on her left arm and hand. The room still lay in deep shadows, striped by a few thin rays of lamplight that slipped around the curtains from the street in front of the bed-and-breakfast. The world was still dead asleep except for a few lonely voices echoing in the square outside.

She crept out of bed and pulled the curtain back to watch three young men around a bench beneath the light of a lamppost. Two were sprawled with arms and legs thrown over the bench’s back. The third fellow had one foot up on the seat and he leaned forward as he talked to his half-conscious friends.

Their voices, but not their words, echoed up to the window and Taziri had to settle for guessing at whether they were more happy or shocked at whatever it was that their friend was telling them. The two sleepers perked up, sat up straight, and began asking questions. The conversation grew louder, though no more intelligible for Taziri. A moment later, all three of them dashed away from the square.

What are they up to? I never ran around the city in the dead of night at that age. There was barely time to sleep back then, between school and work. Kids these days.

She wanted to fall back into bed, but it was the wrong bed. The right bed was far away, across miles and miles of empty plains and patchwork farmland, high on a hill above the harbor, in a little house just like all the other houses next to it. Except it was hers. Hers and Yuba’s. This was the second night, she realized. The second night she should have had with him and was now missing. And she was here, in an inn with a handful of strangers while Isoke lay dying or dead in some hospital, while Yuba slept alone, while Menna sat up in her crib babbling instead of sleeping.

Their absence gnawed at her like a starving dog. With her head still half numb with sleep, she pulled on her clothes and slipped downstairs and out to the cold, empty street. She knew Arafez well enough and figured she knew where to go. She could find the walled airfield easily and a few other obvious landmarks, particularly buildings with bell towers and uncommonly large windmills perched on their roofs. There were only a few such sentinels rising above the roofline and she set out for the nearest one, hoping for a little luck.

She crossed three large intersections before finding the closest building with a windmill, only to see that it was an electrician’s shop. Professional curiosity drew her gaze toward the window, but her feet carried her off down another road toward another, farther windmill spinning in the starlight. This too appeared to be a shop, though she could not guess what the name or the logo on the sign meant. Something fashionable, she guessed.

As she wandered the streets with one eye on the shadowed machines rattling overhead, she became vaguely aware of some signs of life around her. She heard the patter of running feet a few streets away, and voices shouting, though she could not understand them. There would follow a long silence and then she would hear some other late night adventurers running nearby and calling into the night.

The third windmill that she found sat on an empty warehouse roof, but the fourth one, nearly an hour’s walk from the inn, creaked atop a telegraph office and Taziri shuffled inside, out of the cold night breeze. A sleepy-eyed clerk squinted up at her from behind a book, his bushy white eyebrows waggling slightly. “Good evening. Or morning, I guess. What can I do for you?”

“I’d like to send a telegram.”

He nodded and pulled out a pad. “Address?”

She told him the street name and number in Tingis, suddenly realizing how rarely she ever uttered them since there were no telegraph offices outside the country where she and Isoke usually flew. The words felt so alien compared to the familiar home they marked.


She wanted to say something strong, poetic, romantic, memorable, but her brains were tired and frozen. “Everything is fine. Sleeping in Arafez. Still helping marshals. Please check Isoke in hospital. Be home soon as able. Miss you. Love you both.”

The clerk read it back to her and the words sounded hollow and wooden and wrong, but they were all she could think of. She paid him and watched him tap out the words one letter at a time on the little telegraph mounted on the table behind the counter. Then she stood there as he went back to his book and she stared at the telegraph, half hoping a reply would come clacking back through at any moment. But it sat very still and silent, and with her hands buried in her jacket pockets she shuffled back toward the door.

“Seems like a lot of kids are out running around tonight.” She glanced back at the clerk.

He didn’t look up. “I know. I’ve been hearing them at it all night. Some went by a few minutes ago. I think they said something about a fight. Seems like there’s a fight every night, somewhere or other.”

“Oh.” Taziri stared through the glass at the dark buildings across the way, and then she stepped outside to begin the long walk back to bed, but before she had moved out of the light of the telegraph office’s front windows she stopped short. There were several young men standing in the middle of the street less than twenty yards up the road. They were talking. Laughing, yelling, pushing each other. Taziri felt her gut tighten.

One of the youths shouted, “Hey!”

There were no streetlights nearby and she could not really see them, but Taziri knew they were yelling at her. “Hey yourself.”

“Hey, you, give me some money. Come on, I want to send a telegram.” The youths laughed and started coming forward. “Hey, seriously, give me some money. Come on, just a little, so we can get something to drink.”

“I don’t think so. It’s late. Why don’t you all head home for the night?” Taziri rolled her fingers into sweaty fists in her pockets. Her left hand only made half a fist and the metal plate across her palm was freezing.

“Nah, I don’t think we want to go home.” The young men spread out a little as they came closer, their empty hands dangling at their sides. They were all barefoot and dressed in loose clothes that dangled and flapped from their knobby shoulders and hips. “There’s some big fight down in the next district. We’re going to go take a look. You should come.”

“No thanks.” Taziri buried the urge to start walking, to disappear into the darkness, to put distance between herself and them. She thought of the old man sitting in the very well lit office just behind her and wondered if he could see her. “You go on without me.”

“Okay, okay, but give us some money. Come on. You’re like, a firefighter, right? Government job. Big money. Come on, help us out.” He held out an open hand.

Taziri felt a sharp little shove from another one standing to her right, a little push to her shoulder, and she looked over to see a leering, sleepy-eyed skeleton of a boy edging closer to her. They were all edging closer, all grinning slightly. “Back off. Go on, get out of here.” Taziri backed up to the telegraph office’s door and grabbed the handle behind her back. They kept coming forward, and then the heavy one to the left lunged at her.

Taziri jerked the door open so that the youth’s hand collided with the heavy wood, and as the young man recoiled and swore, Taziri slipped back inside and locked the door.

“What are you doing? Don’t bring them in here!” The man at the desk was fumbling at a locked cabinet behind the telegraph machine. “This is expensive equipment. I can’t have a bunch of drunks breaking in and wrecking everything!”

“Drunks?” Taziri stared out the window at youths, who were now arguing loudly and shoving each other just outside the door. A body crashed into the door. Twice. “There’s no alcohol in Marrakesh!”

“Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it’s not here, miss. Hellan wine, Songhai rum, Espani ale. My God, where have you been?” He yanked the cabinet open and began shoving his papers and tools into it. When the cabinet was full, he locked it and stood up. “So now what? Are they leaving?”

“Not exactly.” Taziri looked back at the shadowy figures in the street and grimaced. “Get back!”


A hail of muddy cobblestones crashed through the two large windows at the front of the office, spraying glass shards across the room. From her position behind the solid oak door, Taziri didn’t feel a thing, but she heard the old man gasp and hiss, leaving her to wonder if he was injured or only startled. He had ducked behind his desk out of sight. With the windows gone, the shouting from the street became louder and clearer.

“Get out of here!” Taziri hollered as she looked around the office for something, anything that looked like a weapon. Instead she saw paper, pencils, a cash register bolted to a table, and a handful of flimsy looking chairs. And the telegraph. She dashed to the back of the office and moved behind the telegraph as the first two youths climbed over the gaping sills into the room.

After digging through her jacket pockets, Taziri got a heavy leather glove on one hand and her utility knife in the other. She cut the wires screwed into the side of the telegraph and then pulled a small spool of bare wire from her inside jacket pocket.

“What are you doing?” The old clerk drew back beside her, a short length of pipe in his hands. “You broke the telegraph!”

The two ruffians paused to brush at the broken glass clinging to their clothes. Taziri raised an eyebrow at the clerk as she quickly twisted the telegraph’s leads onto her spare wire spool. “Where did that pipe come from?”

“The cabinet. I keep it there, you know, just in case.”

“Well, you won’t need it. Watch this!” She hurled the spool across the room at the closest youth. The wire spiraled through the air, drawing a coppery corkscrew as it flew, and the charged line fell across the young man’s arm. He shivered slightly and brushed the wire away.

“What?” Taziri stared at the leads in her hand. “Why didn’t that work?”

The old man groaned. “It’s a telegraph wire. It uses almost no current. You can’t shock a person with that. It’s the safest thing in the world.”

Taziri frowned at the wire, the youths completely forgotten. “But I cut the…oh, wait a second.” She bent down to the plate in the wall where the wires emerged into the room. “Well, here’s your problem. There’s a resistor on the house current.” She grabbed the small black cylinder soldered to the plate and ripped it off.

Screams filled the room, very brief nonsensical screams. Two men were shaking and spitting and falling to the floor stiff as boards just as a third one learned what it feels like to have a lead pipe swung up between his legs. The last two men still near the windows screamed a few obscenities of their own and leapt back out into the dark street.

Taziri pulled the wires apart and glanced around. “See, that’s what was supposed to happen the first time.”

The clerk managed a wry smile, but kept his pipe at the ready as he backed away from the men on the floor.

Within a few minutes, the telegraph office was crowded with bleary-eyed neighbors helping to clean up and two police officers grappling with the three stunned youths. Taziri loitered in the back of the room just long enough to jam the resistor back into place where it stuck with only a slight wobble, and then she screwed the wires back into the telegraph with only a slight worry that she might have gotten them reversed in all the excitement. After giving a brief and anonymous statement to the police, she slipped out the front door and plunged into the cool night air.

The city rose around her dark and still, unchanged by the violence at the telegraph office, oblivious to the small pocket of light and life around that one building. Taziri strode along with a charge in her step. She felt sharp and alive, all traces of weariness wiped away. She stared around at the windswept streets and shops and houses with eyes chilled by the night air, seeing everything with uncanny clarity.

But the feeling faded. The longer she walked, the less she wanted to be out walking. She thought of bed, she thought of home, she thought of her little girl smiling her toothless smile. Her long strides grew shorter and slower, and she hunched down in her flight jacket, grateful for the weight and warmth of the leather and metal.

She turned a corner from one empty street onto another and heard a small sound. An animal sound, somewhere just ahead and to one side. The street was empty, but she heard the sound again, nearer and clearer. A sob. A gasp. A whisper. A slap.

Taziri jogged on up the road glancing every which way for the source of the noises, and she found it in a wide alley between two row houses. It was a side lane, half covered in flower pots and little garden statues arranged around the several house doors that opened onto this private space. And a few feet from where Taziri was standing, a man shoved a woman up against the wall, her sleeve torn and hanging on her elbow. He had one hand on her throat and the other wrapped around a dirty brick. Taziri heard her whisper, “Please, don’t.”

In that instant, Taziri felt every shred of muscle in her body burning, her blood roared in her ears, and her brain boiled in adrenaline. She burst into a sprint and smashed her armored forearm into the man’s head. He stumbled back a step and let go of the woman, but not the brick. Taziri slipped her right arm up around the man’s neck and wrenched him farther away from the woman. Then she placed the cold metal of her arm brace against the other side of the man’s neck and squeezed. His right arm was trapped against her body, rendering the brick useless, but his left fist came around and connected with her shoulder, then her ribs, then her temple, but still she held on. With both arms twisted around the man’s throat, Taziri bore down with all her strength until the gasping, whimpering man began to flop about like a dying fish. He shuddered and fell limp.

Taziri hurled him down and planted her boot on the man’s neck. Then she looked over at the woman crouched against the far wall, staring at them. “Are you all right? Can you stand up? Say something, please. What’s your name?”

For a moment, the woman just stared at her. Then her lip shuddered and she said, “Oni.”

“Oni.” Taziri took a moment to breathe, to think. But she couldn’t think, all she could do was feel, and each passing moment filled her with the desire to reach down and smash the man’s skull open with his own brick. “Oni, come here.”

She shook her head.

“It’s all right. He can’t hurt you anymore. Come here.”

“Why?” She stood up, arms wrapped tightly around her body.

“You know him?”

She nodded.

“Did he hurt you?”

She swallowed. “No, not yet. Not really.”

Taziri didn’t know whether to believe her. “You’re sure?”

She nodded vigorously.

“All right then, let’s just get you home.” She took her boot off the man’s neck and gently herded the woman back to the end of the alleyway. Oni jerked out of her hands, but did not try to move away. She just stood there, staring over Taziri’s shoulder, her face strangely calm.

Feeling nothing but cold and uncertain, Taziri glanced back just long enough to be sure the man was still breathing. Then she moved in front of the woman. “Oni? Oni, look at me. It’s over. All right? Come on, I’ll walk you home, let’s go.” Taziri escorted the woman out into the street and then followed her two blocks to her house. They walked in silence and Oni stayed at arm’s length beside her, where she could see her. Taziri wondered if she should say something, but she couldn’t think of anything that felt helpful. So she watched Oni go inside and shut the door, and she hurried away, her mind racing.

I’m sleeping. I’m asleep. This is a dream. A nightmare. This can’t be Marrakesh. This can’t be the country Grandfather fought for, that Mother worked for, that I live in. This can’t be real.

The engineer sniffed the air and smelled City: people, machines, exhaust, food, animals, and a thousand other things. It almost smelled like home, like a great mass of living things and dying things and things that were neither, all resting beneath the stars, huddled in a great heap of brick and wood and iron. The walk home back to the inn was too long, but she didn’t remember any of it. She padded back to bed and lay on top of the sheets, imagining her husband’s arm across her belly, and her daughter’s voice babbling from her crib in the corner as she stubbornly refused to go to sleep. Instead, she heard the faint, distant echoes of young people shouting and glass breaking, and her dreams were plagued with fire and blood.

Chapter 29. Kella

The detective awoke with a groan and a hacking cough that filled her head with dizzy little pains that chased one another around her skull. Her chest and stomach and arms and legs all ached as well, and none were eager to move. The cold stones of the floor stung her bare hands and a wooden thumping beat on her ears.


She opened her eyes and saw the exposed planks of the basement ceiling in the failing light of the lamp still sputtering in the corner. Shadows moved beyond those planks, thin bits of darkness barely seen through the gaps and cracks in the floorboards. Kella sat up slowly, one hand pressed against her head, eyes blinking hard and long to clear her vision. She saw Jedira lying by the cellar door. The blood spattered across her body lay heavy and stiff on her clothing.

How much time have I lost? Who is that upstairs?

The detective stood up, still moving only as fast as her battered flesh would allow. The people walking around the house overhead were talking about something. Names. Addresses. She thought she recognized one of the voices as an officer from the police station. Wincing, she pulled off her blood-hardened jacket and trousers and threw them back into a dark corner, and then pawed through two boxes of old clothes to find replacements. The new pants and shirt hung large and loose on her, but she lashed them tight to her waist with a belt, took a deep breath, and pounded up the stairs just as one of the officers placed a boot on the top step.

“You’ll need a light and you may want a mask.” She patted the young man on the shoulder as she passed him. “It’s not pretty down there.”

“Detective Massi?” He froze, his eyebrows contorting into an expression of extreme confusion.

“Yeah, I got a tip that someone was looking for this girl. Someone slipped a note under my door, knocked until I woke up, and then ran off. You?”

“Uh, the same, sort of. Well, a tip, I mean. At the station. An old man saw a fight in the street outside here, and came all the way down to complain about the noise.”

“Well, it looks like we were all a bit late getting here. I found Usem in the street. Knife work, and lots of it. Is this your first murder scene?”

He nodded.

She sighed. “Hell of a way to spend the day, kid. Sure you’re up to it?”

He nodded again.

“Good man. All right, well, get everyone down here. It’s going to be a long day. I’m going to go rattle some cages and see if I can shake loose some answers. I’ll come by later this morning to see what you’ve found.”

“Yes, ma’am. Uh, ma’am?”


“Nothing. Just, your clothes?”

“This?” Kella gave herself a bored glance. “I don’t sleep in uniform, and I don’t change before going to stop a killer. Priorities, officer.”

“Right. Yes, ma’am.” He nodded curtly and turned his attention to the basement.

Kella strode back down the hall and out the front door without seeing the other officers, and then she moved as quickly as she could down the street without running. With many roads and rows of houses and shops behind her, Kella slowed to a walk with her hands shoved deep in the cavernous pockets of her borrowed trousers.

