“Magic healings here, Miss Lady, for the melancholy bowels,” someone called out to her, and she couldn’t help smiling as she shook her head in demurral. How about melancholy hearts? she thought. Was there a cure for that? Probably. There was real magic here among the quacks and touts. She knew of a scribe dressed all in white who penned letters to the dead (and delivered them), and an old storyteller who sold ideas to writers at the price of a year of their lives. Karou had seen tourists laugh as they signed his contract, not believing it for a second, but she believed it. Hadn’t she seen stranger things?
As she made her way, the city began to distract her from her mood. It was hard to be glum in such a place. In some derbs, as the wending alleyways were called, the world seemed draped in carpets. In others, freshly dyed silks dripped scarlet and cobalt on the heads of passersby. Languages crowded the air like exotic birds: Arabic, French, the tribal tongues. Women chivvied children home to bed, and old men in tarboosh caps leaned together in doorways, smoking.
A trill of laughter, the scent of cinnamon and donkeys, and color, everywhere color.
Karou made her way toward the Jemaa el-Fna, the square that was the city’s nerve center, a mad, teeming carnival of humanity: snake charmers and dancers, dusty barefoot boys, pickpockets, hapless tourists, and food stalls selling everything from orange juice to roasted sheep’s heads. On some errands, Karou couldn’t get back to the portal fast enough, but in Marrakesh she liked to linger and wander, sip mint tea, sketch, browse through the souks for pointy slippers and silver bracelets.
She would not be lingering tonight, however. Brimstone was clearly anxious to have his teeth. She thought again of the empty jars, and furious curiosity strummed at her mind. What was it all about? What? She tried to stop wondering. She was going to find the graverobber, after all, and Izîl was nothing if not a cautionary tale.
“Don’t be curious” was one of Brimstone’s prime rules, and Izîl had not obeyed it. Karou pitied him, because she understood him. In her, too, curiosity was a perverse fire, stoked by any effort to extinguish it. The more Brimstone ignored her questions, the more she yearned to know. And she had a lot of questions.
The teeth, of course: What the hell were they all for?
What of the other door? Where did it lead?
What exactly were the chimaera, and where had they come from? Were there more of them?
And what about her? Who were her parents, and how had she fallen into Brimstone’s care? Was she a fairy-tale cliché, like the firstborn child in “Rumpelstiltskin,” the settlement of some debt? Or perhaps her mother had been a trader strangled by her serpent collar, leaving a baby squalling on the floor of the shop. Karou had thought of a hundred scenarios, but the truth remained a mystery.
Was there another life she was meant to be living? At times she felt a keen certainty that there was—a phantom life, taunting her from just out of reach. A sense would come over her while she was drawing or walking, and once when she was dancing slow and close with Kaz, that she was supposed to be doing something else with her hands, with her legs, with her body. Something else. Something else. Something else.
She reached the square and wandered through the chaos, her movements synchronizing themselves to the rhythms of mystical Gnawa music as she dodged motorbikes and acrobats. Billows of grilled-meat smoke gusted thick as houses on fire, teenage boys whispered “hashish,” and costumed water-sellers clamored “Photo! Photo!” At a distance, she spotted the hunchback shape of Izîl among the henna artists and street dentists.
Seeing him at one-month intervals was like watching a time-lapse of decline. When Karou was a child, he was a doctor and a scholar—a straight and genteel man with mild brown eyes and a silky mustache he preened like plumage. He had come to the shop himself and done business at Brimstone’s desk, and, unlike the other traders, he always made it seem like a social call. He flirted with Issa, brought her little gifts—snakes carved from seedpods, jade-drop earrings, almonds. He brought dolls for Karou, and a tiny silver tea service for them, and he didn’t neglect Brimstone, either, casually leaving chocolates or jars of honey on the desk when he left.
But that was before he’d been warped by the weight of a terrible choice he’d made, bent and twisted and driven mad. He wasn’t welcome in the shop anymore, so Karou came out to meet him here.
