Winner of the Prism Award for Best Fantasy Novel
“Tells a love story with exquisite detail.”—TrueBlood.net
Cairo in the 1860s is a bustling metropolis where people from all walks of life mix and mingle, mostly in complex harmony. When evil ghosts and unquiet spirits stalk the city’s streets, the Guard are summoned—six young men and women of different cultures, backgrounds, and faiths, gifted by their Goddess with great powers.
While others of the Guard embrace their duties, their leader, British-born Beatrice, is gripped by doubt. What right has she, a bookish, sheltered, eighteen-year-old, to lead others into battle? Why isn’t dark-eyed, compelling Ibrahim, who is stronger of will than Beatrice, the one in charge?
Ghosts maraud through Cairo’s streets, heralding a terrible darkness. Beatrice and her Guard have little time to master their powers; a great battle looms as an ancient prophecy roars toward its final, deadly conclusion.
This enchanting prequel to Leanna Renee Hieber's gaslamp fantasy, Strangely Beautiful, returns to print after more than a decade, edited and revised for Tor's publication.
Strangely Beautiful series
Miss Violet and the Great War
The Eterna Files series
The Eterna Files
Eterna and Omega
The Eterna Solution
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
Release date: June 20, 2017
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 368
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Leanna Renee Hieber
Eighteen-year-old Beatrice Smith Stared into Jean’s deep blue eyes and really, truly wanted to be in love. Wholly in love. It was a fitting time for it: The breeze was warm, the Egyptian sun was bright, and the ties of her bonnet were undone. She had stolen a few moments away from the ever-present eye of the housekeeper—who, Beatrice knew, had been hired by her father not only to clean their rooms but to keep watch over his daughter. For the moment, Beatrice was gloriously without scrutiny, on her own and able to make her own decisions.
“Will you ever go back to England?” Jean asked, his French accent as delightful as the lock of his sandy-brown hair as it bounced in the breeze. “Do you even remember England? I’ll bet you don’t remember it like I remember Paris.”
Beatrice looked out over the city. They’d hidden themselves above it all, sitting on the anterior ledge of a tower at the Church of Abu Serga. Old Cairo’s minarets pierced the uneven skyline, spires calling to heaven, cupolas and spherical forms above intermittent brick complexes, graceful curves among rectangular blocks, a feast of shapes and varying heights. Along the stones far below strode both the wealthy and poor, robed and suited, veiled and open-faced; bronze and pale, the native and the foreigner.
“I remember a little,” Beatrice replied, finding it hard to think of any place that wasn’t Cairo. “I remember how different the colors are. Perhaps the distance of memory mutes England’s hues, but it seemed a gloomier palette. As for going back”—she shrugged—“there’s so much work here, I doubt Father’s thought one whit about Oxford. He hopes to find out everything about the pyramids before everyone else. I’d like to help him.”
Jean grinned. “Ah, yes, that’s right. He’s too busy grave robbing.”
“No, Jean.” Beatrice scowled. Jean was always teasing, but he should know better than to jest about a most passionate subject. “Father isn’t like that.”
“What’s wrong with it if he were? Valuable stuff, antiquities—and I’m sure your museums will do a much better job of preserving them than the natives.”
“You can’t think like that, Jean. That’s the whole trouble,” Beatrice scolded, easily sliding into the role of lecturer or professor. “Just because a way of life died doesn’t mean you can go tromping around their graveyards and taking souvenirs. Father’s interested in the culture, in learning about the hieroglyphs, about elaborate burials, about their rituals and their daily life. Civilization began in Nile soil. It’s fascinating.
“Father’s not just here to take things. He’s a gentleman, you know. Though I daresay most Englishmen are less refined…” She paused, sighed, and said, “Then there are the tourists. They’ll come to ogle Father’s discoveries once they learn of them. In fact, they’ve already begun. Have you seen the guidebooks? Entitled people with money to throw away, thinking they can learn everything about a faraway place and its people in a few unthinking moments,” she finished sharply.
“You’ve heard too many of his lectures.” Jean elbowed her, yanking at a bonnet tie.
Beatrice readjusted her ribbons. “Just think if someone were to go into your Notre Dame and overturn the vaults just because they were curious. There’d be hell to pay—”
“The recently dead are different than the ancient, Bea,” Jean interrupted. “Your father might be standing in the way of a great discovery.”
“He’s trying to stand in the way of looters, Jean, that’s very different. I daresay your father wouldn’t mind a nice trundle of loot,” she muttered. She’d been attracted to Jean because he was carefree and jovial. But if he didn’t have a serious bone in his body, how could she ever talk to him about what was meaningful?
