Monday, August 6, 2012


Andrea le Scorier lies atop her scaffolding beneath the arch of the northwest chancel's ceiling, her bare arm crusted to the elbow with paint. She is unmasked, an unthinkable prospect outside the walls of Resplendent Orchid, and dressed only in plain black robes. Above her a painting is taking shape, a fresco depicting the Three Gods and their Lesser Emanations, the thousandfold avatars of their desires and dreams. Monkey, the burning ape with his fiery coat and clever eyes. The Eel Queen, sleek, beautiful and almost human but for her gills and the hint of teeth behind her smile. Last the Hollow God, the glass-bottle man. He's the most challenging, his subtle shades and empty angles.


She nearly drops her brush, but manages merely to slop paint all over her already-stained sleeve. Twisting her sore neck and rolling onto her side she squints down at the floor where her twin brother, the Daimyo Claude de Scorier, stands. She wets her lips, nervous. “What is it, Claude?”

“Come down. We have business to discuss.”

Andrea scrambles to the scaffold's edge and swings her legs out over the void, fumbling for the ladder. She leaves her brush, her paints, and with her own good arm makes the laborious descent to the chancel's bamboo floor. The chancel echoes, its tall, narrow windows throwing spears of light over the seasoned wood. Claude stands at the center of one, haloed from behind like a fleshly statue of the Machi Living Sun. “What is it?” Andrea says again. The look in Claude's mismatched eyes, one green, the other blue, unnerves her. Something is wrong.

He sucks his teeth, his little nervous tic. “The Red Turbans have disbanded. The Raptor massacred the rebel army and took Stephane de Pare captive last night at Iron Wind Field.”

Andrea smiles. “He's won, then.”

“This is a dangerous time for us.” Claude takes her hand and squeezes it.

“Our uncle is a hero, the savior of the Empire.” She frees her hand, tucks a few loose hairs back behind her ear and kisses her brother on the cheek. “You never know when to be happy.”

Claude snorts. He pulls away. “He has the loyalty of the army and the love of the commons. The Shogun is thirty, childless, and prickly. The Senate decays a little more each day and the Cabals hate each other so much there's no room in their heart for another grudge. To be a hero is to be feared.”

“Hush, brother,” Andrea says. “You are too dour.” She smiles to take the sting from her remonstrance and kisses him again, on the lips this time. He returns the kiss. His hands undo the sash at her robe's waist with less difficult than she has undoing it herself, and then his fingers are in her and she is biting his lip hard enough to make him grunt with pain.

After, while Claude lies sleeping on the dusty canvas, Andrea climbs her scaffolding to paint. The Hollow God comes quickly now, escaping her brush in a rush of blues and whites, greys in narrow little strokes. He is a man, a vessel, a temple to himself. Since childhood he has been her confidante more than any other of the quarrelsome pantheon. She gives him no definite features, just the suggestion of a transparent face. He sits hunched and brooding behind the others and in his eyes is something Andrea had not meant to put there, a look of hollow longing tempered with regret.

It is hours before she finishes, and when she climbs down from her scaffolding her back is sore, her arm stiff with overuse. The stump of the other, that useless knob of flesh and bone protruding from her left shoulder, aches fiercely. She thinks sometimes that knotted up within it is every failed idea, every messy brushstroke and misplaced accent. Outside the windows it is dark and the cicadas have begun to sing. The servants are well-practiced at ignoring the Daimyo's business, but even they will begin looking for him if she does not rouse him soon. She kneels beside him on the canvas and smooths his fine black hair back from his brow with her paint-spattered hand. “Wake up, Claude.”

He grunts, stretches, and slumps forward with his elbows on his knees. He looks sullen as he always does after they share in one another.

“No sulking, dearest,” Andrea cautions. “You're ugly when you pout.”

Claude snorts, but he gets to his feet and smooths his robes. “Ugly, am I?” He kisses her stained hands, her neck, her ears. “No, no.” His lips brush the fine hairs on the back of her neck. “You think I'm beautiful.” His hand slides inside her robe to squeeze her breast.

She laughs and pushes him away with her shoulder. “Not now,” she says, teasing with her eyes as she reties her sash. “Daimyo de Roquefort's stewards will be here in half an hour.”

Claude's expression darkens. “I'd sooner have them in the moat than here to dine with us.”

“You know this has to happen.” Andrea feels it too, the wrenching in her gut at the idea of sharing him, her brother, her other half. Claude, though, lacks her restraint. She must be strong for him. “Mother is dying and Resplendent Orchid needs...needs an heir.”

Tears threaten at the corners of his dark brown eyes. “No. I'll sire no sons but yours.”

Andrea shakes her head, blinking back her own tears. The ache of the children she'll never give him gnaws at her like a disease. “You know the Shogun would only have them drowned.” She kisses him chastely on the cheek and departs the shrine. In her apartments her dead slaves prepare her for the evening reception of the Daimyo's stewards. Their cold grey hands lave her skin with scented oils, braid her hair into an artful knot held up with skewers of ashwood and steel, dress her first in thick linen and then in silk patterned with embroidered cherry trees. At two and thirty she is past marrying age, consigned by her missing arm to spinsterhood. If not for her brother, no man would ever deign to touch her, to love her, not when her deformity might carry on to any children she bore.

Her mask comes last, borne out on a silken pillow by two dead and wizened dwarfs. They were a gift to her mother from the late Daimyo le Francois, a great alchemist and an ardent suitor for Linnea le Scorier's hand after the death of her third husband, Andrea and Claude's father, Giacomo. Now they serve Andrea, freaks waiting upon a freak. She holds still as the mask, a regal and aquiline thing of beaten brass as smooth as water, is fitted to her face and bound around her head with silken ribbons. She touches it with her fingers, feels the cold metal as the dwarfs retreat back into their alcove to carry on decaying into dust.

The stewards come bearing their mistress's face. Angelique, the youngest daughter of Daimyo de Roquefort. Plain, Andrea thinks from where she sits on a woven reed mat, her one hand resting on the warm, dry snout of her dwarf carnotaur, Vaselias. The horned saurian snorts warm, meat-smelling breath across her face as together they watch Claude play the gracious host, exclaiming over every dish brought out by the dead slaves, complimenting the stewards on their conversation, their shamisen playing, their singing. He dances with one or two, but all the while his eyes linger with Andrea even as the Daimyo's daughter's face spins with him.

Angelique le Roquefort comes late. She arrives on gallus-back with an escort of her father's knights, a short woman, her mother's lovely mask covering her face. The Lady Camilla had been a famous beauty. On the steps of Resplendent Orchid, Andrea and Claude wait with the stewards and six of the household deadguard. Andrea's arm aches from painting, from the familiar rigor of eating one-handed, from sex. How many more times would they have that? Not many.

"My lord de Scorier," says the woman as two of her men help her to dismount, "your uncle's victory brings great honor to the Shogunate."

"My lady is kind to say so," Claude says, "and my uncle is a bold man, but his victory is not mine."

