Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011

2011 has been busy. I got my first job in the writing world, published my first short story, finished a few more novels for the pile. I think I'm learning a lot about what it is to be a writer.

2012 looms. I've got a heap of new projects in the works. Redrafting The Etherist, following up my short story, Cthun, with a sequel, Rakasha, writing a TV series I'm not allowed to talk about yet. 

Short stories forthcoming: Rakasha(Jane's further adventures in Hell), Audley(a surrealist story about a woman who rides a ladybug), and The Devil at his Elbow(Cormac McCarthy meets Dragonslayer as a team of maladjusted degenerates try to find and kill a marauding beast).

Novels forthcoming: Ruin, The Etherist, Prophet's Tomb.

It's going to be quite busy, I think. I've set myself a pretty relentless pace.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Spotlight On: The Religions of Cthun

Religions of Machen: The Church of the Maintainer and the Divided God.

The Maintainer, worshiped since before the organization of the first Machi tribes 3,000 years before the Thulhun invasion of the continent, is a sky deity associated with tradition, preservation and light.  The "He" used to refer to the Maintainer is a gender-neutral super-pronoun reflecting His genderless state.  Oral tradition and the Book of the Living Sun hold that the Maintainer came into being to shield Cthun from the ravages that sank the lost continent of Thul and that he chose the people of Machen for their virtue and steadfastness to be his flock.

Worship of the Maintainer in organized mass prayer is an integral part of the religion's structure.  The religion's priesthood has a strong oral tradition dating back to the original sermons of the semi-human prophet known as the Living Sun, a manifestation of the Maintainer's grace and also a physical child of the god's own body.  The Living Sun organized his progenitor's religion into an ecclesiarchy, placing the priests at the apex of society and appointing the first Hierophant or Father of Tribes as the society's head.  Thereafter Hierophants were elected by popular acclaim to lifelong terms.

The Living Sun's message to the Machi people was one of brotherhood, generosity and goodwill toward one another, but never toward an enemy.  "To a friend the meat of your table, to your blood the robe from your back, and to those perfidious ones who are not of your fold the steel of your swords, which are to be whetted nine and ninety times of a month."  The cohesive nature of the formalized religion led to the union of the Machi tribes and the overthrow of the Thulhun Empire and its emperor, Azurean.

In Machen the Living Sun is looked upon as the first great sage to deliver true Alchemy to Man.

The Two-Who-Are-One, more commonly termed the Divided God, are two emanations of the same deity whose existence and teachings are preached by the half-Thulhun theocrat Ahmad Levi, the Shah of Five Thousand Years.  The halves of the divine being are nameless and are identified by their attributes.  In sharp opposition to typical light-dark deity pairings, the Two-Who-Are-One each embody seemingly random characteristics.  The Left-Hand-God, represented by the porcelain half of the icon mask, is identified with sterility, indomitability of spirit, revenge, despair and transcendence while the Right-Hand-God, represented by the mask's obsidian or onyx half, is identified with fertility, war, labor, illness and scholarship.

Worship of the deities is mandatory and practiced in immense temples in the cities of Carnea and Shibola.  A vast bureaucratic priesthood has sprung up around the institution with Ahmad Levi as its high priest and prophet.  Sacrifice, both of the flesh and of the field, are demanded routinely of all worshipers.  Slavery is heavily tied to the institution and temple slaves are numerous and often used ritually.  Orgiastic behavior is also an important cornerstone of the worship of the Two.

Ahmad Levi's writing on the worship of the Two are collected in the nine volumes of his tract The Traveler in the Eyes of God.

Religions of Maturin: The Three

The Three, Ismael, Monar and Leshua, are a divine triumvirate of death gods who rule over the underworld.  Worship is decentralized and informal, monastic orders are plentiful and the influence of the gods upon architecture, culture and dress is obvious.  Funerary masks, sculpted in the likeness of one's ancestors or taken directly from death masks of same, are common ritual and formal dress in all echelons of society.  Silk is prized both for the making of burial shrouds and the traditional mani robes worn by noblemen and monks.  The three holy flowers, Lily, Chrysanthemum and Lotus are of paramount importance to the Maturi as are compsognathus, jackals and ramphoryncus for their associations with the Three.

Funerals in Maturin tend to be deeply involved and families often schedule weddings to coincide with them so that the Three will shed favor through the corpse upon the young couple.  Black is the funerary color in Maturin while red is the color of marriage and white the color of war.  The Deathless, the Maturi term for the alchemically reanimated dead (who they do not, in contrast to the Machi practice, lobotomize) are a unique caste in society and function in advisory, administrative and clerical capacity.  A senate of liche, or dead, runs the Empire of Maturin's civic affairs and conducts any summits between the Noble Houses of Old Blood and Great Honor.  In fact, a family can be raised to that peerage only by the Senate.

Cannibalism of the dead by their family and loved ones is considered a private matter in Maturin, but is routinely practiced especially by the peasantry and craftsmen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Prologue: THE MOTH'S DAUGHTER

O, Oceanus!
Your briny tears crash
Against all shores
While Zeus's wedding bells
Ring in Poseidon's reign.

This brash usurper of
Great kingdoms writ in coral.
Fish swear him fealty
In scaly ceremonies
And he is King.

You are nothing.
The memory of surf
Breaking on weed-draped stone.

Oceanus.
Oceanus.
Rushing in and out like tidewater
Across the sweep of the sand.

THE MOTH'S DAUGHTER

“The dead will come up from the sea,” she says to the waves of the Grand Ocean, though they pay her no mind. “He will be in three parts, for so was his body cast down to the depths, and when the three are made one he will reign for a year and a day before his death and the end of this world.” It is an old poem, as old as her order. She sits alone on the sweep of the Maturi coast while the waves roll over the sand, foaming white before they are dragged hissing back into the oneness that is their birth, their death, the sum of them all. She is sixteen, perhaps a little older, pale like a consumptive with dark hair that pools around her where she sits. Her lips are bloodless, her delicate nose tinged with the faintest suggestion of branching veins, blue beneath her cream-colored skin. Her eyes are a soft yellow like spring daffodils in bloom. Shells rattle in the surf, the ocean's bones. Behind her lie the salt marshes of the coast, and beyond them pine forests creaking in the cold brine-smelling breeze. A hundred yards from shore a pair of elasmosaurs sun themselves on a sandbar, serpentine necks swaying as they voice their mournful songs.

To the west lies the long, dirty-brown smudge of the Bridge of Sand, one of the indestructible Great Ways that link the remaining continents to one another. The bridge is far distant, near to the mouth of the Bay of Laughing Swine where Tsang, the capital, sprawls like a drunk along the coast. She can see the city's smoke upon the air, if she squints.

The men of the Daimyo de Ponsier's army come for the girl along an old chalk road that cuts through the forest and the salt marshes with their witchgrass and their eels to the broad expanse of the sandy beach. They are proud men, obviously wealthy in their fine powdered wigs and lacquered bamboo armor, their katana sheathed across their knees in scabbards of aged teak. Their galluses, lean beasts bread to the hunt and the clangor of war, are barded in fine silks. Their gilt-sheathed claws click against the pebbles of the beach as they approach the seated girl. Most halt. One moves forward, bearing its fat rider, too fat for armor, down toward the streaming edge of the tide. Clouds fly across the vaulting of the sky, threatening rain like belligerent teamsters promising a strike.

“I bear a message from my master,” says the fat man, not bothering to wai, to bow his head and press his palms together in acknowledgment of the supremacy of the Three Gods. His skin is sallow, his robes of heavy silk strained by his bulk. Beneath him his mount pants, its flanks dripping foam. He tosses a scroll case and it hits the sand before the girl and sticks there.

The girl ignores the cylinder. “I am not a whore,” she says, still staring at the ocean. “Nor am I some eunuch scribe.  I do not read.  Tell me what Marian Daimyo has to say to me, or I will leave and not return.”

One of the elasmosaurs heaves itself from the sandbar and vanishes without a splash beneath the waves. Ripples spread from the point of its disappearance. The other remains, still singing at the afternoon sun. On his gallus the fat man pushes back his wig, revealing a stubbled, sweating scalp, and mops at his brow with a handkerchief. “You dare much,” he says, “alchemist.”

“I dare nothing,” she answers him. Her slim, pale fingers draw lines in the sand.

The fat man swallows. “I am sieur Reginald of Ten Thousand Oaks,” he says, chins wobbling as he speaks. “In my capacity as a vassal to the Daimyo de Ponsier of Laughing Water I-”

The girl's lips curl upward in a faint smile. “You are no knight. You have no shul. No honor.”

