May 10, 1658 CE
Two men rode through Constantinople’s night-shadowed streets. To a stranger, they might have appeared brothers. Both were tall, though the taller of the pair must have been over six feet in height. Both had light eyes, though the taller had blue, and his fellow had green—both pairs equally cold and distant under the rims of steel helmets. The shorter man wore a visorless helm with a tall spike at the top. This revealed his face down to a surprisingly blond beard that rimmed his dark-tanned visage. The other man wore a more western-style helmet with a visor, lifted for the moment, giving him a clear view of his surroundings.
There the similarities ended. For the shorter man wore a crimson short robe over a longer blue-and-white striped one, with riding trousers beneath that protruded out over his dusky red boots. Here and there among his cotton garments, steel shone—vambraces at the wrists and chain mail gauntlets hinted that more metal might be concealed beneath these enshrouding layers. And at his waist, a curving, heavy Mameluke saber. Most people didn’t ride under arms into city streets; a gentleman might carry a sword, but armor was usually discouraged in civilized confines. Except as worn by guards, of course.
The other man, in contrast to his fellow’s colorful garb, wore a knee-length black robe and trews, and a black tabard over it, with a singular device embroidered on it: a white, notched cross, overlain with a red cross, tilted so that the two only met at their central points. At a distance, it might have looked like a flower.
Under that tabard, sharp eyes might have been able to spot a polished steel cuirass, matching a Spanish-hilted rapier tucked against his ribs and a flintlock pistol at his opposite hip. Yet he wore the fingerless gloves of a scribe.
The travelers paused in the light of ruddy flambeaux positioned beside the heavy gates in the ancient walls of Constantine, reining their horses in behind a dray whose driver had stopped to be challenged by the inner gate’s guards. And waited as the guards questioned the dray’s driver, checking their horses more sternly in their impatience than they might have otherwise.
As the dray lurched forward, the guards approached them, regarding them with interest, respect, and caution. “My lords,” the guard captain, a short Byzantine man with liquid dark eyes and a sallow face, asked in a dialect born from the Norman conquest of the Saxons, “one of you wears the of a Knight Intercessor, but with security what it is for the Conclave, we must ask every visitor for their name and business.” His voice held apology and a Greek accent.
“Hugh D’Orsey, Knight Intercessor, just as you say,” the taller man responded in flawless Greek. “Bodyguard to Bishop Giordano Malatesta, the delegate sent by his Holiness in Rome to attend the Conclave of the Holy Ecumenical Council.” His eyes watched the shadows, not the guards, out of years of habit.
“And you, sir?” Still polite.
“Badr ibn Abi Salim al-Din,” the second man replied with a curt inclination of his head. His accent in Greek was heavy, but not incomprehensible. “Bodyguard to Rashid ibn Aḥmad al-Tamar, the imam sent by the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Ashraf Tuman, as our representative to the Conclave.”
The captain peered behind them. “Ah, and the men you’re supposed to guard, my lords?” Again, apologetic. “I mean no disrespect, but—”
“We have arrived in advance of our protectees, and are expected at the palace to ensure their safety and comfort when they arrive,” D’Orsey replied. Impatience entered his tone. “What will you accept as proof?”
The guard captain swallowed. “My lord . . . not to put too fine a point on it . . . but magic is only legal if it’s conducted under the auspices of Holy Ecumenical Council—”
Al-Din snorted. “And therefore, if we demonstrate magic, by definition, we must be authorized to do so.” He paused. “Your logic is flawed, my friend.”
The captain grimaced. D’Orsey sighed. “I’m sure he has his orders. Foolish though they may be.” His fingers sought the rosary at his left wrist, feeling along it for the only bead on it unassociated with prayer: a lump of gray stone, from which protruded an oddity—a shark’s tooth, seemingly formed from the same stone which held it. The tooth remained sharp, however, and he pressed his thumb against it now, quieting his mind. Not a big spell . . . .
A whisper of power, and his hands wreathed themselves in flame. “I trust this is sufficient proof?” D’Orsey asked.
“Fire!” another guard said, sounding shocked.
“Yes, I can see that,” the captain retorted sharply.
“No! Behind them! The synagogue!”
D’Orsey wheeled his horse. He could smell smoke and spotted flames behind one of the barred windows of the building. “A synagogue?” he asked. “Is there anyone in there?” A flicker of old memories stirred behind his eyes: the man screamed as flames ran along his body, his clothes and hair alight, the smell of burning flesh coating the back of his throat, and I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean to hammering loud in his ears—
“There’s a school, a yeshiva, attached to it,” the guard replied, sounding rattled. “The students sleep there at night—”
God. There could be children in there. “Send a runner for the fire brigade,” D’Orsey ordered, tying off his reins on a nearby tree. “Al-Din, are you with me?”
“Smoke suffocates,” the other replied tightly, tying off his own horse. “They might not even wake when the flames reach them. A bad way to go.”
“There’s a good one?” D’Orsey returned, already striding towards the burning building.
“A sword in my hand, defending the lives of my comrades.” Al-Din didn’t hesitate as they approached the locked doors. He raised his hand, murmuring under his breath, and the doors exploded inwards as if they’d been hit by a battering ram. They followed the doors inwards, raising their sleeves over their mouths to filter out the smoke.
Fires, D’Orsey knew, were louder than most people realized. The crackle of a hearth’s blaze was nothing to the dry and sucking roar of a building fire; he felt half-deaf already. His eyes stung and his breath choked. “Spirits, to me,” he muttered, jamming his thumb down on the shark’s tooth, offering his blood. “Sweet air and water, I beg, in God’s name.”
A breath of cool air wreathed itself around his face, and he breathed clearer.
With flames licking at the walls and the wooden floors underfoot, they pounded from room to room, waking frightened adolescents and guiding them outside. Then a teacher, trying to beat the flames from his long nightshirt—flames running along his body, up to catch the long beard and hair, and even after they beat the fire out, his mouth opening like a red hole in the middle of all the blackened ruin, scream after scream—
“Hold on!” D’Orsey shouted over the flame’s churn, and he yanked the fire away from the man. Pulled it to his own palm, and closed his fingers on it. It burned—it always did—and he could feel blisters forming, despite his scorched and smoking fingerless gloves. But the flame was his now. He could call on it again later. “Are you all right? Are there any other children here—maybe upstairs?” he asked the teacher.
A dazed nod. “How many?” Al-Din demanded.
“Four . . . upstairs.” The man doubled over coughing.
“Get him out of here!” Al-Din snapped. “I’ll get the last ones.”
Without looking over his shoulder, the Mameluke headed straight for the stairs—a blackened skeleton of wood suffused by flames, like a phoenix’s pyre, each flame one of the legendary bird’s plumes, arcing away from it as it died to be born anew.
D’Orsey hauled the teacher towards the front door. Shoved the man out onto the front steps, and then stood in the doorway, pulling at the fire. Calling it, weaving and braiding it in long strands, like a baker making pretzels. Come on, he thought, searching the blazing structure for signs of Al-Din. Come on. Fire brigade, move faster. Al-Din, get out of there.
Shadows, stumbling forward out of the conflagration as timbers in the roof creaked overhead. Coughing and soot-stained, one young man, then another. A third. A fourth. D’Orsey pulled more fire from the walls, knotting it till it blazed a concentrated purple, and the air rippled around him with its heat, his hands a mass of blisters—
—and Al-Din finally stumbled through the doorway, face black with ash, gasping, choking, and D’Orsey reached out his good hand to catch his friend’s shoulder—
—the first, blessed bucket of water thrown on the structure from behind them, making the fire hiss like an angry cat—
—bystanders milling around, neighbors turned out of their beds, some helping the bucket brigade, some just watching—
Al-Din leaned in close as D’Orsey pulled the fire into himself, banking it for later. “This wasn’t an accident,” the Mameluke man muttered in his ear. “I found something upstairs.” And then he broke down coughing once more, and they leaned on each other like old, old men.
Not an accident, D’Orsey thought blankly, never questioning Al-Din’s words, his eyes sweeping over the crowd. If so, is the one who set the blaze still here?
Nevena lingered on the edges of the crowd, her shawl over her face, trying to appear fascinated by the way the men threw buckets, person to person, from the Cistern of Mocius to the blaze. But her eyes flicked over everything in the square, taking in the survivors of the synagogue fire and the two men who’d saved them. Occasionally, she glanced to the south, where the city’s streets curved downhill towards the water and the outermost walls, which kept foreign enemies from landing on the beaches and simply marching through the city.
For nearly an hour, she stayed put, half-concealed by the pillars of a portico, waiting and watching. Finally, a young man barely older than she appeared from the south and waved.
Nevena abandoned her post, feeling her stomach unclench from the apprehension that had knotted it ‘til now. “Back to the house?” she asked as she moved to his side.
He shook his head rapidly. “No. Stephane said to weave around.”
“Everyone was looking at the fire, just like he said they would. No one’s looking at us.” Still, her spine itched, and she hunched, pulling in on herself.
They took a circuitous route back to what Stephane had told them was their ‘safe house,’ located near the church dedicated to St. Diomedes of Jerusalem. Nevena’s steps hesitated outside its doors. Part of her yearned to step into its warm golden light. To pray before the bright icons with the press of other bodies around her. To be enwombed there, as she’d often been since coming to Constantinople two years ago.
But her longing for the its sepia depths fractured under the onslaught of a more recent memory—a priest, with his high black hat and his long, bushy beard trailing nearly to his waist, haranguing her. You are an unrepentant sinner. A whore. Leave now!
The younger priest, Father Grigory, who’d heard her confessions, who’d periodically given her coin from the collection plate, had looked at the ground. She’d fled, stealing back later that night to beg him for food. He’d given her all the bread she could carry, whispering, “I’m sorry. I’ve been reprimanded for giving you coin. Every penny has to be accounted for.” Father Grigory had looked downcast. “The proper thing for you to do, is to come and receive charity with everyone else on Sundays. Food, not coin. Castoff clothing. After services.”
“I come to services every week!” she’d protested.
“I know that you do. But there are ways of doing things that look . . . proper.” He’d sighed. “As such, I’m being placed elsewhere.” He looked grim; losing a large, important church was an enormous slap.
Nevena stared. “But we’ve never—you said you didn’t want to!”
A faint shrug. “And I don’t wish to. That would be just a different price. I will . . . pray for you, Nevena.”
Nevena had retreated, clutching her bread and fuming. Prayer! Prayer didn’t save my parents from the pox—magic healing costs coin. Prayer doesn’t fill a belly. And bread doesn’t placate a roufiános who expected coin.
And sure enough, her roufiános, Atticus, had beaten her sorely that night.
Her steps only hesitated for a moment now, and then she and her companion took alleyways to reach the safehouse, where she knocked at the back door in a particular rhythm before they were admitted. “Did we get them all out?” Nevena asked urgently in the kitchen.
Biagio, the dark-haired young Byzantine man who’d answered the door, glanced down superciliously. “We got them all, yes,” he informed her. “You had exceedingly little to do with it. You didn’t even set the fire—I had to.”
Humiliated, Nevena looked down. “Nonsense,” a voice came from behind Biagio, warm and comforting. Light Norman accent to the soft Greek syllables. “We are all a part of this, Biagio. We should never imply that anyone’s contribution to the cause is less than our own.”
A large, warm hand lifted Nevena’s chin, and she looked up into the eyes of Stephane de Polinus. His blond hair contrasted strikingly with his dark, compelling eyes, and the lines on his face suggested a lifetime of contemplation and suffering. “I know that you have doubts, my dear,” Stephane told her gently. “Come to the cellar, and meet the reasons for what we do. I think they will allay your doubts.”
Hesitantly, Nevena followed the Norman man down the wooden stairs. There, a shocking sight met her eyes: thirty little men, no taller than her waist, huddled in the underground confines, naked and weary. In spite of their child-like size, they seemed manifestly adult in body-hair and conformation. In spite of two years as a whore, Nevena jerked her eyes away, trying to turn invisible. As she had on many damp, cold evenings, trying to avoid the drunkest potential customers.
Stephane’s hand on her shoulder provided marginal comfort. “You’re safe here,” he assured her. “None of them would raise a hand to you. You’re helping them to their freedom.”
Nevena glanced sidelong at the closest little man, who slumped against the wall by the stairs. His gleaming red eyes gave no reassurance. “How am I helping them?” she whispered.
“With your skilled fingers,” Stephane replied, tugging her across the room to a table, where lengths of cloth, scissors, needles, and thread awaited. “The terms of their binding were that they would serve faithfully until they were raised from apprentices to journeymen. And the way masters have always released apprentices is with a new set of clothes.” He gestured to the naked men. “Would someone here like to tell her how long you’ve served as an apprentice?”
“Two hundred years,” one man growled, his voice like stone rubbing stone.
The shock of the words caught and held her. I knew that spirits were immortal, but . . . he’s not beautiful and ephemeral . . . . “These are angels?” she whispered to Stephane, uncertainty rising up in her.
Stephane nodded, his expression composed. “Incarnated, a spirit can look like anything. These are just as trapped as our souls are, in this crude matter.” He pinched her shoulder.
The little man snorted at her words. “I’m no angel.”
“They always say that,” Stephane whispered. “Of course, wouldn’t you deny it, if you were a being of magnificent power, caught and held by feeble humans? The humiliation!” Louder, he added, “Tell her the tale, please. The whole of it.”
A shrug. “They caught me in Austria. Made me agree to serve as a cobbler until they released me from my apprenticeship. But when the old bastard who caught me died, his son saw that if he let me go, he’d never feed his family. So he kept me, and I made them too much money over the years. His son used that money to buy a farm, so he kept me there to tend the animals. His son became a knight, riding on horses that I’d trained for him. That boy had no gratitude. He sold me to the Church, and the Church brought me here, and sold me to a merchant who put me in a warehouse with all these others.” He jerked his head at the other little men. “That’s where I’ve spent the last forty years, lass. Back to shoes night and day. You might be wearing a pair I made.”
She flinched, looking down at the patched, worn boots she’d worn as she left her parents’ farm in Bulgaria. Then he laughed. “Nah. That’s human-made. Poor stitching and all.”
Humiliated, Nevena let Stephane settle at the table. “I just . . . make them shirts and trousers?” she asked. “And then they’ll be free?” How can nakedness trap an angel?
Stephane patted her shoulder. “That’s it, yes,” he agreed, adding in a whisper, “You must understand that spirits are better and purer than we humans. They’re bound by their oaths. They’re not stupid. But they’re . . . simple. Elemental.”
Nevena saw a dozen little men glare at Stephane’s back. They’d heard. And she didn’t think that they liked being called simple. But she nodded stiffly and watched as Stephane headed back upstairs. Leaving her alone with thirty little, hairy, naked men, who crowded uncomfortably close as she unfurled the first length of linen. “Who’s first?” she asked, feigning bravado. Never let any man see that you’re afraid, one of the older whores had told her. Unless he’s paying to see fear. That’s another story. But you’ll soon be too old to put on a convincing virgin act, so you need to learn to hide that fear.
The little man closest to the stairs raised a heavily-muscled arm. “I’ve been in service longest. Fit me first.” He stumped close enough for her to feel his breath on her cheek as she measured the cloth against him. A snort. “So. Have you been corrupted by the world, lass?” She turned and met red eyes inches from her own. “If I’m to receive my free will when you finish your stitchery, how much of that corruption would you be willing to share with a man like me?”
She flinched. “Stop that,” Nevena whispered. “You’re angels. You—you should be better than this. How can you talk like that? Like—like a man?”
A chorus of snorts assailed her. “Darling, we’re not angels. What’s your man been telling you?”
Nevena bit off a length of thread and tried to slip it through her needle, but her hands shook. There were so many of them, all crowding close enough that their beards tickled her neck. She could barely breathe, but cleared her throat and managed, haltingly, “He says that there’s a truth that the Church and the Holy Ecumenical Council have hidden from humanity. That it’s tied into their control of magic, and that control of magic keeps them in power and keeps the poor down.” The words firmed in her mouth as she felt hatred uncoil under her breastbone for the lords of Byzantium. For the churchmen who hadn’t saved her parents from the pox. The priest who’d denounced her at the church door. Cowardly Grigory, who hadn’t objected. Fat merchants who came to back alleys, looking for young, disease-free whores.
She knew that a good Christian wasn’t supposed to feel this kind of hate, but Stephane had told her that her anger was justified—even righteous. “He says that there are two gods. The evil god of the Old Testament, the one who created this corrupt world and everything in it, chaining the spirits of angels into the bodies of men and women, enslaving them to a flawed creation. And then there’s the good god of the New Testament, who came to free us from this evil.”
The words had a rhythm to them. Her needle slipped to and fro in the cloth as she spoke, nodding to herself. The niggling doubts that usually whispered when Stephane preached over dinner fell silent as she repeated his words like a catechism. “He says that we and you are the same inside. Spirits. Angels. And that people who aren’t perfected in this life are doomed to be reborn in the flesh again, instead of being freed from it.” To be a spirit, free and floating, half-dissolved in rapture. Who’d want to be reborn into this world? To feel your belly pinch with hunger, to see your hands scrabble in a shit-filled gutter for the silver coin that the man you just serviced dropped there . . . .
She hadn’t expected laughter. Some of the little men seemed so overcome that they sat on the hard-packed dirt of the cellar floor, holding their ribs as they roared with mirth. Nevena froze, her needle half through the cloth, staring at them all. “You . . . you don’t believe that?” she ventured. A flicker of thought. “Of course, after so many years in captivity, I suppose you could have been made to believe anything. Stephane says that torture can convince a man that black is white.”
The nearest man finally regained his breath. “He’s got you well and truly wrapped up, doesn’t he?” the creature replied, wheezing. “Miss, there’s nothing that your kind and mine has in common besides having a liking for this world. You aren’t us.” He snorted. “And how are you supposed to get perfected, exactly?”
“Withdrawal from all the things of the corrupting flesh,” Nevena replied quickly. “Abstinence.” The men groaned, but that requirement had come as a relief. Oh, the Church said the same thing, that retiring to a convent was a sure path to heaven, but surely there was more to life than a cloister? “Vegetarianism. Cleansing rites before you die.” Then Nevena stabbed her own finger through the cloth, swore, and stuck her bleeding finger in her mouth . . . and the room went silent. Thirty rapt eyes locked on her finger.
“I don’t suppose,” one man asked, his voice hoarse and hungry, “that you could spare a bloke a drop of blood, miss?”
“Very nourishing thing, blood,” another agreed. “Just a nip of your life-force—”
“You lot back off,” the oldest snapped harshly. “Miss, don’t give them a drop, not without them agreeing to do something for you in return, you hear?” He levered himself to his feet as his fellows spat curses at him. “I’m warning you, miss, because you seem to have cleaner hands than the men you’re with. Give nothing without bargaining.” A crooked grin crossed his face. “Not even to me. But oh, what a deal I’d like to strike with you.”
“Seventy-five years I was chained in a stable,” a voice cut in. “All those stableboys, bringing their girls in for trysts, screwing them in the hay, right in front of me, like I wasn’t there. Except they knew I was. And naked as I was, they knew what it did to me. And then they’d laugh.” She twisted in time to see a bald little man with a long beard spit. “Soon as I get my clothes, I know exactly where I’m going.”
“There’s a fine young miss right in front of us,” another proposed. “Her man didn’t even put her in a binding circle.”
“He expected we’d be bound by gratitude,” the first man snapped at the rest. “As I am. And the rest of you had best be.” He gave her another big-toothed grin. “But just because I’m grateful doesn’t mean I mightn’t bargain for a little something extra before I leave this world.”
Nevena shook. This was nothing like what she’d expected spirits to be. Their denial of Stephane’s assertions rocked her. But for them to say she had clean hands, and yet threaten her? ”You know nothing about me,” she said tightly, standing and throwing the sleeveless tunic at the first little man. “Nothing. Get dressed. And the rest of you, back up.” Her anger and fear coiled inside of her like a living thing, wrapping its way along her spine like a snake. “I will defend myself if I have to.”
“And how might you do that?” A finger poked her back.
Nevena pivoted. Pulled in on her anger, clenching her fist around her needle, drawing blood again, though she scarcely felt it. A sensation of wind rushing, sucking in, hardening in the air in front of her, till a translucent blue-white blade of what looked like ice hovered there, steam rising from its edges. “Don’t make me use it,” she hissed, her eyes almost blind. Seeing, instead of thirty naked men, a dark alley behind a tavern. Her roufiános, Atticus, kicking her in the ribs for bringing bread instead of coin. Blood trickling from her nose and split lips. A surge of anger, the wind screaming from the walls, and he’d staggered backwards, clutching at his throat. Nodded once, as if incredulous.
And then his head had fallen clean off his shoulders to land beside her, the eyes still blinking in confusion, the mouth working silently as the body fell behind it.
The blood had taken a moment to start spurting—she’d only realized later that her airblade was very cold, and had frozen the stumped neck for a moment before the blood had breached its seal of ice.
She’d screamed then, in horror and fear. I did this! I’m a witch! The Intercessors will come for me—I can’t let them find me. I’ll never use it again!
The Intercessors hadn’t come. But Stephane had.
He’d led her out of that alley tenderly, and had brought her to this very house, where he’d helped her bathe away the blood with gentle, impersonal hands. He’d given her bread, dignity, and safety, and the only price had been to believe what he told her, and now these horrible little men . . . these spirits made flesh. . . told her that he’d been wrong?
No. Impossible. They’re lying. It’s . . . it’s a test. She backed away, keeping the blade between her and the angriest-looking of the men. To her surprise, however, they all backed down. Sat down on the floor with their shoulders slumped. Except for the oldest, who chuckled. “Should have known he’d have a witch with him. Powerful, too. Miss . . . just you be careful.” He pulled his shirt on over his head. She’d made it too long; it fitted like a robe, clothing him fully. “Your man Stephane? He’s going to have a purpose for someone like you. Just see if he doesn’t.” A cynical smile. “You humans are very good at using each other.”
Nevena broke and fled up the stairs. In the kitchen, Stephane and the others stood in earnest conversation over vellum scrolls spread over the well-worn table. He looked up, surprised, as she exploded through the door. “I want someone with me down there,” Nevena demanded, her voice high and thin. “I don’t want to hear anything more from the spirits. I don’t know if they’re testing me, but I don’t want to be down there alone with them!”
Stephane patted her lightly on the shoulder. “Of course,” he told her, soothingly. “They really won’t hurt you. But if it makes you feel more comfortable—Biagio. Go with her. But first, a break from our labors, I think. We’ll have a morsel of bread, and I’ll settle any questions that people might have burning in their minds.” A warm smile that disarmed Nevena. “Do you have any questions, child?”
A thousand welled up inside of her. Why do the spirits say that they aren’t angels? Why do they say that you’ll have a purpose for me? But she couldn’t ask that. Not in front of everyone. So instead, she blurted, “Why target the synagogue? Why not an apartment building nearby?”
Stephane smiled placidly. “While our goal of removing spirits from the unjust slavery in which they find themselves—a sin which stains the whole of humanity, and impedes our glorious return to the status of angels, ourselves—is a righteous one, we must never shrink from extreme measures.” He lifted his hands, his eyes distant and features as rapt as that of a painted saint. “If we must choose between lives taken in the pursuit of our cause, which lives should we spare? The lives of those who worship the same god we do, however corrupted by Rome and Byzantium they might be? Or the lives of those who worship the false old god, the god who created this terrible world?” Stephane spread his hands now, as if weighing the question on a miller’s scales. “A calculated judgment.”
The words sounded calm and logical, and Nevena could see that the other men, like Biagio, had been swayed. So she nodded in acquiescence. She’d questioned Stephane once, and didn’t dare to do so again. After all, he broke bread from the fresh loaf and gave it to her with his own hands. Poured her a cup of water and seated her at the same table as the men. Why, I think I know how Mary Magdalene must have felt, Nevena decided. To be trusted, to be allowed to sit at the same table as the men who follow him . . . it’s as heady as wine. Maybe more so.
Still, she peeked at the vellum scrolls as she nibbled on her bread. And gave her report when asked, describing the two rescuers who’d run into the fire. “A man in Egyptian armor,” she described. “And an Intercessor.”
