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Authors: P. Djeli Clark

A Dead Djinn in Cairo (4 page)

BOOK: A Dead Djinn in Cairo
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With a determined grunt, Fatma went on the attack, wielding her cane as a weapon—feigning, cutting, jabbing, thrusting. The damned thing wasn’t just for show! Her opponent parried with those claws, throwing off fresh sparks each time they met the metal cane. Despite the risk, Fatma kept the fight close, looking for an opening to deliver a well-placed jab.

She never saw the sweep that took her from her feet. She came down hard and her combatant pounced, knocking her flat and pressing her down with his weight—putting a black dagger to her neck. Fatma stopped struggling at that, staring up at dark, reflective eyes. When the man lowered his face to hers she tensed, expecting a blow. But instead there was a purr, like a cat.

“Impressive,” a sultry voice came. Decidedly not a man. A woman, then. Stupid mistake. “Didn’t expect you to last so long. Pretty little boy.” She traced a sharp talon across Fatma’s jugular. “I’ll let you tussle with me again, if you promise to wear one of these nice suits.” Her eyes narrowed. “We have something you might want.”

“You mean my watch?” Fatma asked angrily.

The woman dropped the golden timepiece on her chest. “Something else. Something you and the inspector missed.” Her voice went to a whisper. “The Rising!”

Fatma’s eyes rounded now. But before she could ask more, something was pressed into her hand. “Come to the House of the Lady of Stars,” the woman said. “And browse our wares.”

She bounded up then, and with a terrific leap, she vaulted to a wall and began to climb—clinging to its surface. Fatma scrambled to her feet, watching the woman’s impossible ascent. When she reached the top, she gave a heave and flipped onto the roof, stopping to give a teasing glance before speeding away.

Fatma strained her neck, staring.
No one could move like that otherwise. She looked at the object in her hand. A bronze coin. On one side was an engraving of a cow, while a woman was inscribed on the other. Her face bore a pleasant smile; two curving horns with a disc between them sprouted from her head. Fatma recognized it well enough. And it meant that sleep would have wait. She was off to see a fortune-teller.

*   *   *

Fatma shouldered her way through the throngs at Khan el-Khalili market. A pair of women in long Parisian dresses and veils of pure white glided by, both surrounded by a troop of guards. Late-night jaunts by the wealthy to more common areas had become fashionable of late. And Khan el-Khalili was the place to be. One of the oldest bazaars in Cairo, the coming of gas lighting now meant the place never had to close—and it rarely did.

Day merchants left in the evenings, and by the glow of gas lamps night vendors kept the market going through dawn. In shops or simple wooden stalls, goods filled shelves, sprawled along tables, or gathered in heaps in every available space—from gilded brass lamps that dangled on strings to barometric pressure gauges for dirigible engines. Even at this hour, the open-air bazaar was a cacophony of dickering and haggling, amid the aroma of peppery spices, baked breads, and sweet oils. It was enough to overwhelm the senses.

Fatma left it all, turning down a narrow passageway that diverged from the main market. The House of the Lady of Stars shared its front with an apothecary. One entrance led to a space filled with bushels of pungent herbs while the other displayed a fortune-teller’s door. It was marked with a great eye of celestial blue surrounded by gold stars and red candles.

Stepping inside, Fatma found an old woman seated at a table with a small girl—strangely still awake in the predawn hours. Both were engrossed with a rectangular board, atop which sat variously-shaped pieces along a grid of squares. Senet. The game hadn’t been played regularly in Egypt for some two thousand years. But she was not surprised to see it here.

The old woman looked up, her dark skin creasing as she smiled. “Peace be with you, daughter, and welcome to the House of the Lady of Stars. How may I—”

Fatma held up the bronze coin, cutting her off. “Merira,” she demanded.

The old woman’s smile vanished with her creases, and her gaze sharpened. “Have the young today lost all manners in speaking to one my age?” she rasped.

Fatma felt her face heat and she shook her head, abashed. “Apologies, Auntie. Peace be upon you. I’ve come to speak to the mistress of the house, Merira.”

The old woman gave an accepting nod. “Very well, daughter. You may come. Merira expects you.” She turned, beckoning for Fatma to follow. The small girl watched them go, her young eyes outlined in black kohl. They walked through a long curtain of blue and gold beads that led to a narrow hallway and then to a door. The old woman gave a series of patterned knocks before it opened.