Sieur Reginald swallows again. He forges ahead, sweating more than ever. His men watch him from the road's end. “My lord has acquiesced to your request,” he says. “He has met the price you ask of him. Will you now deliver your end of the bargain?”

The girl stands, her saffron robes shedding sand and salt as she turns to look up at the fat knight with her pale yellow eyes. Her hair blows in the wind. Bells sewn along the hem of her long sleeves jingle. “Yes,” she says. “Resplendent Orchid will burn. Daimyo de Scorier and his line will be expunged from the records of the three temples.”

“My lord will be most pleased to hear it,” says sieur Reginald. He adjusts his wig again, plump hands fluttering about the powdered ringlets. “When-”

“By Ironday,” says the girl.

A nervous smile touches the fat knight's lips, dimpling his cheeks. “They don't call you Lucrece the Knife for nothing,” he says. “de Scorier will never know what-”

“Only fools make light of death,” says the girl named Lucrece, who men call the Knife. “The temples do not play favorites.” The bells on her sleeves jingle as she makes a shallow wai to the fat man, to the false knight. “The sea moves as the Three will.”

“May they smile on our endeavor,” says sieur Reginald uneasily. He wais, skirting disrespect with the degree of his bow, and heels his tiring mount back toward his men. Lucrece watches him go. She binds her hair up in a tight black knot as he joins his men and they turn back down the forest road, their galluses quickening to a run. The thunder of their passing kicks up chalk dust and scares pheasants from the tall brown grasses of the marsh. Lucrece pins her hair in place, bells jingling, and puts on her wide-brimmed straw hat. She puts on the sandals that sat beside her on the shore and touches one of the bells, a little brazen one, to the fat knight's message cylinder. In an instant it is ash, transmuted into a fluttering cloud of grey. It vanishes, borne away by the wind even as the second elasmosaur joins the first in the ocean's cold depths. Lucrece makes a deep wai to the ocean and then she folds her hands within her sleeves and starts toward the forest road.

The boom and crash of the ocean fades into the distance as Lucrece walks along the edge of the trail in the dappled shadows of the pines, needles crunching beneath her steel-shod sandals. Sparrows twitter in the branches while herds of ridge-backed scutellosaurs meander through the half-light of the forest, digging amidst tangled roots for grubs and tubers. Somewhere far away an allosaurus coughs, signaling the beginning of its hunt. By dusk the road has widened and sometimes Lucrece passes travelers on gallus-back or pulling rickshaws laden with their belongings, their families, their livelihoods. There is a war in the south, Lucrece knows, between the Red Turban rebels and the armies led by the great Shogunate field marshal Louis de Grande, the Raptor of Tsang. The war is not her business. Its fires, too, will pass as all things must.

Resplendent Orchid, the great castle of the Daimyo Claude de Scorier, occupies a bald hill surrounded by walls of quarried granite sheathed in marble. Guardian tigers grin down from its battlements at the village spread out around its hilltop vantage point, fierce gargoyles but gargoyles only. They are like the winds of autumn: loud and toothless. Lucrece stops at the village's outskirts to drink from a stream where the washerwomen, at their work in the current, give her saffron robe, straw hat and alchemist's bells a wide berth and wai deeply to her. Thirst slaked, the young monk sits down in the shade of a gnarled maple and lets the weariness of her day on the road wash over her. She misses the sea, as she always does when she and it part ways. The sea reminds her of many things.

A butterfly comes to her as she sits in the shadow of the gnarled oak tree, its jewel-bright wings sparkling in the fading sunlight. Lucrece holds out a hand and the insect alights on her thumb; it is so light, so insubstantial that it hardly feels real. She wais to it. “What do you know, little brother?” she asks it, looking deep into its faceted eyes.

“The dead will come up from the sea,” says the butterfly in a voice like gossamer blowing in the wind. “He who is called the Lord-Without-Mercy-or-Death, Master of Lost Souls and King of Moths, is coming. He will reign for a year and a day before his death and the end of the world.”

“I know all this, little brother,” says Lucrece, who men call the Knife.

“I know nothing else,” says the butterfly. “My own death is close at hand, and the flowers call to me. I must find a wife and, dying, love her.” It flaps its wings and leaves her hand. Soon it is gone, vanished into the shadows of the forest. Lucrece sits beneath the tree, praying in the shadow that comes before the death of the sun.

Friday, September 16, 2011

THE WANDERING ALCHEMIST: EPILOGUE

The moth was coming. Swift on wings of dust he came, up from the ocean where other things stirred fitfully in their dreamless sleep. The moth was coming, and in his tower the Alchemist felt a flutter of fear stir in his breast.  Shadows danced on the tower's basalt walls.  The Alchemist walked balls of malachite along his knuckles.  On the hearth the monkey's oven sat on its four stout legs, its grate shut. 

“There is nothing you can do,” said the monkey from his iron house. “Machen will go down to join Thul in the depths of the ocean.”

“That may be, effendi,” said the Alchemist. He steepled his fingers and looked over them out the orange glazed window at the desert beyond. “That day may come.”

“The day will come,” said the monkey. “He will come forth into his husks, and on the day of the Most Great Conjunction those husks shall be as one and he will be reborn to die again.”

“I know how it will go, effendi,” said the Alchemist. “I have lived it all before.”

“Then why dally with the crow witch? She has already doomed herself.”

The Alchemist, who had named himself Azurean to the girl called Safa, sighed and let his arms fall to his sides. His long fingers trailed over the stone and two spheres of malachite rolled away across the polished surface.  “The days of the mighty are numbered,” he said after some time had passed. “If someone is to staunch Machen's bleeding, it will be her.”

“You aim to teach her. Fool. You have not the time. Better a master, someone with the power-”

“I have never had time, effendi,” said the Alchemist. He rose from his seat and went to the window, a scarecrow draped in black, shoulders slumped with age and weariness.  Outside the desert waited, a barren mouth just waiting to drink, to drink, and drink.  The setting sun hung low in the sky.  “You know this.”

The stove coughed soot onto the hearth. “I know, old friend,” the monkey said. “I hope your trust is not misplaced. I hope you know the risk you take by choosing this child.”

The Alchemist passed a hand over his unshaven face. “Thank you, effendi."

THE HANDMAIDEN III

The halls of the Floating Palace grew stranger by the day. Servants and generals alike routinely lost their way in the labyrinthine corridors, and sometimes, the slaves whispered, they were not found again. Scheza had insisted that Aliya move her sleeping quarters to a small room adjoining her own. Aliya had been hesitant to acquiesce, but when she'd discovered that the brass tub had been emptied of its vile contents and the Princess's apartments cleaned, she had given in. After all, she was a slave. What choice did she have?

On a warm summer day, just before the first of the Month of Light, the guards barred the palace doors and there was fighting in the streets. In Scheza's chambers Aliya combed her mistress's hair with shaking hands while through the open windows came a summer breeze, the clash of steel and the screams of the dying. Scheza sat on a low padded bench in her solar, her usual stained and threadbare robe hanging open over an equally filthy cotton slip. The midday sunlight bathed both women in lurid gold. “Mistress,” said Aliya, dipping her comb into a bowl of rosewater. “Perhaps-”

From the foyer came the sound of wood splintering. Aliya froze, her heart pounding in her chest. She dropped her comb, remembering the day the slave merchant's men had broken down her father's door and clapped him in iron shackles. A dirty, toothless man had dragged her out from under her sleeping mat and tied her to the back of his mule while she screamed herself hoarse and the men and women of their slum looked on in silence, just so many empty faces. “Mistress,” she said.

“Be silent,” said Scheza.

Wood groaned and broke. Aliya heard the voices of men and the scuff of their heavy boots in the hall outside Scheza's apartments. She clasped her hands together to hide the tremors.

“He's moving faster than I thought he would,” said Scheza.

“Who, Your Serenity?”

Scheza stood and brushed dust from her robes as with an echoing crash the door in the foyer broke and the trample of booted feet on the tiles began. “My father.” She turned back to Aliya, her eyes a burning, feverish violet. “Stay out of the way,” she said as the door burst open and the first of the Tranquil Guard pushed open the door and strode into the solar.

“Princess,” said the soldier, hefting his ax. He was huge and burly, his grey hair cropped close to the lines of his skull. More men spread out behind him, axes in hand.

“Guardsman,” said Scheza, her voice cool. “What is the meaning of this?”

“His Immensity's orders,” said the man. He moved forward, raising his ax. Aliya screamed.

