Egypt, 1912. In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi leads her through the city’s underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and a plot that could unravel time itself.
Fatma el-Sha’arawi, special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, stood gazing through a pair of spectral goggles at the body slumped atop the mammoth divan.
An Old One, at that—near twice the size of a man, with fingers that ended in curved talons, long as knives. His skin was a sheath of aquamarine scales that shifted to turquoise beneath the glare of flickering gas lamps. He sat unclothed between tasseled cushions of lavender and burgundy, his muscular arms and legs spread wide and leaving nothing to the imagination.
“Now that’s impressive,” a voice came. Fatma glanced back at the figure hovering just over her shoulder. Two long graying whiskers fashioned in the style of some antiquated Janissary twitched on a plump face. It belonged to a man in a khaki uniform that fit his thick frame a bit too tightly, particularly around the belly. He jutted a shaved round chin at the dead djinn’s naked penis: a midnight-blue thing that hung near to the knee. “I’ve seen full-grown cobras that were smaller. A man can’t help but feel jealous, with that staring him in the face.”
Fatma returned to her work, not deigning to reply. Inspector Aasim Sharif was a member of the local constabulary who served as a police liaison with the Ministry. Not a bad sort. Just vulgar. Cairene men, despite their professed modernity, were still uncomfortable working alongside a woman. And they expressed their unease in peculiar, awkward ways. It was shocking enough to them that the Ministry had tapped some sun-dark backwater Sa’idi for a position in Cairo. But one so young, and who dressed in foreign garb—they’d never quite gotten used to her.
Today she’d chosen a light gray suit, complete with a matching vest, chartreuse tie, and a red-on-white pinstriped shirt. She had picked it up in the English District, and had it specially tailored to fit her small frame. The accompanying walking cane—a sturdy length of black steel capped by a silver pommel, a lion’s head—was admittedly a bit much. But it added a flair of extravagance to the ensemble. And her father always said if people were going to stare, you should give them a show.
“Exsanguination,” she declared. Fatma pulled off the copper-plated goggles and handed them over to a waiting boilerplate eunuch. The machine-man grasped the instrument between tactile metal fingers, folding it away with mechanical precision into a leather casing. She caught her reflection in its featureless brass countenance: dark oval eyes and a fleshy nose set against russet-brown skin on a slender face. Some might have called it boyish, if not for a set of full, bold lips passed on by her mother. As the boilerplate eunuch stepped away, she used her fingers to smooth back a mop of cropped black curls and turned to the constable. Aasim stared as if she’d just spoken Farsi.
“Those markings.” She tapped the floor with her cane, where curving white script engulfed the divan in a circle. “It’s an exsanguination spell.” Seeing Aasim’s blank look, she reached down to her waist to pull her janbiya free and placed the tip of the knife at the djinn’s thigh before sliding it beneath a scale. It came back out clean. “No blood. Not a drop. He’s been drained.”
The inspector blinked, catching on. “But where did it . . . the blood . . . go?”
Fatma fingered the dry edge of her blade. That was a good question. She slid the knife back into a silver-worked sheath fitted onto a broad leather belt. The janbiya had been given to her by a visiting Azd dignitary—a present for banishing a particularly nasty nasnas troubling his clan. It had been one of her first assignments at the Ministry. The half-blind old man had called her “pretty, for a young man, so brave to take on a half-djinn.” She hadn’t corrected him. And she’d kept the knife.
“Do you think it might have been . . .” Aasim grimaced, cupping his well-coiffed moustache before almost whispering the word: “. . . . ghuls?” The man hated talking about the undead. Then again, Fatma supposed everyone did. Ghul attacks were up in the city; three separate incidents had been reported in the past week. The Ministry suspected a radical cell of anarchist-necromancers, though no one had come up with any leads.
She crouched down to inspect the markings. “Not likely. Ghuls wouldn’t stop with feeding on just blood.” Aasim made a face. “And they don’t practice magic. This script is Old Marid. Djinn sorcery.” She frowned, pointing with her cane. “These, however, are unfamiliar.”
