A Smokeless and Scorching Fire

The civilians were dancing on the train again, stomping their feet to the heartbeat of the engine. Forced to sway to the rhythm by the movement of the train, Deacon crushed a sunflower seed between his thumb and index finger. An old woman seated across from him fanned herself with a handful of reeds. She glared openly at him.

“Bloody inspections,” she muttered to her daughter-in-law, whose head was bowed in respect and submission to her elder. “Isn’t enough the factory’s going to be shut down, but they sent a djinn to do it? Bad manners. Bad luck.”

She spoke Usu, a working-class language, and one that Deacon had been punished for learning. It was the one part of him the conditioning couldn’t reprogram—language. He betrayed no indication that he understood, but kept himself busy with the sunflower seeds he had bought at the city-station.

He wasn’t like these people. He didn’t dress in the body-hugging fashions, and if his loose black clothing didn’t set him apart, his pale skin and gray eyes certainly did. He hated his eyes, the mark of his inhuman origin. He knew how flat they looked, shallow and artificial.

It had been the first mark of his insanity. Engineered humans didn’t have opinions on physical appearance. Deacon wasn’t even sure when his madness began. Conditioning should have scrubbed his self-awareness away.

He crushed another seed, rubbing it into a prickly paste.

The passengers stomped their feet down harder. The whole carriage rocked with the frenzy of their excitement. How could something that moved so slowly be so loud? He listened idly to the life around him, pretending to be immersed in the shine of his own black shoes.

The old woman was still complaining about his presence. “It should be on one of the Sand-Beetles. It’s not right they put it here, with us.”

Ah. She took pleasure in misusing the Usu pronouns, neutering him with language. The cruelty of it stung more than her ill-informed slurs about his job, or his origin. The factory wasn’t his destination. His journey would take him to the desert. The factory was just a stop along the way.

He had begged carefully for this assignment. Traded contracts with other Inspectors and negotiated with the Administration. Not once did he let them know he wanted this. Wanting wasn’t allowed to his kind.

When he closed his eyes, he could see the endless sand, and himself, walking against the wind with his slim, empty briefcase. The sun would beat down on his skin, turning it from pale to bloody, raw, red. But the pain would be nothing. The starvation and dehydration, he would barely notice. It was a walk in the sunshine compared to the re-conditioning he would face if he returned to headquarters and confessed his malfunction. Again, another symptom of his insanity: He did not want to be conditioned. The pain. The illness. The invasion.

With great effort, he turned his attention away from his madness to the gossip in the cabin. This carriage held a fragment of a wedding party meeting up in the mountains, readying themselves for negotiations and introductions to new family members. What could they offer? What would they accept?

The best stories were shared in families. Remember when mama washed the floor with papa’s best bottle of kashaka? It peeled holes in the linoleum and she was drunk just off the fumes! Remember when Eliza wanted that boy from the—

“Cheap!” a young voice engaged him in the Official language, tearing him from the gossip about people he didn’t know and would never meet. Deacon raised his eyes to find a young boy, only eight or nine, holding out a bouquet of wilting flowers. Stubbornness prematurely aged the boy’s face. He shook the flowers insistently. “Cheap!” he repeated.

“Come away from him!” the old woman called out in Usu. “Didn’t your mother teach you not to speak to ghosts?”

The boy turned to her. “Then will you buy them, grandmother?” he asked in the same language. “If you had the credit, you would spend it on skin-cream.”

Her lips ballooned out and her eyebrows descended sharply. From kindly matron to formidable matriarch, the change was fluid, immediate, and well-practiced. “You speak to elders like that, you little bastard?”

This theater interfered with the natural rhythm of the train now. People strained their necks and backs to see the scene unfold, deciding on which side they would take. The ecosystem changed, the feet stomping out the dance around their vehicle seemed to rise to a frenzy, though Deacon knew it echoed only in his mind.

He hated confrontation. Another symptom of his madness. The desert, remember the desert. It waited. Calm. Empty. Silent.

“How much?” he asked in Official, trusting that the boy knew that much of his language at least.

The boy glanced back, surprised. “Cheap!” he repeated.

“How much?” Deacon waved a blank chip at him, its denomination waiting to be determined.

“Thirty,” the boy said.

An outrageous price. But Deacon was rich. Beyond rich. He had the wealth of the Administration at his fingertips, and what else would a djinn spend it on? Around him, his traveling company quieted. Intent on the transaction.

He tapped the amount into the chip, and gave it to the boy who promptly pushed it through the scanner hung around his neck while Deacon tried to select a flower. They were all exquisitely ugly, drooping in the heat.

To his surprise the boy shoved the now-blank chip as well as the whole bouquet onto his chest. Deacon barely had time to clasp his hands around the bundle of stems before the boy raced away down the compartment, dodging the frenzied dancers.

The old woman attempted to trip the boy with her cane, but he jumped lithely over this obstacle and the carriage door closed behind him.

Deacon felt rather foolish now, with his bundle of crushed flowers. They smelled like fried food and sickly perfume. He turned this unexpected purchase around in his hands, exploring the strangeness of it. Native plants certainly, by the waxy leaves and spiny petals. Water-efficient traits.

Would there be greenery then, scattered in the sands? He hadn’t imagined that.

And the sounds began again. The women muttering about the upcoming celebrations, the display of wealth sure to be on display. The men grumbling out stories and opinions to anyone who would listen. Deacon felt the thick leaves between his thumb and forefinger. Barely sixteen breaths passed before the door slid open again, slamming against the frame as a burly man burst into their midst. Big and square. Brown. Muscled and scarred from hard labor. His face creased with unkindness.

He scanned the gathering.

“Where’s the boy?” he asked the rest of the car in Usu. Nobody answered, just stared at him. Even the old lady’s lips tightened. Information was notoriously hard to get out of the working class, but a question required truth from an inspector. Deacon considered fighting the conditioning to keep silent, but even as the thought of resistance strayed through his thoughts, his stomach began to roll, and the phantom daggers of pain began to dig through his scalp.

Lying, even by omission, was not worth the pain. He needed to save his strength. “He went that way,” Deacon said, pointing to the door the boy had left through.

But the man caught sight of the flowers in Deacon’s hands. He gestured rudely toward them. “Stolen. Take.” His Official sounded even worse than the little thief’s. Official was a clean language, free from the guttural inflections he clipped into the syllables.

Shrugging, Deacon held out the flowers, but the old woman interfered again. “He’s an inspector, you fool. He’s already paid for them.”

The stranger scowled, and took a step forward to see Deacon clearly. Behind him, a woman appeared in the cabin’s open doorway. She surveyed the crowded carriage with disinterest and distaste.

But she had captured everyone else. Even the presence of the loud, aggressive man faded beside her.

Her dark hair, was bound in plaits by copper wire, and caught by tiny leaves forged from gold. Each strand glimmered with hints of red henna. She swayed hypnotically to the beat of the train, seeming to slow even its frantic pace.

She wore a bride’s veil that hooked over her ears and the bridge of her nose, but the sheer fabric did nothing to hide her face.

It served as only a token attempt at modesty.

“Don’t look at her,” the old woman muttered to her daughter-in-law, loud enough to warn everyone in the cabin. “That’s Mahati’s woman.”

Mahati’s woman stood no taller than Deacon, but she stood with a dignity that gave the impression of height. She wore a dress of intricate chainmail, links of silver wire and drops of metal bead that shifted with a delicate sound when she moved. A light cotton shift kept the metal off her skin and accented the extreme contours of her body.

None of this caught his attention more than her eyes.

Elaborately outlined with kohl, they found him immediately. An expression of understanding, of some deep communication, gleamed in those eyes when she fixed her gaze on him.

She walked forward, past the man who said something to try and stop her progress. She brushed him off like a safari fly and sat beside Deacon.

“What use does a ghost have for flowers?” Mahati’s woman asked, her husky voice lending an exotic lilt to her Official.

“What use does anyone have for flowers?” he returned flatly.

She laughed, as if he had said something funny. He tracked the arch of her jaw, calculating the slope of her neck. She was a creature of pure mathematics. To anyone else she might have been beautiful, but he had not yet lost that much of his sanity.

And he remembered the desert. In the sand, his flesh would be stripped away by the winds, ravaged by sand-beasts who wouldn’t care that his flesh had been engineered.

“Take them,” he said, thrusting the bouquet out to her. “I don’t know why I bought them. I didn’t know they were stolen.”

She hesitated, her eyes traveling to his face.

“Don’t you dare, Axeonos,” her companion said sharply, but he made no move toward Deacon. He feared the djinn as well, it seemed.

She took the bouquet. In these crowded quarters, with the afternoon sun still glaring through the windows, sweat shone on everyone’s skin.

But not hers. In the first-class carriages, the heat never made it past the doors. Her cold fingers brushed against his skin as she withdrew the bundle of waxy leaves.

Immediately silence engulfed their fellow travelers. Deacon gazed around at their audience, and followed their attention back in time to see the man’s face darken with anger. The woman relaxed against the bench, and through her gently shifting veil Deacon could see a dangerous smile, badly-hidden triumph.

The man started to shout, not in Usu or Official, but some derivation of a mountain language.

“Is something wrong?” Deacon asked the woman.

“Nothing at all, alma-ami,” she said sweetly, taking his hand in her own.

My Soul. The endearment was stressed. He tried to pull his hand away, but she didn’t let go. “What is wrong?” he asked the still-silent train.

The grandmother who insulted him answered for the crowd. “Bond-flowers,” she said. “Your woman now.”

Between her broken Official, the now iridescent anger of the strange man, and the woman’s hand still encasing his own, he understood. A local marriage ritual.

The desert was slipping away from his grasp. His masters would learn of this. He would have to report this. There would be an investigation. They would catch him and recondition him.

“I didn’t know,” he said, trying to shake her hands from his own. “I didn’t—”

“It’s too late now,” Axeonos said triumphantly. “We are bonded now.”

“I can’t—”

“You have not been registered,” her keeper said in Usu. Deacon wasn’t a part of this conversation. “You are not married yet.”

“He’s an inspector,” she answered smugly in the same language. “Registration won’t be a problem. We are married in the eye of the God now, and you can tell Mahati to suck his own cock.”

“You can’t marry a djinn,” the man sneered. “Mahati will see you stoned for it. I saw you give the flowers to the boy, I saw you.”

“Excuse me,” Deacon broke in weakly. “I did not know. I am sorry, but it isn’t legal for me to—”

They were not listening to him.

“He offered the flowers, and I accepted,” she said. “You want to fight him for my hand?”

Another moment of stillness fell over them, as if the man actually contemplated violence.

“Don’t be a fool,” the old woman hissed to the thug. “That’s a damned djinn. They’ll skin us all and starve our villages if you touch him.”

The truth. The Administration protected its Inspectors. They had to, when it was so expensive to make them, and they had the tasks that made the Administration so unpopular. If an Inspector was harmed in the execution of his duties, an example would be made of anyone and everyone who had been present.

Silence on the train. Stillness. Two more men entered the carriage, and engaged their leader in hushed, confused dialog in the language Deacon couldn’t place. The woman’s grip on his hand tightened painfully.

“Please help me,” she said quickly, softly, to make sure that no one else could catch the exchange. “Please.”