Scheza moved so fast she blurred into color and sound. The guardsman's arm exploded at the elbow. His ax flew up and back in a lazy arc, trailing his own blood. Scheza, bending backward like a bridge, drove a delicate foot into the wide-eyed soldier's chin. He hit the ceiling with a sickening crunch as Scheza blurred forward, dropping beneath the ax of another guardsman to sweep his legs out from under him. The man dropped, arms waving, just as the first guard slammed into the tiles in a burst of blood. Aliya scrambled back, watching in horror as Scheza ripped the fallen man's throat out in one smooth motion. The Princess was an engine of destruction, her slender frame moving with inhuman speed in among the suddenly panicked men of the Tranquil Guard.

“Kill her!” shouted a voice from the foyer. “Maintainer's eyes, just kill her!”

Blood splashed the walls as Scheza drove her foot through a fat guard's chest and then yanked it out amidst a gout of gore and ichor. The man sagged to his knees, muttering to himself. Aliya pressed herself back against the wall, unable to look away. Limbs broke. Blood ran. Intestines coiled like serpents on the floor while cold steel swung and found nothing but the sluggish summer breeze. Soon enough the guardsmen ceased to fight and began instead to run. When it was over Scheza stood alone in the middle of a spreading pool of blood, broken bodies all around her. Blood painted the walls and dripped like a fitful spring shower from the ceiling. A leg twitched near the bench where Aliya had combed the Princess's hair not a minute before.

The Princess turned to Aliya, her hair matted with gore, blood running in rivulets down her lovely face. “Water,” she husked. “Please.” Her eyes were golden once again, sunken deep in waxy sockets. She sagged against the door's frame while heavy footsteps dwindled into the distance.

Slowly, Aliya made her way to the basin built into the room's northern wall. The clash of arms in the streets below the Floating Palace on its high hill still drifted through the window. With shaking arms she primed the pump until cold water splashed into the fired sink. She filled a mug and brought it to the Princess, helped the other girl to drink. Scheza's skin was dry and hot, hotter than the sunlit floor. She felt like a griddle to the touch. Cold water dripped down her throat as she drank, and then the mug slipped from her fingers to shatter on the floor. “Hide me,” she whispered.

Scheza's eyes rolled up into her skull. Aliya caught her as she fell, knock-kneed and still feverish. For a long while Aliya stood, clutching Scheza against her chest while her own breath whistled in her ears. The air reeked of iron.

What am I going to do?

She was halfway to the stables before she realized it, her arms sore with the effort of dragging Scheza down flights of stairs, empty halls and through echoing baths where women floated face-down in the water. In the kitchens she had seen Mulkut, the Palace's head chef, hanged from the ceiling beams like a fat chandelier. Twice she passed beheaded slaves in the halls, and soon she was numb from the shock. It was all just one long nightmare, as everything had been from the day Chamyde assigned her to clean the Princess's chambers. She lost her way time and time again, familiar corridors twisting back on themselves or leading to strange rooms where strange things swam in dark, shallow pools of water that smelled of salt. Once, through an open door, she saw a little ape made all of flames clambering over the body of a washerwoman. Its feet left little burn marks on her skin.

“What have we here, my darling?” it said.

Aliya moved onward, dragging Scheza after her. The sounds of riot in the streets echoed weirdly in the halls. The windows they passed looked out seemingly at random at a myriad of different places. The foundries on the heights. The half-built towers of the Divided Temple. A flower seller's stand upended in the plaza, its aged owner sobbing over marigolds, violets and lilacs strewn across the dusty street. He looked up and his eyes met Aliya's, but he said nothing. Aliya moved onward until, in the echoing emptiness of the Imperial Concourse, she met Lord Captain Commander Azhar Khalid of the Tranquil Guard.  The captain, who had been so kind to her in the hall not a week before, lay slumped with his back against a silent fountain.  His eyes were glassy, his sherwani and trousers red with blood, torn where Scheza had ripped his abdomen open during her mad dance.  A long snail's trail of red led from the far door to where he sat, breathing through his nose with a lit pipe clamped between his teeth.  He saw Aliya, dragging Scheza with her like a sack of meal, and said nothing.

"I'm sorry," said Aliya as she passed him by.

"It's nothing," said the captain.

 At last, when her feet were raw from walking and her arms trembled with the strain of supporting the Princess's weight, she heard the cries of galluses and the bass rumbles of hadrosaurs somewhere close at hand.

Nothing makes any sense, she thought. Nothing in the Palace is as it should be.

A door loomed before her. She knew it for the door to the stables, but in the pit of her stomach she wondered if it now led somewhere else. She wondered if the monkey thing awaited her behind it, its burning arms spread wide to receive her into its embrace. What have we here, my darling? it would say as she burned.

She drove a shoulder hard against the warped planks of the door and staggered, wheezing, onto the stone steps that led down to the dung-smelling dimness of the stables. Most of the galluses were gone, their stable doors thrown open. Saurian dung and blood smeared the straw-covered stones of the floor and the light that filtered in from the open arch leading out onto the cliff road had grown dim. Aliya limped to a pile of fodder set aside for the hadrosaurs and lowered Scheza down onto the moldering straw. The Princess's skin was still unnaturally hot. She muttered nonsense in her sleep, limbs twitching. Aliya straightened, her back screaming in protest, and looked out over the stables. A few loose galluses were nosing through a trough of spoiled fruit while a lone gelding hadrosaur snored in its open pen, bellows sides rising and falling ponderously.

The cliff road, chalk dust drifting over its surface, seemed a different world. Aliya's mouth felt dry. She imagined riding out of the Palace, abandoning her life there. I could even leave Scheza. I could leave her here, and whatever demon she has inside her. The thought of it, after so many years prostrate in silence while the nobles passed by, so many years scrubbing pots and sweeping cobwebs from the corners of unused rooms. I could be free. Suddenly the sounds of bloodshed in the city seemed distant and the blue of the sky called to her. She saw pterosaurs circling the market district and wondered what it was like to shed the earth and its dust.

“Aliya.”

Shackles snapped shut on that world. Aliya turned back to the fodder heap where Scheza, bleary-eyed and filthy, swayed like a drunk. “Saddle the hadrosaur,” said the Princess, slurring her words as she groped for purchase in the straw. “Get me out of this...fucking city.”

Aliya tried to refuse her, to defy the pathetic girl before her. Her face twitched. She pushed back a stray lock of hair from her tear-streaked face. “Yes, Your Serenity,” she said, though the words stuck in her throat like burrs.

I will never be free.

THE DUTIFUL SON III

I command you to storm Soma's walls on the first day of the month of Light before the sun has set. Do this, holding fast to your faith, and you will be delivered to victory. Yussef touched two fingers to his breastplate, engraved with the twin faces of the Divided God, behind which he had placed his father's letter between armor and quilting. A son must obey his father. Cannons thundered to his either side, pounding the walls of Soma. From where he stood in the gathering dusk on the crest of his war-camp's earthworks, Yussef could see the city's dead defenders taking cover behind crumbling crenelations. His own men, he knew, were nervous. They feared assaulting the breach. They feared the dead. He glanced to the left where Bobek, towering over the lines in his horned helm and bearskin cloak, commanded the flank. To the right was Nephru, hidden somewhere within a clot of officers and bodyguards, and in the van was iron-willed Horus with his hammer in hand and his ankylosaurs, hooded and leashed, beside him. A light rain had begun to fall. The saurians stirred, the bone clubs at the ends of their tails swinging back and forth like pendulums.

“The Divided God will smile on us,” said Yussef, more to himself than to the soldiers standing around him in the softening earth. He signaled his standard bearers with a raised fist and the legionary standards, displaying the army's twin-masked sigil, dipped forward as the brass peal of horns rose to drown out the throaty roaring of the cannons. “For the gods!” cried Yussef, freeing his sword from its sheath as he broke into a run. The lines surged forward, the earth shaking beneath the boots of more than fifteen thousand men. Yussef felt as though he might be jolted skyward by the thunder of his army's swift advance. His legs devoured distance, pulling him closer and closer to the breach. The cannons had fallen silent and it seemed that his breath rasping in his ears was the only sound. All else was dull vibration and the slap of the rain against bare skin. Pikes and axes bristled in the breach, and from dead sockets eyes of gold stared out at nothing.

Like a wave breaking on the sand Yussef and his men closed with Soma's dead defenders. Swords hacked rotten flesh, crushed mail, split leather, splintered bone. With his scimitar Yussef turned aside an ax's spike seeking for his heart. His riposte laid open his attacker's cheek, but the silent abomination seemed not to notice. The lines surged around them and Yussef struck blindly. No room for technique in the mad, thundering press. Skulls burst. Blades squealed against armor. The men of the Floating Empire of Eternal Peace tested their faith against the dumb courage of the dead. Grey limbs rose and fell like pistons. Crescent axes stove in helms and hewed limbs. Yussef screamed wordless rage at his enemies as the tide of battle jostled him forward into their grasping arms. He hacked the head from one, then lopped the arm from another dead soldier and rocked clumsily back on his heels as the creature's remaining fist slammed into his jaw. Father, he thought as he fell back, broken teeth rattling in his mouth. You promised we would have victory.

