The city slept, stifled by the midday sun.
Throughout Ta'ashlan shops closed their shutters against the glare and merchants retired to uneasy sleep while dogs and beggars curled in the shade. Dust settled in empty streets, undisturbed by feet or wheels. Even the temples of the Unconquered Sun fell silent. This hour was fit only for rest and restless dreams. Jinn dreams, men called them.
Jinn had nothing to do with it, as Asheris al Seth knew well.
He stood in the scant shade of a crumbling mudbrick wall, one eye on the house in front of him and one on the street. A hot breeze stirred eddies of sand, rattled chimes, and fluttered laundry strung on lines, but couldn't cool the air. Heat-shimmer rose from the rooftops; the sky was a hard ceramic blue, kiln-baked. The street was strewn with crumbled lily petals and scraps of wilted crepe left from the Festival of Inundation that had ended three days ago. The flooding of the Ash and Nilufer offered surety for the next harvest, but did nothing to lessen summer's grip.
In richer neighborhoods foolhardy tourists might venture out of doors, along with the water sellers and fan peddlers who catered to them, but in the slums of Marqasith Court the residents took what respite they could from the withering heat. There was no one to watch him—his outstretched otherwise senses told him so.
Other senses, those that had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with survival, told him he'd been followed here. Was followed still.
Paranoia, Asheris told himself. His own anticipation run wild. Even if someone were watching, he wore illusion layered with wool and linen. Other mages would be hard-pressed to see his true face; kamnuran would overlook him all together.
He clenched tingling hands at his sides. The longer he stood here like a fool, the greater the chance that he would be seen. He'd searched too long to lose his quarry now.
The building was one of hundreds like it crowded in the neighborhood: red and ochre brick, walls tilting on their foundations, the roof repaired with palm thatch. Broken shutters dangled from blind windows. The tiny lawn was sere and brown, only one small lemon tree clinging to life. Unlike its neighbors, which might shelter three or more families in such a space, this house held only one heartbeat.
An unlooked-for convenience. Asheris wasn't sure he trusted it.
The door was unbolted. Skeins of wards draped the threshold, tangled and untidy. He remembered Jirair's craft as intricate and convoluted, lovely in its complexity—his throat tightened under the ghost of the collar he no longer wore. These spells were too knotted to pick apart, so he simply smothered them beneath his own. Jirair wouldn't need them again.
Inside, the little house reeked of urine and rot and opium. The front rooms were curtained and shuttered, and the drone of flies carried through dim, fetid air.
For three and a half years he'd searched for Jirair Zadani, the last of a cadre of the old emperor's mages to escape him. One last piece of vengeance. Jirair had stayed just beyond his reach, running from city to city, hiding in all manner of unlikely places, vanishing for months at a time. Asheris had grown so used to the chase that he nearly hadn't noticed when Jirair slunk back into Ta'ashlan, settling in Marqasith Court. Who would expect an imperial mage in a tenement slum, after all?
He knew better. He himself survived in good part because no one expected to find a demon in the imperial palace.
Once Jirair was dead, no one else should ever think to.
The ground floor was empty save for filth-soaked mattresses lumped in corners and food moldering in the kitchen. Asheris drew a corner of his scarf across his mouth to lessen the reek of waste and decay and pungent sweetness. He could go longer without breath than any man, but breathing was a dangerous habit to fall out of.
A black cloud of flies followed him toward the stairs. Over their buzzing he heard slow breathing from the next floor, unchanging in its rhythm. The stench changed as he climbed, trading rot for stale sweat and unwashed flesh. The opium sweetness thickened, crawling into his mouth and nose; the heat worsened.
In the upstairs room, sunlight slanted through a broken shutter, thick with lazy spirals of dust. The molten light touched the side of a thin pallet, limned the bones of the bare foot hanging off the edge. Metal and porcelain gleamed on the tiles beside the bed—a discarded pipe. Just past the sun's reach, Jirair curled against the wall. Asheris waited for a shout, an attack, an attempt to flee, but the mage lay still, with only the glitter of heavy-lidded eyes to show he was conscious at all.
He remembered Jirair handsome and laughing, shining with health and power. Now his brown skin was dry and sallow, stretched over fine bones, his eyes bruised and sunken in their orbits. His hair was hacked unevenly to his scalp—a remedy for lice, or heat, or care. A fly crawled over the ridges of his instep, and he made no move to shake it off. The spark of hate Asheris had nursed so long stuttered as he looked at the crumpled form on the bed.
"Oh, Jirair." The whisper sank in the stifling air, lost beneath the low drone of insects. "What's happened to you?"