In a private room the Daimyo's daughter removes her mask, unlacing it with deft fingers in the flickering candlelight. The stewards around her bow their heads. Claude hides his disappointment well, but Andrea can see the sulk building behind his eyes.

Angelique is plain, she thinks, but her eyes are a lovely shade of yellow.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Spotlight On: Alchemy


The practice of alchemy originated amongst the peoples of the vanished Fourth Continent.  It was brought by the fleeing Thulhun to Machen and Maturin where it flourished in various cults and courts, supplanting the shamanistic and priestly traditions extant in those cultures.  The Coven of the Sun, the Iron Cabal and the Golden Cabal are the three greatest alchemical traditions of the southern continents.

Alchemists, historically, have been powerful political forces no matter their location or disposition.  The ability not only to raise and command the dead but to

Aligher makes use of alchemy only in the totemic binding of man and beast.


Almost every substance known to Man is readily transmutable by a capable alchemist.  Notable substances include:


Obsidian is the only substance which cannot be transmuted.  It is also inert as a reagent.


Some results achieved with alchemy are not reversible and do not in principle flow both ways.  These are referred to as Products and include:

Sulfuric Acid
Carbon Dioxide


Charged by an alchemist's will, a reagent facilitates the transmutation of one alchemical substance into another.  All substances are reagents.


Transmutation of thought: Facilitated by gold.  Thought is prohibited as a substance not because of its nature but because it responds only to gold, which is itself taboo.  Any attempt at transmutation of thought results in an explosion of alchemical energy rendering everyone within a quarter mile irrevocably mad.  It is fabled, but unproven, that the process can result in the alchemist gaining unspeakable knowledge.

Transmutation of age: Facilitated by the life's blood of an exsanguinated sacrifice.  Forbidden for obvious reasons, and delivers diminishing returns.

Transmutation of memory: Facilitated by silver, the transmutation of memory divorces the transmuted party from reality and plunges them into another world.  They lose their language and speak thereafter in a strange tongue undecipherable by Men.  Eventually they become silent and then, undying, sit and turn to stone.

Transmutation of distance: Facilitated by iron.  Transmutation of distance results in the collapse of distance as a concept within the area effected by the transmutation.  Over time, if the transmutation is exercised repeatedly, the locale will collapse into an aleph, the confluence of many locations at one point.

The use of gold as a reagent is expressly forbidden by most or all alchemical covens.  Historically, gold was used by various cults as a ceremonial reagent for its occasionally spectacular results.  It is, notably, the only reagent capable of imparting life to inanimate objects.  Common results of transmutation via gold include madness, explosion of alchemist, alchemical substance or both, destruction of the alchemist's soul or, in cases recorded apocryphally, the summoning of a demon.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Tomas Dutiful Boar, Senior Adjunct of the Imperial Maturi Bank, sits alone on a soiled mat in his drafty tent. He huddles beneath the quilt his wife Mara sewed for him before his departure from Tsang, eyes red and nose running. The wind howls like a lunatic along the Road of Dust, bringing with it the Grand Ocean's stinging spray. The seabirds that nest on the dreary span are screaming at the gale, raucous voices rifling the iron dawn. Tomas has not slept at all. He has scarcely closed his eyes since leaving Tsang two weeks ago, and now that Machen's sandy coast is in sight, the Mountains of Madness looming like teeth over the Road, he sleeps even less. Today the Legion will take the road to Soma, and Tomas will ride with them, mocked, jeered at, or else ignored. Since Sieur Lorelei's stunt in her war tent, her signature in blood, no one in the camp takes Tomas seriously.

Outside the banker's tent the soldiers are stirring, their galluses making inquisitive sounds as the grooms saddle them for the day's ride. The dead, Tomas knows, stand ready as well. They make no preparations because when night falls they do not billet down. Instead they stand in ranks, those false men with their golden eyes, spears in hand, shields at the ready, and they do not move again until Maestro Longardeux orders them forward. They fight naked like the ancient Thulhuns, lockstep warriors who kill without remorse. Even thinking of them turns Tomas's stomach.

There comes a rap on the post beside Tomas's tent flap. “Banker,” says Sieur Jocelin, Sieur Lorelei's brute of a second. His outline hulks against the canvas wall. “We march. Done sleeping?”

“Yes, yes,” says Tomas. He rises from his chair. He will forgo shaving today, he decides as he crams his second-best wig onto his stubbled head. Sieur Jocelin departs, his shadow slipping away from the tent's rough wall. Tomas watches him go as he dresses, retying his underrobe where his gut has popped the straps. Mara badgers him to eat less, but he never listens. He pulls on his robe, his culottes and hose, his traveling coat, and finally his thick leather gloves. They hide his fat fingers admirably well, he thinks, inspecting them as he steps outside into the waning dark. The cold is fading fast so close to shore, but the chill in the air is still enough to rattle his teeth.

Two glowering soldiers stand a little ways off, waiting to break down his tent. Tomas ducks past them, head down, already chilled by the salt breeze. One of the men sniggers. Tomas blushes. The rest of the camp is moving, tents packed into the wagons, cavaliers mounted, officers oiled and ready to order men into death. Tomas's ancient manservant, Gregoire, materializes at his elbow like a cadaverous shadow. “Maestro,” the old man mumbles, brushing dust from Tomas's sleeve with his arthritic fingers. “Will you take breakfast?”

“Hmm.” Tomas thinks guiltily of Mara, of her stern mouth and icy glare. He swallows. “Octopus, rice, the seaweed cakes if there's any left, warm wine, a dumpling, no, two. And eggs.”

“Yes, maestro.” The old man makes a slow, deliberate wai with much creaking and puffing before he straightens up and shuffles off in pursuit of breakfast.

Tomas's stomach growls. His vision is bleary, his stubble greasy, unwashed. His wig, unpowdered since the first week of travel, itches fiercely. When will he go home again? So much is waiting for him there. The junior partnership Director de Somme promised last autumn, his parents settling grumpily into old age, his eldest son, Pascal, turning three. And Mara. He's given up so much to please her, to please her unpleasable father who had married her off for the Dutiful Boar fortune, modest as it was. He loosens his collar. Thinking of Maestro de Carnelia always upsets his lungs, and usually the rest of him as well. With a sigh he sets off for the pickets, head bent against the wind.

Tomas's mule, Philippe, is waiting like a particularly patient boulder at the end of the last picket row by the precipitous drop to the sea. The swaybacked beast, unfazed by the surf crashing yards below, glances sidelong at Tomas he approaches. He makes no move but to slowly, deliberately continue chewing. He's already been saddled, though the grooms have ignored his currying again. Tomas sighs, finds a brush discarded next to a pat of fresh gallus manure, and sets to work rubbing the mule down. If Philippe is moved by his master's attention, he chooses not to display it. Gregoire's own mount, their nameless baggage mule, looks on from further up the picket line with what Tomas can only assume is murderous rage in its eyes.