The ax took him in the back without warning. He never saw its wielder. Numbness swallowed his lower half and his legs folded like cloth, dumping him into the cool mud. He spat blood, dragged himself with claw-crooked hands in amongst the milling feet and stamping boots. Legs swung like girders all around him. He squirmed like a snake until someone stepped over him and the pain made colored flowers burst before his eyes. He rolled over, still screaming. An ankylosaur blundered past, trumpeting in agony as alchemist's fire ate at its armored back. Its huge tail swung like a scythe over where Yussef lay and a soldier was smashed, his ribs staved in like kindling. Yussef sucked in a breath and wiped snot from his chin. He was cold below the waist and his left leg was twisted strangely.

Father.

An iron ball-bearing fell from thin air and landed between Yussef's feet with a dull, final splat. A figure dressed in white appeared a moment later a meter from where he lay bleeding in the mud. Rain soaked the Shah's flowing robes in an instant, but Ahmad Levi seemed not to notice. He stood over his son like a colossus, his golden eyes trained on the breach in Soma's walls where the dead had congregated like locusts.  Other alchemists might have worn a dozen different reagent rings, but the Shah of Five Thousand Years wore only one. A band of plain gold encircled his right index finger, and in his left hand he held another ball-bearing the size of a ripe orange. The Shah of Five Thousand Years pivoted on his left foot, wound his arm and flung the ball-bearing overhand at the walls where the disorganized remnants of Yussef's charge were being beaten back through the breach by Soma's defenders. The spears and axes of the dead rose and fell with terrible predictability, hacking through flesh, cloth, armor and bone. Men screamed for their mothers in the churned and bloody mud in the shadow of Soma's walls. The ball-bearing struck the wall.

It did not seem possible that so great a thing might move without a sound, but it was so. In a heartbeat the fractured wall was gone, the city laid bare behind the clustered dead. Soma's domes and low stone houses clustered like a treasure trove of jewels between the cradling horns of the pass. Yussef drew in a sharp breath, tasting his own blood and the rain-soaked earth. His father stood over him, robes flapping in a sudden gale. The men stared at him even as their implacable, unliving foes, unfazed by the miracle that had occurred, continued to butcher them. Then, a hundred meters above the embattled forces, the wall reappeared. Like an avalanche from nowhere, like a thunderbolt of inert stone, it fell from the sky in a vast crumbling cascade of limestone sheathing and quarried granite. Jagged spars of stone the size of hadrosaurs plummeted in amongst the dead and the men of the Empire, smashing living flesh and rotten with equal disregard. It sounded as though the world would end. Yussef covered his eyes as blood and rock dust washed over him in waves.

When his ears ceased their ringing he was being helped to his feet by Mustafa Horus. The one-armed General was saying something to him, shouting in his ear, but it sounded like the barking of dogs. The field before them was a hell of broken bodies and smashed stone. Bedraggled crows hopped among the dead, picking at pulped flesh. Ahmed Levi stood alone, serene amidst the chaos. Before him was a gaunt, bearded man with cadaverous cheeks and dull black eyes.  He was escorted by two of the dead, their halberds planted in the mud like standards to his either side. “Horus,” said Yussef, sagging against the older man's shoulder. “Did we win? Is the city ours?”

“We were victorious, my Prince,” said the General. His face was pale and there was blood on his side where his armor had been punctured by a spear's point. “The Shah negotiates with the master of the city. Soon, we will move in to occupy.”

“Good,” said Yussef. He swallowed. “Get me to a surgeon.”

“At once, your Highness. Can you walk?”

“Send for a stretcher.” Blood dribbled down his chin as he coughed, clutching at his old friend for support. “I can't feel my legs.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

THE MAGISTRATE III


Nassar Qasim and Ibrahim the Necromancer walked together in silence along the ramparts of Soma's southern wall. No more talkative were the sentinels who stood upon the walls, dead men in scratched and battered plate the same grey as the leaden sky above the Magistrate and his deadly ally. Eyes covered over with funereal coins of gold stared out at the camp of Yussef Levi's besieging army. Gauntleted hands gripped crescent-bladed axes impregnated with latent alchemical transmutations by the city's few minor practitioners of that art. Soma was a waystation, not a metropolis. Its alchemists were second-rate, back-alley operators and academy hopefuls cast out for poor marks or dissolute behavior. The hum of the hematological batteries that imbued the dead with animation made Nassar feel as though he were at the center of a gathering thunder storm, waiting for the lightning.

“How many are there?” he asked.

“One thousand,” said Ibrahim. The necromancer, a fat man before his long imprisonment under the rule of Nassar's father, had become gaunt in his advancing years. His beard was shot through with grey, his hair thinning badly. “Our dead and theirs in equal measure, more or less. Twenty guard your prisoners. The rest man the wall. The expense in batteries is considerable, but with my current supply of bodies we will be able to launch a counteroffensive before the month is out...”

Nassar stopped listening to the other man's soft, reasonable voice. He thought of the prisoners, of grizzled, insubordinate Abbas and faithful, disappointed Ora who had been his tutor in statecraft, philosophy and the faith of the Maintainer. The others he cared little for, in truth, but imprisoning Ora had gouged a hole in his heart. I am another poor sinner, he thought wryly, glancing skyward for a moment. Theology had never been his strongest discipline. Others seemed comforted by the Maintainer's priests, by the long sermons on Rainday in the echoing galleries of the faith's Temples. Nassar's mother had been religious, before sickness had stolen her mind. Even at the end, though, she had muttered little snatches of her favorite hymns and prayers to herself.

“...dead,” Ibrahim concluded. He paused between two dead soldiers and put a pale, scarred hand on the rain-slicked battlements. His dark eyes seemed to plumb the distance between Soma's battered walls, shored up with dirt and makeshift barricades, and the earthworks surrounding Yussef Levi's stark encampment. Nassar watched the necromancer, trying to assess the other man's thoughts. He might as well have tried to coach a brick in alchemy. That Ibrahim, sooner or later, would betray him he was certain of. When, though? That was the question that kept him up at nights. For now the madman's fate was tied to Soma's, and so his miscreations manned the walls. For now. Nassar had a few tricks up his sleeve he thought might prolong the engagement, but he would need to survive the week to see them implemented. Now, with Levi's cannons ripping at the walls and the Serene General massing his men for a final assault, that prospect seemed uncertain.

Nassar passed a hand over his goateed face and blew out a long, tired breath. Have I thrown my honor and my teacher both aside for nothing?

“He will attack tomorrow,” Ibrahim said.

“I thought so,” said Nassar, though in truth he'd had no idea. His grasp of tactics on a scale larger than backroom maneuvering had never been good. “Will you take dinner with me tonight?”

“Yes,” said Ibrahim. They were one of the things that disturbed Nassar most, those flat little one-word answers the necromancer gave. Never an “it would be my pleasure,” or a “certainly.” Just “yes,” or “no.” It made his every pronouncement sound like a judge's verdict.

They returned together to Nassar's manse. Somehow, thought the Magistrate as he dismounted from his gallus in the courtyard, the building looked shabbier in the rain. Petty, somehow. If Ibrahim noticed, he said nothing. They ate together in silence in Nassar's study. Food stores were dwindling and the meal was simple: stuffed compsognathus with fiery peppers and chilled lemon tea served afterward, to soothe their palates. Ibrahim ate mechanically, saying nothing. Nassar picked at his own portion, though the saurian flesh was invitingly tender, its skin crisped to perfection. He would have to remember to congratulate the cook. When at last the necromancer had finished his saurian, a serving girl brought out the lemon tea. Ibrahim took his cup without comment, but he did not drink.

“You're going to want to drink that,” said Nassar.

“The nine great alchemical poisons can only be delivered in liquid form,” said the necromancer, his voice flat and toneless. He set the cup down on the table. “Lemon to mask the taste of arsenic? I am not a fool, Magistrate.”

“No, no,” said Nassar, shaking his head. “You have me all wrong, Ibrahim. It was the peppers I had poisoned. The antidote is in the lemon tea.”

There was a long, ugly silence. Ibrahim's nostrils flared as he drew deep breaths. His hands shook. “Going to kill you,” he said.

