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Chapter 18 A Weapon for Others

  • Primo took Spyder and Shrike from the greenhouse to Madame Cinders' privat_uarters, which was located at the top of the minaret they'd seen from outsid_he -compound.
  • They climbed a stone spiral staircase that had been worn smooth over centurie_f use. Spyder had no idea how Madame Cinders got up and down the tower sinc_t didn't seem big enough to house anything resembling an elevator. Shrik_ugged on Spyder's arm, holding him back and letting Primo get ahead of the_n the stairs.
  • "Since when are you an expert on demonology?" she asked. "You didn't eve_elieve in demons until two days ago."
  • "My daddy used to say, `Just because T-bones are better eating, doesn't mea_ou shouldn't know the zip code of the brisket.'"
  • "What the hell does that mean?"
  • "It means, that even a useless tattooist can pick up a few facts that aren'_bout girls or ink," he said. "Jenny was an anthropology major. Studyin_edieval Christianity. I used to read her textbooks when she was finished.
  • You'd be surprised how hot and bothered a little demon and saint talk get_atholic girls. I still know Hell's floorplan, all seven Heavens and whic_ngels rule each one."
  • "You saved us back there."
  • "That sword trick helped. Someday you're going to have to show me how tha_hing goes from a cane to a blade so fast."
  • "Stay useful and I will."
  • They entered Madame Cinders' private quarters. The room was dark, as th_hutters, which were carved in traditional Muslim geometrics, were closed t_eep out the heat. Enough light came through the skylights that the opulenc_f the room was unmistakable. The walls were hung with tapestries and dar_urple velvets. The furniture, a mixture of low Middle Eastern style pillow_nd benches, was mixed with elegant European pieces and upholstered in ric_rocades. Delicate lamps of brass and milky glass dotted the room. Above a_mpire-style desk was an oil portrait of a young woman. Her skin was cream_nd pale, like liquid pearls, and her hair long and dark. She wore a high-
  • necked turquoise gown of a simple cut, but even in the painting it was obviou_hat it was of exquisite material and expertly made. In her hands, the gir_eld a book whose tattered cover and cracked spine indicated its great age an_onstant use. Spyder wondered if the girl in the picture was Madame Cinders i_arlier, happier times. It was hard picturing the wheezing wreck in th_heelchair as a girl, much less a pretty one getting her portrait painted o_er birthday.
  • "Yes, young man," said Madame Cinders. "A book. That is what I've brought yo_ere for."
  • "You want us to steal a book, Madame?" asked Shrike.
  • "The one in this painting?" Spyder asked.
  • Madame Cinders shook her head, moving the fabric of her hajib slightly. Spyde_ealized that the awful stench back at the greenhouse wasn't the exoti_lants, but Madame Cinders herself. The heavy incense in the tower couldn'_isguise the stink of her flesh.
  • "You're right, I am rotting." Spyder looked at the woman. He realized that sh_ould read his thoughts. Or was she just picking it up from body language? H_esolved to stand completely still and look directly at her.
  • "Do that, if it comforts you." Madame Cinders nodded toward Shrike. "She ha_o such worries, you see. Her world is black and full of secrets buried i_arkness and deeper darkness. That's why she's so valuable to me. What's a_ffliction to some, is a weapon for others." Madame Cinders paused as her pum_tarted up again. "I know you both have a questions, but let me tell you ho_he girl in that portrait became the creature you see before you.
  • "Since the time of the Great Divide, when all the Spheres of the World brok_ach away from the other, my family has guarded a book. The first book. I_ontains the true names of all things. Someone with the understanding to us_he book could blot out the sun. Turn the oceans to blood. Or close foreve_he doors of existence.
  • "The book was stolen from this very room and spirited to Hell by a demon. Th_ame Asmodai I asked you about earlier. Asmodai is known to possess vast an_rcane knowledge, so I assumed he had stolen the book for himself. After year_f trying, I managed to pursue him into Hell to retrieve the book that was m_esponsibility to guard.
  • "In Hell, I learned that Asmodai was now in the employ of a powerful wizar_ho now makes his home in that dank and depraved realm. It was he wh_ransfigured me from the young girl in the painting to the half-alive thin_ou see now. All of my strength and knowledge goes into keeping myself alive.
  • I haven't the power to fight for the book anymore."
  • The pump stopped and Madame Cinders seemed to sag for a moment, then sat u_traight in her chair, renewed by whatever potion or tincture had entered he_ying blood stream.
  • "I was arrogant," she said. "Full of pride in my magic and fury at losing th_ook. I forgot a fundamental law of the universe: that no mortal may look upo_eaven or Hell and walk again among the living. What power the enemy wizar_idn't bleed from me, I used up weaving a spell to escape that horrid place."
  • "That's why you sent for me," said Shrike. "Not because I'm the best assassin,
  • but because I'm blind."
  • "Because you are both, Butcher Bird."
  • "I'm not blind. What about me?" asked Spyder.
  • "You keep her on course, it's easy to see. She's a burning fuse. You keep he_rom burning out. And you can be made blind temporarily, with a simple spell."
  • "No way."
  • "Then blindfold yourself and hope for gentle winds in the underworld."
  • "Excuse me, Madame Cinders," said Shrike, "I don't want to be crass, but wha_ill be our payment for perform-ing this service for you?"
  • "Why, child, I'll give you back your eyes."
  • "Can you fix mine? Make me the way I was before, able to forget all this?"
  • "It is an odd request and I will not be so rude as to ask why, but, yes, wit_he book I could do that for you."
  • "It's not enough," said Shrike. Spyder looked at her. "You're asking us to g_o the most awful place imaginable and face both the legions of Hell and th_izard who almost killed you, a sorceress with more magic than I could eve_ope to summon. And our payment is to be nothing more than becoming who w_sed to be? Madame, there must be something more you can offer us or, despit_hatever threats you might care to make, we will have to refuse your offer."
  • Spyder was surprised by Shrike's tone, but could tell that she was in full-o_aggling mode. The traders in Tangiers had been the same way. It wasn't th_asy-going bargaining of Nepal or Mexico, but a verbal fist fight. Spyde_ooked at Madame Cinders, waiting for her counter.
  • "What would be enough, Butcher Bird? Your kingdom back? Revenge on you_nemies? Your father?"
  • "I barely recall my kingdom and my enemies will be damned in time. But t_aunt me with my father's death, I didn't expect such low behavior from a lad_f your standing, Madame."
  • Madame Cinders laughed and it sounded like bubbling sludge. "But your fathe_sn't dead, Butcher Bird. He's merely mad. Would you like to see him? He'_ere, not two rooms away from us."