How long before someone puts the pieces together and comes up with me as the killer? Hours? Minutes? Should I have stayed back there and taken my chances with the flatfoots? No, there’ll be time for the question-and-answer game later.

The detective took a deep breath and peered up at the shop signs around her. Books, paintings, flowers. All sorts of pretty things for sale. Kella frowned, then turned and hurried up the road. Half a dozen turns later she was wrestling with the old lock at her own apartment. Inside, she cast aside the oversized clothes and scrubbed the flecks of dried blood from her face and hands over a sink full of cold water.

What’s the plan, detective? If you don’t get that Samaritan woman in irons soon, they’ll have you in a cell and what’s left of your career on a pyre.

She dressed in bland grays and browns, and pulled her mother’s old duster on over it all. Into the coat’s inner pockets she shoved fistfuls of fruit, rolls, and nuts from the little bowl on her coffee table. In the back room, she knelt beside her bed, reached underneath the thin metal frame, and yanked an old box from between the squeaking bedsprings. She stared down at the brass knuckles, knives of all sizes and shapes for all manners of work, caltrops for unfriendly feet, a little box full of tools for opening locked things, and several small vials of white powder. After a moment’s hesitation, everything was pawed up and shoved into the duster’s pockets, inside and out, all but the bottles, which she poured into the sink.

No one needs to find those.

Back out on the street, she smelled a strange emptiness in the cold and the dark. It was no longer late in the night but early in the morning. No last traces of suppers or parties lingered in the air, no distant voices echoed in faraway alleys or squares. The faint menace of the darkness itself was gone, as though even the killers and demons had at last gone to sleep, leaving the city streets truly and utterly empty but for the cold and the shadows to await the coming dawn. Kella knew better. She wrapped her cold fingers around the deadly things in her pockets and hurried away. By the time she reached her destination, the aches and stiffness from lying on the basement floor had faded.

Well, she thought, if I can’t catch one criminal, at least I can get some evidence against another one.

The back door of the prosthetics shop appeared undisturbed, though she heard the distant huffing of an engine. Kella knelt at the lock with her little box of tools and began picking away with a pair of bent needles. The tumblers inside the lock clicked up into position one by one and the door swung open. Inside, she found the room of metal arms and legs piled in boxes and on shelves, and the detective wound her way silently around them to the far side of the room and the door to the main corridor. From there she crept, slower with each step, down the stairs and down the hall toward the door to the lab, but long before she reached it she heard voices, many voices, arguing in sharp and angry tones, somewhere just around the corner. Kella backtracked toward the bottom of the stairs and found a closet. She slipped inside behind the leather curtain and tried not to breathe.

After a few minutes, she counted three distinct voices but also guessed at least two other people coughing, sneezing, and shuffling their feet. Two of the speakers were clearly Lady Sade and the Samaritan. While they argued at length about the terms of a certain contract and the precise definitions of certain words, most prominently dead, the others seemed to be hard at work moving heavy metal objects. Kella heard the hollow and metallic ringing when the objects banged into each other. The cages?

The detective strained to hear more clearly. People were moving, cages were thumping, animals were grunting and huffing, people were talking, and it was all muffled by the thick rock and iron-bound wood panels of the walls and floors of the basement.

Seconds ticked by and still the muffled noises continued. The argument in the hallway grew softer and finally fell apart with the sounds of laughter. Several people laughing together, some more genuinely than others. And they were closer now, no longer around the corner but just a few yards from the closet, coming closer to the stairs. Kella squeezed her face up to a tiny crack along the edge of the door and doorframe, straining to see the people in the hall.

The tall blur might have been Sade and the pale blur might have been the Samaritan. When the two speakers and their companions came to the base of the stairs, Kella could only see the wrinkled black trim of someone’s coat and the corner of a scuffed shoe, but she could hear them clearly.

“…the timer for twenty minutes. Soon this whole building will be one large insurance claim. And I don’t care what Barika told you,” Lady Sade said. “She is no longer in a position to give you instructions.”

“Because she wanted them dead?” asked the Samaritan.

“And I want them alive. I’m taking the girl to see the queen tomorrow. I had wanted you with me as well, but obviously that’s out of the question now that they’ve seen your face.” Sade sighed. “And where is Barika?”

“I don’t know. The telegram came from Port Chellah late last night.”

“Chellah? Who does she know in Chellah? I swear, if she ever shows her face here I will kill her myself. Sometimes I think she is trying to destroy me.”

“I got the impression she thought she was helping you by getting rid of the princess and her little entourage. She said the replacements would ruin everything, whatever that means.”

“She’s an incompetent cow,” said Sade. “Who cares if Valero sends a cat instead of an armadillo? Only Barika would panic at something so trivial. You’re the only one who hasn’t completely ruined this entire endeavor. The medical technicians are all dead. Medina will be on her way back to Espana later today. I will make sure that Merin is released before noon, and then I want him dead as soon as he is away from the police station. And while you’re there, take a quick look through the cells to make sure no one else on my payroll is in there, and if they are, get them out. Is that clear, Shifrah?”

“Yes.” The Samaritan sounded annoyed.

Kella mouthed name to herself: Shifrah.

“Good. We’ll be leaving on the evening train. You’ll arrive at the station alone and you won’t speak to us. Be prepared to submit to a thorough search of your person. The transit authority is up in arms over this mess in Tingis and every agent in the country is looking to make her next promotion by catching a terrorist on a boat, train, or airship. No knives.”


“You’ll have to ride in the back of the train where the little princess and her diestro won’t see you. Once we’re underway…” The voices faded into vague noise as the stairs creaked on their slow climb back up to the ground floor.

Kella crouched against the curtain, straining to hear, squinting at the edges of the leather flap, but she caught nothing else that made sense. Settling back on her rear, she rested her head against a dirty wooden shelf and waited. A door upstairs banged. A distant mechanical puttering and hissing reverberated through the walls and the detective tried to guess how large the steam carriage was to be making so much noise that could penetrate so far underground.

At that same moment, the hall filled with the sounds of shuffling feet, male grunting, and the occasional thud of something large and heavy bumping against a wall. From her position at the crack in the closet curtain, Kella watched two shadowy figures struggle down the hall toward her, each carrying a cage or crate, the last one staggering more than the others. The stairs creaked and groaned again as they bore their loads upwards and a moment later the door banged again. The mechanical rhythms of the carriage continued to rumble down into the building, but then the cycling of the engine quickened and the noises swiftly faded away until the building was left in perfect silence. Kella counted to a hundred, just to be sure, and then stepped out into the hall.

Hearing nothing above her, she dashed around the corner and back to the laboratory door. It stood ajar, though only a little, and an eye-watering stench wafted out from the dark chamber. With one hand over her nose and mouth, she shouldered the heavy door open and entered. Yesterday, the cages and machines had been neatly arranged along the walls, half-hidden in the shadows, but now everything was scattered across the floor. Hulking machines and blocky little trolleys and heavy tables filled the space, but that was all. There was nothing small or lightweight left in the room, no lamps or chairs, no tools. The cages stood in disarray, some on their sides or leaning against the back wall. The animals lay still inside them.

The table in the center of the room was bare but it glistened with watery smears and specks of dried blood. Kella only glanced at it as she crossed the room to the stone slab projecting from the wall, upon which lay the body of a once beautiful serval, the great cat’s gold and black coat now dull, matted, and clotted with dirt and blood. It stared at her through clouded eyes. A thick black gash ran across its throat, almost from ear to ear, so that its head tilted back unnaturally far. At her feet, the detective saw the blood still dripping off the slab onto the floor. The bilious stench of fresh blood and scat stung her nose.

Kella studied the body, or what was left of it. The front legs were strapped to the slab, but the left paw had been removed at the wrist and the wound sewed shut with great care and precision. The right rear leg below the knee was similarly missing, though the remains of the leg were firmly tied down. Hints of metal glinted in the thin light coming through the open doorway. A copper disc embedded in the thigh, a strip of aluminum in the foreleg, a spidery tangle of wire across the chest muscles like worms beneath the skin. But the strangest and largest of them was the cylinder in the serval’s belly. It was nearly as wide as the body itself, and the flesh bulged around the sides to accommodate the intrusion. The top of the metal cylinder had a seam running straight down the middle, and Kella probed this seam with a hesitant finger. She set her nail in the gap and tugged. One half of the lid tilted up toward her, and the detective edged sideways and leaned closer to look inside.

It was empty. It was a metal drum, as wide and deep as the cat’s body, empty and dry, like a brass hat box thrust inside the animal.

Kella closed the lid and noticed the border of the serval’s pale skin against the bright metal. Some of its flesh had rippled into pink and white scars, and some had blistered into angry red infections, and some places were black and stank of pus.

It lived through this. It lived with this thing inside it for days, maybe even weeks.

She stepped back from the slab, still staring at the amalgam of flesh and machinery dripping thick blood on the floor. A dead wolf with glass lenses screwed into its skull. A dead bear cub with mechanical forelegs. The head of a dead hartebeest riddled with rubber tubes and hoses. A pair of dead flying foxes with wooden wheels mounted where their wings should have been. The sheer volume of it, the countless glassy eyes, the still bodies, the grotesque poses, the bizarre machinery, it all numbed her. She had seen nearly a hundred crime scenes, at least three hundred corpses, but they had not prepared her for this.

At least they’re dead now. It’s over now.

There was something else in the corner, something round and irregular, and not in a cage. She crept closer and saw it was the dead body of a strange creature. The huge shell on its back reminded her of a tortoise, but it had the head of a dog and a tail like an iron mace. Whatever it was, it lay in a pool of fresh blood seeping from a deep cut under its jaw. She backed away without touching it and turned to leave.

The Samaritan stood in the doorway watching her. The woman in white leaned against the door frame, her features completely lost in shadow as the lamp in the wall behind her cast a vague nimbus through her dark hair. She held a jug in her bandaged hand.

Kella took a breath and slipped her hands back into her pockets where they grabbed the first pointy things they found. A knife and a caltrop. “I thought you left with your mistress, Shifrah.” A faint whiff of kerosene cut through the humid vapors like a cold blade.

“And I thought I left you for the police. I guess your head is a little harder than I thought. But that job is over and now I need to get started on the next one.” She set the jug down as a stiletto appeared in her hand, and she threw it.

The detective felt a strange mixture of pressure and pain as her left arm seized up at the shoulder. Her vision shuddered, threatening to vanish entirely into a sea of white. Struggling to ignore the blade buried under her collar bone, she clenched her teeth and focused on Shifrah, who was drawing another knife. Kella yanked her right hand free of her pocket and hurled a fistful of caltrops. Some glanced off the wall, some tumbled off the white coat, but one struck the Samaritan’s face, tearing a long thin mark across her cheek.

Shifrah dashed into the room and the detective had less than an instant to steel herself against the onslaught of punches to her stomach and face. The second stiletto was at work as well, slicing at her clothes and flesh so swiftly that Kella couldn’t feel the cuts until several seconds after they were made. She threw up her arms, trying to focus on the Samaritan’s eyes and the knife at the same time, trying to keep the blade from her head and belly, but it was all happening too fast. Kella screamed at herself to do something, to do anything. But she was trapped in this injured old body, in the dark, against a whirlwind of fists and steel and half her mind had already realized that she was not going to survive more than a minute or so. A terrifying coldness was creeping into her bones through the knife buried in her left shoulder, and as she toppled to the floor all she could do was snag a few fumbling fingers in the lapels of the white coat and pull the Samaritan down on top of her.

Kella felt the floor slam into her back and the weight of the other woman flopped onto her chest, but suddenly Shifrah was screaming and wriggling, kicking and rolling away, and the detective felt the weight on top of her vanish. The detective lay still on the floor, staring up at the naked bulb in the ceiling as the other woman went on screaming and sobbing. The throbbing pains of the cuts in Kella’s chest and face grew duller and colder, but her skin was warm and wet, her shirt sticking to her arms and growing heavier by the moment. Each breath came a little shallower and faster than the last. Lightheaded and dizzy, she blinked hard and prayed for it to just stop.

All of it. The pain, the screaming, the whole world. Dear God, just let it all stop. I don’t want to see this or feel this. I’m done. Just make it stop.

The other woman’s sobs droned on and all the horrific hot and cold and sharp and aching sensations in the detective’s flesh crashed into her mind again and again, as ceaseless as the tide.

Like a broken wooden doll, Kella rolled onto her stomach, pushed up to all fours, and began crawling across the room to the open doorway. She passed the Samaritan balled up like an infant, her bloody hands clutching her face. For a moment, a gap appeared between her hands and Kella saw the pulpy, raw chasm where the killer’s left eye should have been. And as the detective completed the long journey to the door, the question began to nag at the back of her mind.

What happened to her eye?

The hall seemed to be a thousand miles long. At the end, the stairs rose higher than the peaks of Kilima Njaro, yet she climbed them. Shaking uncontrollably with bloody saliva dripping from her open mouth, she climbed. When she reached the top and looked down, she saw the unbroken smear of blood on every single step. She was about to turn away and claw back toward the workshop to collapse and die when she heard a bestial, labored breathing below her. Looking down again, she saw the Samaritan climbing the stairs with one hand plastered over the hole in her face where her eye should have been.

How long is she going to keep this up?

Kella lurched up to her feet, shivering and trembling. She slumped against the hallway wall and stumbled back into the workshop. Her clothes felt heavy, clinging tight against her skin. With slow deliberate steps, she stumbled across the room, knocking over shelves, dummies, and anything else she could grab. She crashed through the back door into the alleyway where a freezing wind whipped over her face and stung her in a hundred raw places, and she fell to her hands and knees.

Not going to die in an alley, not in an alley, alone in an alley, stupid cliched crap. Move. Move, damn it. You can die in the street, but not here.

At the end of the alleyway, the detective’s shaking hands refused to crawl any farther, so she sat up against the cold brick wall and stared at the open door behind her, praying that no one would come through it.

And then the ground erupted beneath her. There was no tremor, no growling or rumbling, only the sudden titanic boom like a thundercracker in her skull. The cobblestones tossed her into the air as a chunk of the wall collapsed into the alley, bricks disintegrating into gravel and dust all around her. The stones under her hands began to lean and slope and she realized that the street itself was sinking and sliding toward the building. A steady crumbling, cracking, and crashing echoed from within the building as the walls broke up and fell inward, destroying more and more furniture and windows and equipment with each passing second.

Kella took her hands away from her head and saw a low mound of rubble where the medical shop had been a minute ago. Dozens of tiny fires were burning merrily here and there on the pile of bricks and beams, snapping and crackling as they danced in the dark.

The faint sounds of voices and fire bells intruded on the moment and the detective tore her gaze away from the burning wreckage to watch the street, to watch the people coming out, shouting and pointing. Suddenly there was a young boy in his night shirt standing over her, staring at her with wide eyes. He pointed at the knife in her shoulder and whispered, “What happened?”

She looked down at the pointed handle of the stiletto and saw the butt of the weapon dripping with blood and also a thin watery fluid with little globs of white matter stuck in it. As white as an eye in the dark. Kella smiled and passed out.

Chapter 30. Syfax

Syfax leaned back in the saddle to stretch his neck and shoulders. The position offered him a lovely view of the night sky, a blue-black river shimmering with stars and bordered by the leaves above either side of the road. The trees sighed and shivered as the breezes played through their branches and the cicadas droned on, though more softly than they had in the traveler’s camp a few hours ago.

Someday, the railroad will come through here and they’ll pave this road, and all this forest’ll be razed for farms, he thought. Too bad, really. Although I won’t miss the bats.

The view of the road never changed. It sometimes curved to the right or left, but essentially, in all the ways that matter when traveling, the view never changed. Gravel, dirt, holes, rocks, tree branches, and stars. Forever. Syfax slumped forward again and rubbed his eyes. Sometimes to his left the trees would thin and he would glimpse the tops of the northern ridges, just another shade of black on the horizon.