Gregoire returns with a loaded bowl and tin mug of wine just as Tomas is finishing up Philippe's grooming. The banker wolfs down his breakfast as around him the camp dissolves, peeling apart into its constituent persons and canvas heaps, its supply wagons and chattering nemicolopteri cages. Tomas hoists himself awkwardly onto Philippe as the cavaliers form up in ranks further down the Road of Dust. Sieur Lorelei rides up and down their lines, exhorting her soldiers to a fast march. “We're nearly there, you rotten bastards,” she shouts, turning her gallus. Seabirds rise in shrieking clouds from the nameless sand-washed metal of the road. “The Hierophant's armies, I've heard, are out of swords. Shall we bring them ours?” The soldiers laugh and cheer, even those still disassembling the camp.

The woman's bloodlust sours Tomas's stomach. Is there nothing she does not wish slain? He grips Philippe's reins tightly in his gloved hands as a double line of armed soldiers marches past, boots clattering on the road's impervious surface. Tomas wonders, not for the first time, who built the Eight Great Roads that link the three continents and the grave of the vanished fourth. What other wonders did they work before the ruin of Thul and the end of humanity's golden age? His research, the hundred little half-finished essays crammed into the drawers of his desk at the bank, has led him no closer to an answer. That the alchemists who built the Roads are long since dust is his only certainty.

“The resource reports, maestro,” husks Gregoire, now mounted. He hands Tomas a sheaf of wrinkled papers covered in the illegible scrawl of the legion quartermaster, Emil Standing Water. The man, like most of the legion, is a southerner, but their shared ancestry has as yet yielded no brotherly love. Instead Emil has sought to sabotage Tomas at every turning. Stealing his inkpots, exchanging his carefully-written letters with profanity-filled diatribes, always positioning camp so that the latrines stand just beside Tomas's tent.

His current report reads simply:

We have some of some things and less of others. -Emil.

Tomas sighs. He heels Philippe into motion as the rest of the legion settles into its routine. In the distance Machen waits for them, a kingdom of dust where the burnt-skinned nomads nest in cities built by greater men. What will happen when they reach that barren kingdom, Tomas wonders? He passes a hand over his face and heels Philippe into motion, the resource report and Emil's useless letter stuffed in his breast pocket.   

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Delfine le Fleur sits patiently in the barber's chair as the fat, mustachioed man shaves the stubble from her scalp. “Just a moment more, magistra,” says the barber, as he does every few moments. “Just a moment more and we'll be quite through.”

The Summer Arcade of the Golden Cabal's temple in Tsang is a beautiful place to sit. Columns of transmuted gold line a walkway open to the temple gardens where alchemists wander alone or in groups along the labyrinthine paths through twisting hedgerows and sand gardens, through stands of cherry trees in roseate bloom. Dead allosaurs with golden collars around their throats patrol the gardens, silent and sleek as death. They pass like ghosts between the hedges, ignored by all but the Cabal's newest acolytes who watch them in awe. Delfine watches one such beast from the corner of her eye, admiring the play of muscles beneath its leathery skin. The Iron Cabal makes soldiers and drudges, but her order makes works of art.

“Just a moment more,” the barber says, wetting his razor in a dish of rosewater. He draws the blade along Delfine's scalp in a succession of quick, confident motions, then pats the bare skin with a moistened towel to collect any hairs left behind. With a flourish he removes the catch-cloth from around her throat and steps back, smiling. “There we are.”

“Thank you, maestro,” says Delfine. She stands, an imposing figure in her lavish alchemist's gowns, and smiles at the barber. “My slave will arrange for your payment as usual.”

“Magistra.” He wais deeply.

The temple pays the barber a healthy retainer, but Delfine likes to remind him where the real power lies. She departs his little stand in the shadow of the Summer Arcade and sets off across the garden toward the low, red-tiled eaves of the Pagoda of Silent Contemplation, the nine-tiered tower where Delfine and the other master alchemists of the Cabal keep their workshops and come together in council. Her postosuchus, Malvolio, detaches himself from the shadows of the arcade and lopes after her, armored tail swinging. Acolytes and Adepts wai at Delfine's passing and shrink back from Malvolio's jaws. The beast is nearly twelve feet long, better than four feet tall at the shoulder, and he weighs as much as five acolytes. Taming Malvolio was the work of years, but what assassin could be paid enough to dare his wrath in killing Delfine?
“This is a good day, Malvolio,” says the alchemist. She pauses to admire a cherry tree of particular beauty. Its blossoms drift in the air like snow touched with the lightest dab of blood. “All of Tsang will know the Cabal's greatness tonight. The City of Cities will gather us close to her breast and the Lich King will be forgotten, just another corpse shut up in a glorious mausoleum.”

Malvolio grunts, ropes of drool dangling from his parted jaws. A passing lecturer swallows and quickens his pace, darting glances over his shoulder at the monstrous reptile.

In the conclavorium of the Pagoda of Silent Contemplation three of the eight Golden Councilors, the most senior amongst the Cabal's upper echelons, are already deep in consultation when Delfine enters. She watches them from the shadows of the doorway, Malvolio pressing up against her side like a great scaled hound. Idly, she scratches the reptile's armored snout as the Councilors, seated on woven mats, debate amongst themselves.

“It would be too gaudy,” says Mona le Croyel, the Cabal's withered Grand Archivist. “Surely we can think of a more tasteful way?”

The current Flesh Sculptor, a slender, handsome man of thirty or so, makes a tsk-ing noise. “We require gaudiness, Magistra. We need to make the whole Shogunate stand up and take notice. And besides, our new creation defies the laws of taste.”

“Here, here,” says Delfine, clapping her hands as she steps into the dim light of the teak-walled chamber. She descends the five steps to the Council Floor, Malvolio keeping close beside her. The other Councilors watch her with varying expressions. Mona le Croyel distrusts her, holds their old grudge close and dear. The Flesh Sculptor is a grinning cipher, talented certainly, but whether buffoon or serpent none has yet determined. The third Councilor, Jean-Marie de Flambeux, High Justice of the Cabal's internal courts, looks at Delfine with undisguised contempt, the same expression he levels at anything less than six hundred years old.

“Grand Transmuter,” says the ancient Justice, a scowl deepening the myriad lines that web his sagging features.

“Jean-Marie,” says Delfine, wai-ing. She takes a mat opposite the old man, who eyes Malvolio with distrust as the postosuchus lowers himself to the floor. Delfine lays her hand on the reptile's armored back. “He's quite tame, you know.”

“We were discussing the details of tonight's...display,” says the Flesh Sculptor. “Mona and Jean-Marie feel that we ought to curb our approach, rein in the fireworks until the Red Turbans are put down and Marshal de Grande has returned to the city.”

“They return within the week,” says Delfine. “I had a nemicopterus this morning from my man with the legions. Nevertheless, we should press our point tonight. Besides, the Raptor of Tsang will never be more unpopular with Senate, King, or Shogun than he is now.”

“But he's just put down the rebellion, if that's true,” sputtered Jean-Marie.

“Ah,” says the Flesh Sculptor.