“I have to get off when we reach the desert,” he said to her. “I’m sorry—”

“You hear that?” she called shrilly to the man and his entourage, hearing nothing of Deacon’s muttered explanations. “We’re getting off at the next stop!”

When he stepped off the train, Deacon could see the desert behind the city. The low and level hills swallowed the garish lights of civilization. Tomorrow he would walk into the scorching sand, and in a few days, he would die somewhere out in that untraveled expanse.

“You ever been to Dhulba-Sahuli before?” the woman asked.

“No,” Deacon said, and he walked away.

She had only one small suitcase, which trailed behind her like an unwilling pet. It rumbled against the stone behind him, a constant reminder that she followed in his wake.

When they reached the dormitories, Axeonos would not follow him inside. The rumble-shriek of her little suitcase ceased, and for some reason, he stopped as well.

She told him, “I am not spending my wedding night in there.”

“It is not your wedding night,” Deacon said—a variation on the same thing he had been saying since they had met. “I am not your husband. We are not registered. I will not register you. Tomorrow, your man said he would come for you.”

She flicked a hand in the space between them and huffed a dismissal. Still, she didn’t move toward the opening gate, and neither did he. “These are my lodgings,” he told her. “Why are you not satisfied?”

“Satisfaction has little to do with it, alma-ami,” she spat the endearment mockingly. “Tonight is my wedding night. Use some of my dowry. Let’s go to the Dumaux, or the Shalloota.”

“What would the difference be?” he asked. “There are beds here. We will sleep, and then in the morning we will both be gone.”

Because she wouldn’t follow him, he was forced to wait. Why though? He should just go in and leave her on the street, but he couldn’t seem to move his feet. She watched him, her magnificent eyes narrowed, her hip crooked out, and her hands held on her waist in a colloquial pose of restrained anger. He waited.

“Tonight,” she said softly, “is my first night as a free woman. I will not spend it in a prison.”

“It is not a prison,” Deacon said mildly. “It is temporary. We can leave anytime we want, just like the Dumaux or Shalloota, and unlike at the Dumaux or Shalloota, here there are free meals, and bedding, and company.”

“Listen to me, you—” she lapsed into Usu, “blood-sucking, penny-grubbing, pale-face, moronic djinn—” and back to Official, “I will absolutely not spend a single night in that concrete cage. With or without you, I am going to the Shalloota, and I am going to have their most expensive meal, and dance in the most expensive dress I can find.”

At Deacon’s silence and stillness, she huffed low in her throat. It was a growl, Deacon noted, like a jungle cat. He watched her spin and stalk away down the street, still trailing the tiny suitcase.

He followed her.

They walked down streets and through alleys, Deacon always twenty measured steps behind her. She didn’t buy a dress as she threatened. None of those stores would be open at this time, but she went straight to the Shalloota, with its fat columns and sweet-smelling gardens.

She danced in the night-club attached to the building, under red and blue lights. She danced in the dress of metal rings, alone. She flicked her hands toward the ceiling and curled her fingers as she beckoned to something that couldn’t answer, the sway of her hips leading the music.

Not once did her eyes stray to Deacon who stood patiently by the door, by her small pack. She didn’t dance with or for anyone. She danced for her own sweat, and when he could see her eyes, they were large and liquid, inebriated.

He should have left. He should never have followed her in the first place. He should never have taken the flowers.

He stood a half-pace behind her when she booked a room. Her limbs were jittery with energy found on the dancefloor. Her sweat smelled sweet and foul in the air.

She brushed past him, and he trailed her to the hotel dining room. They were shown to a table by a waiter who inspected them curiously but said nothing. Perhaps he thought Deacon was here to question the woman. Or that she held a position in the Administration, and took advantage of it.

“Don’t annul the marriage,” she said abruptly, when they were alone again.

“Why?”

She glared him, but the appearance of their menus stopped her answer. The waiter filled their glasses with water, but before he could move away, the woman held out a hand to stall him.

“Every appetizer, and your most expensive meal,” she commanded the young man, “And lobster.”

“Yes Madam,” he said politely, “And you sir?”

“Just water,” Deacon said.

No questions. The waiter left, and the woman tossed her head aggressively. “I won’t agree to an annulment.”

“Inspectors cannot get married.” And then purely for his own, perverse curiosity, he asked. “Why do you want to be married to me?”

She shrugged, averting her eyes.

“You tricked me,” he reminded her gently.

“I was not given a choice,” she said. “Why should you? At least now we are even.”

The food arrived on a variety of silver platters, carried by a flock of waiters. The dishes covered the table and spilled out onto the makeshift trays set up on rickety stilts. Still, Deacon insisted the place in front of him remain empty. His own makeshift desert, surrounded by plates piled high of exotic food. There was so much. Too much.

At the center, between them, sat the promised lobster. Insectile. Armored. A shade of red that should be impossible to achieve naturally.

“Help yourself,” she said airily. “I will not be able to finish it.”

The absurd display of food seemed somehow more real and vivid than the room around them. The shapes were smooth, bloated with flavor. Every dish had a distinct scent, but together they coalesced into an exotic perfume that pulled on Deacon’s stomach.

Greed was a herald of madness. He could give in and devour everything in sight, eating and eating until even his body broke. He delicately picked up a crystal glass, the liquid inside clear. Tasteless, but quenching.

Tomorrow there would be no water. No food.

She frowned at him. “You don’t want to eat?”

His mouth watered, his stomach growling, and his head grew light with the aromas of rich food. “I can’t.”

“You can’t eat? I saw you eating seeds on the train. Or are you really a ghost born of smokeless and scorching fire? Is it mortal souls you hunger for?”

She grinned, trying to excite him into ritualistic play.

“No,” he said, and this was painful, the conditioning was a pleasant memory in comparison. Torture could not have been more compelling. “I can’t want to eat.”

She cocked her head curiously, the smile peeling from her face, discarded in an instant. “You don’t look like you can afford to skip this meal.”

“We haven’t even been introduced,” he said, clasping a hand around the glass of water. “I would have thought a marriage ceremony required more . . . words.”

“My father is a traditional man.” She turned her attention back to the meal. “If it makes you uncomfortable, my name is Axeonos.”

“I am called Deacon,” he replied cordially. Politely. As he had been conditioned.

“I didn’t know that Inspectors had names.”

“We don’t have much cause to use them. How did you learn Official?”

“My father.”

Her tone was bitter.

“Was he a good man?” Deacon asked mildly.

“He sold his only daughter to a gangster,” she said. “To me, he is a spider.”

“Why is he a spider?”

“He could have made me and my brothers a home, but he only ever wove traps and he grew fat off the men who tangled in it. His home was his own. He did not share. A spider.”

“I’ve always liked spiders,” Deacon said experimentally, because he did not know what else to say.

“Oh, he was useful,” she agreed, “Just as spiders are useful to keep the other insects in check. He taught me how to write and read, how to properly speak Official, and how to balance books. He supplied me with tutors, and anything I wanted, but in the end, I was only bait.”

“Not anymore though,” he said.

“Never again.”

“And what’s to stop him from claiming you again? Or this Mahati?”

She stiffened, the food frozen on its way to her lips. “What do you know of Mahati?” she demanded.

He winced inwardly. A mistake. It was a miracle he hadn’t already been caught. The desert, the desert. One more night of pretending at sanity, and he would be free. “I’m an Inspector,” he said. “We know all kinds of things.”

“No, you heard it on the train! You can speak Usu!” she said triumphantly. “I knew it!”

He nodded and she frowned, her victory stolen. “You admit it? I thought Inspectors aren’t allowed. It is a punishable offense, no?”

“It is.”

“Then why tell me?”

“I cannot lie,” he took another mouthful of water. Poison. Bright light. Pictures that moved so fast he felt sick with their movement. “I have been conditioned.”

She sat back, a glass of red wine in her hand shone deep and clear—casting its own kind of light. Her eyes caught on his face, on his own eyes which he hated and his pale, untried skin. “Good to know,” she said.

“You sound amused.”

She hesitated, her eyes rolling to the ceiling as if considering her own emotions. “Just . . . speculative.”

She fell silent for a while as she savored her food and he drank water to keep himself from wanting to taste everything on the table.

The waiter had to fill his glass twice.

“Mahati?” he reminded her.

She shook her mane of dark hair dismissively. “What can he do? I am married to an inspector, and it would be foolish for him to try anything now. He will go to my father, and that is hardly my problem.”

“You said he was a gangster,” he said. “Will your father get hurt?”

She hesitated, her eyes dark and veiled. “No,” she decided. “My father killed Sasha, the man I loved, to prove that his contract was in good faith. He will also most likely kill my dogs to spite me, but there is too much good history between him and Mahati for this to end badly between them.”

“Sasha,” he mused, balancing his glass between two fingers.

“Was not a good man either,” she said bluntly. “I loved him anyway. But he is dead, and they cannot hurt me anymore, not if I am married to you.”

Fabric covered every possible surface of their luxurious room. Carpets, the drapes above the beds, two layers of curtains over the tall windows, thickly upholstered chairs and footstools, it was all too much. Deacon felt like he was sinking.

Extravagance like this wasn’t meant for him. Only real people could appreciate the softness and the exquisite colors.

He left his briefcase on the table and stood beside the bed, focusing on the street outside the window. Chairs and tables were set outside under soft neon lights of every color. The glowing canopy zig-zagged between the buildings in every direction, marking the extent of the celebration.

“The bed is big enough for both of us,” the woman said. She had already collapsed onto the covers, her hands writhing under the pillows, searching for an edge of the sheets.

“I have work to do,” he said absently, staring down into the starkly lit street.

“All night?”

“Yes.”

She huffed a disbelieving laugh. “You haven’t even visited the factory yet. I think you are skittish. You needn’t be. I am too tired to poke fun at my djinn tonight.”

She wasn’t drunk, but obviously exhausted. Deacon said nothing back to her, keeping his gazed fixed on the distant desert, just visible through the buildings. She muttered a curse, then groaned with effort. Deacon didn’t have to turn to know she was undressing.

A sigh of release. The sound of metal rain, as she discarded her chainmail beside the bed. “I’m not naked,” she said to him, a smile in her voice.

He turned to see her sitting up in the bed, wearing the simple cotton shift that had kept the metal off her skin. She looked better. Less dangerous. “I think under the circumstances, God will forgive us if we do not consummate our marriage tonight.”

Under his gaze she removed the metal ornamentation from her hair. There were many pieces.

“I don’t believe in God,” he said.

She shrugged. “I suppose it is hard for you. You were not made by him, after all.”

“No,” he said, “but I don’t believe he made you either.”

“I believe you were made from fire,” she said, “like the old books say about the djinni.” She struggled with a clasp at the back of her head. “I can see it in your eyes.”

Again. She was trying to be playful. No one had ever spoken to him the way she did.

“How did you keep your head up, under all of that?” he asked, not sure if he was trying to make a joke. Not likely. He had never had a sense of humor before.

“Practice,” she said.

Deacon turned away, back to the desk. He sat down, ignoring the way the pillows encased him, molding to his back. He opened the briefcase only to be staring down at his forbidden treasures.

The evidence of his insanity.

