On the outside, Perugia was a city caught in time, in some ways mirroring its clandestine magical community more so than the muggle majority that flurried and scurried ignorantly around them, as a blind person might navigate the ostensibly mundane obstacles of home.

Terraced residences and businesses, winding roads and stairways, fountains and churches and bridges and aqueducts were all built of the same stout bricks chipped and pitted and paled from ages in the sun, or else sheer and rich with tones of the same scorched sunset or fecund earth that upheld and swaddled the sprawl of stonework cast over Italy's verdant hills and valleys. Spiring cedar and olive trees framed the fallow architecture, limbs skimming clay shingle roofs and rustling against gentle gusts, looming over blooming shrubs and ferns, brushing along the flowering sheets of creeper and ivy cascading down the faces of particularly overgrown structures.

On the outside, the city was painted with a luster of rustic splendor, and the same went for its magical counterpart, Via Lumen, which extended much further than the one street its name implied. It was Wasila's run of luck—fair or poor, she wasn't yet sure—that she hadn't spent much time on the outside.

A layer of grime veneered the cellar of the Three Bells and its clientele. Dense smoke choked the dingy den, and it wasn't all from the burning cigar tips and pipe bowls flaring cherry red in the gloom, glowing beneath hard faces by turns eager, intent, then ecstatic or else outraged at the outcome of their drunken wagers. A wrought iron cage drew around it the shoving, shouting bulk of the club's intemperate patrons, packing tiered stands almost worthy of a proper sporting arena. The enclosure was spacious enough to house a herd of graphorns, tremendous height and all, but all it contained was two wizards a distance apart, engaged in a brilliant and raucous duel.

Facing away from Wasila was the aggressor, a slight wizard who seemed to believe that a moment of thought was a moment wasted, slinging hexes and curses just as quickly as his reedy arm could whip the air. Bursts and flashes of light dazzled, cracks and bangs resounded, sparks and smoke ruptured when the spells were deflected to score the dirty wood floor or rattle the bars of the cage. Pacing steadily along the other side in time with his assailant's wild maneuverings, the defender hardly attempted to retaliate at all, appearing content to weather the storm. It seemed a wise course; the smaller wizard's movements were already slowing down as exertion took its toll.

At length the man's folly dawned on him and he relented his assault, instead trying for precise strikes at angles awkward to contest, attempting to bait his opponent into overextending. It was an admirable adaptation, and Wasila thought he'd observed the same thing she did; the other wizard seemed to disdain the dodging of spells, his weather-bronzed face crinkled in contempt for the mobility of his adversary. Though clearly much more practiced at diverting magic he seemed to feel himself in another class entirely, reaching down or aside to parry spells that already flew far out of his way.

He struck down another sharply angled spell and stumbled. The clamor of the audience escalated as they sensed a shift in the duel's momentum. Bellowed cheers and jeers overlapped into an incomprehensible babble, and the rank breaths conveying them clouded about Wasila along with the sour smells of the alcohol sloshed and spilled from gesturing tankards. She could discern in the spectators' state of agitation a fervent and long-neglected desire for the weatherbeaten wizard to falter, a desire that appeared nearer to fruition by the second.

A jet of light seared the defender's hip, sending the crowd into an uproar. Tightly packed bodies shouldered and jostled for better views only to incite the ire of their obstructed neighbors. Someone groped Wasila from behind; she snatched the hand off without looking and bent the fingers far the wrong way, a series of wet crackles prying out a startled whimper. She crushed the mangled digits in her grip for a few more agonized gasps to drive the message home before letting go.

Hexes kept screaming back and forth across the arena in darting bolts that threw the frontmost rows of spectators into ghastly sharp relief at each cast, flashing their haggard faces split in snarls and cries of their own, straining to be heard over the riot of magic and men. The defender assayed a neat counteroffensive that set his opponent leaping out of the way, tripping and rolling, clumsily blocking with a wild burst of light. A few spells out of the ornery crowd singed and sputtered uselessly against the outer walls of the cage.

It wasn't enough to divert the wizard's attention; he pressed his advantage, stabbing and lashing the air with spell after spell that his opponent lunged past and beneath, each dodge a nearer miss until a jet of red light caught him in the ankle. The force of the jinx set him spinning in a blur; in a moment he overbalanced and met the floor hard on his shoulder with a painful knock that stifled the noise in the room as it sounded.

The audience held their breath, but the combatants wasted not a moment; the weathered wizard aimed another spell with a flourish of finality, already the victor in his mind, and he jerked his head back from its half-turn away when his fallen opponent scrambled and dove aside. An answer shot up from the floor and erupted stunning blue across the defender's forehead; he reeled back as if against the deafening force of the crowd's hollered approval.

Wasila had to raise herself on tiptoe to catch what happened next. The defender's head was swelling like a balloon, bloated and purple, distended face puckered up in pain as his heels drifted away from the floor. By the time he'd been lifted two feet, his clutching hands could hardly reach the jaw that more nearly resembled a car's bumper every moment. The crowds showered him with ridicule, and some in the highest reaches of the stands felt compelled to contribute their alcohol to the deluge; the soak and smell became such that an opportune spark seemed like to set the spectators ablaze.

The aggressor, the victor, threw himself upright and whooped and cheered along with the audience, throwing spells indiscriminately against the walls of the cage; one curse beamed brilliant green along the bars it struck, startling the nearby spectators into a collective outburst of shock and laughter. The delight, the rage, and the bargaining out of the contested result already conquered the commotion as wagers went paid and unpaid, gleaming galleons and scintillating sickles changing hands and then clattering to a stillness as the assembled made ponderous turns back toward the cage, eyes drawn several at a time by scattered cries.

Wasila's gaze hadn't left the buoyant defender bobbing against the cage's ceiling. The wizard had gathered in himself the intent to work a spell, and he aimed down at his oblivious thrashing opponent with deadly patience, bulbous pink eyes straining madly. The few to recognize what was about to unfold bellowed warnings that fell on deaf ears.

The spell streaked down to strike its target squarely in the back. It drove the narrow wizard to the floor as if he'd been slapped down by a massive palm, his upraised arms too slow to catch himself, instead splaying out across the wood like the wings of a gangly bird after a senseless headlong dive. His wand rolled from his slack grip to rest against an edge of the cage; Wasila saw several hands dart through the gaps, scrabbling, and one clenched its new prize as they withdrew like grubby rodents back into their warrens.

Harsh, disbelieving quiet rang in the wake of the reversal. The steady hiss of air escaping the defender's inflated head could have embodied the wind leaving the audience's sails as their detested champion descended to settle in the center of the arena, his skull receding to normality, face flushed with natural color. He looked around at the mass of incredulity surrounding him, boring into him, and he broke into a crooked smirk.

The congregation erupted. Amidst hurled abuse, threats, and curses shaking the cage, a wizard with shaggy grey hair stomped in and planted himself beside the victor, shoving the man's wand arm into the air.

"Behold your champion . . . Mauro! Nineteen fucking weeks running!" The announcer made little effort to appear even slightly impartial, giving the winner a dirty sidelong glare as he spoke into his wand; his scratchy voice resonated. "You all know the takeaway by now—seventy galleons, plus a third of all revenue out of placed bets. The Pedestal Pot grows!" he called over countless outbursts. "Week nineteen means a splendid three hundred and eighty galleons, in addition to the former champion's winnings. Would-be challengers one and all, now's your moment! Will none among you step up and put your wands where your words are?"

The din receded into a resentful buzz that expressed the masses' displeasure while allowing their more self-assured fellows the chance to be barely heard, if they existed. Heads swiveled to and fro without much expectation. The announcer scanned the crowd with squinted eyes, looking contemptuously certain that he was wasting his time. A pair of wizards marched the insensible competitor's body out of the arena, repelling detritus flung their way.

"I'll do it, I'll—!" An unsteady wizard a few rows ahead of Wasila propped himself up on his neighbors' shoulders, still managing to nearly topple as he made to lean into view. "I'll do the fight—fight the duel—"

"Sit back down, you stupid soused bastard!" the announcer shouted, striking up scattered laughter all around. "And if you fucking vomit all over the seats again, I'll drown you in it!"

"Oh, er, all—alright then—" The wizard teetered backward into his seat when his flanking supports abruptly ducked and sidestepped away.

With a tickle of anticipation Wasila edged past the people along her row in the stands and mounted the nearest flight of steps. Curiosity made her glance back, and between the few odd looks her departure timing had drawn, a handsome man fixed foreboding eyes on her while he flexed the fingers of a freshly mended hand. His jaw worked and veins stood out by the strain of his contained rage, a prideful look that promised retribution.

Her wand appeared with a spell already flaring from its tip; the pulse of white caught the man full in the face, sending those on the outskirts jerking away with cries of surprise. The wizard reeled and howled with pain, thrashing in his seat, face ruddy between the shaking fingers he restrained just short of contact with the hexed flesh. Wands found their way out of the robes of the surrounding crowd, and before the incited shouts of amusement or indignation could escalate into something troublesome, Wasila spoke.

"Did your mother never teach you to keep to yourself?" she called. Her accent was impenetrable. "First your hands, then your eyes . . . I hope for your sake you think better of a third go; either wand you try gets snapped in half. Savvy?"