Delfine raises one penciled eyebrow. “Precisely. His reputation has become too great. Certain factions will expect an coup, certain others will demand it, and those against whom it might be carried out will become more paranoid with each passing day. We must be seen to distance ourselves from the Marshal, and now is as good a time to start as any.”

Mona le Croyel looked scandalized. “The Marshal Louis has been our staunch ally!”

“Delfine is right,” says the Flesh Sculptor. “He's finished.”

Delfine reaches into her sleeve, produces a cigarillo on a long ash holder and lights it. The tip of her left index finger is capped with flint to transmute oxygen into flame. A little parlor trick. The alchemist inhales clove-scented smoke. “We go through with tonight's presentation.”

The other four Councilors join them before dusk, but there is no debate, no deliberation. They had worked tirelessly and in secret for better than a month, and even Jean-Marie, Delfine is convinced, wishes only to see the fruits of their long labor. He fears it, too, though, as all old men fear what is new and terrible. It is only the little children who know that change cannot be stopped. They leave the Pagoda just after sunset, processing out into the gardens and then to the Gate of Chains where dead iguanodons barded in the Cabal's black and gold wait patiently, palanquins slung between them.

The city of Tsang lies glittering in the shadow of the temple complex's hill. There the soaring heights of the Palace of Regret where tonight the Cabals, the Shogun, the Senate and the King will meet tonight, and there the huge expanse of the Bay of Laughing Swine where a thousand ships bob at anchor, beyond it the grim shadow of the Iron Citadel where their sister Cabal holds sway. The city is a salt-smelling oasis, a paradise of old stone crazed with moss, of alleys reeking of stagnant water. It is an ancient city, its fanes and whorehouses of an age with one another, both crumbling and full of lechers. Some say a million souls dwell here where the air is hot and close, where the sea threatens always to swamp shops, markets, slave pens, tenements and villas. Mosquitoes buzz in the gathering gloom and their whine is nearer than the million-fold lights of Tsang.

Delfine leaves Malvolio with an uneasy stablehand and takes a palanquin with the Flesh Sculptor. She ties the silk curtains shut as the great reptiles lumber into motion, their passengers swaying between them. Her skin prickles at the Flesh Sculptor's touch, at the warmth of his lips on her throat and the stiffness of his short, thick cock pressed against her thigh. She forces him back against the palanquin's padded boards and lowers herself onto him, takes his member into her vagina. He shudders, legs jerking, and his hands move beneath her robes to the small of her back. In silence they make love as the dead iguanodons bear them with ponderous tread down the long, winding road to the city of Tsang.

In the streets of Tsang there are crowds, and Delfine peers out at them in delight through sweat-damp curtains while the Flesh Sculptor busies himself between her legs. Shopkeepers, street-sweepers, lamplighters, fullers, drovers and merchants stand alongside robed civil servants and the occasional knight in lacquered bamboo armor. City guardsmen occupy the corners of each street, and here and there Delfine sees nobles, masked and robed or armored. Dead servants and soldiers are everywhere. Delfine bites her lip, fighting the urge to scream as the Flesh Sculptor's tongue touches, licks. “This is all going to be ours,” she breathes.

The crowds part for the Golden Cabal's procession. Parents hoist children up on their shoulders to watch the dead saurians and their palanquins lumber past in the light of the flickering streetlamps. Soon enough they reach the outskirts of the palace precincts, the vast marble plaza that fronts the Palace of Regret. The quetzalcoatli of the Iron Cabal already roost on their shit-streaked landing towers, stirrups dangling from their saddle girths. The huge pterosaurs flex their wings at the approach of the iguanodons, unsettled by the dead behemoths with their spiked thumbs and pressed-gold eyes. Delfine deftly rearranges her underclothes, pushing the Flesh Sculptor away. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve and slips out of the palanquin. She follows, a picture of magisterial dignity.

The Palace of Regret looms above them, its stone bulk cold and reverent in the dark at the heart of Tsang. Paper lanterns drift through the air around it like a swarm of sleepy fireflies, casting wild shadows over the plaza and the palace walls. The rest of the Golden Council gathers around Delfine, though the Flesh Sculptor has already begun to climb the great stone steps toward the yawning entryway. “Come,” says Delfine to the others. “We have an impression to make.”

The Golden Council follows its Flesh Sculptor up the steps, ignoring the hundreds of dead palace guards that watch them from alcoves carved into the crumbling facade. A word of discord and the Lich King's bodyguard will be upon them in their uncounted thousands. At the top of the steps one of the Sixty-Six, the Lich's personal Cabal, awaits them, naked but for the pointed black hood that obscures his face and shoulders. Carious eyes, untempered by slave-making gold, stare out at them through holes cut in that rough sackcloth. Delfine makes a shallow wai in passing, though Jean-Marie neglects even this brittle courtesy.

The entry hall swallows them in its moldering vastness. It is a living thing, the moist, dark throat of the Palace of Regret. Delfine counts her steps as her sandals scuff the mosses and lichens that cling to the cracks between uneven stones. One hundred. Two. Three, and now she can glimpse the light at the end of the hall, the Flesh Sculptor silhouetted against it. She smiles in the lessening gloom, the whisper and clack of her fellow Councilors building all around her a second palace made of echoes. Their Cabal is smaller than the Iron order, but their prestige is greater, their history rich. They are not sellswords. They are not slavers. They are the disciples of the Monkey, the Third God, who was born in the heart of the sun and who one day will return there to die.

This is their hour.

The Flesh Sculptor waits for Delfine near the hall's terminus, the very mouth of the Hall of One Thousand Glorious Senators. He looks back at her, his long hair brushing the collar of his embroidered gown. The Hall is an amphitheater, hundreds of tiers of long stone benches rising in a great half-circle around a deep pool where crocodilians swim lazily in brackish water. The benches are not empty. The nobles of Maturin, masked and swathed in their richest finery, sit or stand in private boxes while the alchemists of the Iron Cabal, bearded men and ropy, scarred women in robes of undyed cloth, their silly alchemical bells sewn to their sleeves, are clustered together on a round platform jutting out above the pit, a platform mirrored by an empty twin on the pit's far side.

Opposite the mouth where Delfine stands are the thrones of Shogun and Lich King, the divided sovereigns of Maturin. The Shogun, Jacqueline le Guerre, is an enormous woman, a wall of fat and muscle perpetually straining the joints of her much-scarred armor. Her face is hawkish, enormous hooked nose and beady eyes. Her big hands grip the arms of her throne as though trying to strangle the polished oak. By contrast the Lich King, Real de Thanatos, appears close to a second death so attenuated has his ancient husk become. He is naked, his wizened flesh exposed uncharitably for all to see from his wormlike member to the trembling folds of his throat and his scabrous head with its wisps of yellowing hair.

