The guide would come no closer than the edge of the salt flat. He kept to the sand. He was careful with his toes. The city of salt is a trap. In the daylight, it reflects the desert sky so brightly it blinds travelers. At night it is worse: at night it reflects travelers back upon themselves. I stood on the eastmost wall, my hands wrapped around the iron spikes on the battlements, and I observed Ammar's guide warn Ammar that he would surely die. My knuckles were white, I clutched so tightly. I had never thought to see him again.
Ammar has only been a coward once. He let the guide turn back, and set foot on the salt. I could have come to him then, appeared beside him taller than his camel and far more terrible, an apparition of bleached fingers with iron needles for teeth: the ghost of the mad king's mage, his liar and illusionist, haunting the ruins of the city he'd ruled. A thing that eats trespassers.
Ammar wasn't strictly a trespasser: once this had been his city too. When I pulled my hands from the spikes they were bruised, grey imprints spreading like fog across my palms.
How dare he come back, when all that was left of me was iron and kudzu?
I didn't appear to Ammar. I followed him instead. The salt and the broken stones of the road were my eyes.
The city lay in the center of an oasis which had long gone dry, baked to nothing by the sun. The scent of dead oceans drifted across the still air, and the feet of Ammar's camel crunched on the ground. The sky and the salt flats and the stones of the walls were all the same color, a blue burnt to white. Ammar followed the remains of the road without faltering. He kept his eyes on the gates. I do not think he saw me on the wall. I think he looked. I imagine he looked.
When he had crossed the entire hardpan of salt, he clambered from the saddle–was there ever a man who could do that gracefully? Ammar Safyazat, poet and minister and rider of desert-bred mares, elegant in every other fashion, had always lurched from camelback like anyone else–and tethered the animal. He came to the gate and put his hand flat on the great iron door where it hung askew. The gates of the city of salt are always open now. The back of Ammar's hand was grey-brown and the veins stood out between his knuckles. He touched the door for a long time, leaning into it. Then he unwound the scarf from his face and he came inside the walls.
He was older. I ought not to have been shocked; I was older, too. He'd kept his cheekbones even though his mouth had thinned. The lines around his eyes were deep, and there was a sternness to him that I did not remember. But he walked through the plaza, stepping over the green ropes of kudzu vines that snaked through the tiles, and his footsteps were as steady as they'd been when he'd walked out. He left tracks of desert dust as he went. Having him within the city felt like having swallowed the grit from the center of a pearl.
"Sogcha," he called, as if he was standing outside the door to my rooms and I was late to a meeting with our king.
No one had called me by my name since before that king had died, so I threw the city at him.
The city's lanterns lit themselves. They flared with heatless white fire and gusted pale smoke to blur the streets. Ammar stood very still, and I watched him draw his scarf up over his mouth again, as if he was unnerved to breathe such air . The vines across the stones rustled and twisted. They rose up out of the smoke, and they brushed Ammar's ankles like the bellies of snakes might. He stepped back. They followed. Their thorns were iron, and I imagined they were my teeth.
He took a breath, the smoke pulling through the fabric over his lips and vanishing down his throat. Then he ran, out of the plaza and deeper into the city.
The city of salt was inhabited once, and had a name. It was navigable then. The king warped it around himself, and I helped him do it, and then he died of it, or of being too much himself, and now it is a maze.
Ammar ran. He dodged the spears which flew at him from the smoke and did not fall when the white tiles beneath his feet shattered to salt flakes. He avoided all the ways a man could tumble down stairs and land on metal spikes grown instantly to catch him at the bottom. He called for me twice. The second time he told me to stop, and I would not. He was closer to me than I thought he'd come. His running made him breathe hard. It filled his lungs with the smoke of the city.
I did not want him closer. The city was inside his chest: I spun him full of illusions, and he froze with his foot lifted between one step and the next.
Ammar concentrated on the acrid taste of the smoke. The taste was dangerous but it was also real.
