Yussef sat alone in his war tent, awaiting the reports of his generals. He studied the map laid out before him, a concise scouting of the pass and its tributary branchings through the high peaks. They'd found nothing else serviceable for the moving of an army short of daring the Grand Ocean, though not for lack of trying. Even tunneling had been discussed, but the crust of Machen was thin near the mountains. To dig too deeply was to risk the sea's maw rising up for them all. Soma was the key. Without it they would never gain a foothold in the lowlands of the Confederacy, as his father dreamed. His father. Yussef closed his eyes, reprimanding himself for the thousandth time for his weakness in refusing to accept the necessity of the slaughter at Shibola.
Yussef unsheathed his dagger and drew its curved blade across his palm. A line of brilliant red blossomed amidst old scars. Not a slaughter, he told himself. Holy War. Holy War.
The voice of Moustaffa Horus, his father's chief field marshal and military adviser, broke his self-imposed reverie of guilt. “Serene General,” came Horus's voice. “I beg your permission to enter.”
Yussef cleaned and sheathed his dagger. He wound a kerchief around his bleeding hand. “Enter, friend,” he said.
General Moustaffa Horus pushed aside the tent flap, stepped into its cool confines and prostrated himself at once with his brow pressed firmly to the ground. “Grant this unworthy one leave to stand in your presence, O lord.”
“Please,” said Yussef. He rose and went to the older man to offer him his hand. “My father is the Son of Heaven. I am only a man, Moustaffa.”
The General clasped Yussef's arm in his one remaining hand and got to his feet with a clink of oiled mail. His moustaches framed a mouth scarred by years of gagged slave labor in the quarries of Carnassa, ended when Ahmad Levi had freed the city's slaves from bondage and cast their masters into their chains. Since that day the General had been ferociously loyal to the Floating Empire. Without his daring cavalry charge through the gates of Carnassa, a charge that had cost him most of his left arm, the city would still be in Confederate hands. Together they sat at the war table and for a pleasant interlude discussed such small matters as supply trains, latrine disposition in relation to the pickets and the camp's progress in prospecting for likely sapping sites in the foothills of the peaks. Eventually, though, it came around to the matter that had plagued the army though its summer campaign.
“If we had more alchemists,” said General Horus, looking askance at Yussef. “We might attempt a breach through transmutation.”
Yussef clasped his hands together atop the table. “My holy father has involved our alchemists in his great labor,” he said. “It is not for us to question his designs.”
Horus frowned. “I meant no disrespect, Most Serene.”
“No,” said Yussef. He stood, bracing himself against the table to inspect the map from a different vantage. Was he missing something? It nagged at him, like a half-recalled memory of childhood. “No. Of course not.
"Your loyalty is not in question, General.”
The older man nodded stiffly, appeased.
They were joined in short order by the rest of Yussef's High Command. General Jalal, bluff, bearded and eminently martial, and the callous, hard-eyed General Malak, his face marked with the claw-scars of his duel with the Confederate alchemist Nero Cadiz, the Lion of Carnassa. They came with their own complaints and concerns, all couched in language dripping with respect. Yussef did his best to mediate between them, reaching in his growing irritation for the legendary calm for which his father was known in council. By the meeting's end his head was throbbing, his temper frayed and his hair disheveled. Precious little had been decided. He dismissed his Generals and left the tent. A cheer went up as Yussef's men caught sight of him, and he did his best to return their enthusiasm with a raised hand and a brief grin. Spear butts thumped against the ground all the while as he walked back toward his low white tent in the barracks quarter of the camp.
Mud squelched beneath his boots. Drovers, laborers and soldiers saluted him in passing.
Yussef's tent was bare but for a wood-frame cot and a worn prayer rug. He pulled off his boots by the flap, leaving them for his attendants to clean, and then stripped off his heavy arming jacket and mail shirt. He flexed his cut hand, ignoring the constant throbbing pain. It was less than he deserved for his constant doubting. With a sigh Yussef knelt on his prayer rug and pressed his forehead to its well-worn patterns of lotus flowers and flowing Machi calligraphy, recitations of the many names of the Divided God. He prayed as the sun closed its petals, folding back into the darkness of the horizon and taking with it day's cloying heat. He prayed until his knees ached and his back burned, until his elbows had been rubbed raw by the rug's fibers and his hair was lank with sweat. He prayed for his mother's long-departed soul, and for his sister's wayward one. He prayed for the people of the Empire, and for the people of the Confederacy. When he was finished he rose stiffly and undressed. Wearing only his linen underrobe he sank down onto his cot and closed his burning eyes. His headache kept sleep at bay for better than an hour, but at last it relented and deep waters closed over him.
Something waited for him in the gloomy, lifeless depths. A sun, sea-swaddled and diffuse, its blazing corona so vast it blotted out the inky reaches of the chasm over which Yussef floated, directionless and cold. The sun gave no heat, and even as he watched its light grew dim and red like the sun of cold, dark Aligher on the far side of Cthun. At last even its last feeble emanations faded and Yussef was left alone in the eddying nothingness. He heard the thunder of slow wings, vast and dusty. It frightened him, made him suddenly desperate for the surface and a lungful of sweet, life-giving air. He looked up, saw the distant glimmer of sky and kicked out for its promise of release. His hands clawed at the distance like a beast's. His lungs burned.
His head broke the surface at last to a thunderous crash of trumpets. Light blazed. Voices recited dizzying words. Yussef kicked desperately to keep his head above the water, sucking in air as though he had never drawn breath before in his life. Half-blind he turned first one way and then another, seeking the source of the radiance and the chanting, multi-throated and overlapping itself in sonorous, arrhythmic meter. For an instant he saw, sitting cross-legged on the water, a porcelain man with a sun for a face, and then the dream was gone and he lay gasping in his cot in his tent as rain drummed against the canvas. For a while he allowed himself to lie, eyes still aching from the brilliant light his mind had inflicted upon them. Then, mustering himself, he got up and dressed. It took him half an hour to do up his own laces and straps, but the thought of calling for Ustad, his page, rankled for some reason. Thunder rumbled like a broken drum.
Out in the camp proper the army's banners hung limp in the driving rain. Mud-spattered drovers struggled to calm bellowing ankylosaurs as the armored beasts stamped and swung their bone-clubbed tails in agitation. Lightning scrawled weird calligraphies across the sky, throwing men and tents into sharp relief. In the distance the walls of Soma loomed, guardian statues glaring from its recessed length. Stone hands cupped watchtowers where alchemical beacons burned behind watchmen wrapped in cloaks against the wind and rain. Stone eyes stared blindly at the sky. The rain was warm, the smoke-smelling wind a whispered reminder of the burning south.
Shibola. Lightning seared an afterimage of Soma into Yussef's eyes. It lingered, glowing with electric radiance. He saw the doors of the Tabernacle slam shut, saw his own lips form the order to bar and brace them against the screaming masses trapped within. Hands pressed against the stained-glass windows of the great cathedral. Hymns to the Maintainer screamed at the top of desperate lungs as the soldiers of the Empire lit torches and piled oil-soaked brush around the Tabernacle walls. Yussef blinked rain from his eyes and closed his injured hand. The pain of the half-scabbed cut across his palm was a reminder.
A son must obey his father's commands