Glances all around the table. “Damn the luck,” Biagio groused. “That’s the last thing we needed. One of them around. One that hasn’t been bought, anyway.”
“There’s no such thing as luck,” Stephane murmured, his eyes distant. “There are only trials which we must face. And this is one of them. We may have to hasten our schedule. But, in the meantime, Biagio, please accompany Nevena downstairs for her tailoring duties.”
Dismissed, she left as they opened scrolls that she couldn’t have read even if they’d permitted her to see their contents.
The Hagia Sophia’s dome towered over D’Orsey’s head as the dawn’s first light crept through dozens of small, arched windows, illuminating gold-sheathed walls and the thousands of ornate images of saints painted there. In the distance, he could hear a muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer with a melodious adhan as church bells tolled, calling Orthodox and Catholic Christians to their own.
In front of him, a dozen Ecumenical officials flanked the Grand Arbiter of Constantinople—the Patriarch of the Orthodox church, Theodosius II. Theodosius wore a simple white robe and stroked his waist-length, bristling black beard as he listened. Beside him, his advisors bordered on motley: clean-shaven Catholic bishops with purple sashes and black robes, Orthodox priests in white robes stiff with golden embroidery, a rabbi with long curls of hair beside each ear . . . and a clean-shaven imam, who lifted his head, frowning at the call to prayer.
To D’Orsey’s left, al-Din raised a hand to the men who’d been listening to their reports for the past two hours. “By your leave?” he asked.
The Arbiter waved a hand. “By all means. We can continue with Sir D’Orsey.”
“I will accompany you,” the imam said, and the two men left, their boots sending echoes through the wide, open space.
“I’ll grant you a dispensation from your own prayers, Sir D’Orsey,” the patriarch added, frowning. “Do you require any refreshment? Any attention for your burns, before we continue?”
D’Orsey held up his blistered hands, conscious of the smoke-reek that clung to him. “I’ve been employing the power the fire gave me to soothe the burns, your eminence. I’ll be fine shortly.” Other than being light-headed from lack of sleep. “I remain concerned about the security of the Conclave, however.”
The Grand Arbiter’s bushy brows rose. To his left, a bishop scoffed, “A fire on the outskirts of town, and you’re concerned about the Conclave? You jump at shadows.”
“It’s not the fire itself, your grace,” D’Orsey replied, straightening further. “It’s the symbol al-Din found burned into the wall upstairs. An Occitan cross. Symbol of the Cathars. For it to have survived the conflagration that consumed the rooms around it suggests the use of magic.” He felt his expression harden into a mask. “The Cathars have been suppressed many times. I needn’t remind you that they’ve long been suspected as the assailants who murdered the last of the Lionheart’s line, fifty years ago.” He grimaced. “They always seem to come back when times are hard, and people lose certainty and faith in existing institutions. And they always sing the same song. Bring down those who have so that those who have not will suddenly inherit the earth. But they always forget to mention that their leaders certainly won’t let the meek rule the world on their own. Oh no. They’ll be there to guide them along the righteous path, and when the meek look up, they’ll realize that they’re precisely where they were before. Just with a different set of masters.” He wanted to spit. The notion of giving more power to the poor isn’t a bad one. The ideal of liberating slaves? A noble goal. It’s the rest of their poisonous stew that I can’t swallow. The hatred of Jews. The hatred of anyone who has more than they do, no matter if those people worked or bled for it or not.
“An isolated incident,” Theodosius assessed after a long pause, “is no reason to cancel or move the Conclave. Too many people are already traveling here.”
“I did not suggest that such a measure should be taken, your eminence,” D’Orsey replied tightly. “I merely recommend stepping up security. In my experience, after the Cathars have struck once, they tend to escalate their attacks in an effort to sway minds to their cause.”
“You may investigate until Bishop d’Autigny arrives. After that, he will resume his authority over you. You should also report to the seneschal of your chapter house here in Constantinople. I’m certain he will be interested in your report.”
Recognizing the dismissal, D’Orsey lowered his head and turned to leave. But hearing hasty footsteps behind him in the nave, he paused, his eyebrows rising as he recognized the Jewish advisor to the Grand Arbiter. “Ben Avram? You have additional concerns?”
The rabbi nodded. “It’s been a long time since synagogues were burned, and my people were driven out of this land or that. Your own Lionheart forbade any Jew from attending his wedding to Berengaria, and his courtiers took that as license to persecute us throughout English lands—”
“That was five hundred years ago,” D’Orsey replied levelly.
Ben Avram nodded. “As I said, a long time. The Holy Ecumenical Council has kept my people safe throughout Europe, but for the unfortunate resurgence of the Cathars now and again.” He raised his hand to his beard. “We don’t use magic,” he added softly. “We live peacefully and quietly in this city of close to a million people. I do not wish to see a return of old hatreds. I do not wish to see my people forced to flee.”
“Neither do I,” D’Orsey returned. “Another strong reason to investigate.”
Ben Avram looked relieved. “Thank you. I didn’t wish the plight of my people to be overlooked.”
D’Orsey nodded. “I understand, sir. But my primary focus must be the Conclave. Delegates sent by every Grand Arbiter across Europe will be here, representing Paris, London, Cologne, Rome, Seville, Warsaw, Novgorod, and Athens, as well as our allies and advisors from the Levantine regions. . .” He trailed off. “There are even rumors that this time, they might finally elect a new Emperor.” Privately, he thought that unlikely; the Council had historically chafed at Imperial decrees, and since the demise of the Lionheart line had grown accustomed to running Europe as a de facto oligarchy. But a deciding voice, someone who could take all the disparate advice of the Council and forge them into unity, would be helpful.
Ben Avram nodded. “I know. But it is also good to know that you will not forget such concerns, even when larger political ones clamor for attention. Thank you.”
In the square between the Hagia Sophia and the Hagia Irene, where minarets poked up into the sky like spindles, hundreds of the Muslim residents had gathered with their rugs to pray facing the rising sun. D’Orsey found a spot away from the crowds flocking up the steps and knelt. But as he did so, his fingers found the stone shark’s tooth at the end of his rosary, not the beads.
Prayer and calm simply wouldn’t come. He remained on his knees anyway, struggling for clarity. Which was where al-Din found him. “Feeling devout today?” the Mameluke asked.
“Not any more or less than usual.” D’Orsey stood nimbly despite the armor he wore under his cloak and robe. “I sometimes envy you your faith,” he admitted as they headed back down the steps. “It comes so easily for you. Me, I have too many questions.”
Al-Din snorted genially. “My faith is easier. I am only forbidden alcohol, not women, whereas you must swill wine to overcome the sadness of never knowing a woman’s touch.”
D’Orsey made a rude sound in al-Din’s direction at this newest sally in the light-hearted argument between them, which had begun four years ago in Rome, when they’d both been assigned as bodyguards at their first Conclave. “You can sleep with a woman, but never marry her,” he pointed out. “All your children will be bastards. Hardly a ringing endorsement. I can marry if I choose. It’s just that then I would have to leave the Order, and live with that wife in some village on the outskirts of an Intercessor chapterhouse for the rest of my life.” And I can’t imagine a woman worth giving up my brothers, my career, and my freedom to travel Europe. Not in my prime, when my superiors rely on me, and I’ve been entrusted with the safety of an Arbiter. When I’m forty and the blade is heavy in my hand? Perhaps. But by then, I could be the seneschal of a chapter-house. How can love compare to promotion, freedom, and glory?
Al-Din lifted a finger. “Ah, but my inability to marry has nothing to do with my faith. As a Mameluke, I am a slave, as was my father, and his father before him. A slave cannot marry. But in my case, I am a very favored slave.” A shrug; al-Din seemed at peace with his place in the world. His high, sharp cheekbones, pale skin, green eyes, and blond hair marked him as Circassian—a descendant of some Slavic warrior or peasant captured hundreds of years ago. But the Mamelukes had become, over those centuries, the elite shock-troops the sultans of Egypt. Their training remained vigorous and they continued to fight, generation after generation, with the fervor of men who had nothing to lose.
They pushed through the crowds of residents, most returning to their homes after the first mass of the day. Merchants and shopkeepers, travelers and porters; a swirl of humanity dressed in a dozen different national costumes, filled with the smells of sweat, spices, and perfume.
“Did they give way on the issue of security?” al-Din murmured as they passed a series of fountains. Some had Romanesque cherubs gamboling in their waters, while others were merely a series of spigots playing over marble slabs chiseled with elaborate swirls of Arabic calligraphy. Competing guilds and merchants had financed each, as if the waters could wash away the sin of prosperity.
D’Orsey grunted. “They gave me leave to investigate. We can parley that into you being given permission as well.”
“Good. What of that building didn’t reek of smoke, was rife with magic.” Al-Din’s voice tautened. “They should be far more concerned.”
“That’s what they pay me for.” D’Orsey shrugged. “You’re sure about the magic?”
“This nose never lies.” Al-Din tapped the side of it emphatically. “For instance, it’s telling me now that I would be best served to shove you into one of those fountains to ensure that you’ve bathed before we start our investigation.” A bland tone, but a brief, edged smile.
D’Orsey awarded his friend a dark look. “A little sweat and smoke might make people take us more seriously on our errand.”
“The mark of the Intercessors you bear should accomplish that. Bathe. Else between the smoke, sweat, and the odors of fire and healing magics, I won’t be able to sniff out anything else.”
D’Orsey sighed. “I’m sure it’s not healthy how often you bathe, but if you insist. I have to present myself at the chapterhouse anyway. Meet you at the Forum of the Ox at noon?”
A quick nod, and al-Din moved away. Between his stern expression and the fact that he walked openly under arms, most passersby melted out of his path like sun-touched snow.
Promptly at noon, D’Orsey steps brought him to the ancient square, where al-Din fell in stride with him. “I never remember why this square is named so,” al-Din murmured.
“One of the early emperors burned Christians here,” D’Orsey replied. “A sculptor wishing to curry favor with him, supposedly presented him with a bronze ox, in which men could be burned, and their screams amplified through the mouth of the beast. The emperor, in spite of his cruelty, was so horrified that he had the sculptor burned inside his own creation.” The prayer beads at his left wrist slipped down, and he felt the stone tooth slap his palm, like the reminder it was. “The whole city is steeped in blood,” he added, trying to fight down the memory of flame and the smell of burning skin. “Up to the northeast is the Venetian Quarter, where the Massacre of the Latins occurred back in 1182.”
Al-Din gave him a quizzical look as they walked. “Latins? As in, Romans? Those who built this city?”
D’Orsey shook his head. “Not Romans. Latin-rite Christians. Italian traders, mostly, who’d come to have wealth and influence in the city. The locals didn’t like foreign interlopers with their foreign religion disrupting their monopoly on trade. So they rose up against them for daring to be prosperous. Murdered or chased some sixty-thousand of their fellow Christians out of the city, and sold another four thousand or so as slaves to the Sultanate of Rum.” He gave his friend a sardonic look. “Probably not relatives of yours, though.”
“Probably not,” al-Din agreed with unruffled calm. “It sounds as if your eastern and western churches were once as much at odds as Sunni and Shi’a are among my people. And that’s all based on who supposedly was given the right to lead us after the Prophet’s death.” His tone turned glum.
D’Orsey snorted. “’Who’s in charge’ more or less explains strife in Christendom as well. Fortunately for us, Richard V dealt with all that after he defeated the Holy Roman Empire in 1425.” He made a reverent gesture. “After sacking Rome, he informed the bishop of Rome that papal primacy no longer existed. That the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople were equals with all the other bishops and patriarchs. Then the Emperor created the Holy Ecumenical Council. And in honor of his ancestor, Richard the Lionhearted, and the long bond of friendship he established with Saladin, Richard V invited representatives of the sultanates and caliphates to the table, and even Jews as well.”
The result hadn’t been universal peace. To think that it would, would be absolute naiveté. But the Anglo-Norman kings, having defeated the Holy Roman Empire, had subsequently defeated Spain and Portugal, last bastions of traditional Catholicism that they were. And had been able to do so for one reason. It hadn’t been their superior naval might and the strategic weight of cannons and longbows; it had been because they had magic on their side. Magic that had become theirs to hold when the Lionheart and Saladin had begun peaceful relations and started a trade in knowledge between east and west that continued to this day. Magic that had become the responsibility of the Knights Intercessor to use and police.
Ancient magical relics were turned over to the Intercessors for examination. If dangerous, they were kept or destroyed. If benign, they were either returned to their original owners, or sold and put to use for the good of all. Dangerous spirits were bound, and either cast out of this world, or put to work for the good of humanity. Thus, magic had become more and more a part of people’s lives. Regulated. Taxed.
The Church had noticed after the formation of the Intercessors that magical talent ran in families. As such, if one of their knight-monks chose to abandon his vows—something regarded with a certain amount of resigned disdain by a knight’s brothers-in-arms—the resulting family was kept close by, so that the mage-trained former Knight was never unsupervised. And neither were his progeny. If the children had the gift, they were funneled promptly into Order-run convents and monasteries in turn; children and adults found elsewhere in Europe who showed the spark were brought to those same flourishing communities. If someone with the gift refused to take vows, then the Order-affiliated villages were the only other option. They were sequestered away from the rest of humanity, where their power couldn’t be used to harm others. They then labored to produce magical items that could be sold and put to use throughout the continent.
As far as D’Orsey was concerned, the system worked. It had allowed his people to triumph in the face of millions in Spanish gold, stripped from the hands of natives in the New World and poured into ships and weapons that could have overwhelmed all Europe. It gave almost everyone easier lives, with spirits to do the menial labor that most humans had little desire to do. He had no time for people who wanted to upset the applecart of general prosperity, simply because they wanted a bigger and shinier apple from somewhere in the middle of the cart. And the Cathars, to him, were the worst offenders of the whole lot.
By now, they’d walked back to the poorer outskirts, where the synagogue and yeshiva school stood blackened. They went building to building methodically, knocking at each door and asking questions. D’Orsey’s Intercessor cross got doors to open and tongues to move, if reluctantly in some cases. Al-Din didn’t ask many questions. But he half-closed his eyes, inhaling deeply at each doorstep for the odor of magic, and gave little headshakes now and again to indicate that no, the scents of this house didn’t tally with what he’d picked up in the burning building. “The arsonists might not be local,” he noted by their tenth house.
“There’s only so far criminals will usually travel to carry out their work,” D’Orsey pointed out. “Most crimes are ones of opportunity. A weakness spotted during daily travels.”
“They might have horses,” al-Din noted.
“I didn’t see anyone with horses last night, so the perpetrators were likely on foot—and horses stand out at night, in particular. No one notices someone walking calmly away from a burning building—especially if they turn back to gawk a bit. No, they were on foot, and I doubt they traveled far after committing the crime.”
And at the next house, their efforts were rewarded, when the woman sweeping the front stoop of a tavern interrupted their questions to demand, “Yes, I realize that the fire was a terrible thing, but who’s investigating the Saint Dalmatois Cobblers, is what I want to know? I went there this morning to order a new pair of shoes—these are worn clear through—” she pointed at the scuffed and worn shoes on her feet, “and was told that because there’d been thievery and vandalism last night, they have no shoes at all to sell. Not one pair, from that big warehouse!” She huffed indignantly. “I always go to them because they’re so much less expensive than everyone else.”
“Do they use brownies?” D’Orsey asked, his interest piqued. At her blank look, he elaborated, “Cobbler gnomes. Bound to serve in exchange for offerings of bread and milk, usually.”
She blinked rapidly. “I . . . don’t know.” Her hands clutched the handle of her broom. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.” An encouraging nod, and she finally ventured, “There’s six men who own the business, and they all come here regularly. But never with apprentices or journeymen in tow.” Her face crumpled. “I never thought about that till now . . . I’d have reported it, if I’d realized—”
No humans learning the trade or doing the work. D’Orsey held up a hand. “There’s no reason to suspect illegal use of magic just yet, goodwife. They might have all the appropriate licenses in hand. Thank you for your time.”
As he and al-Din walked away, the other man murmured, “What do you wish to bet that your Cathars set the fire here, as a distraction from their work there, releasing bound spirits?”
“I’m not permitted to bet, but I’d say it sounds very likely.” D’Orsey wished for a moment that they’d brought their horses, but riding ten feet from house to house had seemed ludicrous this morning.
“No gambling, no women. Your vows suck the savor from life, my friend.” Al-Din clapped a hand to D’Orsey’s mailed shoulder, and the Norman blinked at the sudden contact, feeling as if he’d been standing inside of church bell as it had been rung.
He now gave al-Din a look, catching the smirk before the other man wiped his face clear of all expression. Irritated enough to speak the truth, and still ringing slightly, D’Orsey replied tightly, “When I was a novice knight, I stumbled from my vows. I slept with a woman, and, much repentant, confessed to my preceptor. He told me that our vows are an ideal. Making a mistake isn’t the end of the world. Failing to make that mistake right, living in the moment of that mistake forever, letting it dominate everything else you ever do? Those are sins. I made my penance, took my full vows, and moved on.”
“And never noticed a woman’s eyes again?” Al-Din’s eyebrows lifted.
“I didn’t say that.” D’Orsey’s tone become repressive. “Saint Dalmatois is an empty monastery south of here. I’d expect the cobblers bought it when the monks moved on, and set up shop there. Let’s go.”
At the converted monastery, D’Orsey’s nostrils twitched at the odors of leather being tanned. Brains were used for some tanning processes, he knew. As were feces, urine, and a variety of other substances. The bulk of the aroma wafted from the tanning building near the front gate, but huge barrels of urine had also been left at the front gates this morning—men collected pisswater from street corners throughout local neighborhoods overnight. “They haven’t loaded that inside yet,” D’Orsey said, nodding at the barrels. “It’s almost noon.”
“A busy day for them after a busier night, perhaps.” Al-Din’s expression had gone taut.
“You catching anything?”
“Magic. A great deal of it.” The corners of al-Din’s mouth hooked down. “A welter of scents. I cannot count how many spirits moved through here, but they left their mark.”
“Dangerous?” D’Orsey knew how good the Mameluke’s senses were. To ignore them would be foolish.
“Any spirit is dangerous, mishandled. These reeked of anger and desperation.” He turned his head and spat.
The proprietors didn’t greet them enthusiastically. “There’s been no trouble here—” one, a large, fat man of clear Greek ancestry babbled, trying to keep them from advancing into the courtyard.
“I didn’t say that there had been. I am an Intercessor,” D’Orsey said, smiling humorlessly. “My task is to oversee the use of magic. How many bound spirits do you have? If more than six, you’ve exceeded the quota for any single business operation, without special dispensation. Show me your dispensation. Show me the parchment that indicates how many spirits work here, and how long their contracts will last.”
The man’s jowls sagged. “Ah, of course,” he managed. “It’s in our office, and things are . . . in some disarray at the moment—”
“I thought you said that there’d been no trouble,” al-Din cut in sharply. “Disarray sounds quite the opposite.”
It didn’t take long after that. They’d caught him alone, with the other owners in the work shed, trying to set things to rights. They ground down on him until he admitted to, at first, twelve bound spirits. Then eighteen. A final, crestfallen admission of thirty . . . and no valid work contracts for any of them. “We obtained them legally in the Great Market!” the shoemaker blustered. “They’d all be given up by their former masters—”
“Then as benign spirits, they should have been released from their contracts and permitted to return whence they came,” D’Orsey rapped out. “No one can control that many spirits at once. Not reliably. Not safely. And abusing them, lengthening their terms of service, will only infuriate them, and when they do get free—”
“But they’re just elves! Spritelings, no taller than a child! They’re not dangerous—we wouldn’t have purchased the dangerous ones, like djinn—” An uneasy look at al-Din.
The Mameluke sighed, toying with a heavy ring on one of his fingers. “Every spirit is dangerous in its own way. Djinn are powerful and capricious. But provoke a spirit enough, and when it becomes unbound . . .” He shook his head.
At that point, D’Orsey heard a dog furiously barking in the courtyard—followed by a strangled yelp of pain. He moved to the shuttered window, opening it partially. Saw an enormous Neapolitan mastiff being raised off its front legs by the upthrust hand of a short man in a long, sleeveless tunic. Even at this distance, D’Orsey could see the man’s serrated teeth as he bared them in a grimace. “You kept them in the penitents’ cells, didn’t you?” the Intercessor hissed angrily, dropping to a crouch under the sill.
A single frightened nod from the merchant.
“Go there and lock yourself in. Now. That’s probably the only way you’re going to live.” A pause as the merchant goggled at him. “Go!”
Al-Din slid beside D’Orsey and peered out the window as the merchant hiked up his robes and ran. “Garager,” he muttered sourly as they spotted six more little men entering. “Don’t your Germans have a tale about seven dwarves and a maiden?”
“Yes. These don’t look quite as kind. Shall we go meet them?” D’Orsey dew his single-shot pistol from his belt; the bullet loaded in the flintlock weapon was solid silver, something he wouldn’t waste on a human foe. “You’ve gone over your banishing rituals?”
“Every day,” al-Din replied tightly, drawing his curving sword. Intricate lines of Arabic calligraphy flowed along the weapon’s sides, prayers that D’Orsey couldn’t read.
They stepped out into the narrow courtyard framed by the junction of three buildings; the office, behind them, had once been the monastery’s kitchen. To their left the old refectory, and to their right, what had once been the lay-brothers’ dormitory, but was now the vile-smelling tannery. Along the walls of both long buildings, drying racks held still-damp, odorous leather. The monastery gates stood open to the street, giving D’Orsey a clear view of the barrels of piss waiting to be processed into ammonia, and of the occasional resident hastening past.
The little men between them and the gate regarded them impassively. Then the man in front called to the pair, “This doesn’t concern you.”
“I am an Intercessor. I oversee magic within the Empire . . . and regulate its abuses.” D’Orsey kept his voice level and his pistol’s barrel pointed at the ground. He could feel their anger radiating from them like fingers of hot wind.
“Abuses?” one of the gnomes snarled. “Wha’d’ye call what they did to us? I’ve been trapped here over a hundred and fifty years. How many human lifetimes of slavery qualify as abuse in your book, Intercessor?”
Damnation. “I rode into this city after vespers last night. The first I was made aware of the situation was less than an hour ago,” D’Orsey replied tightly. “I can’t speak for my brothers here, but there have clearly been abuses, which I intend address.” Those years couldn’t all have been here, or held by the same human hands. A legal nicety that they’re unlikely to want to hear. Beside him, al-Din maintained a stoic silence, his blade in his hands. “Go. You’re free. There’s no reason to stay beyond vengeance. You should be above such things.” God, let that be so.
They bared their teeth, their homely faces turning savage. Bestial. “We’re here for the ones who held us,” their spokesman replied softly, his voice curling back from the monastery’s walls. “Some of our brothers are out on the town, venting their frustration on other humans. Particularly women.” He spat. “You should be more concerned about them than about us.”
“You’re here before me. They’re not.” D’Orsey raised his pistol. “Leave. Return to the ether. I will not warn you again.” Inwardly, he raged that his vows constrained him to protect the human filth who’d used these spirits worse than any slave.
The spirits howled, an unearthly sound that made passersby outside flee. No more the gentle house-spirits that they’d once been, who’d tended hearth and cradle; warped by abuse, they’d become vengeance. Their eyes bled from the corners, streaking down their faces as they loped towards the men, teeth bared.
D’Orsey didn’t hesitate; he fired his first shot, catching their leader in the chest—surprising, given the notorious inaccuracy of flintlocks. The creature’s body fell to the ground, and D’Orsey could see a wisp of light rising from it, feeble and pale.
Be free, he told the spirit silently as he dropped the gun and drew his rapier in his right hand. His left, he curled around the stone tooth at the end of his rosary, driving it into his thumb, drawing blood. And then the fire he’d taken into himself overnight bloomed in the air over his hand, and he threw it, overhanded, at the advancing spirits. It hit them like a cannonball, knocking the four in the middle of their formation to the ground, and they howled again, the sound echoing off the walls. Still, he could see that while they’d been burned, they weren’t out of the fight yet. “Earth spirits,” he spat. “Fire’s not as effective as I’d like.”
