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."
"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."