They were four glyphs, arranged equidistant around the circle. One looked like a set of curved horns. The second was a sickle. The third was an odd axe with a hooked blade. The fourth was larger than the rest, a half-circle like a moon, shrouded in twisting vines.
Aasim bent to look. “Never seen them before. Some sorcerer’s sigil?”
“Maybe.” She ran a finger along one of the glyphs, as if touching it might provide an answer.
Standing, she stepped back to stare up at the djinn—a giant who dwarfed them both in his considerable shadow. The eyes on that bowed head remained open, bright gold upon gold that beat down on her like molten suns. His face was almost human, if you ignored the pointed ears and cobalt-blue ram horns twisting from his head. She turned back to Aasim. “How long ago did you find the body?”
“Just past midnight. One of his regulars found him. Alarmed the neighbors.” He smirked. “She didn’t emit the usual screams, if you know what I mean.”
Fatma stared at him flatly before he continued.
“Anyway, she’s a plump little slum rat who comes into Azbakiyya for work. Greek, I think. Only got a few words in before her pezevenk lawyer arrived.” He made a disgusted sound. “The old Khedive had whores rounded up and sent south in my grandfather’s day. Now they hire Turkish pimps to read you the law.”
“It’s 1912—a new century,” Fatma reminded him. “Khedives don’t run Egypt anymore. The Ottomans are gone. We have a king now, a constitution. Everyone has rights, no matter their work.” Aasim grunted, as if that itself was a problem.
“Well, she seemed upset. Maybe it was at losing that.” He gestured again to the djinn’s exposed genitalia. “Or maybe at losing clients after this bad luck.”
Fatma could understand that. Azbakiyya was one of the more posh districts in Cairo. Having a client here was good money. Damn good. “Did she see anyone? A previous visitor, maybe?”
Aasim shook his head. “No one, she said.” He scratched the balding spot at the top of his head in thought. “There’s an Albanian gang, though, that’s been hitting the wealthier districts lately, tying their victims up before making off with valuables. Djinn blood probably sells well on the sorcerers’ black market.”
It was Fatma’s turn to shake her head, taking in the djinn’s impressive bulk—not to mention those talons. “A set of thieves would be in for a deadly surprise walking in on a Marid djinn. We know who he is?”
Aasim motioned to one of his men, a small, hawk-faced man who stared at Fatma reprovingly. She returned the stare, taking a set of papers from him before turning away. One of the papers bore a grainy black-and-white photo of a familiar face: the dead djinn. Beneath the picture was a seal, a white crescent moon and spear imposed upon a red-black-green tricolor—the flag of the Mahdist Revolutionary People’s Republic.
“Soudanese?” she asked in surprise, looking up from the passport.
“Seems so. We’ve cabled Khartoum. For all the good that’ll do. Probably a hundred djinn named Sennar.”
Probably, Fatma agreed silently. Sennar was a town, a set of mountains, and, alternately, an old sultanate in South Soudan. Djinn never gave their true names, using places instead—towns, hills, mountains, rivers. It didn’t seem to matter how many of them shared it. Somehow, they managed to tell each other apart. She returned to the passport, inspecting the signature and then glancing at the floor. She frowned, bending low and eyeing the script again.
Aasim watched her curiously. “What is it?”
“The writing.” She pointed at the script. “It’s the same.”
“What? You’re certain?”
Fatma nodded. She was positive. One may have been in Old Marid and the other in Arabic, but there was no mistaking the similarity in style. This was the djinn’s handiwork. He had performed an exsanguination spell—on himself.
“A suicide?” Aasim asked.
“A damn painful one,” she murmured. Only that didn’t make sense. Immortals didn’t just kill themselves. At least, she couldn’t recall a documented case of such a thing.
Her gaze swept the apartment, searching for any bit of understanding. It was overdone, like most of Azbakiyya, with imported Parisian furniture, a Turkish chandelier, and other bits of opulence. The djinn had added his own touch, decorating the space with swords in engraved scabbards, rounded shields of stretched hippopotamus hide, and sprawling silk carpets: the collections of a being that had lived lifetimes. Her eyes stopped on a hanging mural, large enough to take up much of a wall. It was awash in vivid colors drawn into elaborate scenery—Mughal, perhaps, by the style. It depicted giants with tusked mouths and the bodies of fierce beasts. Fire danced along their skin, and wings of flame sprouted from their backs.
