“What is a tophet?” asked Rory.
“Every Kena’ani child who died untimely in the first eighteen hundred years of the Kena’ani settlement in Adurnam was interred in this cemetery,” I explained.
“The remains of infants were placed here in dedication to the gods.” Bee sank onto a moss-covered stone bench as if exhausted. “But it was closed when my papa was a child, forty years ago. There were riots in the city after rumors spread that the Phoenicians were sacrificing children on Hallows’ Night and mixing their blood with wine and bread to keep away the Wild Hunt. Here in the tophet.” She sighed. “Just give me a moment. My legs are shaking.”
“I don’t think blood and wine would taste well together,” said Rory. “Why drink that?”
“It wasn’t true, you imbecile,” she snapped. “It was a pernicious lie!”
A gust of wind stirred my hair, like an unwanted premonition. “Bee, why did you notice the sign on that clockmaker’s shop?”
“The clock-faced owl? I saw it in a dream. I sketched it. When I saw it today, I knew we had to go there.” Her gaze, on me, looked so weary and worn that I wanted to tell her it would be all right, but I knew such words would be a lie. When I did not reply, she shook her head as if shaking off her fears and offered a teasing smile. “By the way, Cat, I saw a man’s face in the Fiddler’s Stone.”
“Who?” I demanded, remembering the woman who had told us girls went there to see the faces of their future husbands in the stone.
“Knives,” she said cryptically, mouth creasing down as if she was herself not sure.
Footsteps crunched on gravel. I should have heard sooner. A figure appeared where the gravel path hooked around a gaudy monument which was crested by a weathered representation of the lashing, intertwined sea monsters known as the Taninim.
“So here they are, the Hassi Barahal cousins.” Leaning on a cane and accompanied by his assistant, the revered headmaster of the academy Bee and I had attended regarded us with an expression whose depths I could not fathom. Even though I knew he had sent his assistant to find us, I stared at his regal features, seamed face, and silver hair as surprised as if I had been cast adrift on a wave-tossed sea to confront the toothy maw of a sea wolf.
With a snarl of rage, Rory dropped the bags. In a blur of gold too bright to be fully seen, he melted from man into huge, deadly saber-toothed cat, and sprang at the headmaster.
I threw myself into Rory’s line of attack.
Even as I was twisting, bracing myself to slam into him, the air distorted. An undulation of intense heat sucked the cold as into a vast shimmering furnace. A scaly beast gleaming of polished copper shuddered across the sky: eyes like burning emeralds, claws the length of my arms, wings that spanned the tophet wall to wall. Its jaw gaped to swallow him and us and all the city and then the world and finally all of existence.
I smashed into the cat’s massive fore-flank. I did not stop Rory, but we were both carried far enough sideways that he landed out of reach of the headmaster with me draped over his rippling shoulders. I leaped back and whacked him on the neck with my cane.
“Stop! Rory! Stop!”
The big cat cringed and dropped to a crouch. Its pelt shone with a pulse of light, and smeared into a black-haired young man.
“Let go of me!” cried Bee in a tone I recognized as exasperated rather than alarmed.
Stepping between Rory and the headmaster, I turned. The headmaster’s assistant had a hand on her arm, and was in the act of pulling her out of the way. He released her at once.
The headmaster looked as he had always looked: He was a tall, elderly black man of noble Kushite ancestry, a princely scholar of the most cultured and civilized of peoples, a man who was always calm. Why had I never noticed the fulgent green glamour of his eyes?
“Who are you?” Bee demanded.
Remnants of clothes hung like rags on Rory’s body. Even half naked, he appeared predatory. “I have to kill him, Cat. Surely you understand!”
“I’m beginning to think I understand much less than I ever thought I did!” I cried.
“And that wasn’t much,” muttered Bee, as if she could not help herself.
Had the light changed? The headmaster’s eyes were a pleasant, ordinary brown, not green at all. “Begging your pardon, Maester,” I said politely, “but if I am not mistaken, something rather strange just happened.”
“Indeed it did,” he agreed with the careworn smile of a man who has seen everything and has yet to be surprised. “Your young companion turned into a rather large cat and then back into a man. Certainly an unexpected occurrence. He must be cold. May I offer my coat?”