The rest of the hall is occupied by the corpses of the Dead Senate, the three thousand sentient dead who have administrated Maturin since the birth of its first Lich King after the fall of Thul. Their nude multitudes only grow, a desiccated quorum of fading minds and crumbling bodies. Delfine does not sneer, but contempt boils in her stomach. These dead things have no place among the living. They belong in chains, tilling fields and toiling in the sewers. Their formaldehyde reek fills the air.

Iris de Chymede, Grandmaster of War of the Iron Cabal, has the floor, though he has ceased his speech and now looks at the Golden Councilors with dislike printed plainly on his square, sunburned face. The Hall has fallen silent, has become the mausoleum the peasants mock it as.

“Proceed, Grandmaster,” says the Shogun through gritted teeth. “Councilors, to your post.”

Delfine wais deeply to the sovereigns and then sets off down the sweeping obsidian stair toward the dais reserved for the Golden Council. Arriving late is part of the plan, another way to build anticipation. Everyone in the Hall, even as Grandmaster de Chymede resumes his dry speech on treaties with the Floating Empire, on the movements of dead troops and the new insults offered by the People's Holy Confederacy in Machen, thinks now of nothing but the Golden Council. Delfine takes her place at the platform rail and fixes de Chymede with a humorless stare. He returns it, losing more and more of his audience as he stammers through the end of his report.

The dry, papery voice of Real de Thanatos cuts through de Chymede's muttered conclusion. “The Apparati will hear now the words of the Golden Cabal, who have requested one hour of our time.”

de Chymede's brow furrows as he steps down from his lectern and Delfine mounts hers. Who, after all, would request longer than a quarter-hour of the Apparati's time? More than that and boredom is certain. de Chymede's look of confusion becomes one of smug confidence, certainty that his rivals are burying themselves beneath their own legendary arrogance. Delfine ignores him. She directs her words to the twin thrones, to Shogun and Lich King. “Our armies have struggled for centuries against the great behemoths of the Machi hordes. Their sauropods, their tyrannosaurs. Our natural philosophy has proven itself insufficient to prize back from death the corpses of the great inland saurians, and we are not a people given to scratching in the dust with living beasts.”

The dead senators, those who still deign to listen to words spoken by the breathing, lean forward on their benches. Yellowing beards sweep the floor as the dead crane their necks with much popping and snapping of joints.  They peer down at the bald alchemist before them. de Chymede's smile widens. He believes his enemy about to confess to some great failure. Surely even this brute knows the resources consumed by the Golden Cabal, the loans taken out by its senior magi. He suspects that they have gutted themselves. Delfine is hard-pressed to hide her grin as the first tremor rocks the Hall.

Nobles cease their quiet banter, abandon their flutes of wine and opium tea. Their masked faces turn in the direction of the hall. Delfine keeps her expression carefully neutral, though at her back she feels the concentrated excitement of the other Councilors. The Flesh Sculptor alone seems immune to the infectious glee, protected by his natural air of cavalier dismissal. Delfine grips the lectern, fingers whitening. “We have done what no other alchemists have dared to try.”

The Hall shakes again. Dust sifts down from the domed ceiling with its gilt friezes, its murals of the Three. Delfine turns her back on the Shogun, on the Lich King, on the Senate, the nobles, and the sweating, discomfited de Chymede. It is a calculated risk, a breach of etiquette meant to secure the new order of things. Delfine clasps her hands behind her back, sharing a private look with her fellow Councilors. No matter what they think of one another, now is their moment. Tonight is their night. Again, the Hall trembles.
Delfine looks back over her shoulder.“If you will deign to follow this unworthy one?”

There is an exodus, a crush of potentates shambling, shuffling, hustling down the long stone throat of the Palace of Regret toward the distant tympanic rumble of what approaches. Conversation bounces from the walls, echoing and re-echoing until in blather secrecy re-emerges from pure nonsense. Delfine's skin is aflame with anticipation. Her hands tremble. She is the first out through the towering entryway, first to see the great inanimate diplodocuses making their way up the Dead Road from the sea. The behemoths, concealed in the harbor for weeks now, still look fresh. Their slack grey skin is like expensive leather, their whiplike tails still supple. Each of the three saurians is over one hundred feet from long, blunt head to lashing tail. Their slow tread shakes the earth. Their sides heave like bellows, neat stitching concealing the immense hematological batteries necessary to preserve their motive force. They tower over shops and tenements. Their feet crack the cobbles.

The populace cries out in a mixture of fear and awe. At Delfine's back the men and women and dead of the Apparati are struck speechless, or else gibbering to one another like madmen. Delfine turns back to them, allowing herself at last a thin, knifelike smile. “One hour for questions.”

Friday, May 25, 2012


In the shadow of Resplendent Orchid a child must be quick, or else she is dead. There are slavers whose agents hunt the alleys for those suitable to sell in Machen's flesh marts, while the dregs go to the gulags in frozen Aligher. Packs of feral raptors call the undercity home, and on some nights there are worse things than slavers or saurians abroad in the dark.

Quick or dead. This is the Eel Queen's Law, and all children who run in the streets of the city know it by heart. Or else they are dead. Mari knows the law. She will be ten soon, and she has not yet been caught. By Resplendent Orchid's standards this is an accomplishment of great moment. She has worked for thiefmasters, for tanners, for fullers and hadrosaur stables, has stolen fruit, jewelry, meat, bread, coin, even candies from the stalls of the Golden Cabal. She is small, light-fingered, an acolyte from birth of the Eel Queen and her art. Now she sits in a the crowded attic of a flophouse with a dozen other ragged children, wondering what tempted her inside to listen to the woman in yellow.

The Woman is young, ten or eleven years older than Mari at the most, and she is so pale she looks like the invalids who beg outside the temples at the center of town. Blue veins run like rivers beneath her papery skin, surround her yellow eyes like the fractured shadow of a noblewoman's mask. Her hair is long and black, pooling on the floor around her, and bells made of many metals adorn her trailing sleeves. Kneeling before the children, light from the window at her back breaking over her, she looks like a consumptive angel. She makes a slow, deliberate wai, and Mari echoes it at once. It is always best to be polite with alchemists.  
Once, she has heard, a Grandmaster of the Iron Cabal turned his boy-whore into salt for spitting on his slippers.

“Welcome,” says the woman in yellow.

Mari says nothing, and neither do the other children. They all know the laws. Never speak first, never steal from a thief, never flaunt your take. The list goes on. She does not speak; she listens.

The woman in yellow laces her fingers together, the bells on her sleeves jingling. “Who knows who rules your city from the great fortress on the hill?”

“Claude de Scorier,” says some idiot, a gaunt boy with a harelip. “He lives in Resplendent Orchid with his sons.”

The woman smiles a thin, sharp smile like a knife's edge. “Correct. How would you like to own everything that Claude de Scorier owns?”

The smell of greed is sharp in the air. Mari feels it, too, the forbidden goal of wealth, real wealth and not just cold survival. She knows better than to trust it, though, and she swallows her lust. There is nothing but betrayal behind smiles, nothing but disappointment behind promises. If you wanted something, you had to take it yourself.