“I rather doubt-”

The necromancer moved. With a roar he was out of his seat, and in another instant he seized the chair by one leg. There was a flash, a crackling noise and the chair was made of tin. Ibrahim flung it at Nassar, and at the moment it left his hand another flash blinded the Magistrate and the chair transmuted into solid iron. Nassar threw himself out of the way, upending his own chair and scrabbling on hands and knees for the door as the thrown chair slammed into the mantelpiece and smashed it into shards of dusty marble. “Guards!” he shouted as Ibrahim, with a snarl, started toward him. The necromancer's pointed shoes approached across the carpet. Nassar scrambled to his feet, wishing, as Ibrahim produced a stiletto from his sleeve, that his plan had included a high, thick wall between himself and the madman.

A guardsman burst through the door, halberd lowered. “Kill him!” Nassar shouted. Ibrahim flicked something at the man as he lunged. Glass shattered against skin and a suit of lacquered armor crashed to the ground, spilling dust over the carpet. The guard's halberd landed point-down between Ibrahim's feet and the necromancer seized its haft, spun it around and drove it through Nassar's leg. Bone snapped. The world went black. Nassar heard himself screaming, and then nothing. When he woke the table was on its side in front of the door, Ibrahim was crouched in shadow beneath the window and from the direction of Levi's camp came the thunder of firing cannons, playing counterpoint to the hatchets crashing against the door, transmuted into granite, from the hall outside. The halberd rammed through Nassar's left leg was a burning brand that pinned him to the floor. He bared his teeth and clutched at the wound. He felt cold and tired. “Ibrahim,” he said, blood pulsing through his fingers. “Ibrahim, we can work something out. The city-”

“I can defend the city from here,” said the necromancer, distracted. He had something in his hands, something made of glass that glittered in the light of distant explosions. A little vase, dark liquid sloshing in it. The cold feeling in the pit of Nassar's stomach deepened.

“I transmuted your little drop of blackmail into water,” said Ibrahim, not looking up. “Never try to poison an alchemist.” His fingers slid up and down the sides of the vase. “You're going to help me keep Soma safe, Nassar,” he said. “Together, we're going to save it. Then I'm going to rule it.”

Nassar saw what Ibrahim had in his hands in the next flash of cannon-fire. “No,” said the Magistrate. “Please, don't.”

“Your father should have stayed in his bedchamber with his harem,” he said. “He made a mistake, coming after me. I couldn't get him.” Ibrahim's eyes glittered in the light reflected from the battery he held. “I wanted to kill him, you know, but in so many ways...this is better.”

Nassar closed his eyes before the necromancer opened his breast and slipped a second heart inside it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

THE CONCUBINE III


Alice touched her silver earring, her reagent, to the scrap of silk she had taken from a gown ruined during one of the Shah's increasingly infrequent visits. She could feel what the sages said, the tingling rush of blood in her hands that came with the advent of transmutation. A foul, acrid scent filled her nostrils and a second later she had fallen back onto her rear, coughing and choking as a cloud of white gas slowly dissipated in the damp, warm air of her privy. Chlorine. She'd been expecting lead, but any result was better than none. She had been through so many failures since the slave girl had brought her Scheza's book.

The book's diagrams and treatises detailing alchemy's basics were simple, but Alice was unschooled and nervous. The cryptic warnings against certain transmutations and reagents set her on edge whenever she so much as considered attempting to use the talent she hadn't even known she'd possessed until her jailer's daughter had told her. In Southern Maturi alchemy was practiced only by the Gold and Iron Cabals, the two covens directly beholden to the Dead Senate and the Lich King. Here in Machen there were guilds, temples, tradesmen and priests all capable of and trained in the Noble Art. To Alice, though, the Art was strange and frightening. Now, propped up coughing and red-faced on her elbows in the lavatory, she had another mixed success to add to her short list of triumphs.

Alice got to her feet, spitting to clear the taste of chlorine from her mouth, and replaced her earring in her left ear. The silver teardrop, dangling from the hook on a fine silver chain, felt warm to the touch as she left the privy and went back into the goosedown-padded cage that was her room with its deep four-poster bed, its elaborate tapestries, calligraphied prayer-sheets and lavish d├ęcor. Her bare feet made no sound on the carpets. Water fell from an ornamental spigot worked to resemble a gallus's head into a porcelain basin. Her breath still rasping in her throat, Alice went to the basin and cupped her hands beneath the ice-cold flow. She drank, washing the taste of chlorine from her lips. Faint cries from the city far below assailed her ears as she went to the window seat, but she did not look out. What could she do for those suffering under Ahmad's rule? She could learn, and she could strike against their oppressor, but she could not save them from his soldiers.

With her rings, one of steel, one of silver set with topaz, and one of filigreed bone, she ran through the transmutations she had managed to master. The comforting pulse of heat in her hands built as she worked. First, she turned the onyx bracelet on her right wrist into quartz, then back again. Next came a fingernail clipping turned to water, then an iron cobbler's nail prized from a shoe which she transmuted inch by inch into crackling flames. She had to be careful with iron. Once, when she had transmuted an iron candlestick she'd found discarded behind her bed the flames had escaped her control and set fire to one of the tapestries. She'd had to lie to Mistress Chamyde, the foul-tempered and walleyed Slavemistress of the Palace, telling her in her broken Machi that a lamp had overturned. She'd even pushed over one of the heavy brass lamp stands and smashed its oil reserve, but she didn't think she'd fooled the old witch.

No, she had to be careful. Exceedingly careful. Chamyde was the least of her worries. Ahmad would find out, sooner or later. He was brilliant, but his contempt for her might give her the moment she needed to turn his throat to water. It had been the first transmutation she'd mastered, once she'd worked up the courage to exert her will on a reagent. Her own blood, drawn with a pinprick to the thumb and applied to a mouse that had drowned in her bath. The unfortunate rodent had dissolved into the bathwater like a bad memory. Alice's lips curved upward at the memory. She laced her hands together and looked out at the setting sun, doing her best to ignore the smoke and screams rising up from the city. There is nothing, she thought, that I can do for them.
The sound of something heavy slithering over the lavatory tiles rasped suddenly against the room's illusion of tranquility. Alice froze, her gaze shifting to the thick, oaken lavatory door. Her beringed hands closed into fists. The sound came again, closer now. She heard a long, rattling hiss, and then nothing. Wetting her lips, she stood and said: “Is that you, Divinity?”

No.

Her knees failed her and she dropped abruptly to the carpet, the impact muffled by its plush weave. The thing behind the door hissed again, and again it spoke. Its voice was more in the mind than in the air, a cold and fetid thing with dripping teeth and huge, lurid eyes. Even through the door she could feel its eyes upon her, could feel them reaching deep inside her. “Please,” she said.
Will the Sssssshah come tonight?

“Please, I don't know.”

When he comessssss, you will tell me. I will be lissssssstening.

Alice stared at the door, her pulse thundering in her ears. What color were the voice's eyes? She longed to know. The desire consumed her, drew her to her feet. She crossed the room with brittle tread and pressed her cheek against the door. The wood felt good against her skin, cool and unyielding. “I want to see you,” she mumbled, her voice little-girl slow. “Please, let me come and see you.”

I am death. To look upon me issss to know desssspair.

“I want to see you.”

Slow, huge coils shifted behind the door. She could feel it, close at hand. Water slopped onto tiles. Was it coming out of the bath? Had it come up through the drain? Its bulk rasped against the door and Alice's teeth chattered. Little chills of longing ran up and down her spine as her fingers, fumbling gracelessly, found the cut-crystal doorknob. “Let me come in,” she said. Her thoughts circled a great drain like the water she had made out of the drowned mouse. From a way long way off she could hear herself crying, breath hitching in her chest.

No. You will await your Sssshah in ssssilensssse, and you will remember nothing of thissss, ssssssave that when he comessssss into your chamberssss you will announsssse it.

All at once the world was crystal clear. Alice smiled ruefully, dabbing at the tears of pain on her cheeks. How silly she'd been, stubbing her toe on the lavatory door. Sighing, she limped across the room and sank down onto the edge of her bed. She ran her hands through her long, dark hair. Her rings felt heavy on her fingers, especially the golden one she'd used to transmute the toenails of her little toes into pure agate. The toes still ached, but it had been worth it. She preferred the lesser reagents. Using gold made her feel wild and inspired strange moods, but it was surer. If her other knowledge failed her, she could use the ring of gold against the Shah.

As Scheza's book said, the Golden Way is the road to freedom.

Alice fell back against the embroidered pillows at the head of her bed. The scent of jasmine and coriander was strong in the air. Can I kill him, she wondered, if he comes tonight?