Jean held up his hands, the cuffs of his white linen suit ruffling in the breeze. “My family remains firmly rooted in the good, clean, honest work of banking. Father wants nothing to do with cursed mummy gold. But in a few years, none of this will matter. I plan on stealing you away to Paris as soon as I’ve the chance, and I’ll make you Mrs. Jean Pettande before your father can say Book of the Dead. God willing.”
Beatrice blushed and cocked her head, then gave him the first challenge of their young relationship. “What if I don’t believe in God?”
Jean gave an amused scowl. “You’re too young to be an atheist.”
“And you’re too young to know the truth. You grew up surrounded by Parisians. I grew up here. How can Coptics and Arabs, Sufis, Sunnis, Jews, and everyone else who lives here all believe different things and all be right?”
Jean shrugged. “Someone’s got to be right.”
Jean grinned. His ruddy cheeks dimpled. “Might as well be me.”
Beatrice snorted, not sure whether she was amused or disgusted. “Why, Jean, I do believe you’ve succinctly stated the very heart of conquest.”
He grinned. “Oui.” His dive to place a kiss on her neck made her giggle. “But unlike Napoleon, all I’m interested in conquering is you.”
Shifting his precarious position on the ledge, he pulled her into a real kiss. Then, as a thought obviously occurred to him, he pulled back and raised an eyebrow. “If you don’t believe in God, why do you care about anyone’s mortal remains, like those musty old Egyptians?” He gave a mock sneeze, and she glared at him.
“I don’t believe in the Book of the Dead and I’m hardly convinced about our Bible, but that doesn’t mean I want to steal bodies and put them out for a show. I respect the tactile. What I see. What I’m not sure about are all the things I can’t see: gods, demons, ghosts, curses—”
“You know, you really are too opinionated for your own good. I’m going to lock you away in a Parisian flat,” Jean said. “That’s what you really need.” He scrambled to his feet, a risky action on the narrow ledge.
“Jean, be careful,” Beatrice snapped. She was annoyed by his words, even though he was joking. But was he joking? It would serve him right if he hurt himself, she thought in a moment of unkindness.
“Do you hear that, Cairo, Beatrice Smith shall be Mrs. Jean Pettande, stolen away like an antiquity, never to be seen again!” he shouted, holding on to a gritty, sand-bitten window frame with one hand and flailing about with the other. “I’ll protect her like her father protects the ancients!”
“Stop!” Beatrice said, growing angry. “Stop talking like that. I don’t want to be stolen away or protected, I love Cairo.”
She did—more, even, than she loved Jean. The city was beautiful, complex and fascinating, its cultures, its histories and people … She found some young locals attractive, which went very much against general British sentiment. Considering the societal abyss that prevented her from ever really getting to know any of them, such attractions were foolish. Someone like Jean, foreign as he was, was still European: safe, accessible. He was someone she was supposed to care for. This was what women her age did: They were courted; married; and raised families. A limited existence. Jean’s brash tone of conquest rode Beatrice’s sensibilities roughly, souring her sunny, lovely day.
“Oh, Bea, your father may have let you read books and taught you ridiculous rituals of useless dead people, but you don’t seem to grasp your place in this world. Look at you right now; you’re just where a girl’s supposed to be.” He giggled, shifting his weight as she glared at him. “At my heel, as I stand above and survey our kingdom!”
There came a cry from downstairs, followed by a gust of wind, a powerful blow focused like a presence. Sand blew about, peppering her exposed skin; Beatrice’s blood chilled. Far below, women and priests cried out phrases she recognized as scriptural exclamations, and she pursed her lips, passing off any superstitious fancy.
Suddenly she couldn’t see Jean … and she couldn’t quite feel her own body.
All within her gaze went blue. Beatrice’s hands pressed hard against the tall window frame, holding her in place as a great force collided with her body. There came a burst of angelic music and blinding light, a thrilling jolt through her blood. A firm voice said: “You’ll not hear my voice again. You’ll only feel my fire. But you, Beatrice Smith, have been chosen for the Grand Work. You are now more than human, and you will fight on the side of angels for a better world. You are the Leader of the Guard.”
Blinking images, of a circular room and a bird, fluttered before her. The wind swept all around and through her. Beatrice was too shocked to utter a sound. At last the moment faded and her senses returned to the present.
Just in time—or just too late.… Beatrice squinted past her blowing bonnet strings to see Jean’s wide eyes and the top of his mussed brown hair vanish from view. He had fallen from the ledge upon which he’d danced only moments before. There were screams. It was a long way down, and Beatrice should not have looked, but she did.
So much red against so much white. She wasn’t sure she believed in God, but now, maybe, she was convinced of something otherworldly. What had spoken within her? Whose voice had graced that terrible moment of pain and euphoria?