“Throw them in the piss barrels!” Al-Din didn’t sound as if he were jesting. “There’s salt in the tanning shed. Pour that in over the top of them, and it’ll be close enough to seawater to bind them—khara, here they come!”
The two unsinged creatures leaped off the ground like monkeys, trying to clamber onto their opponents. Al-Din’s sword swung, shearing one in half at the waist, but the upper part of the body still hit the Mameluke. Clawed fingers swiped at his eyes and face before the spirit’s face slackened and its red eyes glazed over in death.
D’Orsey didn’t have time to watch—his rapier strike had missed, and he closed his eyes and ducked into the coif of his armor, trying to protect his throat, as the little creature swarmed him like a tree. Claws scrabbled at his face. Teeth champed at his neck, but he worked his left hand between himself and his assailant. Bleeding freely, he ran through a prayer to calm his mind, and then thrust the creature away with all his strength, adding magic to the blow.
He looked up through a veil of his own blood as the creature landed atop one of the barrels of piss forty feet away with enough force that the lid stove in, and the creature’s body plunged into its depths, leaving its feet dangling over the edge. “Who’s next?” D’Orsey snarled at the other spirits—
—as the door to the refectory opened, and another merchant peered out into the courtyard, demanding, “What’s going on out . . . here . . . ?”
The merchant took in the bloody scene and the ghastly visages of his erstwhile employees. And then prudently slammed the door shut.
“Oh, damn it,” D’Orsey muttered. He’s a dead man.
The four singed spirits howled and leaped for the door, breaking it down with their small, heavy bodies, and plunged through after their oppressor. “Get the salt!” D’Orsey told al-Din. “I’m on them. Just have my back when I lead them back here—”
He caught the other’s nod as he raced off himself now. Slower. Heavier. Mortal. D’Orsey swung into the refectory, now a storage place for cured hides, which swung now violently from where they were suspended from the ceiling. They blocked his view, but a scream of male agony told him which direction the spirits had gone.
He shouldered through the hanging hides, bringing his rapier up. The four spirits had dragged the merchant to the ground, hooking into his guts with their clawed fingers, pulling his intestines out. The stench of opened bowel was, for once, hardly noticeable over the effluvial odors of the tannery.
A lunge, a hit—the rapier passed through the heart of one creature as it buried its face in glistening entrails. The other three looked up from the dying man, their cheeks and jowls stained red, then surged towards D’Orsey.
He backed up through the hides, praying internally that the one he’d thrown into the piss barrel wasn’t coming in from behind him. Gave ground as he tried to keep three fast, nimble opponents from jumping on him again.
Back out into the fresher air of the courtyard. Two sets of claws deterred by the mail under his robes—the third set connected with his left hand, tearing through leather glove and the flesh underneath. D’Orsey thrust reflexively with his rapier, and another spirit found itself released from its mortal vessel. The remaining two snarled—and then a heavy weight hit him from the right, a wet, piss-stinking, angry weight, as the one he’d thrown across the courtyard re-entered the fray, shit, shit, shit—
And then a shower of white crystals flew through the air, coating his hair and getting down the back of his neck, and the spirits screeched in agitation, recoiling. Releasing their mortal forms to flee back into the ether.
D’Orsey rolled to his feet. Caked in salt, which burned like sin in his cuts, and clung like seven different kids of devil to the blood and piss currently all over his black cloak and surcoat. “Thanks,” he told al-Din, panting. “Someone in the local chapterhouse has been thoroughly bribed to overlook this whole organization.” He didn’t keep the disgust out of his voice. “I look forward to bringing it to the seneschal’s attention.” Of course, the seneschal himself could be corrupt, though I dearly hope not. “I don’t suppose we have any of the spirits left to question?”
Al-Din shook his head grimly. “However,” he noted, “they mentioned that their fellows were seeking their own vengeance on humans . . . particularly women. We should investigate the closest houses of ill-repute. That’s where men of a certain stripe release their frustrations. And these spirits seem contaminated by humanity.”
“You want us to investigate a bawdy house.” D’Orsey straightened with a groan.
“Perhaps several.” Amusement in the Mameluke’s tone.
“This is going to do my standing in the Order no good whatsoever.” He sighed. “If I’m going to the seneschal to accuse his men of ignoring this—” he gestured around them, “I need to smell like a field of lilies.”
“If you like, I’ll attest at your tribunal that you entered the establishment reeking of piss and covered in blood, and that every woman there ran screaming from the Knight Intercessor quite properly.” A smile lurked in Al-Din’s eyes. “Perhaps not so lily-like, but is this not the scent of Christian integrity?”
D’Orsey choked. “Integrity has a different scent than sanctimony,” he replied. “But you are a comfort to me in times of travail, al-Din. A true friend.” He grimaced and tried to heal his wounds. “Though, just this once, I wish that there were fountains along the way for you to push me into.”
Al-Din chuckled. “Let’s seize the cowardly merchant who ran to the cells, before he regains enough courage to flee,” the Mameluke suggested. “You can turn him over to your seneschal for, hmm. Safekeeping. Clean up. And I’ll continue our investigations in the brothels of this district. You should be able to find me, if you ask around.”
“You do stand out,” D’Orsey agreed dryly. “It’s as good a plan as any. But try not to be too distracted while investigating.”
A cold flash of humor crossed al-Din’s face. “My friend, unlike you, there is, I think, nothing that the women of these establishments could show me that I have not already seen. Giving in to temptation now and again would inure you against it—and give you tales with which to make your confessor feel that he is earning his keep.”
D’Orsey looked down at himself, still dripping with urine and blood. “I doubt that I’ll give my confessor much work anytime soon. Let’s get on with this.”
The Grand Marketplace—often called the Great Bazaar—bustled like a hive. Nevena had rarely ventured here; the guards encouraged whores to ply their trade elsewhere. Hundreds of tables lined the warren of streets, cloth-covered booths rising behind them to house the merchants’ wares. Permanent shops stood behind the temporary kiosks, with their wooden doors thrown wide.
Uneasy, she pulled her shawl up over her hair like any good Christian woman, and scuttled in Stephane and Biagio’s wake, finding herself jostled by elbows and her nostrils tickled by spices and roasting meat. Her mouth watered, but she reminded herself, Stephane says that we mustn’t eat other living creatures That such gluttony prevents us from finding release from the cycle of rebirth. The thought didn’t make her stomach growl less, and doubts niggled at her: The Church says similar things. But when he says it, it’s different, right?
Stephane looked back and reached through the crowd to catch her arm and pull her forward and up the steps to one of the stone-built shops. “Say nothing,” he murmured in her ear. “If you can arrange it, see nothing, either. This is a dangerous place. Probably much observed.”
Then why am I here? Why not just bring Biagio? she longed to ask, but he’d sealed her lips with his words.
Inside, it didn’t look dangerous. Curls of yellowing vellum rested in the niches of scrollracks that, with bookshelves, lined the walls. Tilted scribe tables stood nearby, where large, hand-written tomes had been chained. Some had been sumptuously illuminated with gold and silver, reflecting light like the icons inside a basilica. Nevena moved to stare at the pages, her eyes feasting on the rich images of the nobles and martyrs within. The few books she’d seen before had been printed in small, smudgy black letters, closely crowded onto a page. These books seemed magical in their artistry and power.
“Khosh amadid,” a voice murmured, and her head jerked up as the shop’s owner emerged through a curtained door. He shuffled forward, leaning on a stick, his skin like parchment beneath his iron-gray beard. He wore a blue robe which ended short on his spindly shanks, as well as a faded turban. But his black eyes remained unsettlingly sharp as he regarded them. “A Norman lord graces my shop?” he murmured, bowing over his cane. “What may I do for you, sir?”
Stephane smiled. “I have come in search of more esoteric works than my own library has afforded me,” he replied. “I wish to read words written by philosophers I have never encountered before. Ones who have come to understand the underlying truth of reality—that there are two sides to everything. Men and women. Light and dark.”
The old Persian gave him a suspicious look. “There are two sides to every story,” he offered cautiously. “And God in his wisdom has made two a number of great importance. But if you’re interested in such works, you must surely be aware that Manichean, Gnostic, and Paulician works are all banned within Christian lands.” He gestured apologetically. “To read such, you must travel more widely, my lord.”
Nevena stopped breathing. Those were all heresies that had been put down forcefully centuries ago. Stephane had never named his faith—he’d just called himself a Parfait, a perfected, and had called the rest of them believers. Now, she wondered if his beliefs carried a dangerous name.
Stephane spread his hands. “I understand your caution,” he murmured. “You must be careful with whom you trust the works of Zoroastrian masters—whose work on the nature of spirits and angels is foremost in the world. We could be anyone—even Intercessors. Let us allay your fears. Nevena, my dear?”
Hearing her name snapped her out of her daze, and she shuffled closer. “Yes?”
“Please show this man your powers.” Stephane patted her shoulder. “We’re safe here. We just need to show him that he’s among friends.”
Nevena swallowed. Found a needle tucked into her sleeve for just this purpose, and jabbed her thumb. Closed her eyes, and wove the first trickle of power into the blood. It wavered—she felt fear at the moment, but not the terror or anger that made her power more accessible—and opened her eyes to find a coil of her own blood, thin and wispy, wrapped around her fingers like a rope. She shook it free, letting it move like a snake.
The Persian raised his hands. “Enough,” he hissed. “There are those who can smell magic, and its use in my shop will draw suspicion.”
Stephane nodded, and Nevena let the spell dissipate, swallowing. Smell magic? Is that how the Intercessors track rogue mages? They sniff them out, like hounds?
The old man lifted a lamp off a wall and led them down into a cluttered cellar filled with chests and book presses. He took a seat and asked coldly, “So. What do you want?”
“The spirits that I can summon are too weak to carry out a task I require,” Stephane told him smoothly. “I need a daeva.”
One iron-gray brow went up. “A daeva. Not an amesha spenta?”
Biagio frowned as he perched on a chest. “What’s the difference?”
The old man’s brows beetled. “The amesha spenta are pure spirits associated with the divine spark. With God, as Christians might understand it.” He grimaced. “Each of these divine spirits has a reflection. An evil twin, you might say.”
Stephane nodded placidly. “You may call them evil. They are certainly affiliated with, hmm. Negative concepts.” He smiled. “However, an amesha spenta would, I think, try to save the people at whom I wish to strike. A daeva will destroy them.”
The old man held up a hand. “I do not need to know. I do not wish to know.” His face turned grim. “Know that any bargain we conclude today will have a heavy price. Heavier, perhaps, than you might think. Daevas do not perform their services for coin.” His eyes flicked from Biagio to Nevena, lingering on her face.
Another placid smile from Stephane. “I know. And am prepared to meet the price of their bargain—and yours.”
The old man sighed and opened a chest, ripped the silk lining from the lid, and then pried loose the wooden veneer behind the cloth, revealing scrolls which had been flattened and nailed there, hidden from sight. “This one,” he murmured, “will summon Nanghaithya.” A gesture to ward off the evil eye. “The daeva of discontent. Unleashed here, where so many poor dwell within arm’s reach of the rich? Riots. Riots that would make the Massacre of the Latins look a petty footnote to history.”
Nevena stared at the loops and whorls of foreign writing on the scroll. How could mere words unleash that kind of suffering? “How could it do that?” she asked, in spite of Stephane’s sharp look.
The old man snorted. “Discontent lurks in every heart. Everyone believes that those who have more than they do, themselves, can’t possibly deserve it. That they deserve more. Nanghaithya would blow on the coals of that resentment. And it would burn this city to ash.” His eyes glittered with a kind of glee. “I would recommend watching from a safe distance. Perhaps Egypt.”
Stephane shook his head, to Nevena’s relief. “Too generalized,” he murmured. “I don’t wish to destroy the entire city. The poor people of this land deserve a chance to die perfected. I won’t be responsible for their annihilation in their sinful, unenlightened state.” He took one of the stools and steepled his fingers. “Perhaps something more targeted at the weaknesses of powerful men.”
The Persian snorted, producing another scroll. “Aka Manah. Sent to earth to tempt Zoroaster himself into sensuality, disobedience, and wrong-thinking. Unleashed here? You could target every man in say, the Grand Arbiter’s offices. Some would spend their days drinking and whoring. Others would go out into the streets and preach heresy. Within days, city-wide turmoil. In weeks? Asia Minor.” He smirked. “If the daeva’s properly paid, the Council could soon be fighting heretics in every corner of the Empire.”
Biagio exhaled, his eyes wide. “Why haven’t such things been used before?”
The old man’s lips curled. “What makes you think that they haven’t?” He laughed, then coughed wrackingly. “However, few people . . . wish to pay their price.”
Stephane considered. “No, the point of this exercise is to turn people to our way of thinking. To use a daeva who would as soon turn people against us, as against the Council? Unwise.”
Nevena caught the old man’s faint smirk as he tucked that scroll away. “That leaves Aesma. Wrath.” A chill seemed to pervade the cellar. “Unleashed, everyone in its vicinity will remember all the reasons they have to hate one another. They will turn on each other like dogs. I have heard tales in which men have torn out each other’s hearts and eaten them, under the influence of Aesma.”
Stephane sat up. “That,” he murmured, “will do nicely. As to price . . . .” he produced a pouch from his belt, which he opened and spilled across the flat top of a chest. Nevena gaped. Faceted and cabochon gems rolled across the wood, glittering and sparkling in reds and blues. “You will find that I do not bargain like a farmer for a cow,” Stephane went on mildly.
“No, indeed,” the Persian replied fervently, lifting one of the gems to the lamp. “You bargain like a prince, my lord. And with this price, you have bought my silence, as well.”
Stephane smiled. The expression chilled Nevena, somehow. “I certainly hope so,” he told the old man. “We’ll discuss the particulars of the summoning ritual now. Biagio, take Nevena back to the safehouse. I’ll be along shortly.”
Upstairs, Nevena muttered, shocked, “He has so much wealth—”
“He was a lord in Normandy once. But he’s turned his family’s fortune over to the cause of righteousness.” Biagio’s tone was brusque as he pulled her away from the shop.
Nevena scarcely noticed the press of bodies in the market, picturing instead the spill of gems in her mind. She’d earned three bronze coins a customer in the alleys. How many customers would even one of those gems represent? she wondered, then chided herself.
Stephane rejoined them at the safehouse that evening. Nevena caught a hint of smoke around him, but she assumed he’d stopped at a cookfire or taverna along the way. He didn’t eat at the table with them, examining the scroll he’d procured, instead.
Past seventh bell, Zacharius burst into the safehouse. No more than ten, he’d been a pickpocket until Stephane had come along. “There’s been an attack at the cobblers,” he told them, panting. “One of the merchants is dead—”
“Not unexpected,” Stephane noted distantly.
“But seven of the spirits are dead, too!”
“Then they have been released from this vile flesh, and will be purified of its taint. I had hoped they’d relinquish this existence peacefully. But perhaps God set them on this path to punish their oppressors.” Stephane didn’t look up from his scroll.
“There Intercessors are swarming the old monastery. They’ve taken the merchants in for questioning. And there was an Intercessor there when the spirits attacked.” Zacharius looked panicked. Nevena felt much the same—with an added sinking sensation as she realized that every attacker had been someone she’d helped to free.
Biagio looked apprehensive. “How did the Intercessor know to be there? We were careful last night!”
That got Stephane’s attention. “We have a clever foe,” he replied after a moment. “He’s undoubtedly still in the area, looking for whoever released the spirits. Zacharius, head out and find where our enterprising monk has come to roost. Then report back.”
Reluctantly, the boy left. Stephane looked around, adding, “And when we’ve found him, Nevena, you must make his acquaintance. Distract him in any way possible.”
Nevena flushed over her barley soup. “You’re . . . asking me to . . . to . . . ?” Her voice sounded thin.
Stephane smiled patiently. “Dear one, your salvation depends on release from this physical realm. Chastity remains a part of that.” He shrugged. “Seducing a monk would be an excellent distraction. But I do not ask you to do so.” He paused, and then added diffidently, “If he should be distracted by your beauty, it would be easy to dispatch him.” His calm voice didn’t abate her mounting horror. “Men are vulnerable after coitus. A knife across the throat, and our plan continues without impediment.”
“Except that his fellow Intercessors will search for the whore who knifed him,” Biagio muttered.
“He’d be a dead embarrassment to their Order. They wouldn’t look long.” Stephane regarded her steadily. “Nevena, what you decide to do is between you and God. All that I ask, is that you dress as a novice nun and seek to help him in his investigations.”
“A novice . . . but people will recognize me—” her voice faltered. “And they’ll mock me, a whore dressed as a woman of God—”
“But it’s not a lie,” Stephane replied, taking her hand in his. “You have taken vows, set your feet on the path of salvation. And if people recognize you, why, should they not revere you?” He smiled. “As I revere you, my very own Mary Magdalena?” He kissed her hand. “If someone tells him of your background, admit to it! Say that you’ve found God and his grace. Again, nothing more than the truth.”
Nevena swallowed, giddy with Stephane’s intense stare and warm words. “And . . . just follow him?”
“Report on his investigations. Distract him from anything that leads him to us. I had already procured monastic robes and priestly vestments for . . . later needs, as regards the plan. You’ll have a part then, too, you know. You can fetch your robe and wimple from the chest in my room.” He went back to reading the daeva scroll.
Shaking, Nevena went to his room. None of the chambers had doors in this house. Modesty, he taught, helped maintain chastity, but privacy begot secrets, and they all needed to be open with one another. She rooted around in the chest at the foot of his bed, finding the clothing she’d been promised . . . and a leather belt pouch, tucked at the bottom. With a glance over her shoulder, she opened it and peered inside. To her surprise, it held as many gems as the one he’d used to buy the scroll. His family must have been wealthy indeed, for him to have two such, she thought as she pulled on the gray wool robe and white wimple of a novice nun.
The habit clawed at her skin, as if the wool meant to punish her for wearing the gown of a bride of God. Distracted by the prickle of harsh wool, Nevena forgot about the gems and hastened back downstairs just as Zacharius returned. “The Mameluke is at the Arcadian Baths,” the boy panted. “No sign of the Intercessor yet.”
Stephane smiled. “So far, where one has appeared, the other has followed. The baths are a remnant of Rome’s corruption. Filled with exploited women and oppressed spirits. An excellent place to release the enslaved. Which will keep the Intercessors’ focus here, on the outskirts of town. Not where we mean to make our main strike.”
“Right under their noses?” Biagio protested. “Dangerous. We should leave them to their business, and target the slave market. A raid there, releasing both humans and spirits, would send a message, and would be a better distraction.”
Stephane’s smile faded. “A raid on the slave market? With only five of us?” He sighed. “You have an interesting notion of what’s less dangerous.”
Biagio flushed. “But with the aid of your daeva—” He paused. “Can’t this creature be unleashed there? There are a hundred thousand slaves here, serving the million freemen of Constantinople. Most were bought and sold in that market. Can’t we consider this, instead of—”
Stephane raised his hands, cutting Biagio off. “My friend, once I release this creature into the world, I won’t attempt to control or enslave it.” Stephane sighed. “Thus, we must release it where it can do the most significant damage first, in accordance with our ultimate goal. And after that, if the daeva is inspired to release the wretches in the market, I will thank God for it. But the first thing that must fall is the palace of the Grand Arbiter, and all the representatives of the Conclave gathered here. If we can turn Orthodox against Catholic, and Catholic against Muslim, and Muslim against Jew? The atrocities they will wreak on each other will echo throughout Europe. Every region of the Empire will turn against its neighbors, and when there’s nothing left but ash, our movement will seize control, and free all the slaves, all the spirits. The meek will inherit, Biagio. We’re here to ensure that they do.” Stephane paused, his eyes wide as he gazed inward at some vision the others could not share. “But we must adhere to the plan.”
Nevena had never heard these details before. She licked her lips, wondering uneasily, How many will die? She didn’t mind if every whoremonger in the Empire died. If the priest who’d thrown her out of the basilica died, it was no loss, either. And if rich nobles and merchants died, no one would miss them. But surely there were innocent people who died in wars like this, too? The poor. Slaves. Trust in Stephane, she reminded herself.
“Listen!” Zacharius’s voice cut through the air. “I saw some of the little men we released last night outside the baths. They didn’t look happy.”
“Perhaps they’ll go inside and ask for massages,” Biagio replied. The joke rang hollow.
Nevena swallowed, remembering the hunger in the faces in the cellar. The anger. The hate. “They’ll hurt the girls in there,” she whispered, closing her eyes against it. Rape. Rape, kill, maybe even eat, for all I know. They certainly were interested in my blood. “Oh, god, what have we done?”
“Freed slaves,” Stephane said, bracingly, “cannot be blamed for what they do with their freedom once they have it. They have become the Lord’s vengeance upon those who enslaved them, and is it not just?”
“But those women didn’t do anything to them!” Nevena burst out.
Stephane raised a placid hand. “Another good reason to free the women and the spirits enslaved there, my dear. Using any disruption there as cover.” He smiled. “And so we see that God provides for our cause in all ways, yes?” He glanced around the room, as Nevena stared at him. “Shall we go?”
Badr ibn Abi Salim al-Din leaned back in the heat of the baths, letting his shoulders touch the tiled wall behind him. Even here in this hot room where he’d sweat out before undertaking a cooling bath in the next chamber, he still wore cotton trousers. The body between navel and knee was considered awrah, improper to allow others to see in public. And the bath was still a public place, for all that he’d paid for a private steam room.
He lifted the silver mouthpiece of a hookah to his lips and inhaled. The smoke uncoiled in his chest, expanding out on a cloud of much-needed relaxation. He’d finished his last prayers of the day an hour ago; before that, he’d methodically visited every bawdy house in this area of town and had paid a porter at each to report any disturbances to him at the Arcadian baths. I can’t be everywhere at once. That’s the simple truth of it.
He’d also jabbed his thumb and flicked droplets of his blood at the doorway of each house of ill-repute, setting air elementals to watch for other spirits seeking trouble. The ring on his right hand, set with a cabochon ruby, ensured their obedience. It held a bound djinni, obedient to him and his family, liege to those lesser elementals.
He took another lungful of hashish smoke and held it for a moment, remembering when a mufti had come to the court of Sultan Al-Ashraf Tuman when he’d been young, and had loudly denounced their use of magic, calling their bound spirits shaitan. The Sultan had raised a finger and argued in response, But the Prophet was Prophet to both men and djinn, was he not? Did he not convert his quareen, the spirit attached to every person at birth, which pushes us towards unrighteousness, and make of that spirit a Muslim? The Circassian Sultan had spread his hands as eunuchs to either side of him had fanned him in the still air of the throne room. We employ our spirits in the name of righteousness. And I have the counsel of a dozen muftis who support our understanding of the holy words. Until they change their minds, I see no reason to change mine.
Badr exhaled a bitter-tasting breath, chasing relaxation as his muscles tensed again. He’d long reconciled himself to the dichotomies of his faith, his purpose, and his appetites. His ancestors had held off the Mongols who’d besieged Baghdad centuries ago, and prevented countless tomes of philosophy and reason from being hurled into the Euphrates. In so doing, they’d won a certain amount of leeway throughout the Islamic world.
Still, he and others like him remained slaves—institutionalized ones, yes; slaves who actually ruled in Egypt. Both inside and outside of Islamic society, at the same time. Accepted, yet feared. So he and his fellows had to tread carefully outside of their own lands; had to appear strong and powerful, yet also humble, remembering that they were, and always would be, slaves. A certain mix of intimidation and modesty deterred backlash.
A tap at the door. The ring at his finger pulsed, and the djinni bound there whispered in his mind: Two spirits bound to this house, and your Christian friend. Nothing to relay from my spritelings yet—but the night is young.
“Come!” Badr called, not bothering to sit up as two spirits entered, bringing with them the sharp, strong smell of magic. The dark-haired beauty had the scent of hot iron to her; the pale blond smelled like ice. Behind them, D’Orsey hesitated in the doorway, appearing uncomfortable. “D’Orsey! Join me.” Badr indicated the bench beside him, as well as the hookah.