He ran his fingers over the golden watch—an antiquated thing. The smoothness of it had first captivated him. The symmetry of its lines. There were other things too. Postcards from the cities he had been sent to examine. A stolen painting—the memory of that pain still bit at him as he brushed a hand over its colorful smudges. It was a simple portrait of a man at a desk, the light catching on golden buttons and, the folds of his ceremonial dress mysterious and dark. Deacon did not know why he took it—only that he had to have it. He had to possess it, because it pulled on something in him—an urge stronger than that he had been trained into.

He ran a thumb over the corner of it, feeling the phantom burn that came with guilt—another emotion he supposedly could not feel. Axeonos began to snore, startling him into movement.

He could not linger. He would need all his willpower and strength to complete his final act. He pulled the table from underneath his treasures.

The form only had two questions. He was supposed to visit the factory. He was supposed to shut it down. He took the job for that reason. If anybody bothered to see why this desert town leaked money and resources, he would be long gone, and they might guess at his victory.

He shouldn’t be able to lie, but he was insane.

And that helped.

Is the factory profitable?

No.

Yes, he wrote carefully, feeling the betrayal in every nerve of his body. He stared at the word he had written, felt the wrongness of it in his bones. It started as an itch, a burn.

His shoulders stiffened. His brain rebelled. Untruth! Pain. He let out a shaking breath. The woman snored behind him. How much time had passed?

Notes during Inspection:

He readied his stylus and steeled himself. His imagination. How they would wonder at it—how all their conditioning, all their tests had failed.

And his bones in the desert, scraped and bleached white—a monument to this one act of disobedience. He would win.

Dawn peeked under the bathroom door when at last he finished. He had been sick twice, and even now sweat soaked through his clothes. He shook, unable to grip the stylus.

Axeonos had slept through it all. He had retreated to the bathroom to keep the pain to himself. He stood on shaking legs and let the tablet clatter onto the counter. He didn’t let his eyes focus on it again. It was bad enough to know what he had done without having to face his crime.

His fingers were so numb, the buttons on his shirt became almost unmanageable.

The shower thawed his fear and melted through his icy skin. He hugged himself and turned around and around under the torrent, trying his best to soak in every drop of hot water.

Water. There would be none in the desert. Not even enough moisture in the air to keep the sweat on his skin. He closed his eyes and saw himself striding among the dunes.

With his resistance finished, he was released from the compulsion to faint or vomit, though his eyelids felt like sandpaper, and his mouth tasted like blood,

He reveled for a long time before a knock on the door startled him back to his guilt.

“I know it is not possible to use up hot water in the Shalloota, but it seems you are trying.”

The woman.

“I’ll be out in a moment,” he called back, his voice rough from a night of muffled screams.

He switched the water off, scrambled for a towel, and gathered his clothes. As he opened the door, she brushed past him. The sun had risen while he had been in the shower and golden light filtered through the large windows. Outside, vendors were calling out wares, their voices undulating in rhythm with the sounds of foot traffic.

Deacon peered down at the city as it set up for a parade. The streets were full of sound. Instruments warming up, chatter and laughter as the festivities took shape. Barriers rose along the sidewalk, and the beginning of celebratory noise filtered through the air.

His heart began to pick up, a strange sort of excitement rising in his chest, in his head, answering to the noise outside. A madman and a liar, he was. He hissed wordlessly and forced himself away from the window. His only destination today was the desert.

He laid his clothes out on the bed. They were rumpled, and smelled like sweat. It was a uniform of sorts. A blue shirt, black pants, black jacket, black shoes, white collar, all mass-produced for Inspectors.

He ran his hands over the fabrics, smoothing out the wrinkles and spots. Idly he picked at the cuffs, examining the scents of yesterday—the train, the meal, the woman.

The door opened, and he turned.

She was wrapped only in a towel, and for the first time he saw her bare face. Even unadorned by makeup and jewelry she struck him as a fascinating creature.

“What is this?” she held up the tablet, the screen trembling in her hand.

Deacon paused. “Work,” he said.

“What were you going to do? Where were you going, if you had already signed off the factory?”

She was afraid. Now he hesitated, but the words were pulled from him. “To the desert,” he said.

“Why? There’s nothing there but sand for a hundred miles.”

“I was going . . . to walk,” the words forced themselves from his lips.

She frowned. “Where?”

“I was going to walk until I couldn’t.”

Her eyes widened. “Why?”

“Please,” Deacon asked her, “Please don’t make me—”

He was too weak to fight the conditioning now.

“Tell me,” she commanded.

“I have gone mad,” he blurted as the familiar pressure began in his head. The will to answer.

She drew back, her brows furrowing in fear and shock.

Of course. He was disgusting, useless. A shadow of his purpose. “I am insane,” he confessed again. “And when they find out, I will be reconditioned. They will torture me with poison and light, to force me not to want. Not to lie. Not to think.”

“I do not understand,” she said.

Too late now, the desert beckoned in the distance. She would report him, and the Administration would come for him. And then he would be forced back into training.

“How are you mad?” she asked steadily. She stood still and straight, unadorned.

He ran a hand down his face in a claw, scratching at his brow and the bridge of his nose. “See this! This is the face of an Inspector, the body and mind of a djinn!”

She retreated, but he went after, reached for her, grasped her wrists, and pulled her close. “Can you see it?” he asked desperately. “The madness? Look at me. You must be able to see it. It must be obvious now.”

Her chin trembled; she tore free. “You are scaring me.”

“No! No! Watch!” he ripped open the briefcase, and showed her his treasures. Those he would take into the desert. He had tried, had been fighting his symptoms, and all the while these things had been corrupting him, turning him inside out with addiction and fear of discovery. He was helpless.

“See?” he said, holding his breath as if afraid to break her concentration. “Do you see it?”

She held her hands over her chest, fingers clasped together as if in prayer. “Oh, my djinn,” she whispered.

But her expression stilled him. Instead of fright, he read something else. He frowned. Was that delight? Amusement?

No. She had corrected him.

It was speculation.

The day was long, and full of beauty. They ate in the café, amidst crowds of people. She bought the most expensive dress she could find, and they wandered in and out of the shops on the main street. Food. Entertainment. They spent money as if it were sand. Time passed quickly, and that night they wandered into the parade, hand in hand, fingers woven together.

The lights spun around them, laughing faces, such a variety of people and costumes. It all blended together. He felt giddy, breathless.

The woman dragged him to an alley, where the stream of people passed by unseeing, like water over rocks, like wind over mountains. This was a pocket where together they were unhurried, protected by darkness and enclosing buildings.

“Would you leave me now?” she asked.

He gazed at the curl of her lips, at the slant of her eyes. “No,” he said in her language, intoxicated by the feel of the words on his lips. The first time he had spoken the words he had so long ago learned.

“Then no more talks of the desert,” she commanded. “You are my djinn now, and I am your woman. Where you go, I go, and I have no wish to walk in the desert.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be bound,” he said, feeling the curl of her ear between his forefinger and thumb, tangling his fingers in the luxury of her hair.

“With you, I am not bound,” she smiled. “Together, we will be free.”

She curled around him, her breath like the flutter of wings against his skin. “But we must never let them know,” she whispered.

“Yes.”

He twisted against her, wrapped in her limbs, in her presence. “We must choose when to fight.”

He breathed her in, unable to answer, but she understood anyway. Her lips were at his ear. She probably wouldn’t hear him anyway. Her voice swelled hypnotically, like the lights in the street, and the echo of the music from the festival. He felt dizzy with the spin of it.

“Shut down the factory.”

Of course. It was the only way they could be together. The only way to avoid re-conditioning. He had to play a part, and lying? She was the daughter of a spider. She would teach him how to lie.

A Smokeless and Scorching Fire

The civilians were dancing on the train again, stomping their feet to the heartbeat of the engine. Forced to sway to the rhythm by the movement of the train, Deacon crushed a sunflower seed between his thumb and index finger. An old woman seated across from him fanned herself with a handful of reeds. She glared openly at him.

“Bloody inspections,” she muttered to her daughter-in-law, whose head was bowed in respect and submission to her elder. “Isn’t enough the factory’s going to be shut down, but they sent a djinn to do it? Bad manners. Bad luck.”

She spoke Usu, a working-class language, and one that Deacon had been punished for learning. It was the one part of him the conditioning couldn’t reprogram—language. He betrayed no indication that he understood, but kept himself busy with the sunflower seeds he had bought at the city-station.

He wasn’t like these people. He didn’t dress in the body-hugging fashions, and if his loose black clothing didn’t set him apart, his pale skin and gray eyes certainly did. He hated his eyes, the mark of his inhuman origin. He knew how flat they looked, shallow and artificial.

It had been the first mark of his insanity. Engineered humans didn’t have opinions on physical appearance. Deacon wasn’t even sure when his madness began. Conditioning should have scrubbed his self-awareness away.

He crushed another seed, rubbing it into a prickly paste.

The passengers stomped their feet down harder. The whole carriage rocked with the frenzy of their excitement. How could something that moved so slowly be so loud? He listened idly to the life around him, pretending to be immersed in the shine of his own black shoes.

The old woman was still complaining about his presence. “It should be on one of the Sand-Beetles. It’s not right they put it here, with us.”

Ah. She took pleasure in misusing the Usu pronouns, neutering him with language. The cruelty of it stung more than her ill-informed slurs about his job, or his origin. The factory wasn’t his destination. His journey would take him to the desert. The factory was just a stop along the way.

He had begged carefully for this assignment. Traded contracts with other Inspectors and negotiated with the Administration. Not once did he let them know he wanted this. Wanting wasn’t allowed to his kind.

When he closed his eyes, he could see the endless sand, and himself, walking against the wind with his slim, empty briefcase. The sun would beat down on his skin, turning it from pale to bloody, raw, red. But the pain would be nothing. The starvation and dehydration, he would barely notice. It was a walk in the sunshine compared to the re-conditioning he would face if he returned to headquarters and confessed his malfunction. Again, another symptom of his insanity: He did not want to be conditioned. The pain. The illness. The invasion.

With great effort, he turned his attention away from his madness to the gossip in the cabin. This carriage held a fragment of a wedding party meeting up in the mountains, readying themselves for negotiations and introductions to new family members. What could they offer? What would they accept?

The best stories were shared in families. Remember when mama washed the floor with papa’s best bottle of kashaka? It peeled holes in the linoleum and she was drunk just off the fumes! Remember when Eliza wanted that boy from the—

“Cheap!” a young voice engaged him in the Official language, tearing him from the gossip about people he didn’t know and would never meet. Deacon raised his eyes to find a young boy, only eight or nine, holding out a bouquet of wilting flowers. Stubbornness prematurely aged the boy’s face. He shook the flowers insistently. “Cheap!” he repeated.

“Come away from him!” the old woman called out in Usu. “Didn’t your mother teach you not to speak to ghosts?”

The boy turned to her. “Then will you buy them, grandmother?” he asked in the same language. “If you had the credit, you would spend it on skin-cream.”

Her lips ballooned out and her eyebrows descended sharply. From kindly matron to formidable matriarch, the change was fluid, immediate, and well-practiced. “You speak to elders like that, you little bastard?”

This theater interfered with the natural rhythm of the train now. People strained their necks and backs to see the scene unfold, deciding on which side they would take. The ecosystem changed, the feet stomping out the dance around their vehicle seemed to rise to a frenzy, though Deacon knew it echoed only in his mind.