Jirair stirred as Asheris knelt beside him, golden-brown eyes widening for a heartbeat. One hand rose—in greeting or warding Asheris wasn't sure. Rings slid around gaunt fingers, the weight of their bezels pulling them down. Diamonds flashed beneath caked filth.
Asheris's jaw tightened, anger burning bright once more. He remembered those hands well: cradling a cup of drugged wine, offered to a man with a slow smile; lighting sweet incense to beguile a jinni; graceful beringed fingers spreading to show a collar of golden wire, a filigreed prison to cage two souls. The diamonds in those rings were empty now.
"It took you longer than I thought it would," Jirair murmured, not lifting his head from the sweat-darkened pillow.
"Time doesn't mean as much to me anymore," Asheris lied. Immortal he might be, but he could count the days to vengeance as well as any man. His neck itched. Would he be free of the phantom collar when the last of its crafters was dead? He wished he could believe it.
Jirair smiled, a flash of white between cracked lips. His hand twitched toward the pipe. "Or to me, now. But I'm glad you're here. The poppy doesn't stop the dreams anymore."
"Dreams?" It wasn't his place to unburden a man's conscience before death, but curiosity pricked him. He hadn't realized this would be a mercy killing.
"Of the black place. The hungry place." Jirair's eyes squeezed shut, creases like dry riverbeds fanning over his brow. "The storm is coming. The ghost wind, the poison wind. Kill me before it comes, please—I can't bear to see that darkness again."
"What are you talking about?" Nightmares. The ravings of an opium addict. But Jirair had been a clever and canny mage once, more sensitive than many to the shifting weather of the Fata.
"The Undoing." His voice was fading, or the insects worsening. "The quiet men showed me. I thought they would protect me from you, but they're worse. Worse than anything Imran ever did."
"Protect you from me." A hard knot tightened inside his chest. "You told them about me?"
Jirair shook his head, stubble scraping the pillow. "I didn't have to. They already knew." Skeletal hands closed on Asheris's wrist. "Kill me now. The storm is nearly here."
"Who—" The buzzing drowned his voice as well. Not insects. The building sound came from outside. From all around. The room dimmed as a shadow passed over the sun.
"No!" Jirair shouted as Asheris leapt up. "Don't leave me for it! Kill me first! Please—" But Asheris was already hurtling down the stairs, through the swarm of flies and out the door.
The street lay in sepia twilight. The sun was gone, blotted out by the cloud of sand sweeping over the city with a hollow rush. Shouts rose from nearby buildings, swallowed by the storm's roar. The wind that tugged at Asheris's robes was the breath of a furnace. His lips cracked under its touch, sinuses parching; his eyes felt as though they'd boil in their sockets. A simoom, the poison wind that Jirair had named.
He heard Jirair cry out and fall silent. Then the storm was on him, and the world shrank to a fury of heat and sand. Blisters rose on exposed skin, scrubbed bloody by flying grit. Asheris closed his eyes against the scouring wind before it scraped them out.
Simooms killed humans and livestock easily, but the jinn had no fear of them. Before he was bound in flesh, Asheris had danced with such storms across the Sea of Glass. They were kin. So why was his stomach filled with cold, even as the heat bore him to his knees?
He opened otherwise eyes and nearly wept. Past the veil of the Fata, what rolled over Ta'ashlan was not a cloud of dun and copper dust, but a seething inky blackness. Not the absence of color but the antithesis of it. The obliteration of it. The music of the Fata, nearly silent in the cities of men, rose harsh and discordant all around.
The ghost wind. His heart pounded a nauseous rhythm. The black wind that haunted the Sea of Glass. He had never seen it in either of his lifetimes, but in both he'd heard stories. It devoured anything in its path, it was said, men and spirits alike. It poisoned wells and stunted trees, stripped unlucky creatures to bone, and bone to dust. It would take him apart layer by layer.
Asheris drew his cloak over his face and waited for the nothing to devour the world.
Simooms rarely lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, however, and even the ghost wind proved no exception. It felt like an eternity, but the wind eased, the roar faded, and finally the dust settled as the sun returned.
Roof tiles and shutter slats and laundry from the lines lay strewn across the street. The lemon tree had lost its fruits; they lay scorched on the summer-sere ground. The high thin wail of a child broke the stillness, followed by a man's keening cry.
Sand sluiced off Asheris's robes as he rose, glittering with tiny green-black fragments. Glass carried from the deep desert—blood welled in tiny cuts across his hands. His cloak hung in tatters. More blood trickled from his nose, coating his tongue with copper as he swallowed.
A mortal might have died of heatstroke. Being a demon had its uses.
Speaking of mortals— He remembered Jirair's cry, cut abruptly short, and turned back to the house. His abused sinuses hardly cared about the stink now.