Seeing him now, tender pity overcame her. He was bent nearly double, his gnarled olivewood walking stick all that kept him from collapsing on his face. His eyes were sunk in bruises, and his teeth, which were not his own, were overlarge in his shrunken face. The mustache that had been his pride hung lank and tangled. Any passerby would be taken with pity, but to Karou, who knew how he had looked only a few years earlier, he was a tragedy to behold.
His face lit up when he saw her. “Look who it is! The Wishmonger’s beautiful daughter, sweet ambassadress of teeth. Have you come to buy a sad old man a cup of tea?”
“Hello, Izîl. A cup of tea sounds perfect,” she said, and led him to the cafe where they usually met.
“My dear, has the month passed me by? I’m afraid I’d quite forgotten our appointment.”
“Oh, you haven’t. I’ve come early.”
“Ah, well, it’s always a pleasure to see you, but I haven’t got much for the old devil, I’m afraid.”
“But you have some?”
Unlike most of the other traders, Izîl neither hunted nor murdered; he didn’t kill at all. Before, as a doctor working in conflict zones, he’d had access to war dead whose teeth wouldn’t be missed. Now that madness had lost him his livelihood, he had to dig up graves.
Quite abruptly, he snapped, “Hush, thing! Behave, and then we’ll see.”
Karou knew he was not speaking to her, and politely pretended not to have heard.
They reached the cafe. When Izîl dropped into his chair, it strained and groaned, its legs bowing as if beneath a weight far greater than this one wasted man. “So,” he asked, settling in, “how are my old friends? Issa?”
“I do so miss her face. Do you have any new drawings of her?”
Karou did, and she showed them to him.
“Beautiful.” He traced Issa’s cheek with his fingertip. “So beautiful. The subject and the work. You are very talented, my dear.” Seeing the episode with the Somali poacher, he snorted, “Fools. What Brimstone has to endure, dealing with humans.”
Karou’s eyebrows went up. “Come on, their problem isn’t that they’re human. It’s that they’re subhuman.”
“True enough. Every race has its bad seeds, one supposes. Isn’t that right, beast of mine?” This last bit he said over his shoulder, and this time a soft response seemed to emanate from the air.
Karou couldn’t help herself. She glanced at the ground, where Izîl’s shadow was cast crisp across the tiles. It seemed impolite to peek, as if Izîl’s… condition… ought to be ignored, like a lazy eye or birthmark. His shadow revealed what looking at him directly did not.
Shadows told the truth, and Izîl’s told that a creature clung to his back, invisible to the eye. It was a hulking, barrel-chested thing, its arms clenched tight around his neck. This was what curiosity had gotten him: The thing was riding him like a mule. Karou didn’t understand how it had come about; she only knew that Izîl had made a wish for knowledge, and this had been the form of its fulfillment. Brimstone warned her that powerful wishes could go powerfully awry, and here was the evidence.
She supposed that the invisible thing, who was called Razgut, had held the secrets Izîl had hungered to know. Whatever they were, surely this price was far too high.
Razgut was talking. Karou could make out only the faintest whisper, and a sound like a soft smack of fleshy lips.
“No,” Izîl said. “I will not ask her that. She’ll only say no.”
Karou watched, repelled, as Izîl argued with the thing, which she could see only in shadow. Finally the graverobber said, “All right, all right, hush! I’ll ask.” Then he turned to Karou and said, apologetically, “He just wants a taste. Just a tiny taste.”
“A taste?” She blinked. Their tea had not yet arrived. “Of what?”
“Of you, wish-daughter. Just a lick. He promises not to bite.”
Karou’s stomach turned. “Uh, no.”
“I told you,” Izîl muttered. “Now will you be quiet, please?”
A low hiss came in response.
A waiter in a white djellaba came and poured mint tea, raising the pot to head height and expertly aiming the long stream of tea into etched glasses. Karou, eyeing the hollows of the graverobber’s cheeks, ordered pastries, too, and she let him eat and drink for a while before asking, “So, what have you got?”
He dug into his pockets and produced a fistful of teeth, which he dropped on the table.
Watching from the shadow of a nearby doorway, Akiva straightened up. All went still and silent around him, and he saw nothing but those teeth, and the girl sorting through them in just the way he knew the old beast sorcerer did.