He hated confrontation. Another symptom of his madness. The desert, remember the desert. It waited. Calm. Empty. Silent.

“How much?” he asked in Official, trusting that the boy knew that much of his language at least.

The boy glanced back, surprised. “Cheap!” he repeated.

“How much?” Deacon waved a blank chip at him, its denomination waiting to be determined.

“Thirty,” the boy said.

An outrageous price. But Deacon was rich. Beyond rich. He had the wealth of the Administration at his fingertips, and what else would a djinn spend it on? Around him, his traveling company quieted. Intent on the transaction.

He tapped the amount into the chip, and gave it to the boy who promptly pushed it through the scanner hung around his neck while Deacon tried to select a flower. They were all exquisitely ugly, drooping in the heat.

To his surprise the boy shoved the now-blank chip as well as the whole bouquet onto his chest. Deacon barely had time to clasp his hands around the bundle of stems before the boy raced away down the compartment, dodging the frenzied dancers.

The old woman attempted to trip the boy with her cane, but he jumped lithely over this obstacle and the carriage door closed behind him.

Deacon felt rather foolish now, with his bundle of crushed flowers. They smelled like fried food and sickly perfume. He turned this unexpected purchase around in his hands, exploring the strangeness of it. Native plants certainly, by the waxy leaves and spiny petals. Water-efficient traits.

Would there be greenery then, scattered in the sands? He hadn’t imagined that.

And the sounds began again. The women muttering about the upcoming celebrations, the display of wealth sure to be on display. The men grumbling out stories and opinions to anyone who would listen. Deacon felt the thick leaves between his thumb and forefinger. Barely sixteen breaths passed before the door slid open again, slamming against the frame as a burly man burst into their midst. Big and square. Brown. Muscled and scarred from hard labor. His face creased with unkindness.

He scanned the gathering.

“Where’s the boy?” he asked the rest of the car in Usu. Nobody answered, just stared at him. Even the old lady’s lips tightened. Information was notoriously hard to get out of the working class, but a question required truth from an inspector. Deacon considered fighting the conditioning to keep silent, but even as the thought of resistance strayed through his thoughts, his stomach began to roll, and the phantom daggers of pain began to dig through his scalp.

Lying, even by omission, was not worth the pain. He needed to save his strength. “He went that way,” Deacon said, pointing to the door the boy had left through.

But the man caught sight of the flowers in Deacon’s hands. He gestured rudely toward them. “Stolen. Take.” His Official sounded even worse than the little thief’s. Official was a clean language, free from the guttural inflections he clipped into the syllables.

Shrugging, Deacon held out the flowers, but the old woman interfered again. “He’s an inspector, you fool. He’s already paid for them.”

The stranger scowled, and took a step forward to see Deacon clearly. Behind him, a woman appeared in the cabin’s open doorway. She surveyed the crowded carriage with disinterest and distaste.

But she had captured everyone else. Even the presence of the loud, aggressive man faded beside her.

Her dark hair, was bound in plaits by copper wire, and caught by tiny leaves forged from gold. Each strand glimmered with hints of red henna. She swayed hypnotically to the beat of the train, seeming to slow even its frantic pace.

She wore a bride’s veil that hooked over her ears and the bridge of her nose, but the sheer fabric did nothing to hide her face.

It served as only a token attempt at modesty.

“Don’t look at her,” the old woman muttered to her daughter-in-law, loud enough to warn everyone in the cabin. “That’s Mahati’s woman.”

Mahati’s woman stood no taller than Deacon, but she stood with a dignity that gave the impression of height. She wore a dress of intricate chainmail, links of silver wire and drops of metal bead that shifted with a delicate sound when she moved. A light cotton shift kept the metal off her skin and accented the extreme contours of her body.

None of this caught his attention more than her eyes.

Elaborately outlined with kohl, they found him immediately. An expression of understanding, of some deep communication, gleamed in those eyes when she fixed her gaze on him.

She walked forward, past the man who said something to try and stop her progress. She brushed him off like a safari fly and sat beside Deacon.

“What use does a ghost have for flowers?” Mahati’s woman asked, her husky voice lending an exotic lilt to her Official.

“What use does anyone have for flowers?” he returned flatly.

She laughed, as if he had said something funny. He tracked the arch of her jaw, calculating the slope of her neck. She was a creature of pure mathematics. To anyone else she might have been beautiful, but he had not yet lost that much of his sanity.

And he remembered the desert. In the sand, his flesh would be stripped away by the winds, ravaged by sand-beasts who wouldn’t care that his flesh had been engineered.

“Take them,” he said, thrusting the bouquet out to her. “I don’t know why I bought them. I didn’t know they were stolen.”

She hesitated, her eyes traveling to his face.

“Don’t you dare, Axeonos,” her companion said sharply, but he made no move toward Deacon. He feared the djinn as well, it seemed.

She took the bouquet. In these crowded quarters, with the afternoon sun still glaring through the windows, sweat shone on everyone’s skin.

But not hers. In the first-class carriages, the heat never made it past the doors. Her cold fingers brushed against his skin as she withdrew the bundle of waxy leaves.

Immediately silence engulfed their fellow travelers. Deacon gazed around at their audience, and followed their attention back in time to see the man’s face darken with anger. The woman relaxed against the bench, and through her gently shifting veil Deacon could see a dangerous smile, badly-hidden triumph.

The man started to shout, not in Usu or Official, but some derivation of a mountain language.

“Is something wrong?” Deacon asked the woman.

“Nothing at all, alma-ami,” she said sweetly, taking his hand in her own.

My Soul. The endearment was stressed. He tried to pull his hand away, but she didn’t let go. “What is wrong?” he asked the still-silent train.

The grandmother who insulted him answered for the crowd. “Bond-flowers,” she said. “Your woman now.”

Between her broken Official, the now iridescent anger of the strange man, and the woman’s hand still encasing his own, he understood. A local marriage ritual.

The desert was slipping away from his grasp. His masters would learn of this. He would have to report this. There would be an investigation. They would catch him and recondition him.

“I didn’t know,” he said, trying to shake her hands from his own. “I didn’t—”

“It’s too late now,” Axeonos said triumphantly. “We are bonded now.”

“I can’t—”

“You have not been registered,” her keeper said in Usu. Deacon wasn’t a part of this conversation. “You are not married yet.”

“He’s an inspector,” she answered smugly in the same language. “Registration won’t be a problem. We are married in the eye of the God now, and you can tell Mahati to suck his own cock.”

“You can’t marry a djinn,” the man sneered. “Mahati will see you stoned for it. I saw you give the flowers to the boy, I saw you.”

“Excuse me,” Deacon broke in weakly. “I did not know. I am sorry, but it isn’t legal for me to—”

They were not listening to him.

“He offered the flowers, and I accepted,” she said. “You want to fight him for my hand?”

Another moment of stillness fell over them, as if the man actually contemplated violence.

“Don’t be a fool,” the old woman hissed to the thug. “That’s a damned djinn. They’ll skin us all and starve our villages if you touch him.”

The truth. The Administration protected its Inspectors. They had to, when it was so expensive to make them, and they had the tasks that made the Administration so unpopular. If an Inspector was harmed in the execution of his duties, an example would be made of anyone and everyone who had been present.

Silence on the train. Stillness. Two more men entered the carriage, and engaged their leader in hushed, confused dialog in the language Deacon couldn’t place. The woman’s grip on his hand tightened painfully.

“Please help me,” she said quickly, softly, to make sure that no one else could catch the exchange. “Please.”

“I have to get off when we reach the desert,” he said to her. “I’m sorry—”

“You hear that?” she called shrilly to the man and his entourage, hearing nothing of Deacon’s muttered explanations. “We’re getting off at the next stop!”

When he stepped off the train, Deacon could see the desert behind the city. The low and level hills swallowed the garish lights of civilization. Tomorrow he would walk into the scorching sand, and in a few days, he would die somewhere out in that untraveled expanse.

“You ever been to Dhulba-Sahuli before?” the woman asked.

“No,” Deacon said, and he walked away.

She had only one small suitcase, which trailed behind her like an unwilling pet. It rumbled against the stone behind him, a constant reminder that she followed in his wake.

When they reached the dormitories, Axeonos would not follow him inside. The rumble-shriek of her little suitcase ceased, and for some reason, he stopped as well.

She told him, “I am not spending my wedding night in there.”

“It is not your wedding night,” Deacon said—a variation on the same thing he had been saying since they had met. “I am not your husband. We are not registered. I will not register you. Tomorrow, your man said he would come for you.”

She flicked a hand in the space between them and huffed a dismissal. Still, she didn’t move toward the opening gate, and neither did he. “These are my lodgings,” he told her. “Why are you not satisfied?”

“Satisfaction has little to do with it, alma-ami,” she spat the endearment mockingly. “Tonight is my wedding night. Use some of my dowry. Let’s go to the Dumaux, or the Shalloota.”

“What would the difference be?” he asked. “There are beds here. We will sleep, and then in the morning we will both be gone.”

Because she wouldn’t follow him, he was forced to wait. Why though? He should just go in and leave her on the street, but he couldn’t seem to move his feet. She watched him, her magnificent eyes narrowed, her hip crooked out, and her hands held on her waist in a colloquial pose of restrained anger. He waited.

“Tonight,” she said softly, “is my first night as a free woman. I will not spend it in a prison.”

“It is not a prison,” Deacon said mildly. “It is temporary. We can leave anytime we want, just like the Dumaux or Shalloota, and unlike at the Dumaux or Shalloota, here there are free meals, and bedding, and company.”

“Listen to me, you—” she lapsed into Usu, “blood-sucking, penny-grubbing, pale-face, moronic djinn—” and back to Official, “I will absolutely not spend a single night in that concrete cage. With or without you, I am going to the Shalloota, and I am going to have their most expensive meal, and dance in the most expensive dress I can find.”

At Deacon’s silence and stillness, she huffed low in her throat. It was a growl, Deacon noted, like a jungle cat. He watched her spin and stalk away down the street, still trailing the tiny suitcase.

He followed her.

They walked down streets and through alleys, Deacon always twenty measured steps behind her. She didn’t buy a dress as she threatened. None of those stores would be open at this time, but she went straight to the Shalloota, with its fat columns and sweet-smelling gardens.

She danced in the night-club attached to the building, under red and blue lights. She danced in the dress of metal rings, alone. She flicked her hands toward the ceiling and curled her fingers as she beckoned to something that couldn’t answer, the sway of her hips leading the music.

Not once did her eyes stray to Deacon who stood patiently by the door, by her small pack. She didn’t dance with or for anyone. She danced for her own sweat, and when he could see her eyes, they were large and liquid, inebriated.

He should have left. He should never have followed her in the first place. He should never have taken the flowers.

He stood a half-pace behind her when she booked a room. Her limbs were jittery with energy found on the dancefloor. Her sweat smelled sweet and foul in the air.

She brushed past him, and he trailed her to the hotel dining room. They were shown to a table by a waiter who inspected them curiously but said nothing. Perhaps he thought Deacon was here to question the woman. Or that she held a position in the Administration, and took advantage of it.

“Don’t annul the marriage,” she said abruptly, when they were alone again.

“Why?”