She can’t be far ahead. She can’t. Chaou was only ever a few minutes ahead, an hour at most. And she’s old. Older than me, anyway. In a stage coach. Any minute now. Any minute now, around the next bend, I’ll see the coach, just a hundred yards ahead, rolling along in the dark. Alone. Exposed. She’ll hear me coming but she’ll have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. She’ll probably try to talk again. She’s a talker. Then she’ll try to grab me, to shock me, but I’ll be ready for that. My coat is heavy. I can wrap her arms up…

The monologue droned on and on through the major’s mind, an unbroken chant that melted seamlessly into the noise of the cicadas and the crunch of gravel beneath the horse’s hooves. The stars overhead wheeled slowly, carrying the bright sliver of the moon across the void and casting it back down at the horizon. And then the world of black and silver grew hazy, gray, and pink to the east.

The view changed. The trees thinned to reveal long stretches of grass. Meadows. Fields. Pastures. Open spaces studded with distant blocky shapes of houses and barns. Another hour of slow trotting passed and Syfax felt his muscles and bones turning to wood, stiff and hard, so stiff they forgot how to ache. The eastern sky was a pastoral wash of pinks and yellows and lavenders, and ahead of him, clustered around the road, mostly to the left, were buildings. Tall, heavy, imposing masses of pale brick standing shoulder to shoulder to block the wind and draw the line between wilderness and civilization. The major veered to the left as the road came alongside the railroad tracks coming up from the south from Maroqez. Dirt gave way to a brick-paved street as the scattering of small cottages became a solid wall of rowhouses. A handful of people were standing in the street and staring at him. After a moment, they stopped staring and resumed their hushed conversation.

Arafez. At last.

Syfax had to clear his throat twice to revive his voice. “Excuse me.” He approached the four men loitering by the tracks. They stared at him as though unsure of the proper response and seemed to agree that none would suffice. “Have you seen anyone else come this way?”

“You mean…” The one man cast a confused look at his friends. “You mean on the train? Not yet.”

“No, I mean on the road. The stage coach from Meknes.”

“Sorry, no. We’ve only been here a few minutes.”

Syfax nodded, nudged his horse to the far side of the street, dismounted, and sat down on a long bench outside what seemed to be a warehouse. It stank of rotten vegetables. He sat and watched the sun rise, his mind cold and thick, unable to focus, unable to plan.

Chaou was definitely…where? Definitely on the ferry. And a witness put me on the road to Khemisset. And she was probably at Othmani’s house. And probably on the coach to Meknes. And probably on the coach to Arafez. Damn. That’s a whole lot of “probably.”

It didn’t matter anymore. The trail was cold, the old bat was gone. Syfax blinked. He would have to start again from scratch. Searching door to door and questioning everyone on the road. He would need the local police. He would need the Arafez marshals, even though he couldn’t afford to trust them.

Anyone might be in Chaou’s little murder circle.

A low whistle startled him and Syfax peered south across the fields, down the track, following the rails as they curved away and vanished into the trees behind a hill. And just beyond that hill, he saw a thin trail of steam rising in steady puffs above the tree tops. The locomotive appeared a moment later, chuffing and clacking with a long dark line of cars trundling along behind it. Quick little train, he mused, probably going to come screaming in here for a short stop before screaming off to the North Station. Engineers are all lunatics.

The train was still steaming at full speed when it reached the first cottages and only began breaking as the engine slipped into the shaded canyon of the South Station and Syfax saw why. The train was immensely long, stretching out across the fields with car after car of passengers and freight. It wouldn’t stop until most of them were near the platform, so there was still quite a ways left to travel.

“Hey there!” One of the men waved from across the tracks a few moments before the locomotive entered the station. “Is that your coach up there?”

Syfax followed the man’s pointing finger up the street to a dark shape jutting out from behind the corner of a shop at a distant intersection. It could have been anything, including the rear end of a stage coach. The major stood up, glaring. “I think so.”

“Well, you’d better get back across,” the man shouted.” The six o’clock will be here in a minute.”

Crap. This is like the canal all over again.

Syfax grabbed his horse and yanked the nervous animal across the tracks with the dusty cowcatcher of the oncoming train only a few moments away. The major steadied the horse as the locomotive thundered past behind them, and then he glanced up the street at the shape near the intersection. It had backed up a foot or two.

Definitely a stage coach.

He cast a worried eye at the train rolling steadily by behind him in an unbroken line of cars all the way up the street past the distant coach. “What’s on this train?” Syfax hauled his aching legs up into the saddle.

“Everything. Coming in from Maroqez. Let’s see, they’ve got our goats, or at least they’d better.”

The other men chuckled.

“Then there’s the apricots, limes, spinach…”

“Strawberries!” Another fellow grinned.

“Right, it’s strawberry season, isn’t it? Uhm, peas. Always lots of peas. Never liked them myself. Maybe oranges. Rhubarb, ech! The foreign stuff isn’t so reliable, not yet anyways. I hear they’re having quite a bit of trouble with the farms on the eastern slopes. Clay or something in the soil. The East Asian crops aren’t taking to it, apparently.”

The train was slowing now and a soft conversation between cows and goats and pigs and chickens filled the quiet platform all the way down the line. Syfax said, “So it’s carrying food then? This is a freight train?”

“Freight, yes.” The men nodded.

Syfax breathed a little easier. “No passengers?”

“Passengers? Oh, sure. Hundreds of them.” The men nodded.

The major felt every muscle in his back tighten. The train shuddered to a hard stop amidst a great squealing of brakes, hissing of valves, and the familiar dull roar of people, hundreds of people, all crammed together in little wood and iron boxes, eager to spill out all over the platform, the streets, the buildings. So many people.

The passenger cars were strung out far past the platform, up the street most of the way between him and the coach, their open windows dark with the shadowy press of bodies. Car after car full of people, each one a little louder and rowdier than the last. The doors opened just as Syfax kicked the exhausted horse and shouted, “Hya!”

People were spilling out of the cars onto the platform and down onto the road. Hundreds of people. Thousands of people. Women and men and children, bearing bags and sacks and boxes and baskets, all poured through the doors with a vast murmuring, scolding children, shouting directions, and asking questions.

“Where’s my bag?”

“Which way to the warehouse?”

“Well, where did you put it?”

The crowd grew larger with each passing second until the road was nothing but a sea of heads and hair and hats for as far as the major could see. He drove his horse in a mad dash halfway up the street before the press became an immovable sludge of bodies and luggage, forcing him to rein up and begin the laborious business of shouting at each and every person to turn around, look where they were going, and get the hell out of his way.

Over a thousand bobbing heads, Syfax saw the coach roll back a few feet into view, and then roll forward around the corner. “Damn it.” He glared in every direction, searching for some way out of the mass of bodies. “Marshal! Everybody out of the way! Make a hole! Move, move, move! Marshal!”

A few nervous faces looked up at him, and perhaps they tried to shuffle out of his way, but there were always three more people ready to slide into any gaps in the crowd. Syfax ground his teeth, wishing for once that he still had his sidearm. “Hya!” He kicked his poor horse again and again, forcing the exhausted animal to stumble into person after person, and the major’s frustration gave way to a sudden fear that there would be a child somewhere down in that sea of bodies.

“Damn it!” He leapt out of the saddle and charged through the crowd. The coach is leaving. Heading east on the next street. Need to head it off. Need to talk to the driver.

There were no side streets, no alleys, no way to get off the street until he reached the intersection, which was still twenty yards away. And then he noticed the half-open window of the old warehouse on his right. Shoving aside one last man, Syfax got to the window, pushed it up, and dove into the dark room.

The warehouse was one long dusty chamber with a handful of broken barrels and crates along one wall. Syfax raced to the back of the building, his footsteps echoing across the empty space. He spotted a door in the back wall outlined by a few feeble rays of sunlight, and he crashed his shoulder through it. Half the door clung to the hinges and the other half clung to the lock, but the center burst apart and spilled the major out onto another street. An empty street.

He swung left and pounded up the lane to the next intersection where he stumbled to a halt, his head swiveling every which way, searching, searching. There was no coach. It was gone. The driver was gone. Chaou was gone.

“Yaaaa!” Syfax put his fist through an old rain barrel standing at the corner behind him. The boards shattered, the bands bent, and several gallons of worm-infested mud slid out onto the ground at his feet.

There. At least I can do that right.

Chest heaving and legs shaking, he straightened up and glared at the people staring at him, and they hastily looked away. “What are you looking at?”

He studied the crowd for a minute.

All right. Arafez. Half a million people. Thirty square miles. One old hag.

How hard can it be?

Chapter 31. Taziri

Taziri stood in the street behind a makeshift barricade of sawhorses and fire brigade ropes and watched women and men in yellow coats carefully picking their way through the smoking debris of what had been Medina’s prosthetics shop the night before. It was a colorless morning and she scanned the cloud-spattered sky. It would rain soon.

Menna loves the rain.

She rolled her shoulders about in her heavy orange jacket as she sauntered along the line of sawhorses and ropes down the middle of the street. There were quite a few people gathered to watch, and after a few moments walking through the crowd Taziri began noticing the peg-legs, the hook-hands, and even the odd discolored glass eye among them. She hesitated, suddenly feeling rather out of place, as she realized that nearly two-thirds of the onlookers were wearing some sort of prosthetic. She felt a sudden urge to be included or to show her solidarity with them so she took her left hand out of her pocket and rolled up her sleeve to reveal her new arm brace and glove.

She listened to the undercurrent of shock and dismay in their voices, occasionally punctuated by an angry curse, a loud promise to help the doctor rebuild her shop, or a vow to hunt down the people responsible. Taziri flashed back to the previous night and the dark rage of the wedding guests, and the words of the song they had shouted into the darkness. She quickly moved to the edge of the crowd.

The firefighters dragged smoldering furniture and boxes out of the ruin to dump buckets of water on them, and then kick them back toward the remains of the building. A few stubborn, skeletal beams still stood high above the wreckage. A lone window frame clung to one beam up in the air, an empty eye socket in empty space. Taziri winced at the scene, at the thought of an entire building burning, of people stumbling about inside, of evil men with knives prowling the inferno looking for women to stab in the face. She wondered if she was developing a fear of fire. Or at least, a more irrational one than the fear of fire she had cultivated while flying on the Halcyon.

Kenan returned from his brief talk with the fire chief. “What is that?” He pointed at her arm. “And when did you get it?”

“It’s from the fire in Tingis. I got burned a little worse than I thought,” Taziri said. “I came down here last night and one of the medical techs fixed me up with this.”

“You were here last night? Alone? Why didn’t you tell me? Did you see the doctor?”

“No, everyone was gone except the tech. So what’s the word from the chief?” Taziri stared into the smoking black rubble, but she couldn’t identify anything at all. All the walls and floors and doors and tables, all the things, were gone and only dirty lumps and vague black shapes remained.

Kenan frowned at her as though he had more to say about her arm. He said, “The fire started early this morning. Witnesses say they heard a bang, like a cannon or thunder, and the building collapsed before the fire started. They’ve got no idea how or why.” The marshal ran his thumb along his unshaven jaw. “Total loss. The building was over a hundred years old. Dry enough, fragile enough. Woof. Gone.”

“Everything was destroyed?” Taziri glanced up at him. “If Medina was building electrical batteries and doing medical experiments here, then there should have been a lot of machines. Metal parts, at least.”

“Oh, there were. In that back room where the fire started, they found piles of brass and aluminum rods and joints. This whole place was a prosthetics shop. Although, I guess you figured that out last night, didn’t you? They made peg-legs and glass eyes, things like that. But apparently nothing complicated. The only machines were drills and a sheet press.”

“Can we see?”

“No, they won’t let us inside. Not safe. Most of the building fell into the basement, and everything else is about to collapse on top of that. They need to pull down those beams up there by the end of the day and get a crane to start clearing out the foundation.” Kenan pointed up at the rickety window frame still hanging off the side of one of the beams. “Never seen anything like that before.”

“So that’s it? The same day we come to town to find this doctor, her shop burns down?” Taziri glared at the rubble. “You don’t honestly think this was an accident?”

“No, I don’t.” Kenan frowned. “There’s a witness. A police detective named Massi. They found her in the alley behind the shop, all cut up with a knife in her chest, right here.” Kenan tapped his chest just inside his left shoulder. “She’s at a hospital a few blocks from here. No word on whether she’s awake yet. Or if she died.”

“She was stabbed?” For a cold instant, Taziri couldn’t remember where Medur Hamuy was and she could only remember that the killer was no longer in their custody. Then she remembered Kenan calling the police to take Hamuy away. “You don’t think Hamuy got free and did this?”

Kenan blinked, eyebrows raised. “No. No, he couldn’t. He’d have to break out of jail and get past twenty officers, run halfway across town, and then still have the strength to fight the detective. No, it couldn’t be him. I don’t think. No.” The marshal swallowed and waved to Ghanima, who was chatting with a pair of reporters hovering near the scene. The young pilot waved and walked back over to them.

“They didn’t know much.” She shrugged. “The fire chief gave them some canned statement about getting their investigation started. They did get some quotes from a few kids who were here early this morning who said there was a fight in the street, but that was in another neighborhood. Nothing about the doctor. No one’s seen her yet.”

Taziri sniffed the dead air. “So, no idea whether anyone died in the fire?”

“Nope. Not yet anyway. The chief will put out an official report in a few days, but since there hasn’t been a hospital wagon to pick up any bodies, there probably aren’t any. Yet.” Ghanima chewed her lip. “I wish we’d brought Evander. He might know something about medical buildings and equipment.”

“He’s safer back at the inn.” Taziri leaned against a sawhorse, feeling the wet grit stuck to the wood. “And I doubt he knows more about fires than the fire chief.”

“So what now?”

Kenan scratched his head. “I say we find this detective Massi and see what she can tell us. Assuming she’s alive. Maybe she knows what happened to Medina. Maybe she was investigating Medina!” His eyes lit up. “What if she stumbled onto the same people we’re looking for! What if they tried to kill her because she learned what they were doing?”

Taziri couldn’t help but grin at the marshal’s enthusiasm. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Actually,” Ghanima half raised her hand. “Taziri, can I have a word?”

Kenan shrugged and paced away to watch the firefighters.

“What is it?” Taziri asked.

“Look, one of the reporters mentioned that the trains to Tingis are running again. There’s a nine o’clock leaving the North Station. I’m going to hoof it over there and head on home. Okay?”

“You’re leaving?” Taziri blinked, unsure of what to say. “You know, I could really use your help here. And not just with this Medina business. You’re leaving me to fly Halcyon alone. You’re a good pilot and I could really use you right now.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. But my sister needs me more. And with the Crake out of commission, it means I have an excuse to spend more time home with her.”

“I’m sure your sister can manage without you,” Taziri said, letting her frustration show in her face and voice.

“Actually, she can’t,” Ghanima said curtly. “She was in the White Jacana fire.”

Taziri felt a cold flutter in her belly. The White Jacana had just been one more steamer cruising up and down the coast with one cargo or another, a ship of no particular importance until it arrived in Tingis last month late at night during a storm, with five thousand barrels of Songhai oil on board. No one was sure how the fire started, but it spread through half the harbor, consuming tiny fishing boats and heavy trawlers, destroying piers and warehouses along Water Street. They’d pulled bodies from the sea for days and days. Burned bodies, drowned bodies, and bodies half eaten by the fish.

“She was a harbor pilot. She was in her bunk when it happened.” Ghanima swallowed. “She only has a few days left now, they think.”

“I’m sorry,” Taziri said hoarsely, suddenly desperate for the conversation to end before Ghanima explained her sister’s condition in any detail. “I didn’t know. I didn’t think. I’m sorry. Of course you should go home to her.”

Ghanima nodded, shoved her hands in her pockets, and walked away.

Kenan came back over. “Where’s she going?”


“What? Home? Now? Are you kidding me?”

“Let it go, Kenan. Just let her go.” Taziri locked eyes with the marshal for a moment. “Now let’s go see this detective of yours.”

One of the firefighters gave them directions to the hospital and they found the gleaming new medical facility just a few blocks from the remains of the prosthetics shop. The man at the front desk directed them to the second floor where they found a dozen police officers wearing gray coats and grim faces outside Detective Massi’s room. No one was speaking or even moving. Those in chairs stared at their hands while those standing up stared down the halls at nothing in particular. Every now and again, someone cleared their throat.

