The Heart of the City

by Dr. Noh

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/196597.html)

1887, Sahara Desert

Lewis leaned as far to the right as he could to avoid being sick down the side of his camel. He understood perfectly why they were called ships of the desert. He’d been ill all the way from New Eden to Carthage, and it looked very much as if he’d be ill from Carthage to Timbuktu as well.

He hadn’t thought the desert would be like this. The dunes went on forever, and it was like crossing the Atlantic all over again, the endless ripple-dips and folds, and the froth of it caught in his hair and teeth and infiltrating his unmentionables.

The desert had the advantage of stopping at night, but the six or seven hours free of camel-sway only served to highlight the fact that sand was far less malleable than sea-spray, and also itchier.

Up ahead, camels were halting, nose to bottom. Their rear-guard slipped up like a greased shadow beside him. It was frankly eerie how the man moved with such stealth even on a camel.

Lewis wouldn’t say he got on with Jack Draper. He was fairly certain no one in their party would say that, except perhaps Omid, with whom Jack occasionally shared looks of utter disgust directed toward the expedition’s leaders.

Lewis did recognize that Jack was there for their protection though, and he obeyed the orders Jack handed down – few and all sensible – without shouting in his face, unlike Layton and Fellweather and most of the rest.

“Drink,” Jack said, camel stopped flank to flank with Lewis’s.

Lewis took the proffered canteen and drank. He did tend to forget about the whole dehydration aspect, and it was difficult to remember to drink when most of it came back up. Their first day out he’d got a sunburn so intense he’d sworn there were blisters coming on, before Jack had given him some sort of cream for it.

“What have the idiots found now?” Jack muttered.

“Something else to shoot?” Lewis offered. It was a good bet.

“Out here? Shouldn’t think so. Unless it’s camels. Or people.”

“Might be.”

Jack shaded his eyes and pushed himself taller in the saddle. He shook his head. “They’ve stopped right at the top of that dune, showing off their pretty silhouette to anyone with a rifle. If it weren’t for the money, I’d do it myself.”

He pushed a small waxed paper packet at Lewis and rode off toward the front of their train. Lewis nibbled at the bland, dust-dry biscuits it contained and enjoyed the lack of motion as long as he could.

*

Jack Draper urged his camel forward to the head of the train at a lolloping canter. He had named his Bet, after a young woman of his acquaintance who also spat with great accuracy and tried to kick him when displeased.

He pulled Bet up silently beside Marcus Fellweather, who ostensibly led this march of folly. Fellweather was tall and broad and fair. He wore khaki clothing and a bright red stripe on the back of his neck where his hat failed to provide sufficient shade.

“Draper, good,” he said, the first time those two words had passed his lips in tandem since they’d met. “What do you make of that?”

Jack dismounted and kept low to crest the dune. He expected, perhaps, a herd of wild camels, or an oasis, or, at worst, the camp of the Carthaginian agents who were undoubtedly shadowing them.

He saw, instead, a city.

No road led to it. Its walls rose sharply up from the sand, like mountains stripped of their foothills. They were made from huge blocks of white stone that seemed almost to glow in the harsh sun. Beyond them, spires rose in delicate points toward the unblemished sky.

No sound came from it, and no smoke either. Nothing moved in the whole of the valley that contained it.

Jack checked his compass. “We’ll go around it,” he said. “South southwest. It won’t add much time.”

Fellweather gaped at him. “This is the biggest find since New Eden! We’re going down there, and we’re going now. Have you no curiosity whatever?”

“I’m not paid for curiosity. I’m paid to get you and this company to Timbuktu and back, and that is what I mean to do. Get the photographer to take some pictures, mark it on the map, and then we are moving on.”

Fellweather gave him a look as full of venom as a cobra and whipped his camel down the slope of the dune toward the city. Layton and Gilroy followed.

Omid looked between Jack and Fellweather. “I imagine they’ll need me,” he said. “If there’s anyone down there to translate for.”

“If? The place is huge.”

Omid just shook his head, and headed after them, if more slowly.