She glared him, but the appearance of their menus stopped her answer. The waiter filled their glasses with water, but before he could move away, the woman held out a hand to stall him.

“Every appetizer, and your most expensive meal,” she commanded the young man, “And lobster.”

“Yes Madam,” he said politely, “And you sir?”

“Just water,” Deacon said.

No questions. The waiter left, and the woman tossed her head aggressively. “I won’t agree to an annulment.”

“Inspectors cannot get married.” And then purely for his own, perverse curiosity, he asked. “Why do you want to be married to me?”

She shrugged, averting her eyes.

“You tricked me,” he reminded her gently.

“I was not given a choice,” she said. “Why should you? At least now we are even.”

The food arrived on a variety of silver platters, carried by a flock of waiters. The dishes covered the table and spilled out onto the makeshift trays set up on rickety stilts. Still, Deacon insisted the place in front of him remain empty. His own makeshift desert, surrounded by plates piled high of exotic food. There was so much. Too much.

At the center, between them, sat the promised lobster. Insectile. Armored. A shade of red that should be impossible to achieve naturally.

“Help yourself,” she said airily. “I will not be able to finish it.”

The absurd display of food seemed somehow more real and vivid than the room around them. The shapes were smooth, bloated with flavor. Every dish had a distinct scent, but together they coalesced into an exotic perfume that pulled on Deacon’s stomach.

Greed was a herald of madness. He could give in and devour everything in sight, eating and eating until even his body broke. He delicately picked up a crystal glass, the liquid inside clear. Tasteless, but quenching.

Tomorrow there would be no water. No food.

She frowned at him. “You don’t want to eat?”

His mouth watered, his stomach growling, and his head grew light with the aromas of rich food. “I can’t.”

“You can’t eat? I saw you eating seeds on the train. Or are you really a ghost born of smokeless and scorching fire? Is it mortal souls you hunger for?”

She grinned, trying to excite him into ritualistic play.

“No,” he said, and this was painful, the conditioning was a pleasant memory in comparison. Torture could not have been more compelling. “I can’t want to eat.”

She cocked her head curiously, the smile peeling from her face, discarded in an instant. “You don’t look like you can afford to skip this meal.”

“We haven’t even been introduced,” he said, clasping a hand around the glass of water. “I would have thought a marriage ceremony required more . . . words.”

“My father is a traditional man.” She turned her attention back to the meal. “If it makes you uncomfortable, my name is Axeonos.”

“I am called Deacon,” he replied cordially. Politely. As he had been conditioned.

“I didn’t know that Inspectors had names.”

“We don’t have much cause to use them. How did you learn Official?”

“My father.”

Her tone was bitter.

“Was he a good man?” Deacon asked mildly.

“He sold his only daughter to a gangster,” she said. “To me, he is a spider.”

“Why is he a spider?”

“He could have made me and my brothers a home, but he only ever wove traps and he grew fat off the men who tangled in it. His home was his own. He did not share. A spider.”

“I’ve always liked spiders,” Deacon said experimentally, because he did not know what else to say.

“Oh, he was useful,” she agreed, “Just as spiders are useful to keep the other insects in check. He taught me how to write and read, how to properly speak Official, and how to balance books. He supplied me with tutors, and anything I wanted, but in the end, I was only bait.”

“Not anymore though,” he said.

“Never again.”

“And what’s to stop him from claiming you again? Or this Mahati?”

She stiffened, the food frozen on its way to her lips. “What do you know of Mahati?” she demanded.

He winced inwardly. A mistake. It was a miracle he hadn’t already been caught. The desert, the desert. One more night of pretending at sanity, and he would be free. “I’m an Inspector,” he said. “We know all kinds of things.”

“No, you heard it on the train! You can speak Usu!” she said triumphantly. “I knew it!”

He nodded and she frowned, her victory stolen. “You admit it? I thought Inspectors aren’t allowed. It is a punishable offense, no?”

“It is.”

“Then why tell me?”

“I cannot lie,” he took another mouthful of water. Poison. Bright light. Pictures that moved so fast he felt sick with their movement. “I have been conditioned.”

She sat back, a glass of red wine in her hand shone deep and clear—casting its own kind of light. Her eyes caught on his face, on his own eyes which he hated and his pale, untried skin. “Good to know,” she said.

“You sound amused.”

She hesitated, her eyes rolling to the ceiling as if considering her own emotions. “Just . . . speculative.”

She fell silent for a while as she savored her food and he drank water to keep himself from wanting to taste everything on the table.

The waiter had to fill his glass twice.

“Mahati?” he reminded her.

She shook her mane of dark hair dismissively. “What can he do? I am married to an inspector, and it would be foolish for him to try anything now. He will go to my father, and that is hardly my problem.”

“You said he was a gangster,” he said. “Will your father get hurt?”

She hesitated, her eyes dark and veiled. “No,” she decided. “My father killed Sasha, the man I loved, to prove that his contract was in good faith. He will also most likely kill my dogs to spite me, but there is too much good history between him and Mahati for this to end badly between them.”

“Sasha,” he mused, balancing his glass between two fingers.

“Was not a good man either,” she said bluntly. “I loved him anyway. But he is dead, and they cannot hurt me anymore, not if I am married to you.”

Fabric covered every possible surface of their luxurious room. Carpets, the drapes above the beds, two layers of curtains over the tall windows, thickly upholstered chairs and footstools, it was all too much. Deacon felt like he was sinking.

Extravagance like this wasn’t meant for him. Only real people could appreciate the softness and the exquisite colors.

He left his briefcase on the table and stood beside the bed, focusing on the street outside the window. Chairs and tables were set outside under soft neon lights of every color. The glowing canopy zig-zagged between the buildings in every direction, marking the extent of the celebration.

“The bed is big enough for both of us,” the woman said. She had already collapsed onto the covers, her hands writhing under the pillows, searching for an edge of the sheets.

“I have work to do,” he said absently, staring down into the starkly lit street.

“All night?”

“Yes.”

She huffed a disbelieving laugh. “You haven’t even visited the factory yet. I think you are skittish. You needn’t be. I am too tired to poke fun at my djinn tonight.”

She wasn’t drunk, but obviously exhausted. Deacon said nothing back to her, keeping his gazed fixed on the distant desert, just visible through the buildings. She muttered a curse, then groaned with effort. Deacon didn’t have to turn to know she was undressing.

A sigh of release. The sound of metal rain, as she discarded her chainmail beside the bed. “I’m not naked,” she said to him, a smile in her voice.

He turned to see her sitting up in the bed, wearing the simple cotton shift that had kept the metal off her skin. She looked better. Less dangerous. “I think under the circumstances, God will forgive us if we do not consummate our marriage tonight.”

Under his gaze she removed the metal ornamentation from her hair. There were many pieces.

“I don’t believe in God,” he said.

She shrugged. “I suppose it is hard for you. You were not made by him, after all.”

“No,” he said, “but I don’t believe he made you either.”

“I believe you were made from fire,” she said, “like the old books say about the djinni.” She struggled with a clasp at the back of her head. “I can see it in your eyes.”

Again. She was trying to be playful. No one had ever spoken to him the way she did.

“How did you keep your head up, under all of that?” he asked, not sure if he was trying to make a joke. Not likely. He had never had a sense of humor before.

“Practice,” she said.

Deacon turned away, back to the desk. He sat down, ignoring the way the pillows encased him, molding to his back. He opened the briefcase only to be staring down at his forbidden treasures.

The evidence of his insanity.

He ran his fingers over the golden watch—an antiquated thing. The smoothness of it had first captivated him. The symmetry of its lines. There were other things too. Postcards from the cities he had been sent to examine. A stolen painting—the memory of that pain still bit at him as he brushed a hand over its colorful smudges. It was a simple portrait of a man at a desk, the light catching on golden buttons and, the folds of his ceremonial dress mysterious and dark. Deacon did not know why he took it—only that he had to have it. He had to possess it, because it pulled on something in him—an urge stronger than that he had been trained into.

He ran a thumb over the corner of it, feeling the phantom burn that came with guilt—another emotion he supposedly could not feel. Axeonos began to snore, startling him into movement.

He could not linger. He would need all his willpower and strength to complete his final act. He pulled the table from underneath his treasures.

The form only had two questions. He was supposed to visit the factory. He was supposed to shut it down. He took the job for that reason. If anybody bothered to see why this desert town leaked money and resources, he would be long gone, and they might guess at his victory.

He shouldn’t be able to lie, but he was insane.

And that helped.

Is the factory profitable?

No.

Yes, he wrote carefully, feeling the betrayal in every nerve of his body. He stared at the word he had written, felt the wrongness of it in his bones. It started as an itch, a burn.

His shoulders stiffened. His brain rebelled. Untruth! Pain. He let out a shaking breath. The woman snored behind him. How much time had passed?

Notes during Inspection:

He readied his stylus and steeled himself. His imagination. How they would wonder at it—how all their conditioning, all their tests had failed.

And his bones in the desert, scraped and bleached white—a monument to this one act of disobedience. He would win.

Dawn peeked under the bathroom door when at last he finished. He had been sick twice, and even now sweat soaked through his clothes. He shook, unable to grip the stylus.

Axeonos had slept through it all. He had retreated to the bathroom to keep the pain to himself. He stood on shaking legs and let the tablet clatter onto the counter. He didn’t let his eyes focus on it again. It was bad enough to know what he had done without having to face his crime.

His fingers were so numb, the buttons on his shirt became almost unmanageable.

The shower thawed his fear and melted through his icy skin. He hugged himself and turned around and around under the torrent, trying his best to soak in every drop of hot water.

Water. There would be none in the desert. Not even enough moisture in the air to keep the sweat on his skin. He closed his eyes and saw himself striding among the dunes.

With his resistance finished, he was released from the compulsion to faint or vomit, though his eyelids felt like sandpaper, and his mouth tasted like blood,

He reveled for a long time before a knock on the door startled him back to his guilt.

“I know it is not possible to use up hot water in the Shalloota, but it seems you are trying.”

The woman.

“I’ll be out in a moment,” he called back, his voice rough from a night of muffled screams.

He switched the water off, scrambled for a towel, and gathered his clothes. As he opened the door, she brushed past him. The sun had risen while he had been in the shower and golden light filtered through the large windows. Outside, vendors were calling out wares, their voices undulating in rhythm with the sounds of foot traffic.

Deacon peered down at the city as it set up for a parade. The streets were full of sound. Instruments warming up, chatter and laughter as the festivities took shape. Barriers rose along the sidewalk, and the beginning of celebratory noise filtered through the air.

His heart began to pick up, a strange sort of excitement rising in his chest, in his head, answering to the noise outside. A madman and a liar, he was. He hissed wordlessly and forced himself away from the window. His only destination today was the desert.

He laid his clothes out on the bed. They were rumpled, and smelled like sweat. It was a uniform of sorts. A blue shirt, black pants, black jacket, black shoes, white collar, all mass-produced for Inspectors.

He ran his hands over the fabrics, smoothing out the wrinkles and spots. Idly he picked at the cuffs, examining the scents of yesterday—the train, the meal, the woman.

The door opened, and he turned.

She was wrapped only in a towel, and for the first time he saw her bare face. Even unadorned by makeup and jewelry she struck him as a fascinating creature.

“What is this?” she held up the tablet, the screen trembling in her hand.