“More djinn?” Aasim asked, catching her gaze.
Fatma walked toward the mural, stopping just in front of it.
“Ifrit,” she answered.
“Oh,” Aasim said. “Glad we don’t have to deal with any of them.”
No argument there. Ifrit were a volatile class of djinn that generally didn’t live among mortals. Most of their immortal cousins kept their distance, as well. It was odd to see them among the artwork of a Marid. In the mural, the ifrit knelt before a vast black lake with their arms outstretched. Two words in djinn script were etched beneath: “The Rising.”
Now what does that mean? Fatma wondered. She ran a hand across the cryptic words, once more hoping a mere touch might offer understanding. Glancing away from the painting in thought, her eyes fell upon a book sitting on an octagonal wooden side table.
The weighty tome was bound in a tan leather covering worked with a repeating geometric relief and gold print—an antique Mamluk fashion. The cover read: Kitāb al-Kīmyā. She knew the book—a ninth-century text on alchemy. She’d read copies at university, but this looked like an original. She reached down to open to where someone had left a bookmark—and froze. It was on a page she was familiar with—the search for takwin, to create life. But that wasn’t what had stilled her.
She looked closer at the object she’d mistaken for a bookmark—a length of metallic silver tinged with hints of bright mandarin. She picked it up, holding it aloft as it glinted in the gas lamps’ glare.
Aasim cursed, his voice going hoarse. “Is that what I think it is?”
Fatma nodded. It was a metallic feather, as long as her forearm. Along its surface, faint lines of fiery script moved and writhed about as if alive.
“Holy tongue,” Aasim breathed.
“Holy tongue,” she confirmed.
“But that means it belongs to . . .”
“An angel, ” Fatma finished for him.
Her frown deepened. Now what in the many worlds, she wondered, would a djinn be doing with one of these?
Fatma sat back in a red-cushioned seat as the automated wheeled carriage plowed along the narrow streets. Most of Cairo slept, except for the glow of a gaslight market or the pinprick lights of towering mooring masts where airships came and went by the hour. Her fingers played with her cane’s lion-headed pommel, watching aerial trams that moved high above the city, crackling electricity illuminating the night along their lines. Their carriage passed a lone man in a rickety donkey cart. He drove his beast at a slow trot, as if in defiance of the modernity that surrounded him.
“Another damned ghul attack!” Aasim exclaimed. He sat opposite her, reading over several cables. “That’s odd. They didn’t kill anyone—they took them. Snatched them and ran right off.”
Fatma looked up. That was odd. Ghuls fed on the living. Their victims were usually found half-devoured. They weren’t in the habit of stealing people.
“Have they been found?”
“No. It happened just before midnight.” He made a face. “You don’t suppose they’re saving them . . . for a later meal?”
Fatma didn’t want to think on that. “I’m sure the Ministry has some people on it.”
The inspector sighed, folding away the papers and leaning back into his seat. “Whole city falling apart,” he muttered. “Djinn. Ghuls. Sorcerers. Never had to worry about this in my grandfather’s day. Thank you, al-Jahiz.”
The last words were mocking, common Cairo slang uttered with praise, sarcasm, or anger. How else to remember al-Jahiz, the famed Soudanese mystic and inventor? Some named him as one and the same with the medieval thinker of Basra, reborn or traveled through time. Sufis claimed he was a herald of the Mahdi; Coptics a harbinger of the apocalypse. Whether genius, saint, or madman, no one could deny that he had shaken the world.
It was al-Jahiz who, through mysticism and machines, bore a hole to the Kaf, the other-realm of the djinn. His purpose for doing so—curiosity, mischief, or malice—remained unknown. He later disappeared, taking his incredible machines with him. Some said even now he traveled the many worlds, sowing chaos wherever he went.
That had been a little more than forty years past. Fatma was born into the world al-Jahiz left behind: a world transformed by magic and the supernatural. The djinn, especially, took to the age, their penchant for building yielding more wonders than could be counted. Egypt now sat as one of the great powers, and Cairo was its beating heart.
