For a moment there was nothing said, just the echo of my anger. I said, "Tell me where I need to go."
Loops of smoke curled from Felix's pipe and drifted toward the ceiling. "She's from the Cold Lands."
"The Eroin tribes? I thought they feared the desert?"
"They fear little, let alone the desert. But they don't like the heat, it's true. And technology puts them off. They tend to avoid big cities." He puffed on his pipe. "She's an exception."
"What is her name?"
My thoughts tasted the name. "Strickland?"
"From the Cold Lands."
He gave me a knowing look. "Good thing you read all those history books."
"The Strickland Clan? Where did you meet her?"
"I never have. I'm not even sure if she'd be any help. All I know is you can try." Felix had a pen and scribbled on a piece of paper. He handed it to me. "Ring it. If she cares enough, she will come to you."
Outside, in the street, I breathed in the air. I used my mobile to call the number Felix had given me.
Three rings, four, six—
"Hello?" The voice was sharp and cut.
"Is this Alex Strickland?"
"If you want money, no. If you want to give me money, perhaps."
Tell me about it. "My name is Rachel Buonarrotti. Felix Slant gave me your number—"
"Don't, please. Don’t tell me, because if I'm still listening to you in a minute and end up being paid by you to do something and, not impossible, everything goes horribly wrong, I don't want to know who it is I have to go looking for—who's to blame for giving you my name."
"What do you want?"
I cursed, caught unaware and used to being in control. A soft laugh glided down the line. I bristled.
"Do you have skill with spellmade books?"
"I have a book. I need to find out if it's authentic, as well as the nature of its authenticity."
I hadn't thought about it. "Five-hundred—if you prove successful."
"Great. I can pay my rent. Do you know your way around the eighth ring?"
"Also not my problem. Bring your book to Nganga Park. Take the train to the station of the Burning Man. Then three blocks directly north. I'll wait half an hour. If it starts to rain I'm going home."
Before I could smartanswer, I was yet again listening to a collapsed phone line. Ten minutes ago I was annoyed at the trees. Now I wished I could stay and enjoy the shade, the way I used to when I was kid, dosing in the shadow of some overgrown oak. Instead, I had to brave that place, that dark place where the living and the dead played twenty-four-hour chess and more shadows than your own followed behind you. There was no time to think up an excuse. The maglev was coming.
The Casting Circle was a place where either you belong or you didn't. Dark and gloomy, the roads were twisted and given to change. In the Circle you had to be able to read more than directions.
The maglev snaked away into the darkness. I watched it go, shooting up at a tight vertical angle and then it was gone. I checked my watch. The numbers did not move. I tapped it. Nothing happened. I looked around but there were no other people. It must have been close to midnight. Across the street a neon sign blinked red. YOU DO HOODOO? CHEAP! I found a weather-beaten map on the station wall and located the park. This way, up three blocks, there it was. I started walking.
The buildings showed little light. I realized how unchanged much of this part of the city had remained. There were remnants here from long ago, courthouses turned into coven houses and red and yellow takeout joints still selling crap. A restaurant advertised something called a "Saint Witch" as a 10-currency special.
Not a breeze stirred but I could feel the cold against my skin. My hands were cold. I hurried past shops that sold divination and invocation, dark alcoved windows that bore no signs at all and a National Bank Trust with a bold sign—CANTRIP PROTECTED.
Nganga Park was three blocks worth of burnt Umber trees, their slender, elongated branches weaving in and out one another in crooked tangles. Iron statues marked pathways and benches. Burnt light wept from the hollow eyes in their faces and burned patches of light onto the weedy, low grass.
Something moved in the shadows close by. My breath suddenly came hard and fast. Without a thought, and as if it flowed through me second nature, I spoke a charm. A simple one. Even I have tricks up my sleeve.
A quick, sharp burst of light flashed and I saw a woman. This time she cursed; the tongue was foreign but I figured her meaning well enough.
"Easy!" I held my arms out, buffering.
"You speak charms!" The voice sounded angry.
"You were hiding from me, what was I supposed to do?"
The woman scowled hard and flicked at the dark hair in her eyes. She was dressed in black, well hid in the shadows. Despite her glare having softened. Her body language was stiff and distrustful. "Buonarrotti?"