Several wizards in earshot broke into appreciative guffaws, but most merely settled back and stowed their wands, matching raised brows with those closest. The man beside the hexed wizard offered a hearty thump on the back, as if to say that's how it goes sometimes. Though his face shined red and puffy as if from a severe allergic reaction, the wizard still managed to glower through wet eyes aimed down at his fists, clenched white and trembling.

"What's going on up there?" the announcer said, craning his neck around the boisterous crowd. "Keep the dueling inside the cage, unless you're possessed of some unaccountable desire to tongue polish your own—oh?" he said as he caught sight of Wasila descending the steps toward the nearest side of the arena's cage. "Come along, then. Got something to say to your fellow degenerates?"

Wasila shook her head and bound back her pale curls. She declared in a carrying voice, "I challenge Mauro."

The announcer looked taken aback for only a moment, then wordlessly beckoned. As Wasila rounded the cage the audience offered halfhearted claps and stomps and yells of encouragement or scorn that washed over her in meaningless muddled waves of fume. Some looked down at her with incredulity or cautious optimism, others with derision, and some didn't look at all, rising and staggering down the steps toward the stadium's exits. She betrayed no reaction to the numerous hooted suggestions—both tactical and lewd—and slipped through the arena's eastern gate to join Mauro and the announcer in the center. The former watched her carefully.

The announcer withdrew from his wand to speak to her at normal volume; his scratchy voice barely registered under the blathering masses. "Your name?"


"You know the rules?"

"Of course. I left my fee with Galbrack."

He gave an approving grunt and returned the wand to his throat, gesturing at Wasila with the other arm. "Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the latest challenger looking to knock the incumbent champion off his pedestal! She duels for the money, the prestige, and the thrill—but most importantly, she duels to drive this smug motherfucker out of our cage! Put your hands together for Maupin!"

The following applause was markedly more enthusiastic. Wasila waved and smiled toothily at the dim sea of faces surrounding the arena, their gazes indistinct, mouths opening and closing without attributed voices over the cacophony, like schools of gaping fish drowning themselves out. Goblins hauled forged silver registers slung to their chests up and down the steps of the stands, back and forth along the rows of seats, long sharp fingers snapping up wagers and sorting them with rote efficiency, charmed quills scribbling frantically in the margins of their flowing ledger scrolls. To her amusement, Wasila picked out that the majority of the bets were placed against her.

"Witches can't duel!" someone bellowed from the stands behind her, earning a few sniggers. Several more spectators in earshot took up the sentiment, heedless of the few witches' glares—"Never heard of Ceria Rios? Took internationals the last three years, she has!"—and the beginnings of a chant began to build.

Wasila made an inquiring gesture, and the announcer passed over his wand with an expectant expression. She pressed it to her throat; her voice carried to the high corners of the stands.

"I'm sure you wish that were true," she said, grinning up at the chorusing wizards. "It's about the only way you could coerce one to touch you."

A riot of mirth burst up from the sections that were in earshot of the chant, smothering the mantra in laughter. Chuckling himself, the announcer reclaimed his wand and waved Wasila and her opponent back; when they complied to the furthest extent, facing one another down from opposing walls of the cage, he cleared his throat and called out.

"Champion Mauro versus challenger Maupin! With any luck this will not be a good, clean duel, but we've got some guidelines that bear observing even so; no leaving the cage, no stimulants, no dark magic, and no goddamned transfiguration! The next time my staff have to subdue a hysterical hippo you couldn't control, I'll have it rolled over you 'til you're flat as your fucking brainwaves! Understood?" He turned to receive their nods. "Alright then. Without further formalities," the announcer said, turning to stride for the gate, "you may begin after I carry my wizened arse out of here. Let's hear it one more time for our competitors!"

Once more the audience roared loud enough to make the air tremble, but Wasila still heard the muted clang of the gate swinging shut. Spells rained down and trailed light along the bars of the cage where they shattered and shined like hurled glass stained in every color. The floor was slick with alcohol, the air thick with ozone and body heat and the immense pressing weight of a thousand keen gazes.

They advanced on one another at the same moment, at the same thoughtful pace, coming to a stop at each end of a wide pool of what smelled like fermented piss and probably tasted much the same. Mauro maintained a ready stance with his wand up and poised to deflect. It seemed likely that his guarded and patient style, rather dull to observe, was much of the reason the man had garnered so much contempt; his evident and vainglorious success supplied the other half of the equation.

The wizard only watched her and waited with a taunting smile, oblivious to the abuse crashing over him. Wasila respected the attitude; she grinned back wider, let the unmitigated excitement beam from her expression, setting off what she knew to be an unsettling glitter in her eyes. She had smiled in the face of suffering and strife all her life when others would quail. Strangely tuned as she was, it was the only way she knew to confront sorrow or peril; when she laughed at what should bring despair, she rendered life weaponless against her.

Mauro's cocksure expression barely faltered.

Wasila brandished her wand in a lazy, exaggerated flourish, telegraphing her strike to an insulting degree; the faint pink spell shot out and glanced off the tip of Mauro's waiting wand.

His incensed look turned right around when the spell did midair, highlighting shock as it bounced away at a second near deflection and veered back for a third hit, another and another; the jinx harried and pelted Mauro like a tenacious bludger, and he batted it back and forth, spinning and swiping wildly as if fending off a swarm of riled hornets. Wasila hung back and laughed along with the rest while Mauro desperately reflected the flitting spell into the air, into the floor or the barred walls, where it rebounded and darted back home until at last he missed the mark.

The spell hit his chest and fizzled out, the only effect that of the dumbstruck look it induced. A quick following flash of light saw Mauro's wand spinning from his hand far overhead, arcing gracefully across the arena, and Wasila plucked it from the air easily as fruit from a branch.

There was nearly no room for thought in her head as it rang with the deafening ovation that erupted from the coarse hands and hoarse throats of a thousand fulfilled spectators. Mauro stared from his empty palm up into Wasila's Cheshire cat smile, and his stunned expression began to curdle, but he was soon hustled out by a pair of burly wizards who needed tolerate his presence no longer, and they took to their task with suchlike enthusiasm. Wasila made a show of examining the wizard's wand before tossing it unceremoniously after him.

The announcer stomped up beside her, wide-eyed and wild-haired, slightly hunched against the downpour of savage noise. He yelled into his wand for quiet so loudly it spiked Wasila's sensitive ears; she blocked them with her fingers until the unholy racket died down into a mere riot.

They chanted her alias now.

She played her part in the proceedings with waves and smiles and showy tricks of magic, gracefully accepting her bounty beneath cascading adulation. She endured countless congratulations and back-slaps and the sweeping tide of filth as the assemblage filtered down from the stands in pursuit of the next vice, some voices in the throng still throbbing with the chant, those reckless few who had taken up her odds. When first the opportunity presented itself she drew the club's unkempt proprietor aside; they had almost to speak into each other's ears for the clamor that continued to issue from the odorous flow of departers.

"I want something else," Wasila said. She pressed a hefty sack of galleons back into the man's arms.

His bushy eyebrows disappeared behind his fringe, though he cradled the sum possessively. "Aye? What might that be?"

"I want a job upstairs." She jerked her head up in the direction of the candlelit stage she knew to be sitting empty. "I've heard you're sorely in need of acoustic talent. I can provide."

"Oho, is that so? Well, well. Unexpected, to say the least, but not entirely unwelcome . . . If only to avoid your, ah, discontent shortly down the line," the wizard said, "I suppose I should let you know that the pay and tips combined wouldn't come anywhere close to this for a good while." He shook the bag a bit for emphasis; it made a sound like the marching rank and file of an armored regiment.

Wasila put on an earnest look, one that had won her far more than the pittance that rattled in the purse. "I'm more interested in the long term, and I think this arrangement could be to both our benefit. Rest assured, I know what I'm getting into; I'm an old hand at this business. Shall we discuss the particulars? I should like to start as soon as possible—tonight, even."

The old wizard looked at her as if she were yet another fat prize offered up.

"Too fucking loud in here," he said, shouldering an occupied couple aside. "Follow me to my office."

First among Wasila's stipulations was that the club's proprietor, the announcer Abramo Santoro, disseminate word of her opening act that very evening. The task of promoting the witch who'd dethroned the Three Bells' reigning champion duelist with two spells plainly hadn't proved particularly demanding; the house was packed to the gills.

What the establishment lacked in elegance it made up for in sheer volume; the unspoken standard extended from the hefty tankards brimming with the cloudy swill on tap to the dozens of scuffed round tables spaced haphazardly about the dimmed viewing floor like the aftermath of a life-sized game of wizards' chess. Each table bore its own little lantern-cage constraining surly fairies that glowed with gentle light over the vittles placed just out of their reach. Witches and wizards of disreputable description rimmed the tables below and the balconies of the gallery above, waited on by flitting house elves, shapes halfway obscured by the smoke of pipes and cigarettes wafting from their chattering mouths, rendering them into shadowy outlines behind thin grey smog.

The broad stage they faced sat bathed in the gleam of a score of drifting candles shimmering with gentle intimacy. Moth-eaten drapery of plum velvet trimmed the dais like the moldering trappings of a neglected gift at last unwrapped to reveal Wasila, dressed in exquisite robes and perched delicately upon a stool, encircled by all manner of unattended instruments floating apart from the floor. In her arms she cradled a gilded harp that sat taller than she did.