Deacon paused. “Work,” he said.

“What were you going to do? Where were you going, if you had already signed off the factory?”

She was afraid. Now he hesitated, but the words were pulled from him. “To the desert,” he said.

“Why? There’s nothing there but sand for a hundred miles.”

“I was going . . . to walk,” the words forced themselves from his lips.

She frowned. “Where?”

“I was going to walk until I couldn’t.”

Her eyes widened. “Why?”

“Please,” Deacon asked her, “Please don’t make me—”

He was too weak to fight the conditioning now.

“Tell me,” she commanded.

“I have gone mad,” he blurted as the familiar pressure began in his head. The will to answer.

She drew back, her brows furrowing in fear and shock.

Of course. He was disgusting, useless. A shadow of his purpose. “I am insane,” he confessed again. “And when they find out, I will be reconditioned. They will torture me with poison and light, to force me not to want. Not to lie. Not to think.”

“I do not understand,” she said.

Too late now, the desert beckoned in the distance. She would report him, and the Administration would come for him. And then he would be forced back into training.

“How are you mad?” she asked steadily. She stood still and straight, unadorned.

He ran a hand down his face in a claw, scratching at his brow and the bridge of his nose. “See this! This is the face of an Inspector, the body and mind of a djinn!”

She retreated, but he went after, reached for her, grasped her wrists, and pulled her close. “Can you see it?” he asked desperately. “The madness? Look at me. You must be able to see it. It must be obvious now.”

Her chin trembled; she tore free. “You are scaring me.”

“No! No! Watch!” he ripped open the briefcase, and showed her his treasures. Those he would take into the desert. He had tried, had been fighting his symptoms, and all the while these things had been corrupting him, turning him inside out with addiction and fear of discovery. He was helpless.

“See?” he said, holding his breath as if afraid to break her concentration. “Do you see it?”

She held her hands over her chest, fingers clasped together as if in prayer. “Oh, my djinn,” she whispered.

But her expression stilled him. Instead of fright, he read something else. He frowned. Was that delight? Amusement?

No. She had corrected him.

It was speculation.

The day was long, and full of beauty. They ate in the café, amidst crowds of people. She bought the most expensive dress she could find, and they wandered in and out of the shops on the main street. Food. Entertainment. They spent money as if it were sand. Time passed quickly, and that night they wandered into the parade, hand in hand, fingers woven together.

The lights spun around them, laughing faces, such a variety of people and costumes. It all blended together. He felt giddy, breathless.

The woman dragged him to an alley, where the stream of people passed by unseeing, like water over rocks, like wind over mountains. This was a pocket where together they were unhurried, protected by darkness and enclosing buildings.

“Would you leave me now?” she asked.

He gazed at the curl of her lips, at the slant of her eyes. “No,” he said in her language, intoxicated by the feel of the words on his lips. The first time he had spoken the words he had so long ago learned.

“Then no more talks of the desert,” she commanded. “You are my djinn now, and I am your woman. Where you go, I go, and I have no wish to walk in the desert.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be bound,” he said, feeling the curl of her ear between his forefinger and thumb, tangling his fingers in the luxury of her hair.

“With you, I am not bound,” she smiled. “Together, we will be free.”

She curled around him, her breath like the flutter of wings against his skin. “But we must never let them know,” she whispered.

“Yes.”

He twisted against her, wrapped in her limbs, in her presence. “We must choose when to fight.”

He breathed her in, unable to answer, but she understood anyway. Her lips were at his ear. She probably wouldn’t hear him anyway. Her voice swelled hypnotically, like the lights in the street, and the echo of the music from the festival. He felt dizzy with the spin of it.

“Shut down the factory.”

Of course. It was the only way they could be together. The only way to avoid re-conditioning. He had to play a part, and lying? She was the daughter of a spider. She would teach him how to lie.

A Smokeless and Scorching Fire

The civilians were dancing on the train again, stomping their feet to the heartbeat of the engine. Forced to sway to the rhythm by the movement of the train, Deacon crushed a sunflower seed between his thumb and index finger. An old woman seated across from him fanned herself with a handful of reeds. She glared openly at him.

“Bloody inspections,” she muttered to her daughter-in-law, whose head was bowed in respect and submission to her elder. “Isn’t enough the factory’s going to be shut down, but they sent a djinn to do it? Bad manners. Bad luck.”

She spoke Usu, a working-class language, and one that Deacon had been punished for learning. It was the one part of him the conditioning couldn’t reprogram—language. He betrayed no indication that he understood, but kept himself busy with the sunflower seeds he had bought at the city-station.

He wasn’t like these people. He didn’t dress in the body-hugging fashions, and if his loose black clothing didn’t set him apart, his pale skin and gray eyes certainly did. He hated his eyes, the mark of his inhuman origin. He knew how flat they looked, shallow and artificial.

It had been the first mark of his insanity. Engineered humans didn’t have opinions on physical appearance. Deacon wasn’t even sure when his madness began. Conditioning should have scrubbed his self-awareness away.

He crushed another seed, rubbing it into a prickly paste.

The passengers stomped their feet down harder. The whole carriage rocked with the frenzy of their excitement. How could something that moved so slowly be so loud? He listened idly to the life around him, pretending to be immersed in the shine of his own black shoes.

The old woman was still complaining about his presence. “It should be on one of the Sand-Beetles. It’s not right they put it here, with us.”

Ah. She took pleasure in misusing the Usu pronouns, neutering him with language. The cruelty of it stung more than her ill-informed slurs about his job, or his origin. The factory wasn’t his destination. His journey would take him to the desert. The factory was just a stop along the way.

He had begged carefully for this assignment. Traded contracts with other Inspectors and negotiated with the Administration. Not once did he let them know he wanted this. Wanting wasn’t allowed to his kind.

When he closed his eyes, he could see the endless sand, and himself, walking against the wind with his slim, empty briefcase. The sun would beat down on his skin, turning it from pale to bloody, raw, red. But the pain would be nothing. The starvation and dehydration, he would barely notice. It was a walk in the sunshine compared to the re-conditioning he would face if he returned to headquarters and confessed his malfunction. Again, another symptom of his insanity: He did not want to be conditioned. The pain. The illness. The invasion.

With great effort, he turned his attention away from his madness to the gossip in the cabin. This carriage held a fragment of a wedding party meeting up in the mountains, readying themselves for negotiations and introductions to new family members. What could they offer? What would they accept?

The best stories were shared in families. Remember when mama washed the floor with papa’s best bottle of kashaka? It peeled holes in the linoleum and she was drunk just off the fumes! Remember when Eliza wanted that boy from the—

“Cheap!” a young voice engaged him in the Official language, tearing him from the gossip about people he didn’t know and would never meet. Deacon raised his eyes to find a young boy, only eight or nine, holding out a bouquet of wilting flowers. Stubbornness prematurely aged the boy’s face. He shook the flowers insistently. “Cheap!” he repeated.

“Come away from him!” the old woman called out in Usu. “Didn’t your mother teach you not to speak to ghosts?”

The boy turned to her. “Then will you buy them, grandmother?” he asked in the same language. “If you had the credit, you would spend it on skin-cream.”

Her lips ballooned out and her eyebrows descended sharply. From kindly matron to formidable matriarch, the change was fluid, immediate, and well-practiced. “You speak to elders like that, you little bastard?”

This theater interfered with the natural rhythm of the train now. People strained their necks and backs to see the scene unfold, deciding on which side they would take. The ecosystem changed, the feet stomping out the dance around their vehicle seemed to rise to a frenzy, though Deacon knew it echoed only in his mind.

He hated confrontation. Another symptom of his madness. The desert, remember the desert. It waited. Calm. Empty. Silent.

“How much?” he asked in Official, trusting that the boy knew that much of his language at least.

The boy glanced back, surprised. “Cheap!” he repeated.

“How much?” Deacon waved a blank chip at him, its denomination waiting to be determined.

“Thirty,” the boy said.

An outrageous price. But Deacon was rich. Beyond rich. He had the wealth of the Administration at his fingertips, and what else would a djinn spend it on? Around him, his traveling company quieted. Intent on the transaction.

He tapped the amount into the chip, and gave it to the boy who promptly pushed it through the scanner hung around his neck while Deacon tried to select a flower. They were all exquisitely ugly, drooping in the heat.

To his surprise the boy shoved the now-blank chip as well as the whole bouquet onto his chest. Deacon barely had time to clasp his hands around the bundle of stems before the boy raced away down the compartment, dodging the frenzied dancers.

The old woman attempted to trip the boy with her cane, but he jumped lithely over this obstacle and the carriage door closed behind him.

Deacon felt rather foolish now, with his bundle of crushed flowers. They smelled like fried food and sickly perfume. He turned this unexpected purchase around in his hands, exploring the strangeness of it. Native plants certainly, by the waxy leaves and spiny petals. Water-efficient traits.

Would there be greenery then, scattered in the sands? He hadn’t imagined that.

And the sounds began again. The women muttering about the upcoming celebrations, the display of wealth sure to be on display. The men grumbling out stories and opinions to anyone who would listen. Deacon felt the thick leaves between his thumb and forefinger. Barely sixteen breaths passed before the door slid open again, slamming against the frame as a burly man burst into their midst. Big and square. Brown. Muscled and scarred from hard labor. His face creased with unkindness.

He scanned the gathering.

“Where’s the boy?” he asked the rest of the car in Usu. Nobody answered, just stared at him. Even the old lady’s lips tightened. Information was notoriously hard to get out of the working class, but a question required truth from an inspector. Deacon considered fighting the conditioning to keep silent, but even as the thought of resistance strayed through his thoughts, his stomach began to roll, and the phantom daggers of pain began to dig through his scalp.

Lying, even by omission, was not worth the pain. He needed to save his strength. “He went that way,” Deacon said, pointing to the door the boy had left through.

But the man caught sight of the flowers in Deacon’s hands. He gestured rudely toward them. “Stolen. Take.” His Official sounded even worse than the little thief’s. Official was a clean language, free from the guttural inflections he clipped into the syllables.

Shrugging, Deacon held out the flowers, but the old woman interfered again. “He’s an inspector, you fool. He’s already paid for them.”

The stranger scowled, and took a step forward to see Deacon clearly. Behind him, a woman appeared in the cabin’s open doorway. She surveyed the crowded carriage with disinterest and distaste.

But she had captured everyone else. Even the presence of the loud, aggressive man faded beside her.

Her dark hair, was bound in plaits by copper wire, and caught by tiny leaves forged from gold. Each strand glimmered with hints of red henna. She swayed hypnotically to the beat of the train, seeming to slow even its frantic pace.

She wore a bride’s veil that hooked over her ears and the bridge of her nose, but the sheer fabric did nothing to hide her face.

It served as only a token attempt at modesty.

“Don’t look at her,” the old woman muttered to her daughter-in-law, loud enough to warn everyone in the cabin. “That’s Mahati’s woman.”

Mahati’s woman stood no taller than Deacon, but she stood with a dignity that gave the impression of height. She wore a dress of intricate chainmail, links of silver wire and drops of metal bead that shifted with a delicate sound when she moved. A light cotton shift kept the metal off her skin and accented the extreme contours of her body.

None of this caught his attention more than her eyes.