The floor crunched beneath his sandals. Dead flies lay in drifts across the tiles, and more died in a slowing iridescent thrash of legs and wings. Only a handful remained to buzz around him.
Halfway up the stairs, he recognized the depth of silence; he couldn't hear Jirair breathing. His chest tightened with a curious loss. He'd come to kill the man, but felt now as though he'd failed him. To die alone and in fear ...
Asheris froze at the top of the steps. Jirair had died in fear, yes—the stench of panic was unmistakable over voided bowels—but not alone. The mage sprawled supine across the floor, the mattress kicked aside. One hand clutched at his throat, the other lay outstretched. His face was no longer sunken and pale, but purple and swollen. Brown eyes bulged, bloodshot, drug-shrunken pupils locked tight in death.
Dragged from his bed and garroted. Blood seeped from the wire-slice around his neck. The house was empty to Asheris's outstretched senses. No tracks, no opened windows.
He quashed the uneasy dread that grew where his anger had been, forcing himself to absorb the details instead. Habit kept him away from the body, to keep from contaminating the scene. Which was foolish, he realized a heartbeat later. No other investigator would study this room. No mortician would inspect the body. Jirair would be another addict murdered for his opium, just as Asheris would have left him.
He knelt beside the corpse. He sensed no thaumaturgical residue, but the killer couldn't have come and gone so tracelessly without magic.
Jirair's hands, claw-curled and stiffening, were bare; the murderer had taken his rings.
Sunset bells rang long that night, the temple songs loud and fervent. Gratitude, perhaps, that the day had ended with sun instead of storm, or that the singers lived to see it end. Hymns could always be heard throughout the city, but tonight the sound rose like a wall, a thousand voices blending into one.
Asheris couldn't join them, no matter how politic his presence at the empress's side would be. Every paean to the Unconquered Sun was also a ward, reinforcing the boundary between the Fata and the world of flesh, driving out spirits. And demons. He was strong enough to resist, but the words would close his throat if he tried to speak them. So while the empress stood on a westward balcony and gave thanks for another day, he paced a circuit through her private study and drank the good wine.
The room had no windows, but Asheris felt the light fade, and with it the last peals of bells and voices. A moment later Samar al Seth stepped inside, leaving a veiled and silent Indigo Guard in the corridor. She sighed as the door closed behind her and stripped off her white mourning scarf. Her undressed hair sprang up in a bronze-black cloud, breaking into locks against her shoulders.
"Well," she said, leaning against the door, "that was unexpected." The tightness of her shoulders gave lie to her careless tone.
Asheris moved to the sideboard to pour wine from the flagon resting in a basin of ice. Condensation dripped down his fingers, cold and sharp. Samar stripped to tunic and trousers, draping her formal robes over the back of a chair—plain linen, in respect for the dead, thick with embroidery instead of gold or stones. She kicked her sandals toward her desk, flexing long brown toes in the carpet. Every motion was ingrained with the grace of a woman raised from birth to be in the public eye; even her private carelessness was measured and elegant.
Asheris handed her a goblet, chilled metal a sharp contrast to the day's heat still clinging to her skin. "Unexpected, but not unprecedented."
From behind a carven sandalwood panel he heard a soft click and mouse-quiet footsteps. A heavy mouse with a limp. He filled a third cup as the panel opened silently, and Siddir Bashari stepped into the room.
Courtiers of the Lion Throne wouldn't be surprised to find Siddir attending the empress at odd hours. He was a favorite of the court: handsome, charming, kin to amirs and senators and shipping magnates, heir to and free with his family's considerable wealth. Samar doted on him as she would a favorite cat—her weakness for pretty eyes was well known. What might shock the court, however, was how often Siddir came to the empress through the palace's web of concealed passages, and how often he brought grim news instead of flattery and smiles.
Siddir bowed to Samar, sacrificing grace and flourish to keep his balance on his injured leg. The wound—a hunting accident, he called it, and that was true if he didn't specify the nature of the quarry—had been healing well, but now lines of pain were drawn fresh across his face. Asheris's own cuts and blisters had healed before he returned to the palace, but his skin remained tender and an aching weariness lingered in his bones. Anyone who'd been exposed to the black wind felt it still. Even the empress, safely ensconced in the palace, had a bruised and hollow look around her eyes.
"What news?" Samar asked, gesturing him to a seat a heartbeat after Siddir began lowering himself onto the couch. Siddir had been her friend and agent too long to stand on ceremony; the debts and secrets between her and Asheris also precluded formality.
They were two of the three mortals to whom he'd entrusted his secret. If not for Jirair's words, he might have thought them the only ones who knew at all. Better, he thought wryly, to be disabused of that notion sooner rather than later.