Lewis walked his camel up to Jack’s side and stopped.

“You wanted to go around,” Lewis said.

“Yes.”

“Fellweather disagreed.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll get better pictures from up here than down there.”

“I’ll stay with you.”

Jack got Bet to lie down and leaned against her side while Lewis slithered down and started setting up his equipment. It would be half an hour at least before the first photo was taken, but Lewis worked quietly, and Jack didn’t mind the wait.

If the rest of the company got themselves killed, the Vatican would have something to say. He’d be reprimanded, maybe have his travel papers revoked for a month or two. And then next time perhaps they’d listen when he said he didn’t do security work, for this very reason: people were idiots and could not be depended upon to obey the simplest of instructions.

He watched Fellweather stop outside the city gates and shout uselessly for some time. At last, receiving no welcome, he bulled straight in.

“You’d think they’d lock up a place like that,” Lewis said.

Jack grunted. A place like that. Jack doubted there was another place like it in the world. If there was, he’d never seen it, and he’d traveled from New Eden to Nippon and back.

It was clean, for one. The stone was not white in the way that marble in London or New Amsterdam was white. It was bright unto blinding, and the gates which now stood open reminded Jack too strongly of Sunday school, for the only word to describe them was pearly.

“Opalescent,” Lewis murmured.

“I stand corrected.”

“What?”

“The gates. Pearly would’ve been my choice.”

Lewis finished screwing his camera onto its stand and tipped the lens board just so. “Do you think it’s Heaven? Do you think we all died in the night?”

“Can’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Fellweather got in.”

Lewis laughed his funny little laugh, like a demure pig, and pushed one film-back into place. He disappeared beneath the cloth, and soon enough Jack heard the snick of the dark slide coming out and the following click of the shutter.

“I think I’ll make orotones of these,” Lewis said.

“Make whats?”

“Glass photographs, back painted with a emulsion of gold dust in banana oil. It gives them a certain depth. I can pave the streets with gold and call the series Heaven on Earth. What do you think?”

“The Vatican will have you put down like a dog.”

“But they’ll never forget me. The man who brought back photographs of Heaven? The world will remember my name.”

“I’ll remind you of that before I pull the trigger.”

Lewis peeked out from under his dark cloth, eyes creased with humor. “You’d do it yourself? I’m honored.”

“Don’t be. The bounty’s always high for heretics.”

Lewis laughed his snorting laugh and ducked under the cloth again.

*

St. Peter didn’t stop Jack at the gates, so Lewis assumed the city wasn’t really Heaven. Its streets were not paved with gold, but with the same bright stone that formed its wall. They were, however, mortared with gold, or something very like it.

In the sun it turned molten-bright, like a web of fire, and it proved to be the very Devil to get a decent exposure for it. He’d planned to do the required portraits of each expedition member in the desert, or Timbuktu when they arrived, but this was even better. No one objected to posing and he even got some help dragging his equipment around the city.

Eventually, he’d used all the plates he could. He would need some for Timbuktu. He looked at the pile of unused glass with longing. He needed a distraction. The orotones.

Five minutes later he stood over the gold mortar with a knife in his hand and a guilty weight in his chest. It wasn’t as if he’d be the first to dig at it – some of the other fellows had whole strips of it up before they found the more easily portable golden plates and cups, hair ornaments and tiny golden bells – and it wasn’t as if he’d take more than what might fit on a thumbnail.

Et tu, Lewis?” Jack said, shadow falling across the patch of ground Lewis had been contemplating.

“I only wanted a little!” Lewis sighed. “I can wait until we get back I suppose.”

Jack took the knife from him and gouged out a divot of gold. “Hardly matters now,” he said. “If these people come back to find their city looted, no one’s going to stop to ask questions. You might as well have the benefit since you’ll certainly get the blame.”

He tossed the little chunk of gold over, and Lewis juggled it hand to hand till he got a firm grip. “It’s not right though. I mean, none of this is right, stealing their things, eating their food…” He trailed off. “I didn’t exactly try to stop them though.”