Elaborately outlined with kohl, they found him immediately. An expression of understanding, of some deep communication, gleamed in those eyes when she fixed her gaze on him.

She walked forward, past the man who said something to try and stop her progress. She brushed him off like a safari fly and sat beside Deacon.

“What use does a ghost have for flowers?” Mahati’s woman asked, her husky voice lending an exotic lilt to her Official.

“What use does anyone have for flowers?” he returned flatly.

She laughed, as if he had said something funny. He tracked the arch of her jaw, calculating the slope of her neck. She was a creature of pure mathematics. To anyone else she might have been beautiful, but he had not yet lost that much of his sanity.

And he remembered the desert. In the sand, his flesh would be stripped away by the winds, ravaged by sand-beasts who wouldn’t care that his flesh had been engineered.

“Take them,” he said, thrusting the bouquet out to her. “I don’t know why I bought them. I didn’t know they were stolen.”

She hesitated, her eyes traveling to his face.

“Don’t you dare, Axeonos,” her companion said sharply, but he made no move toward Deacon. He feared the djinn as well, it seemed.

She took the bouquet. In these crowded quarters, with the afternoon sun still glaring through the windows, sweat shone on everyone’s skin.

But not hers. In the first-class carriages, the heat never made it past the doors. Her cold fingers brushed against his skin as she withdrew the bundle of waxy leaves.

Immediately silence engulfed their fellow travelers. Deacon gazed around at their audience, and followed their attention back in time to see the man’s face darken with anger. The woman relaxed against the bench, and through her gently shifting veil Deacon could see a dangerous smile, badly-hidden triumph.

The man started to shout, not in Usu or Official, but some derivation of a mountain language.

“Is something wrong?” Deacon asked the woman.

“Nothing at all, alma-ami,” she said sweetly, taking his hand in her own.

My Soul. The endearment was stressed. He tried to pull his hand away, but she didn’t let go. “What is wrong?” he asked the still-silent train.

The grandmother who insulted him answered for the crowd. “Bond-flowers,” she said. “Your woman now.”

Between her broken Official, the now iridescent anger of the strange man, and the woman’s hand still encasing his own, he understood. A local marriage ritual.

The desert was slipping away from his grasp. His masters would learn of this. He would have to report this. There would be an investigation. They would catch him and recondition him.

“I didn’t know,” he said, trying to shake her hands from his own. “I didn’t—”

“It’s too late now,” Axeonos said triumphantly. “We are bonded now.”

“I can’t—”

“You have not been registered,” her keeper said in Usu. Deacon wasn’t a part of this conversation. “You are not married yet.”

“He’s an inspector,” she answered smugly in the same language. “Registration won’t be a problem. We are married in the eye of the God now, and you can tell Mahati to suck his own cock.”

“You can’t marry a djinn,” the man sneered. “Mahati will see you stoned for it. I saw you give the flowers to the boy, I saw you.”

“Excuse me,” Deacon broke in weakly. “I did not know. I am sorry, but it isn’t legal for me to—”

They were not listening to him.

“He offered the flowers, and I accepted,” she said. “You want to fight him for my hand?”

Another moment of stillness fell over them, as if the man actually contemplated violence.

“Don’t be a fool,” the old woman hissed to the thug. “That’s a damned djinn. They’ll skin us all and starve our villages if you touch him.”

The truth. The Administration protected its Inspectors. They had to, when it was so expensive to make them, and they had the tasks that made the Administration so unpopular. If an Inspector was harmed in the execution of his duties, an example would be made of anyone and everyone who had been present.

Silence on the train. Stillness. Two more men entered the carriage, and engaged their leader in hushed, confused dialog in the language Deacon couldn’t place. The woman’s grip on his hand tightened painfully.

“Please help me,” she said quickly, softly, to make sure that no one else could catch the exchange. “Please.”

“I have to get off when we reach the desert,” he said to her. “I’m sorry—”

“You hear that?” she called shrilly to the man and his entourage, hearing nothing of Deacon’s muttered explanations. “We’re getting off at the next stop!”

When he stepped off the train, Deacon could see the desert behind the city. The low and level hills swallowed the garish lights of civilization. Tomorrow he would walk into the scorching sand, and in a few days, he would die somewhere out in that untraveled expanse.

“You ever been to Dhulba-Sahuli before?” the woman asked.

“No,” Deacon said, and he walked away.

She had only one small suitcase, which trailed behind her like an unwilling pet. It rumbled against the stone behind him, a constant reminder that she followed in his wake.

When they reached the dormitories, Axeonos would not follow him inside. The rumble-shriek of her little suitcase ceased, and for some reason, he stopped as well.

She told him, “I am not spending my wedding night in there.”

“It is not your wedding night,” Deacon said—a variation on the same thing he had been saying since they had met. “I am not your husband. We are not registered. I will not register you. Tomorrow, your man said he would come for you.”

She flicked a hand in the space between them and huffed a dismissal. Still, she didn’t move toward the opening gate, and neither did he. “These are my lodgings,” he told her. “Why are you not satisfied?”

“Satisfaction has little to do with it, alma-ami,” she spat the endearment mockingly. “Tonight is my wedding night. Use some of my dowry. Let’s go to the Dumaux, or the Shalloota.”

“What would the difference be?” he asked. “There are beds here. We will sleep, and then in the morning we will both be gone.”

Because she wouldn’t follow him, he was forced to wait. Why though? He should just go in and leave her on the street, but he couldn’t seem to move his feet. She watched him, her magnificent eyes narrowed, her hip crooked out, and her hands held on her waist in a colloquial pose of restrained anger. He waited.

“Tonight,” she said softly, “is my first night as a free woman. I will not spend it in a prison.”

“It is not a prison,” Deacon said mildly. “It is temporary. We can leave anytime we want, just like the Dumaux or Shalloota, and unlike at the Dumaux or Shalloota, here there are free meals, and bedding, and company.”

“Listen to me, you—” she lapsed into Usu, “blood-sucking, penny-grubbing, pale-face, moronic djinn—” and back to Official, “I will absolutely not spend a single night in that concrete cage. With or without you, I am going to the Shalloota, and I am going to have their most expensive meal, and dance in the most expensive dress I can find.”

At Deacon’s silence and stillness, she huffed low in her throat. It was a growl, Deacon noted, like a jungle cat. He watched her spin and stalk away down the street, still trailing the tiny suitcase.

He followed her.

They walked down streets and through alleys, Deacon always twenty measured steps behind her. She didn’t buy a dress as she threatened. None of those stores would be open at this time, but she went straight to the Shalloota, with its fat columns and sweet-smelling gardens.

She danced in the night-club attached to the building, under red and blue lights. She danced in the dress of metal rings, alone. She flicked her hands toward the ceiling and curled her fingers as she beckoned to something that couldn’t answer, the sway of her hips leading the music.

Not once did her eyes stray to Deacon who stood patiently by the door, by her small pack. She didn’t dance with or for anyone. She danced for her own sweat, and when he could see her eyes, they were large and liquid, inebriated.

He should have left. He should never have followed her in the first place. He should never have taken the flowers.

He stood a half-pace behind her when she booked a room. Her limbs were jittery with energy found on the dancefloor. Her sweat smelled sweet and foul in the air.

She brushed past him, and he trailed her to the hotel dining room. They were shown to a table by a waiter who inspected them curiously but said nothing. Perhaps he thought Deacon was here to question the woman. Or that she held a position in the Administration, and took advantage of it.

“Don’t annul the marriage,” she said abruptly, when they were alone again.

“Why?”

She glared him, but the appearance of their menus stopped her answer. The waiter filled their glasses with water, but before he could move away, the woman held out a hand to stall him.

“Every appetizer, and your most expensive meal,” she commanded the young man, “And lobster.”

“Yes Madam,” he said politely, “And you sir?”

“Just water,” Deacon said.

No questions. The waiter left, and the woman tossed her head aggressively. “I won’t agree to an annulment.”

“Inspectors cannot get married.” And then purely for his own, perverse curiosity, he asked. “Why do you want to be married to me?”

She shrugged, averting her eyes.

“You tricked me,” he reminded her gently.

“I was not given a choice,” she said. “Why should you? At least now we are even.”

The food arrived on a variety of silver platters, carried by a flock of waiters. The dishes covered the table and spilled out onto the makeshift trays set up on rickety stilts. Still, Deacon insisted the place in front of him remain empty. His own makeshift desert, surrounded by plates piled high of exotic food. There was so much. Too much.

At the center, between them, sat the promised lobster. Insectile. Armored. A shade of red that should be impossible to achieve naturally.

“Help yourself,” she said airily. “I will not be able to finish it.”

The absurd display of food seemed somehow more real and vivid than the room around them. The shapes were smooth, bloated with flavor. Every dish had a distinct scent, but together they coalesced into an exotic perfume that pulled on Deacon’s stomach.

Greed was a herald of madness. He could give in and devour everything in sight, eating and eating until even his body broke. He delicately picked up a crystal glass, the liquid inside clear. Tasteless, but quenching.

Tomorrow there would be no water. No food.

She frowned at him. “You don’t want to eat?”

His mouth watered, his stomach growling, and his head grew light with the aromas of rich food. “I can’t.”

“You can’t eat? I saw you eating seeds on the train. Or are you really a ghost born of smokeless and scorching fire? Is it mortal souls you hunger for?”

She grinned, trying to excite him into ritualistic play.

“No,” he said, and this was painful, the conditioning was a pleasant memory in comparison. Torture could not have been more compelling. “I can’t want to eat.”

She cocked her head curiously, the smile peeling from her face, discarded in an instant. “You don’t look like you can afford to skip this meal.”

“We haven’t even been introduced,” he said, clasping a hand around the glass of water. “I would have thought a marriage ceremony required more . . . words.”

“My father is a traditional man.” She turned her attention back to the meal. “If it makes you uncomfortable, my name is Axeonos.”

“I am called Deacon,” he replied cordially. Politely. As he had been conditioned.

“I didn’t know that Inspectors had names.”

“We don’t have much cause to use them. How did you learn Official?”

“My father.”

Her tone was bitter.

“Was he a good man?” Deacon asked mildly.

“He sold his only daughter to a gangster,” she said. “To me, he is a spider.”

“Why is he a spider?”

“He could have made me and my brothers a home, but he only ever wove traps and he grew fat off the men who tangled in it. His home was his own. He did not share. A spider.”

“I’ve always liked spiders,” Deacon said experimentally, because he did not know what else to say.

“Oh, he was useful,” she agreed, “Just as spiders are useful to keep the other insects in check. He taught me how to write and read, how to properly speak Official, and how to balance books. He supplied me with tutors, and anything I wanted, but in the end, I was only bait.”

“Not anymore though,” he said.

“Never again.”

“And what’s to stop him from claiming you again? Or this Mahati?”

She stiffened, the food frozen on its way to her lips. “What do you know of Mahati?” she demanded.

He winced inwardly. A mistake. It was a miracle he hadn’t already been caught. The desert, the desert. One more night of pretending at sanity, and he would be free. “I’m an Inspector,” he said. “We know all kinds of things.”

“No, you heard it on the train! You can speak Usu!” she said triumphantly. “I knew it!”

He nodded and she frowned, her victory stolen. “You admit it? I thought Inspectors aren’t allowed. It is a punishable offense, no?”