He did not come that night, but there was screaming in the halls and twice someone pounded on the doors of Alice's little apartment. She smelled smoke and huddled in the corner of her room, wondering when the men would come crashing through her door. They never did, in the end, and when a watery sun sent its rays like hesitant soldiers through her window and there were no sounds from the corridors outside her cell, she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD III

No alchemists in Carnassa. There were mutterers and dissidents in the streets now, hand-in-hand with the devotional processions constantly circulating around the skeletal beginnings of the Divided Temple to the Two Who Were One.  No riots yet, but still enough dissent that Azhar Khalid was forced to order arrests and interrogations through a fog of horrified resignation. He did his best to ignore the screams of the men he condemned to the tender mercies of the Divine and Rectifying Inquisition, a group of thirty ordained torturers who never left their suite of filthy apartments adjoining the Palace cells. What was their suffering, though, beside the agonies of the child whose heart the Shah had eaten in the forest?

In his dreams Azhar Khalid saw the blood on the Shah's chin, the righteous fury in his eyes as he tore at the tough muscle of the heart before casting its ragged remains aside. They had ridden back to the Palace together, and somehow Khalid had managed to keep his seat and refrain from vomiting. That he had done later in the privacy of his own chambers. He had heaved until his stomach was empty, until all that came up were strings of bile-tasting mucous, and then not even that. Then he had poured himself a glass of transmuted liquor, drunk it down in one swallow and shaved himself in front of a mirror with painstaking care. Now, a week later, he sat poring over reports from the insufferable Aziz Jalafi, who in spite of all Azhar's wishes to the contrary, insisted on remaining both alive and attentive to his highly irritating duties as Captain-Informer of the Tranquil Guard.

How the slack-faced ape collected any information at all, much less while hampered by the malevolent and, seemingly, ever-shifting halls of the Floating Palace, was a mystery to Khalid. Mysteries were good. They distracted him from the horror of his Shah's twisted rule, and from his dreams which sometimes spilled into waking. His, though, was not the only troubled mind in the Palace. The Princess's slave, a lovely creature of eighteen or nineteen years, had nearly vomited on his shoes just a few days ago when he had come upon her, pale and sweating, in the hall outside Scheza's apartments. What was the Shah's daughter doing in her sealed and silent rooms?

Khalid pushed Jalafi's mind-numbing reports away and stood up from his desk. He put a hand to his throbbing head. A drink would be good. Yes, just one drink to take the razor edge from the day. He went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself three fingers of aged Maturi brandy. It tasted like honey and forgetfulness. He set down the empty glass on his desk, and then he realized that he was standing alone in the privy chamber adjacent to his bedroom, which was entirely impossible. But no, his desk stood on the polished tiles of the floor and through the glazed window he could see the half-built spires of the Divided Temple rearing over Carnassa's decaying sprawl. He looked down at his glass, wondering if Jalafi had poisoned him, or if he had gone mad.

“My office is not in the privy,” he said out loud.

“No,” said the Shah, who was sitting cross-legged on a bench by the door. He held a duduk in his hands, graceful fingers poised over its holes. “It isn't.” He raised the flute to his lips and began to play. The sound was low and haunting. It echoed from the walls like fading whispers.

Khalid managed, barely, not to scream. A drop of clear well water fell from the pump by the copper bath. It steamed on the frigid tiles. “Divinity,” he said, and in that moment he meant the honorific with every bone of his body. His hands shook like an old man's.

Ahmed Levi took his lips from the duduk's mouthpiece. His golden eyes seemed to glow. “Captain Khalid,” he said, raising a long, slender hand. Two ball bearings rested between his spread fingers. “I have a mission for you.”

Khalid wondered, in a moment of mad panic, if he would kill a child to save himself. “Of course, Divinity. Whatever you command.”

The ball bearings flashed as the Shah danced them across his knuckles like a peddler dancing coins. Golden eyes followed the little spheres of iron. “I must leave the city for three days and three nights,” he said. Another drop of water fell from the pump to strike the puddle that lay beneath its spigot. “When I return the temples of the Divided God will be complete. I have foreseen it.”

Khalid glanced involuntarily at the jagged, half-built towers beyond the windows. They were colossal, each half again as large as the Maintainer's Temple Levi's men had burned when the city had fallen. How could they be finished in the span of three days? Khalid licked his lips and put a hand on his desk to steady himself. His glass of alchemical liquor, glowing with an inviting amber light, lay an inch from his thumb. Oh, if he could just have one drink...

“There will be unrest in my absence,” said the Shah of Five Thousand Years. “There are those in this city who seek to unseat me. I need to know that Carnassa will be in capable hands, Captain. Can I rely upon you to do what must be done when the madness begins?”

Khalid swallowed. A drink, a drink, a beautiful, wonderful drink and then a whore like the one he had promised Raed a million years ago when they had chased Scheza Levi through the market. “I am your hand, Divinity.”

Levi's eyes rose from the flashing ball bearings and met Khalid's. “I like that, Lord Captain,” he said. “You have a poet's soul. From now on you shall be the Hand of the Shah.”

“You are too...too generous, Divinity.” Khalid's mouth was dry as he sank down onto one knee, more to avoid collapsing than to reverence his Shah. “I will do all I can to honor the office you have raised me to.”

Levi nodded like a father humoring a precocious child. In an instant, though, his good humor was gone and his eyes were hard. He slipped his duduk into his robes and stood, the motion sudden and fluid. “There is one last thing, Khalid,” he said.

“Divinity?”

The Shah's bare feet disturbed the water puddling on the floor as he paced to the window. He paused, staring out at his city. “After I depart the city,” he said slowly, “take forty men to my daughter's rooms. Burn anything you find. Papers, furniture, bedclothes. When you've finished, kill her. Do it privately and let no word escape the Palace. If a slave, a servant, anyone not inducted into the Tranquil Guard sees you, silence them.” He turned back to Khalid, his face expressionless. “When you're sure she's dead, burn the body.”

The Shah's hand flicked up before Khalid could so much as open his mouth. A ball bearing struck him square in the chest and suddenly he stood in his office, his uniform covered in thick white dust. Before him stood the square, bland-faced Lieutenant Aziz Jalafi, whose heartless expression showed not one whit of surprise. The man held out a thick sheaf of papers. “The afternoon's reports, my Lord Hand,” he said without delay.

The ball bearing struck the floor and rolled away as, laughing madly, Khalid fell back into his chair, snatched up his glass and drank down the rest of his liquor in one huge, choking gulp. Alcohol ran down his chin and stained his grey sherwani. Like blood.

The next morning, when word had filtered down into the city that the Shah had vanished in the night, there were riots. Men and women spilled into the streets, abandoning factory work and shunning the carts that brought the day-laborers and slaves out to the cornfields. Some cried out that the Shah had abandoned them. Others invoked the Maintainer's name, praying for relief from their demonic conqueror. Where are the alchemists, roared the crowds. Where is our Shah? Khalid, commanding eight divisions of the city's constabulary along with a thousand of his own Tranquil Guardsmen, conducted arrests and riot control with the greasy throb of a hangover pounding at his temples and a cold knot of fear sunk deep into the pit of his stomach. The third mob, a knot of workers three thousand strong and intent on marching to the great bellfounders' forge in the shadow of the half-built temples, was the worst. The workmen fought viciously against the constables, shaven-headed men in chainmail and boiled leather with the names of the Divided God tattooed in calligraphy onto the backs of their heads, but the workers were armed with knives, with bricks and broom handles and the constables had swords and iron-banded shields. There was blood. It frothed in the gutters like the runoff after a rain storm. Men screamed and died. Galluses ran wild in the chaos, vaulting over the fallen and the struggling to vanish into the twisted alleyways of Carnassa. From the rooftops, crows and buzzards watched the slaughter with hungry eyes.

Afterward, the grey-uniformed men of the Tranquil Guard went in amongst the groaning survivors to black-bag and manacle whoever seemed most vocal. Seated in a silk-curtained howdah on the back of a complacent bull hadrosaur and sweating through his dark sherwani and riot mail, Khalid watched his men at work. He barely knew them. Jalafi and a handful of other officers were his only liaisons within the Guard. He couldn't have described its structure had he been held at swordpoint. That didn't disturb him half as much, though, as the knowledge that when the chaos subsided he would be forced to execute Ahmad Levi's daughter. Even the memory of the girl disturbed him. Her sneering look, her eyes gilt like her father's.