Tears streamed down her face. People ran to Jean’s body, though they were careful to keep out of the widening pool of blood. Beatrice ducked back, avoiding the upward gazes, gasping, wishing to see no more.
Coldness poured over her, one overwhelming sensation after the next. An icy draft? Something transparent appeared, gray and shimmering.
Jean. It was Jean! He floated before her, grayscale in his linen suit, his luminous face wearing an expression of confusion. He opened and closed his mouth as if speaking, yet she heard nothing. A gasp tore from Beatrice’s throat. She was staring at a ghost. She didn’t believe in such things; she’d just said so. She was being proven woefully, horrifically wrong. He was holding his hand out for her, as if everything would be all right.
Beatrice reached for him, an unreleased scream threatening to tear her in two. Jean stared at her sadly. Seeming to realize something, he shook his gray head, disappointed. Then he blew her a kiss and his image faded from view.
Sound finally tore from her lips. Beatrice fell to her knees on the cool stone floor, retching until she felt warmth on her hand like a ray of sunlight. Turning, she found a woman of unparalleled beauty had appeared suddenly beside her: glowing, majestic, full of colors. A glowing, floating woman whose hair was black, then brown, now blond; her skin was pale, then olive, now dark—
Her sanity had been shattered. That, or this was a wretchedly cruel dream with an avalanche of events and sensations.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman, tears falling from her ever-changing face. She blinked blue, then brown, eyes. “I’m so sorry. I lost my lover, too. He was murdered. He burned to death before my eyes.” Tears, as silver as mercury, rolled like beads down her cheeks and dripped to the floor.
“Who are you?” Beatrice asked, choking, wiping her mouth. “What are you?” She knew that sounded rude, but clearly she’d gone mad. She didn’t need manners when she’d gone mad.
“I’m whatever you want to call me, and I have a job for you,” the magnificent creature said, her voice breathy and yet echoing, the sound of something heavenly.
Beatrice stared at her diaphanous layers and shifting colors, trying to sound brave but knowing she didn’t. “Wh-what do you want with me?”
“I want you to know that death is not the end. I’ll even show you it isn’t.”
Beatrice was suddenly full of fear and guilt. “I was saying I didn’t believe in God, but … I don’t know. Please don’t tell me Jean was punished for my blasphem—”
“I’m not handing out punishments,” the woman interrupted. “I am here to help set you on a path. You have been chosen for the Grand Work.”
“I’ve been chosen as a nutter,” Beatrice murmured. “And you can’t be real.” She rose shakily to her feet. All she wanted to do was weep, alone.
“Just outside,” the woman said, “in a place that’s neither here nor there, at the edge of time, between two worlds, your new friends are waiting for you.”
Beatrice stared, her mind struggling with the realization that she had changed. There was something inside her now, something warm and full of power. The sensation was making her dizzy, but it wanted her to be strong. Resolute. A leader.
“If you say so,” she whispered, dazed, moving awkwardly to the stairs. She descended, her bonnet askew, her blond locks mussed, her eyes full of tears.
At the foot of the staircase, on the landing, looking similarly dazed, stood four young people. They were all about her age, and they were looking up at her. Waiting.
Ibrahim Wasil stared at the smoldering foundation of his home. He’d watched it burn for several hours, hanging back from the crowd, his keen ears picking up all the murmuring about the dead bodies rumored to be inside. His, they thought, and the body of the man who had acted like his father. Not his true father. Only Allah knew where his real parents were or if they had ever felt guilty for abandoning him as a baby on the stoop of an Englishman’s home.
“Like Moses,” his friend Isaac had once said when they were children, playing in a university courtyard. Isaac was a Jew, but the Fatimid Caliphate had had a relative tolerance for other religious groups, and while that ancient empire was long fallen, some of its basic principles remained in Masir, in al-Qahira, in this city the Europeans called Cairo.
There were tensions, of course, between faiths, races, classes, and intentions. The pale skin of colonial interest could never entirely be trusted, whether it be French or British. However, one kind and gracious example of pale skin had raised him unquestioningly as his own, yet with respect for his birthright: James Tipton had made sure that Ibrahim was heir to his rightful Arabic language and faith and proud of the name Tipton had given him, the name of a prophet. Tipton had also taught Ibrahim the Queen’s English and escorted him to Christian services as well as Muslim calls to prayer. A professor of religion at the University of Cairo, Ibrahim’s father had encouraged him to be whatever he wished and had given him a place to call home while he determined what that might be.
Ibrahim wasn’t sure who or what he prayed to as he stared at the ashes of the only home he’d ever known, the tomb of the one true good man he’d ever known.