D’Orsey hesitated, but began to shrug off his garments. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, as he tucked his sword-belt and pistol hostler into a cubby. “After bringing the seneschal evidence of—” he glanced at the two spirits and clearly amended his words, “ah, everything . . . we received reports that a Persian bookseller’s shop burned in the market. The owner died in the fire.”
Badr leaned back, his eyes half-lidded, as D’Orsey’s cloak, robe, and trews fell in turn, leaving a short loin covering. Not an ounce of fat to his friend’s frame; constant physical training with sword and horse demanded strength and endurance. Badr had seen the callouses on D’Orsey’s palms for years, had fought beside him and sparred with him, but he’d never had so much direct evidence of the power of his friend’s body. “They called the Intercessors for a shop fire?” he asked, inhaling from the hookah.
D’Orsey slumped onto the stone seat beside him, their shoulders brushing. “The owner had been under suspicion for some time as a purveyor of banned books.”
Badr raised his eyebrows lazily. “Did he purvey woodcuts of salacious harem scenes?”
D’Orsey gave him a look. “More like magic rituals that we’d prefer not get into the wrong hands.” He glanced meaningfully at the spirits pouring water into basins at the other end of the room, lowering his voice.
Badr straightened. “The shop was destroyed?”
D’Orsey nodded heavily. “Witnesses described customers from just before the blaze—two men and a girl. One tall, middle-aged blond man. The other two much younger, dark hair, probably eastern Christians.” He paused and, as the spirits now approached, added more loudly, with a kind of forced humorous resignation, “I could have skipped my bath at the chapterhouse, and come straight here after all. As is, I’m going to sweat here, and you, al-Din, will take that as reason to urge a third bath today. Which I will categorically refuse, mind.” He covered a yawn, his shoulder pressing into Badr’s again.
“I think that these ladies would not have appreciated your earlier state. It offended my nose mightily.” Badr offered his friend the hookah, which D’Orsey waved away with a frown.
“Two hours of sleep in the past twenty-four, and a long, wearying day. You’re fuddling your head with that while we wait for news?” he asked as the spirits blotted their faces with cool, damp cloths.
Badr shrugged. “I don’t fuddle myself often, and never to excess.” He smiled briefly. “And I know of a ritual that gives a body the refreshment of a full night’s sleep. Dangerous to use on a daily basis. But it’s allowed me to study the stars or read books of alchemy instead of sleeping.”
“Or to pass the evening in a bordello.” D’Orsey gestured around them.
“The harem of this or that lord,” Badr replied indifferently. “Rarely bordellos. If you’ll trust me, I’ll work the spell for you tonight.” He paused. “They rent rooms by the hour here—and I’ve rented one for this express purpose, myself.”
“I should return to the chapterhouse.” D’Orsey rubbed at his eyes..
“And then you’ll be out reach all over again, should something occur.”
“Monks, even martial ones, have strict curfews . . . usually.” He yawned. “Why does it not surprise me that a place like this has rooms available by the hour?”
Badr watched flickers of resigned shame in the blond spirit’s expression. At least they’re not dryads or female satyrs, he reflected. The more bestial spirits held no attraction for him. Or male satyrs, for that matter. I doubt D’Orsey would let them touch him. A smile kinked his mouth as he inhaled again from his pipe.
The hashish slowed his perceptions. Added to his appreciation of beauty, as when a bead of sweat formed at D’Orsey’s cheekbone, trickled through a day’s light stubble on his cheeks, then channeled along the stark lines that bracketed his mouth. The way the blond woman held took Badr’s hands in her own, bathing them with a cool cloth. Her eyes, translucent and colorless as ice. “I smell a soul in you that does not belong to Egypt,” she whispered. “I smell blood in your veins that comes from my home. Where the stars sparkle above snow, sheets of blue-green fire play in the night sky . . . where there are days without nights, and nights without days.”
He watched tendons of her throat play under her skin, and pictured the stars. Ad-Dabarān, Dhanab ud-Dajājah, Fum al-Hūt. Then she slipped into his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck, and pressed a cold kiss to his lips.
Immediate physical desire—but he could feel the teeth behind her lips, sharp as fishhooks. She nipped at his lip, drawing blood, and Badr pulled back. Saw the hunger in her eyes. “They’re starving you,” he murmured, aware as the other spirit climbed into D’Orsey’s lap in the same manner—who promptly jerked away from her.
Badr let it pass. “They don’t feed you blood, so you’ll be eager for anything the customers give you.”
She looked away. The dark-haired beauty in D’Orsey’s lap laughed darkly. “It’s humbling for our russalka here to subsist on seed instead of blood and vengeance,” she offered, her voice a purr. “Me, I’ve never known anything but the desire of humans. Fertility. Virility. It’s all delicious.” She turned back towards D’Orsey, raising her hands to run them through her hair, so that the dark locks fell down in a tumble, arching her back to press her breasts against the thin cotton of her chemise, the outline of her nipples showing prominently.
The way D’Orsey’s hands shot out to push her away would’ve been amusing if Badr hadn’t felt so much urgent interest at the moment. “Get out of here,” D’Orsey grated, standing.
The byplay could wait. “Perhaps,” Badr told the creature in his lap, sliding a finger along her lower lip, “we could strike a less humiliating bargain. Blood for you. Just a few drops.”
Her clear eyes lit up, but her expression remained wary. “In exchange for what?”
Badr leaned back. “Tell me of my homeland,” he invited. “Tell me of nights without days, and days without nights. Tell me who I might have been, had I been born another place, another time.”
He saw her lips part, revealing needle-like white teeth, a mouth seemingly filled with splintered bone, and shuddered. A vision of her lifting her head from his eviscerated torso, her face masked with his blood, flashed across his mind. So vivid, it felt like foretelling.
Badr shook it off as she bit down on his thumb, suckling the blood hungrily even as he drank in her visions of blue-green fire in the heavens. Onion-shaped, colorful church-domes. Endless forests filled with deadly wolves. The shining white death of snow draping everything.
Then Ashtad, the djinni in his ring, hissed in his mind. There will be violence between your friend and this other spirit shortly!
Badr’s dazed eyes snapped open. The russalka still straddled his lap, rocking against him, each motion sending a jolt of pleasure through his body. Her clear eyes were red with his blood and glazed with a kind of ecstatic contentment. Beside him, D’Orsey remained on his feet, and Badr could smell the smoke-and-steel signature of his friend’s magic. Why? How can a bound spirit threaten him so much—
His senses stretched out, and Badr suddenly realized that not all of his own desire came solely from the russalka in his lap. Some emanated as sticky tendrils from the other spirit.
“Get out of my mind,” D’Orsey snarled.
The spirit pouted. “I can feel your interest, Intercessor. But if you don’t like this form, I’ll assume one that will please you better.” She smiled wickedly, pulling up her chemise to show them her most intimate parts, flowing and changing. While her breasts remained round and firm above, the softness below surged upwards, forming a familiar hard curve. “Perhaps this would suit you more?” the creature whispered.
“Succubus,” D’Orsey spat.
“Succubus, incubus. We don’t discriminate,” she said, rolling her head around on her neck.
Badr felt the surge of D’Orsey’s magic and stood hastily, dumping the russalka to the floor, and shoved his friend’s arm to throw off his aim. The gout of red fire lashed a tiled wall instead. “Out,” Badr told the succubus firmly. “We decline your services.”
She sighed. “What a pity. I do so enjoy working with Intercessors. They always come to Constantinople with such high aspirations and ideals. It’s delicious teaching them about themselves.” She licked her fingertips.
D’Orsey growled, the muscles in the arm Badr had caught flexing as he moved forward.
In spite of the contempt that Badr could smell in the hot-iron vortex of the succubus, he could feel fresh desire building in him, the spark that the russalka had enkindled becoming an inferno. An itch to know what the succubus would be like, male and female, both and neither. No. I’d rather take my chances with a mouth of needle-sharp fishbones than with this creature. Badr called to the djinni in his ring. Ashtad! Remind this one that she is not the only one here with power!
The djinni laughed, and a howling wind exploded through the chamber, slamming the succubus into the door at the far end. Her eyes widened, and she fumbled with the latch, fleeing.
In the wake of the storm, the russalka stood. Wrapped her arms around Badr’s neck, and kissed him. His ears ringing at the silence after the djinni’s wind, Badr returned the kiss, feeling her teeth nip his tongue.
She pulled away to whisper, “My name is Morozna. Frost. If I am ever free to answer your call . . . I will come to you.” She nipped his earlobe. “I like your taste.”
Then she retreated. Dazed, Badr sat down, the syllables of her Name a weight on his tongue that took conscious effort not to speak. Instead, he fumbled the hookah jar back upright. Took another lungful of therapeutic smoke before insistently slapping the mouthpiece into D’Orsey’s hand and pulling him down onto the bench, too.
In testimony to his shaken state, D’Orsey didn’t object. Just inhaled—and choked. “Fah. It’s as vile as tobacco from the New World.”
“You’ve tried that?” Think about that. Not about her. You can’t have her right now. And you can’t have anyone else. Badr’s eyes flicked towards D’Orsey, who’d turned away, leaving only the broad curve of his shoulders and the perfect indentation his spine made as it lanced down his back visible.
And why can you not call her? Ashtad’s voice echoed through his thoughts. If my spritelings speak warnings, I will tell you. Call her back. Sate your desires and clear your mind.
No. Not when she’s not free to choose. Badr hesitated. He was a slave. He’d slept with other slaves over the years. Sometimes when they’d been ordered to do so. Sometimes out of mutual pleasure or desperation. There was something different about the russalka.
Then sate yourself another way. The djinni’s voice held indifference.
He pushed the thoughts away, watching as D’Orsey raised the pipe to his lips again. “When I tried tobacco, I threw up. I need no purgatives.” D’Orsey sounded rueful.
Badr managed a chuckle. “You’ll like the effects of this better, I assure you.”
Another tentative inhalation and then D’Orsey turned towards Badr. He could watch the relaxation spread through him as the muscles of his back unknotted, and a sudden realization hit Badr then. The succubus wouldn’t have chosen that form to seduce him if she hadn’t thought it would work. He swallowed. There are those who’d consider that an important piece of information. A potential first step at recruiting D’Orsey as a spy, through blackmail or seduction. But they aren’t me. He liked D’Orsey, prickly and Christian as he was. Knew that there was a core of loyalty and integrity in the intercessor that Badr could respect.
The silence had gone on too long. “Tell me something.” A friendly elbow nudge.
D’Orsey’s eyes flicked towards the door, then back towards Badr. “What would you have me say?”
Badr considered going straight to the heart of it, but decided that D’Orsey wasn’t relaxed enough. He deflected, instead. “The stone tooth you carry.” He lifted his eyes to meet D’Orsey’s. “It’s the focus for your magic. Why?”
D’Orsey exhaled. “That’s a long story.”
“We have nothing but time. In a while, perhaps a massage. Food. Bed, if we haven’t been alerted to any attacks as yet.” Badr shrugged. “Tell me of it.”
“Because in the four years I have known you, you have never spoken of it. And it is close to the heart of who you are, I think.” He paused, then offered as D’Orsey looked conflicted, “A bargain? You tell me your tale, and I will tell you mine.”
D’Orsey looked down. “If it pleases you,” he murmured at last, slumping against the tile once more, closing his eyes. “I was six. My father wished to remind us of our Viking blood, and took us to the shore. We all went—my parents, my brothers, tutors, and servants—and stayed at a castle owned by family allies.” His voice sounded empty. “My brothers and I roamed the shore, picking up shells. I found this one. They were jealous of my find. Called it a dragontooth. They combed the area trying to find something like it for themselves. When I showed it to my tutor, he yanked it out of my hands. Shouted that it was lie made by the devil. And went to throw it out the window.” D’Orsey opened his eyes and went on tonelessly, “I was six. Something precious to me was being thrown away like trash. Something that my older brothers didn’t have. I told my tutor to stop, but he wouldn’t hear me. And in my rage, I pulled the fire from the hearth nearby and threw it at him.”
Badr winced. “He died?”
“It took him three days to do so.” D’Orsey’s voice remained empty. “Like Christ on the cross, the priest who gave him last rites said. The priest made me sit by the bedside the whole time, so I’d see the red and black burns, the missing ears and nose. So I’d smell the burned and putrefying flesh. And I sat there, at the bedside, clutching this stone.” He swallowed. “The Intercessors came for me, and my first teacher among them, Brother William . . . he told me to keep it. As a reminder that our power should never be used for petty things.” He looked away, guilt written on his face. “The succubus just now . . . . I shouldn’t have drawn power against her. Any more than against my tutor.” He sighed.
“She’d invoked power herself,” Badr replied shortly, his body still on edge from the succubus’s potent evocation. “Your tutor didn’t deserve to die, but he was ignorant and cruel.”
“It was a pebble.” D’Orsey looked away. “And at the age of six, I was a murderer for nothing more than a stone.”
Badr sat up, shaking his head. “Nonsense. You aren’t a murderer.”
“I killed him.” Simple, stark words. A soul laid bare before him, aching and raw.
Badr put a hand on D’Orsey’s shoulder, a comforting grip, but remained acutely aware of D’Orsey’s bare skin. “A child playing with a crossbow pulls the trigger, and a man dies. That doesn’t make the child a murderer. You didn’t know the power in you. You didn’t know how to use it. There was no intent.” Badr paused, then went on, as stern as any judge, “Intent is what makes a man a murderer.”
“My first year in the dormitories of the Order, I spent in a solitary cell,” D’Orsey replied. “I wasn’t permitted to speak—oh, meals are always silent in the chapterhouses. That’s the Rule. But for me, it went further. I ate a penitent’s diet that year, too. Bread. Water. Occasionally beans. In between, they caned my feet, while reminding me that murder is a mortal sin.” He shook his head. “I’ve kept my powers tightly leashed since. Tonight’s the first I’ve lost control in twenty years. And over a spirit.” He sounded disgusted.
That speaks to how much she bothered you. Badr took another inhale from the hookah, leaning back comfortably. “Judgement worsens with lack of sleep. And . . . you don’t share yourself with strangers. I’d bet that the young lady with whom you slipped from your vows? Wasn’t a whore.”
D’Orsey he covered his face with his hands. “A distant cousin of mine. She was beautiful and devout, and had thought of taking orders, and I thought I loved her.” His voice sounded muffled. “She was the last thing from a whore that you could imagine.”
“Having principles isn’t a crime.” Badr paused. “You prefer love. Intimacy. Hardly a sin.”
“I’d taken preliminary vows!”
“Vows,” Badr snorted. “We’re all God’s servants. Removing yourself from the life of your people to mark yourself out as an even more special servant sounds like hubris.” D’Orsey’s head snapped up angrily, but Badr raised an admonishing finger. “You didn’t choose this life. Which is, as I understand it, a requirement for monks. You must feel a calling in your heart, yes? And yet, the Ecumenical Council presses hundreds of people into Intercessor monasteries. How many of them are called?”
D’Orsey’s face froze. “Being born with magic is evidence of the calling—”
Badr snorted. “Did you ever know, deep inside you, that this is the purpose for which God made you?” My superiors would be pleased at how well I use the tools of recruitment, but they’ll never hear a word of this from me. I say what I say to free his mind and his soul, not to enlist him as a soldier for my masters.
D’Orsey looked away, his expression hunted. Badr put an arm around his friend’s shoulder. No stiffening, no pulling away. “If you didn’t feel it,” he said softly, “how can it be a true calling?”
“It’s the law and it’s the Rule, and I’ve taken the vows.” Harsh finality, sliding into rueful amusement. “You could bandy words with Satan, Badr.”
He felt a grin stretch his face. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” Badr replied. “But is there no way to leave a monastery if the calling isn’t true?”
“There’s exclaustration, but that would mean leaving the Order, being confined to a village somewhere. Betraying my brothers in arms.” D’Orsey looked down. “And truthfully, I deserve it. I am a murderer.”
This again. “A man’s life is no small thing. But your superiors went far beyond punishing an accidental death.” Soft words, murmured almost into D’Orsey’s ear, so quiet that even if someone had shared the room with them, they couldn’t have heard. Intimate exchange of truths. “Also,” he added, as the hashish lifted him above the darkness that threatened to close on his thoughts, “you and I are both warriors. We’ve both killed men in battle. If we’re damned for anything, wouldn’t it be for that?”
D’Orsey turned towards him, their faces startlingly close as his lips curled up at the corners. “You are, as ever, a comfort.”
Badr swallowed at the proximity, the openness in D’Orsey’s eyes. He’d fought a fire this morning, battled spirits in the afternoon, and two near brushes with death in the same day had ignited certain physical hungers. The russalka and the succubus had primed him, the swirl of hookah smoke had loosened his inhibitions . . . and perhaps D’Orsey’s, as well. His friend’s skin smelled clean and enticing, and Badr wanted to wrap himself in that scent. No. Don’t ruin the friendship without knowing whether it’s worth taking the risk first. Tell him your story . . . see if he’s repelled, first.
He pulled back, trying to find equilibrium. “I’ve fought Nubians along the southern borders of Egypt,” he mused. “I’ve been sent as far as Persia to fight the remnants of the Mongols.” Badr grimaced. “They don’t bury their dead, you know? They leave them for the wolves, the birds, and the worms. Sometimes they chop their dead up and spread them out to make it easier for the animals to feed.” He pushed back memories of finding such a burial site, startled wolves fleeing through the trees, one with a man’s arm clutched between its jaws.
“God’s wounds,” D’Orsey muttered, horrified. He’d heard traveler’s tales all his life, but this wasn’t some outlandish story of men with mouths in their stomachs. This was Badr al-Din, with a lost look in his eyes, an emptiness that he’d never seen in his friend’s face before. Al-Din kept the world at a distance, watching it all from behind cold green eyes, always the outsider. A Muslim among Christians. A Mameluke among Muslims. “You don’t need to talk about it—”
The hashish helped. Kept memory at arm’s length. “The point I’m making is this,” Badr went on, trying to say the words clearly, “Men have sent us into battle. Men have bidden us to kill, and have lauded us for doing so.” He realized his arm remained around D’Orsey’s shoulders, and that neither of them had moved. “They’ve judged us heroes for killing in their name, yet judged you a murderer for an accidental death. Men have no real judgment. They base their opinion on what they know at the time, what’s convenient to them, and what appeals to their own appetites.” His fingers tightened. “God is the only true judge. Only he can decide whether we’re damned or not. Till then, you can either live as if you already know His decision, and that it doesn’t bode well for you . . . or you can live as if you hope he’ll grant you paradise.”
D’Orsey sighed. “My confessor told me, when I slipped from my vows with my cousin, that our vows are a goal, and that everyone slips from the right path now and again. The point was to get back on the path again.” Of course, she wound up in a convent, herself. When I’d been trying to convince her not to take vows, which seemed like such a waste, and then one slip, because her lips tasted sweet, and she wrapped her arms around me so eagerly . . . . D’Orsey suddenly realized that Badr’s arm remained around his shoulders, an undemanding, comfortable weight. The juxtaposition of thoughts and sensations startled him, and he straightened his back, which caused Badr’s hand to slide down his shoulder blade and spine. Ghosts of sensation followed in its wake, like dye whispering out from a cake of indigo in a vat of water.
D’Orsey cleared his throat. Disturbed. Confused. But floating slightly above himself. Probably just the effect of this pipe we’re smoking. “Are you going to tell me your dark secrets now?” He shifted. “Or can we get out of this steamkettle?” Which might be wisest. Food. Sleep. Reports.
A knot constricted Badr’s throat. It might go well, he thought, pulling his hand away. Here, in this dim, intimate place, with shadows to hide our faces and hashish swirling in our blood, he might even accept my story without shock. Will remember that God is the only true judge. But do I dare? Will the price for such openness be the dissolution of our friendship?
Badr opened his eyes. “When I was fourteen,” he began, his throat tight, “I was sent by the Sultan to the court of Ammar al-Nasir, Caliph of Almohad. He holds Andalusia—southern Spain.” He swallowed. “Al-Nasir was a poet and a philosopher, a learned man at whose court my father and the Sultan thought that I would learn alchemy, astronomy, and magic. Al-Nasir had one son, four years older than I am—Hamid ibn Ammar.” He smiled, but the expression felt tight.
“Just one?” D’Orsey asked, sounding surprised. “With so many slaves and wives, caliphs usually collect dozens of sons.”
“Ah,” Badr said. “Al-Nasir had no women in his harem. Only men. Some eunuchs, too. His mother gave him many who had only had their testicles removed, so that they retained the, ah, pillar. But they’d been cut young enough that they developed breasts. This was how she managed to help her son produce an heir. I’m told they dressed a female slave as a man, permitting Hamid to be conceived.”
D’Orsey’s mind had gone blank. The information was so calmly presented, yet so foreign to him, that he couldn’t fathom it. Finally, he ventured, “You speak in earnest?”
“I had the tale from Hamid himself.” Badr exhaled. “There’s a tradition in Andalusia of similar practices.” He could feel the tension in D’Orsey’s frame, as if his friend had turned to iron. Badr sighed. “Hamid took to me immediately. They’d had Mameluke slaves come through for training before, but never one younger than he was. He took it upon himself to train me personally. Took me hawking in the mountains, and riding by the ocean. Had the court poets teach me to write verse that wouldn’t embarrass me.”
The tension drained out of D’Orsey’s body. “I thought this story was about to go badly,” he muttered. “Mamelukes are technically slaves. If the caliph had taken a fancy to you, you could have been killed for refusing him.”
Badr exhaled and passed D’Orsey the hookah’s mouthpiece again. He’s right on the cusp of it. Now to push him over the ledge, and see if a friendship shatters from the fall. “Exactly so,” he replied, leaning back. “At first, Hamid told me that every man should know how to please a woman in bed, and brought me a few of his own harem slaves with which to practice the skill.” He could feel D’Orsey stiffen again, and chuckled. “He saw it as little different than practicing calligraphy, hawking, or swordsmanship, my friend. Of course, since those girls belonged to him, he had the right to watch, and he did. Sometimes, he’d take the girl in question, himself. Made it a game to see which of us was better.” Badr smiled faintly. “Naturally, he was.” He gave his Christian friend a sidelong glance. “Have I shocked you entirely? Can you stand to hear more?”
“There’s more?” D’Orsey replied, his voice choked. “This makes my trespass with my cousin seem no worse than holding hands.”
Badr chuckled ruefully, watching the hookah smoke dissolve into the steam. “Yes, there’s more.” He braced himself to speak words he’d held close for nearly ten years. “One night, when I was relaxed, every appetite sated, smoke from a hookah like this one sending my thoughts spiraling up like a hawk to the clouds, Hamid joined me in bed. And showed me a dozen different ways that pleasure could be found between the two of us.”
D’Orsey’s mind went blank. “He raped you?” His voice was strangled. “I’d have killed the bastard. And probably died ten seconds later, at his guards’ hands, I realize, but still—”
“It wasn’t rape,” Badr returned sharply. “It was loving and kind. I’d never done anything like it before, but there’s more to pleasure than simple penetration. Personally, I find that demeaning, so as a loyal and kind friend, he rarely asked that of me.”
D’Orsey didn’t know where to look. He longed for the distance of a confessor’s curtain between them. No one should ever hear someone’s soul laid bare like this, without the presence of God to protect those fragile truths from shattering in the air, he thought, his mind hazed with shock and smoke.
Badr’s tone remained as distant as if discussing some point of ancient history. “For the four years I spent at that court, Hamid treated me as his favorite, sparring by day, and in bed at night. Sometimes with women, sometimes without. As you said, I am a slave. I could not refuse. But in most things, he treated me as an equal, a brother. I did not feel shamed by his treatment, and, in fact, there were many at court who resented my place in his inner circle, his favor.”
D’Orsey set aside the pipe. As the shock wore off, he had to admit that there was something fascinating in hearing about such things. Images rose in his mind that he struggled to push away. “But you left court?”
A gentle hand on his shoulder now. “The Sultan recalled me. Then sent me to Baghdad to fight the Mongols.” Badr shrugged. “I felt . . . odd, returning home. I’d been a boy of fourteen when I left; I returned a man of eighteen, who’d already done and seen many things. But I needed to fit back into my place among my people. I went to a mufti and asked if, like the people of Lot, I was now damned, for I’d taken as much pleasure in Hamid’s hands, by the end, as he had taken from me.”