“He sleeps on silken sheets,” says the woman. She has her audience in the palms of her pale, slim hands. She knows it. “His galluses eat better than you ever have. How much injustice have you choked down since your births? How much more will be force-fed to you?” She reaches into her sleeve and produces a flat obsidian coin impressed with the Shogun's glowering visage. A koku. Enough money to buy food for two months. More money than any child in the room has ever held at once, and certainly more than any of them has ever earned through hard labor.

“What do you want?” says another child, a squat, flat-faced girl with shrewd eyes and scars on the backs of her hands. Mari thinks she has seen her before, out on the streets some night by the Green Kitchens or begging in the Plaza of Contempt.

“I want nothing,” says the woman in yellow, “but the Hollow God desires all, and it is Their will I serve. Tell me, will you help me kill your Daimyo?”

de Scorier has knights at his command, swaggering bullies with ko-flags displaying their made-up ancestries to the whole world. He has the city guard, rough men and women paid just little enough that they must extort and brutalize everyone beneath them. Worst of all, though, he has the Sad Men. de Scorier is not to be toyed with, especially not by half-starved children. Still, Mari is tempted. The room waits, holding its breath. Mari bites her lip. What to do, what to do.

“I will,” says the boy with the harelip. His voice is a drawn-out snivel, wet and cringing.
The others join in, each clamoring to be heard above the others, all proclaiming their skills as hardened killers. Mari watches in silent disgust. She knows the other children are lying, and even as the woman in yellow explains her brazen plan she is caught up in their twitching faces, their covetous eyes and the flush in their gaunt cheeks. Do they understand nothing? Soon they're leaving, filing out through the narrow door, coins clutched fast in their sweaty palms. Mari rises and moves to follow, eager to leave the stuffy attic and its strange inhabitant.

The woman's voice freezes Mari where she stands. “Wait, child.”

Mari looks back at the woman, still kneeling in the light that pours in through the dusty window. “Magistra?” she says, her throat suddenly dry.

“Most of them will take my coin and try to sell me to the city guard,” says the woman in yellow. She seems unconcerned. The footsteps of the other children are already retreating down the winding stair, heralded by creaks and groans. “Not you. Why?”

Mari swallows. “The guards don't listen to children.”

“Still, you might have had the coin.”

“Where would I spend it? The merchants would call me a thief.”

The woman nods. She runs a hand through her long black hair. “Yes. Many of the others will die. You knew my gift was poisoned.”

“Poisoned?” Mari trembles, thinking of how she nearly took the coin.

“Figuratively. What urchin could have a koku who had not stolen it?”

Mari says nothing. The woman's pale yellow eyes, the color of piss or cornflowers, frighten her. She wants to go, to run back to the streets and see if Ugly Ursula has work for her in the stables behind her inn, the Red Dimetrodon. Still, she does not move.

“The rest are chaff,” says the woman in yellow. “You may be worth something. Help me and I can promise an acolyte's place for you in the Iron Cabal.”

Mari's chest tightens. The Iron Cabal, those sellers of slaves and soldiers, beholden not even to the Shogun but only to the Lich King and the Dead Senate. It is said that the alchemists of the Iron Cabal give up their souls when they take up their posts, that they wield powers no other alchemist could dream of. In the woman's offer is a lifetime of, if not ease, then at least security. Privilege. Power. Mari swallows, wipes her damp palms on her trousers. “What do you want? Really?”

The woman in yellow smiles, showing her teeth this time. “Something beautiful.”

Saturday, March 31, 2012


Sieur Lorelei Dancing Crane, vassal of the Daimyo de Ponsier and commander of the ninth senatorial legion, rides north with her men along the Road of Dust, the indestructible bridge that joins Machen to Maturin. The great track, raised in centuries past by the mighty alchemists of long-lost Thul, is a marvel beyond mortal reckoning. It is made of some stark black metal, a single unimaginable length transmuted from water, and it cannot be transmuted or destroyed by any weapon known to man. It has borne the weight of armies, Lorelei knows, and more than one war has been decided on its span. Not this war, though. No, this war lies in the west of Machen, that dusty, sanctimonious neighbor to lush Maturin. Machen with its cruel religion, its stern god and hard-eyed warriors. Rocking in the saddle, her gallus's spine shifting beneath her sore arse, Lorelei is sure that if her luck holds to its course she'll be buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in fucking Machen.

The banker interrupts her bad mood. He looks like a toad, like a storyteller's idea of a banker plucked from the pages of a whorehouse scroll. He clears his throat, adjusts his wig with fingers that must be modeled on short, fat sausages. He rides a mule, leaving him a dwarf among the legion's gallus-mounted knights and cavaliers. “Sieur,” he says in his whistling, nasal tone, “I must remind you that my employers specified an arrival date which, according to my most recent calculations, we will miss by fully three days.”

“Yes,” says Lorelei. She is irritable in the heat, sweating under the weight of her lacquered bamboo armor. The ko-flags jutting from her shoulders hang limp in the dead, salt-stinking air.


“I said yes, maestro. Yes, we're going to be late. Yes, it's unavoidable. Yes, your ledger-scribbling masters are going to wet themselves with anger. What would you like me to do about it?”
The little man's round cheeks redden. “I fail to see-”

“Can't march faster,” grunts Jocelin Summer Pollen, Lorelei's hulking second-in-command. He scratches at his stubbled chin. “Not enough water.”

Lorelei spits neatly through the gap between her front teeth. “My verbose colleague's summation suffices. This isn't the Road of Tears, or the Broken Road. There's no source of fresh water between here and Machen except for our alchemists, and they can only make so much. If we run the galluses, they'll die, and then we will. So, we walk.”

The banker's mouth opens, closes, opens again. He settles on a scowl and, flipping open his ledger with saddle-horn as writing stand, begins to scribble furiously. Lorelei imagines kicking him in the side of the head, imagines him pitching off the edge of the Road of Dust, down that sheer ten-foot cliff of nameless metal and into the hungry sea where mosasaurs wait to pick the flesh from the bones of the clumsy, the unlucky, the suicidal.

Not an unattractive option after a week on the Road of Dust. The track is monotonous, an endless stretch of black. Its width and appearance are both uniform, its surface uninterrupted. Maturin is no longer visible behind the legion, and it will be weeks yet before Machen appears on the horizon. The Daimyo, curse his mother's fertile gash, could have given command of the exploratory expedition to any legion, to any of his hundred knights. And he chose Lorelei.

Scowling, the knight heels her mount forward. The gallus, a strapping bay gelding she has not yet bothered to name, squawks in indignation and quickens its pace. Jocelin follows, keeping pace with the easy skill of a natural cavalier. Lorelei remembers the Daimyo's masked face as they spoke in his solar, remembers his wrinkled hands on the stem of his wineglass and the wig-powder dusting his shoulders. Her hands tighten on her gallus's reins. “Why in the name of the Hollow God are we out here shilling for a Machi warlord?”
“Can't break his word,” says Jocelin. He spits neatly, efficiently. “Made a deal.”