Fatma stepped into the hidden room, illuminated by bright burning lamps. The space was richly decorated, with mahogany tables and cushioned chairs. Colorful symbols that had not been used for centuries adorned the walls, alongside murals of ancient kings and queens lost to time.

There were perhaps a dozen people in the room, all women, all dressed in diaphanous white garments. Some sat in small groups, conversing in hushed tones. Others appeared to be practicing a ritual, ringing a bell and burning bitter-smelling incense while they chanted. The most arresting sight was the tall, black granite statue of a seated woman, the very one on the coin. Her head was adorned with curving cow horns, a disc in the center. Hathor. The Lady of Stars.

If the arrival of djinn, alleged angels, and magic into the world had made many more faithful, it had led to a questioning of faith for others. Adherents to alternative philosophies had appeared, as well—esoteric mystics and spiritualists. It wasn’t long before some turned to Egypt’s most ancient religions. Denounced as idolaters, they were forced to move underground, where they could meet without persecution. Because of their secrecy, their numbers were unknown. But the Ministry suspected their ranks to be in the thousands—and growing.

Fatma was led to a broad divan, where a matronly woman in a gold pleated dress waited. A black braided wig fell over her shoulders as she sat arranging a set of rectangular cards on a table with fingers adorned in henna. A black cat lounged in her lap; bits of gold piercing its nose and ears while a collar of lapis lazuli circled its neck.

To her right stood a strikingly tall woman with marbled aquamarine skin and jade eyes, whose body seemed as ephemeral as her sheer white dress that billowed from an unseen wind. A djinn. A jann, to be exact, one of the elementals. Not too surprising. Djinn could be of any faith, and more than a few now numbered among the adherents of the old religions.

A younger woman in a form-fitting crimson dress stood to their left, her hair forming a curly mane about her shoulders. Tall, with a slender, muscular frame, she leaned idly against a wall, twirling a familiar black dagger. Fatma met her reflective gaze: almost as dark as her skin. Very familiar. A faint smile played on her lips.

“May you be at peace, Investigator,” the seated woman called, catching her attention. “Please, sit.”

Fatma did so reluctantly. “Merira,” she greeted tightly, skipping the normal courtesies. Merira was a priestess of the local Cult of Hathor, with whom she had dealt before. Her eyes held a doting look and her round cheeks appeared always on the verge of smiling. But Fatma wasn’t fooled. Behind that motherly face was a steel mind that worked like a fine-tuned mechanism.

“You’re upset,” she noted, staring at Fatma with brown eyes lined in blue kohl.

“Next time you want me, Merira, you can just send a note.” She glanced at the woman with the dagger, who only winked.

The older woman put on an apologetic look. “Forgive us. Siti was only sent as a messenger. But she has more of Sekhmet in her than most, and can be … overzealous.” The priestess gave the younger woman a remonstrative glare, which finally erased her smile.

Siti, was it?
Fatma thought. “What’s this all about, Merira? Thought your kind kept a low profile. Not running around accosting Ministry agents!”

“We near the end of worlds,” the jann put in with an echoing voice. “And the hour is late.” Fatma frowned at her, then turned back to Merira questioningly.

“You’ve seen many things this night,” the priestess said. She flipped over the cards on the table, revealing the image each bore: a pair of curving horns, a sickle, an axe with a hooked end, and a half moon shrouded in twisting vines.

Fatma stared, unable to hold back at the sight of the familiar glyphs. She leaned forward, gripping the table.

“Enough of the games, Merira! How do you know about any of this?”

The woman’s cheeks dimpled with a slight smile. “We may be forced into the shadows, but the Eye of Ra pierces all.” She motioned and someone stepped unexpectedly from around a corner. Like the other women, she wore a diaphanous gown that hugged her plump curves well. She sat beside the priestess, staring apprehensively at Fatma with large green eyes set in a round, olive-skinned face.

“Rika came to us seeking sanctuary,” Merira said. “She had business with a certain djinn.”

Fatma’s eyebrows rose.
The dead djinn’s Greek lover?
It had to be. The woman fit Aasim’s description perfectly. “What do you have to do with any of this?”

The woman glanced to the priestess, who nodded with approval.