Taziri caught a nurse’s attention and the young man confirmed that this was the detective’s room and that the patient was still unconscious. Three hours of surgery had closed up the cuts and stitched together the hole in her shoulder, but the blood loss had been considerable. Taziri let the nurse go and felt her legs turning to cold tin and her chest constricting.

Isoke had been cut. Maybe badly, maybe not. Near a fire. Taken to a hospital.

But she knew there weren’t a dozen figures in orange jackets clustered outside her door. There was no one left to worry over her. There was only her husband and their two little boys who liked to hide behind their mother’s legs when Taziri came to visit.

Kenan found a bench just down the hall and they sat on it, staring silently at their hands and at the wall and the doctors and nurses quietly going about their work. None of the police officers asked them who they were or why they were there, but all of them took turns casting cold stares at the intruders wearing orange and red.

After half an hour, Taziri leaned forward. “You know, we could be waiting here all day, all week, and this detective might never wake up. Even if she does wake up, she might not be able to tell us anything. I think we need another plan.”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking.” Kenan sniffed. “I mean, I still want to try to talk to Massi here, but there’s got to be something else we could be doing to find Medina, or Chaou, or the major.”

Taziri shrugged. “Any ideas?”

Kenan stood. “I’m going back to the marshal’s office. I reported the major as missing and the ambassador as a fugitive last night, but who knows what they’re doing about it. I’ll get the whole force moving on this. At least, I’ll try to.”

“What about the whole conspiracy problem?” Taziri asked. “Remember, they’ve got people everywhere. They had a police captain in Chellah. They might have someone in the marshals. You can’t trust anyone to help. In fact, if you talk to the wrong person you could end up like this detective by the end of the day.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” Kenan massaged his injured shoulder. “We don’t know enough. Hell, we don’t know anything! All we know is that an ambassador went crazy and stole an airship and killed some people, and she’s got friends all over the place, and there’s some doctor putting metal plates and electrical devices in people. What does that add up to? What? Tell me what it means, tell me what to do!”

“Calm down.” She stood beside him and placed her hand against his arm to make the young man stand still. She glanced at the police officers, but they seemed to have closed ranks and were ignoring everyone else. “We can figure this out, one thing at a time. Now, there’s no obvious way to find the major. We don’t even know for sure if he was on the ferry, and even if he was, he could be anywhere by now. Same goes for Chaou. The only lead we have right now is Medina. So I’ll stay here a little while and see if I can learn anything from the detective if she wakes up. Meanwhile, you can try to track down the doctor. She’s obviously popular, judging from the crowd this morning. I’m sure someone can tell you where she lives. Maybe even someone in this hospital. If you can find her, maybe you can sort out if she’s a part of Chaou’s little circle of mayhem or not.”

“What if she’s not?” Kenan looked puzzled.

“I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we get there. Plan to meet back at the B-and-B tonight around six, okay?”

He nodded and retreated down the hall toward the stairs. When he was gone, Taziri stood up and shuffled through the police officers until she was standing by the open doorway to the detective’s room and she stared at the woman on the bed. All she saw were brown arms on white sheets. It wasn’t a person, not to Taziri, not yet. She couldn’t find the energy to care about this detective. She was full. Full of fires and knives and blood, full of worried families and frightened strangers, full of fear and anxiety for too many people already. There was no room in her for another victim. Not yet.

“How do you know the detective?”

Taziri was about to turn away when she realized the question was directed at her. She looked into the weary face of a young man in a gray coat sitting just beside the open door. He was staring quite sternly at her.

“I don’t. Sorry. I don’t know her at all.”


“Why am I here?” Taziri absorbed the question for a moment. “I wanted to ask her what happened. What she saw. Who was there.”

“You’re, what, in the Air Corps?” The officer leaned forward to peer around the corner into the room as though hoping the detective would open her eyes at just that moment. “So why do you want to know what happened? What’s it to you?”

“The people who did this may be the same people who burned the airfield in Tingis and killed a lot of people up north. People I know. Knew.” She swallowed. “I’m helping the marshals with the investigation and they left me here.” She stopped talking. It felt rude somehow. But suddenly she was aware that the eyes and ears of every officer in the hall were fixed on her. She tried to not look at them, but she could feel them staring, waiting, hungry for answers about their comrade lying in the next room. The silence was unnerving. “But if any of you know what the detective was doing at that building last night, it might help the investigation.”

“Actually, that’s what we all want to know,” the young man said. “Last night was pretty crazy. Massi came into the station saying that there were professional assassins in the streets. A lot of officers went out to sweep the district, but Massi never came back.”

“Did she say anything about the killers? Who were they?”

“She didn’t say.” The officer crossed his arms tightly across his chest, as though to keep himself warm. “A short while later, we got a report about a fight in the street outside a bakery. The officers who got there first bumped into Massi as she was leaving. She was out of uniform. The officers found a dead detective in the street and a body in the basement, butchered with a knife. The knife was still at the scene and it looked like Massi’s knife. A big folding one.”

“You think Massi killed those people?”

“Not a chance. Massi’s a hardliner. Old school. She’s been on the force for twenty-five years and never broken a single regulation. It’s a setup. We all know it. Some bastards from the second district came down here a few hours ago to put irons on Massi. We told them what they could do with their irons.” The small crowd of officers shook their heads and muttered under their breath.

“So after the fight at the bakery,” the man continued, “we heard about the fire. The fire brigade got Massi straight here. The doctors say she was cut up real bad. Arms, stomach, chest. And a stiletto in her shoulder. Good money says that the person who sliced up the detective also sliced up Usem and the girl at the bakery.”

Taziri turned the story over in her mind, wondering what any of it had to do with Tingis, Chaou, or her battery. The only connection she could see was Medina, and it was a connection so thin it vanished if she thought about it too hard. “Does the name Medina mean anything to you? A doctor called Medina?”

“The Espani? Sure.” The officer nodded. “She runs the shop that burned down. We send accident victims there all the time. I’ve never met her, but everyone always says she’s wonderful. She helps anyone who comes in, even if they can’t pay. It’s all thanks to Lady Sade, she’s paying the bills. But it’s a damn shame that folks around here have to go to a foreigner for help. The companies should take care of the men who get hurt, and if not them, then the queen should do something about it. But I guess Medina is better than nothing. Why do you ask? Was she hurt in the fire?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Any idea where I can find her?”

The man shrugged. “Nope. Maybe later we can go by the station and I can look up her address for you.”

Taziri nodded. “Okay. Thanks. Thank you.”

The other police officers still hovered around her, still watched her closely, but they said nothing and allowed Taziri to saunter back down the hall to her bench. She sat down and tried to imagine why anyone would ever want to put a battery inside a human being.

Why would that even cross someone’s mind, except in a nightmare? And what are the odds that an Espani doctor invented a battery like mine all on her own?

She shook her head.

There are coincidences and then there are ridiculous coincidences. No one cares about batteries. Medina had to read about my battery and then do a lot of work to build her own. She wanted to do these things. And what does that make her? A scientist or a psychopath?

Medina had read a paper about metal plates and acid baths and electrochemical properties. She had learned how to store an electrical charge in a box and read the suggested applications: running trolleys throughout the night, providing light in homes so people could read in the evenings, and enhancing the efficiency of large engines, steam engines, trains, airships…

Medina had read all that, pieced together all of those thoughts and ideas, and dreamed up an electrocution device buried in the arm of a killer. And she read about medical coatings and put armor plates in another killer’s chest. God only knows what else she read about in the journals and decided to put inside someone. Taziri felt her skin crawling and a faint taste of bile wafted up into the back of her throat.

They are insane. All of them. How else could they not just imagine such things, but talk about them, agree that they are clever and sound notions, and then cut open their own bodies to make these things real? How could any sane person do this?

A fresh rage boiled up in her chest. These people, whoever they were, had taken her dream and pissed all over it, wrapped it in blood and fire, and spewed out a new form of death. These monstrous people existed in the same world as her beautiful little girl Menna. They had taken Isoke, taken the airships, taken the major, taken her battery. And they would go on taking everything she knew, everything she loved. Taziri stood up.

She went back to the young man by the open door. “Excuse me, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to get that address now…”


Everyone turned to stare through the open door at the woman sitting up in bed, her face ashen and exhausted. She blinked slowly and croaked, “What the hell is going on?”

The officers flooded into the room, carrying Taziri with them, but before they could do more than cheer and babble and congratulate each other, the nurses and doctors were demanding quiet so they could inspect their patient. Everyone stood in nervous, impatient silence while the detective was poked and tapped and stared at, and notes were taken on clipboards. Finally the doctors left and the joyful chaos resumed.

Taziri faded back to the far wall and let them have their moment, knowing it would take time, but that was all right. These officers deserved their moment. They had their friend back. Thank God for that.

“…pilot? Hey, pilot? Sorry, I didn’t get your name. Come over here.” The young man was standing beside the bed waving her over and the others made a hole for her to approach the detective. The officer told Massi, “She’s working with the marshals on a case and she needs to talk to you.”

Taziri raised her hands. “It doesn’t have to be right this second.”

“Of course it does.” Detective Massi groaned. She rocked about stiffly under the sheets trying to get comfortable, and Taziri could see the bulges of the bandages around her arms and chest. Her voice rasped and whispered like someone desperate to fall asleep. “There are things the marshals need to know, things you all need to know. But first I need to know something. Did you find another person at the fire?”


“No?” Massi frowned at them. “A woman in a white coat? Missing an eye?”

Heads shook.

“Damn.” The detective gingerly prodded the gauze packed around her shoulder. “All right, pilot, ask your questions.”

“Engineer, actually. Lieutenant Taziri Ohana. It’s nice to meet you, detective.” She cleared her throat. “The marshals are looking to arrest Ambassador Barika Chaou. She was responsible for the attack on the train station and airfield in Tingis two days ago. We know she has some connection to an Espani doctor named Medina here in Arafez. That name brought us to the scene of the fire this morning, which brought us to you. Were you investigating Medina? Do you know anything about her connections to the ambassador?”

Massi chewed at the inside of her cheek for a moment. “All right, here’s the short version. A woman named Jedira Amadi came to me yesterday with a story. Amadi said her boss, Doctor Medina, was torturing animals in the basement of the shop. Thing is, Lady Sade had already told me about that research, so I sent Amadi home. But I did a little digging anyway and an hour later, a Persian tried to kill me for sticking my nose where it didn’t belong. His friend in the white coat killed Usem and Amadi.”

Jedira? The girl from last night? Taziri stiffened. She looked down at the brace on her left arm. Was that my fault too, somehow?

Massi coughed. “I made it to the basement and saw the animals, tons of them, all dead, all carved up and jammed full of strange machines. Like something out of an Espani ghost story, but with machines instead of demons. Some of you need to get down to that shop and start digging through the wreckage. Dig right down into the basement.”

“Dig for what?”

“Those bodies I saw. They’re evidence. Evidence of what, I don’t know, but they’re evidence. And when we figure out what was really going on there…” A silent snarl curled Massi’s broken lips.

There was a suddenly rumble of discussion and three officers dashed from the room. Taziri watched them go, and then looked down at the detective. Her face was mostly overlapping bruises, her lips alternately thin and puffy, and both eyes bloodshot. “Thank you, detective. Is there anything else you can tell me about Medina or Chaou?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Taziri nodded and touched the young officer’s arm. “I’m going to need that address now.”

He stood up and straightened his jacket. “Absolutely.”

Chapter 32. Lorenzo

As he stepped out the servant’s door beside the kitchen of Lady Sade’s manor house, the midday sun glared in Lorenzo’s eyes and he quickly set his wide-brimmed hat on his head. He couldn’t be certain whether the air would be warm or cool to a local, but to him it was rapidly becoming uncomfortably sultry. With a glance at his surroundings so he could be sure to find his way back, the hidalgo set out down the quiet back street that ran behind several large estates.


He stopped short and turned. Qhora stood in the doorway he had just left. She was wearing the purple dress he had given her, the light cotton one with the high collar. And for once, her feathered cloak looked almost fitting over her Espani clothing.

“My lady?”

She walked up to him with a stern squint, but he could not tell whether her look indicated her mood or merely that the sun was in her eyes. “Where are you going?”

Lorenzo said, “The cook told me about a butcher shop a few blocks away. This butcher has a meat locker that I’d like to see.”

“You’re running errands for Lady Sade’s cook?” Qhora moved around him to stand in his shadow and once in the shade her expression softened considerably. “Or is this how you intend to explore the culture and hospitality of our hosts? By touring their butcher shops?”

“It’s just a curiosity. The meat locker is walled with ice, which they keep cold with some sort of machine.”

A look of understanding passed over her eyes and Lorenzo’s chest tightened as he prepared for the inevitable lecture. But instead she said, “You want to be somewhere cold. Can I come with you?”

“You’d be bored. I’m just going to pray. I’ll be back soon.”

“Praying in meat lockers.” She stared into his eyes for a moment. “Can anyone see these ghosts of yours, or only the Espani?”

“Anyone, I suppose. But only in the cold and in the dark. Ghosts are fragile things. Too much light and heat makes the aether fade apart into the air.”

“And if I come with you now, will I see her? Will I see Ariel?”

It struck him then for the first time that in all the long months together in Espana and the several times he had spent long evenings with Ariel, Qhora had never seen the lingering revenant. Indeed, she had never seen any ghosts. Probably because she never strays from the fire, never goes walking at night. “If she comes, you will see her. Do you want to see her?”

“Yes. I want to understand why she has this hold over you.”

She doesn’t believe me at all. She thinks I’m delusional. She wants to bring this to a head, to have a final fight, to force me back into being the person I was when we first met. Lorenzo glanced around the quiet alleyway for some sign, some inspiration, some help. There was none, and he stammered, “I’ve tried to tell you. She has no hold on me, not in the way that you mean. She’s just showed me the story of her life, images and feelings, her memories. And it’s made me see my own life in a very different way, a way I’m not proud of.”

Qhora started to object but he plowed on, the words tumbling out almost faster than he could think of them. “Ariel lived a pure life, the life of a nun devoted to charity and compassion. She fed the hungry, clothed the poor, tended the sick, and ministered to thieves and killers. She lived without fear, without sin, without doubt. She walked the righteous path. She did all the things the priests tell us to do but no one actually does. Ariel has shown me that holiness and purity aren’t just words. They’re real. And I am so far from them, so far below them. And it wasn’t just her charitable works. She wrote sermons and letters and hymns. She taught children to read. She studied the heavens themselves with some sort of telescope given to her by the king himself. One night she saw a falling star and she mapped where it was and led an expedition to find it. The skyfire stone, she called it. She never found it, but the point is that she tried. She did all these things for other people, all these selfless and noble things, all in the name of God, and what have I done with my life? What? Killed men? Taught other men to kill men?”

There was pain in Qhora’s eyes, but there was iron there too as she said, “Take me with you. Let me meet her.”

If Ariel had been a living woman, Lorenzo would have feared for her safety as he heard the hard resolve in the princess’s voice. He swallowed and asked, “Why?”

Qhora took his hand. Her skin was rough and dry, but warm. She said, “You are the finest man I have ever met. Brave and noble, dedicated and loyal, skilled and strong. But if that isn’t enough for you anymore, if this ghost has given you a reason to turn your back on everything you once cared about, then I want to meet her. If Ariel is so important to you, then she is important to me as well, my love. It is past time that I met her.”

“Here? Now?”

“Here. Now.”

He thought there was probably more to say at that moment before they went any farther, but he didn’t want to fight and a part of him really did want Qhora to see Ariel, to put the two of them together face to face, especially if it meant he would no longer be standing directly between their competing needs, if only for a moment or two. So he nodded and led the way down the street.

They passed dozens of men and women, most carrying baskets of food or laundry, and some leading mules laden with more of the same. Servants filtered quietly in and out of the rear doors of the proud houses on the right while elderly couples lingered on the dusty stoops of the old rowhouses on the left. Lorenzo felt their eyes on him, on his clothes, on his pale skin. He would have hurried past them all, but Qhora’s short legs kept him plodding along far slower than he would have liked.