“There is no Earthly power that could’ve stopped Fellweather looting this place and even a direct order from His Holiness might not have kept hungry men from fresh fruit and meat.”

“It’s not right.”

Jack shook his head and ducked into the little house Lewis was using for his photography. He sat at the small table and propped his elbows on it. The table was carved of some softly scented wood and inlaid with darker wood and thin lines of gold.

Jack rubbed one finger along one. “You mean not right in a moral sense,” he said.

“Of course.”

“I don’t care a two-penny fuck for that sort of right, but this place is wrong.”

“How do you mean?”

Jack just looked at him.

Lewis sighed. “All right. The fresh fruit, the meat unspoiled. The gold everywhere, and no gold mine within a thousand miles. No roads in or out. No people.”

“No wells.”

Lewis frowned. “But there is. That one in the main square with the blue tile that looks like marble.”

“It wasn’t there when we first came.”

“It…” Lewis searched his mind for his first view of the square, but there had been so much to look at. “Wasn’t it?”

“It was not. I see what’s there, and it was not there. And when did they start finding the gold everywhere? After they started digging up the mortar. Was that there when you first came into this room?” He pointed to a gold pitcher on the windowsill.

“I…”

“It wasn’t. Nor was it filled with wine.”

“It’s not filled with wine now.”

“Isn’t it?”

Lewis crossed the room and snatched it up. He nearly sloshed wine all over his shirt front.

“But it wasn’t! I know it wasn’t. I was going to fill it at the well.”

“And then Gilroy thought to look for a wine cellar.” Jack spread his hands palm down on the table top. “And lo, we are swimming in wine.”

“That’s…not good.”

“I’m tying the camels outside. And I wouldn’t drink the wine or water, if I were you.”

Jack shoved his chair back and stalked out.

They weren’t leaving yet though. And the little lump of gold was dug up already, the harm done. He suspected that, if he looked around a bit, he might well find a mortar and pestle to crush it into the oil.

*

Jack knew what things smelled like when they went sour. This was so far beyond sour that it had curdled and turned to cheese.

Gilroy stomped out after him as he led the last camel to the line he’d pegged for them outside the walls.

“What the hell are you doing?” Gilroy said. “We’re not leaving, idiot, we’re not even close. Fellweather said we might stay a week.”

“Doing my job,” Jack answered.

“They’re our damn camels. Bring them back in. What if they wander off?”

“They’re tied.”

“Bring them back in, I said!”

“Fuck you and fuck your mother.”

Gilroy swung at him for that, which was a relief. Jack put him on the ground and pressed his boot to Gilroy’s throat.

“I am preserving expedition resources so you have a chance of getting out of this desert alive,” Jack told him.

“You mean to leave us!” Gilroy rasped when Jack took his boot away. He rubbed at his throat. “You mean to leave us to die.”

“Tempting, but no. If I meant to leave you, I’d be gone already.” I’d have left the moment I saw this place.

It was wrong, as he’d told Lewis. Indefinably wrong, beyond the inexplicable hospitality it had offered them. A deep and throbbing sort of wrong that settled under the skin and lived there. No one else seemed to feel it, nor see what Jack saw, nor care how well this place provided for them – or they cared, but not in the way they should. Something for nothing never truly was, and hidden prices were always the highest.

Jack left Gilroy to pick himself up and strode back into the city in search of Fellweather. For all the good it would do him.

He asked Layton. He asked Simmons. He couldn’t find Hastings. He met Omid coming out of the building Fellweather had chosen to sleep in. They asked each other the same question and both shook their heads.

“I’m leaving,” Omid said. “I came to tell him. It seemed the polite thing to do.”

“Back to Carthage?”

Omid smiled thinly. “If you really want to know, I work for the Pharaoh.”

“I hope your weeks with the expedition have been enlightening.”

“Indeed. She suspected there would be some problems, but incompetence on this scale was not anticipated.”

“It was anticipated by me. She could’ve just asked. Will you tell her about this place?”

Omid snorted. “Jack, everyone knows about this place. Everyone from Carthage to Cairo. You could’ve just asked.”