Music, along with manners and language, customs and clothing, and countless further social disciplines had been extensively covered within the foundation of knowledge Drang had long since instilled in her. Caressing a tune from the harp came as easily as teasing out information from a mark.

Her fingers stroked the strings tenderly as if through a lover's hair, drawing forth a subdued melody that lulled the audience into a soporific silence when it flowed outward to lap over them, wave after wave of soft swooning sound resounding to hold them spellbound. Subconsciously some swayed to the tune. Others looked on with inquisitive eyes for a hint of what qualities might have forged her intriguing reputation, and for a while they seemed to come away disappointed in what little was laid bare; they began to murmur their discontent amongst themselves. Then Wasila conjured her wand and weaved it in untraceable patterns while carrying the melody with her other hand.

The instruments standing by flitted to life, straining violins and humming cellos played upon by bows that slid and plucked at the charm's volition, the grand piano's ivory keys tumbling under a play of invisible fingers. Each separate straining string bled notes that interwove and diverged with the whole, swelling and yawning to fill the stage, to consume the room in softly channeled transports of tranquil lilting tunes that upturned the mind to remind of tender times marked by innocence. Thoughts might pleasantly dwell there for some. Those of the rest followed a natural course toward melancholy for the moment of their loss, and the shift in perspective wrought by it. All in the chamber were interlinked by intangible fetters, chained together to the song dragging them along.

A pulse of exhilaration tingled in Wasila's chest to mingle with the burn of smoke in her lungs. The congregation was engrossed with her performance, keen on her every movement, craning to catch and comprehend the exactness with which she conjured each note and conjoined them, but no matter how assiduous the stare they would never even approach a reckoning of her. It evoked a feeling beyond words to exist so separately from the rest. While Wasila played like it was second nature, reveling in her own art, her mind had time and suggestion to wander into spaces left neglected.

Her fancies meandered back around to the idea of innocence. Innocence? It was a dead word.

A pretty illusion, like she was herself. No one and nothing was sacred or pure. Not the tireless healers, not the vigilant peacekeepers, not even the guileless children. Every life was born with a knife in its hand and the will to use it, and who refused it only sheathed the blade for another imminent day.

Ah. Look what we've got here.

The young Death Eaters who'd waylaid her fleeing family had taught her that lesson; that she'd fought with all she was and lost spoke to the truths of human nature.

And is the spawn quite as savage? Let's see.

That day, she'd wielded the knife.

No, no, you're spoiling the fun! Have a little spirit, love. At least give us a smile.

Afterward she'd been left to stand solitary over her handiwork for hours and hours, her enthralled mind as blank as the unwilling smile that had warped her face until it went numb.

The sharp whine of a misused string snapped her back to the present. Wasila played on smoothly, her sensationless face perfectly placid; she vented the upsurge of turmoil into an abrupt turn of tempo. The audience murmured and stirred, sat back in astonishment or leaned forward in anticipation; she had launched seamlessly from her idle improvisations into the opening notes of a song, a work with claim to worldwide renown.

Her voice lashed out from a void that hadn't been felt until she filled it; at once the music took on another dimension, not simply sating the senses but penetrating, pressing inside and through each receptor to leave them reeling and reaching after that initial surge of feeling as they drank in the harmonious flow that followed.

Her timbre suited the song as entirely as water to earth, saturating all attentions. The modulation of her voice was in flux as much as the rest of her outward self, and she could impeccably imitate any and all of the greats; Lucille Hall, Myron Wagtail, Daphne. This time while she channeled the orchestral stylings of Celestina Warbeck, so too did she channel the witch's bewitching voice, though the task of fulfilling the potential of her repertoire rested entirely on her own shoulders. There was nowhere else she'd ever trust it.

On she performed for the increasingly rapt mass of patrons crowding the club from corner to distant corner. Seats were conjured and shoulders rubbed when early comers absently shuffled aside for their arriving fellows, drawn by word of mouth or the music ringing out and along the street like a siren's call when the entrance swung open periodically, admitting cloaked figures framed by oblique shafts of beaming light stifled into golden mist by the smoke. Wasila entertained the swelling audience's eye contact for sparse moments each, sowing spurious seeds of connection that would raise her in their estimation, but more purposefully, she searched for those who might present an appraising gleam in their gaze.

There were countless of those, but none such with the detached professionalism she sought, as far as she could perceive—which was far less than the sum total sea of lives and intentions bobbing and swaying before her against the edges of the dais, spilling and dripping over the gallery railings rounding the chamber. The building encased Via Lumen in microcosm, from streetwise hustlers whose robes wafted with befuddling fumes to debauched socialites daring the slums for an evening's thrill. By the close of her fourth consecutive hour Wasila judged her objective accomplished.

The concluding ballad's sonorous final verses ascended in intensity, agitating the pulses in the room in animal anticipation of an apocalyptic denouement; after a crescendo the song died as if cut off, the effect like a blow to the sternum; the instruments followed Wasila's wand down, and applause boiled up to pour over the brief echoing absence of noise.

She stood and bowed, and bowed again several times over, waving and smiling beatifically at the shouting, clapping and table-drumming assemblage.

"Thank you, thank you!"

The audience whooped and hollered and whistled. Conjured flowers rained softly down from the gallery while the air over the viewing floor scintillated with sparks and flashes flaring from raised wands, punctuating the crowd's cries with sharp pops and bangs.

"Very kind." Wasila's amplified voice, still not her own, overpowered the commotion. She twirled a rose in her fingers. "Too kind, honestly, and not in the cliché self-deprecating sense; the sooner you all stop applauding," she called, grinning, "the sooner I can start my intermission, and afterward we'll see what I've got left in me, shall we?"

After an enthusiastic clamor of assent the crowds dissipated to filter toward the bars with bottles glinting invitingly or the enticing clean air awaiting outside under the low evening light. When they thinned enough Wasila stepped down and made her way through the throng—assailed by more yammering and exclaiming to which she doled out profuse gratitude every step—and she sat at her reserved space at the end of the club's most expansive bar.

One of the bartenders, a goblin called Vakdar, slid over a cocktail glass containing a neon blue liquid that left burning afterimages on its path along the countertop. He plucked up a rag in his warty, clawed fingers and scrubbed at something behind his station, watching Wasila with piercing black beady eyes.

"Too much of the brasswinds for my liking," he rasped, drawing incredulous glances here and there. "They drown out the more tolerable noises."

"We can't all be favored with tastes refined as yours," Wasila said, raising her glass to him before pretending to sip. The alcohol smelled of syrupy blackberries pressed into an ashwinder nest; at the submerged end of the stem, a fuzzy white caterpillar curled up. "I do what I can with what trifling gifts I've come into."

"I concede you were a measure less inept than most we've hosted here." Vakdar wiped in thoughtful silence, then added, "Late evenings are a prime slot—not usually open to whoever might wander in. You are . . . fortunate."

"At the expense of others," Wasila said somberly, interpreting the goblin's burdened tone. "I've heard about the Three Bells' troubles of late; it's why I came," she confessed. "Needed the work."

"Did you?" The goblin arched a bushy grey eyebrow. "For the passable exhibition you've put on, I must say that surprises me. Via Lumen's economic straits must be more dire than I realized."

Wasila gave a noncommittal shrug. "Sub rosa."

"Hm? I don't understand."

"Of course, my apologies," Wasila said. "That's a phrase out of an old human language. It means 'done in secrecy'."

"Ah." Vakdar appraised her without a hint of what he might think of her vaguely implied circumstances.

"Tell me, Vakdar . . ." Wasila stirred the caterpillar around languidly. "What exactly happened between your prior acts and Santoro? What might have given them cause to up and vanish? If he's a cheat, or a lecher . . ."

"He is a good man."

"Then why have his performers disappeared? You can understand my concern in this matter, I hope."

Vakdar stared at her, pensive. He'd stopped wiping. "What did Santoro tell you?"

"Only what one would expect," Wasila said, letting a little distress undermine her poise. "Among other stipulations, I'm not to accept opportunities of any kind from local competition. He expected me to believe they'd left him high and dry, to a man. His terms are rather rigid, but not nearly that unfavorable."

Vakdar grunted and returned to his ministrations, casting a dark glance at a few blatant eavesdroppers down the bar's length.

"Please," Wasila said quietly, leaning in. "I don't aim to stir up a panic; that would be quite as bad for my pockets as yours, now. I only want to be prepared for the worst. None of the missing acts have been sighted working other venues—or anywhere else. Something's happened to them."

The bartender gave a drawn hiss beneath the din of pub prattle. His aged visage was all taut lines and sharp angles. He pinched the bridge of his long aquiline nose, then leaned forward, glancing everywhere before he spoke in a grave undertone.

"I truly can't say what's befallen them, if indeed anything has. I don't believe Santoro knows any better. To my knowledge no inquiries, legal or otherwise, have turned any ore. They're simply gone."

For a moment the club's ambiance was all the sound between them. Wasila sat back a little, face arranged into clear perturbation.

"When it happened, it happened now," Vakdar said lowly. "During their intermissions," he added, "or else after the conclusion of their set. Perhaps they were followed as they departed, or perhaps they were taken from within these walls. The only sensible advice I can give you is to find other work while you still can. Failing that . . ." He shook his head sourly. "While the Bells won't claim responsibility for your safety, you might consider remaining inside, in sight of the staff, or of several witnesses, at least. Not that any of these drunken reprobates would recall anything of worth the day after."