After a quarter hour of crossing side streets and studying Mazigh street signs, they found the butcher’s shop. The butcher was not very busy and when his last customer had been served he listened to Lorenzo’s request with a confused frown twisting the whole bottom half of his face down. But he shrugged and pointed them down a short hall and then down a spiral stair to a heavy door. The metal handle on the door was cold, so cold it stung Lorenzo’s bare fingers.

Inside they found a storage room ten feet wide and twenty feet deep. The walls glistened black and silver where the blocks of ice had been stacked floor to ceiling and the moment they stepped inside their breath curled and floated in a pale vapor around their lips. A dozen huge carcasses hung from hooks in the ceiling and the racks along the walls held a variety of sport fish and exotic game birds from countries far to the east and south. Lorenzo thought he recognized a feather here or a fin there, but no names came to mind.

There was nowhere to sit except the stone floor, which was stained over and over again with the bits of flesh and blood that had fallen from the meat. Lorenzo led Qhora to the back corner where there was some space between the hanging carcasses and the wall. And they stood there.

The cold was invigorating. It stung his lips and wind pipe and lungs. It sharpened his vision even as it slowed his pulse. A thousand fragments of childhood memories crashed against his waking mind: a toy dropped in the snow, sledge tracks by the river, icicles on the cathedral roof, snowflakes on his gloves and sleeves, sliding down a hill, and the warm embrace of the fire when he came back inside the house.

Lorenzo exhaled slowly, focusing on the spiraling wisps of vapor under his nose. He knew they wouldn’t be able to stay long down here. Qhora had buried her hands in her armpits and was pressing her lips together tightly, trying not shiver.

He closed his eyes and turned his thoughts to the divine, to the existence and purpose of the soul, to the meaning of righteousness, to sacrifice, to duty, to balance and purpose and purity and every other high-minded word he had ever heard an entire sermon about.

“Enzo?” Qhora’s whisper shuddered through her trembling lips.

He opened his eyes.

Dona Ariella Espinoza de Cordoba stood beside them. The ghost was as insubstantial as smoke, yet every detail of her serene face and centuries-old dress was sharp and distinct. She appeared, as always, a plain-faced woman of middle age, short but straight-backed, with thin humorless lips but wide smiling eyes. It was a face that could comfort even as it disapproved. Lorenzo glanced from the dead nun to the living woman beside him.

Qhora studied the ghost impassively without a trace of fear of surprise on her face. “Hello, Sister Ariel. It’s very nice to meet you.” If her voice wavered, it was only a tremor from the cold of the meat locker.

“Hello, Lady Qhora. Hello, Lorenzo.” The ghost’s whisper cut the air like a razor.

“Sister.” Lorenzo bowed his head.

“You’ve chosen a strange place to pray.” A hint of a smile played at the corner of the dead nun’s mouth as her gaze swept the room and its contents. “But strange times may call for strange places, I suppose. You looked troubled, Lorenzo. You think we’re going to have a fight, don’t you? Lady Qhora and I?”

Lorenzo shrugged. “I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to say. That’s why I came here today. I had to see you, to ask your guidance again.”

“Oh, you poor boy. There’s nothing I could say that I haven’t already said a dozen times before.”

“I just…I just feel so lost. So torn.” He swallowed and stole a look at Qhora. “I know I have to give up so many worldly things to follow in your footsteps, but my heart doesn’t want to. I don’t want to live without Qhora. And I don’t know how to live except by fencing. It’s all I know, all I’m good at. I know I’m just being afraid and selfish and weak, but…”

“Hush, Lorenzo.” Ariel turned to Qhora. “My Lady, I’m sorry it has taken so long for us to meet, but circumstances do not allow me to come and go as I once did.”

“I suppose not,” Qhora said. A shiver ran through her and she recrossed her arms. “I really didn’t think I would see…you. A ghost, I mean.”

“I know you didn’t. But Lorenzo is as sane as everyone else in our country. The souls of the dead may only be seen in the deep cold and only by a cold light. Even then, the soul must come and make itself seen, and even then, the witness must be willing to see it. I imagine that ghosts are seen throughout the northern world, but only where the people have an understanding of the afterlife.” Ariel clasped her silvery hands in front of her. “But I don’t want to keep you two down here in this place any longer than needs be. Lorenzo?”

“Yes, Sister?”

“I will say this as plainly as I can.” The serious little line of her mouth softened with the appearance of lips, and her eyes suddenly looked quite old and tired. “I was not the paragon of virtue that you think I was. I performed good works and I served the church as I was instructed, but always with fear and doubt. I respected the Mother’s commandments to preserve life, but as a nun I never created any life myself. In fact, I never really cared for children. So much noise, so much dirt, so much worry. I respected the Son’s commandments to show compassion and mercy, but as a nun I was almost as penniless and lonely as the beggars I cared for. It took little effort to pity them as I pitied myself. But worst of all, I did not respect the Father’s commandments to observe the law and seek justice. I sheltered all manners of criminals, knowing full well what they were, and I sent the police away. I think I was too afraid of the criminals. It was just easier to look the other way, to not get involved. I sacrificed justice to keep my house quiet. I chose the easy road.”

Lorenzo stared at her, frowning, wanting to interrupt, wanting to correct her and to argue with her, but he was lost for words. Slowly, the thought formed in his mind: If she could live such a holy life and still be so far from grace, what chance do I have? He glanced around for a few moments until the queasiness in his stomach died down and he said, “What does that mean for me?”

“It means, poor Lorenzo, that you still have the potential to live a life that is far better than mine ever was.”

He blinked. “How is that possible?”

Ariel nodded at Qhora. “Marry your beloved and have children. God is a creator and sustainer of life. Having children is pleasing to the Mother, especially if you raise them properly. Uphold and enforce the law. Go on serving Prince Valero.”

“As a fencing instructor?”

Ariel gestured toward his espada. “How many men have you killed since we first met?”


Qhora looked at him sharply. “None? What about the robbers in Tingis?”

“I slashed their hands and struck them unconscious. It’s easy if you know where to hit,” he said sheepishly. “They probably woke up a few minutes after we left.”

“Yes,” Ariel said. “And you merely disarmed the bandit on the highway, just as you disarmed the woman in white at the marketplace. And you refrained from killing her at the train station. You even offered her alternative punishments. You are not afraid to fight for the law, but you fight with your mind as well as your sword. In fact, few men could do what you do. Destreza is the study of the skillful sword, not the blind sword or the murdering sword or the cruel sword. And you are a master diestro. The youngest in decades.”

“Then you’re saying that I should fight?”

“In the name of the Father, the Mother, and the Son. Yes. Fight for the law. Preserve life. Show mercy. You can do all three in a single stroke of your sword. You’ve been doing it for months, time and again. You are already walking a righteous path, Lorenzo.” Ariel smiled. “But you’ve let your illusions about piety and holiness blind you to that truth. God does not want us to lock ourselves away in cloisters and cells to pray and hide from the world. God wants us to live in the world, to shape the world, to teach the world. You are not a scholar, Lorenzo. We both know that. You are a soldier, but yours is the sword of life and law. Carry it proudly. Teach it to all who are willing to learn it. You could train a legion to fight with courage and honor to preserve life, not to kill. To truly fight in the service of God.”

Lorenzo rested his hand on the pommel of his espada, and for the first time in months he gripped it without fear or doubt. “The sword of life?”

Ariel nodded.

“And children?” He glanced at Qhora for the first time in several long moments and saw a curious look in her eye and slight smirk on her lip.

“But marriage means conversion, doesn’t it?” Qhora asked, turning a colder eye on the ghost. “You want me to be an Espani lady, to turn my back on my people and my gods and everything that tells me who I am.”

“Lady Qhora, you have already sacrificed so much. Your home, your family, your future. I’m in no position to ask you to sacrifice your gods. But you love this man. You want to spend your life with him? To have his children? Yes?”

Qhora nodded and Lorenzo felt a sudden flush in his chilled cheeks.

Ariel nodded back. “Then, as long as you intend to live in Espana, it seems a small concession to perform a brief ritual. Say the words, wear the triquetra, and read enough of the Book to discuss it with your neighbors and friends. You might be surprised how little effort would make you as pious as most Espani. But keep the gods and prayers of your people in your heart, if they bring you comfort and peace. Can you do that for Lorenzo? Can you do that for your children?”

Lorenzo watched the fiery wheels turning behind the princess’s eyes and for a moment he thought the argument he had been fearing was about to erupt, but instead Qhora nodded and turned back to face him. “I can do that. But only if you come back to me. Be my Enzo again. No more sulking, no more hiding. And one more thing.”

“What?” he asked.

“Smile, damn you.” She grabbed his collar and pulled him down toward her face.

The smile came on its own, stretching his cold and stiff cheeks, and they kissed. It was the warmest, softest sensation he had felt in over a year and it only ended when he ran out of air. But as he straightened up he saw clearly how blue her lips had become and turned to say his farewells to Ariel, but the ghost had vanished. “Come.” He grabbed her hand. “Let’s get out of here. We have things to do.”

“What things?”

He smiled. “Everything.”

Chapter 33. Syfax

The marshals’ office in Arafez was nearly identical to the one in Tingis and Syfax quickly threaded a path through the hallway traffic to the locker room where he took a quick shower and changed into someone else’s clothes and boots. With the slime and smell of the Zemmour Canal finally gone, he found the records room where he took one look at the rows and rows of cabinets before asking the clerk to find an address and any files on Barika Chaou. The young woman appeared to be in no particular hurry until he presented his badge for verification and she saw his name etched along the bottom of it. Within three minutes, Chaou’s file was in his hand.

The first few pages were standard. Education, work history, current and previous residences. But the list of known contacts and associates read as a who’s who of the wealthy elite of Marrakesh, Espana, and Numidia. It went on for pages, names of people followed by brief descriptions of how and why Chaou knew them. Bankers, diplomats, merchants, generals, admirals, princes, and countless others that meant nothing to him. The file was long, detailed, and therefore useless. It gave him a thousand leads and none of them were people he could reasonably shove up against a wall in a dark alley. Syfax flipped to the back of the folder to the errata and found a few pages of miscellany, some letters and memos, most of it several years old.

He tossed the file onto the clerk’s desk and rubbed his eyes.

“No help, sir?” the clerk said.

“Not really. Give me the one on Lady Sade.”

She hesitated for a bare instant before taking back the Chaou file and fetching the one on Lady Sade. It landed on the desk with a heavy thump and Syfax exhaled slowly. “Is there a shorter version?”

The clerk smiled and shook her head. “Sorry, sir.”

He opened it to find a longer and more detailed version of Chaou’s. Lady Sade’s entire family history, all of her business dealings and associates and all of their histories and associates, and on and on. Chaou was there, briefly. So was Fariza Othmani. But he only found them because they were listed alphabetically. There was nothing obviously helpful about either of them.

Syfax groaned and tried to ignore the gnawing in his belly. “All right, help me out. If you were rich and powerful, and doing something totally illegal, would you meet with your friends at your own house where you can control the security or would you meet somewhere else, somewhere hidden, somewhere private?”

“Do you mean Lady Sade and the ambassador, sir?”


“Well, if I had to guess, I’d try the Onyx Club. Very exclusive. Tight security. And it wouldn’t arouse suspicion if every rich and powerful person in the country happened to be there at one time.” The clerk drummed her fingers on the desk. “Definitely the Onyx Club, sir.”

The Onyx Club was a long hour’s walk from the marshal’s office, but the major eventually found the towering building across the street from a massive park. The armored doors huddled behind a row of Hellan columns and the ground floor windows were all curtained. The upper windows revealed only the massive chandeliers suspended from the ceilings and the shadows of servants passing in front of the bright electric lights. Syfax paused long enough to observe the two small boys in matching blue uniforms standing side by side in front of the doors before he turned and strolled back to the corner, out of sight, to watch and wait.

Two hours later, as he leaned against a tree eating a bag of nuts he bought from a cart at the far end of the park, Syfax saw two people step out onto the street. The first was a woman, middle-aged and short and rather pale, who emerged from the Onyx Club and began walking along the sidewalk. The second was a young man in a red jacket who jogged out of the trees across from the club and caught up to the woman just as she was turning the corner.

Syfax grinned and muttered, “Good work, kid.” He crossed the street and slowly made his way over, approaching from behind Kenan so he could get a good look at the woman and hear them talking before the corporal saw him.

“Excuse me, Doctor Medina?” Kenan jogged up alongside her. “Are you Doctor Medina?”

“Hm, yes?” The woman stopped short and glanced at him with wide eyes. “Who are you?”

“Corporal Kenan Agyeman, marshals’ office,” he said. “I’m, uh, I’m part of the task force investigating the fire at your office last night. I’m assisting the fire chief and local police.”

“Oh? Oh, yes.” The woman blinked and her shoulders relaxed a bit. “Yes, what can I do for you, corporal?”

“Just a few questions.” Kenan clasped his hands behind his back. “Do you know a man named Medur Hamuy? Tall, muscular build, late thirties.”

“I don’t recognize the name. But if he was a patient of ours, then I’m sure we have…oh, no, no, all the records must have been lost in the fire.” Genuine dismay passed over the doctor’s face. “All the patient records, serial numbers, invoices. Gone.”

Kenan pursed his lips for a moment. “What about a woman named Barika Chaou? Short, older, silver hair?”

The doctor froze for a fraction of a second, but there was a tiny flash of fear in the woman’s face.

“Ah, yes.” The doctor offered a smile, obviously false and full of nerves. “Yes, a lady in the government service, I believe? I do recall that name, although I think it has been some time since I last heard it.” Her speech began slowly, but accelerated the longer she went on. “Yes, I believe she was a patient several years ago, back when I was first starting out here in Arafez. It was quite an unexpected honor to have such a distinguished person in my shop back then. I was still wondering whether I would have any success at all in this country, and suddenly, here was this very important lady seeking my services! Oh, that was a good day. But what does any of this have to do with your investigation of the fire? Surely Senora Chaou was not hurt in the fire?”

Kenan shook his head. “No. Actually, I’m more interested in the electrical device you inserted into her arm so she could shock people with her fingers. And if there’s time, I’d like to hear about the bullet-proof armor in Medur Hamuy’s chest.”

The doctor froze yet again, this time her small mouth hanging open slightly.

Kenan cleared his throat. “Whenever you’re ready. Take a minute, if you need it. I have time.”

The round little Espani made several sounds as though she was beginning to speak and then suddenly forgot how.

“Kenan!” Syfax called out.

They both turned to look at him.

“Major?” Kenan beamed. “You’re all right! Are you all right? Are you hurt? You look a little tired.”

“I know how I look.” The major joined them and glared down at the woman in the green dress. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend here?”

“This is Doctor Elena Medina. She’s the one who put the armor plate in Hamuy’s chest and the shock device in Ambassador Chaou’s arm.” Kenan folded his arms across his chest. “She was just about to start lying to me about how we’ve got it all wrong, that it’s all a big misunderstanding.”

“Good work. Any word on Chaou?” Syfax glanced around at the empty street.

“We haven’t seen or heard from her.”

“Well, she’s in town. I lost her at the South Station this morning and I’ve been running down leads all day. I heard that wealthy government types like this club, the Onyx. We should check it out.” Syfax jerked his head back toward the club doors.

“Actually, major, I tried that but I couldn’t get in.” Kenan pointed at the park across the avenue. “So I waited in the park to catch the doctor coming out. I saw every person who’s gone in since noon, and Chaou hasn’t been here.”

“She could have arrived before you did. Let’s go.” Syfax strode away.

Kenan hurried after him, dragging the doctor by the arm. “But major, they’ve got private security in there.”

“I don’t care.”

“Here, sir, at least take my gun.”

He frowned over his shoulder at the corporal. “Nah, you keep it. I’m just going to take a look around. Not planning to kill anyone today.” He fished the Persian’s brass knuckles from his pocket and slipped his fingers through the rings. The metal was warm.

Syfax shoved through the double doors of the Onyx Club over the shrill cries of the two little boys in matching blue suits. He made it halfway across the carpeted foyer before three young men with thick necks and bulging arms hustled through an open doorway on his left.