In the innermost garden at the heart of the city there are two men: a bright one and a dark one, standing beside the fountain. The water runs over the tiles, floods the fountain's lip, spills onto the ground. It vanishes. It drains. The ground drinks it and turns to dust under the dark man's feet, and the dust spreads thirstily across the garden. It catches the heel of the bright man's boot, the hem of his trousers. He becomes a statue, a mosaic of cracked skin that smiles. The cracks run through his teeth. They spread.
There was no smoke in the innermost garden. No white curls of air winding through Sogcha's projected memory of what Nilaq had looked like when he had been king and all three of them had lived here. Ammar remembered him less bright. It had been a long time ago. He breathed: he breathed salt. He tried to step away from the fountain. He turned–
The dark man takes a step and enters the innermost garden. The air is smotheringly hot, a pressure on the skin. The fountain is dry. The sky is such a pale blue that it might as well be white. Breathing scorches the inside of his lungs. He struggles to heave his chest up and down. The sky cracks down the middle like a geode. The dead climb out. They carry iron spears, and they fall from the cloudless blue in regiments. The dark man holds a pennant and the dead crawl to him.
The air inside the city was night-chilled. Ammar saw the dead, marching. That never happened, he thought. He had refused to lead them. By refusing he left his city and his king. He tried to step away from the fountain. He turned–
The dark man enters the innermost garden. Jackal-headed men and women, kneeling, naked, gnaw on the stones of the fountain. They grind the cobbles to powder in their jaws. All their eyes are white.
Sogcha's illusions always had signatures. A hook. A repeating motif. The garden, this time. The garden, and the open jaws of the dead. Ammar tried to step away from the fountain. He turned–
The fountain is a mouth of iron teeth in the face of a woman. It distorts. It bubbles. Vines boil out of it, green on green on green–
"Sogcha," Ammar said, somewhere in the green. His weight wass on his back foot and his front foot hadn't hit the ground yet. His voice whistled in his throat and startled him. "How long are we going to do this?"
Green. Her face, in the fountain.
Ammar waited. The dead fell from the sky. He waited. He thought of where he had stood when he told Nilaq he was leaving. There was no fountain. The innermost garden was Sogcha's place, not his–
His front foot hit the ground. He was in the city of salt, smoke-fogged. The streets spun around him, and resolved. This street was a boulevard once and it led to a tower. He took another step.
I let him find me.
He was as stubborn as I remembered him. I am not unreasonable. I am perhaps cruel, but I am not unreasonable, and I wanted–I wanted him to never have come, or to explain why he had. I let the street he stood on be the street that led to the observatory tower. The tower was a narrow spar, thin and marble and nearly a ruin, with delicate arches framing the topmost turret. I sat on a bench and stared through the archwork at the city and the salt flat. The horizon wavered, a blur of salt and sand and sky, stained white-pink with false dawn.
I waited while Ammar trudged up the stairs. I made myself look like myself. The usual number of teeth. The standard arrangement of limbs.
He sat next to me. There was a handsbreadth between us. He looked where I was looking, instead of saying hello.
"Why are you here, Ammar?" I asked him.
He took a long time answering. I expected him to have had something rehearsed. But what he said was, "I came for you. Surely there's little enough reason for you to remain in this city now that Nilaq is dead."
I said, "I knew you were a coward, but I didn't think you'd become a scavenger as well."
He still didn't look at me; he looked down at his hands, empty in his lap. It was as good as a flinch. "I wouldn't call you carrion scraps," he said.
"Would you not?" I stood, and walked to the battlements. The stone beneath my feet changed to metal spikes, white-hot with growing. They didn't pierce me. We were of a substance. I put my bruised palms flat on the ledge, like Ammar's hand on the gate, and looked out at the salt flat where the city's oasis had been. When Nilaq had called the dead to march toward that horizon, they were not dead enough. They wept as they marched. They were admirable, in how they threw themselves onto the swords and the cannons of our enemies, waiting to be rendered unusable save for jackals. After they were bones the salt came and the city dried and burned.