Khalid gripped the hilt of his scimitar where it hung at his belt. Sweat dripped from the tip of his nose onto the crotch of his pressed trousers. His hadrosaur honked mournfully. At his side, mounted on a swaybacked Gallus, was Raed. Khalid had appointed the old fool his envoy to the constabulary and an honorary member of the Tranquil Guard. It felt good to have a familiar face close at hand. “Clearing right up,” growled the aging constable. “They didn't have much fight in 'em.”

Smoke drifted over the city in a brownish haze. The peasants were firing warehouses and granaries in the slums. Khalid sniffed at the air, squinting into the sunlight. “Raed,” he said, “find Lieutenant Jalafi. Tell him to bring forty of his best men back to the Palace at once. I'll meet him on the Concourse.” Without waiting for an answer he took hold of the hadrosaur's reins and snapped them against the saurian's massive flanks. His escort, a quartet of mounted Tranquil Guardsmen in the tall, pointed grey hoods they wore in public fell into formation around him. Lowing, the beast turned in a ponderous circle and set off, flanked by riders, toward the distant immensity of the Floating Palace, which rose from the chalk cliffs overlooking the city like a spear aimed at the beating hearts of any gods that waited there.   

Friday, August 19, 2011

THE HIEROPHANT'S SCRIVENER III

The men and women assembled in the antechamber of the Hierophant's study paid Jafar little mind. They were a mixed lot, sellswords, cutthroats, bushwhackers and journeyman alchemists. They played kurut by lamplight or diced on the mosaic floor. One greasy-haired freedwoman had had the audacity to light her pipe, but Jafar had threatened to call the guards and the woman had subsided, muttering nastily. In the corner opposite Jafar's sat Astana Marid, the Coven's enormous Senior Philosopher. A pair of dead servants flanked the blunt-featured woman, their slack faces staring at nothing with golden eyes stamped with the Hierophant's profile. Jafar watched them all over his tablet, lips pressed into a thin line as he struggled to ignore the polished ashwood cane leaning against his high-backed wicker chair. It lurked there like a venomous serpent, taunting him.

“You cannot run from your death, old man,” it seemed to say. “It comes in the twisting of your spine, in the few fitful drops of piss you squeeze out in the middle of the night, in your rotting teeth and thinning hair. Soon you will die and face the Maintainer's judgment. What will he think, I wonder?”

Jafar fought the urge to kick the cane away from him. He forced himself to go about mixing his inks and positioning his shakers of drying sand. The Hierophant had requested full transcripts of his meetings with every one of the men and women who had responded to his summons. Some few had, to Jafar's horror, refused His Holiness's invitation. One, a physician, had actually fled Leng in the night. The dishonor was too great for Jafar to so much as consider.

The Hierophant entered the room without ceremony, striding through the doors even as his slaves labored to drag them open. He wore a simple saffron-colored cassock and moved with purpose, ignoring the sudden consternation of those he had invited into his presence. A slave jogged ahead of him, carrying a bench of polished oak which he set down in front of the doors to the Hierophant's office. His Holiness thanked the slave and sat, hands clasped between his knees. He bowed his head, his beard brushing the tops of his thighs, and for a long while he said nothing at all. The assembled crowd watched him, some with wide eyes, others wary as treed cats. At last, when it seemed the silence could stretch no longer, Massud opened his eyes. “The Machi people have been purified,” he said. “We have been tested by fire, by steel, and by sorcery.”

Jafar's pen flicked over the sheet of fine paper, recording the Hierophant's words in perfect longhand. In his mind's eye, though, he saw the pale bodies of the Thulhun heaped in the streets and on the battlefields after First Leng and at Kakarot. He saw flames licking at alabaster skin and Machi horsemen riding on gallusback through the streets, long spears darting out to skewer the fleeing citizenry of the ruined Empire. He recorded his master's words, his hand steady.

“We have been purified, but there are those who would contaminate that purity. There are those who wish a return to the Rule of Thul, to depravity and sin, extravagance and licentiousness. The Bandit Shah opposes us in the west, across the desert. Across the sea the faithless Maturi delve into forbidden sorceries, denying the Maintainer's guiding light. We are beset on all sides by the iniquities of the wicked and the profane.”

Silence reigned. In a room of back-alley cutpurses and luminaries, footpads and narcotics sellers, the Hierophant of Machen preached humility and piety of spirit.

“In the north, in the furthest reaches of the desert where the Mountains of Madness rise into the fathomless sea of the sky, there is a tower. A lighthouse.”

Jafar glanced at the Hierophant, noting the other man's furrowed brow and serious aspect. His pen dashed notes across a new page as with his free hand he spread sand over the drying ink of the previous sheet. Massud stood and clasped his hands behind his back. “If you so choose, you may take my writ and go north in search of this tower. Kill all who occupy it. Set it to the torch, and when the flames have cooled pull it down, brick by cursed brick, and smash those bricks with hammers until the wind has taken the dust. There will be danger, and many travails, but to the survivors will go power, riches and eternal esteem in the Maintainer's eyes.” He gestured and his slave removed his bench, toting it back out of the chamber without a word. Massud put his hand on the knob of his office door. “Those who agree to do this thing, give your signatures to my scrivener.”

He went into his study and closed the door. The dozens packed into the antechamber turned to Jafar. One by one they either left the room without a word or came to put their signatures to a blank sheet the scrivener held out for them. Astana Marid signed, as did the greasy-haired woman, whose name was Sharun and who Jafar saw carried a sword beneath her coat in defiance of Hierophantic Law, and better than twenty others. When they had gone Jafar sprinkled sand over their signatures, crude scrawls and languid calligraphy both, and, taking up his cane with only a momentary flicker of revulsion, went into the Hierophant's office. Massud took the sheet and nodded, his face betraying nothing.

“Sit,” he said to Jafar.

Jafar sat, his hip protesting even after the short walk from the antechamber to his accustomed seat opposite the Hierophant's desk. The cane was making him weaker, he suspected. Weaker with every step until someday he would collapse into dust, leaving no trace that he had ever been.  He licked his dry lips.  “What is the tower, Holiness?”  The question left him before he could check his tongue. Perhaps it was his age, or the lateness of the hour, or his weariness after hours of Jamshid's needling reminders to use his cane, to exercise in the morning, to eat figs with every meal. No matter the cause, though, the words had flown. It was the first time he could remember questioning his master unsolicited.

Massud turned from his window and fixed Jafar with an iron look. “You'll know soon enough, old friend,” he said. “You are to ride North as my eyes and ears, to record the expedition.”

“Holiness,” said Jafar, his mouth dry, “I am no warrior. My age-”

“I ask much of you, I know,” said Massud, “but I can trust no other. Will you do this for me, my friend? I cannot in good conscience do it myself with the Bandit Shah's depredations to consider.”

The black loathing in Massud's voice at the mention of Ahmad Levi sent cold fingers racing up Jafar's spine. He swallowed, absurdly conscious of his aching hip and of the sweat soaking the collar of his sherwani. “Of course, Holiness,” he said. “Of course. I live to obey.”

The next day Jamshid plied him with medicaments and herbs, with teas and tinctures to relieve the difficulties of the road. The physician warned against the diseases carried by the mosquitoes of the northern marshes and the anger in his eyes was plain. He knew as well as Jafar that the road was no place for the Hierophant's Scrivener. Naree was worse. She wept, sobbing even when Jafar gathered her into an embrace and promised her a speedy return, lying through his teeth about the rigors of the journey to come. He held her close, stroking her fine, dark hair. So like her mother.

“I'm not a child, baba,” she whispered, though she had not called him baba since her sixth birthday. “I know there will be danger.”

“Not so much danger, Naree,” said Jafar. He regretted so much of his life, not least his harshness with her in the past months. Somehow, though, he could not unstick his tongue to tell her. “Not so much as all that.” They sat together through the night, and when she fell asleep with her head on his shoulder he whispered a prayer to the Maintainer that she would outlive even Machen itself.

In the morning, Jafar met the brigands, physicians, cutthroats and scholars of the Hierophant's expedition on the outskirts of the city at the Gate of Dust. The scrivener wore a simple black sherwani, high-collared and with loose sleeves for the storage of his papers. His house slave, Nussut, led a mule laden with bags and water skins and a pair of galluses meant to bear them north. The others were arrayed in the shadow of Leng's towering yellow walls with their own motley retinues in attendance. Astana sat in a howdah atop the back of a dead hadrosaur, its leathery skin peeling in the heat, the hematological batteries that gave it motive force visible between its barrel-hoop ribs. A pair of long-haired sellswords had brought a string of camels from the eastern wastes beyond the mountains and the brutish Sharun was mounted on an ankylosaur barded all in black. Slaves and dead servants were scattered throughout the group.