The major frowned at them. “You know who I am?”

One of the men shrugged. “No police, no marshals, no exceptions.”

Syfax tightened his fist around the brass knuckles. A gun might speed this up, but then they’ll get their own guns, and then we’ll need bigger guns, and then the bodies start stacking up in the street like cordwood. And no one wants that.

For a moment, he considered apologizing to them ahead of time. Instead, he lunged at the closest one and smashed his fist into his windpipe, sending him reeling back against the wall, choking and gasping. Then the other two grabbed his coat from behind.

The major yanked forward and down, whipping his arms free of his coat and his attackers. As the men stumbled toward him off balance, Syfax delivered a flurry of heavy-handed punches to their heads. On a better day, he might have been a blur of martial artistry, but today there was only strength, relentless and barely disciplined. He smashed his knuckles into jaws and ears and necks and eyes as hard and fast as he could, taking only a few of their wild swings to his own upper body. He didn’t feel them at all.

One guard toppled over backward and bounced his skull on the wall. The other took a roundhouse to the side of his head and spun as he dropped to the floor. The three guards sat or lay on the carpet, clutching their heads and chests, shuddering and coughing.

Syfax massaged his hands. “Sorry, fellas. Nothing personal.” He picked up his coat and slowly pulled it back on.

The two boys in blue hid outside the doors, peering at them with wide unblinking eyes. Kenan arrived in the doorway a moment later, still wrestling with the heavy-set doctor. Syfax jerked his head at the corridor leading into the club. “Come on. Try to keep up.”

Syfax strode down the hall glancing into the open doorways on either side and seeing richly furnished sitting rooms and sun rooms and dining rooms, all decorated in very different styles: classical Yoruba, modernist Igbo, industrial Mazigh, azure Songhai, imperial Eran. Even one that looked like a Hellan theater and one that resembled an Espani chapel. Some were occupied, and the women who noticed the marshal studying them frowned back rather intensely. Most of the rooms were empty.

Syfax left the corporal on the first floor and sprinted up a wide stair to the next level and repeated his search. And again above that, and again above that. Until finally he stood at the center of the lush greenhouse on the roof, sweating, alone.

When he returned to the foyer, he found Kenan holding back his coat to display his holstered gun to the angry, battered security guards. His other hand held the doctor against the wall.

“She’s not here. We’re leaving.” Syfax strode out into the fading afternoon heat and stood on the sidewalk, glaring at the nearly deserted street. He took the spare moment to put on his new Persian glasses with the blue tinted lenses, but found they’d been broken in his pocket so he tossed them to one of the little boys in blue, who called out, “Thanks, mister!”

Kenan followed him out with the doctor in tow. “Where to now, sir?”

“I have no idea.” Syfax leaned toward the doctor, frowning into her round face. “But I bet you can tell us where we want to go. Let’s go find a nice spot to have a little chat.”

They crossed the street, found a footpath in the park, and deposited the doctor on the grass in a nook between some trees and a large brown stone where they were unlikely to be noticed, had there been anyone else in the park to notice them. Syfax leaned against the rock and felt the subtle warmth captured in the stone seeping into his sore back. He eyed the Espani woman, a lumpy figure of soft, bulbous curves and great sagging breasts that hovered around her lower ribs. The puffy flesh around her jaws and cheeks made her face seem unnaturally young and smooth, but her bright green eyes stared back at him with a piercing intelligence.

“So.” Syfax sniffed. “Barika Chaou electrocuted me yesterday afternoon on a ferry boat using a device in her arm. Tell me about that.”

Medina shook her head. “No, no, no. I know a thing or two about the police in this country. I have rights. Rights of prisoners, yes?” The doctor glanced back and forth between her captors. “There have to be witnesses and papers. I get an advocate. There are rules for this sort of thing. I’m allowed to contact my patron.”

“Absolutely.” Syfax squatted down so he was almost at eye level with her. “And who exactly is your patron, Doctor Medina?”

The woman hesitated. “The governor of Arafez, Lady Sade. She will vouch for me, and provide my advocate, and ensure that my rights are protected. I demand to see Lady Sade.”

“I would love nothing more than to haul you in front of the good lady. We could tell her all about your little experiments. I am sure she will be shocked to hear all about them.”

Medina blinked, not in a cringing fearful manner, but in a perfectly blank and unresponsive way. Passive, doe-like.

Syfax grinned. “Then again, maybe she wouldn’t be so shocked after all?”

Medina’s eyes widened.

“She knows, doesn’t she?” Syfax leaned closer, shoving his exhausted grimace into the doctor’s fat face. “She knows. Lady Sade isn’t just your patron. She’s your employer. She hired you. Hand-picked you, didn’t she?”

Kenan shuffled a little closer to them and spoke softly. “You think the governor knows what the doctor has been doing?”

“I think Sade has been telling the doctor what to do.” The major stood up, watching carefully as the doctor’s blank stare of confusion shifted to a cold, naked fear. “This little dance isn’t Chaou’s number at all, is it? It’s the governor’s show. Sade’s calling the shots. She owns the doctor and the ambassador.”

“What?” Kenan frowned. “But why? Lady Sade has everything. Wealth, power, respect, even popularity. Why would she be involved in medical experiments and attacks on airships?”

Syfax stood up. “For the same reason that anyone commits a crime. She wants something she can’t get without breaking the law.”

“But she has almost everything already!”

“ Almost everything.” Syfax nodded. “In fact, I’d say the only person who has more than Lady Sade is the queen.”

“What?” Kenan barely managed to breathe the word. “The queen?”

“Yeah.” Syfax blinked slowly. His body longed to lie down and stop. Just stop everything and sleep. “So we’ve got this fancy doctor who specializes in hiding machines and weapons inside people. And we’ve got Chaou, a crazy nationalist who blew up half the transportation in Tingis a week before the queen’s birthday, which is just the sort of pastoralist stunt that gets folks all pissed off at the government. And they both work for Lady Sade, a rich old broad whose family lost half of everything with the end of the castes and all the new laws. What’s that all add up to, kid?”

Kenan looked at him sharply. “They’re moving against the queen. An assassination? We need to report this immediately!”

“Nah, we can’t do that. They’ve got moles and spies everywhere. If their people get a whiff of this, they’ll find a way to screw up any operation we put together. More importantly, we’re a little shy on evidence right now. All we can pin on Chaou is the dead police captain in Chellah. We can’t implicate Sade at all yet, or even the doctor here. Nah, we need to keep this quiet for the moment.” Syfax glanced away to stare into the trees. “We need to set up a sting.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense,” Kenan said. “Even if they did kill the queen, there must be a dozen princesses in line to take her place. It’s not as if Lady Sade stands to inherit the throne, at least not any time soon.”

“Maybe not. But these aren’t stupid people. They obviously have a plan and the means to carry it out.” The major knelt back down again. “Doctor, I’m going to give you an opportunity right now to tell me everything you know about Lady Sade. What she’s doing. Who she’s working with. Everything, right now.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Medina smiled nervously.

“That’s all right. We’ll toss you in a cell and go see Lady Sade on our own and just tell her that you’ve agreed to help our investigation anyway.”

“No!” The doctor lurched forward, an imploring hand stretching out toward the major. “Don’t do that! You can’t!”

Syfax shrugged. “Why not? I don’t care if there’s a little misunderstanding between you and her. Doesn’t bother me. Of course, if you do help us, and we do arrest her, then Lady Sade won’t be able to do anything to you. Your choice. Offer’s good for the next two minutes.”

The doctor hesitated only a moment. “You have to hide me. Far away. You’ll have to protect me from her, from her people. She has people everywhere.”

“Yeah, we’ve noticed. Don’t sweat it. You’ll be safe enough.” Syfax paused. “Well?”

Medina slumped a little lower, her body losing what little definition it had as she resigned herself to speak. “I don’t know much. They took the cat last night and they’re leaving on the train this evening. They didn’t tell me anything specific, and it was late and I was tired and there were a bunch of them I didn’t recognize.”

“Wait, slow down.” Syfax glanced up at Kenan but he had nothing to offer. “What cat? What train? Start at the beginning.”

Chapter 34. Taziri

After an elderly butler informed her in a rather brusque manner that Doctor Medina was not at home, nor likely to come home for the rest of the day, Taziri stood in the middle of the quiet street and stared up at the early afternoon sun. It was a bright, clear day and a gentle breeze was blowing from the east. A good day for flying, even if it was going to rain later. She shoved her hands in her jacket pockets and started walking.

It took most of an hour to find the bed-and-breakfast again and when she stepped inside Taziri felt the temperature drop quite a bit. Several people sat scattered about the dining room, chewing on bread, sipping tea, and reading their newspapers. Evander sat in the corner, his head leaning against the wall, snoring softly. Taziri dropped into the seat opposite him and watched the old Hellan jerk awake with a grunt.

“Oh, you’re back? Where are the others? Is it time to leave?”

Taziri shook her head. “No, it’s time to sit and wait.”

“Didn’t find that doctor woman, eh?”

“Not yet.”

“Just as well.” Evander shrugged and sat up a little straighter. “Women are all trouble, and Espani women more than most.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.” The older man sighed. “Well, I can’t just sit here all afternoon. My hip is killing me. The boy with the tea said there’s a train to Orossa that leaves tonight, and I suppose I should be on it since you people don’t seem very interested in getting me there any time soon.”

“That might be best.”

Evander shook his head wearily as he climbed out of his seat. “Well, take care of yourself, young lady. I suppose I’ll be seeing you again at some point, when it’s time for me to head home to Athens.”

Taziri offered a polite smile. “I suppose so. See you then.”

The doctor left and the engineer sat alone at her table for a few moments watching Evander’s untouched tea cooling. What was there to do, really? She knew nothing more than what little the detective had told her, and she hadn’t found the doctor. That short list of failures sat uneasily in her belly. The longer she sat, the more the images and sounds of the previous night intruded on her calm with a riot of faces and shouts and adrenaline and fear.

With a shudder, she left her seat and the inn and trudged up the narrow streets toward the high walls of the Arafez airfield. She crossed the grassy field toward the Halcyon, glancing only once at the other airship moored at the opposite end of the field. It was an older courier ship, larger and more angular than the Halcyon, and visibly dotted with rust. The two ground crew men nodded at her as she passed.

Inside the Halcyon, Taziri eased into her seat and stared at the dark switches and lifeless gauges. Then she stood up and crossed to the back of the cabin, opened a wide panel in the wall, and stared at the battery. Her battery. The rectangular blocks of metal and wood squatted where the engine should have been. It stank of burnt chemicals and a greenish-white powder had formed a mound on top of one of the terminals. She could feel the charge in the air.

For as long as she could stand it, Taziri tightened screws and bolts, scrubbed and oiled gears and levers, and generally did all of the things she liked least about working around machines. But it was something to do.

“They wouldn’t take my letter!”

Taziri spun about and hit her head. She blinked at the undamaged motor housing as she sat up and then glanced over at Evander, who was leaning in through the cabin door. “What?”

“At the train. They wanted money. I showed them my letter from the queen, your queen, but they didn’t care. They demanded cash money, coins, and they turned their noses up at my drachmas!” The doctor collapsed onto the padded bench and began wiping at the sweat beaded on his forehead.

“Ah.” Taziri winced. “So you’ll be staying with me, then?”

“Obviously!” The doctor frowned. “Just as well. I left my bag under the seat here somewhere.” He ducked down and tugged his black leather case out from under the bench.

“Well, give me a few minutes to clean up here and we’ll head back to the inn to meet up with Kenan. Maybe he had better luck today than we did.”

Evander snorted. “That wouldn’t take much trying.”

Taziri quickly sealed up the open panels and compartments and flicked a few switches just to make sure she hadn’t left anything disconnected. “All right, let’s go.”

They crossed the airfield beneath a sky more yellow than blue as the sun sank lower toward the western hills, and the warmth of the day quickly faded. As they reached the main gate, the echo of angry voices caught Taziri’s ear and she scanned the field for the source. Two women were standing at the open door of the older airship, gesturing sharply and looking rather cross. One wore an orange jacket and Taziri knew her name, it was on the tip of her tongue but she couldn’t quite say it. The other woman wore a long white coat and an odd little light flashed around her eyes as her head moved. Sunglasses.

“What are you staring at?” Evander glanced at the woman in white. “She’s not that good looking. Bad skin, too.”

“What? No, it’s just that the detective said she was attacked by a woman in a white coat. It’s nothing. Just a coincidence. Caught my eye.” Taziri watched the woman conclude her argument with the airship pilot and storm away toward the gate. Toward them. “But I think that woman died in the fire. And besides, she lost an eye.”

“What detective? What are you babbling about? Hurry up, I want to get back to the inn before supper time. I want that same table again, although I could do without the mint in the tea.” Evander paced away and paused. “Well?”

Taziri, suddenly aware that the woman in white was still coming straight toward her, turned and nodded. “Sure, let’s go.”

She had barely stepped off the field onto the street when she was tapped on the shoulder and a husky voice said, “Hey, you’re a pilot, right?”

Taziri turned back and saw the woman’s skin had the olive hue of someone from the eastern regions of the Middle Sea, not unlike Evander, only she was darker and her face seemed a bit blotchy. More than a bit. The skin around her left eye looked particularly red. “Actually, I’m an elec…yes, I’m a pilot. Can I help you?”

“You can take me to Carthage tonight. I can pay whatever you want.” She crossed her arms as a slight shiver ran though her body.

“Sorry, but I don’t arrange charters. You’ll have to talk to the clerk at the office over there.” Taziri pointed to the small building just inside the airfield wall. “Have a nice day.” She started to leave.

“No, you don’t understand.” The woman grabbed her arm. “I need to leave tonight. I can pay double.” She paused. “Triple, in cash.”

Taziri frowned, her gaze drifting up to the angry red patches on the woman’s face. “Are you all right? You’re not hurt, are you?”

“I’m fine. It’s just a burn. A sunburn. I’m not from around here.”

“That’s no sunburn.” Evander snorted. “That’s a proper burn. You ought to let me look at that. Come here and take off those glasses.” He gestured roughly at her to step forward.

Her lips pulled back in a rictus of bare teeth and gums. “I said I’m fine. Now, are we leaving for Carthage or not?”

“Sorry.” Taziri pulled her arm free. “Not.”

“Then I’ll have to insist.” The woman drew a long, thin knife from inside her coat and gently prodded the pilot in the belly.

Taziri jerked away from the point in her skin, one hand thrown out to wave Evander away. A bright spike of fear split her mind and in that moment she couldn’t think or move, she could only stare at the blade. But when nothing happened, her mouth began to work again. “Madam, please, if you’re in some sort of trouble, there are better ways to handle things than with knives and threats. If you can’t wait for a flight, you can take a train or a ship. They may be slower but they run every day and they’re cheap. All right? So why don’t you put that thing away and I’ll just forget that you assaulted me.”

“You seem to be forgetting that it’s the person with the knife who gives the orders.” The woman edged closer.

Taziri battered the knife aside with the broadside of her medical brace and shoved the woman as she grabbed the doctor. “Move-move-move!”

They dashed back onto the airfield and Taziri steered the huffing, unsteady Hellan toward the equipment shed. “It’s definitely her, the one the detective fought!”

“What detective?” Evander glared over his shoulder. “What the devil is going on?”

Taziri yanked the door of the shed open, pushed the doctor inside and shut the door behind them. “Lock, need a lock, something…here!” She grabbed a pry-bar from a work bench and jammed it through the door handle. “Something else, something heavy?”

“Here!” Evander was driving his shoulder against the nearest crate and failing utterly to budge it. Taziri instead grabbed the rim of the closest barrel, tipped it over, and rolled it against the door, jamming another pry-bar under it to stop it from rolling away. Then she exhaled and glanced at her surroundings.

The door and the walls of the shed were iron, old and rusting, but thick as a man’s finger. Three large skylights in the roof illuminated the long chamber and its contents. Boxes and crates and shelves of spare parts, barrels of oil and coal, tins of grease, and canisters of all sizes.