“I’m asking now.”

He shrugged. “Well. Truth, I don’t know so much. I recognize it, say. Like if you came across a house made of gingerbread in the woods.”

“It’s a children’s story?”

“It’s a story they tell to children.”

“How does it end?”

“The heroes get out just in the nick of time. Which is why I’m leaving now. Goodbye, Jack. Good luck.” He held out his hand, and Jack clasped it. “If you get out of this, I’m sure the Pharaoh would pay well for your story.”

“I’ll come and tell it to her children.”

Omid laughed as he walked away. The closer he got to the gate, the more his expression lightened. It struck Jack as odd for a man who had several hundred miles of desert to cross alone.

Layton came up a side street, shouting and waving. His face was red, and it made his massive sideburns, also red, seem even more like odd growths than usual, rather than carefully maintained vanity.

“Fellweather’s gone,” Layton panted. “He’s not anywhere. And I can’t find Gilroy now either. Draper, what the hell is going on?” There was a note of panic in Layton’s voice. His sideburns wobbled with his heaved breaths.

“Find everyone you can and wait by the well. We’re getting out of here.”

“Fellweather said–”

“If you can find him and get him to say it again, maybe I’ll listen. Go.”

Jack didn’t run to Lewis’s makeshift studio, but there was a growing amount of haste in his steps. Lewis met him at the door, solemn and pale.

“I need to show you something,” he said.

*

The first time it’d happened, Lewis had dropped the plate. It had shattered on the stones, and he hadn’t waited to clean it up before he prepared the next plate with hands that wanted to shake. He forced himself to steadiness, and then, when the print was made, forced himself to stop and eat something before he coated the back with gold. Hunger-induced hallucinations were the least disturbing explanation he could think of for what he’d seen the first time.

The biscuits and dried meat didn’t help.

The photograph was a portrait of Fellweather with the city in the background. Or really, a picture of the city with Fellweather in the foreground.

He remembered exactly how Fellweather had posed, foot up on a low wall, forearm braced on his thigh, rifle across his chest.

He was absolutely certain that, at no point during the exposure, had Fellweather dropped to his knees and allowed an older man with an impressive cock to fuck his mouth.

Even positing that Lewis’s memory was somehow faulty, that the man with the large cock had appeared literally from thin air, and that Fellweather liked that sort of thing and was willing to do it in public, there still remained one insurmountable obstacle to belief: the image was moving.

The sparkle in the gold always gave orotones a dimensional quality. It wasn’t anything like a glass plate stereogram, but it did fool the eye a bit. Not this much. This was like a slice of reality, gold-toned and pasted onto glass.

The older man’s cock slid in and out of Fellweather’s mouth, darkening his lips, pushing at his cheeks and down into his throat until Lewis could see the movement and distention there. Fellweather was gagging on it, clinging to the man’s hips, tears leaking from his closed eyes.

The man shoved in over and over, rough thrusts that made Fellweather clutch alternately at the man’s wrists and at his own throat. He seemed helpless or unwilling to resist, and in the end the man pulled out and stroked himself until he came in spurts of creamy-gold all over Fellweather’s face.

And it didn’t stop there.

The man planted a foot on Fellweather’s chest and pushed him to the ground. Fellweather’s trousers were distended with the thickness of his erection, and the man cut them open, slit them down the thighs and peeled the fabric back till Fellweather’s cock stood up, exposed and hard and wet.

The man laughed and rolled him over. Fellweather reached back and held himself open for the man to drive two fingers inside him.

That was when Jack walked in to hover behind Lewis’s shoulder, and Lewis nearly dropped the plate.

“I don’t know what happened,” Lewis said quickly. “I just–”

Jack took the plate from him and watched Fellweather moan and squirm silently on the ground as the man fingered him, cock swinging heavily between his legs.

“That’s his partner. I met him two years ago, when they were planning this expedition,” Jack said. And then: “People would pay a lot of money for this.”

Lewis swallowed. “Would it work outside the city?”

Jack shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We’re not bringing it back.”