He’d begun the day as a creature of two worlds, English and Arabian. Now, alone at the age of eighteen, orphaned for a second time, he wasn’t sure which world would take him, or if he would have to choose. James Tipton had managed to effortlessly create a loving mix of faith, culture, and sensibility. Others Ibrahim had met, both English and Arabian, made it seem one had cling to specific viewpoints and reject all the rest. Some of his own people rejected outright the honest intentions of James and others at the university and had accused Ibrahim of abandoning his true self by living among them. For a boy who never for a moment forgot he’d been abandoned on a doorstep, this was a deeply painful accusation.
Uprooted, he could be anything now, anyone. He could choose to be a ghost, he realized. The crowd assumed him dead, after all. Was that the answer? To be a ghost? Wondering and wandering? Something had pushed him out of bed, into the market, early this morning, an unusual desire for ripe, glorious pomegranates. That strange, pressing urge, he realized, had saved his life. Would that it had saved the life of the man who’d provided a home for him.
A sudden, violent gust knocked him forward, and a furor rose within him as if a bird loosed from a cage flapped madly at his insides. The pomegranates he had held through all the hours he had watched his home burn fell to the ground, rolling away and bleeding onto the sandy stone.
As if this day had not held changes enough, Ibrahim now suffered yet another. Thinking he had become like the dead, he now saw them.
Ghosts stared back from every few feet; grayscale and luminous, spirits from Cairo and the specters of nomads, ghosts of all faiths and races, eras and classes. He felt an overwhelming wish to follow each and every one, to understand why they had been driven to Cairo’s streets, eternally wandering in and out of shops and homes.
He heard a strange new voice, speaking in a language he’d never before heard and yet, miraculously, understood: “Hello, my torchbearer, Intuition. I saw the measure of the man you could be and had to save you from your fate. I’m sorry for your loss, but you gain new family and a new future today. I have plucked you from an early death to learn a story and fight the good fight. In the beginning were two lovers, beings of light who fought wrath and woe. We are their continued struggle, and it is in their name I welcome you to the Guard.”
Ibrahim heard these confounding words both within himself and all around him. Before he could begin to process them, his gaze fell upon the transparent ghost of James Tipton.
With a puzzled expression on his grayscale face, the man floated over his home, staring at its cremated remains, then surveying the gathered crowd. When his gaze fell on the young man he’d lovingly and unquestioningly called son, he smiled his small, consistent smile, as if in seeing Ibrahim safe, Tipton had determined that all was well.
His adoptive father waved, and Ibrahim bit back tears. His senses could not be trusted, and he would not show such womanly frailty, yet he was nearly overwhelmed. The bird kept beating in his chest. Something urged him to move forward, to seek out a new destiny. He had the uncanny sensation that he was now tied to other beings than himself and that he would never be alone again. But was that what he wanted? The sensation was both terrifying and wonderful. Was this comfort or madness?
A blinding light bloomed beside him and he turned to behold a luminous woman, the flawless epitome of many types of beauty, made from shifting colors.
“You are not Allah,” he said, uncertain.
“Correct, I am not,” she replied.
“Or one of the saints. Or prophets. You are an angel, then?” Ibrahim pressed his eyes closed, wondering if she would vanish when he opened them, if his mind had been entirely torn asunder by the day. She was still there, in all her colors.
“An angel if you like, it doesn’t really matter. Come, Ibrahim,” the woman entreated. “I’m sorry for your loss. Let me show you where you belong.”
She held out a shimmering hand. Ibrahim looked at it, then back at the burning rubble. James Tipton had vanished. Ibrahim hoped that his Christian saints would hold him close. He was a good man. Surely Allah would take him. The two faiths, having come from the same roots, weren’t dissimilar when one stripped away mankind’s trappings. Something greater would take care of his father.
“Do not be afraid,” the woman said. “I’m here to take you home.”
Ibrahim gulped. She lowered her hand, giving no sign of offense that he had not touched her. Glancing at the pomegranates lying bruised and dribbling onto the stones, she frowned and kicked the fruit aside, then began to walk away.
“Come,” she bade him, and he did, following her through the city.
As they headed to a destination unknown, Ibrahim felt moved to ask only one question. He knew that whatever had spoken to him—the thing that was now within him—was inherently good, just like the man who’d raised him. His senses had grown sharper, and he’d never felt so alive. The world was at his fingertips.
Ibrahim had never been a social creature. He liked books, grand architecture, and quiet spaces. His brain was nearly bursting with strains of poetry, texts in their entirety, and scholarly pursuits, yet he was suddenly made happy by the certainty that he was on his way to meet friends.
“My mind is changing,” he murmured. “Why?”
“You’ll see” was the only answer the multicolored angel would give.
Copyright © 2017 by Leanna Renee Hieber
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