"One hundred and forty-two dead." Siddir drained half his cup in one swallow. White mourning ribbons fluttered from his sleeves. "That have been found so far. I've heard reports of chaos in the madhouses, and two mages and a priest had to be subdued after they started raving." His frown deepened. "The temple apiaries are devastated."
Asheris winced, remembering drifts of dead flies.
Samar sank into a chair, the weary slump of her shoulders quickly hidden. "What were you saying about precedent?" she asked Asheris. "My grandfather and nurses would tell us stories about the ghost wind when we were small, and about the saints who fought it. I thought they were only stories."
"The lives and battles of saints I can't speak for. The ghost wind, however, was most recently documented in 1157, seen west of the Ash. University mages made the record, so I'm inclined to trust it. Before that I've found records from 1007 and 806. Anything earlier is suspect, considering the archive fire of 799 and Nizam the Second's attempts at revising history. I can find no other instance of the storm striking Ta'ashlan—they usually seem to fade after crossing the Ash."
Siddir's hazel eyes narrowed. "There's a trend to those numbers I don't find at all reassuring."
"Do the archives know what causes these storms?" Samar asked.
"No. But scholars have noticed something." Asheris pulled a pouch from his pocket and upended it into his other hand. Red and tawny sand trickled into his palm, glittering with green glass. "The storm comes from the Sea of Glass. The cause must be there. I want to investigate."
Sculpted brows drew together. "Is there precedent for that?"
He poured the sand back into its pouch and scrubbed his palm on his thigh. "At least two expeditions have gone into the desert searching for the ghost wind. One found nothing—the other was never found."
"Even more reassuring," Siddir muttered.
"I think I would survive," he said dryly, though in truth he wasn't certain what the ghost wind could do. He'd survived blades and bullets, entropic magic and a volcano's eruption, but wasn't ready to believe himself unkillable. "Let me gather mages. The university loves a good fact-finding mission."
Samar leaned back, staring at her wine cup in silence for a time. "No," she said at last. "I need you here." She waved a hand when Asheris opened his mouth, moisture shining on her fingertips. "It's a mystery worth solving, yes. But even if your trend continues, it will be decades before the storm returns. I have warlords carving up the borderlands, governors banging on the gates, and my brother's partisans courting my niece's favor. Help me solve these problems—then you can search the desert for storms."
She didn't name the other reason, not even with the twitch of a hand toward her stomach, but Asheris knew.
Ever since her coronation, the senate had pressed Samar to marry again and bear an heir. Amirs and senators paraded eligible sons and brothers and cousins in front of her, but she had yet to find a suitable candidate. Her affairs had been few and far between, and always discreet.
But not always foolproof. A decad ago she had confided to him: She was pregnant, and the father was no one she had any intention of marrying. She had another month, perhaps four decads, to make a decision before her condition became obvious.
Argument would be pointless; he saw that in the set of her shoulders and mouth. Canny pragmatism had kept her alive to claim the throne, but she was kamnur— dim, mages called the ungifted—to the bone. If she had truly seen the storm, her priorities might be different. "And if the storm doesn't wait?" he asked anyway.
Gold-flecked eyes narrowed. "Then I'll pray it takes our enemies with it, and saves us the trouble."
"What can I do?" Siddir asked later, lying in the darkness of Asheris's bedroom. They nearly always met in Asheris's rooms—the servants were more respectful of mages' privacy.
"I don't know." Asheris stood by the window, letting the breeze from the garden dry the sweat that filmed his skin. He'd learned to take comfort in mortal embraces, but tonight the touch of flesh only reminded him of death. The taste of semen clung in the back of his throat, salt and decay. Even the green scent of the gardens smelled of rot.
"I could go to the desert, if you think it would help," Siddir said after a moment of silence. "It's easier for me to slip my leash."
"It's too dangerous for kamnuran. If the storm returns—" His jaw tightened at the thought of Siddir's brown skin peeling off muscle and bone.
"I'm in no condition to outrun it," Siddir finished, his voice threaded with frustration.
"You can help me find these so-called quiet men." Asheris had told Siddir about his final conversation with Jirair, but hadn't yet shared it with Samar. His place in the Court of Lions depended on secrecy—it would be better if the empress didn't come to consider him a liability.
He stared at the window, frustration knotting his fists. Siddir, however clever and resourceful, was no mage. And no matter how brilliant Ta'ashlan's theoreticians and battle mages, they were hampered by lack of exposure to the Fata. In a land where death was taboo, the study of undoing was in short supply. He needed—
Asheris turned, cutting off Siddir's reply. "No, there is something you can do. A way to slip your leash. If you're willing."
"Whatever you need, I can do."
"I need an entropomancer. I need Isyllt Iskaldur."