“But – if we could record other things on it – I mean, good things, well, better than this, we might–”

“No.”

“But this is an amazing discovery! You can’t just–”

“Can. Going to. Have you got Gilroy’s portrait? He’s gone as well.”

He had, though it wasn’t coated yet. Jack leaned on the table while Lewis brushed on the gold emulsion. On the completed orotone, Fellweather continued getting violently fucked by his business partner.

Lewis did his best to ignore it, but halfway through the portrait of Gilroy, he caught Jack staring at it, with a hard sort of look that no one, probably not even Jack, directed at dirty pictures.

“What is it?”

“Who is it,” Jack said, and tapped the picture.

There was a man. Not Fellweather or his partner. A young man, with unfashionably long, pale hair, and long, pale robes. Like the stones, he seemed lit from within and nearly translucent. He watched Fellweather with a blank expression.

Fellweather’s partner was whipping him now, laying down red stripes across his rear with a leather belt, pausing now and then to tug on Fellweather’s cock, keeping it erect and dripping.

The man drifted closer and knelt to say something into Fellweather’s ear.

Fellweather shook his head hard. His expression turned panicked. He covered his face as the man kept talking as if he were trying to hide.

The man touched his face and kept talking and, finally, reached out a hand to him. Fellweather took it, and they both faded from view. Fellweather’s partner crumbled into golden dust. The plate cracked from side to side and went blank.

Lewis touched the pieces gingerly.

“Finish Gilroy,” Jack said.

“Right. No, wait. He’s already…. No one can find him, right? So he might be already…. Shouldn’t I do someone we’ve got a chance of…saving?”

Jack frowned and then nodded shortly.

Lewis fished Layton’s portrait from the stack and started brushing on the gold. When the last inch was covered, the picture sprang to life.

Layton was alone. He stood near a statue Lewis recognized, not far from the main square. Jack was already up and moving. Lewis grabbed the stack of plates and the gold before he followed.

*

Jack skidded around the corner, saw the statue, and saw a flash of movement disappear down the next street. In the glass, he saw Layton turn the corner and walk along, hands pushed into his pockets. It was at most a fraction of a second behind reality.

Lewis caught up with him and bent over, panting. “Is it – real? Was he here?”

Jack tipped the glass toward him and then nodded to the corner. Jack moved silently ahead and Lewis followed, with at least an attempt at stealth though his breathing gave him away.

Layton was in no condition to notice anyone’s breathing. He was on his knees as well, but the young man who shimmered into view was certainly not his business partner.

He was tall and fair-haired and willowy, and he smiled at Layton like he knew him.

“Oh God,” Layton choked out. “Oh, God. John.”

John was naked and moved with impossible lightness over the stones to Layton – literally impossible lightness. His body did not bear him down as normal flesh and bone would, and his feet did not hit the ground correctly.

He knelt by Layton and stroked his cheek. His lips shaped words, but there was no sound. Layton, evidently could understand him, and faint color rose to his cheeks. He shook his head and then kissed him, and again, and again.

“He looks so happy,” Lewis said, softly. “I always thought it was a sin. And I tried…. I never….”

At which point, Jack could guess what the city would present for Lewis when his turn came. Something young, comely, male, and experienced. Jack rolled his eyes and stepped forward to catch Layton’s arm.

The man with the strange hair and robes blocked his way.

“And I looked and behold a pale horse and his name that sat on him was Death,” Lewis murmured. “And Hell followed with him.”

“I think Death has better things to do,” Jack said, and then, to the stranger, “Who are you?”

“You cannot interfere,” the man said. He looked sad, but Jack had seen a great many people put on a look of regret about the things they’d done. He could do it quite convincingly himself if he had to.

Jack pushed past him, or tried to. He was immovable, as if made of stone, and when Jack tried to dodge around him, he was everywhere at once. When Jack hit him, it was, indeed, very much like hitting a stone wall.

Jack cradled his fist and bared his teeth. He hadn’t put all his force into it, or he’d have broken knuckles. As it was, they were bloodied.