With that she'd heard what she sought to, but only said, "Well . . . that's nothing if not troubling."

Wasila stared pensively into the cerulean glow of her cocktail, swirling the stem and its clinging caterpillar about like a slow whirlpool swallowing flotsam. Droplets clung like dew to its fuzzy white fur when she lifted it free and guided it to her extended tongue. It crawled toward her body warmth trailing a pleasant tingle along her taste buds; her saliva had dissolved it before it reached her throat, mingling with its intoxicating secretions to burn along her passages and cleanse what weighed at her, leaving her lighter in her seat. The heady sensation was fleeting, working in vain against her transfigured physiology; when she stood a minute later, she was clearheaded once more.

"Thank you, Vakdar, for your advice and your confidence. I'll keep both eyes out for anything untoward. Hold my seat, will you?"

The bartender nodded, squinting at her, as if attempting to capture her features in memory. Wasila nearly laughed. She slipped back into the crowd and engaged with them, cheerful and teasing, while she weaved between on course for a service door tucked away beside the stairs to the next floor. Every eye she could nonchalantly draw still clung to her when she threw the door open and ambled into the alley outside.

It felt as if she'd escaped a fire; the air was cool and clear of smoke, brushing back loose coils of her hair when she leaned into the breeze breathing from the alley's mouth. The opposite building's brick wall reared up at a height with the club, leaving only a narrow slot of sky between the two, burning blotches of ochre and crimson in the cloudless evening that added to the notion of the Three Bells' conflagration. A remarkable soft quiet presided upon the outer face of Via Lumen, more suited to a remote countryside than a societal hub.

Wasila paced the packed dirt track up and down, never straying far enough to allow a glimpse from the adjacent stone footpaths at either end. Anticipation tingled up and down her extremities. They were a sight more patient than she'd anticipated; she had taken to straining for meaning in the faint strange sounds escaping the opposite building when the club's service door swung open behind her.

There were two, and they were indisputably twins, with the same pattern of freckles beneath the same waves of chestnut hair. The only disparity was their gender. They shared with Wasila their friendly blue eyes crinkled in identical courteous smiles, flashed for her briefly before turning away, as if she were not the object of their focus. She smiled back over her shoulder.

Oriented away as she'd been when they came, Wasila couldn't turn discreetly to observe them; instead she heard the steps halt as one a short distance back, and they murmured to each other about a deplorable lack of one amenity or another. Robe cloth whispered as they drew something from their pockets, and Wasila tensed, but sensed no incoming curse.

A familiar smell trickled down the alley and over her shoulders. It gave her a natural opening to turn back, and she saw the twins leaning easily against the wall of the club, watching with polite interest, each pinching a lit cigarette.

"Like a stick?" The wizard withdrew a half-full pack from his robes and held it out open.

It was a small and notable gesture devised to win trust from the outset; their distance suggested his consent for the cigarette to be summoned out, which imparted his apparent absence of concern faced with her wand, in turn diminishing him as a potential threat from Wasila's perspective. There were mitigating factors, of course, not least the company of the sister or the dubious motive of an unprovoked attack. It was a subtle trick, and subtle was its intended influence. Wasila already had a clearer picture how so many had disappeared.

Her airheaded smile hadn't wavered. "Oh, no, thank you. I'm out here to get away from it, actually."

"Of course," the witch said, "how rude of us. Peak industrial age in there, isn't it?" She stubbed her light against the club's bricks and pocketed it, nudging at her brother. "Go on. I know it's new and frightening to be considerate, but there's a first time for everything."

He ignored her, looking with admiring eyes at Wasila. "That rendition of Warbeck's latest single nearly eclipsed the original, I dare to say. Marvelous. The harpistry in particular managed to sound both faithful and innovative. I have to wonder how many years of practice paid for that result."

Hairs raised along the nape of Wasila's neck at the current of excitement; the rumors had proved accurate. "Many more than I'd ever lay claim to out loud, I assure you."

"Are you casting a line?" The witch sounded amused, with a faint disdain to her tone that pleased Wasila, that she'd been taken at face value as a vapid entertainer. "Very well; you don't look a day over twenty-five, my dear. Not to worry."

"Oh, you have me figured," Wasila said with a chuckle. "My thanks. Sweet words such as from the pair of you nearly make it all worthwhile, you know."

The wizard leapt at her bait. "I do hope such rare talent finds itself a commensurate compensation at this . . . fine establishment?"

"I . . . get along." Wasila played evasive, embarrassed, looking away after the building she'd wondered at before. "What do you make of those odd noises?"

"An augurey, I think." The witch peered up at the chink of unblemished sky thoughtfully. "Doesn't look like inclement weather; the poor thing must be in terrible pain. It's a magizoologists' reservation," she said. "They rehabilitate and care for displaced magical creatures."

"They're getting the help they need," the wizard agreed, his tone betraying a bit of impatience. "Not everyone can be so lucky. Madam Juliette—may I call you Juliette?—forgive me if this seems a touch intrusive, but my remark about your finances seemed to have, ah, flustered you. I only bring this up because I believe, if I'm correct and you are in some state of want, that my sister and I can provide you with a most lucrative opportunity."

Wasila let conflict unfold in her expressions, indignance and hope and worry. "Oh?"

"A good friend of ours is desperately in need of someone with your talents. She's cemented plans to play host to a rather influential assortment of figures, and, to put it shortly, she must impress them. The problem is . . ."

"The main event," the witch said. "A ludicrously expensive harp, of all things."

"I see," Wasila said, portraying a poorly concealed look that marked her as decidedly out of her depth. "And what exactly would be expected of me? Am I to perform for this gathering of hers?"

The wizard shook his head. "Our friend has someone in mind for that already. No, what we need from you is much less trouble; the harp must be expertly tuned."

"Repaired," the witch amended, wrinkling her nose. "On my life, there's no chance the thing isn't malfunctioning in some way. The sounds its strings produce could be charitably classified as aural torture."

"This is quite irregular," Wasila said. She played up her feigned indecision, shifting her weight from foot to foot, darting her gaze away from their faces and back again. "But . . . it sounds like a simple enough errand. I'm afraid you spoke true in your assessment . . ." She trailed off expectantly.

"Jacob and Mary," the wizard supplied, his eyes glinting with a jaded sort of eagerness. His sister, more circumspect, retained a kindly look that wanted to burrow beneath the skin, like that of a shrewd professor.

"It's lovely to meet you both." Wasila gestured to the street beyond the alley's end, smooth stone walkways suffused with a dull gleam like so many interlocked bars of cooling forge-metal under the scorching sunset. "Shall we take a walk and talk further?"

Later that same night they apparated her side-along into a compact temple pitted and cracked with venerable age. Braziers hung from iron chains along the cramped dimensions and simmered with embers at the edge of death, staining the dark rather than chasing it away. The elegant arch of the ceiling pressed low over the chamber, ancient perforations patched with creeper snaking through like serpents into their den. The smothering dilapidation imparted the sensation of a premature burial.

It was, or had been, a mausoleum. This, from Wasila's formidable acquaintance with architecture, and the pale, unadorned sarcophagus resting in prominence against the face of the far wall. Curse burns scored the wall, black and gritty crumbling craters or glossy silver scars that shined like veins of dull metal. The echoes of every step seemed to stray beyond the confines of the building as though the walls weren't there to rebound the sound, only pretending to enclose, that something might be drawn in from without.

"A fine site for ritual murder. Not so suited for entertaining guests," Wasila said with a tense edge to her voice.

The twins left her side and approached the limestone coffin, Jacob leading her by the arm with a grip slightly too tight to pass as reassurance.

"This is only the antechamber." He glanced back at her narrow-eyed. "Our employer operates outside the bounds of certain archaic legalities . . . I'm sure we implied as much during our negotiations. Her privacy is paramount."

"Yet she's content to have a perfect stranger come along and have a crack at mending her charmed harp."

They stood before the coffin and turned back to face Wasila, mirrored features half-lit from above; the corners of their eyes crinkled in identical serpentine smiles. Mary tilted her head a little, as if Wasila's sudden reticence was a puzzling reaction—it might have been more effective at defusing the feigned anxiety if appearances weren't so laughably untoward. It was clear Aldemena and her outfit weren't accustomed to soliciting outside help.

"There are . . . vanishingly few with the expertise we need," Mary said softly, leaning the barest inch forward. The shade blurring her features failed to dull her intrusive stare.

"Mary," Jacob said through gritted teeth.

Her high voice went cold and thin as the atmosphere's edge; it had settled, her natural speaking voice. "Her owlery's not entirely empty, you know. The civilized act got us this far—I think we can retire it and pivot to what we're rather more practiced in."

"It really grates when you make unilateral decisions on a whim." Jacob paced back and forth, running a hand along the coffin's stone edge. He glowered between his sister and nothing, back and forth, and then stopped short and shook his head at the floor. "Never thought I'd say it, but I'm getting tired of unraveling these artful types. Takes all of ten minutes, if that—ten minutes of shrill screaming and sodden pants, and what has it gotten us, other than a series of wicked headaches?"