I said, "You took your time, coming back. Were you waiting for it to be safe? It is not safe here. Didn't your guide warn you?"
"He did," said Ammar, milk-mild.
I asked, "Or were you ashamed?"
"I am not ashamed of leaving," Ammar said. I turned to face him and he met my eyes. One corner of his mouth turned up, a smile like biting into a sour citrus. "I meant to do it. But I'm sorry that I didn't make you come with me."
I am the jackal gnawing on the bones of the city; I am the city, being devoured. I stayed. I earned it. "I would never have gone."
His hand flickered against my waist, as if he could pull me to lean against him. I caught him around the wrist. His skin was warm. I had forgotten how it felt.
"Sogcha," Ammar said. He blistered under my fingers. I was iron and the sun and the point of a spear, but he did not pull back. "I came back for what can be salvaged."
I tossed him away from me. Where I'd touched him his flesh was a raw ring, right above the wristbone. I thought it might scar like a brand.
The flesh on Ammar's forearm burned and bubbled. Up close, Sogcha was nearer to the fable his guide had told him than Ammar wanted her to be. When he'd left she'd been a woman, argumentative and canny, Nilaq's favorite raconteur. Now, incensed, she fought him like a cobra. Her mouth unhinged and she spat illusions from between sharpened boneshard teeth. Each regurgitation began as a bundle of white shadow bound around with kudzu, and then unfolded to stand on man-shaped limbs. The illusions all wore Ammar's face, and they all carried Ammar's sword, drawn and pointed at his throat. Sogcha stood behind their semicircle, her ribs heaving from having coughed them up.
"I am only me," she said. "There were a hundred thousand people in our city. You should have tried to salvage them, if salvage means so much to you."
"One man, against all Nilaq's dead legions, and his illusionist too?"
She was never much of a duelist, Ammar thought before the shadow-doubles closed, but she hardly needed to be one, with six identical versions of his own face–a face he had not seen reflected for twenty years–to terrify him. They all moved like dancers. He wondered if she thought he had ever been that elegant. He was bound by gravity and musculature. The doubles walked on the air.
Behind them, Sogcha called, "Surely whoever you ran to would have given you an army just for the asking. Ammar Safyazat! Prince amongst ministers! Poet and general! You must have been a prize."
His scarf slipped from his neck when he drew his sword. "Not everyone is Nilaq," he said.
"Not every king loved you," she said.
"No. Only one."
The doubles dived like hawks.
Ammar had been a swordsman of some renown, once. He sliced the belly of one double, pierced the breast of another. Where he struck them they oozed a grey-grained sludge that smelled of salt. Where they struck him, he bled.
He'd wondered if he would. Her hand on his wrist had been fire.
She could have made the stones separate between his feet, or made him think they had. The fall would be the same either way. But all she did was watch the doubles swarm and drive him backward around the tower in a slow circle which never reached the stairs. The battlements were always to his left, the bench always to his right, even as he retreated. He was leaving a long track of red footprints between him and Sogcha. It would be dawn soon, the sky paling to the same salty grey as the blood of the doubles.
If he was going to die, he was at least at home.
The second time Ammar went to one knee and struggled up again, blank-faced with a determination that I could not distinguish from his prior grace, I put my bare feet in the bloody prints he'd left between us and dismissed my shadows one by one as I went. I took the sword from the last of them. It was a weightless memory in my hand. I pointed it at Ammar's throat, lifted up his chin with its edge.
He let me, as he hadn't let the shadows.
"Are you trying to die?" I asked.
He shut his eyes and opened them again, less a blink than a slow acquiescence. "Not trying," he said.
A bleak and razing anger rose in me like bile and consumed itself before it could burn my tongue. "Letting me kill you won't make up for anything," I said.
"I never thought it would," he said. "Sacrifice for a cause was always more your disposition than mine."