“What’s going to happen to him?” Lewis said. “Who is that with him?”

“His lover,” the pale man said. “Dead, years past. As to what will happen, that is for Frederick Claymore Layton to decide for himself. No one can interfere.”

“You did though,” Jack said. “With Fellweather. We saw you talking to him.”

A flash of something – guilt? – passed across the man’s face. “I asked if he would not like it to stop. It seemed…. I thought the city had chosen wrongly. It does happen, though it is rare. He did not want to stop.”

“Of course he didn’t fucking want to stop, he hadn’t come yet. What happened to him?”

“The city lives on their hearts.”

“He’s dead.”

“One cannot live without a heart.”

He looked, at that, sadder than ever, but Jack had little patience to start with and it had run dry when he’d scraped his fist open on a face that looked as soft as a ripe cheese. He drew his revolver and stepped back. Bullets would at least chip stone and might crack it.

“Don’t!” Lewis said, and caught his arm. “Oh, don’t. Will you just look at Layton? Have you ever seen him so happy?”

“Fellweather–”

“Fellweather was a horrible man.”

“So am I, and I don’t intend to end up like him,” Jack said.

He wrenched his arm free and took the shot, but the pale man was made of something tougher than normal stone, for all Jack could see straight through him. The bullet pinged off him and ricocheted off the wall which was similarly untouched. The slug bounced to a stop a few feet away.

“John, I have missed you,” Layton whispered. “I have missed you so much.”

He was already fading from sight, and in a moment he was gone. John, like Fellweather’s partner, disintegrated in a cloud of gold dust.

The pale man started to fade away as well, but Lewis darted forward to grab two fistfuls of his robes.

The last thing Jack saw was the shock on both their faces, and then they were gone.

*

Lewis felt a deep chill pass through him, like swallowing ice. His eyes went dark and his ears deaf.

When the world came back, it was all in a rush, and he staggered as if the floor had tipped under him. He would’ve fallen if the pale stranger hadn’t caught him.

“Who are you?” Lewis murmured. “I’ve never seen anyone like you.”

“I’m no one.” The man gave him a shake and let him go to pace to the far side of the room and back. “Stupid boy! What were you thinking?”

It was a large room, made of the same stone as the rest of the city. Its only feature was a golden throne, which the man now threw himself into as if it were a wing chair by a cheerful fire.

“I’m not a boy,” Lewis said. He looked around but saw nothing else, not even a door. “I’m older than you are.”

“You really and truly are not.”

The floor was different. It was still made of stone, but the gold mortar grew thicker and thicker as it neared the throne, like rivers widening nearer to the sea. They met in an irregular puddle of gold right under the throne, and the throne seemed to flow up out of it.

“How long have you been here?” Lewis said.

The man didn’t answer.

“What’s your name?”

“I do not remember.”

Lewis stared. “A long time then, I suppose,” he said. He sat down on the floor and unpacked the gold emulsion and the few remaining finished plates from his bag.

“What is this? The other man had one of these. He was watching it.”

Lewis painted gold onto the back of Gilroy’s, curious, nearly despising himself for it, and yet going ahead anyway. “Come and see,” he said.

The man slid from the throne with boneless, eerie grace and settled beside Lewis. His palms were pressed to the floor, but they still seemed hardly to touch it. He gave off no scent and no body heat. It was as if he weren’t there at all.

“Jack will come for me, you know,” Lewis said, though in truth he thought Jack’s ever-tenuous sense of duty had likely been pushed well past breaking by the last encounter. If Jack was not now on his camel and headed back for Carthage, Lewis would be very surprised.

The man smiled, but it became a sad thing on his face. “There is no way into this room and no way out. You are stuck here, I’m afraid, and there is little your friend can do to help.”

“You get in and out well enough.”

“I am not truly here.”

“Where are you? Truly.”

“Nowhere. Everywhere.”

“That’s very helpful.” He finished the last brush stroke, and Gilroy in the glass jerked to life. “There. Look.”

The man cradled the glass plate in his hands and stared into it. “You have coated it with the city’s blood.”