D’Orsey shook his head. “What did your mufti say?”
Badr smiled faintly. “Some people, when they don’t like what the first mufti tells you, keep going from judge to judge, asking for the next interpretation, and the next. I liked what I heard the first time. No need to ask further.” He stretched. “Simply, he told me this: ‘Did God punish Sodom and Gomorrah because men loved other men? No. He sent angels to warn them. But he did not punish the people of those lands until they laid violent hands on the angels, and raped them. Rape was the crime. It’s always a crime, no matter who is raped—angels, men, women, children. A loving touch between two who take mutual pleasure in each other? Is not a crime.” He paused. “Of course, there’s are those who class such things with adultery. And given that I can’t marry, being a slave? Nothing I do can be considered adultery, so long as I don’t do it with a married person.” He exhaled. “In an odd way, being a slave of status, as I am? Is perhaps the most freeing condition I can imagine. And in the end, as I said before, of your supposed murder . . . it’s for God to judge me. Not other men.” Will he hear me? Will he understand?
D’Orsey turned slightly towards him, the words ringing in his ears. The intimacy of secrets exchanged and souls laid open to one another, the hashish and his physical exhaustion softening, blunting his reactions, making his mind whirl with images and doubts and realizations. And the enchantment that the succubus had used earlier still rode through his veins. As good an explanation as any for why, as Badr spoke, it felt as if each syllable exploded softly against his skin, like thrown petals. Then seeped inside him, finding his soul and lighting it afire.
He fought, but it was a losing battle. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, his head swimming. “I’m sorry that you were so abused.”
Badr closed his eyes for a moment. No. He’s not hearing me. Or choosing not to do so. “It wasn’t abuse,” he replied carefully. “There are as many ways to find pleasure, as there are people, I think. And just as many people who will tell you that living itself is a sin. Like your Cathars.”
D’Orsey blinked. Badr wasn’t sure which of them leaned in first. But when the kiss came, it had a sense of inevitability to it, a kind of tender shyness to it that he hadn’t experienced since his own first embrace, so many years ago. Innocence and wonder and, if not the absolution which his friend’s heart craved, but which was only God’s to offer . . . then perhaps acceptance. Peace. He cupped the back of his friend’s head gently with his fingers, keeping every touch butterfly-light at first. Not demanding, not persuading, as the succubus had. D’Orsey would resist pressure, would refuse insistence. But an invitation, being made to feel welcome, accepted by a friend he already esteemed?
That, he didn’t resist at all.
Slow. Gentle. A little awkward confusion, which Badr smoothed away. And then taught his friend that what lay between them needn’t involve pain or degradation, and certainly didn’t make either of them less than a man.
The tiled confines of the steam room were too hard and uncomfortable for many intricacies, and the echoes necessitated near-total silence. Precluded words, which might have broken the spell. But afterwards, as Hugh set his face in his hands, and Badr thought that he might be weeping, he laced his arms around his friend and whispered, “Please don’t ask a confessor for forgiveness, when no forgiveness is necessary.”
“My vows are binding.”
“You vows were never of your own choosing.”
D’Orsey felt the truth of those words like a lash. And yet, where would I go, what would I be, if I weren’t an Intercessor? “How can I go before the Seneschal tomorrow to accuse my brothers of debasing their own vows by permitting the abuse of spirits, when I am a sinner, myself? Hypocrisy, nothing more.”
“You Christians, always saying what sinners you are. Always so concerned with what you are, and not who you are.” Gentle needling. Putting things back on their usual footing, if that’s what Hugh preferred. Badr left a hand on his friend’s shoulder, though. “I hardly think finding a moment of joy can compare with accepting bribes and abetting abuse.” A nudge in the ribs with an elbow. “You should come to Cairo. Enlist in the service of my Sultan. He accepts Christians, you know. Even degenerate hypocritical ones, I am told.”
The indignation in Hugh’s blue eyes made Badr laugh, even as the expression faded into milder annoyance as the Norman man registered the light tone of the words. Badr let his smile fade into a more serious expression. “I’m not entirely joking. You’re wasted in your monastery,” he told his friend bluntly. “When this is over? Come to Egypt. Seek service where you’ll be appreciated. And free to serve God and man as you wish, not as the Holy Ecumenical Council says that you ought. Better yet, you’d be free to read Copernicus and Brahe.” Badr lowered his voice conspiratorially on the latter two names. My superiors would consider a defecting Intercessor a major information source—a coup, in fact. But they’ll never hear a word from me of what’s passed between us tonight. Let him come to Cairo to taste freedom, not some new form of servitude.
Hugh opened his mouth to reply—which was when Ashtad roared in Badr’s mind: They come! Other spirits enter this place, with a reek of blood and vengeance upon them!
Badr lurched to his feet. “They’re here,” he reported tersely. “Ashtad! We need our heads cleared! D’Orsey, arm yourself!”
Outside the baths, Nevena loitered, Zacharius by her side. She’d tried to convey to Stephane the impossibility of what he wanted her to do; had told him, “Nuns don’t go about after nightfall! No woman does, not alone! It’s not safe. They’d be mistaken for—for whores!”
The glitter in his eyes had been alien as he’d turned towards her. “Keep Zacharius with you,” he’d ordered. “If anyone asks, you were sent to his parents’ home to tend his sick mother, and it took longer than expected. His family had him escort you back to your convent.”
Then he’d hastened away with Biagio. Nevena tasted the words again in her mouth, worrying. This won’t help if people see us circle the plaza three times. “Just keep moving,” she told Zacharius tightly, keeping a hand on his bony shoulder as they meandered the square. No one here should know me—expensive houses, fine clothes, so many torches at the fronts of the houses—but still, all it takes is one person asking the wrong questions . . . .
Zacharius pouted. “I wanted to stay with them,” he told her sulkily. “I wanted to fight.”
“Shh,” Nevena warned. “Don’t let anyone hear you.”
“I know.” He kicked a stone beside a fountain, and a handful of men leaving a tavern flowed past them, several giving Nevena mildly confused glances. Her skin prickled; she couldn’t watch them in her peripheral vision with the wimple blocking her view. Damnation. I won’t know if they get behind me.
“I should be in there.” Zacharius jerked his chin towards the baths. “Cutting the coinpurses of fleeing customers.”
“We’re not supposed to steal,” Nevena chided half-heartedly. “We’re supposed to be above material wealth—”
“Stephane’s money can’t last forever,” Zacharius pointed out pragmatically. “And I like eating.”
“I don’t think either of us should be in there,” Nevena whispered. “I don’t want you to see what’s going to happen.”
“What, men dying?” Zacharius puffed out his thin chest. “Da took us to a hanging once. So we could see what happened to thieves. Of course, then he went and died of the pox.” He kicked another stone. “None of us apprenticed, no money. Mum took in wash and mending till she caught ill, and then it was thieving or starving for us.”
“Until Stephane came,” Nevena prompted, but the words tasted thin in her mouth, like stew stretched out with too much water.
Zacharius sighed. “Right.” Too much worldly wisdom in his eyes. “I want to help him,” he said, earnestly. “’Cause if I don’t, I don’t think this is going to last.”
If I were in there, I could . . . use my magic? Kill the Intercessor as he attacks Stephane? A heady vision of her heroics flittered across her vision, quickly squashed by pragmatism. And be hunted immediately. No, keep to the plan. Keep an eye on the Intercessor, whenever he arrives. She scanned the square, but didn’t see a tall, heavy-shouldered figure in black robes. “Are you sure he didn’t arrive while you were away?” she whispered.
“How could I know that?” Zacharius replied indignantly. “What with not being here and all!”
From across the square, screams. Muffled, but unmistakable. Nevena’s head whipped up, her wimple flying. “It’s starting,” she whispered.
Inside, Stephane and Biagio moved through the house, speaking with this bound spirit or that, as if bargaining for their services. While Stephane held the hand of a dryad, with her russet leaf-hair and slick green skin, he worked the silver shackle around her wrist with a pin unlocking it, shielding his actions with a fold of his cloak. Her amber eyes glowed and she kissed his cheek before whirling away. “The work brings satisfaction in itself,” he told Biagio as they moved on. “You unshackle the next—that one, I think.” He gestured at a male satyr with goatish legs covered in hair, who squatted by one of the pools, playing an air on pan-pipes.
Biagio’s eyebrows rose. “Who would pay for that creature’s services?” he asked.
Stephane sighed. “Sadly, I’ve no doubt that the poor creature has been sodomized many times.”
Biagio hesitated. “And if I unshackle him—”
“I have no doubt he will be grateful, as the dryad was.” Stephane’s tone was serene. “Why would he turn on you, his deliverer?”
“I’m more concerned what form his gratitude might take,” the younger man muttered. “Also, I’m supposed to look like I’m . . . interested in his services, right?”
“Don’t be childish. Who here knows you?” Stephane sounded impatient. “Very well. That one. The one with the dark hair.”
Biagio looked. His mouth went dry. The woman in question was earthly perfection, her lush breasts straining at the front of her thin chemise as she sat on a man’s lap, laughingly pouring oil over them both. “She looks occupied,” Biagio mumbled. “You’re sure she’s a spirit?”
“Silver shackle. Get moving. We don’t have all night.”
Biagio moved towards the woman on heavy feet; the closer he got, the more drugged he felt. When he reached her, she looked up and smiled. “Did you want to join us?” she murmured. “My friend here occasionally likes a bit of rough trade like yourself.”
“I’m not here for that,” Biagio managed, looking away with difficulty. Saw how the other man’s head lolled back unresponsively, and wondered, fleetingly, who’s the captive here? He might not wear a shackle, but he’s her thrall . . . “I’m not here to bargain.”
“Then what are you here for?” she whispered in a voice that had more melodies than a church choir. He could smell her now, a rich, dark odor more sensual than perfume.
“I’m here . . . to unbind you.” His tongue felt like lead in his mouth.
She stood, her body slick with the oil. Pressed herself along the length of his body, lighting off an instant reaction that Biagio couldn’t repress. “Poor boy,” she murmured. “What makes you think that I’m bound at all? Perhaps I allow the owners of this place to think that I’m their chattel . . . when I’m precisely where I want to be.”
The body is nothing, Biagio chanted silently. The body is an illusion, dross that will drop away from my soul when this world dissolves. The words sounded meaningless as the blood rose in his ears. “Then,” he whispered hoarsely, “I should help someone . . . who is bound here.”
“What a pity,” she murmured. “Start with the russalka in the corner. The naiads in the pool. Then, when chaos is greatest, find me, and we’ll give each other pleasure as men die around us, and you’ll never know anything finer.”
Biagio didn’t think he’d pulled back. She’d pushed him away, dismissing him. “Oh,” she added as he rigidly stepped away. “There’s an intercessor in one of the steam-rooms. And a Mameluke with a djinn. Watch yourself.” She bared her teeth, her eyes angry.
Biagio looked wildly around the room with its huge, steaming pool of water, fountains at the corners, and couldn’t locate Stephane. But could see the results of the other man’s handiwork as spirits, released from captivity, rebelled. Slashed their customers in the face with talons, drawing blood. Heard the first shouts of alarm. He trudged to the pool, and caught the hand of a naiad there, sleek-scaled and silvery, with a bulbous fish eyes and a lipless mouth. Unlocked her shackles like an automaton—
And then she seized the drunken man with her in the pool. Locked her fingers in his curly hair, and threw herself deep underwater, dragging him with her. Biagio stared, appalled, as the man struggled, and the naiad wrapped her arms and legs around him, biting. Tearing. Red bloomed through the pool as the man thrashed, drowning, bleeding, dying. Shouts from where the satyr, now unshackled, chased a fleeing man, his goat-hooves clattering. Seized the naked, pudgy merchant and threw him over one of the massage tables. Biagio tore his eyes away as the satyr began to do to him what the screaming merchant had doubtless often done to him.
Chaos. Chaos everywhere. Biagio recoiled from the pool. The naiad knows I helped her, but none of the rest do, he realized numbly. Stephane, we bit off more than we could chew . . . where the hell is Stephane? He stumbled through the panicking crowd, slipping on the slick tile, heading for the stairs that led out—and there, on the stairs coming down? The first of the bearded little men he’d helped to free from the cobblers. Red-eyed and furious, hands covered in blood.
Biagio bolted into a side room where several men already cowered. Slammed the door and leaned his weight against it, unashamed of his terror. “Help me,” he snapped. “If you want to live, for god’s sake, help me hold this door!”
D’Orsey blinked as the cloud that had stolen over his perceptions cleared in a rush, as if some desert wind had poured through him, scouring him clean. A rush of combat energy coursed through his body, tearing the veil of exhaustion. Did I just do what I think I did? Nevermind. Doesn’t matter right now.
Sin and guilt could wait. D’Orsey crossed the room in two strides and pulled on his cuirass, leaving aside the gambeson he usually wore under it. He yanked his robe over the armor, buckling his swordbelt and holster into place.
As Badr pulled his lighter mail over his head, and still struggling to get a boot on, D’Orsey shouldered open the door, pushing half-clad customers out of the way. A glance reminded him of the layout of the baths. Here in the central area, private steam rooms lined a short hall between two staircases. One staircase led up to the entrance lobby; one side building upstairs housed a kitchen, while the other held a small dining area dedicated to coffee, wine, and hookah pots. To his immediate right, another set of stairs descended to the main bathing area. Steam billowed up from those depths, and D’Orsey hesitated, straining for the sound of conflict. Impossible to hear anything, over the clamor of voices bouncing back from the walls and floor.
Badr’s hand landed on his shoulder, pushing him left, towards the entrance—just as a woman screamed, followed by the sound of falling crockery. As bathers recoiled around them, the two men ran for the stairs, the tile wet-slick beneath their feet.
On the landing, a trail of broken dishes sprawled across the tile, leading to where one of the small bearded men had thrown a servant girl to the floor and now leaped atop her, hauling her skirts up as she struggled.
D’Orsey stepped forward, drawing his sword, but al-Din was faster. With a hissed incantation in Arabic that terminated in a thunderous crack, something exploded through the air like a cannon ball, hitting the little man, throwing him off the girl and into a wall with spine-shattering force. The girl screamed again and hitched herself away from his crumpled body, and D’Orsey caught her hand, pulling her to her feet. “Are you all right?” he shouted, hearing more screams in the distance.
“Yes—no. . . I don’t know!” Her eyes were white-rimmed, her breathing harsh and too fast, and he could feel the tremors through the convulsive grip of her hand.
“Can you walk?” At her wavering nod, D’Orsey hauled her towards the lobby, and then gave her a solid shove towards the main doors as he caught sight of another little man sliding into the crowded dining area. “Get outside! Run!”
She picked up her skirts and did just that.
D’Orsey spared a glance over his shoulder for Badr, now fully locked into combat mode. “How many there are?”
“Djinni says ten of the cobbler gnomes, but there’s another problem,” Badr replied tersely, his face a mask of concentration as more screams erupted, this time behind them. “Either the cobbler spirits are releasing the spirits here, or someone else is. We’ve got panicking customers on all sides, some being attacked by the spirits, some, well—” he gestured at the stairs behind them, where customers and human servants surged up them as from a throat, a serpent composed of living bodies, but mostly made of fear.
Their eyes met as they pressed against the wall, letting the herd trample past. We can’t split up. That’s suicide. “Hopefully, the local Intercessors will send reinforcements. We can’t leave these people here to die.”
“No,” Badr agreed. “My djinni will even the odds a bit, but he’ll need payment after.” He exhaled. “Right first?”
“Clockwise it is. Clear and go. Move out!”
D’Orsey kicked open the door to the dining area, then ducked as a hookah jar sailed across the room, hurled by a—dear god, a female centaur? What kind of specialty acts does this place run?—and slammed into the wall over his head, shattering. She’d been aiming at a bloodied customer running from her, slack-jawed, his front teeth broken, his nose smashed to one cheek. The man skidded past D’Orsey, crashed into the doorway, narrowly avoiding Badr, and then fled. “No more!” the centaur shouted, tearing a frilly blouse from her shoulders. “No more! I’m free!”
Her hooves clattered across the marble tiled floor, and for an instant, D’Orsey felt as if he were on a battlefield in the Russian steppes, as the Mongols or the Huns came sweeping in. “I’ve got the wrong sword to receive a cavalry charge,” D’Orsey muttered. His rapier, while long-bladed, didn’t have the mass to take the centaur’s legs out from under her, like a claymore or a polearm would.
“I’ve got her,” Badr replied, pushing him out of the way, then called to the centaur, “Don’t attack us, or we’ll retaliate!”
Nothing but cold determination in his voice, but the centaur just increased her speed, aiming to trample them in her flight through the door. Surreal, to see her bare skin glistening like her bay flanks, the ripple of motion through her breasts and the muscles of her equine body, the snarl of effort as she lowered her chin for the final push—
And then he and Badr stepped apart and Badr ducked down, sweeping his curving saber at long equine legs. The blade wasn’t powerful enough to shear them. But he cut savagely at the knees, and she crumpled forwards, propelled by the momentum of her powerful hind legs. D’Orsey heard bones shatter, the first piteous scream—
—dodging her flailing hooves, he slid his rapier into her heart. God, forgive me. I do not have time to be gentle with these spirits, as I’m sure you would wish me to be.
She shuddered and went still, and D’Orsey looked up. The remaining people in the room huddled near the hearth, and Badr now waved them urgently towards the exit. “Go, go!” Badr called, and the various humans took him at his word, scrambling for the hallway.
D’Orsey had already moved to the next door, which led to a large public steam room on the upper floor. Pandemonium past it, screams and shouts and wails of agony, but he could only see flickers of movement in the thick gray mist. He raised his left hand and began to incant, but again Badr was quicker, muttering, “Allow me,” and invoking the djinni in his ring, sending a blast of wind through the large open area, scything the steam away.
D’Orsey grimaced as the veiling mists died, revealing three little cobbler gnomes holding down one of the human whores of this establishment, violating her. In the pool, a naiad with a mouth like an octopus beak and tentacles below her waist, had wrapped a male client in her many arms, and was drowning him, while riding his bucking, heaving form at the surface. She’d just leaned down to scissor out a piece of dripping flesh, but as the wind died, she and the little men all looked up. “Fire would be a good right now,” Badr said tightly. “Aim for the water elemental.”
“Fire you shall have,” D’Orsey replied, and summoned most of the inferno he’d taken into himself from the burning synagogue. Fire gouted from his hand, aimed lancing towards the naiad.
She raised her most human arms in protest, her skin flaring a dozen colors of fear, screaming as her flesh blackened into char and ash that filled the pool. As she burned, the three little men disentangled themselves from their human victim, and raced to tear at Badr and D’Orsey. A cannonshot of raw force to one of their chests propelled him halfway across the room, and then it was all bladework, raw and bloody and without finesse.
Panting. Heaving breath into laboring lungs. Sting of salt-sweat in bleeding scratches just under his eyes. No time yet for guilt—these creatures had been hard-used, but no one had made them murderers, but themselves. Clean. God, let me feel clean after this. “Next room,” D’Orsey said hoarsely.
Blurs of motion in his memory. The gray haze of the next and largest bathing area, steam rising up between the columns, twisting among the ancient statuary. Overturned tables, slicks of blood across the floor, the smell of floral perfumes, shit, and blood mixing. The screaming gale as Badr’s djinni tore the mists away. Seeing the way the naiads in the pool lifted up out of the water, waves rising with them as if to pull them back down into the red depths. The flick of droplets swinging up as they shook out their green, seaweed-like hair. Dryads standing atop screaming men, sending roots through their mouths and chests and bellies. And Badr’s russalka, creeping towards them on hands and knees, her face covered in blood, but her fishbone teeth clean of flesh, a desperate, hungry look in her eyes. . . .
“Morozna!” Badr hissed, using the creature’s Name, invoking her. “You don’t have to be here. You don’t have to do this.”
“So much blood,” she whispered, her eyes almost empty. “So much vengeance, so much need, and am I not a creature of all three, born into this world when a woman died, drowned in my river, her last thoughts vengeance, her last word my Name, calling me from the eternal to the mortal to right her wrongs, and yet never free, never free—” With each word, she hitched closer along the ground. All the naiads, dryads, and satyrs watched. Frozen.
“Badr,” D’Orsey muttered. “Careful.”
He’d never realized how much courage his friend had as Badr dropped to his knees and set his sword down on the tiles, offering his hands to the russalka. His hands, his open throat. “If you’re free, you’re free to be something else. You have been given a gift that I will never know. I was born a slave, Morozna. I will die one. Use your freedom for something better than these others have.” A pause. “I only wish that mine had been the hands that freed you. Go. Return to the eternal. Or stay here, and find something finer than vengeance and blood.”
Closer. Still closer. Her clear eyes fixed on Badr. D’Orsey shifted his weight slightly, but didn’t dare more. Didn’t dare break the spell of words Badr had cast, with no more power behind them than belief. Close enough now to lick his face, to bite off his nose, and Badr had yet to blink. “I like you,” she whispered. “Perhaps, one day, I’ll free you.”
And in a whisper of air, she was gone, and Badr remained transfixed.
Which was when the other creatures rushed them with screams and howls, and D’Orsey drove them back with fire. Endured their terrified, agonized screams as Badr retrieved his sword and gave the burning creatures what mercy steel could offer. “Next room,” Badr said, his voice empty, and D’Orsey didn’t hesitate.
Biagio kept his shoulders against the door, while three other men pressed their hands against the wood and leaned on it with all their weight. The hinges had heaved several times, thuds of impact lurching into his kidneys. Scratching at the doorframe, as from terrible claws. He closed his eyes and prayed, all the fervent prayers he’d learned as a child, but heard no more answer now than he had through his father’s beatings or his mother’s fatal smallpox. Stephane was wrong, he thought emptily. These aren’t angels. They’re demons. And I’ve let them out of the hell in which they’ve been imprisoned. There is no God in this. I’m damned. Every murder they commit is on my hands . . . . Screams assailed him, and he struggled with it. Rationalized. No. It’s on Stephane. I just carried out his orders. We’re supposed to be clearing the world of lies and sin. Except these creatures don’t discriminate between sheep and goats . . . .
Opening his eyes, he saw trickles of black smoke seeping into the room through the gap between the door and the frame. “Fire!” one of the other men rasped. “We’ve got to get out of here before we burn to death!”
Don’t be silly, a familiar voice whispered as the smoke coalesced into a familiar form. The only fires here are being set by the Intercessor as he turns my fellows into living pyres in the name of his god. She tipped her head, a curtain of her hair falling across her face to veil her smile as the men gaped at her. I’m here to offer you a way out of this place, without having to risk your lives running up the hall. I can take one of you with me. She touched a finger to her full lower lip. But only one. And he has to be worthy of me.
Biagio saw the other men darting glances at each other. At her. At him. Measuring. A whisper at the back of his mind: You have a knife, dear boy. They’ll turn on you first, for the weapon. Then use it on each other, till only one’s left. Use it on them first. I rather fancy you. Be worthy of me. Give me their blood, and I’ll give you my Name and more.