There could be no clearer cue for Juliette Maupin to get clued in; she thought of horrible things and let the blood drain from her face, clenched her fists against forced tremors and struggled to breathe in a suitably erratic fashion. She drew herself inward, took a few staggering backward steps, and the twins watched her without a twitch; there were already measures in place to cut Juliette off from escape.

Fortunately for Juliette, Wasila knew what to do.

"Then it's true. They were taken, all taken—but what did you do to them? Surely you didn't murder them—what—what purpose . . . ?" Wasila trailed off and had herself quail at their equilibrium, her legs twitching with suppressed adrenaline.

"Privacy is paramount," Jacob said, as if it should satisfy any qualms one could possibly express. "Can't have your lot singing for the aurors, can we? Never you mind it—I wager they're a stuffy audience anyhow. No, don't bother dashing off, dear—"

"Katabasis," Mary said, and Wasila flinched back, but the wand was aimed at the featureless lid of the sarcophagus.

"—you were lost the moment you let us apparate you." His teeth gleamed like polished pearls. He produced her wand from his robes—what he thought was her wand. "I'm afraid there's nothing left but to see the thing through. If you're successful, you might just make it out of this with your gullible little head intact."

Savage pleasure burned so strong and sudden Wasila had to press it down; there was nothing she despised more than those with power reveling in themselves, and nothing she loved more than devastating them, the moment of reversal that saw them realize they had been outclassed before the game had even started. She had lied to Drang; she would leave behind quite the impression here.

The coffin had slid silently apart to uncover a broad staircase descending toward distant torchlight. The stairs were of the same old stone as the corridor, and they were scored with thin gouges over the edges as far as she could see, claw marks fit for a full-grown lion.

"Walk," Mary whispered, pressing the tip of her wand into Wasila's ribs. "While you're still able."

Wasila mounted the steps and commenced the downward climb with the aching slowness of a death march. She shook and trembled, and pressed tears from herself to well up and trail freely down her cheeks. "Bastards," she said hoarsely. "I've never done you any harm. None of them had. Why don't you let me go—obliviate me! I can't betray what I don't remember!"

"You can, actually," Jacob said, his tone light and conversational. He ambled at the rear of their procession, fingers faintly hissing along the smooth stone wall. "Suppressed memories can be un-suppressed with the proper know-how, and that's all obliviation does, really. There's a club full of people who are very aware of your absence; your 'blackout' wouldn't go over long."

"Then don't suppress the memories, take them out! Take them out—!"

"Messing about in someone's memories . . ." Jacob tisked. "There's no neat and tidy charm for that. Bit advanced for the pair of us. Good chance you'd end up forgetting how to learn things, how to match words to their meanings, or some other such inconvenience—it's kinder to kill you outright, wouldn't you say? In that light, you should be thankful."

"Well done," Mary said over Wasila's rising sobs. "What reason has she to cooperate now? Imbecile."

"We'll torture her," Jacob said breezily.

"Because that's worked splendidly so far."

"They didn't lack for motivation," Jacob said, "just the capability. If she fails, it's on to the next. Right?"

Wand digging firmly into her side, Wasila descended with a halting, unsteady gait. At every step the despondent sound of her cries echoed further and longer down the staircase, offset by the cheerful tuneless humming that followed at her back. Mary prodded and threatened in a cool hiss that blew the mineral scent of nostryctum across Wasila's cheek. The knowledge of her captor's addiction afforded more than one potential means of immediate escape, but she shambled on against artful spasms of dread, senses straining for a hint of what awaited them at the other side of the archway yawning at the foot of the staircase, wider every step.

Under the cries, under the steps, the deep and ceaseless hum of flowing water pressed at the edge of hearing. Then came a whistle of air as Wasila pitched herself forward with inhuman reflex—Mary had shoved at her, and would otherwise have faltered against unyielding musculature—and she tumbled and rolled down the steps, her bones drumming a series of dull knocks along the stones, torchlights burning brilliant streams across her spinning vision until it and she slammed to a halt at the foot of the stairs.

Splayed out and tremulous, Wasila played at shock and pain with more pitiful bleating torn from her fluttering lungs. The archway awaiting her recomposure framed a smooth flowing channel dividing the adjacent chamber in two. As she watched, the chamber began to brighten from beneath, a dull ember glow mirrored by the smooth polished stonework of the crypt.

"—hell did that accomplish, exactly?" Jacob stomped the distance between and turned Wasila over with a foot, casting a critical look up and down. "She's fine, lucky for you."

"So what if she wasn't?" Mary took care to trod on Wasila's ankle as she passed them by. "We're going to hurt her anyway, as you've been so fond of reiterating. I intend to make the appointment in a timely manner—and I've heard quite more than enough puerile weeping for my lifetime."

"I shouldn't have to remind you Aldemena's already unhappy with you lately. What if you'd offed the one who could actually fix the damned harp, on top of it all?" Jacob seized Wasila beneath the shoulders and hauled her upright with a huff; she gave surreptitious aid, but still her density didn't go unnoticed. "Good lord. A little too sweet on the sweets, eh? Come along."

"Hold it. What are you talking about?" Mary slid between her brother and the archway. Past her, the chamber was divided by the rounded shape of a vast tunnel running across the crypt's pathway as if a colossal snake had burrowed through the walls, each end plunging off into complete darkness that seemed to lift in accordance with their proximity.

"What?" Jacob said, still steering Wasila by the shoulders. "She's got more heft than you'd think, that's all. Thought you wanted to get a move on?"

Mary prowled around them and observed from every angle like a predator wondering whether or not to expend the energy. Her fingers strayed near her pocket. "She doesn't look heavy."

"I wear it well," Wasila said with hollow bitterness. The sudden attention was inconvenient, and potentially catastrophic if she were discovered to be more than she appeared. She turned to meet Jacob's eyes over her shoulder and added plaintively, "Please, couldn't you show a bit of heart? I'll never be able to focus if I'm thinking of what comes next . . . have you anything to—to take the edge off? A bit of the black sand, perhaps? Just one hit, that's all it'd take, really."

Jacob leaned back a little and gave her a dubious look. "No, I don't. We need you clearheaded," he said deliberately, "or not at all."

"Please, I know you've got something—your nostrils, they're—they've got that black tinge around the edges." The dusky faded shade of the stains indicated that Jacob had quit his addiction some time ago, but Juliette didn't know that. She squirmed a little. "You must be holding. Look, it won't muddle me, it makes me sharper, I swear! You should know."

"I don't partake any longer, and as such I have nothing for you," Jacob said, his jaw barely moving in his vexation. "But if you don't keep quiet, I might find that I actually do have something to give, and I promise it won't be what you want."

"Oh, come, I just need something, anything to settle my nerves—Mary," Wasila said, "please, if you share even a little, I swear I won't make another sound—no, no, don't fuck with me!" In a heartbeat her entreating tone ascended to a shriek when Mary shook her head contemptuously. "You're carrying, you bitch, I smelled it on your breath! I need it more than you do, I won't lift a fucking finger without—!"

Wasila knew the pain was coming, but she wasn't prepared in the slightest. It was a sensation without equal, outside of experience, the sort of agony that memory scrubbed from itself the moment it ended. Her sanity frayed and snapped before she hit the floor. She had to escape, there was no escape, she had to escape, she had to die; every split second was its own devastating tragedy when the torment didn't overwhelm her heart, didn't dissolve her brain, didn't snuff out the abomination of living death her body had become.

It ended, and Wasila came back to herself in sharp gasps that strained her insides and made her throb like one whole pain-stuffed nerve. Her robes had gone wet. Beyond the rush of blood in her head she made out the raised voices she had so indelicately coerced.

"—told me you were off the stuff, damn you—you know exactly what—!"

"Yes, and it's my own business and no one else's. You're not Mother, Jacob, so take off her airs and start moving. She's waiting," Mary added. "How long do you want to push it?"

"Bloody stupid bint." Jacob hauled Wasila to a drunken stand and shoved her onward, through the archway. "This isn't the last word on it, you hear me?"


Thus swayed from delay, they conducted her across the chamber beneath a low sloping ceiling to the edge of a rushing channel. What had been a broad flow of water now glowed like molten gold and radiated only faint heat as it ebbed and swelled across the chamber from one deep yawning aperture to the other, splitting the stone pathway in two. Across the lava was a grand collection of recessed doorways, lifts, trapdoors, staircases and open corridors splitting off from the vast docking platform that jutted out broad enough to accommodate a fleet of full rowboats.

There were no tethered rafts or other craft waiting over the edge of the stone floor. The twins directed Wasila until she stood at the precipice looking out across the flow, feeling the enchanted warmth finally approach the stifling, suffocating heat that should've been. The burning glow blotted out edges and details in the haze of tears they brought, while the heavy atmosphere was blanketed thick with the smells of tortured air and charred rock.

The floor dipped beneath her, and she screamed.

A hand clenched painfully at her shoulder to keep her from tipping over the edge; the stone below had parted from its foundations at some unseen prompting and slid down to float along the surface of the lava. Warmth licked at her legs like the breaths of a dragon clutch crowding their mother. The impromptu barge sailed smoothly across the flow in a sidelong arc until they met the middle of the river, where it ceased its forward momentum entirely, ceding its impetus to the lethargic current coursing down the throat of the distant tunnel.

The far platform and its passageways slid further and further out of reach, and the mouth of the tunnel gaped wider, poised to gulp them down.

