The gutters of Carnassa were foul with blood. Captain Azhar Khalid strode at the head of his Decad through the masses of the poor and dispossessed. His robe and mail were grimy, every inch of his regalia spattered with Divided-God-knew-what. His ornithus had foundered and broken a leg during the last night's riots and he'd had to put the poor beast, one of the city guard's last, out of its misery. Now his feet were sore, his clothes and armor filthy and his temper frayed dangerously short. Only one thing stood between him and a long, well-deserved fucking at the nearest whorehouse: The Son of Heaven's heir was missing. No man in the guard could so much as sit to catch his breath, the Shah of Five Thousand Years had declared, until his daughter was found and brought before him. And so Azhar Khalid led his ten ragged soldiers through the press of silent, dull-eyed refugees in a fruitless search for a sixteen-year-old girl in a city of millions.
Azhar pushed on through the stench and the human refuse, sword drawn and cloak thrown back over one shoulder. If he did find the girl, he'd have to keep from beating her all the way to the gates of the Floating Palace with the flat of the blade. Six nights of riots and now she'd kept him out of bed four hours past the guard's shift rotation. Azhar gritted his teeth and shouldered past a toothless old man who clutched at the sleeve of his uniform. “Funny,” said Amar Kateb, Azhar's portly second in command. “The usual vibrant enthusiasm for our presence is lacking.”
“Keep at it,” said Azhar through his teeth. “You've seen what the Divine and Rectifying Inquisition doles out for seditious talk. Do you want your head over the Gate of Glory?”
“Better there than on my shoulders if I'm to be wading through muck for the rest of my days,” said Kateb with a ponderous shrug. They paused together as a lumbering ceratopsian made its way across the muddy road, dull eyes sweeping the crowds. Its flanks heaved like bellows as its rider, a huge man seated in a howdah atop its back, urged it forward, pressing his billhook to its frill whenever it sought to turn aside from its path. The beast lowed and swung its massive head from side to side. Azhar watched, nonplussed, as it shat in the street and then plodded onward, unconcerned.
Beautiful, beautiful Carnassa. He'd kill himself if he had to stay another month. Azhar wiped futilely at his mud-spattered face, sheathed his sword and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Right,” he said, “we're getting nowhere. Take Malik, Shadi and Nasir down into the Gardens. Ask around, see if you can find out anything of use. I'll carry on up here.”
Kateb scowled at Azhar. The Gardens were the lowest and foulest of Carnassa's many slums, a warren of tumbledown shanties and lean-tos half drowned in runoff and rife with cutthroats, footpads and lotus eaters.
“That's an order,” said Azhar.
“Understood, captain,” growled Kateb. He signaled his fellow condemned and together the four men set off at a trot in the direction of the Gardens, following the Penitent Road on its downward, southerly track. Azhar stood and watched them go. It would be a pity if Kateb were killed down there in the muck. A true tragedy for the Floating Empire of Eternal Peace.
Azhar turned to Raed, the Decad's oldest member and honorary idiot in chief. The grizzled old codger, veteran of Gods-only-fucking-cared many wars, was pointing across the street at a ramshackle stall shaded by a half-rotten awning where a young girl, filthy and dressed in rags, was arguing with a massive vendor over the price of skewered rats. Raed's face was screwed up in a look of intense concentration. “Isn't that Her Most Serene Highness?”
Azhar swallowed. There was no mistaking it. The curve of the jaw, the stray lock of black hair escaping her peasant cowl. The eyes, golden and clever as they scanned the merchant's wares. “Yes,” he heard himself say as though from a long way off. “Yes, Raed. It is indeed Her Most Serene Highness.”
“Ah,” said Raed, “I thought so.”
The girl chose that singularly inopportune moment to notice that she, in turn, had been noticed. Her eyes found Azhar's. They widened, and then she bolted into the crowd like a frightened scavenger saurian. “AFTER HER!” roared Azhar, ripping his sword from its sheath. “IN THE NAME OF THE FUCKING SON OF HEAVEN, MAKE WAY!”
Never in his career had he run half so fast as he did in pursuit of his sovereign's errant child. The girl was fleet-footed, slim and swift, but Azhar's sandaled feet flew over the muck-buried cobbles as though he chased not a dictator's whelp but the sum of all his dreams. And, given that the sum of Azhar's dreams involved abandoning his shift in favor of a prolonged stay in a whorehouse, that was more or less the case. His lungs burned as he sprinted after the eel-quick girl. His legs throbbed. He forced himself onward, vaulting the destitute lying in the gutter, skidding around fruit carts and startled saurians towing stalls to new locations. He lunged for the back of the girl's flapping cloak. He missed, lunged again, sprang over a mound of rotten planking and then threw himself at her in a reckless leap and crashed to the ground with her arm clutched in his hand. Instantly her foot slammed into the side of his jaw. The world spun, but he hung on.
“Let me go, you cretin!” she shrieked.
Azhar clawed his way to his feet, befouled and disheveled, with the girl kicking and struggling in his grip. A moment later his men caught him up, puffing and red-faced. They looked as dumbfounded as Azhar felt. His jaw hurt. He grinned through the pain like a madman. “Raed,” he said to the elderly guardsman, “I'm going to buy you a whore with a cunt that smells like honey and fucks like lightning.”