His vision skewed as if he’d had too much to drink, and his right hand found the hilt of his knife, tucked against his spine. One of the other men, who’d planted his hands on the door above Biagio’s head, pulled back and let his hands drop to Biagio’s shoulders, sliding in towards his neck. But slowly, his face locked in a grimace, as if he didn’t want to do so—
—and as those hands clamped around his neck, Biagio drew his knife. Every movement dream-slow, he drove the knife into the man’s exposed belly, driving it up and under the sternum. He’d been a butcher’s son before Stephane had found him. He knew the way blades grated on bone and crunched through gristle. It felt almost like gutting a hog, but a hog that hadn’t been thumped over the head with a mallet, a hog that screamed and jerked away, almost taking the knife with it—
—and the spirit laughed and clapped her hands as the blood spurted over his face, and then the other two were on him, punching and grabbing, and it was like every street-fight Biagio had ever known, like the heavy hands of his father after a long day at the shop, white pain as a fists connected with his cheek and nose, but there was a knife in his hand, and he could hear her cheering him, and her voice filled the empty place inside where God was supposed to dwell, but never had, and never would—
—wrestling on the floor with the last man, rolling over the warm-slack bodies of the other two, struggling for control of the knife, the fixed snarl on the other’s face, the weight of the man’s body on top of his, the growl of I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you, and then the knife jerked loose and Biagio plunged it into the man’s eye—
—panting under the loosening corpse, soft hands on his shoulders, helping him to his feet, soft lips clinging to his own, soft hands reaching down to stoke and touch him, the smell of her like smoke, as if he were inhaling her into him, as if she were becoming a part of him, the way he wanted to be a part of her . . . pushing him down into a warm, sticky puddle . . . pulling up her skirt . . . the exquisite relief as he slipped inside of her, but she was inside of him, too, knowing him, possessing him . . . the guilty pleasure of it as his mind slipped away, and he let her take him, because Stephane was wrong—
—Dear boy, there’s nothing better than the material world. Take it from one who never had a body before coming here. Is this not perfection? Your enemies dead before you, my flesh around yours, and yes, the taste of your essence, your life, your self. Your soul, if you must. Live for me. Kill for me. Die for me. Be mine, and I will be yours. My Name is Lidérc.—
And then nothing but bliss, easing the nascent guilt, but he could feel her feeding on him now, feeding on his bliss and his guilt, and it didn’t matter . . . if it killed him, he deserved it, and if he lived, perhaps this might go on and on and on . . . .
D’Orsey kicked down the next door. Nothing could really shock him at this point—he’d seen too many horrors in this place, so far. Yet he struggled to resolve what he saw now into coherency—the succubus they’d encountered earlier, riding a glassy-eyed young man amid a sea of bodies. She looked over her shoulder at them, smiling. “He killed for me when I asked him to. Such a darling boy. I think I’ll keep him.”
As D’Orsey leaped forward to run his rapier through her heart, the pair faded out of sight, leaving nothing but smoke to part before his sword’s tip. “Damnation,” D’Orsey whispered. “He gave himself to her, heart and soul. Sanctified their union with sacrifice and seed . . . .” She’ll be stronger now. And probably hungrier, when she’s used him up.
“Problem for later,” Badr told him shortly. “Next room.”
By the end, they both wore grim sprays of a blue-green, black, red, all the colors of the spirits’ blood. As they slumped out of the building, the other Intercessors of Byzantium had finally arrived, and D’Orsey regarded his brothers in their black cassocks with a bitter twist of his lips. “Better late than never?” Badr offered, cleaning his sword.
“The spirits of this place would never have turned like this, without extensive abuse. Abuse that should have been halted, not tolerated,” D’Orsey grated. “How the Seneschal doesn’t know . . . how can he not?” He stood by a pillar in the portico, reeling with exhaustion. “I can’t confront him without proof, and without Bishop Malatesta on hand to give me some kind of authority. . . .” His vision skewed. “And I haven’t slept in what feels like a year.”
“They’ll tell you to report back to the chapterhouse to rest.” Badr’s tone was neutral.
“Where they can keep an eye on me and explain all of this away neatly in the morning.” D’Orsey scrubbed at the stubble along his jaw.
A hand on his shoulder. “Go make your report. But when you leave them, it won’t be for the chapterhouse, yes? An inn. A bed, a cask of water to wash the filth away—”
“Another bath, after all.” A moment of desultory humor.
“A new record for you, perhaps. And then sleep, as I said perhaps half of forever ago.” Badr clapped his shoulder. “The sooner you make your report, the sooner we can leave.”
There were questions, of course, as to why he’d been here in the first place. He left most of those with pointed responses like: As I informed the Seneschal this afternoon, we were investigating both the fire at the yeshiva and the attack at the cobblers’ warehouse. Evidence pointed here. So here we came. Other questions—did you see who unshackled the spirits? To which he could only reply emptily, No. The gnomes of the cobbler shop were responsible for some of this, but not nearly all.
Still, as he scanned the crowd behind his brothers in their cassocks, their accusing eyes and agitated voices, he noted someone who seemed out of place. A young nun, standing at the edge of the crowd, her wimple askew and her eyes wide, with a young boy beside her. Not only was she out of place—it’s close to midnight, and every convent barred its doors hours ago—but there was something familiar about the way she held herself, shoulders hunched. A tickle at his recent memory, similar ruddy torchlight—was she at the fire this morning? I saw no nuns there. But a habit is easy enough to come by, or put off.
“Return to the chapterhouse at once,” he heard a fellow intercessor admonish him.
“Most certainly not,” Badr informed the armed monk calmly. “He and I require rest and food, and to consult with your Patriarch and the rest of the Council at dawn. We’ll take rooms nearby and make a fresh start in the morning.”
D’Orsey saw his brother-in-arms bristle at being addressed so by a Muslim—a Mameluke, at that—and told his fellow monk, “Peace. If there’s trouble, I’ll answer for it. But in truth, I’m asleep on my feet.” And the men we’re meant to guard are no more than two days behind us. Damnation. This reeks of Cathar influence, and I can’t prove it.
As they moved through the crowd, people parted around their blood-soaked frames like waves before the prow of a ship. He had no other thought on his mind but rest, but that was when the nun and her young boy charge approached them, angling on out of the crowd like dolphins scudding alongside a merchant ship. “Excuse me?” the young nun said, her voice high and nervous. “M’lord Intercessor?”
D’Orsey halted, turning to face her. Dark eyes, heavy, dark brows, prominent cheekbones, long nose. Like a Byzantine saint in one of their painted icons. “M’lord?” he repeated tiredly. “Should that not be brother to you, Sister, ah . . . ?”
“I . . . don’t have a name in Christ yet,” she stuttered. “I’m just a novice. I, well—”
“Well, then, what’s the name that you were born to?” Badr asked, his tone impatient.
“Nevena,” she replied, ducking her head. “I—might have information about what happened here.”
The boy looked up at her almost as sharply as the two men did. D’Orsey didn’t miss the incredulity on the boy’s face. “Oh?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
She nodded, licking her lips. “Please, let me help you,” she blurted, “in your, ah, investigations.”
D’Orsey kept his face blank, which wasn’t difficult, considering his exhaustion. Beside him, Badr switched languages, “Does she jest?” he asked in Arabic.
“A novice nun, out of her convent after midnight, who comes offering information.” No inflection in D’Orsey’s reply.
“I cannot wait to hear what creative pieces of fiction she offers,” Badr told him lightly, then switched languages. “As I understand it is done among Christians, I think we should offer this young woman and her charge our protection. A room beside ours at whatever inn we can find. An understanding ear to hear their words. Food, to cement the bond of hospitality.” He yawned. “Though I think that food will . . . wait for morning.”
“You want them in the same inn with us?” D’Orsey asked sharply.
“The better to keep an eye on them. But not in the same room.” Badr tapped his nose. “I might be overwhelmed by all the aromas in the baths, but I’d swear she smells of magic.”
“Of course,” D’Orsey switched back to Greek, laying dry emphasis on those words, which he covered by adding, “the modesty of a nun is of paramount concern. Come with us, ah, sister. And you may tell us why you’re out so late, unescorted by any of the senior sisters of your order. Which order it is that you belong to,” given that you’re dressed like a Carmelite, and I am aware of no Carmelites in Byzantium . . . and yes, you’re wearing shoes, so you’re not one of them. “—and what information you have about the . . . sad events at the baths.” A yawn. “Come, walk with us.”
He and Badr usually walked side by side; adding the duo to their group necessitated changes. The streets were too narrow to walk four abreast, so he gestured for the boy to move ahead, and with a glance, Badr moved up to join the lad. Which left D’Orsey to take the rear, with the postulant nun at his left—and she reached for and took his arm gingerly. And then, as if thrusting her hand into fire, she crowded closer to him.
The mix of gestures seemed almost as surreal as the rest of the evening. I cannot imagine any nun I have ever met taking a man’s arm in such fashion—unasked!—or coming so close to my side, as if to press into me. She’s no nun. But she’s also clearly terrified of me. Even repulsed. So why draw so close, as if for sanctuary? Why does she look up at me, with her eyes so wide and wondering, her lips parted . . . . . Just an hour before, the succubus had given him a similar lips-parted stare, but it had lacked this girl’s acute vulnerability. “You needn’t worry,” he told her gently. “Neither al-Din or myself are in the business of harming women and children. We’ll protect you from whatever you’re running from.”
“I’m not running from anything!” A swift denial. As he expected.
They’d arrived at one of the few inns that hadn’t yet barred its doors, a rougher place that catered to carters and their ilk. The men in the taproom stared as they entered, but given the bloody condition of Badr and D’Orsey, opted not to say a word as they made arrangements for rooms for the night. “In such places,” D’Orsey told the nun and her charge, “it’s common for lodgers to sleep two to a bed. Or even on benches in the taproom. I trust that you, young sir, will treat Sister Nevena with respect tonight?” That, with a look at the sharp-faced boy.
“She’s like one of my sisters,” the boy replied indignantly. “And she’s old!”
That got him a glare from the supposed novice, who couldn’t have been more than seventeen, herself.
D’Orsey ensured that they were locked in safely, though Nevena regarded him with concern from the doorway. “You . . . don’t want to hear what I have to say?”
“It can wait till morning.” Which will give you time to reconsider whatever lies you might be about to tell. Let’s see if an evening of gentle treatment helps.
In the room next door, which he’d share with Badr, the Mameluke stood at the dresser, washing the worst of the blood away with a cloth and a pitcher of warm water. Bruises and cuts festooned his face. D’Orsey closed the door and stared at the single bed. “It is common for travelers to share a bed,” Badr told him, too quietly for anyone outside the room to hear. “That doesn’t mean that anything has to happen in it besides sleep.”
D’Orsey closed his eyes. Answered in Greek, “So, that wasn’t just a dream brought on by hookah smoke?”
Badr looked over his shoulder at him. Silent. Intent. “Do you want it to have been a dream?”
D’Orsey slumped onto the edge of the bed. Kicked off boots caked in blood, with a mental promise to clean them in the morning. “No.” He exhaled, adding quietly, “I should find a confessor and lay bare my soul, except I’ve already done that once tonight.” He paused, and then continued slowly as he pulled off his cassock, “and found more solace there than I ever have behind a confessor’s curtain.” Reeling, drunk thoughts, with the honesty of exhaustion.
Badr brought him a clean cloth, and D’Orsey did his best to clean away the blood, wincing when he hit the worst of the claw marks on his face. Bathed his hands and forearms clean of the night’s work. And then they lay back, too exhausted to do more than rest their heads on the same pillow. “You said your djinni could put a night’s sleep into no more than two hours?” D’Orsey asked muzzily.
“Yes. Do you trust me to use this magic on you?”
A silent nod. “We’re need to rise early. And be at our best.”
Badr rolled to his side, spreading a hand companionably along D’Orsey’s ribs. “Then sleep, Hugh. I’ve warded the doors and windows. Should our young nun have designs upon your virtue, we’ll be awakened in time for you to shun her advances.”
D’Orsey’s eyes opened halfway. “You do not comfort me, Badr. You do not comfort me at all.”
Stephane waited at the safe-house. But over the course of the night, Biagio never returned. Damnation. Either he was caught by the Intercessors, or he antagonized one of the spirits, and was injured or slain. “Are we going back to look for Biagio?” one of his dwindling reserve of men asked him, a lad named Sittas.
Stephane shook his head. “No. We don’t dare to be seen there, where people may remember our faces, and where there is now a host of Intercessors, drawn away from the Hagia Sophia and the Palace, asking questions. No, our next move is to summon the daeva while the Intercessors are distracted. When they’re busy fighting each other, the Jews, and the Muslims, we’ll have leisure to recover Biagio.” If he’s still alive. “Last night was more successful than I dared hope. We must accelerate our schedule—for which I will need to retrieve Nevena. I’d thought that she’d be occupied for a week, distracting a single Intercessor.” He sighed. “I couldn’t have foreseen that most of their order would be pinned down by one evening’s work at the baths.” The captives we released from the cobblers were surely sent by God to speed our plan.
“So we need to extract her?” Sittas asked, concerned. “We need to find her first.”
“Ask around in the morning. A nun in the company of a Mameluke and an Intercessor will stand out.” Stephane exhaled, trying to calm his mind. Everything he’d done so far had been necessary, he knew. Killing the book-seller to ensure that no one would discover the purchase? Necessary. Ensuring that no one would use the man’s scrolls to enslave spirits again? A bonus. The deaths at the bathhouse? Even if it had cost Biagio’s life, again, necessary. God smiles on our plans. He must. They would not have been so effective, had he not. “Prepare your souls,” he told his diminished ranks. “For our cause will demand much from all of us soon.”
Tentacles, wrapping around his arms and throat, squeezing, suckers biting into his skin, pulling him down into the steaming water. Unable to see, unable to cast a spell, unable to breathe, he fought, every motion slowed by the water—and then his awareness went black. Blackness, pressing in all around him. This is death. No heaven. No hell. Just nothingness . . . .
D’Orsey’s eyes snapped open and he lurched upright, not knowing where he was, but ready to fight. Not knowing whose arms had tangled around him in his sleep. Moonlight slanted into an unfamiliar room through window slats, and he looked down—
—to find Badr sitting up now, himself. “Bad dream?”
“It wasn’t a good one,” D’Orsey acknowledged. Perfect clarity of thought, no exhaustion. And with it, a sinking sense of uncertainty and fear that he hadn’t felt since he was a novice.
Badr rested a hand on his back. “Which of the panoply of horrors that we’ve witnessed did you dream of?”
D’Orsey didn’t lean back. “The naiad. The one with the tentacles, drowning me.”
“Ah.” A pause. “You should be glad you didn’t have my angle in that fight,” Badr informed him with grimly. “I could see that she had jammed one of her tentacles so far up his ass that he must have tasted his own shit.”
D’Orsey grimaced. “And they had such a creature there for what possible services?”
“Massage, I would think.” Badr made a face. “I was on a ship once when the provisions went bad, and they dropped nets over the side. They pulled up an octopus. Its suckers had teeth. Imagine that, chewing and twisting inside of you.”
D’Orsey screwed his eyes shut. “You have a strange way of chasing away nightmares.”
A chuckle. “I have better ways than that.”
D’Orsey rested his head against his forearms. “Not unlike a choke-pear.”
He felt Badr lay back against the pillows. “I thought those were used as gags.” Distant interest. “Metal devices shoved into a captive’s mouth, and then expanded with a key, so that the victim cannot speak or close their jaws?”
D’Orsey nodded. “I’ve heard that some prisoners of the Roman Church have had them employed elsewhere. As a punishment to women for infidelity. To men for . . . well.” Sodomy.
“And yet, I know that in some of your more northern countries, young people are bundled into bed, side by side, when they’re courting. And every kind of petting is permitted to them, short of penetration.” Badr’s voice remained remote. Amused. The voice of an outside observer, examining D’Orsey’s world at a polite distance. “The dichotomies don’t bother people?”
“Oh, they do. Much ink is spilled over them.” D’Orsey’s mind churned. What the have I done? I can’t go to the Seneschal of my order here in Byzantium and accuse his men of corruption, of disregard of their vows, when I’ve disregarded my own. He lifted his head, finding his bloody cassock where he’d laid it over a chair, the white and red of its crosses accusing in the dim light. I don’t deserve to wear that symbol. Not till I’ve confessed and made my penance and been absolved. And yet . . . .
“What are you thinking?” Badr’s voice sounded softer than smoke.
“That Leviticus says not to embrace other men.” D’Orsey paused. “But it also says not to eat flesh of pigs, and we Christians eat ham regularly.”
“A point we discussed in Rome two years ago,” Badr allowed. “I think I mentioned at the time that as a monk, you already prayed five times a day, just as I do, so that there would be almost no difference for you if you converted? Except that you would need to give up ham and alcohol, which certainly can’t be considered losses.”
D’Orsey remembered the conversation vividly. Sitting in the Castel Sant’Angelo, waiting to be called on by their protectees, who were in the Bishop of Rome’s chambers, debating matters of state. “And I said that you could be no good judge of that, never having tasted wine. Also, that I would have to foreswear my savior, and in doing so, foreswear most of Europe.”
They’d talked for hours. About religion. About science. Books that Badr had read by men like Copernicus, which weren’t available to be read in Western Europe, but were permitted in other regions where the Holy Ecumenical Council held sway. Military strategy. Magic.
“True. But now that you’ve tasted your own forbidden wine, what do you think?” Badr didn’t move. Didn’t touch him. Didn’t press.
D’Orsey swallowed. His faith in God sometimes wavered; he hadn’t lied when he’d told Badr that he envied the Mameluke’s unwavering belief. But he felt no overwhelming sense of sin for what he’d done. No guilt, deep in his soul; he’d spoken truth, again, when he’d told his friend how much solace he’d found in what they’d done. “That all of my concerns are temporal. Of the world and of men, not of God.”
Now Badr sat up, wrapping an arm over his shoulders. “Men can be fought. Speak your mind.”
D’Orsey closed his eyes. “There are several courses open to me. There’s the seal of the confessional, but I’m not naïve. Even if there’s no torment involved in my penance, I know that any such confession will be a black mark against me if I hope to become a Seneschal or Preceptor.”
A nod. “True. Though I’ll point out again that my lord accepts Christians into his service.”
D’Orsey grimaced. “One night isn’t enough to throw away the whole purpose of a life—”
“Of course it’s not.” Badr rapped the words out. “I only suggest that you have options.”
An exhale. “If I confess, I could be stripped of my rank and sent to live in some Order village as a trainer. Asking for exclaustration? The same—confined to village life, unable to travel. Seen as someone who failed his oaths and his brothers.”
Badr sighed. “I would hate to be exiled from the Mamelukes,” he admitted. “Forsworn of their company. No longer a warrior, a trusted ally.”
D’Orsey nodded, reality sinking in.
“And if you choose not to confess?” Badr asked gently. “What difference does it make?”
“It makes a difference to me. I would be a hypocrite, particularly if . . . this continued.” D’Orsey gestured between them, his throat tight. “And such things are always found out. Only fools think that they can lie successfully forever. I am no liar. And no hypocrite, either.”
“So, you choose to give up pleasure and friendship. Confess, and life may, if you are fortunate, go on as it always has.” Badr’s voice held sorrow. “And if we meet again, it will be as strangers.”
A wrenching sensation inside him. D’Orsey exhaled. “That would be the most logical course,” he acknowledged. “But I don’t want to make that choice. Not tonight. Not yet.”
“Go to prayers at dawn, as I will,” Badr told him quietly. “Don’t make your decision till we’ve seen this business through. Perhaps God will tell you where and with whom you’re meant to be. With your brothers. Retired to some village. Or riding through the wider world with me.”
They leaned back, resting their heads on the pillow. Spoke quietly about the events of the day. Magic. Science. Military strategy. Anything but the evanescent future, for fear that words might shatter it before it could be born.
Nevena woke to the sound of church bells. She lurched out of bed, hastily pulling her habit over her shoulders as Zacharius opened his eyes blearily. “Breakfast?” the boy asked.
“I’m supposed to be a nun!” she hissed. “I should already be at prayer!” A second, belated realization. I should actually go tap on the Intercessor’s door. Men have hungers in the morning. This would be an opportune moment to . . . see if he’s open to seduction. She swallowed, dreading the thought. Though, with the Mameluke in the room . . . no. But the Intercessor already doubts my story—
A tap on the door made her jump. She scurried to unlock it, and stared, finding the object of her thoughts looming outside. “I’ll take you and the boy to services,” the Norman man told her calmly. His face still carried raw, scabbed-over wounds from the night before. “We can talk over breakfast. Al-Din has already left for his own prayers. Let’s go.”
And then she found herself in a church in the garb of a nun, feeling as if every icon on the walls stared at her, ready to decry her hypocrisy, her deception. By the time they returned to the inn, Nevena’s hands trembled as the intercessor gestured her and Zacharius into a private dining chamber, where the Mameluke with his golden hair and tanned face waited for them, peeling an orange with a knife.
The smell made her mouth water; she’d never had such a fruit in her life. Oranges were expensive, far out of the reach of a farmer’s daughter or a street whore. And the rest of the food? Hot, fresh bread. Porridge. Honey. Leftover lamb stew. Bacon, crisp and glistening with fat, the plate of which the Mameluke pushed towards D’Orsey with the words, “Your swineflesh, my friend. Seasoned, I’m sure, with Leviticus.”
The Intercessor picked up a slice and snapped it in half. “It’s not a fast-day,” he reminded Nevena and Zacharius as they gawked at the lavish spread. “Eat your fill. And then give me what information you have about the attack last night.”
Nevena stared at the bacon, the smell tantalizing her as much as the aroma of the lamb stew as the Mameluke ladled it into a bowl, which the man offered her with his own hands. “I . . . can’t,” she managed. “A piece of bread and some porridge, perhaps? And the same for the boy?”
“The boy” gave her an outraged look, but then Zacharius subsided, doubtless remembering that they were forbidden meat. “Have an orange,” the Norman man said, his blue eyes piercing as he set a golden sphere before each of them. “Not to eat would be wasteful, and would insult me, as your host.”
But she couldn’t eat until he’d lowered his head to say grace over the meal in Latin. Odd to hear, after a lifetime of hearing the words in Greek. She hastily made the sign of the cross when he finished. Then she ate, hesitantly at first, and then with more will, though she couldn’t bring herself to tear the orange open with her fingers. Just revolved it in her hands. And as she did so, she became aware of the noisy, smacking way in which Zacharius ate. How she’d eaten, herself. Her eyes flicked up, noting how the Norman noble used a two-pronged fork made of silver to pick up bacon from his plate, nimbly and gracefully, while the Mameluke used a spoon to eat gracefully from the bowl of lamb stew. Gentry manners. They both come from wealth. And then she swallowed, realizing that their eyes were on her.
“So,” the Intercessor said, breaking the silence. “How does a Carmelite nun, a follower of Latin rites, make the sign of the cross with her fingers together, instead of open-palmed?”
Her fingers convulsed around the orange. Nevena’s lips fell open, and she started to reply, with the truth, “I grew up on a farm in Bulgaria, my lord—”
He held up a hand. “How does a Carmelite nun, one of the discalced, the shoeless, go about in boots? Why does a novice nun wander away from her convent, without another nun as a chaperone?”
She closed her eyes. I told Stephane that this wouldn’t work, she thought as the questions continued, calm and clear and devastating. “How does a novice nun wind up with a young boy, and why does she accept shelter in an inn, rather than requesting an escort back to her convent? Oh, and there is no Carmelite convent in Byzantium. With which other convent are you staying?”
Nevena tried to employ Stephane’s lies steadily. “I understand your suspicion, my lord,” she whispered, staring at the orange clasped in her hands. “I’m staying at an Orthodox convent. This boy came and asked for assistance with his sick mother.” She swallowed, embroidering on Stephane’s story. “An older nun came with us, but she stayed to tend to his mother and sent me back to the convent, with this boy as my guide. Then we were delayed by the activity around the . . . establishment last night.” Now out of the tricky area of her identity, Nevena blurted, “And I have information about a suspicious man I saw entering the baths! He was young,” she added, creating the man on the fly. As unlike to Stephane as I can make him. “With dark hair and eyes. Taller than I am, but shorter than, well, either of you. Clothes too worn to fit with the richness of the business he was entering through the front door, instead of the side door, like a merchant. He looked like a butcher’s apprentice.”
“Really? Was he wearing a bloody apron to advertise his trade?” the Mameluke asked lazily.
Zacharius turned to stare at her, and with a start, she realized that her description could have been of Biagio. “Of course not, my lord,” Nevena said. Think! “But he carried a big knife. That was what drew my eye, you understand. You don’t see cleavers like that on the street.” Damnation. Biagio did have a knife on him. He won’t forgive me if the Intercessor comes looking for him, but . . . better him than Stephane, yes? Her heart thudded. She had no idea what to do or say to make these men trust her. But she was in it now, and at a word from this Intercessor, she could be locked in chains till the iron made her skin bleed. Could be tortured, though women were rarely put to the question. I have to make it out of this room. Zacharius, too.
“And you, boy?” the Intercessor asked, leaning back in his chair still, his hands clasped before him in those fingerless gloves. “Did you notice this man, too?”