"One might think to herself that pushing her captors into the lava is a capital idea," Jacob said while the tunnel enfolded them, his tone that of a carefree tour guide. He still held her shoulder. "But alas, that poor witch would find herself disappointed."

Wasila snapped her head back with just the right amount of force, cracking him in the nose; he yelped and stumbled away, and a quick scrabble turned into a gelatinous splash that sounded more like a slop. Mary only watched with a mix of disdain and amusement as her brother dragged himself up out of the lava, dripping and trailing with melt that hissed and steamed in the air, and he muttered flagrant curses while he scraped himself clean.

"Turns out it was satisfying," Wasila told him.

She paid dearly for that small act of rebellion, though all the while she rationalized its worth; too close cooperation could be construed as suspicious. The journey down the tunnel passed with her face pressed against the scalding stone while she deafened herself with her own screams ringing along the cavelike walls. Existence was pure madness cut with interstices of torturous clarity, flickers of the twins' baleful gazes lit hellishly from beneath, their glimmering eyes piercing down to pin her limbs in place and pepare her for the next eternity of pain.

When she came to, a charm was dragging her body along another stone corridor, and Mary's venomous voice made the air shiver.

"—learn to control yourself. We still need her coherent."

"She hit me in the face, Mary. You can't vandalize a work of art like this—" his robes flapped as he gestured emphatically "—and get off scot-free. It simply isn't done."

"Your transparency borders on the juvenile. You were more than indignant—you were enraged, and not because she defaced that vacant expression of yours." A measure of sadistic pleasure was evident in Mary's voice. "She did what all the women in your life do. She made a fool of you. It so happens she bore the brunt of all that pathetic pent-up fury because she's the only one you have power over. That's what I think . . . am I close to the mark?" she finished with sickly sweetness.

Their procession came to an abrupt halt, and Wasila felt a lurch of anticipation. Someone yanked twice at the rope of a formidable iron bell. Jacob's voice was rough. "Another one for the harp."

"Aaah . . . enter." The answer from beyond came as a thrumming purr that sent a chill down Wasila's neck.

She upheld her unconscious act as the stone sliding beneath gave way to a soft, runway-narrow carpet. The twins' steps on either side clicked into a void of bouncing half-echoes through air that tasted of pungent incense and flowering desert dewdrops. Around them burbled fountains of running water streaming, tricking, splashing, and from some distance far above, the twitter of birds made frenetic music muddled by countless fluttering wings. Abundant light suffused her eyelids from on high.

They came to a sudden halt, and Wasila lolled across the floor, free of the locomotion spell. Something approached them from above, something that barely existed even to her primed senses; there was the faint suggestion of scratching on stone, the ghost of whispering air at enormous weight shifting lightly as a fly on a breeze. She held her hearing in doubt until a shadow blotted out all light falling on her slackened face.

"Another one for the harp," Jacob said cordially, "and an actual harpist, this—"

"I heard you the first time." The words came measured and deep, the sensual cadence affording an almost mystical quality. "I can hear the pattern of your breath, girl, the flutter of your mousy little heart. I know you are awake. Open those eyes and right yourself."

A cold, ill feeling coursed down into Wasila's stomach. She found her feet, dusted off her sodden robes, and lifted her eyes to meet the slitted yellow gaze of a sphinx.

Aldemena perched over them like her wrought kin of old, tail flicking lazily from left to right and back, long and slender as a whip. Her prodigious body, a perfect mold of corded feline musculature bound in hide gleaming like sun-bronzed wheat, was borne up at the center of an elaborate, vaguely wheel-and-spoke shaped series of catwalks crafted of craggy sandstone. Her perch formed the base of dozens of tiers that flew up to a ceiling nearly beyond perception, each offshooting branch of stone curving, swerving, looping, arching every which way to contort through each other and split the sunlight gleaming down. Birds darted and trilled among bristling greenery in the highest reaches of the grand edifice.

The sphinx rose to rest back on her haunches, her alien eyes reclaiming Wasila's focus. She tossed her mane of rich copper hair and wrinkled her nose in pronounced distaste. Her fangs glinted white when she spoke.

"You reek of urine."

Wasila huffed, casting her vision about the elegant fountains, the crystalline pools, the lush flora and the intricate network of sunlit mirrors adorning the chamber. "Here I thought there might be a massive sandbox nearby."

"Perfect," Aldemena said, baring her teeth in an unsettling approximation of a smile. "It seems your will is yet intact. You have need of it a while longer." The shift of her attention to one of the twins flanking Wasila uplifted a smothering pressure. Her next words electrified the air as a soft, deadly purr, delivered with a thoughtful tilt of the head.

"Put a name to the thing that resides by the ring bearer

That twines with the other when speaking in error.

The thing that does measure to the furthest extent,

Which, when used with a passion, is the exception, unbent?"

The sudden dead quiet pulsed with tension. There was nothing but a bloodthirsty sort of patience emanating from Aldemena's predatory stillness, and one minute after another crept by beneath the shine of her lamplike eyes. Gurgling waters nearly muffled the anxious cough and rustle of Jacob's robes on the wrong side; it was Mary being dissected with an unblinking stare.

Wasila hardly dared to breathe.

The silence stretched wider and unbearably wider, and the sphinx's mouth began to match it, revealing her teeth a few at a time until they had all been unveiled, looking sharp and horrifying as a neat row of lobotomy needles. Her claws kneaded once at the stone beneath to drag out an ear-piercing grind against the air.

Belatedly the answer presented itself to Wasila, and it nearly caused her to crack her composure. Instead, when Aldemena loosed a bloodcurdling hum and loomed closer, monstrous pupils dilating, Wasila inched an arm around the folds of her robes until it was concealed behind her back. With her hand hidden she performed a rude gesture at Mary.

"I—wait, wait, I have it—middle finger!" Mary said in a rush that was near incomprehensible in her distress. "The middle finger," she reiterated clearly, nearly panting.

Aldemena settled back with a low growl that rattled Wasila's bones. "Correct. You have earned another day."

Jacob released a sigh of relief. "Mistress, please—"

Aldemena's huge frame propelled itself more swiftly and silently than even Wasila could anticipate; in a breath she alighted before them with no more sound than the rush of air that came after, and Wasila jerked back a moment too late to avoid the razor teeth snaring her collar. Colors blended and bled when the sphinx leapt with her; the only constant was one enormous yellow eye fixed upward. Bound by bound Wasila hurtled weightlessly along as she was hauled up level after level of the infinitely tangled enclosure, her heart hammering in her ears, instincts urging her by turns to struggle or submit. Before she could commit to anything she struck stone and rolled limply onto her back, gasping.

"Come." Aldemena prowled over her and along the winding catwalk. "If you can find no use for your legs, I shall eat them."

The view was exquisite. In one parting glimpse it instilled in Wasila the sort of awe that came of beholding a natural marvel; the stone jungle weaved endlessly like the boughs of an ageless forest, sheltering one ecosystem beneath while nestling another above, cradling yet more among the middling heights, each with its own narrative related by all that resided there. Mirrors studded the distant walls or dangled free like flashing jewels, casting off light and screening shadow behind to mottle the chamber in flickering limbo.

The catwalk curved upward so steeply Wasila had to fall on all fours to maintain her balance. At its end it landed on the edge of what closely resembled a ballroom, for all that one far-flung side stood open to Aldemena's enclosure. The floor was formed of patterned tile tinged with vibrant blues and whites, the sharp, clean geometry worn dull about the center and more polished around the circumference. The far wall, built of a chalky, black-flecked granite, spanned a width and height sufficient to conceal an entire grid of Gringotts vaults.

Instead, several gigantic toga-clad humanoid figures protruded halfway through the stone, sculpted human shapes scaled up to the size of giants. Some stood clear by an arm and a leg, some leaned out from the chest upward, while a few managed only a single free hand. Each arm was held uplifted, palms flat, as if the congregation had posed amidst a waterfall for an artist to capture their likeness, met instead with petrification.

Beneath the morbid vision spanned a grand stage lit from glowing white quartz stones inlaid along the rim. Behind orderly sections of neglected instruments Aldemena sat perched upon the highest dais, beside a harp that seemed to steal the light around it, pale strings glimmering at the expense of the sphinx's deadly eyes.

"Approach now. You may resume gawking at a more productive proximity."

Wasila did as she was bid. A few paces apart from contact she knew it was the harp. She felt it as a quiver in her bones, as gooseflesh at the nape of her neck tingling a primal warning. Old magic clung to the wood burned so artfully with twining ivy patterns. The body's carving swept and flowed smoothly as ocean tides, the hollow chest a simple and elegant sternum from which the voice of the instrument would take shape. Cresting over the top, twisted and gnarled like an ancient unhealed wound, the harp's neck looked wrung to death, the blackened grain of the wood contrasting with the milky willow hues of the remaining frame.

"The twins have told you what I desire from this, I expect."

As Aldemena spoke her eyes traveled away toward her domain, narrowed and intent. Before any answer she drew in air like a hulking bellows and yowled, a sound so alarming it made Wasila's heart start over with redoubled effort. The screech, deep and visceral as a buried knife dragging through flesh, reverberated harshly from the ballroom to make broken echoes throughout the enclosure beyond.