Something crashed against the door outside. Taziri put her eye to a crack in the wall and spotted the flash of white out on the airfield. “It’s okay, she’s leaving. Walking, walking. Oh no, she’s going after that other pilot again. And the ground crew! God!” She shoved away from the wall and dashed along the work benches, spinning about, trying to inventory everything in the shed in a single instant. “Come on, think, think.”

“No thinking. Waiting.” Evander sat down on a box, his chest still heaving as sweat poured down his face. “We’re not going anywhere until the authorities come and take her away.”

“No time for that. We need to…here!” She snatched up a pair of large canisters, screwed them onto the nozzles of a fat gas tank, and opened the valves. A loud hissing filled the shed. This is stupid! These canisters are too big to throw very far, and what if the seals don’t break, and what if there isn’t enough gas, and what if-

The Hellan fixed her with an angry squint. “What are you doing?”

“Giving that woman a taste of early retirement.” Taziri carefully counted the seconds passing as she calculated the volumes of the canisters. At the right moment, she whipped the canisters away and capped them. Then she dipped a pair of rags in engine grease and tied them to the little handles near the neck of each canister. “A match, I need a match! I don’t have a match, where…no, there won’t be any in here. Doctor, I need a light, a light!”

Evander gave his immediate surroundings a glance, and shrugged. Taziri dashed back into the shelves and crates at the back of the shed and emerged a moment later with the rusting remains of a small windmill. She tossed the thing onto the workbench and yanked out the wires from its base, pulled the utility knife from her pocket, and quickly split and stripped the wires.

“Now what are you doing?”

“Making fire in the absolutely least convenient way imaginable.” She held the two exposed wires in one hand, their tips hovering only a hair apart and just above one of the greasy rags. With her other hand, Taziri grabbed the sturdiest looking blade of the windmill and began spinning it as fast as she could. A moment later, a spark flickered between the wires. A moment after that, a shower of sparks fell onto the rag, and then another. Taziri spun the blade until her shoulder ached and the wires went on spitting sparks onto the rags until angry little flames suddenly unfurled across them. Taziri shoved the windmill away and grabbed the two canisters, using the one burning rag to light the other one. Then she kicked her blockade away from the door and the door swung open on its crooked hinges.

Taziri ran across the field. The other pilot and the ground crew had barricaded themselves inside the older airship, and the woman in white was slowly but surely smashing through the tempered glass with her long knives. “Hey you!” Taziri stopped in the middle of the field, still some distance away from the woman. “Hey! Leave them alone!”

The woman continued shattering the airship windows.

Taziri grimaced and hurled one her flaming canisters so that it fell just behind the woman. When it struck the ground, it split open length-wise along the seal and the released gas exploded with a deafening thunderclap followed by the woof of a fire ball. It was a very small explosion, and all trace of it vanished in an instant, but the woman was thrown face first into the broken window. She stumbled away from the airship with one hand pressed to the side of her face where bright red blood was streaming across her skin and running down the front of her white coat. She dashed across the field with the stiletto in hand. “You think I’m scared of a little fire?”

Taziri jogged backwards. “Stay back! I have another one!”

The woman in white leapt at her.

In that instant, Taziri only saw the knife tip flying at her chest and a cold terror raced down her arms. She threw the canister with a clumsy gesture as she twisted away to protect herself. Through narrowed eyes, she saw the canister crack open against the woman’s shin, saw the brilliant gold and crimson blossom of flames swallow her lower body, saw her thrown into the air as her legs were blasted out from under her. She spun a tight and violent rotation in empty space and fell like a sack of bricks in the muddy grass, right on top of the broken canister.

For two deep breaths, Taziri could only stare and swallow. Then she shivered and straightened up, and she jogged over to the woman and kicked the knife out of her hand. The woman’s eyes were closed but she was breathing in thin, painful wheezes. Taziri stood over her and winced at the sight of her face. The fresh cut on her forehead was shallow but bloody. The burns were minor but ugly. Her sunglasses were gone, revealing an empty eye socket. The sight of the gaping hole brought a mouthful of bile up against her teeth and Taziri leaned away to spit it out and cough.

As she backed away, the other pilot and ground crew came running over. They thanked her and praised her makeshift flash-bangs with awkward smiles. The men grabbed the woman and bound her hands and someone ran off to find the police. Taziri stood and watched it happen, watched them buzz with nervous excitement and weary relief. Evander came up, glanced about the scene, and wandered off toward the gate, muttering only the briefest of thanks.

The police came, asked their questions, and took the woman away. At that moment, Taziri didn’t want to go back into the city, back in search of the Espani doctor. She wanted to leave. She wanted to go home. So she paced back to the Halcyon and slipped into the pilot’s seat and watched as the green grass faded to black and silver as day became night. Above the dark walls around the field, she thought she saw a dull orange glow to the west and a column of smoke rising above it. She closed her eyes, but more images and sounds from the last two days crowded her head, and for the longest time she tried to focus on home, on Isoke and her ship, on Yuba and their daughter. But it was all too much and she was too tired. She was just about to get up and leave when she heard the soft shushing of people walking on grass and she turned to see Ghanima and Evander in the shadows a few yards away. They entered the cabin.

“What’s going on?” Taziri asked. “I thought you were going home.”

“I was,” Ghanima said. “But I missed the morning train and then I had all day to think about, well, everything. I sent a telegram. My sister will be okay for another day or two. I guess I need a little more time. I need to get the Crake out of my head, you know? I just need a little bit of normal right now, before I go back to her.” Ghanima leaned against the pilot’s chair. “So. Do you feel like a little night flying?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I ran into the doc at the inn and it seems he still needs a ride to Orossa.” She grinned. “So how about we run him up there right now, turn around, and fly all night back to Tingis? We could be home by dawn if the wind plays nice.”

“Well, that sounds like a plan. But what about Kenan?”

There was a sharp rap on the hatch rim and the weary face of the one of the ground crew men poked in. “We’ve got a bit of an emergency. How fast can you folks get out of here?”

“Why? What emergency?” Ghanima asked.

“Fire, a big one in the third district, completely out of control. It just came in over the wire, emergency regs are in effect. All airships need to be out of the city immediately.”

Ghanima tossed the man a quick salute. “Acknowledged.” And the man was gone.

“Well, it looks like we’re heading out.” Taziri was too tired to think very hard about Ghanima’s proposal, but there were no glaring problems with it. Most importantly, it ended with home. Home, and soon. “Shut the hatch. Wheels up in ten minutes. Next stop, Orossa.”

Chapter 35. Syfax

The major scanned the platform at Arafez Central Station, taking in all the variations of travelers. Mostly well-dressed businesswomen and their escorts and assistants, but also a few families. His thoughts strayed to the families hiding in the woods and he wondered if they had made it to the city yet.

Syfax glanced at his aide and saw the young man picking at his lip. “Spit it out, Kenan.”

“Spit what out?”

“Whatever’s got you all wound up.”

“It’s nothing.” He paused. “I just think we should have told the other marshals what was really going on. They’re holding our only witness and prisoner with no evidence and just our word to go on. What if Medina talks them into letting her go? What if Hamuy dies and they bury him in some unmarked grave?”

“And what if someone in the marshals’ office is working for Sade?”

“All the more reason to tell those officers everything we know.” Kenan frowned. “If they knew there was a conspiracy, they could start looking for traitors. It would make things a lot harder for the bad guys if the good guys were actually looking for them. As it stands now, these conspirators are still running around unchecked.”

“Maybe.” Syfax scanned the platform again, noting the handful of new arrivals scattered around them, all waiting patiently for permission to board the waiting train. “Or maybe the fact that we’ve got Medina has them scared and they plan to lay low for a while.”

“If that’s the case, how do we catch them? Aside from Lady Sade and the ambassador, we don’t have any suspects.” Kenan frowned at the train for a moment, but his gaze wandered around to the wider cityscape of dark buildings against a darkening sky. “That’s an awful lot of smoke over there.”

“A fire?” Syfax turned to look. “It’s a bad one. But it’s not in the factory area, it’s near the city center. Damn. You know what that means?”


“Riots.” Syfax turned back to the train and a moment later he nodded at a group of people just stepping out onto the platform. “How about them? They look like suspects.” The marshals watched as Lady Sade led her entourage across the platform and formed a tight-knit circle next to the first class car just behind the staff car. Their number included several women wearing too much jewelry, a pair of men with unusually large upper arms, an Espani in a wide-brimmed hat, a girl in a feathery coat, and a handful of children carrying small bags.

“I don’t recognize any of them, except the governor.” Kenan kept his voice low and his eyes on the train.

“I recognize one of them.” Syfax turned his back to the group. “The one in the blue dress and the tall hair is Fariza Othmani.”

“Friend of yours?”

“Recent acquaintance. She lives in Khemisset. Chaou went to see her, but when I questioned her she denied having any connection to Chaou. She said she was retired. Apparently, retirement leaves her free to come to the city at a moment’s notice. She must have one hell of a steam carriage.”

Kenan nodded. “So, not a coincidence.”

“We don’t believe in coincidences, Kenan. I’ve told you that.”

“Yes, sir.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Someone just joined the party. Someone in a dress, but with a scarf and a hood. I can’t see her face, but she’s short. Could be Chaou.”

“It probably is.” Syfax kept his eyes on the opposite end of the platform. “What are they doing now?”

“Talking. Waiting.”

Syfax nodded. “How’s the arm?”

Kenan rolled his shoulder. “Better. I think I can live without this for a while.” He tugged the sling off his shoulder and slipped his arm slowly into his jacket sleeve with a slight wince. “Yeah, I’m all right.”

“Good. Now get the chip off that shoulder and we’ll be back on track.”


“Kid, when I left you in Chellah you were all nerves and energy and sharp salutes. We’re separated for a day and now you’re a pile of sulk.”

“Sorry, sir.” He straightened up.

“Relax, corporal. We’re alive, we’ve got two people in custody, and we’ve got a handful of suspects in sight. This investigation may be a bit of a mess, but it’s coming together. In a few hours, it’ll all be over and you’ll have one hell of a story that you’ll never be able to tell anyone.”

Kenan sighed. “Because it’s all going to go in a classified file?”

Syfax nodded.

Kenan grinned. “Good to have you back, sir.”

A few minutes later, the train conductor emerged and declared that boarding would now begin. Everyone on the platform lifted their bags and politely converged on the train’s doors, where they funneled inside. Syfax led Kenan into the thick of the crowd and they entered the train two cars back from first class. Despite the press around the doors, the evening’s collection of travelers was well below capacity and the marshals found themselves in a sea of empty seats.

“Not a lot of cover, is there?” Kenan shifted about, looking up and down the aisle. “Should we move?”

“No. Just put your jacket under your seat. They may send their people back to check the train and we don’t need any extra attention before we’re ready.”


“And go sit over there. Spread out and keep your eyes on both doors.”


With their red coats stowed, they settled into their seats and watched a handful of stragglers board the car and find their seats. The conductor came through to check their tickets and comment on the lovely weather, and cluck her tongue at the riots. A few minutes later, the train whistle blew and the doors closed. The low growl of the engine rose in pitch and a deep huffing and thrumming shuddered through the car, and then they were rolling. Central Station crept away, and then a series of warehouses glided by. Moments later the walls of Arafez vanished and the world spread out to the horizon above wide fields of tall green grass and the occasional cluster of junipers and pines. In the fading light, Syfax spotted a lone oryx grazing on a hillside, its long antlers spearing the evening sky. It raised its head and stared back at the train. Then two dozen more trotted up over the crest of the hill and they all dashed away across the highlands.

Half an hour after leaving the station, the Atlas Mountains loomed along the eastern horizon, a jagged black shape against a violet sky. Kenan moved up the aisle to sit in the row behind Syfax. “Major? Want me to take a look around up there? See what we’re up against?”

“No, I want you take a stroll to the back of the train. Take a look around for anyone alone or out of place. Too young, too alert, too well dressed, too poorly dressed, anything. Make sure the governor doesn’t have any extra security looking over our shoulder.”

Kenan said, “You know, there’s an old woman with a cane just a few rows back who keeps staring at us. Could it be someone in disguise?”

The major shrugged. “Who knows? But for right now, you’re looking for gunmen, not old ladies with bad hips.”

“Yes, sir.” He stood up. “You’ll be here when I get back, right?”

Syfax thumbed his nose. “That depends on how long you take.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be quick.”

The moment the rear door closed behind the corporal, Syfax was on his feet. He reversed his coat to hide its characteristic red beneath the charcoal gray lining, and then sauntered up the aisle and through the car’s front door. The space between the train cars was windy, loud, and cold, but a moment later he was in the warm, quiet confines of the next car. It was identical to the one he had just left. Even the number and scattering of passengers appeared the same. He walked the length of the car and stepped out its front door. Again, the whirling night howled around him as he crossed the gap and hugged the rear door of the first class car. Through the small window in the door, she could see Lady Sade’s companions sitting on long, plush couches drinking tea. He noted the woman in the hood as well as the younger lady with the feathers and the Espani in black. The children all sat together to one side, sitting quietly with hands folded in their laps. The two men with the bulging arms had taken up positions near the doors at either end of the car.

Syfax lingered only long enough to scan the interior of the car and then pushed away from the door, leapt lightly across the gap and re-entered the passenger car he had just left. He made his way back to his own car and his own seat and had some time to study the swiftly changing landscape before Kenan returned and sat in the row behind him. “Major, I didn’t see any obvious security back there. Very few people by themselves, and most of them seemed to be sleeping. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble.” He paused. “Did you reverse your coat?”

Syfax continued staring at the rippling waves of grass and the islands of trees dotting the highland meadows. “You were right about the person in the hood. It is Chaou.”

“What? You went up there? Without backup?”

“Just long enough to see her face. I doubt they plan to do anything on the train or in the Lower City. There are too many factors in play. The army, the Royal Guards, the foreign diplomats, and all the local police and marshals. Lady Sade might have a lot of powerful friends, but she can’t possibly be in control of everything, everywhere. Not yet. Nah, whatever they plan to do, they’ll do it in the Upper City where there are fewer people to interfere.”

“The Upper City?” Kenan asked. “I’ve never been in the upper half of Orossa. I’ve never been higher than the Shrine of the Mother.”

“Most people haven’t. Security is tighter than a drum. The Royal Guards take their jobs pretty seriously.”

“The Royal Guards.” Kenan leaned forward and spoke lower. “Is it true they still maintain the castes in the Upper City? Arranged marriages, family trees, secure bloodlines?”

“What makes you think they do?”

“Oh, come on, major, everyone’s heard the rumors.” His eyes lit up. “Have you ever been to the Upper City?”



“And the people looked like people. I didn’t stop to ask anyone if they were Imajeren or Imrad or whatever.”

Kenan leaned back. “My grandparents were Imrad, you know.”

“Lots of people’s grandparents were Imrad.” Syfax paused as a wide shadow lumbered into view beyond the front door of the car. “Hang on. We’ve got a visitor.”

The marshals eased into positions of sleepy disinterest, lounging and leaning like all of their fellow passengers. The door opened and one of the imposing guards from the first class car sauntered in with a frown etched into the creases of his very square and serious face. He moved down the aisle, squinting at every person and bag he passed. He lingered near the marshals only as long as anyone else and continued past without a word.

Syfax heard Kenan exhale and mutter, “That was closer than I’d like. He’s got a revolver holstered under his left arm.”

“The other one is probably armed, too. They look like ex-army.” Syfax peered up at the front door through his narrowed eyes. “Crap.”

The other guard entered the car and took up a rather stoic position in front of the door. His gaze swept over the rows of mostly empty seats and came to rest on the marshals.

Syfax muttered, “I think we’ve been made.”

“How can you tell?”

“Call it intuition, or the ability to see.” Syfax sat up and straightened his jacket, not bothering to look up as the second guard came down the aisle toward them. The sounds of additional footsteps told him that the first guard was coming up behind them. When both men were standing at the edges of the marshals’ seats, the major said, “Evening, fellas, how are you doing? Is this the tea service?”

The closer one frowned. “Major Zidane? Lady Sade wants to see you.”