“That seems a fair enough trade if it eats our hearts.”

They watched together. Even pressed side by side so that their shoulders and thighs touched, Lewis couldn’t feel him properly or get any sense of his presence beyond the visual.

Gilroy was brought to his knees like the others. This time it was a little girl who did it. She was five, or maybe six, and she had dark curls tied back with a pink ribbon. Lewis couldn’t lip read, but “Daddy” was easy enough to make out in the second before she launched herself into Gilroy’s arms.

Gilroy vanished almost immediately.

“He and Layton looked so happy,” Lewis said. He took the broken plate back and looked at the pieces. He felt numb. “What will happen to them?”

“Only what happens to everyone, eventually. Or nearly everyone.”

“Death? And they choose that?”

“Sometimes the world takes more from us than we can bear,” the pale man said.

“And the city gives it back?”

“For a moment. Some people find that to be enough.”

“It hasn’t offered me anything.”

“Was there something you wanted?”

Lewis waited for his mind to throw up some hidden and horrible desire, but there was nothing beyond what he always wanted, which was to understand, to pin things down in black and white and glass and gold and make them be still so he could look at them.

“I want to take your photograph,” he said.

“You do not have your equipment here.”

“Can’t you magic it up?”

“I do nothing. I merely observe.”

Lewis frowned. “Why? What are you doing here? Did the city offer you something to make you stay?”

“It offered me life. Of a sort.”

“What sort?”

The pale man drew his knees to his chest and looked at the far wall. “It was a very small city then. A few houses, a low wall. I was dying of thirst. It is not a pleasant death. The city gave me water and shelter from the sun. It needed a heart of its own. It needed understanding. To offer people meat and fruit and wine is easy. To offer them something they would trade their lives for is more difficult.”

“What is it going to offer Jack?”

The man smiled, this time with some genuine amusement. “Nothing. Your friend’s desires are as clear and sharp as his knives and what he most wants is to leave this place.”

“You can tell? Even now?” Lewis frowned. “He isn’t gone yet?”

“He is within the city walls. He wishes to leave, but he does not. That is all I know.”

“Oh! Wait.” Lewis dug through his pile of plates and pulled out Jack’s. He had posed for it only reluctantly, and as a result Lewis had rushed it. The exposure wasn’t perfect, but it still worked when he brushed the gold hastily onto the back.

It showed Jack running through the city streets with a bag over his shoulder. It thumped onto his back with each loping stride.

*

Jack had climbed one of the spires to find it, but it was clear enough from the air. The city’s heart was a shining cube of stone, and it seemed impossible that none of them had found it odd how every road eventually led to a dead end, a solid wall.

He had been all around the thing now, and there was no door. He hadn’t really expected one. Nor did he need one. He always came prepared, and the idiocy with which this expedition had been planned had led him to lengths of preparedness that even he had thought were probably unnecessary. He was irritated to find that, if anything, he should’ve packed more explosives.

He stacked them against the side of the cube and hoped they would be enough. If it didn’t work, he was leaving, and that was that.

But it did work. In fact, it was overkill. Most of the wall crumbled, and through the rubble and rising dust, Jack saw Lewis and his new friend. Thanks to dust or shock, they were now equally pale.

“Come on! Get out of there.”

Lewis scrambled to his feet and climbed out over the fallen stones, the pale man just behind him. He pushed something into Jack’s hands.

“Take this,” he said.

It was a glass plate photograph. Jack looked at himself and saw himself looking into a glass plate photograph. He tossed it away, and it shattered on the stones.

Lewis and the pale man both stared at him, and Lewis cried out.

“What?” Jack said.

“You– You just broke it! It wouldn’t have cracked, it would’ve– It might’ve worked until you died, or longer!”

“So people not me could watch me? So sorry I broke it now. Move. The gate. That way.”

Lewis started off, but the pale man broke away and shuffled to a run in the opposite direction. He got ten paces before Jack caught up with him.