The sphinx waited and watched, and Wasila followed her attention. They weren't kept in suspense long; the twins rose up on the air, ferried by the narrow red carpet that had decorated the entrance, and they landed wordlessly before the ballroom stage. Their skin shared a sickly pale shade.

"Mmm . . . look here. Look at my face." Aldemena stalked off the platform to stand over them, tail twitching to and fro. "I resemble your kind, do I not?"

The twins murmured their agreement. Mary met the sphinx's scrutiny, stiff and bloodless as a doll, while her brother's gaze flicked away and back.

"But beneath this skin, I am not like you. I am not unlike you, either. I deplore the experience of being deceived, as you do, yet I have not your instincts for reading the expressions your rounded little faces twist and pull themselves into."

Aldemena turned to pace a lazy circle around the twins, who clung to their stillness as if it would have them disappear. A faint whisper of air betrayed a searching sniff. Paws bigger than cymbals chose their way with incongruous grace, measured steps suppressing a power all the more disturbing for its deceptive quietude.

"There is a better way. Your bodies cannot lie; the sweat of your fear is distastefully plain to me. Tell me why I should confer any responsibility, any trust, onto a pair of trembling rodents who have failed me time and time again. Tell me why it is you whose scent rots of rage and retribution, and not I, who have given much and received but a reliable influx of disappointments in return."

"The constant danger of being eaten alive may have something to do with it," Mary said, voice wavering with repressed agitation.

In a careless motion Aldemena slashed deep furrows across the tiles, like an irked human swatting the air; the twins flinched at the harsh sound. "Danger begets drive. It makes you stronger, or it overtakes you and cuts short your useless existence. Either outcome is favorable."

"All due respect, Mistress," Jacob said, leaning away at sudden eye contact, "but, er, I don't quite understand how solving an endless series of riddles makes us any—"

"If you cannot wield your minds properly, you are little more than cripples of the most pitiful sort, and your lives," Aldemena said, leaning over his shoulder with a glacial display of teeth, "would serve better as fuel for my own."

Jacob dry swallowed, limbs rigid as those of the sculpture wall. "This is the one." He twitched his chin at Wasila without looking. "The wait is over, you have our word."

Nothing followed the promise into still air except the rolling punctuation of unsheathed claws treading the floor, a sound that nearly parted the skin to be so near it. Aldemena seemed to stare straight through the twins while she circled and circled like the conductor of some macabre ritual dance. At length she turned away and made for the ramp plunging down to her enclosure, not a hint of a trailing thought, like a cat whose plaything had finally keeled over.

Moments after she vanished from sight, her thrumming voice rung in from without. "If you are wrong again, I will present you to Vohra and his sons before I dine."

At that declaration Mary's face took on a grim cast, while Jacob looked faintly nauseated. They made their way up and around the deserted implements enshrining the stage to meet Wasila before the harp, trading meaningful glares and glances. Jacob rummaged in his pockets and drew out two wands, then offered one up with a grave warning in his eyes. His sister ran the tip of her own wand across her fingers pensively.

"Why did you help me?" Mary said, wand hand clenching white.

Wasila shook her head and ambled around the harp much like Aldemena had done to them. At the moment their angles obscured her arm behind her body she vanished the dummy wand and conjured her own, feeling a jolt of excitement up her arm at the reunion. The twins watched her with naked expectance.

"Can she hear us?" Wasila said without meeting their attentions.

Jacob let out a strained laugh. "Dunno."

"Doubtful," Mary said. "This place is bigger than the Dùjīn Shān goblin mines outside Shanxi. Answer me," she said, sidestepping into Wasila's path. Her features were taut with stress and suspicion. "It was the perfect chance to see your captor punished, suffering . . . eventually, dead. You stopped her." She sounded as if Wasila had done something as confounding as snapping her own wand.

Wasila wanted to reply with nothing more than a grin and a wink, but she still wore Juliette. Instead she jutted out her chin and gave a hard look. "Spending time in a place like this, it must be difficult to remember that not everyone relishes the pain and suffering of others, even their enemies. I'd sooner see the pair of you locked away."

"Well, that's never going to happen," Jacob said, voice dropping when he added, "for better or worse."

"Your employer . . . I'm not sure I understand this." Wasila swept a hand across an exhausted, beaten expression, letting her wand hang limp and useless at her side. "She's terrifying and forceful, no question, but with magic at your disposal, how can she threaten you like this? Couldn't you stop her?"

Jacob scoffed and shook his head as if at a fundamentally stupid question, but said nothing. It was Mary who answered with bitter venom hissing from her teeth.

"She's a being of magic, with all the resilient qualities that implies. It would prove about as difficult to do harm to the most robust subspecies of werewolf, but it could be done," Mary said, "maybe even in a way that sees us alive to relish it." She repeated Wasila's choice of words with vindictive mimicry. "The real flaw in that plan is its suicidal idiocy. Do you imagine Aldemena's gotten where she is with no more than her physical prowess? She has wealth, connections, and most importantly, exhaustive intelligence—in every sense of the word. More leverage and influence than some leaders of the magical world. We'd do better to eat our wands," she concluded, voice sinking to a mutter.

A rich, slow laugh resounded from afar and swept in to echo off the high walls of the ballroom, a chilling sound that stilled the blood, like the parting impression of a night terror that haunted a waking mind. The three of them froze while Aldemena's voice filled the chamber in the way of an unseen spirit drifting around them, crowing with sinister mirth. The laughter faded quickly as it had come, seeming to steal away the air with its departure.

Whether or not the timing had been coincidence, the cackle had sapped the twins' will to speak further, if their thin-lipped grimaces were any indication. Jacob took a few decisive steps forward and seized Wasila's wand arm, pinning it in place at her side; he jerked his head at Wasila and said, "Do it."

Mary nodded once and pointed her wand. "Imperio."

A pleasant warmth enveloped Wasila like a soft robe left in the sun. The tension in her body uncoiled, and she felt her concerns melt away under the spell's influence; she could afford to relinquish some control, as it was near impossible to discern anything worthwhile in a mind enthralled by the Imperius Curse. The caster's impulses overlapped and guided those of the victim in the manner of one wand hand upon another, navigating the swishes and flicks of thought that engendered the magic of action, the curse of consequence.

The only thing in the world Wasila wanted was to mend the harp. All consideration for what came after was brushed aside, passed off as inconsequential, and it was those thoughts Wasila furtively gathered back and preserved beneath a facade of placid cooperation. She took the stool behind the harp and commenced with a battery of probing spellwork before even considering laying a hand on the wood.

Char and ozone soured the air while she cast out with a careful succession of spells, reading cues in the fluctuating smells, in the tingles on her skin. It took little time for her to determine that the enchantments binding the harp were beyond her ken; she might as well have been poking at the springs and gears of some intricate clockwork device sitting inert, unfathomable, exquisite as a priceless art piece. There wasn't a hope for understanding the harp's workings without making it tick.

She set aside her wand and sat forward. The curse steered her course of action, but it was her mind and her memory that engaged her to settle into the natural resting position, hands like pale spiders perched nimbly upon the strings of their web without so much as a twitch of activity to tremor the tension. From the corner of her eye she saw the twins wince in unison even before she'd brushed the first pale golden string.

Wasila exerted her mastery over the instrument, stroking and stilling the strings with feather-light touches and gestures. The sounds that strained out made the air creak and squeal and scream like animated suits of armor cavorting through a massive heap of scrap metals, screeching and scraping from a thousand small scratches every inch they moved. It took less than a minute of perseverance for the assault to overwhelm her head with nauseating pain; Wasila ripped herself away, turned and vomited behind her seat. Sweat slicked her face.

The twins had stopped their hearing with a spell, but their drawn expressions still reflected the enervated way Wasila felt. It was a glancing observation; the focus of her gaze traversed again the height of the harp from the scrolled base, up along the scorched ivy-twined spine, across the withered neck, and back down through the flaxen strings glinting strangely within the unnatural lambent aura clinging close, lost motes of light drawn near to leave the surroundings in the grey cold.

It was as finely crafted as any rare thing Wasila had ever laid her traveled eyes on. There wasn't a hint of degradation in the charmwork bolstering its longevity and purifying its notes, nor did the construction itself suffer from any defects—

But it did. Wasila leaned in and studied the twisted, blackened neck, an aspect she had taken as wrought by Dagda for some esoteric purpose. If instead it were a warping caused by a curse, it would mean that a figure rivaling Dagda in potency had wanted for his cauldron to remain lost since the the inception of its legend. According to the historian, Fionn had never partaken, and Morrigan had. She'd been allied with Dagda. What better way to gain access?

Wasila flinched back a little at the twinge of unease that came. It could be the Nightmare Queen's spellwork there staring them in the face, circulating ruin through the harp like the poisons of a dead limb. The fancy flew off promptly. There had been no curse of such kind upon the instrument that Wasila could find; it was cursed, doubtless by its creator, but in such a way as to preserve and protect the harp from careless hands, not to unmake it.

Curious thoughts and wonders strayed and were corralled back on track by the curse smothering her in a complacent haze. Her thoughts turned back to Furnival and his accounts of Dagda, the brilliant recluse, the misanthrope. He'd seemed to cherish his solitude and begrudge its interruption but for a select few outliers. He'd had a daughter despite his lifestyle. Who had mothered that child? It hadn't been Morrigan, Wasila thought; the historian would've been unthinkably negligent to neglect such a significant detail.