Zacharius shook his head, his eyes wide. “I . . . didn’t know why the sister stopped to look,” he invented quickly, and Nevena wanted to kick him for not corroborating her story. “Then there was screaming, and she helped the wounded as they came out the doors.” That part was true; Nevena had found herself pulled into the carnage as people had spotted her habit and assumed that it meant she had some experience with nursing.
She closed her eyes on the memory. The screams. The blood. The startlingly foul smell of an open bowel. “There were so many hurt,” Nevena said dully. A truth that caught at her throat. “I’ve never seen such wounds before.” Besides the night Atticus, my roufiános, died. But that was quick and clean. Those men last night are probably still dying now, this morning. Slowly. Painfully. Stephane, how can this be God’s work?
And yet, how could she doubt Stephane?
“That,” the Intercessor said clearly, “I believe. It has the ring of truth.”
Her eyes snapped open, and she wondered if it were possible to swallow her own tongue. Across the table, the Mameluke set out a goblet, and used a knife to cut open his palm. Let the blood pour into the cup, like a Communion chalice filled with wine. At her stare, the blond man chuckled. “I must feed a friend,” he said as he wrapped the wound in a napkin, and then removed a ruby ring from his finger, dropping it into the cup with a murmured phrase in a foreign language. Then he looked at the Intercessor. “For what it’s worth, I believe her, too. She sounds shaken. But she still reeks of magic, recently used. Of ice, like the russalka last night.”
Her heart hammered in her throat as the Intercessor looked at his companion. “Used on her, or used by her?”
A shrug. “Too strong to be used on her without her being wounded. A personal power, I think. Wedded to her very being. I would ask my djinni, but he is supping at the moment.” He gestured at the goblet of blood before him, and Nevena slid her stool back, ready to flee.
The Intercessor’s cold eyes stopped her. Stopped Zacharius as the boy picked up a heavy cup, probably preparing to throw it and run. “Look,” he said quietly, “I dislike lies and liars. I understand why you might choose to do so, to save yourselves. Someone is more than likely using both of you. I could take you both prisoner, clap you up beneath the chapterhouse of my order, and let men trained in such things tear the truth from your lips.” He shrugged, letting the threat hang there. “I’ve never had faith in such things, however. Men and women will say anything that their captors wish to hear, in order to make the pain stop. So, what does that leave us with?”
He leaned forward, and Nevena felt as if she were floating in his gaze. More power there than even Stephane had, somehow. More raw will. “All that I can charge you with currently is wasting my time. I saw a man matching your description last night. A man who’d killed three other men at the behest of a succubus, and who was spirited away by her before I could kill her. I have no doubt that even now, she’s feeding on him in some cellar in this city.”
Nevena floated in a haze of horror. She didn’t like Biagio, and yet . . . oh, God, what a terrible fate. “And before a week is out, he will be dead, and she will be searching for fresh victims. He hardly seemed the mastermind behind such an attack. Unless he was a foolish man who seriously miscalculated how much danger there was in unleashing so many spirits at once.”
Zacharius made a choked sound beside her, and Nevena couldn’t move.
He gestured. “So. I suspect that you have some other reason for being here. To delay me in my duties, or to spy upon me. Which it is, I don’t much care. If I had leisure for such matters, I’d have allowed you to accompany me as far as the Palace today, just to draw out the game, see what else you let slip. But I lack the time and the inclination for games. There are Cathars in this city, releasing spirits and murdering men. I don’t deny for an instant that some of those spirits have been grossly mistreated. It is something I plan to address.” He grimaced.
“What do you intend to do with us?” She could barely bring the words to her lips.
“If you’re smart, you’ll tell me now who’s employing you,” he replied softly. “If not, if I find out later that you’ve been involved in heresy, I will hunt you down. The fact that you smell of illegal magic? An ordinary woman could just be sent to an Order village, educated in its use. Might have a long and fruitful life ahead of her.”
“A fate that some, for unaccountable reasons, might find lacking in charm,” the Mameluke put in, sounding sardonic.
Again, an exchange of unreadable glances. “Be that as it may,” the Intercessor went on, “a heretic who has used magic cannot be abided. Your fate would be a pyre. Wearing the garb of a nun to do vile deeds? Unpardonable.”
“I’ve done nothing vile, my lord!” The words sprang from her lips as a wail. Hating herself and her weakness, Nevena lowered her head, fighting back tears. Stephane never should have sent me, she thought angrily. Doubt. Doubts planted by the little bearded men: Your man Stephane? He’s going to have a purpose for someone like you. Doubts planted by Stephane, in asking-not-asking her to seduce a monk, against her vow of chastity as one of his followers, and even to murder the man. Doubts planted as she tended the wounds of the bleeding, dying men in the plaza.
“Then what were you sent here to do?” The Mameluke’s voice held no gentleness, but also no anger. “For sent you were. You cringe from the least glance from either of us. You aren’t here of your own volition. I’m told that Christian women are free. Be free, then.”
She stared at Zacharius, wild-eyed. The boy looked back up at her, and then said, his voice older than his years, “I told you it wouldn’t last. Nothing but a place to eat, for me. He had my loyalty for that, but my loyalty doesn’t give him my life.” The boy looked away.
Nevena’s shoulders sagged. “There is a man,” she began haltingly, the words feeling like caltrops lodged in her throat, “named Stephane de Polinus.”
“Norman name,” the Intercessor murmured. “What of him?”
“After my roufiános almost beat me to death,” she began, staring at the table, “and when I’d . . .” I can’t confess to magic use! Except they already know . . . . “. . . killed the man who beat me. With magic I didn’t know I had.” She swallowed. “Stephane took me in. Told me I didn’t . . . I didn’t need to sell myself anymore. That there were things I could do. Righteous things. That I could be clean and good once more.” Lies. All lies. I can never be clean again. Her voice dulled further. “Told me that if I ate no meat, gave no man my flesh, and observed certain rituals, I’d be perfected and free when I died. No rapture was coming, he said, no resurrection in the body. That God wanted us all to be beings of pure spirit. And that we should free all the enslaved spirits.”
“Catharism,” the monk said, distaste in his voice.
The Mameluke gave the Intercessor an amused look. “From my perspective, it sounds like everything else Christians usually say. Abstinence from worldly pleasures to ensure salvation, when pleasures of the body and mind were given to us as reward and solace.”
Another exchange of locked glances, and then the Mameluke continued, his voice calm, “It is also very true that spirits should not be enslaved. But a fair bargain, a just one?” He overturned his cup, and to her surprise, no blood poured from it, just a clean and shining ring, which he put back on his finger. “No one can object to that.”
Her eyes widened, darting between the two of them.
“So, he’s recruited the poor and the indigent. Not a surprise,” the Intercessor murmured. “Was he behind the release of the cobblers’ spirits? With a fire set at the yeshiva to cover the burglary?”
She nodded, ashamed, and explained her role as a lookout and seamstress. “What happened then?”
“We went to a bookseller in the market, to obtain a . . .” she struggled for the foreign word, “daeva.”
His head snapped back. “A bookseller? An old Persian man, was it?”
He knows everything, she thought, disheartened, and nodded.
“Were you there when Stephane murdered him and set the shop on fire?” Rage in his voice now, leaning forward so suddenly that she jerked back, stunned as much by his fury as by his words.
“Murdered?” Zacharius whispered, his voice small.
“He smelled like smoke,” Nevena said, her stomach roiling. “Oh, god, I am so stupid. He smelled like smoke when he came back to the safehouse. And when he bade me take this robe from his chest, there was a sack of gems like the one he paid the bookseller with.” She put her head down on the table, wanting to weep, but no tears would come. “I thought he was so rich, that he must have many such purses.” Oh, I am a fool, a hundred times over. I’ve put my trust in someone who is no better than a murderer and a thief. I’ve put my soul in his hands, and counted myself blessed.
Rapid words in a foreign language, fired across the table in low male voices. Then a hand on her shoulder, and she flinched. “The safehouse?” the Mameluke asked, crouching beside her, his voice almost comforting now. “If we can reach it in time, we may be able to prevent what’s coming. Quickly! Where is it?”
Numbly, Nevena named the street, describing the house as clearly as she could, from the bronze cockerels on the ends of the bannisters that swept along the stairs to the street, to the scarred front door, broken down by a previous tenant and not properly repaired. “Good enough,” the Intercessor declared, standing. “We’ll head there at once.”
“What about us?” Zacharius ventured.
A cold blue stare, like a winter’s day. “I don’t have time to take you to the chapterhouse. I can’t take you with me—you might warn them, out of residual loyalty.” A pause “I’ll have the innkeeper lock you in his cellar. And we’ll be back to collect you when this is over.”
Nevena had expected worse. Still did, really. I am an accomplice to murder. I will be lucky if all they do is hang me. I’m a woman . . . it probably won’t be a public gibbet. She hung her head and let the Intercessor take her by the arm and lead her down the stairs. Heard him explain to the innkeeper that he’d discovered that she was no nun at all, and that he needed the use of the man’s cellars with which to incarcerate her and the boy for a while. Endured the innkeeper’s smirk, quickly wiped away when the Intercessor turned to leave.
Then the cellar door closed, leaving them in darkness, with the odor of pickles in barrels, spilled beer, and dried fish. And, after several moments, the scrabbling pitter-patter of rat paws. Nevena groped in the darkness, and found Zacharius’ hand. “It’s all right,” she wavered, tears running down her cheeks. “They probably won’t execute you. You’re a child. They’ll probably just take you into a monastic order.” A swallow. “You’ll always have something to eat.”
“Screw that. I’m getting out of here. Can you magic me some light? I think there’s a boarded-up window high in the wall.” Zacharius pulled away from her hand. “We can leave the city before nightfall. We’ll disappear. People do that every day.”
But we deserve to be punished. Or I do, anyway. The Intercessor seems merciful, but I doubt his superiors will be. Images floated before her eyes. Atticus, her pimp, beating her. I thought I had it coming then, too. Wasn’t I a whore? But this . . . this is murder. Not by my hand, but I helped those who did it.
Still, she did pull together a few wisps of light so that they could see and chase the rats away. And as Zacharius climbed shelves to reach the high window, pulling futilely at the boards there, she heard loud thumps upstairs. Puffs of dust, falling from the ceiling. What’s happening?
And then the jingle of keys at the cellar door, and she turned, expecting the innkeeper to have worked up a thirst for something other than ale. Probably here for a tumble with the Intercessor’s whore, she thought numbly.
Then the door opened, revealing Stephane. Blue eyes, like and unlike the Intercessor’s, kindly where the Intercessor’s were cold. “Come!” he hissed. Zacharius leaped down, but stared at Stephane warily. “Hurry! We have to get you out of here!”
“We’re leaving the city.” She didn’t know where the words came from, or why they sounded so steady, when her knees felt like jelly. “I want nothing more to do with this.”
“I realize that your nerves have been shaken, but we must go!” Stephane moved into the room and caught their arms.
He hustled them out to the square, where he had a small cart, drawn by a donkey, tied up and waiting. He pushed them into the cart, filled as it was with sacks of grain, and drove off. A street or two later, he told them, “Cover up with the canvas back there. No one must see you from this point on.”
“We’re leaving the city?” A pulse of faint hope. He knows that all is lost. He’s taking us away, and once we’re outside the city, I can run from him. Take Zacharius with me. Go . . . somewhere. Be a seamstress instead of a whore, say he’s my brother, something.
“Yes, yes. One stop to make first, though.” Stephane’s voice quivered. “I have no idea how the Intercessors found the safehouse this quickly. Biagio must have been captured and given us up.”
Nevena, now under the canvas, shook with relief. He doesn’t know that I betrayed him. But Zacharius does. Please, god, let the boy hold his tongue. “But you’re free?”
“Because I left the house this morning, looking for you. Fortunately, I was carrying with me all that truly mattered. I returned in time to see the others being clapped in manacles by a Norman and a Mameluke.” A pause. “Don’t worry. It’ll be over soon.”
“We missed him,” D’Orsey swore under his breath as he and Badr finished chaining the wrists of the three men who’d been left inside Nevena’s safehouse. A chest, as she’d described it, filled with clothes and a coinpurse filled with gems. Cabochon rubies and sapphires, baroque pearls. A king’s ransom, D’Orsey thought. He hadn’t seen that much wealth in one place since peering into his father’s treasure room as a child. “Evidence,” he told Badr, slipping the bag into his own flat coinpurse, fattening it considerably. “I’ll hold it for the moment. The girl’s information has been good so far. But no de Polinus.”
“And no scroll,” Badr added, sounding frustrated as they emptied the chest. “Depending on which daeva they summon, we could arrive in time to see everyone gathered for the Conclave screwing each other, the pages, and any random horses they might find—”
D’Orsey choked, then reconsidered his reaction. “You’re not joking, are you?”
“Not at all,” Badr replied tensely, shaking a printed copy of the Bible, in case scraps of paper might be hidden within. “They could all start eating and be unable to stop, till their stomachs explode. They could very well start eating one another.” He shuddered. “The worst excesses of the daeva have been hidden since Islam spread through Persia. Our current rulers do not wish to employ such methods, finding them . . . unsavory. And considering the price to be paid for a daeva’s services, not even many of the old Persian rulers employed them.”
“Blood sacrifice?” D’Orsey asked.
“Yes. Often of a virgin. If not a virgin, a powerful person, someone with meaning to the king or the magus performing the rite. Sometimes a king’s son would be demanded.”
D’Orsey covered his eyes with one hand momentarily. “So de Polinus would be looking for a good sacrifice. There should be quite a few virgins at the Palace. If any of my brother knights have been true to their vows,” and I shouldn’t doubt that, just because I’ve broken mine, “they would qualify, having power and chastity.”
“But they’d be difficult to overpower,” Badr reasoned, dropping to a squat beside the empty chest. “And they’d have no personal meaning to de Polinus—”
A pause as they looked at each other. “The girl,” D’Orsey muttered, standing.
“Not a virgin,” Badr cautioned.
“But she has power. Untrained, barely tapped. And if he needs a virgin, what of the boy, Zacharius? No more than ten.” D’Orsey’s mouth had gone dry. “And they’ve eaten of his bread, slept under his roof, and wear clothes given to them by his hand. They are as bound to him as any spirit, Badr. And we left them almost unguarded.” Shit.
They commandeered horses from a couple of passing guards to reach the inn more quickly. Inside, they found dazed men who’d been attacked and knocked out. An empty cellar. And no witnesses to the fate of their prisoners. “To the Palace,” D’Orsey decided. “We have enough evidence to lock down the city, preventing any newcomers to the Conclave from being affected when the attack begins—”
“We have the word of a former whore, who’s no longer in our possession to testify,” Badr reminded him tightly. “Be convincing, my friend. Be very, very convincing.”
The cart slowed, and Nevena could hear muffled conversation going on, but didn’t dare peek out. Finally, it came to rest in a shady place, and the canvas pulled back from her face, revealing Stephane, and what looked to be a stable around them. “Where are we?” she whispered. “We need to leave the city!”
“As I said, my dear, one stop first.” Stephane’s eyes were sad, though his gestures spoke of suppressed excitement. “Come along, Zacharius.”
The boy hung back until Stephane pulled him bodily out of the cart. Then they followed him, Nevena trying to get her bearings through the doors of the stable as they headed to the rear of the building. Smell of hay and manure, hints of the sea. Must be near the walls. Big buildings. Marble columns, no graffiti . . . oh god. He took us to the Palace. “You’re going to finish the plan, aren’t you?” Her voice sounded thin.
They’d just reached a bunkroom, probably used by grooms who stayed with the animals overnight, judging from the beds against the wall and the small, unlit hearth. Stephane latched the door behind them. Smiled. “You’re absolutely correct.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, rubbing her arms to keep off the sudden chill.
“You can’t,” Zacharius said, surprising her. “So many people died have already.” The boy’s voice wavered. “It’s . . . it’s not right.”
“It’s sometimes necessary to do what’s distasteful to make a better world.” Stephane’s voice sounded as soothing, calm, and reasonable as it always had. “We’re soldiers in a war, you and I, Zacharius, a war for the salvation of the world. We’ve lost brothers. Would you have their sacrifice be for nothing?”
Nevena waited to fall under its spell, but somehow . . . didn’t. He was no longer a saint but a man, and a fallible one. Zacharius bit his lip and looked appealingly at her as Stephane bent to chalk a line on the floor, and then poured salt over it carefully, surrounding an empty place. “What’s summoning it going to require?” she whispered, her mouth dry. “Freeing some of them just meant . . . giving them clothes.” Please, let the price be small. Such creatures as the little bearded men did so much damage, and required so little payment, just token gestures, really, to bind them or free them. How much damage could a creature do, that required . . . more powerful gestures?
“Summoning requires more energy than unbinding,” Stephane told her sadly, tossing the sack away and walking over to stand before them, his hands concealed by the folds of his robe. She eyed the door as Zacharius fidgeted anxiously. Stephane tousled the boy’s hair gently, looking down at him as if he were a son. “Zacharius, you’ve been a good boy. Faithful. Loyal.”
The boy nodded in an anything-you-say way that Nevena recognized. “I love you,” Stephane told him gently. “As I have loved all those among our cause. And I know that one day we’ll all be reunited once we’ve shed this crude flesh, and become the luminous beings we truly are.”
“You sound like you’re saying goodbye,” Zacharius said, looking up at Stephane.
“I am,” Stephane told him, and then he produced the scroll in one hand, letting it unroll under its own weight, reading the foreign words carefully. Crackles of energy punctuated them, a feeling of pressure and need and hunger and Nevena edged away. Turned to reach the door’s latch—
—and a strangled cry from Zacharius made her spin, and her eyes widening in horror as Stephane laid the boy in the center of the salt circle, blood pouring from a wound in his throat like a gaping mouth, still reading the words from the scroll, or perhaps the words were reading him—
“No!” Nevena shrieked. “You killed him! He was only a boy!” Murderer! she thought, her vision clouding as she reached for the power inside of her. I can’t let you do this. I should have done this earlier—Zacharius, I’m sorry!
Stephane looked up at the last moment as she stepped forward, blades of ice forming out of the air. In the instant she met his eyes, she almost faltered at the peace there. Almost couldn’t do it. But then he pulled back the bloodied blade in his hand, as if readying himself to stab her, and she brought her own blades in on him, instead.
He fell across the salt line, breaking it, even as his head bounced free, rolling across the circle. Even the super cold of her blades couldn’t hold back all the blood, which sprayed across the parchment that fell from his slack hand.
Hyperventilating, heart pounding in her ears, and still sobbing, Nevena brought the blades down again and again, as if to cut him out of herself. Murderer, murderer, murderer, she thought incoherently. You made me like you, you made me a murderer, you smiled and I followed and now I’m a murderer, and I murdered you.
Wind whispered, swirling the salt of the circle. She let the ice blades dissolve into the air, and knelt to take Zacharius’ little body into her arms, weeping inconsolably. It’s my fault. I should have done something instead of just running or hiding or just hoping to get away—I should have done something. It’s his fault! Her mind stumbled from self-accusation to rage at Stephane. At the injustice of the world. He was just another man with money and power who wanted to rule the world, wasn’t he? All his fine words of freeing the poor and the slaves and the spirits . . . he was rich and wanted more, and we were just a means to that end! Oh, how the little men were right—he did have a purpose for me. Just like every man who ever paid me my three pennies—he wanted to screw me. And this time, the cost was a boy’s life! She threw back her head and screamed her self-loathing and rage.
The wind built to a howl, echoing her scream, the salt edges of it tearing at her face like knives. She looked up, dazed, as a figure twice the height of a man appeared in the room, unfolding eight arms, each as lithe as a serpent. It shoved up at the ceiling, breaking through the plaster to give itself more room. Dust rained down as the creature crouched, catching her face in one set of hands, forcing her to meet eyes that blazed as golden as the sun. Vague impression of a face—smoothly handsome, high cheekbones, firm jaw. Not quite male, not quite female. Only incipiently present; there, but not there. Bone-armor sheathed the creature’s form, white-yellow skulls capping every hinge or joint.
“You’re. . . Aesma.” Names have power.
I am. Blood could summon me, but only anger, true rage, could compel my interest. And you have enough rage within you, little one, to burn the world. Wheedling, fiery words coiled into Nevena. Looping low, where her power burned, giving her a more pleasure than any man’s hands had ever enkindled. What would you do with power? Would you do better than this one? A set of toes kicked Stephane’s head out of the remnants of the circle. Would you like to see all those with wealth and power truly cast down?
Nevena licked her lips. A part of her mind screamed that this was a trick. That a good woman would say Get thee behind me, Satan and pray as loudly as she could. But I’m not a good woman, the rest of her raged. They’ve made me an evil one. They’ve made me into what I am. A whore. A murderess. A victim. Maybe I can’t change the first two, but I can stop being a victim. I can—
Fight them. She wasn’t sure if the words were hers or the daeva’s. What’s the point of turning the other cheek, when you’re beset on every side?
The hands on her face felt warmer. Stronger. More real. A second set of limbs reached down and scooped up blood from the floor, stroking it over her body. It felt warm and sticky, but also . . . powerful. She closed her eyes, part of her still shrieking, Don’t let yourself be used again! But the rest of her shouted back Why not? Even if I’m being used, at least it’s offering something in return! Who else has ever offered me that much? Not even the Intercessor offered me more than what feeble protection the truth might bring. A life in a village somewhere, allowed to work magic, but in only the interests of the Church, as opposed to a pyre or a noose. Why not do what Stephane pretended we’d do? Why not free everyone from the Church? I’m damned already. I might as well do something worthwhile with it.
Floating somewhere above herself, the daeva’s power flowing through her on a tide of pleasure and rage commingled, Nevena whispered, “Yes.”
Say what you desire. And my Name.
She wiped away her tears. “Aesma, give me your power. I want it. I want you. I want to destroy those who have, and give not. I want to kill them all, the ones who drive us, the little people, to slow and painful deaths, day by day, year by year. I want Zacharius’s death to mean something. I want my life to mean something. Give it to me.”
What do you offer in exchange?
“Everything I have,” Nevena whispered as the daeva’s form dissolved, pouring into her, filing her. All the empty places. “Everything I am. I give you myself.”
She hardly minded as her self shattered, tiny fragments of identity falling into the pillar of incandescent rage that was Aesma. Self-loathing whispered from the creature’s depths, I don’t deserve more than dissolution. I never fought. I barely believed. I went along because it was easy. I let people die because I was afraid. I killed, not for a cause, but out of fear. Now I’ll never fear again.
Aesma stood, enjoying the new body that curved so perfectly and tightly around his essence. He hadn’t often had a female body—males had usually been more fitting receptacles for his power. So his perception of tended toward the more masculine—he even thought of himself as a he, though all the daevas were sexless in the realm of the Eternal. He forced new limbs to grow from the spine, enjoying the exquisite shock of pain as the bones tore through flesh, and new muscles sheathed them. Then compelled the body to grow, contorting the spine and feeling clothing part and give way.
He ran several sets of hands down the curves of this form, appreciating the youth and magical connection already inherent to this body—a powerful conduit to the power of the Eternal already, reducing the strain on my own energies. Excellent. And so much anger. Even dissolved in me, I can still feel her, her rage and her despair. Perhaps, in time, I’ll distill her out of me, and we’ll savor the taste of one another in the Eternal.
Flicking interest from the remnants of the human-within. Delight and despair, fear at having to face herself again. . . . and rage at the thought of being forced to do so.
He laughed softly and sheathed his new body in bone armor, protecting every vulnerable point. Summoned eight sets of wickedly curving bone swords to his hands. But first, there are so many delicious mortals around me. Such a mass of squabbling, fearful, wretched souls, each looking to cling to whatever he has now, and willing to scrabble through another man’s entrails for just a pittance more. A confident grin stretched the daeva’s face, now the image of Nevena’s own. Or they will be. With proper encouragement.
Can I watch? A shimmering echo of a voice, like mist over water.
Sweet, I expect you to partake. With that, he kicked down the door, letting his essence uncoil from him, ten feet, a hundred feet, a thousand. Watched as the horses reared and screamed in their stalls, kicking free, trampling their terrified grooms into bloody masses on the ground. Bit and kicked and fought one another, even as he strode into the courtyard.