The girl let out a cry of frustration while the huddled masses looked on, silent and unapproachable in their decrepitude.
An hour later Azhar found himself in the Grand Imperial Concourse of the Floating Palace, waiting for an audience with the Shah of Five Thousand Years. Ahmad Levi, the Son of Heaven. Azhar sat dumbstruck, ears ringing, on a white marble bench situated between gurgling fountains carved into the shapes of copulating water nymphs, limbs and bodies intertwined and flowing into one another. The work was raw, elemental, and at another time the guardsman might have appreciated it. Instead, he felt only fear. Within minutes of his recapture of Her Most Serene Highness, Azhar had been surrounded by a cadre of the drab-uniformed Tranquil Order, secret police of the Hierarchy, and marched along with his charge through the city to the precincts of the Floating Palace with its caryatid columns, burnished domes and mosaic floors. Alchemists, artists and musicians, all the entourage of the Son of Heaven, had watched him pass through the halls, a disheveled and unkempt man in foul leathers and mail. Azhar had given them his best parade-ground smile, hoping he didn't have shit on his teeth. And then the Guard had taken the girl, vanished into the cloisters and left him sitting alone.
The sky, open beyond the columned arcade of the Concourse, yawned over the uneven horizon of the city's jutting towers and cesspit slums, brazen domes and slender minarets. Smoke rose from the stack-toothed foundries near the Gate of Tears and cranes rose and fell like the necks of sauropods in distant profusion about the quarries at the city's heart. Azhar was painfully aware of how out-of-place he looked in the sun-drenched Concourse with its hanging baskets of weeping violets and its bronze-cast alchemical lamps. Water frothed and gurgled in the fountains. He twiddled his thumbs, waiting. Perhaps he'd be flayed for laying hands on the girl. Perhaps he'd be drawn and quartered, or given to the Tranquil Order to vanish into the water cells beneath the Palace. Sighing, he raked a hand through his greasy black hair.
A deafening concussion knocked Azhar from his seat. He fell on his arse, ears thundering, as marble-white dust rolled between the columns of the arcade in billowing waves. Azhar clawed for his sword, scrambling back until his back hit a carved pillar and he remembered the Tranquil Order had disarmed him. He blinked dust from his eyes, pulling himself up on shaking legs as the clouds of billowing grit began to clear. He glimpsed the vague outline of a tall, slender figure brushing rubble from its robes. A face, half-seen, turned toward him and a brilliant smile knifed through the sudden gloom. “Captain Khalid,” said its owner.
Something small and shiny arced through the air, bounced off of the marble with a click and came to rest against Azhar's right sandal. He bent down slowly and picked it up, eyes still trained on the nebulous figure in the dust. It was a metal ball, no bigger than the end of Azhar's thumb. He straightened, palming the little ball-bearing. Anything was better than no weapon at all. “Who are you?” he asked the figure. A man stepped out of the billowing detritus. He was tall and slender, handsome in a clean-cut fashion with a shaven head and long, neat features. He wore a plain white robe of samite with a double row of gold buckles down its front and on the third finger of his left hand was a simple golden band. Azhar recognized him at once. How could he not, when the man's face was on half the awnings, storefronts and temple daises in the city? He fell to his knees, the ball-bearing slipping from his sweaty palm to strike the floor with a bright click.
“Please, Captain Khalid,” said the Son of Heaven, “there's no need to stand on ceremony.” He took Azhar's hands, his own were smooth and dry, and helped him to his feet. “I'm afraid my new alchemical processes still require some refinement. The iron foundries cannot remove all impurities from my catalysts.” He gestured to the ball-bearing, then turned and strode to the arcades. Azhar followed in a daze. Ahmad Levi looked back at him, golden eyes bright and inquisitive. “You have restored my daughter to me, Captain.”
“I did my duty, Holiness,” Azhar heard himself say.
“And you will be rewarded,” said Ahmad with a smile. He snapped his fingers and another ball-bearing dropped from empty space a few feet from where he stood, followed by another choking explosion of dust. A kneeling man appeared with a groan and then slumped over onto his side. He was shackled hand to foot, his back cruelly twisted by his fetters. Ahmad prodded his cheek with a bare foot. “This,” he said, “is Lord Captain Commander Reza Sinan. Until today he led the Tranquil Order well and ably. Unfortunately, he failed to protect my daughter with the proper diligence.”
The officer groaned, shifting pitiably under Ahmad's foot. “Your Holiness, I-”
Lightning-quick, Ahmad produced a phial of some ruby substance from his sleeve and dropped it into the prostrate officer's mouth. Glass, paper-thin, tinkled as it broke against his teeth. Reza's eyes bulged as his sentence ended in a horrible choking gurgle and red-swirled water sluiced from his mouth in a brackish torrent. His tongue had been transmuted into water.
Azhar watched, nauseous, as Ahmad looked down at the shuddering Reza Sinan.
Without warning the Son of Heaven's eyes flicked back to Azhar's. “Kill him,” he said, “and his place at my side is yours.”
It didn't take Azhar long to think it over.