Lorelei grinds her teeth. “Ahmad Levi.”

Jocelin grunts in the affirmative. He removes his wig to pat his scalp dry with a kerchief. “Land. Money. Troops.”

“Gods,” adds Lorelei. The new temple complex in Tsang is part of the pact between Daimyo and Shah. Two temples, one of marble, the other of obsidian, linked by a bridge of gold that stretches across the river Melieur. The shrines of the Divided Gods are greater now than the Thousand Temples of Maturin's pantheon. Lorelei dislikes them, those stark bastions of an unfamiliar faith with their maskless priests, their echoing halls and mumbling congregations. She prefers the heat and incense of the old fanes, the aging priest-whores of the Bloody Lady with their rheumy eyes and wrinkled mouths. She likes the warm, coppery smell of iguanodon blood on the low stone altar.

“Banker,” says Jocelin, jerking his chin back over his shoulder.

Lorelei looks back to see the little toad waving a message cylinder at her quartermaster, Emil, who keeps the legion's tiny nemicolopteri, the little pterosaurs they use to send messages back to the mainland. Emil is studiously ignoring the banker, his nemis shrieking in their cages slung over the flanks of his lumbering styracosaurus. Lorelei smiles at the sight of the banker's beet-red face, but sooner or later she'll have to order Emil to attend to the odious creature. The bank is too important to de Ponsier for her to get away with flouting their agent's authority completely.

Jocelin spits again. “Something has to be done.” For him, an expansive speech.

“I suppose it will,” says Lorelei, still watching the banker as he begins to shout at the unresponsive Emil.
That night they make camp on the bare road, legion tents weighted down against the fierce salt-smelling wind, galluses picketed well away from the precipitous cliffs where sometimes plesiosaurs lurk in wait, long necks craning up in search of unwary prey. Lorelei holds council with her high officers. Sieur Jocelin, Sieur Raymonde, Sieur Elaine and Maestro Longardeux of the Iron Cabal, accompanied by his servants with their eyes of gold and their loose grey skin. The banker insists on sitting in, watching them through his spectacles over the edge of his notebook. She does her best to ignore him as she briefs her staff for the dozenth time on their mission west: ride to the aid of Levi's upstart kingdom, rendezvous with his forces at Soma and make sure that when Levi plopped his arse into the Hierophant's throne in Leng that he knew whose swords had put him there.

The banker's dry, forced cough draws all eyes. Lorelei turns from her maps to stare at the little man as he adjusts his cravat and clears his throat. “Yes?” she says tersely.

“What if Lord Levi has abandoned Soma when we reach it?”

Jocelin taps the map with an armored finger. “Find him in the field.”

“Sieur Summer Pollen is correct,” says Lorelei. “Now, as to the matter of the cannon. Maestro, when would be the ideal time to convert our wooden castings?”

“Surely as late as possible, Sieur,” says the pallid alchemist. He is an odd-looking man with his watery eyes and his bald, wigless head. He wears lacquered bamboo armor dyed grey and hung with little iron fetishes, the emblems of his order, obscure tokens of his training. He tents his gauntleted fingers beneath his chin. “I can transmute the full battery in two days, with notice.”

“When we reach the mainland, then,” said Lorelei, satisfied. The Cabal's fees are outrageous, but she isn't the one paying them.


Lorelei suppresses with difficulty the urge to draw her knife and fling it at the banker's smug, fat face. “What is it?” she grates through bared teeth.

“I require your signature, sieur,” the banker says through an iron smile. “These expense reports and estimate sheets, which must be returned to the home office by week's end.”

Lorelei puts both hands on the table, just to take the knife at her belt out of the equation. “Send your messages then. I'll put my name on them, sign them with a kiss, spritz perfume on the parchment, if you'll just leave them with my aide and shut up about it.”

The banker blinks, taken aback, and then his lumpish face slides back into its usual infuriating placidity. “I think now would be best.” He proffers a sheaf of parchment paper crammed with his miniscule writing. “At the bottom, sieur.”

Sieur Elaine, a battle-scarred veteran of the first years of the Red Turban Rebellion, snorts derisively. She slaps the table. “This is a circus. Where is your shul, money-changer?”

“Sign,” says the banker, eyes narrowing.

Lorelei straightens up, ears ringing. It took sixteen years to claw her way to legion commander. Sixteen years of infighting, backstabbing, scheming and fucking to get where she is now. Her hand moves to the knife's hilt. She draws it, smiles at the fear in the banker's eyes, the involuntary widening. She draws the knife's point down the pad of her thumb and, crossing the tent in two swift strides, presses her bloody digit to the sheet. Three terse lines and her name is signed. Lo for ambition, re for water, lei for victory. “Send that home,” she snarls in the banker's bloodless face, and then she throws the papers into his lap and stalks out of the tent into the cool, windy night, leaving the banker and her officers to stare. Elaine is laughing heartily.

A legion messenger approaches her as she nears her tent. “Sieur,” says the smooth-cheeked young boy, saluting. “A messenger from the Shah awaits you in your tent.”

Lorelei raises an eyebrow. “A message?”

“A messenger, sieur,” says the boy.

“Take me to him.”

He is near the picket lines, a handsome Machi man dressed in riding leathers. There are lines at the corners of his haunted eyes, but he cannot be more than thirty, perhaps thirty-five. He is laving his gallus's heaving flanks, petting the saurian's serpentine neck as it pants in exhaustion. “I rode a long time to reach you, Sieur Dancing Crane.”

“You might have sent a pterosaur.”

The man shrugs, still tending to his mount. “The Shah prefers a personal touch. Consider me his Hand.” He turns from the spent gallus, wringing dirty water from the cloth in his scarred hands. “I am here at his request to appraise you of the situation in Machen.”

“The war, you mean.”

The Hand smiles sadly. “Yes,” he says, water dripping from his fingers. “That, and other things.”

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Alonzo de Carnelia's father had always said, before his death in the streets of White Starling City, that the fortunes of the great of Maturin were sculpted by the masquers of Tsang. Now, bent nearly double over a gold-inlaid porcelain mask commissioned by the second son of the Daimyo de Ponsier with a brush in one hand and a needle in the other, Alonzo understands what his father meant. The mask, a piece as fine as any he had ever crafted, conveys in the lines of its long, noble features worldliness, power and indomitable charisma. It is the face of a king surveying his realm from the battlements of his castle. How could it not fail to change the hearts of those who saw it, if only in the slightest of degrees? What events might then ripple from that tiny alteration of some unknown person's thoughtless perception?

All great things come from moments of perception stacked one upon the other, combining to create a portrait in rough strokes. Alonzo reaches for his best quill and begins to ink the mask's tiny beauty mark, a little blemish purposefully inserted beneath the left eye-hole. Beside his workbench his oviraptor, Astora, preens her blue-green tailfeathers with special care. The cobbler's cock, Lepidus, has been prowling the alley behind the shop. Alonzo reminds himself to check the locks so that the bastard won't get inside some night and saddle him with a new brood of unmanageable hatchlings. He has enough on his mind with his daughter's marriage to the toad in shambles.