I sliced his cheekbone open with the point of the sword rather than slit his throat. He didn't move. He hardly flinched. The blood beaded up slowly.
"Are you going to kill me, then?" he asked, as if we were having a conversation of no great consequence.
If I were going to, I should have done so then. I said, "Nilaq should have."
"Probably," Ammar said. "But I think he wanted me to come back as much as you do."
"I didn't want you to come back at all," I protested.
Ammar stepped back, away from the sword. It wasn't heavy; it was a fiction. My arm ached from holding it anyhow. "Where is he? Our king."
"Dead," I said. "Didn't your guide tell you? The mad king, dead in his empty city, his bones turning to salt." I rested the tip of the sword between two of the flagstones. Slowly, the steel darkened and thickened, becoming iron from the tip upward.
"My guide said more about the ghost of his mage, and how she eats visitors."
"I don't," I said.
Ammar raised an eyebrow at me.
"Much," I amended. "I don't need to."
"Sogcha," he said. "What do you need?"
For my king to be alive. For breathing people to walk the city of salt and call it by some human name again. For Ammar to have died happily in another kingdom, far away from me.
"Impossible things," I said.
"So do I," said Ammar.
I turned away from him. The sun was rising. In two hours the desert would be hot enough to leech moisture from a tongue in a closed mouth. Ammar came up beside me, so we stood shoulder to shoulder.
After some time, he said, "Leave with me when I leave. Come with me and tell the city I live in about the city that I miss. I think you remember it better than I do, now."
Such things were also impossible.
"This city would come with me," I said. "This city, and the desert around it, and the salt that falls from the sky and grows out of the ground. I would turn your camel to kudzu and if we walked all my footsteps would leave iron. When we reached your new city I would open my mouth and speak white fire, and no one living would remember when this place was made of gardens, no matter what I said."
Carefully, Ammar laced his fingers through mine. "What should I take away with me, if not you?" he asked.
Ammar Safyazat had only been a coward the once.
"Come with me," I said. "I'll show you."
The innermost garden was dry, the fountain caked white with excrescences that smell like the sea. Ammar stood with his hand in the taloned hand of a creature more shade than woman. Since their duel, Sogcha was taller, as if she had been stretched. Her teeth were as pointed as her fingernails, sharp-tipped iron arrows. She didn't smile so much as draw her mouth apart, wryly, and point to where she had gathered a great pile of ash and salt and bone, at the base of the fountain, like a cairn.
Scraps of cloth, as blue as his scarf, still clung to some of the ribcages–the few which had not dissolved under the alien sky of this city now.
"Eventually they will be gone," Sogcha said. "Just ash and salt, and then the vines will come."
"When did you start collecting them?" Ammar asked.
"After Nilaq died," Sogcha said. She leaned close. Her hair brushed his cheek and every strand stung a line of fire. "He's at the bottom. Crown and scepter and standard wrapped around him for a shroud. I tried, Ammar."
"Yes," Ammar said. "I think you did."
She detached herself from his hand with exquisite care. When she knelt and cupped a palmful of the cairn, her skin was the same unnatural white as the salt crystals.
"Take them," she said. "Bury them in soil."
He wondered whether, if he did so, she would fold up within the city of salt and the two of them, woman and city, would simply vanish.
What he said was, "I can't carry them all."
"I doubt you need to," said Sogcha. "Give me your scarf."
He did. In her fingers it glowed like a star, an impossible richness of color. She wrapped her handful of ash and bone chips in it and tied a graceful knot.
"Go home, Ammar," she said, passing it back to him.
He was home. There was no such place.
"I miss you," he said, out of not knowing how to say goodbye.
"Good," said Sogcha.
Ammar came to the city of salt in the month of Tammuz, and he took with him no maps when he went out again. All the doors of the city are open now, every gate ajar. I watched him go. He crossed the hardpan on foot, leading his camel. When I could no longer see him, I thought of gardens, and I rested my head on the white stone of the battlements, and waited to see if it would rain.