“I met Sennar at a brothel house,” she said in a thick accent, definitely Greek. “He picked me out. Said he liked my eyes.” She shrugged. “I play a role, he pays. But he became obsessed with me, starting to asking that he be my only customer. I didn’t mind, so long as he paid for my time. Then he started talking to me about other things.” She paused, looking again to Merira, who nodded. “He would tell me about other worlds,” she continued. “He claimed there were places beyond where he came from, where gods lived. Gods that could curse you with madness, if you dared speak their name.”

Fatma shook her head. “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

The jann glided forward, pointing an ephemeral finger at the card with the half moon shrouded in twisted vines. “Djinn once worshipped their own gods, Investigator, old beings that dwelled beyond the Kaf in cold and dark worlds. Do you not see them here? Rising from that darkness?”

Fatma looked down at the half moon, for the first time realizing it looked like something emerging, the way the sun rose on the horizon.

“The Rising,” she breathed aloud.

“Sennar bragged that these old gods would soon make this world their own,” Rika went on. “He said he would be able to die and live again. He promised me I could remain with him when everyone else perished. I could be his … pet.” Her eyes flashed with anger at the word. “He bragged about powerful friends. I asked him for proof and he showed me a feather. Did you find it, Investigator? Where I left it?”

Fatma nodded in astonishment, looking at the woman with new eyes. Aasim had underestimated this one. “Why didn’t you go to the police with this? To the Ministry?”

The woman’s plump face went pale. “Me? Speak against a Marid djinn? And his powerful friends? What would have happened then? No dark gods were going to make me live again. When I found Sennar tonight, like that, I knew it had begun. I ran. Siti is a friend. She brought me here to hide. I told the holy mother … the priestess … everything I knew.”

“And now we’re telling you,” Merira finished.

“Telling me what, exactly?”

“Of an old djinn prophecy,” the jann said. “A prophecy being performed on this very night. It is claimed that three are needed, who must offer themselves willingly.” She pointed to the horns on the card. “The Ram. Old and powerful. His blood was given first.”

Fatma looked down, catching on. “Sennar. The exsanguination spell.”

The jann nodded. “The second reaped the dead, much as a farmer reaps wheat.” She pointed to the sickle.

“The Harvester,” Fatma breathed. “And the axe with the hook? Who is that?”

“Not an axe,” Merira corrected. “An adze. An ancient instrument. The tool of the last of the three. The Builder. His face, we do not know.”

“Many believe al-Jahiz tore a hole to the Kaf,” the Jann said. “It’s better stated by saying that he unlocked a door by finding a particular moment in space and time unique to the Kaf. That, in turn, weakened the barriers of other worlds, allowing magic and beings beyond the djinn to find their way into this one. There are worlds upon worlds that exist. Finding their locks requires knowing their unique places in the pattern.”

“The system of overlapping spheres,” Fatma recited. “Every second-year in Theoretical Alchemy learns that. Al-Jahiz’s grand formula. But no one’s been able to replicate it. Not even the djinn.”

“This Builder found a way,” the jann said.

“How?” Fatma asked. Merira nodded to Rika.

The woman licked her lips nervously. “I don’t understand it, really. Sennar called it the Clock of Worlds. Some kind of machine, he said, that would open the doorway to their dark gods. This was the work of the Builder.”

Fatma went silent.
Space and time,
she repeated in her head.
A machine that brought together all of time, in one space.
And just like that, the last piece of the puzzle fit into place. Or, perhaps, the last cog. She had seen this Clock of Worlds. She had stood before it and not recognized it.

“I know who the Builder is,” she whispered. “And we’re in trouble.”

*   *   *

Fatma held fast to her bowler, clenching her teeth at every jolt of the two-seater glider that raced high above Cairo. Beside her, Siti laughed, piloting the craft in sharp turns that made its wing flaps ripple in the wind.

“Don’t like to fly, pretty little boy?” the woman shouted above the ruckus of the rattling engines, eyeing Fatma from beneath bulbous goggles.

Fatma didn’t reply, focusing instead on keeping down her last meal. She had been prepared to catch a carriage, but Siti insisted on a faster way. And time was not on their side. As they passed into the island district of al-Gezira, she pointed to their destination and the glider dived. The drop was fast, and Fatma could feel her stomach in her throat. Beside her, Siti just laughed. Was this the woman’s idea of a good time? Just when she thought she might finally be sick, they landed. Or rather, they took several rough bounces that jarred Fatma deep in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t breathe until they’d come to a stop.

BOOK: A Dead Djinn in Cairo
7.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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