“How about you?” Aasim asked. “Prefer the city to that sand trap you Sa’idi call home?”
Fatma cut her eyes to the man, which only made him grin. “When I was attending the women’s college in Luxor, I dreamed of coming to Cairo—to go to the coffeehouses, visit the libraries, see people from all over.”
“Now I’m as cynical as every other Cairene.”
Aasim laughed. “The city will do that.” He paused before leaning forward, a gleam in his eyes and a twitch in that ridiculous moustache. That meant he was going to ask something daring, or stupid.
“Always wanted to know—why the Englishman’s suit?” He gestured at her clothing. “We kept them out, thanks to the djinn. Sent them running back to their cold, dreary little island. So why dress like them?”
Fatma flicked the rim of the black bowler she’d donned, crossing a leg to show off a pair of caramel wing tips. “Jealous I can out-dress you?”
Aasim snorted, pulling at the edges of his too-tight uniform that showed patches of a summer night’s perspiration. “I have a daughter who’s twenty-one—just three years younger than you. And still not married. The thought of her walking unveiled in these streets, like some low-class factory woman . . . The men you meet out here are filthy-minded!”
Fatma stared. He was calling other men filthy-minded?
“Had I named my daughter after the Prophet’s own, peace be upon him,” he went on, “I would want her to honor that.”
“It’s good, then, that I’m not your daughter,” she remarked dryly. Reaching into her breast pocket, she pulled out a golden pocket watch fashioned like an old asturlab. “My father is a watchsmith. He gave me this when I left home. Said Cairo was so fast I’d need it to keep time. He came here once when he was younger, and used to tell us endless stories of the mechanical wonders of the djinn. When I tested for the Ministry, he was the proudest man in our village. Now he brags to anyone who will listen about his daughter Fatma, who lives in the city he still dreams about. He sees that as bringing blessings upon the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
Aasim pursed his lips. “Fine, then. I’ll leave upholding your family’s good name to your father. You still haven’t told me about the suit.”
Fatma closed the watch, tucking it away and sitting back. “When I was in school in Luxor I would see these photographs of Englishmen and Frenchmen who visited Egypt, before the djinn came. Mostly they were in suits. But sometimes they’d put on a jellabiya and headscarf. I found out they called it ‘going native.’ To look exotic, they said.”
“Did they?” Aasim cut in.
“Did they what?”
“No. Just ridiculous.”
“Anyway, when I bought my first suit, the English tailor asked me why I wanted it. I told him I wanted to look exotic.”
Aasim gaped at her for a moment before erupting into barking laughter. Fatma smiled. That story worked every time.
The carriage crossed onto the bridge that led to the neighborhood of al-Gezira, where two steel lions guarded the entrance. Such decorations were affectations of the wealthy in this flourishing island district. They drove past wide streets with well-built apartments and villas, stopping at a tall U-shaped building of polished white stone surrounded by sprawling gardens—once the summer palace of an old Khedive. It had a new occupant now.
Aasim eyed the imposing building nervously. “You’re certain about arriving so late?”
Fatma stepped from the carriage to join him. “Their kind don’t sleep.” She nodded to two sleek shapes trotting toward them. They looked like jackals constructed of black and gold metal, only with wings that lay folded on their backs. The mechanical beasts walked up on slender legs to inspect the newcomers, the gears of their bodies rotating with their movements. Seeming satisfied, they turned, as if beckoning to be followed.
The small party crossed a large, well-tended garden before walking up a set of stairs and through a tall doorway. The inside of the old Khedive’s summer palace was like something from the last century, a mixture of Arabic, Turkish and Neoclassical styles brought together under one roof. The floor was made of antique marble arranged in a chessboard pattern of brown and white tiles while rectangular columns supported a golden ceiling of geometric ornamental design. Whatever furniture once decorated the interior had been replaced, by constructions of stone, wood, and iron. Inventions, Fatma could tell, from through the ages of time. She walked around a full replica of an old wooden noria water wheel, glancing at a detailed sketch of an aerial screw that took up a section of wall. This place was like a museum.