Book of Iron
excuse. But I’ve been needing something different. To get away from the mistakes of the past, I suppose.”
    That pang of identity that Bijou had felt far too often in Salamander’s presence pierced her again. It was unfamiliar, that familiarity.
    “I’m sorry for how it came about,” Bijou said. “But I am glad you’re here.”
    Salamander gave her a smile. “Maledysaunte and Riordan have each other: after a few hundred years, I suppose you grow accustomed to thinking of outsiders as temporary.”
    Bijou nodded. “I don’t envy her.”
    “Or him?”
    Bijou shrugged. She’d been thinking of the bard as Maledysaunte’s familiar, she realized. As something like Ambrosias: an artifact of wizardry. But he’d had an identity before he died, hadn’t he? He’d been a person. And that person was still intact.
    So what was it? A transformation? A state change? When did he lose his own identity?
    Ambrosias, she realized uncomfortably, had had an identity before she created it, too. Many identities. Cats and a ferret, although they’d all been long dead before she salvaged their bones. Did stones have minds? Did metal? She knew that across the sea and the salt desert to the East there were stones that lived, and moved, and ate other stones.
    That way lay madness, she thought, and the lives of the religious ascetics who would not wear shoes, because they were walking on the face of the Earth, and who starved themselves rather than eat a once-living thing.
    “He has something he believes in,” Bijou said. It was inadequate, but it was what she had.
    Salamander nodded. “The Hag of Wolf Wood.” Then she sighed. “It’s hard when one is alone in the world.”
    Thinking of Kaulas and of what passed for a love affair in her life, Bijou opened her mouth for the obvious comment. Everyone is alone. We come into this world alone, and so do we leave it. Then she realized it was a lie—a facile, comforting lie disguised as bitter cynicism. Did the bitterness make it seem like medicine and truth, when in fact it was a lie?
    Because no one was alone. Every action, every choice—it vibrated like a fly’s wings in a spiderweb. It shook the lives of everyone else in the vicinity, and the resulting vibrations shook other lives, and so on until the whole world was a-tremble with the shock waves of that one single choice. The world, Bijou suddenly saw, was nothing but a web of these interactions. Everything qualified everything else.
    She felt lightheaded with the implications, and wondered if this was how a precisian saw the universe.
    She had no idea how to explain what she had just comprehended to Salamander, though. So she just said, “You’re not alone, my dear. You have us. I’ll find a way to prove it to you.”
    The look Salamander gave her was serious, thoughtful. Bijou felt a warmth in her chest. A sense of sisterhood, she thought suddenly. Belonging. This was what they meant by that.
    She had made a friend.

Eleven
     

When the sun set, Bijou went into the desert. By herself, this time, except for a driver who she instructed to wait by the vehicle. Only a fool or a Wizard—or a fool of a Wizard—braved the Mother Desert alone. And having done it once didn’t make Bijou eager to try it again.
    She wasn’t going into Erem this time, but only to the edge of the erg—the shore of the sea of sand.
    No one is alone , Bijou told herself for the humor of it as she picked her way across moonlit sand. She carried a spade and a sieve and a bucket. She walked along the ridge of the dune where the sand was firmest, allowing her Wizardly intuition to guide her. She held the spade out before her like a dowsing rod.
    The car was a dim shape at the edge of the road behind her. The dunes stretched out under the single moon’s silver light, their sunlit colors of caramel and cinnamon faded to charcoal mystery.
    The sound of sand grains hissing against each other filled her awareness. The same unrelenting wind that hopped the

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