“Major?” Syfax shook his head. “Sorry. I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”

The man frowned a little harder. “I don’t think so. Show me your coat.”

Syfax shrugged and held up his reversed jacket, displaying its gray back and sleeves.

The men shifted in place. “You’re not a marshal?”

Syfax said, “I think they wear red.”

“What about you?” The other one nudged Kenan.

The corporal squinted up from his sleepy repose against the window. “Huh? Wha?”

The men frowned at Syfax and Kenan, then frowned at each other, muttered a bit, and then shuffled down the aisle and out the rear door.

Kenan sat bolt upright. “What do we do now?”

“Nothing. We’re still a few hours from the capital. We sit here and wait for them to make the next move. We could arrest Chaou now, but we’ve got nothing on the others yet, and we’d lose the governor and the rest of her friends. I want them all, so we wait.” Syfax paused. “Chaou can spot me, but she probably won’t recognize you. I want you to go sit in the next car and keep an eye out for her.”

“What do I do if I see her? I mean, I can’t exactly come running back here without making her suspicious, can I?”

Syfax shook his head. “You don’t do anything unless she brings the heavy guns with her. I can handle Chaou. Just sit in the back seat of the car and if you see trouble, press your hand against the window so I can see it.” He squinted at the front of the train where the foggy little window allowed a meager view of the next car. “And wipe some of that condensation off the glass as you go up.”

Kenan made his way forward to the next car, taking a casual swipe across the window with his sleeve as he passed. Syfax could just barely see him through the dark windows as he took a seat and hunkered down like the dozing travelers around him. A few minutes later the two armed men reappeared at the rear of the car and sauntered up the aisle. They paused beside him. “Where’s your friend?”

Syfax blinked. “Who?”

“The guy who was sitting behind you. Where is he?”

“Oh, he’s not my friend. He just sat down behind me when we boarded. And he hasn’t said a word this whole time either. His snoring was pissing me off though. I’m glad he’s gone.”

The men exchanged annoyed looks and continued up to the next car. Syfax saw them point out Kenan, but they continued past without speaking to him.

As the starry sky blossomed overhead, the blunt peaks of the Atlas Mountains melted into charcoal sketches against the blackness. Syfax thought of his early army training climbing those peaks and hiking those trails with his heavy pack digging into his shoulders and his rifle jostling against his hip. Above the tree line, the mountains offered nothing but cold, sharp stone in infinite varieties for weary young soldiers to march across, day after day.

Simpler times.

As the train plunged into the first mountain pass, Syfax noted the black iron spire on a rock ledge above the tracks. A watch tower. He smiled, remembering the long, miserable nights he had spent huddled in one of those towers on watch, and he wished the poor bastards on duty a warm and quiet night.

Chapter 36. Taziri

Ghanima shifted her buttocks in the pilot’s seat. “This is the comfiest chair I have ever been forced to sit in for hours on end.”

“Isoke had it made special.” Taziri stared dully at her gauges and needles.

“Well, when we get back to Tingis, you need to introduce me to her, because she is a woman with excellent taste in chairs.”

“Yeah, sure.” Taziri tried to smile, genuinely happy that the young pilot had come back and they were finally on their way back to their normal lives. But the exhaustion had hit her all at once as soon as they took off from Arafez and they saw the city burning. She tried not to think of the people in those buildings, in those homes. She tried not to think about the flames.

The irregular snoring of the little Hellan doctor broke up the silence, punctuating the soft rhythm of the Halcyon ’s propellers. Ghanima said, “I’m still getting used to these controls, but I already like them. Everything feels tighter, more responsive. More powerful, too. Turns and corrections are so easy. Captain Geroubi did an amazing job with this.”

“Yes, she did.”

“Hey, come on.” Ghanima touched Taziri’s shoulder. “You know she’s all right, right? She’s lying in some hospital bed, resting up, doped up on opium, and in a few days she’ll be good as new with a scar that makes her look sexy and dangerous. Cheer up.”

“We don’t know that yet, not for sure.” Taziri looked back over her shoulder. “Sorry. I just need to know that she’s all right. She took a huge risk on me once, she gave me everything, this career, and now I’m off in her boat while she’s…wherever she is.”

“Well, trust me when I say it’s better knowing there’s a chance she’s alive, a chance that she’s perfectly all right.” Ghanima squeezed the flight sticks and gazed out over the dark landscape of rolling hills and rocky mounds. The jagged ridges of the Atlas Mountains stood black against the night sky. “It’s a lot better,” she said softly.

Taziri sat up. “Hey, listen, whatever happened on the Crake wasn’t your fault, you know. Chaou shot your captain and the major is going to arrest Chaou and throw her in the deepest, darkest hole he can find, right alongside Hamuy.”

“Yeah, but, if I hadn’t tried to grab her…” Ghanima shivered and straightened up. “Hey, did I hear you go out last night? I thought I heard your door squeaking. It was late. You were gone a long time. I got a little worried.”

“Why were you awake?”

“I wasn’t tired, I guess. I don’t sleep much.” She wiped her eyes. “So where did you go?”

“Telegraph office.”

Ghanima smiled. “Yeah, that sounds familiar. Late night telegrams to my sister. Writing those little broken phrases on the form. Watching the clerk tapping it out. And then standing around like an idiot, thinking I’ll get an answer right then, straight away.”

Taziri laughed. “I was just going to say that.”

The first cannon shell exploded over a hundred yards in front of them, and the noise reverberated faintly through the airship’s hull. A dirty black cloud hung in the air, slowly expanding and then drooping as gravity and wind dragged it apart.

“What the hell was that?” Taziri leaned forward to peer down at the ground beneath them. “We’re barely into the mountains. It must be one of those watch towers.”

“You think they’re shooting at us? On purpose?”

“If they’re not shooting at us, then they must be really hungry for a taste of eagle, because that’s the only other thing up here.” She leaned back into her seat and began fiddling with her knobs and switches. The cabin lights snapped off, plunging them into a perfect darkness. Taziri slammed her good hand down on the console. “Damn it. We were scheduled to come through here yesterday. I never filed a new flight plan, and with the riots in Arafez and the Crake fiasco, they must be on high alert or something. We need altitude. We need to get above their range.”

“No time.” Ghanima shoved the controls forward and the Halcyon responded by promptly dropping her nose and beginning a rapid descent.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting inside their firing solution.”

“That’s exactly where we don’t want to be!”


A second shell whistled past the starboard window, and a moment later they felt the low crack of it exploding somewhere above them.

“Okay.” Ghanima pulled back and the airship began climbing to port. “We get about two minutes between shots. That’s good.”

“Turn us around, we need to get out of here.”

“Around? You mean back to Arafez? I thought we were going to get the doctor to Orossa?”

“So did I, but someone with a very big gun has other ideas. Turn us around!”

Ghanima squinted into the darkness. “I’m not going to run away from some speck on the ground throwing rocks up at us. This is an airship, Taziri, the sky’s the limit for us.”

“This is not a debate, we’re-” A third shell detonated just below them, sending a hard shudder through the deck beneath their feet. Taziri lurched up and leaned over her. “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die, Ghanima. Turn around!”

“Sorry, but you don’t outrank me, lieutenant.” Ghanima pushed the throttle up and felt the Halcyon surge forward as her propellers sang louder and higher.

“Where do you think you can go?” Taziri demanded. “The High Road canyons are the fastest, safest way to the capital. The winds over the mountains are murderous. Unless you know another way through?”

“Nope. I’m just not afraid of a little wind.”

Taziri kept both eyes on the inky patch on the ground where she thought the watch tower stood. As they flew across the canyon entrance, she saw the pinprick of light where the cannon’s muzzle flashed, and Ghanima pushed hard to port. The shell flew harmless to starboard and exploded so far away they didn’t feel the vibration. It left another dark cloud hanging in the sky like a bit of black wool caught in a spider’s web.

“All that gun did was force us up out of the canyon. If we had a little sunlight, I wouldn’t mind trying to sink back down into it,” Ghanima said

“You realize that’s crazy, right?”

“Of course. So we’ll just fly over the mountains. In the dark.” Ghanima swallowed. “Against the wind.”

Taziri leaned over her. “You’ve done this before?”

The young pilot shrugged. “I’ve done a lot of night flights and storm flights. I’ve seen all kinds of weather and never scratched the paint. How hard can it be?”

Taziri drummed her fingers on the back of her chair. “All right. But no crashing!”

Ghanima smiled. “Fine, no crashing.”

A quarter hour later, Ghanima was frowning into the darkness. The mountain peaks loomed out of the night and as the heavy clouds rolled overhead, their black-on-black shadows slithered over the jagged ridges and massifs, changing their appearances from moment to moment. “Taziri, flood lights?”

“Here.” She flicked the switch and a dull yellow glow appeared at the edge of the window at their feet. The view ahead remained pitch black.

“Wow, that’s almost entirely useless.” Ghanima smiled. “Here we go.”

As the Halcyon nosed out of the lee of the first peak, a sudden blast shoved them straight up several yards. Ghanima gripped the sticks tighter but managed a casual shrug. “It’s just an updraft. No worries.”

Taziri grimaced at the darkness. What happened to getting home in one piece? Why the hell am I letting her do this?

A few minutes later, the vicious drag of the high altitude winds grabbed the airship and they began to slide to port. Ghanima compensated. “It’s like sailing. You have to position the gas bag like a sail and force the wind to slide off and to the rear. It’s not efficient, but you can stay on course.”

“Huh.” Taziri swallowed. “A sailing airship? Isoke had some ideas like that. But the things she sketched up didn’t look like any sailboat.”

As the wind grew fiercer and whistled louder through the cracks in the hull, the Halcyon began sliding sideways even faster. They were still moving forward, but they were also gliding steadily to port. Taziri squinted into the distance on her left, wondering if the darkness concealed a mountain or just more empty night sky. Ghanima nudged the throttle up.

“Mountain.” Taziri pointed at the window. “Twenty points to port.”

“I see it.” The clouds parted enough to allow the starlight to play gently over the rough edges of rock wall to their left. It stood higher than they were flying, but it ended abruptly just a few hundred yards ahead. Ghanima pushed the throttle to full. “We’ll pass in front of it.”

And they did, barely. Ghanima kept her eyes on the eerie sea of cloud and shadow and the rocky islands rising sharply around them. Thunder rolled overhead like a thousand drums softly tuning up. “Weather?”

“Sounds like.”

“Anything I need to know? Anything special about this boat of yours?”

“Nope.” Taziri tapped at one of her waving needles. “We’ve never had any trouble in a storm before. A little rain isn’t going to-”

A sudden flash of lightning painted the Atlas Mountains in perfect black and blinding white, burning the landscape into the aviators’ eyes long after the charge vanished. An instant later, a deafening thundercrack shook the Halcyon.

“Whaa!” The doctor sat up sharply, clutching his chest. “Where? What?”

“It’s all right.” Ghanima glanced back at him. “Just a storm. Go back to sleep. We’ll be there in a little while.”

Evander nodded and lay back down, mumbling in Hellan.

Ghanima nudged Taziri with her elbow. “What about lightning?”

She shrugged. “Shouldn’t be a problem.” She froze. Oh no. How could I be so stupid?

“What is it?”

“Nothing.” Taziri blinked. “It’s nothing. Probably nothing. Almost definitely nothing.”

The cabin lights went dark.

Taziri swallowed loudly. “Uhm.” The cabin lights came back on. She exhaled. “See? Nothing to worry about.”

“What just happened to the lights?”

“It’s nothing, really. It’s just that, well, passing through an electrical storm can subject the ship to a lot of fluctuating electric fields forming between the earth and the clouds, which could, momentarily, disrupt our electrical systems.”

Ghanima swallowed. “But on this ship, all of the systems are electrical systems.”

“Yeah. They are.”

“Regulations say we should make an emergency landing in the event of catastrophic weather conditions. So, do you think we should land?”

“No,” Taziri said quickly. “We stay up here. We’re insulated against a direct lightning strike, and there are fewer pointy rocks in the sky than on the ground. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“We could lose both engines and drift into a mountain, or the gas bag could split open and ignite. Early retirement.”

“Instant retirement.”

“Whatever. Hopefully this storm won’t last very long.”

The minutes ticked by and the view remained an unhelpful blur of dark shapes, and soon fat drops of rain began thumping and tapping on the gas bag overhead, and then it splashed the windows around them as the gusting wind began hurling the downpour sideways. The clear splatters and streaks on the glass made the cloudy view of the outside world bubble and twist and run.

“This reminds me of those late nights heading in to Carthage during the rainy season,” Taziri said softly. “Isoke and I would argue about music to take our minds off it. I don’t remember when we started doing that.”

Ghanima smiled. “You two argue? I was starting to think she could do no wrong in your eyes, the way you talk about her.”

“She’s a great captain, a great woman, but she has the worst taste in music of anyone I’ve ever met. She’s obsessed with all the new love songs, and she doesn’t know any of the classic-”

The flood lights below their feet flickered out, followed by a sudden silence from the port-side propeller. Ghanima tapped her foot lightly on the pedal. “I’m not feeling great about our decision to fly through this storm.”

“Neither am I, but flying through a storm still beats landing in a storm, in the mountains, at night. Don’t worry. The motor will come back in a minute.”

The Halcyon continued to float above the Atlas peaks, and while the view revealed nothing, they could feel the airship shivering and shuddering as the wind pushed them farther and farther to port. Then the port engine suddenly droned back to life and the ship once again felt solid and sure-footed in the sky. “That’s a little better.”

The flood lights flickered back to life as well and a jagged wall of weeping mountain rock appeared, filling the windows to their left only a few dozen yards away. Ghanima jerked the controls and the airship bore hard to starboard, nosing straight into the easterly wind, and for a moment the Halcyon merely drifted in space beside the cliff face. For the longest seven seconds of her life, Taziri listened to her blood roaring through her ears, felt her arms almost weightless with adrenaline, and shivered as a cold sweat trickled down her back. She pictured her daughter’s face, the soft bump of her chin, the soft bounce of her hair, the bright… her name, what’s her name? I can’t remember her…Menna! She blinked at the darkness, trying not to cry out. Then, slowly but surely, Halcyon crept away from the mountain, swimming upwind as the rain drummed louder and faster on the gas bag overhead.

“Not to worry.” Ghanima tried to smile. “We’re still on the right side of the horizon.”

She barely had time to look at the view ahead when the soft humming from Taziri’s control board dropped half an octave and several decibels. “What was that? Did we just lose something?” She squinted around the cockpit.

“Yeah, the heater. Looks like the coil burned out a connection.” Taziri motioned at a tiny yellow light on her board. “I can’t fix that until we’re on the ground.”

“You have an electric heater?”

“Of course,” she said. “I turned it on just after sunset, like always. Never had a problem with it before, not in four years. It’s all right. The motors should actually run a little better if it’s a few degrees cooler back there.”

“It’s not the motors I was worried about.” Ghanima took her hand off the stick long enough to blow a warm breath over her fingers.

Then the cabin lights died again.

Taziri laughed.

“This isn’t funny.”

“You’re right.” She continued chuckling. “But it’s pretty ridiculous.”

“Wait, there! I see it!” Ghanima pointed at the dark window in front of her. “Wait…there it is again! That’s the beacon light at the southern edge of the Lower City. See? A blue-white light on a three-second interval. We’re on course!”

“Yeah, good work.” Taziri peered into the gloom. “I can’t see it, but I believe you. Is it far? It must be. And with this crosswind, we’re not going to get there any time soon.”

The flood lights cut out again.

Ghanima laughed. Even as she shivered in her cold seat in the pitch-black cockpit, she laughed, and Taziri laughed with her.

“Okay, can I at least get a light on the compass dome here for a minute?” She tapped the glass in question.

“Sure.” Taziri’s search through the tool rack was noisy but brief. “Here it is.” In the darkness, a small disc of soft yellow light appeared at the end of the flashlight, a heavy tube containing a conventional battery that could be relied upon for almost ten minutes of use in its entire lifetime. The light shuddered, faded, and vanished. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.” She banged the side of the light. “It’s dead.”

“So that’s it? We’re out of options? The only thing still working are the motors, and they could cut out at any moment. And