There, the shouts of men-at-arms, stray arrows bouncing off his armor. An indifferent flick of a swordblade in the direction from which the arrows had come, armed with a thought: You, you are an Orthodox Christian, Byzantine born, the city that was the light of Rome, even after Rome fell. And who overruns your city, but degenerate Italians, descended from the barbarians who sacked Rome? Who stands beside you on the walls, but the bastard children of barbarians and unbelieving Muslims? Who should you turn that bow on?
Laughably easy. The Holy Ecumenical Council had kept a lid on sectarian violence for five hundred years. Had arbitrated disputes and held European society together. But underneath it all? Neighbors still coveted. Still resented those who had more. Still believed that anyone who was different was a threat. The anger had been sublimated. But it was still there. Inside the heart of every man and woman ever born.
All Aesma had to do was wake it up. Give it a target. Fan the flames. He spread out his arms, and let the fury of the men on the walls as they attacked each other, roll through him like the incense of a pleasing sacrifice. He laughed and sent his essence out further, coiling through the Palace, through the old and feeble representatives of the Conclave there—you’ve been arguing over which knee to use when praying? Isn’t the real issue that they pray to idols, and you pray to saints? How are they any better than those who bowed before the golden calf? Idolators! Thieves of the paramount authority of the pope! They’ve stolen your rightful place! Kill them!—
—in a room high above, two seventy-year-old men in heavy robes, leaped out of their chairs and wrapped their arms around each others’ throats, dropping to the ground to roll back and forth, spittle flying from wrinkled mouths as they struggled with one another. Their scribes leaped out of the way, inkjars shattering on the floor, and their young guards ran into the room to pull them apart, only to turn on one another—
D’Orsey and Badr pushed their commandeered horses through the city as quickly as they could, but with the number of carts and foot pedestrians in the streets, the best they could manage was to shout “Coming through, official business!” and to urge their horses to a trot.
“We need to get to the chapterhouse and the rest of my order!” D’Orsey called back to Badr. “More trained men capable of working magic. They should be able to resist the daeva.”
“How confident are you in that statement?” Badr shouted back.
D’Orsey felt a spark of anger at those words, and fought it. Twenty years of hard-engrained habits forced the emotion down. Unlike last night, he wasn’t tired and hadn’t recently imbibed hookah smoke. Suspect every emotion. Anger is how the daeva will try to control you And anger leads to ruin. The red-black devastation of his tutor’s face, time-worn but never erased, appeared in his mind. “I don’t know!” he called back over his shoulder. “They should be as well-trained as I am!” But we’ve seen how many things the Intercessors of Byzantium have let slide. Have they held true to their training in other regards? Or have they become lax? Have I become too lax?
The neighborhood as they approached the chapterhouse held screams and fistfights at every corner. Reaching the gate, D’Orsey could feel something stirring in him. Around him. And no gate guards. “They’ve left their posts,” he seethed. “More evidence that they’re not adhering to the code. They don’t sense the danger. They’re not keeping the citizens safe—”
Badr’s hand fell on his shoulder as he dismounted. “You’re angry at them for everything we’ve seen go wrong so far,” his friend murmured.
“Yes, I am—” D’Orsey cut himself off. Inhaled. Exhaled. The irritation that surged in him felt stronger than it should have. “You’re right. I am.” He modulated his voice, concentrating on calmness. How much of that is my own guilt, reflecting onto them? How much of it is legitimate outrage? Is any of it due to the daeva’s influence? “You might want to stay outside. If they’re irrational, there’s a chance that they will see a Mameluke and attack.”
“No,” Badr replied firmly. “You need someone to watch your back.”
They didn’t make it past the first courtyard before they found a master of novices being beaten by his own apprentice knights. They could only catch glimpses of a red mass of flesh inside of a knot of a half-dozen young men, surging like a pack of dogs over a bone, bringing their fists down on any part of the man that they could reach.
D’Orsey moved forward, picking up one of the novices and throwing the young man away bodily, while Badr did the same for a second. The remaining four novices barely glanced up from the object of their ire—but when they did, their anger turned rapidly on the two interlopers. “Who asked you to get involved?”
“You don’t know what he’s done to us!”
“Get your nose out of Christian affairs, Mameluke!”
D’Orsey controlled his temper. The spurt of outrage at seeing someone set on by six others, the rage at seeing the broken body, the blood-splattered gray hair. “I don’t know what he’s done,” he agreed through his teeth. “I don’t care, either. There’s a daeva on the loose, one that feeds on and generates rage. You’re all feeding it. Those people out there, in the city?” He gestured over his shoulder. “They’re feeding it, too. Every time you raise a hand or your voice, you’re providing it a damned banquet.” He saw their indignant expressions. Controlled his urge to snap at them for their blindness and stupidity. That’s the daeva talking in me, too.
“It’s true,” Badr put in quietly. “Even now, in your anger at being reprimanded by a stranger to your local chapterhouse, you feed it. Be calm. Let your anger drain away, and its power over you should diminish.”
“And then you can do your jobs and go out among the citizens and protect them.” As you should be doing now! D’Orsey bit down a fresh surge of irritation. Kept his voice level. “You two,” he picked at random, “will take this man to the infirmary. Please make sure that he doesn’t fall down any stairs along the way. You four,” he gestured, “will go to the outer gates of the city, and order the watch commanders to seal the city. On the authority of Hugh D’Orsey, Knight-Intercessor, appointed to the Conclave as chief protector of Bishop Malatesta.”
Six sets of eyes started to look ashamed. “But what about the Seneschal?” one of them asked hesitantly. “It’s supposed to be his orders that we follow—”
“My authority as a guard to the Conclave supersedes that of the Seneschal in matters of Conclave security.” That was a politically dicey statement, and one that he was certain the Seneschal would argue with vociferously. “I’ll be discussing matters with the Seneschal shortly.” Just go.”
“You should start to feel better shortly,” Badr told the young men, his tone compassionate. “The daeva’s effects should be confined to only a small area around its physical body.”
They scuttled off, and D’Orsey inhaled. “Badr? We’re a mile from the Palace. Which is where the daeva should be.”
“I know,” Badr replied, his tone taut. “It’s clearly very powerful. And will only become more so, in short order.”
Up the stairs to the Seneschal’s office. D’Orsey had never met the man before yesterday, but the Byzantine commander was an olive-skinned, white-haired man in his late fifties, with permanent frown lines that bracketed his thin lips like parentheses excising stray thoughts. As they entered his office, the Seneschal snapped, “I told everyone to get out!” Looking up and seeing them, he stood and drew his sword from the wall on which it hung. “You,” he said, his face becoming a mask of contempt. “You come here, and lay accusations at my men’s feet . . . what do you know about Byzantium? You’re Norman. You’ve never set foot in my city before yesterday, and you come here with your high and mighty ways, thinking that you’re better than everyone else.” A glance at Badr. “Or you, Mameluke? What do you know about my city and its people? About my men?” Sweat gleamed on the Seneschal’s face, and he periodically shook his head as he spoke. As if denying something whispered in his ears.
D’Orsey spread his hands, showing that he had no weapon in them. But irate words sprang to his lips: “What do I know? What do you know about what your men have been doing? About how they’ve looked the other way, taken bribes, allowed flagrant abuses of spirits and their bargains—”
Badr’s hand fell on his shoulder, and D’Orsey choked back his words. “While these are issues in need of address,” Badr said evenly, “perhaps this is something that should wait. Until none of us have a daeva pressing on our minds.”
The swordpoint drifted between them over the desk, uncertainly. “A daeva? What are you talking about?”
Sweat rolled down the man’s face as they explained, and then he slowly lowered his sword to his desk. Put his face in his hands, and took several deep breaths. “That would explain why I heard shouts from some of the other rooms. And when I sent my secretary and others to look into the issue, they haven’t returned.” He gritted the words out. “I was so absorbed in my reports, and so angry at them all for their constant interruptions, that no one knocking at my door seemed like a gift from God.” He straightened, his back now held like a sword, his dark eyes incisive. “I’ll get my men in order,” he told them sharply. “We’ll move out and secure this neighborhood and the Palace. You two go on ahead of us. See if you can find the daeva.”
Was already planning on doing that, with or without your order, D’Orsey thought, then chastised himself as he and Badr left the office. I’ve never been so rebellious, so undisciplined. “How are you remaining so calm?” he asked Badr as they mounted up to ride for the Palace. “It’s taking everything I have to remain vaguely aware of my own mind’s inner workings.”
A glance over his shoulder let him catch Badr’s handwave. “I have few resentments,” Badr called back. “I am at peace my place in the world, and with the tasks God has set before me. There are people whom I do not like—Caliph al-Nasir had an unfortunate tendency to geld slaves whose beauty he wished to preserve, and I feared that he might inflict this on me.” A shrug. “I remain not overfond of Mongols, having fought them on the Persian border? Beyond that? I am who I am, and I do what I can and what I may, and the rest is for God to decide.”
D’Orsey tried to grasp the magnitude of his friend’s equanimity. Tried to spread that same peace within himself. But it was difficult. The closer they rode to the great dome of the Hagia Sophia, past the ruins of the Hippodrome on their right, the more violence they saw. Knots of men struggling, trying to drown one another in the fountains in the Forum of Constantine. Men rolling down the marble steps of the Baths of Zeuxippos, punching and pummeling. Guardsmen with swords were fighting colliers with shovels who stood on the backs of overturned wagons, raining down blows on the guards. Women tearing at each others’ hair—or worse, wives being beaten by their husbands.
They urged their horses through the crowds, as groups of merchants and boys began to fling cobblestones at each other. Badr started to move away from D’Orsey, kicking his mount in the direction of a man who’d just punched a woman in the mouth, but D’Orsey caught his arm before he could go far, checking his own mount as it started to rear. “We can’t help them one at a time!” he shouted to his friend, voice harried. “We have to get to the
“He’ll kill her!” That was a shout.
“If we intervene, we’ll have to kill him, and any of his friends who are around, and this will just spread further!” Why won’t you see this—oh, damnation. He doesn’t hate, but he can be outraged. “Badr, think. This is what it wants!”
Badr jerked his arm out of D’Orsey’s hand, bared his teeth in a snarl, and then nodded stiffly. “The daeva. But I’m giving that bastard something to think about along the way.”
He kicked his horse again and barreled straight at the man and woman, knocking the man to the ground. D’Orsey shrugged and rode over the man as he struggled to get up—their borrowed mounts were no war-steeds, but he felt the uneven hitch of the horse’s stride, and knew at least one hoof had planted on the man’s body.
Some of the watching crowd had seen that, and began pelting them with rocks, striking their horse’s flanks and their own armored bodies. Both horses spooked, but ran directly for the Hagia Sophia, and for the Palace behind it.
It took time to soothe the beasts enough to dismount without catching a hoof in the head. Then they tied the beasts off, and headed up the long flight of stairs leading to the Palace doors.
As they did, D’Orsey’s head began to ache, the pain increasing intolerably with each step. By the time they reached the doors, where they found the bodies of several footmen, hacked to pieces with swords or axes, he could barely think. He drew his sword in one hand, and found his rosary with its shark-tooth in the other, trying numbly to frame some prayer, but even the words of Ave, Maria wouldn’t come to mind. “Powerful,” he mumbled.
“My djinni is doing his best to shield me,” Badr muttered, leaning over as if bracing into some gale. “But I doubt he can protect both of us.” A brief flicker of a smile. “And I do not think the russalka owes me enough favors to summon her here.”
“A . . . spirit of vengeance . . . would not be my first choice. . . as a guardian at this point.” Each word took effort. D’Orsey numbly put his shoulder to the door, and led the way into the Palace.
Every street they’d crossed to get here, had been filled with the violence of the living. Here, the silence and stillness of the grave prevailed, with patriarchs in their rich robes lying in pools of pool. Theodosius II, himself, they found hanging from a noose looped from a chandelier, the candles all guttered and gone out. Bodies and blood . . . and footsteps. Mostly booted, but . . . there. “Bare feet. Very large,” D’Orsey mumbled, trying to think through the splintering shards of pain in his head.
They followed those tracks through luxurious rooms and meeting halls, all filled with corpses. Under one banquet table, a whimpering pageboy with a knife who tried to leap out and stab them—Badr moved forward, catching the boy’s wrist before the blade could connect, and D’Orsey put a hand to the boy’s head, murmuring an enchantment of sleep, making him collapse where he stood. D’Orsey’s hands shook, however, as he watched Badr strip the knife away.
The tracks led to the throne room used by generations of the Lionheart’s heirs. Pushing open these final doors again took an effort of will. D’Orsey stood before them, struggling with the pain, and with the occasional flash of unbidden, meaningless rage as it surged up inside of him. “Do you want to stay here?” Badr asked quietly. “The daeva will seek to turn us against each other. I at least have the protection of a djinni.”
A dozen answers tangled on D’Orsey’s tongue. The defensive What, so you think that I’m weak? grappled with the arrogant, I go with the protection of God. Both, he knew, were born in anger. He bit them down and replied tightly, “Together. We end this together,” and pushed open the door.
Slow applause from the back of the long audience hall. White marble, and filled with benches that looked much like pews, usually occupied by waiting dignitaries. Now, only the dead sat there, waiting—some strangled, some stabbed. D’Orsey recognized, fleetingly, both the imam who’d met with them just yesterday morning, and Ben Avram, the rabbi who’d expressed concern for the well-being of his people, if there were Cathars in Constantinople once more. Seated side-by-side on one of the benches, both of their throats had been cut.
His vision skewed as he tried to look up the audience hall towards the throne, where a massive figure now sprawled. Clad in ivory armor . . . no, bone . . . she waited for them, long dark hair curling luxuriantly and falling to her waist from under her helm. Visor up, so that they could see her face clearly, and recognize it, despite her blazing golden eyes. Well done, the daeva of anger said, rising smoothly from her throne and stepping down the steps of the dais towards them. I wondered if the two of you would be intrepid enough to come and face me yourselves.
“Nevena,” Badr said, his tone horrified. “You’ve stolen her body and destroyed her soul.”
The daeva laughed, a long, rich sound that bounced back from the walls. Perish the thought. No, her dear Stephane sacrificed the boy to me, and then she sacrificed Stephane in a glory of incandescent anger and righteous rage. So delicious. So furious—she still is, you realize, deep inside of me, the little fragments of her that remain, anyway. She was the perfect appetizer to the delicious feast of this ripe and rotting city. She tilted her head to the side, spreading her hands wide. Look at them all! All their secret hatreds, all their thirst for singular power that tradition and convention have quelled for hundreds of years. And all it took was a single afternoon of unpicking the threads that bound them. A few vows here and there. So meaningless. So easily broken. Don’t you agree . . . Intercessor?
The words hit D’Orsey’s fraying consciousness like a wave hurled by a storm upon a quay. For a moment, his thoughts submerged beneath them, and he turned slightly to look at Badr. And just for an instant, his friend looked strange, alien, and inimical, as thoughts poured through him. Guilt and shame first: The daeva knows which vows I’ve broken. Breaking them has made me an unworthy servant of God. God won’t give me the power to overcome this foe—I’m lost, as all these others in the Palace are. Then anger, seething and irrational, followed: We’re lost, and it’s his fault. He . . . I would never have, never could have, I was seduced, and while, like Eve, I’m to blame for being seduced, it’s the serpent who deserves the greater share of blame. . . . we’re going to die here, and I’ll die damned, and he did it all with a smile—
Badr caught the glazed look in his friend’s eyes as D’Orsey turned towards him. And while he still held his sword in his hand, warily watching the eight swords of the daeva, he lowered the tip. “I won’t fight you, Hugh,” he told the other man, forcing a calm into his voice that he didn’t feel.
D’Orsey edged forward, moving like a marionette directed by an inexpert puppeteer. His sword rose awkwardly, as if he were fighting the motion. Hovered just at Badr’s throat. “I’d tell you to fight it,” Badr went on, “but that’s precisely what the daeva wants. For us to struggle. You know this, Hugh. Find the way out. In your own mind. You can. I know you. I trust you. I will not die at your hand today.” In spite of those confident words, Badr wasn’t quite sure of that. Hugh’s swordpoint trembled inches from his throat now.
He saw the daeva’s pretty lips curl back into a snarl, making a mockery of Nevena’s once-beautiful face. And then a wave of anger hurled itself at Badr, too, and Ashtad, his bound djinni, quailed under its force. I cannot! Too strong! the djinni shouted in his mind.
It’s all right. I will manage as best I can without your aid. Badr closed his eyes, accepting the anger. Accepting the risk that D’Orsey would strike him down, without the possibility of defending himself. Fingers of power trailed through his mind, trying to find something, anything to seize hold of, with which to manipulate him. Images pulled out of memory, of living in Andalusia, the fear of living in the power of those not his bound lords, the dread of what the Caliph might do to him, if Hamid removed his protecting hand. Fear, yes, dislike, yes, but . . . too long in the past to prompt anger. A lifetime spent as a slave, yes . . . but one of the most privileged and powerful slaves the world had ever known. Acceptance of his place in the world, peace in it. Flickers of women he’d loved, but could never marry . . . and yet, he could have at any point arranged to have one or another live with him. He’d never chosen to do so. Peace in that choice, too. “Having trouble finding something with which to assail me?” Badr asked, opening his eyes. “I have no resentments, no lust for power. Do keep trying, though.”
The daeva snarled and took a step forward. D’Orsey raised his head, trying to seine out the spirit’s insidious thoughts from his own. “No,” he said, the words tenuous in his mind, even as he spoke them. “I wasn’t seduced and it wasn’t his fault. If I die today, I don’t die damned. I die free.” He shook his head rapidly, shaking away the last of the anger directed at Badr from his mind. A fresh coil of it uncurled as he realized how close the daeva had come to making him kill Badr. And I’m not sure I could have lived with that guilt, he realized, shaken, before turning back towards the daeva. “How do we fight something that feeds off conflict and struggle?” he asked Badr tightly. And that’s armed with eight swords.
Badr shot him a look filled with relief and gratitude, and dropped to a crouch, dragging the point of his sword on the wooden parquet floor, scoring a protective circle around them both. As the daeva hissed and advanced, D’Orsey raised his sword, a feeble gesture of defiance, and deflected the first few blows, before the fifth sword clipped him, hurling him backwards to the ground with its power. It hadn’t cut through his armor, but one inhale told him he’d cracked some ribs.
Badr finished the protective circle in spite of the attack, infusing it with his power. The daeva balked at the edges, unable to lash at them with her swords anymore. Then Badr helped D’Orsey back to his feet. “There are tales of binding or banishing such things,” Badr told his friend tightly.
Banish me? Bind me? You? The daeva laughed, circling them in their circle. Studying them. D’Orsey could feel subtle nudges at his mind. Trying to find some weakness to exploit.
Badr didn’t spare her a glance. “But such requires more power than I have. We could wait until your fellow Intercessors arrive . . .”
D’Orsey shook his head. Intercessors could cast in concert, massed blasts of power, aimed with precision and training. And yet . . . . They’ll have power. But they’ll fall prey to the anger. They weren’t holding it at bay even a mile off. “Take my power,” he told Badr, very quietly. “Use it as your own.”
He’d trained to share his power with his brethren. It required complete trust between individuals. But turning his power over to another’s control entirely? A greater degree of intimacy even than that between his brother monks. Badr’s green eyes flickered, part apprehension, and part relief. “I hope it’s enough,” he murmured. “Between you, me, and the djinni—”
“Call the russalka if you need more. There should be enough blood here to sate even her,” D’Orsey said, cutting his palm on his sword, binding himself to the ritual in his own blood. As Badr cut his hand on his sword as well, they clasped hands at the center of the circle. And D’Orsey leaned forward, for once in his life not throwing himself into battle, or struggling to control his magic or his emotions, but let them flow. Gave them freely. Let them pour out of himself and into Badr, feeling somehow richer for having given them, rather than emptier. Felt their souls meet and intermingle, until he wasn’t quite sure where he began and Badr ended.
Felt Badr take and shape that power, sweetly, and infinitely gently. Heard him invoke the Name of the djinni, Ashtad, and the name of the russalka, Morozna. Felt the startled awareness of the russalka, summoned so into the heart of their circle in a shimmer of crackling ice and shadow, a cold female form pressed up against Badr’s spine . . . and he could feel her through Badr, as if she were pressed up against his own. A giddy laugh escaped him, and he thought, I wonder if this is like dying? If pouring myself into him is like pouring myself into God’s hands, even in part? If so, I don’t think it would be such a bad thing at all . . . .
And then he was spinning in the circle, spinning on the threads of power Badr invoked, spinning like the stars in the night sky, wheeling overhead. Flung out like a web, like a net, covering and encompassing the daeva. “Go, Aesma,” Badr ordered between his teeth, invoking the creature’s Name. “You are not wanted here. You have no prey here. Go, and do not return!”
I will not! I will not be defeated! The swords lashed out, forcing their way through the edge of the circle as if through sticky treacle.
D’Orsey’s free hand shot out, catching one of the blades, and he raised his eyes to the daeva’s. “Nevena,” he called out. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be this. There’s more to justice than death and more death. Hundreds, even thousands now lie dead, who never raised a hand to anyone. Women and children are dying out there in the street, victims of rage. Where’s the justice for them, if this madness continues?”
“Let go,” Badr whispered hoarsely, his mind still locked in his spell. “Let go, Nevena.”
“Let go,” D’Orsey echoed, and released the sword. Let go of himself, of his appointed role. Released any remaining parts of himself held back from the spell, and gave himself to his friend’s keeping.
The spell became a storm, unwinding the daeva’s essence. And from somewhere deep inside the creature, they could hear another voice, a distant one, weeping as Nevena released a lifetime of rage at being used—a rage powerful enough to bind a daeva to this world.
When the storm ended, and D’Orsey found his thoughts once more curling back into his own body, he realized that he and Badr were still leaning into each other in the center of the throne room, where most of the bodies had been flung from their benches, and even the benches had been reduced to kindling by the force of the storm.
Nevena’s body lay on the ground outside the circle, still covered in bonemail, but she’d resumed her original stature. Cautious, D’Orsey removed his cloak and covered her still form with it, trying to give her some measure of dignity in death, that no one had been willing to accord her in life. “We won, then?” he asked, his voice sounding hollow in the face of so much destruction.
“So it would seem,” Badr replied, looking around. He shook his head tiredly. “God preserve us from more such victories.”
D’Orsey glanced around. “The russalka?”
“Went back to the Eternal, I think.” Badr shook his head. “She’ll be back, I think. When it suits her.”
D’Orsey dropped to a weary crouch. “So now what?” He exhaled. “Half the Conclave is dead.” There will be political turmoil throughout Europe as a result of this. Stephane got his way, in part. “Some bodyguards we are.”
“Ah, but our protectees never set foot in the city,” Badr reminded him, pulling him up by the arm and steadying him as they walked. As if they’d done this a hundred times before. “They should be quite alive. And relieved to remain so.”
Stepping out of the Palace, they could hear church bells ringing alarms in the distance. The clatter of hooves in the distance as guards and Intercessors closed on their location, looking to bring belated peace. “So we . . . go to meet them. Explain events, as best we can.” D’Orsey nodded, as if words alone could shape the future.
“And then?” Badr asked, raising an eyebrow. “What then, Hugh?”
D’Orsey understood the real question behind that. He cleaned his sword on the edge of his now-ragged robe, and sheathed it. Thinking of the moment when their souls had hung poised in the maelstrom, his soul, his essence, safely held in his friend’s capable hands. What Badr’s soul had looked like, felt like, intermingling with his own. Weighed that against the need—the duty—to rebuild the Holy Ecumenical Council for the well-being of Europe. And yet, there are more Intercessors than I, in this world. Enough to rebuild without me.
“I’m told that Cairo is lovely this time of year,” he replied, simply. “And that the Sultan of Egypt has been known to accept Christians into his service.”
And Badr put a hand on his shoulder and smiled, lowering his head in silent acceptance.
Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. She’s known for her Edda-Earth novels, Pushcart and Rhysling-nominated poetry, and numerous short story publications. For more about her work, including her novels, please see www.edda-earth.com.