“The Daimyo's son will be well pleased with this,” says Alonzo to Astora. He speaks to her often when he works.

It is past dark when the mask is finally done. Alonzo allows himself to slump back in his craftsman's chair, the tension in his shoulders slowly fading. Outside the lamplighters move down the narrow streets of the Woven Quarter, stilts click-click-clicking against the cobbles as they light the whale-oil lamps that hang on short chains from the iron lampposts. Alonzo watches one of the lamplighters pass by the window of his workshop. A girl in roughspun, skinny legs strapped to long oaken stilts. She looks like an insect creeping down the street, weaving with expert care between the milling men and women of the crowd. The Street of Masks is busy night and day, for men always need new faces. They tire of their old ones so quickly.


Alonzo turns to the stairwell, but it is empty. He passes a hand over his face, thinking that he should shave in the morning before the Daimyo son's stewards arrive to collect their liege's order. It would not do to meet women of such status in a state of discomposure. If he is to marry again it will be from the ranks of the stewards that he will choose a wife. Now he sits in his workshop, a bedraggled craftsman nearing fifty in his dressing robe and sandals. He thinks of the children he fathered and lost, of Lani and Mieli, his wives who had died in the Shogun's coronation riots at White Starling City.  So many died, that day.  He rises, pours himself a glass of honey-wine and drinks it alone in the dusty workshop. Another glass sees him to his bed.

He shaves in the early morning, just past sunrise, and cooks himself a breakfast of peppers, squid, and eggs. He dresses in his best black craftsman's robes, lights incense in the shopfront beneath the altar of the Monkey, and dons his best wig. Astora feasts on half-rotten iguanodon steak in the workshop as Alonzo opens the shop's glass doors, doors that cost him a small fortune in fees to the alchemists of the Golden Cabal. Smells waft into the shop along with the morning heat. Dust, fried meat, flowers, sweat, dung, a hundred traces of perfume from the Street of Musk. The masks on their display stands glitter in the pale light, shaded by the palms that nod somnolent over the quiet streets. In an hour they will be filled to the brim by commerce, by the weavers who hawk their silk and the clothiers trying to catch the eyes of the nobility.

Now only the dead walk the streets. They cart away the dung left by beasts of burden, sweep the alleyways for garbage, shuffle dead-eyed through the dust. Alonzo watches them from the doorway of his shop. Another man of Alonzo's means might have bought a dead slave's contract from the Iron Cabal, but he finds their golden stares disturbing. He does his own work at his own pace, and because it is the finest in the city there are none who complain. Even some among the Dead Senate wear his masks. Last season the Shogun's sister bought one, a delicate work of spun sugar glazed with alchemical resin, for the Spring Revels at the Palace of Memory. The fame won by a visit from Lasciel's stewards alone would feed a dozen masquers for a decade. Still, Alonzo is not a man to rest on his accomplishments. Each day he labors nine hours on new work, fresh designs. Incomplete upon his workbench is an allosaur-mask of surpassing beauty. In glass display cases, another fortune spent on the precious substance, sit scores of others. Warlike, demonic, adoring, penitent, absolved.

A face for every occasion.

The stewards of the Daimyo's son arrive at the appointed hour, six women wearing their master's polished face and long robes of blue silk. The dead have gone, replaced by the babble and warmth of the living. Alonzo meets the stewards at the door, taking just long enough in his ritual courtesies to show his neighbors and competitors who honors him with patronage, and then ushers his guests inside. The mask is brought forth and presented for consideration. The shortest of the women turns it over in her slender hands. “This is fine work, Maestro de Carnelia,” she says, running a thumb along the curve of a gilt cheekbone. “Truly, you are without equal in your field.”

“My father taught me well, magistra,” says the masquer. “Please, allow me to prepare the mask for transport. Dust would aggravate the varnish.”

The woman hands back the precious piece of artifice and Alonzo wraps it carefully in velvet before placing it inside a flat brown box of treated oak. The women seat themselves on tatami mats in his receiving room and he closes the shop's doors and serves coffee in the gathering heat. Astora watches from the shadows, leery of so many strangers. The women discuss payment with Alonzo as they drink their coffee, exclaiming over its quality, over the porcelain, over the patterns woven into his tatami mats. The shortest, who must be their steward superior, takes the lead.

The woman sips milk-lightened coffee through a sieve in her mask. “My master, the valiant and handsome Baptiste of the Great House of de Ponsier, is prepared to offer sixty-six koku.”

“His Purity overestimates my shul,” says Alonzo, setting down his cup and gazing at it in a show of humility. “I would be overwhelmed by even so much as thirty-one.”

It isn't about the money. Alonzo has all the money he needs, all the money he'll ever need. This is about favors, about forcing the Daimyo's son to underpay. Accepting low fees improves a craftsman's shul, increases his standing in the local courts, and betters his prospects for a marriage. Alonzo inspects the women before him even as they haggle, weaving together along the careful tight-rope of prices that flirt with offensively low and degradingly high. Three of the six are too old for childbearing, but the steward superior and two others look suitable. Broad hips, narrow shoulders, throats smooth and hands unwrinkled by age.
“Fifty-nine koku,” says the steward superior.

“Thirty-five,” says Alonzo, appraising the woman's breasts. They look firm. Not too big.

“Fifty, with the promise of patronage by the Daimyo's house guardsmen.”

“I am unworthy of such a gift. Please, allow a poor old man to save face! Thirty-eight.”

A moment passes. The steward superior sets her porcelain cup down on its saucer with a fragile clink. Behind her mask, sculpted in Baptiste's handsome image, blue eyes narrow in consideration. In the corner of the room Astora chirps and clicks her beak.

“Forty,” the woman says.

Alonzo wais more deeply than protocol requires. The steward superior, bound by the more rigid rules of service to her master, cannot equal his obeisance. She rises and the others follow suit. Alonzo sees them to the door. His hand lingers on the steward superior's as he surrenders the mask in its velvet-lined box. Their eyes meet, and he sees that his intent is understood. She nods. They depart. Alonzo locks the door. It is not yet noon, but he has finished his business for the day. Shutters drawn he removes his wig, unclasps his robe and sinks into a chair. Astora joins him, nuzzling his palm as he drinks the dregs from the biggin he used to brew the morning's coffee. He scratches the oviraptor behind her crest, suddenly tired of the game he has played in his little shop for so many years.

What does it matter if he marries again, or if his new wives bring him children? He will be dead, ground down by the weight of years, before they grow. They lack the time to replace what he has lost, or to undo the necessary sham of Mara's marriage to the southern banker, that poem-named preener with his perfumes and his powders. Alonzo rubs his chin, resolves to drink no wine, then rises and pours himself a glass.  It is the city's finest transmuted vintage, cast from pure agate into liquor by the masters of the Golden Cabal.  He drinks it slowly, savoring the deaths of his memories, the decay of his regrets.

Another glass sees him to his bed.