Teeth. How harmless they looked on that tabletop—just tiny, dirty things, plundered from the dead. And if they stayed in this world where they belonged, that was all they’d ever be. In Brimstone’s hands, though, they became so much more than that.
It was Akiva’s mission to end this foul trade, and with it, the devil’s dark magic.
He watched as the girl inspected the teeth with what was clearly a practiced hand, as if she did this all the time. Mixed with his disgust was something like disappointment. She had seemed too clean for this business, but apparently she was not. He’d been right, though, in his guess that she was no mere trader. She was more than that, sitting there doing Brimstone’s work. But what?
“God, Izîl,” said Karou. “These are nasty. Did you bring them straight from the cemetery?”
“Mass grave. It was hidden, but Razgut sniffed it out. He can always find the dead.”
“What a talent.” Karou got a chill, imagining Razgut leering at her, hoping for a taste. She turned her attention to the teeth. Scraps of dried flesh clung to their roots, along with the dirt they’d been exhumed from. Even through the filth, it was easy to see that they were not of high quality, but were the teeth of a people who had gnawed at tough food, smoked pipes, and been unacquainted with toothpaste.
She scooped them off the table and dropped them into the dregs of her tea, swishing it around before dumping it out in a sodden pile of mint leaves and teeth, now only slightly less filthy. One by one, she picked them up. Incisors, molars, canines, adult and child alike. “Izîl. You know Brimstone doesn’t take baby teeth.”
“You don’t know everything, girl,” he snapped.
“Sometimes he does. Once. Once he wanted some.”
Karou didn’t believe him. Brimstone strictly did not buy immature teeth, not animal, not human, but she saw no point in arguing. “Well”—she pushed the tiny teeth aside and tried not to think about small corpses in mass graves—“he didn’t ask for any, so I’ll have to pass.”
She held each of the adult teeth, listening to what their hum told her, and sorted them into two piles.
Izîl watched anxiously, his gaze darting from one pile to the other. “They chewed too much, didn’t they? Greedy gypsies! They kept chewing after they were dead. No manners. No table manners at all.”
Most of the teeth were worn blunt, riddled with decay, and no good to Brimstone. By the time Karou was through sorting, one pile was larger than the other, but Izîl didn’t know which was which. He pointed hopefully to the larger pile.
She shook her head and fished some dirham notes out of the wallet Brimstone had given her. It was an overly generous payment for these sorry few teeth, but it was still not what Izîl was hoping for.
“So much digging,” he moaned. “And for what? Paper with pictures of the dead king? Always the dead staring at me.” His voice dropped. “I can’t keep it up, Karou. I’m broken. I can barely hold a shovel anymore. I scrabble at the hard earth, digging like a dog. I’m through.”
Pity hit her hard. “Surely there are other ways to live—”
“No. Only death remains. One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Nietzsche said that, you know. Wise man. Large mustache.” He tugged at his own bedraggled mustache and attempted a smile.
“Izîl, you can’t mean you want to die.”
“If only there was a way to be free…”
“Isn’t there?” she asked earnestly. “There must be something you can do.”
His fingers twitched, fidgeting with his mustache. “I don’t like to think of it, my dear, but… there is a way, if you would help me. You’re the only one I know who’s brave enough and good enough—Ow!” His hand flew to his ear, and Karou saw blood seep through his fingers. She shrank back. Razgut must have bitten him. “I’ll ask her if I want, monster!” cried the graverobber. “Yes, you are a monster! I don’t care what you once were. You’re a monster now!”
A peculiar tussle ensued; it looked as if the old man were wrestling with himself. The waiter flapped nearby, agitated, and Karou scraped her chair back clear of flailing limbs both visible and invisible.
“Stop it. Stop!” Izîl cried, wild-eyed. He braced himself, raised his walking stick, and brought it back hard against his own shoulder and the thing that perched there. Again and again he struck, seeming to smite himself, and then he let out a shriek and fell to his knees. His walking stick clattered away as both hands flew to his neck. Blood was wicking into the collar of his djellaba—the thing must have bitten him again. The misery on his face was more than Karou could bear and, without stopping to consider, she dropped to his side, taking his elbow to help him up.