“It is.”

“Then why tell me?”

“I cannot lie,” he took another mouthful of water. Poison. Bright light. Pictures that moved so fast he felt sick with their movement. “I have been conditioned.”

She sat back, a glass of red wine in her hand shone deep and clear—casting its own kind of light. Her eyes caught on his face, on his own eyes which he hated and his pale, untried skin. “Good to know,” she said.

“You sound amused.”

She hesitated, her eyes rolling to the ceiling as if considering her own emotions. “Just . . . speculative.”

She fell silent for a while as she savored her food and he drank water to keep himself from wanting to taste everything on the table.

The waiter had to fill his glass twice.

“Mahati?” he reminded her.

She shook her mane of dark hair dismissively. “What can he do? I am married to an inspector, and it would be foolish for him to try anything now. He will go to my father, and that is hardly my problem.”

“You said he was a gangster,” he said. “Will your father get hurt?”

She hesitated, her eyes dark and veiled. “No,” she decided. “My father killed Sasha, the man I loved, to prove that his contract was in good faith. He will also most likely kill my dogs to spite me, but there is too much good history between him and Mahati for this to end badly between them.”

“Sasha,” he mused, balancing his glass between two fingers.

“Was not a good man either,” she said bluntly. “I loved him anyway. But he is dead, and they cannot hurt me anymore, not if I am married to you.”

Fabric covered every possible surface of their luxurious room. Carpets, the drapes above the beds, two layers of curtains over the tall windows, thickly upholstered chairs and footstools, it was all too much. Deacon felt like he was sinking.

Extravagance like this wasn’t meant for him. Only real people could appreciate the softness and the exquisite colors.

He left his briefcase on the table and stood beside the bed, focusing on the street outside the window. Chairs and tables were set outside under soft neon lights of every color. The glowing canopy zig-zagged between the buildings in every direction, marking the extent of the celebration.

“The bed is big enough for both of us,” the woman said. She had already collapsed onto the covers, her hands writhing under the pillows, searching for an edge of the sheets.

“I have work to do,” he said absently, staring down into the starkly lit street.

“All night?”

“Yes.”

She huffed a disbelieving laugh. “You haven’t even visited the factory yet. I think you are skittish. You needn’t be. I am too tired to poke fun at my djinn tonight.”

She wasn’t drunk, but obviously exhausted. Deacon said nothing back to her, keeping his gazed fixed on the distant desert, just visible through the buildings. She muttered a curse, then groaned with effort. Deacon didn’t have to turn to know she was undressing.

A sigh of release. The sound of metal rain, as she discarded her chainmail beside the bed. “I’m not naked,” she said to him, a smile in her voice.

He turned to see her sitting up in the bed, wearing the simple cotton shift that had kept the metal off her skin. She looked better. Less dangerous. “I think under the circumstances, God will forgive us if we do not consummate our marriage tonight.”

Under his gaze she removed the metal ornamentation from her hair. There were many pieces.

“I don’t believe in God,” he said.

She shrugged. “I suppose it is hard for you. You were not made by him, after all.”

“No,” he said, “but I don’t believe he made you either.”

“I believe you were made from fire,” she said, “like the old books say about the djinni.” She struggled with a clasp at the back of her head. “I can see it in your eyes.”

Again. She was trying to be playful. No one had ever spoken to him the way she did.

“How did you keep your head up, under all of that?” he asked, not sure if he was trying to make a joke. Not likely. He had never had a sense of humor before.

“Practice,” she said.

Deacon turned away, back to the desk. He sat down, ignoring the way the pillows encased him, molding to his back. He opened the briefcase only to be staring down at his forbidden treasures.

The evidence of his insanity.

He ran his fingers over the golden watch—an antiquated thing. The smoothness of it had first captivated him. The symmetry of its lines. There were other things too. Postcards from the cities he had been sent to examine. A stolen painting—the memory of that pain still bit at him as he brushed a hand over its colorful smudges. It was a simple portrait of a man at a desk, the light catching on golden buttons and, the folds of his ceremonial dress mysterious and dark. Deacon did not know why he took it—only that he had to have it. He had to possess it, because it pulled on something in him—an urge stronger than that he had been trained into.

He ran a thumb over the corner of it, feeling the phantom burn that came with guilt—another emotion he supposedly could not feel. Axeonos began to snore, startling him into movement.

He could not linger. He would need all his willpower and strength to complete his final act. He pulled the table from underneath his treasures.

The form only had two questions. He was supposed to visit the factory. He was supposed to shut it down. He took the job for that reason. If anybody bothered to see why this desert town leaked money and resources, he would be long gone, and they might guess at his victory.

He shouldn’t be able to lie, but he was insane.

And that helped.

Is the factory profitable?

No.

Yes, he wrote carefully, feeling the betrayal in every nerve of his body. He stared at the word he had written, felt the wrongness of it in his bones. It started as an itch, a burn.

His shoulders stiffened. His brain rebelled. Untruth! Pain. He let out a shaking breath. The woman snored behind him. How much time had passed?

Notes during Inspection:

He readied his stylus and steeled himself. His imagination. How they would wonder at it—how all their conditioning, all their tests had failed.

And his bones in the desert, scraped and bleached white—a monument to this one act of disobedience. He would win.

Dawn peeked under the bathroom door when at last he finished. He had been sick twice, and even now sweat soaked through his clothes. He shook, unable to grip the stylus.

Axeonos had slept through it all. He had retreated to the bathroom to keep the pain to himself. He stood on shaking legs and let the tablet clatter onto the counter. He didn’t let his eyes focus on it again. It was bad enough to know what he had done without having to face his crime.

His fingers were so numb, the buttons on his shirt became almost unmanageable.

The shower thawed his fear and melted through his icy skin. He hugged himself and turned around and around under the torrent, trying his best to soak in every drop of hot water.

Water. There would be none in the desert. Not even enough moisture in the air to keep the sweat on his skin. He closed his eyes and saw himself striding among the dunes.

With his resistance finished, he was released from the compulsion to faint or vomit, though his eyelids felt like sandpaper, and his mouth tasted like blood,

He reveled for a long time before a knock on the door startled him back to his guilt.

“I know it is not possible to use up hot water in the Shalloota, but it seems you are trying.”

The woman.

“I’ll be out in a moment,” he called back, his voice rough from a night of muffled screams.

He switched the water off, scrambled for a towel, and gathered his clothes. As he opened the door, she brushed past him. The sun had risen while he had been in the shower and golden light filtered through the large windows. Outside, vendors were calling out wares, their voices undulating in rhythm with the sounds of foot traffic.

Deacon peered down at the city as it set up for a parade. The streets were full of sound. Instruments warming up, chatter and laughter as the festivities took shape. Barriers rose along the sidewalk, and the beginning of celebratory noise filtered through the air.

His heart began to pick up, a strange sort of excitement rising in his chest, in his head, answering to the noise outside. A madman and a liar, he was. He hissed wordlessly and forced himself away from the window. His only destination today was the desert.

He laid his clothes out on the bed. They were rumpled, and smelled like sweat. It was a uniform of sorts. A blue shirt, black pants, black jacket, black shoes, white collar, all mass-produced for Inspectors.

He ran his hands over the fabrics, smoothing out the wrinkles and spots. Idly he picked at the cuffs, examining the scents of yesterday—the train, the meal, the woman.

The door opened, and he turned.

She was wrapped only in a towel, and for the first time he saw her bare face. Even unadorned by makeup and jewelry she struck him as a fascinating creature.

“What is this?” she held up the tablet, the screen trembling in her hand.

Deacon paused. “Work,” he said.

“What were you going to do? Where were you going, if you had already signed off the factory?”

She was afraid. Now he hesitated, but the words were pulled from him. “To the desert,” he said.

“Why? There’s nothing there but sand for a hundred miles.”

“I was going . . . to walk,” the words forced themselves from his lips.

She frowned. “Where?”

“I was going to walk until I couldn’t.”

Her eyes widened. “Why?”

“Please,” Deacon asked her, “Please don’t make me—”

He was too weak to fight the conditioning now.

“Tell me,” she commanded.

“I have gone mad,” he blurted as the familiar pressure began in his head. The will to answer.

She drew back, her brows furrowing in fear and shock.

Of course. He was disgusting, useless. A shadow of his purpose. “I am insane,” he confessed again. “And when they find out, I will be reconditioned. They will torture me with poison and light, to force me not to want. Not to lie. Not to think.”

“I do not understand,” she said.

Too late now, the desert beckoned in the distance. She would report him, and the Administration would come for him. And then he would be forced back into training.

“How are you mad?” she asked steadily. She stood still and straight, unadorned.

He ran a hand down his face in a claw, scratching at his brow and the bridge of his nose. “See this! This is the face of an Inspector, the body and mind of a djinn!”

She retreated, but he went after, reached for her, grasped her wrists, and pulled her close. “Can you see it?” he asked desperately. “The madness? Look at me. You must be able to see it. It must be obvious now.”

Her chin trembled; she tore free. “You are scaring me.”

“No! No! Watch!” he ripped open the briefcase, and showed her his treasures. Those he would take into the desert. He had tried, had been fighting his symptoms, and all the while these things had been corrupting him, turning him inside out with addiction and fear of discovery. He was helpless.

“See?” he said, holding his breath as if afraid to break her concentration. “Do you see it?”

She held her hands over her chest, fingers clasped together as if in prayer. “Oh, my djinn,” she whispered.

But her expression stilled him. Instead of fright, he read something else. He frowned. Was that delight? Amusement?

No. She had corrected him.

It was speculation.

The day was long, and full of beauty. They ate in the café, amidst crowds of people. She bought the most expensive dress she could find, and they wandered in and out of the shops on the main street. Food. Entertainment. They spent money as if it were sand. Time passed quickly, and that night they wandered into the parade, hand in hand, fingers woven together.

The lights spun around them, laughing faces, such a variety of people and costumes. It all blended together. He felt giddy, breathless.

The woman dragged him to an alley, where the stream of people passed by unseeing, like water over rocks, like wind over mountains. This was a pocket where together they were unhurried, protected by darkness and enclosing buildings.

“Would you leave me now?” she asked.

He gazed at the curl of her lips, at the slant of her eyes. “No,” he said in her language, intoxicated by the feel of the words on his lips. The first time he had spoken the words he had so long ago learned.

“Then no more talks of the desert,” she commanded. “You are my djinn now, and I am your woman. Where you go, I go, and I have no wish to walk in the desert.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be bound,” he said, feeling the curl of her ear between his forefinger and thumb, tangling his fingers in the luxury of her hair.

“With you, I am not bound,” she smiled. “Together, we will be free.”

She curled around him, her breath like the flutter of wings against his skin. “But we must never let them know,” she whispered.

“Yes.”

He twisted against her, wrapped in her limbs, in her presence. “We must choose when to fight.”

He breathed her in, unable to answer, but she understood anyway. Her lips were at his ear. She probably wouldn’t hear him anyway. Her voice swelled hypnotically, like the lights in the street, and the echo of the music from the festival. He felt dizzy with the spin of it.

“Shut down the factory.”

Of course. It was the only way they could be together. The only way to avoid re-conditioning. He had to play a part, and lying? She was the daughter of a spider. She would teach him how to lie.

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