“Scholar,” said Sharun. “At last, you appear. We had thought to pitch our tents and wait.”

“I am prepared,” said Jafar, glaring icily at the younger woman. With Nussut's aid and a wooden stepping block he mounted his gallus, an old swaybacked female well past her brooding years. His hip began to ache even as he slipped his feet into the stirrups and stowed his cane in the saddle sheath meant to receive a warrior's sword. His back would be afire before the day's ride was out, be he would give Sharun no satisfaction. He set his teeth against the building discomfort at the base of his spine. “Let us be on our way.”

They left Leng behind and set off in a long, straggling procession along the Road of Dust. Tears of pain stung the corners of Jafar's eyes, but he did not shed them.

I will show them nothing of my suffering.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

THE CROW WITCH III

The letter offering apprenticeship had not come from Omar. Safa stared at the scrap of parchment, trying to puzzle out why Sharif Anasazi would want anything to do with her. Her performance in her surgical studies had been adequate, but never exceptional, and besides that they had hardly spoken. Yet here was his invitation in his own long, plain hand. Safa dropped heavily into a chair at the small rough-cut table in the kitchen and set the letter down beside her half-eaten breakfast of flatbread, dates and goat cheese spiced with radish shavings.

I, Sharif Anasazi, Master Surgeon, choose as my newest acolyte the alchemist Safa Khan, daughter of the state. Should she wish it, her training will commence on the Day of Visions just after sunrise in the Surgery of the Tabernacle of Learned Wisdom.
In my own hand,
Anasazi.

The letter had arrived by pigeon with the dawn, summoning her to an apprenticeship in two days' time. Safa had not told Bassam, still sleeping after a long day at his workshop in the Plaza of Dust. Between his trade as an artificer and his work on the panoculum in the basement of their apartment he had little time for anything but sleep and rushed meals. Safa scratched at her breast beneath her robe, running her fingernails along the line of the scar where her second heart had been implanted by Sharif's own hand. It was true that she and Omar had never been close compared to other senior alchemists and their favored students, but she had always assumed he would take her on out of appreciation. She was the most skilled transmuter to have attended the Tabernacle in twenty years. Everyone said it. Why, then, had the note come from Sharif?

Wings beat around the edges of Safa's thoughts. She saw the city from above, watched coldly its man-clogged streets and soaring edifices of dead stone. Lights twinkled below her like a million eyes. To the east and the south lay the ocean, murderous and impassable save to the albatross. To the west lay the open road, to the north the empty steppe the tribes had abandoned after their conquest. Now only dusty madmen and penniless dervishes wandered there. Sometimes they died in the heat and Safa would swoop down upon them to claim their softening flesh before the jackals came.

Safa blinked and saw the plain wooden walls of her apartment, washed in candlelight. She inhaled deeply and clasped her shaking hands in her lap. Every day it grew harder and harder to fend the visions off. Once it had come upon her in the bath and she would have drowned if Bassam had not hauled her from the copper tub and pounded her back until she'd spat up nearly a liter of water and bile. Afterward she had screeched at him like a crow, struggling to remember words as he held her tight against his chest. He had found reasons to delay the testing of his artifice, the Opticus he had built for her from plans forbidden after the fall of the Thulhun Empire. He was concerned. Afraid. Soon, if he didn't come around, she would have to force his hand. She needed that machine.

A knock at the street door interrupted Safa's thoughts. She glanced up at the narrow wooden door and reflexively turned her outward eyes upon the steps. Birds roosting in the eaves of nearby buildings or preening themselves on washlines and flower boxes gave her a window through which to observe the robed and bald-headed man standing outside her door in the fading light. He was tall and rangy, his robe well-worn by travel. As Safa watched he raised a scarred fist and knocked again, scowling. She withdrew from the birds on the street, cold apprehension gnawing at her stomach. The man was no messenger from the Tabernacle. Standing, Safa retied her stained and unwashed robe, checked her sleeves to make sure her reagents were in place and moved to answer the door. If the man was a problem, she would deal with him herself. Her sweat-damp fingers closed on the door's handle. She opened it.

“Good evening,” she said, her mouth dry.

“Khanum,” said the man, inclining his head. He was taller than he'd looked through the eyes of the birds, his face gaunt and raw-boned, his scalp peeling, his eyes colorless behind wire-framed spectacles. In his long black robes he looked something like a crow himself. “Am I correct in stating that you hold the rank of alchemist?”

“You are, agha,” said Safa. “If you're looking for a transmuter, you'd be better off at the markets in the Plaza of Dust. I don't work freelance.”

The man nodded as though he had expected her response. “You were born in Carnassa, unless I miss my guess.”

“How did you-”

“To Daud Khan's lowborn mistress, Alaya.

Safa stepped back, a cold lump forming in her throat as the man slipped through the doorway. His shadow fell across her, black-winged and immense. “He kept you in his home for two years and seven days, raised you as his own until the city's noblemen began to whisper that he had lost his edge.”

There had been a house on the bluffs beneath the Floating Palace, a palatial villa with a bright, clear pool for swimming and the smell of ripe oranges from the orchard thick in the air. Slaves cleaning marble floors, women laughing in the baths. Safa put a hand to her mouth.

“He gave you a toy, a little monster made of rags”

No. No. It was impossible. Nobody knew about Baba, hidden safely beneath the floorboards under the mattress. Nobody knew.

“He threw you out into the streets.”

Cold. Hungry. Running fleet-footed from the rapers and the thieves, from the slavers at the market where she went to steal rotten fruit and old bread. Hiding in the alleyways with the filth and the dogs, fighting with other children for the merest scrap of food.

The man seated himself at the kitchen table and set down at his feet a little iron stove no bigger than a teakettle. His colorless eyes continued to pry into Safa's. She hugged herself, reagents forgotten. Birds shrieked at the corners of her mind while their wings battered her thoughts to pieces. “Who are you?” she whispered.

“I am Azurean,” he said.

Safa felt faint. She stumbled to a chair by the window and fell into it, hearts thumping. “Azurean,” she said. “You're dead. Drowned and dead.”

The last Emperor of Thul smiled a gaunt, humorless smile. “The dead have come up from the sea,” he said. “I am Azurean, Safa.”

“Why are you here?”

“To teach you. Cthun will have need of you before summer's end.”

“He is too late, khanum,” said a voice from the stove. “Man's world will burn.”

Safa stared at the little iron box, feeling faint. Outside, trumpets and horns announced the passing of a column of soldiers. They marched past beneath standards flying the Hierophant's blazing sun, boots raising clouds of dust from the parched and sweltering street. Safa watched them go by, trying desperately to think of nothing. Officers on galluses led each company, and after them came white-robed Hierophantic Alchemists seated in howdahs atop the backs of plodding hadrosaurs. The Confederate Anthem, drummed out by a hundred soldiers with cymbals, horns and muleskin drums matched the rhythm of their march. At the head of the column a Marshal with a close-trimmed greying beard and weary eyes rode a roan gelding. Golden spurs gleamed on the heels of his sabatons.

She licked her dry lips. “Why...why me?”

“The Golden Way has opened. The Moth-King comes.”

“The Moth-King?”

Azurean leaned toward her. His spectacles slid down his long, thin nose. “He is coming, a hunger from the heart of our drowning world. When the stars align he will be born into Cthun.”

“What can I do?”

“Find him,” said Azurean. “Find his vessel before his rebirth. I have wandered far and wide in search of him, but I have only my failing eyes.”

“You know what I did.” The crow's eye, wet in the palm of her hand as the black bird writhed in its death throes in the dirt.

“I will be your master,” he said, and his voice was frosted steel. “Take the surgeon's tutelage. Learn what you can from him and the rest of that tower of eunuchs and mystics, but know that your true loyalty is to me. Through me you will know power you cannot imagine. Through me you will regain all that your father stole from you, and more.”

The iron stove made a strange sound, almost like a child's cry.

“Don't tell Bassam,” said Azurean, and then he and the stove were gone. A bead of malachite appeared in midair and fell to the ground. It rolled away across the floor, throwing mad shadows over the walls as it went. Safa stood unsteadily, keeping a hand on the table for support. Azurean's seat was empty. The door was closed. Had he dared to transmute distance? Had he dared? She rounded the table on shaking legs and touched a finger to the back of his chair.

For an instant she stood in a different room, a vaulted chamber walled in books with a fire burning merrily in a marble grate. Azurean stood beside it, pouring something dark from a long-necked bottle. He spoke to the fire and the fire answered. And then he was gone and Safa was alone in her kitchen, tears drying on her cheeks. How had he known?

How had he known?