An idea lit Wasila's buzzing mind up like a spark catching a fuse, burning a trail to the answer she needed. The old druid created the harp with a specific function in mind, a purpose; it was to keep his daughter safe, by providing her power over the emotions of those around her, and failing that, it was a means for her to seek him out through all obfuscations cast over his lair.

The instrument was one of navigation, a guide of some kind. The myriad charms Wasila had sifted through settled themselves in her mind, barely shifting her meager understanding, like a scant few loose puzzle pieces finding their places at one featureless corner of the picture. Nonetheless there was a suggestion of the whole.

The only way to use the harp was to play it, Wasila was quite sure; no magic on her part would avail her against the enchantments permeating it. Dagda wouldn't have wanted its employ to pose a challenge to his estranged girl. Wasila had played it, and had met a sickening backlash, as clear a negative indicator as anything could be. As far as reaching the cauldron went, Wasila was at present a fair way off course. But how would she change the sounds? How might it serve to guide?

Wasila's first theory was perhaps the simplest possible, connecting the harp's function to another tool for navigation. A rush of excitement swept through her curse-flushed body as she snatched up her wand, lunged from the stool and nearly skipped down the stage's several tiers, flying the harp after her with a beckon. The twins dogged her heels and barked out startled questions. By way of answer Wasila settled the harp on the carpet still resting on the ballroom floor, and she reclaimed her position behind the frame, bringing the carpet to a rise with an upward flick.

"Hang on there!" Jacob leapt onto the rug floating at knee height, his wand held ready. He glared past the harp at Wasila, wobbling briefly when his sister hopped up beside him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Settle down," Mary said, though she looked nearly as tense. "Idiot," she added, wiggling her wand under his nose. "She's following instruction. Whatever this is, she thinks it'll fix the harp."

The twins cringed away when Wasila began to play over again, the harp's gleaming strings screaming in their ears, a disturbing high rasp like broken teeth ground against a chalkboard. As she'd done on stage inside the Three Bells Wasila freed one hand for her wand, and with it she made a gentle loop overhead. The carpet supporting them initiated a slow rotation, spinning them in place, the desolate stage drifting out of view to be succeeded by the carven wall of towering supplicants.

On went her execrable performance against all instincts for self-preservation, suppressed in part by the curse and in part by her own obstinate will. The ballroom turned, the tiles nearest losing their sunlit glint when the harp drew near. The strings felt like gossamer against her fingertips. Wasila's bile nearly escaped her again, and her head throbbed as if any moment it might violently birth some parasite nesting in her skull, but despite the agony she played on, because the skin-crawling shrieks had softened.

Anticipation shot up Wasila's spine. Their strange floating spectacle maintained its slow circling until the harp was oriented toward the broad open view of Aldemena's glittering sunlit domain; there she halted their motion with a flick.

Gorgeous music swelled from the harp to brighten the shine of the strings, to lighten the air in her lungs, as if in reparation for the suffering it had imparted. Wasila's body nearly shook with the thrill of it, and with her directive fulfilled, it was no great effort to shirk the curse entrapping her thought patterns. She gestured her wand forward at the chamber beyond, and the carpet glided along; the harp trilled sweeter than birdsong along leaf-rustling winds. Wasila let out her elation with a genuine ringing laugh.

"Brilliant!" Jacob threw an arm over his sister's shoulders, beaming. "You've done it, after all this time—this is incredible—!"

"God . . . it's beautiful." Mary's stiff bearing had abated, her exultant expression so out of place on her face it gave Wasila a jolt.

She was using the harp. The understanding came all at once, a magical click of intuition on the same instinctual level which informed her of being observed from afar. Out of her ceaseless performance sang pure white notes, but the resonation through the twins' feelings, the intrusive touch, drew its power from Wasila's joy. She was manipulating their feelings with her own as effectively as the strings with her fingers.

It had always been the plan, but she hadn't expected it to come so natural.

An eerie series of notes bridged the emotional transition inside Wasila. She delved into the bleak recesses of her head, stripping away all the many-layered meaningless preoccupations that insulated her from what burned at her core, and she stoked the flames of her unslaked rage. The music seemed to shape suffering into sound so heinous it might forever corrupt the ballroom's atmosphere the same way as if it had seen a mass murder.

The change came over them in moments. Jacob's expression fell, broke and then resolved into the flared nostrils and bared teeth, the corded neck and the wide open stare of a barely coherent madman. His hand was white where it crushed his sister's arm. Mary's mouth twisted into a thin glower, her own eyes narrowed into bright deadly points. She jammed an elbow into Jacob's ribs and threw off his arm.

"Get your hands off me!"

"Agh! She-devil bitch—don't you dare hit—"

Mary punched him in the mouth, a flimsy blow just forceful enough to knock him off the carpet into a sprawl on the ballroom floor. He shoved himself upright, spluttering unstrung syllables in a voice that shook with hate. The strings of the harp wailed beneath Wasila's fingers.

"What's that? You're not making sense," Mary said. Her high voice had gone sickly-sweet and cold as poison. "I suppose your brain can't manage rage and speech at the same time—two tasks too many, perhaps. If only that mongrel of yours had been as stupid as you are." She smiled and shook her head in mock sorrow. "I might have let the little beast alone."

"What the fuck does that mean?" Jacob's voice came deep and raw, as if gouged from the lowest, darkest part of his heart. The tiles clacked when he rushed forward and seized his sister by the calves, his wand laying forgotten on the floor. "What did you do?"

"I fed it poison, of course. Did you really believe it had gotten into wild nightshade?" Mary's dispassionate fury was frighteningly focused, intent on delivering all the emotional damage in her power. "Yes, Jacob, I killed it, because like its master, it couldn't learn to keep quiet."

With a roar Jacob hauled her off the carpet to slam onto hard tile. He fell on her with his fists, bellowing and screaming wordlessly, and she shrieked and writhed beneath him. Wasila could swear she heard a high manic laugh as she spurred the carpet out from the ballroom back into the vastness of the enclosure.

The abominable music filled the chamber to the walls and distant ceiling. Beneath the visceral noise, other howls and shouts resounded from far off in all directions, across and above and below, beyond the hivelike apertures at the ends of the catwalks. The carpet dived and swooped down past the winding sandstone spokes while Wasila played the same series of notes repeating. Mirrors flashed from every angle, reflecting dozens of pale flickers as she darted past.

So close as if over her shoulder came a heart-stopping yowl. It was only then Wasila picked out the soft clicks of claws bounding down from walk to suspended walk; a stab of undiluted terror made Wasila spasm, and the carpet jostled and bumped upon a curving beam, nearly unseating her. Her beating pulse rose up to drown her head.

The entrance doors far beneath were still thrown wide. Wasila forced the carpet into a plunge when she heard a soft pant of exertion behind and above. The back of her neck tingled painfully. The harp's fine strings trilled frantic and shrill with her panic, and through a mirror she caught a glimpse back at parted fangs and bulging yellow eyes; the melody spiked with her intake of breath.

The flight passed her through a cloud of incense, and between the web of walks she could see the gardens and pools decorating the base of the edifice. The doors were still too far away. Horrible screams reverberated from the mouths of distant halls set in the walls; one of them shot up in volume, and a blur fell past her to hit a sandstone spur with a meaty sound, tumbling off to leave a dark splatter. Wasila swiped hot crimson from her vision.

When a breath touched her neck she pulled sharply out of the dive and shot through the doorway. Something landed with hardly a sound. She hung a left, clinging to the harp, and urged the carpet on down a series of stone halls. With her memory she traced the twists and turns, and at the point she'd been insensate, she followed a distant fiery glow. Quick scraping dogged her progress.

The stonework beneath gave way to the river of searing lava, bubbling black and radiating red. The heat was infinitely more oppressive, thick and suffocating, as if she'd shot down the hot gullet of a ravenous beast. While Wasila steered around the tunnel's curves she heard gouging. It came from the same distance back as she flew, not receding or nearing; she risked a glance.

Smouldering yellow eyes glowing in the burning murk. A nightmarish silhouette clinging to the tunnel ceiling, bounding and clasping with claws like meat hooks. Fangs gleamed a clean red when she screamed.

"Return to me!"

"Not likely!" Wasila called back.

A span ahead the tunnel terminated in a spot of brightness. Hot wind streamed against her and brought tears to her eyes; she blinked them out and edged forward along the carpet. A sharp crack of stone giving way sounded nearly above her. With a yelp she gestured upward and flicked with her wand, tossing up a tongue of lava to lick the roof of the tunnel mouth and solidify into stone. The crumbling clicks still shadowed her path; she'd missed.

The sudden bright nearly blinded her, but she angled right and darted through the archway, streaming up the broad staircase. Intermittent torchlight designated the way. Behind and below was the sound of stone violently gouged, sawed by scrabbling claws. Aldemena's breaths were predator silent, a whispering omen, open only to one interpretation.

Wasila cleared the staircase into the mausoleum and blasted apart the crumbling roof, shooting up into the cool night air under a silver moon. Up the wall after her carved harsh hurried scarring that fell silent before she disapparated.

Along with her into the interstitial void went Dagda's harp, and the rush of air that preceded the sphinx's leap by a hair.