Jack’s instinct was to knock him out and deal with him later, but his knuckles were still bloody from last time. He grabbed him instead. Jack looked down. The man’s feet struck the ground solidly. He had a weight to him like a real person and not a stone wall. Around them the city shook, and the man had begun to smell of fear.

Jack took a chance and slammed his fist into a jaw that proved to be flesh and bone. He slung the man’s body over his shoulder, grabbed Lewis’s arm, and ran.

The ground was shaking. The gold was moving, liquid, molten. Hot.

Jack swore.

“My camera!” Lewis said.

“I will leave you. Don’t be a fucking idiot.”

Lewis stood stock still, face turned toward the house where he’d kept his things. Gold bubbled up around him, and the stone he was standing on began to tilt.

He shook himself and started after Jack.

They moved from stone to stone. Every step was uncertain now. Jack’s trousers had started to smoke by the time they saw the gate, and the soles of his boots were started to scorch his feet.

“The walls!” Lewis called. “Look!”

They were coming down, shaking themselves apart and collapsing inward. jack sprinted for the gate, leaping from stone to stone. The gold thinned out as he neared the edge of the city, but there was still enough to burn badly if he slipped.

The pale man’s weight increased step by step. Without him, Jack might have made it. The walls tumbled and blocked the gate. The gold was rising behind them like a tide, flowing, eating up the stones one by one.

Jack jumped up on the lowest fallen stone, and Lewis joined him.

“Climb,” Jack said shortly. He shoved the man’s body on before him, but the stones were immense, and the wall, even tumbled and broken, was higher than a house. The gold was rising in a wave behind them, and the heat was choking.

“I’m sorry,” Lewis said.

Jack shook his head. “Climb.” He heaved the pale man’s body up again. He thought hard about the next stone in front of him and avoided the persistent thought that the death of the city had undoubtedly frightened the camels enough that they had torn up their stakes and run off. If they escaped the gold, the desert was waiting for them.

A rope sailed over the wall, uncoiled where it hit, and slithered down to them.

They looked at each other.

Jack grabbed the rope and tugged. Someone on the other end tugged back.

“Go,” Jack said. He was already tying the rope around the pale man’s torso as he spoke. Lewis didn’t argue, but pulled himself up hand over hand, progressing far faster than before. Jack followed, and they paused two rocks up to haul their burden up behind them.

The gold fell farther behind. They reached the top of the wall. From below, rope anchored to a fallen stone, Omid lifted a hand in greeting.

*

Lewis and the pale man were sitting near the fire. Jack and Omid were on the far side, discussing their route. Timbuktu was still the closest city, but Omid was making his case for Cairo.

Lewis didn’t care where they ended up as long as they went together. He very much needed to be around people who had seen what he had seen. He needed to know he hadn’t gone mad.

“What about Mark?” he said. “Or Luke? You’ve got to have a name.”

“Not those.”

“John? Sebastian? Jeremiah?”

The pale man shook his head. “Names should have meaning.”

Lewis thought for a moment. “I’m not sure mine does. What should it mean?”

“I do not know.”

They fell quiet after that. The pale man sipped from a canteen as if he’d never tasted water before. Across the fire, Jack and Omid’s argument reached a subdued crescendo, and Omid joined them.

He poked at the fire with a stick and trailed the glowing end against the night sky.

“Menefer,” he said.

The pale man turned toward him. “What does this mean?”

“Beautiful city. It was my grandfather’s name. He lived a good life.”

“Yes. That will do.” He looked at the water in his hands, at the fire, and finally back to Omid’s face. “Thank you,” he said carefully.

Most of what he said was careful. His motions were careful as well, and his gait often unsteady. Lewis would worry, if he didn’t seem more real all the time. Color was seeping back not just into his face but into his hair and eyes. His eyes were gold now, but Lewis thought they might end up still darker.

He felt real, leaning against Lewis’s side, and that night, bundled into Lewis’s blankets to ward off the biting chill, he smelled of sweat and spice, and not of stone at all.

When they woke at sunrise, the city was gone, eaten by the desert.

~{*}~

Same universe as Victoria’s Children. Thanks very much to my speed demon betas.

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