Friday, May 20, 2011


Jafar Mirzam had been High Scrivener to the Hierophant of Machen since before the end of the Holy Revolution. Twenty two years he had recorded the holy man's messages, scheduled his appointments and recorded his prophecies and pronouncements. Often of late his hands ached, worst of all when it rained and the cold crept into the stones of His Holiness's study, but Jafar did not complain. To complain would be to set his pride above the needs of the People's Holy Confederacy. Instead, Jafar continued to take the Hierophant's dictation as His Holiness paced the long, narrow confines of his private sanctum. Massud Madras, Hierophant of Machen, was still powerful in his fiftieth year. His green eyes still pierced to the quick and his beard was still long, black and luxurious, threaded only lightly with grey. Bareheaded and dressed in a plain saffron-colored cassock he looked like nothing so much as a heathen sun god come down from the heavens to cast judgment upon the sinful.

“To the self-styled Son of Heaven, that profane and callow pig, I the rightful mouthpiece of the All-Knowing Maintainer address this missive.”

Jafar wrote quickly, his quill dashing across the fine white paper spread across the writing board he kept balanced on his knees. Not a single drop of ink fell out of place. The Hierophant continued to pace, hands clasped behind his back, lips pursed in a brooding expression of distaste. His eyes flashed jade fire whenever he looked out the window to the west, toward rebel Carnassa.

“Know, O rebellious youth, that if you do not turn from your path of sin and depravity you will be subject to the justice of the Maintainer in both his earthly and divine demesnes. As your body is rent and racked, so too will your soul be cast down into the freezing hollow of the deepest Hell where Lcharacuel, our Holy Lord's faithless son, lies imprisoned, waiting to receive the damned into his kingdom. Know that if you stand against the armies of the People's Holy Confederacy, you will be struck down, your kingdoms razed, your followers butchered and their land salted. To a man you will perish in the cleansing fire of judgment.”
The Hierophant paused in his pacing and turned to Jafar. “Is it any good, do you think?”

“Very stirring, Holiness,” said Jafar, not looking up.

The Hierophant seemed satisfied. He resumed his circuit of the room, eyes sweeping its austere confines. Holy texts, most revealed by Massud himself and recorded in Jafar's neat hand, lined a single oaken bookshelf. A modest desk occupied the space before the room's only luxury, a colossal picture window depicting the Maintainer's forging of their world of Cthun. The planet spun half-formed, a great sphere of water and the Three Continents, joined by their bridges, held in the compass of two strange, six-fingered hands made all of light. Light fell through the window in a dozen colors, washing the spotless tiles and the plain rugs that covered them.

“I want to scare the bastard,” said the Hierophant, pausing again with one hand on his desk, “but damn it, Jafar, what if he purges his cities? What if he burns our churches? Organizes riots? Do I court him or sermonize him?” He circled his desk and sat, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Start again, would you?”

“Yes, Holiness,” said Jafar. Carefully, he dusted the half-written letter with sand and then rolled it up and placed it in one of the little wooden scroll cases he kept with him at all times before laying a fresh sheet of paper across his writing board. He dipped his quill in ink, tapped its point against the bowl, shook out his sleeve and waited. His hands throbbed.

The Hierophant shook his head, then stood. “No, it's no damned use. We'll try again tomorrow. Maintainer's eyes! Give me the open plain, a good hawk and a swift mount and I swear I'll pass this accursed mantle to some slick-haired mulla.” He turned his back on Jafar and stared out through the rain-streaked sunlight at Leng's labyrinthine streets. “You may go. I've no further need of you tonight.”

“As his Holiness wishes,” said Jafar. With practiced swiftness he covered his ink pot, wiped his quill, stowed his instruments in their leather roll and left the Hierophant's office. His bad hip twinged with every step as he descended the spiral stairs of the Basilica's northeastern dome. The silent Confederate Alchemists at the base of the stair, two albinos clad in flowing red, let Jafar pass with nothing more than muttered “aghas.” He was a familiar sight, one of a few the Hierophant had kept close throughout the years. Jafar was glad of their tolerance. He was in no mood for questions and truth circles. His bath, his supper and his bed were his only wishes. Alone, he hobbled to his cramped apartments in the Basilica's northern wing, nodding in passing to the swarms of muftis, clerics, scholars and soldiers that thronged the Basilica's thousand chambers. There was no bath, of course, when he reached his humble quarters. He always forgot to tell the servants to draw it, and anyways the tub was cracked and held water poorly. Supper was cold flatbread and hummus garnished with peppers and white cheese. He lost his appetite after only a few bites, as he always did. Sighing, Jafar pushed away his bowl and rose from his table. He undressed himself with some difficulty and lay down naked on his hard, narrow bed.

It had been different before, out on the plains with the Believer Tribes, before the revolution and the move to the great cities. They had ridden beneath the Maintainer's Eye, had praised Him with faces prostrate in the sand and warred against His enemies in righteous battle. Those days had been sere, swift and harsh. Now life was fat and full of water. Slow. Bloated. Jafar looked up at the ceiling of his room, charting the familiar cracks and imperfections in the plaster. Sleep was a long time in coming. When it did come, he dreamed of a little moon that he held in the palm of his hand until a thousand, thousand moths came up from the earth and ate it away to nothing before his eyes as their wings raised great clouds of dust.

His daughter Naree's exasperated voice woke him. “Father, you've hardly eaten anything in a fortnight. What mother would think if she could see you here, living like a bachelor! Maintainer's eyes! She'd have a fit.”

Jafar sat up groggily, blinking sleep from his eyes. Naree glared at him from the doorway, a shorter, darker-haired reflection of his long-dead Jani. “I'm to attend His Holiness in an hour,” he growled, swinging one leg over the edge of his bed. His limbs were stiff and weary, but through his narrow window he could see the first hint of the sun's light creeping up over the city.

Naree moved into the room and set down a tray laden with porridge, apricots, dates, oranges, lemon-roasted ovirus chicks and a cup of goat's milk. Jafar's stomach turned over just looking at it. “Too rich,” he grunted, limping to his bureau. He threw open its doors and pulled out a clean grey sherwani and a white underrobe. Fumbling with numb fingers he dressed himself while his daughter scowled at him. Willful, like her mother. He could feel his temper fraying already.

“Jamshid agha says you'll not use your cane.”

Jafar buttoned his sherwani, fingers warming to the task. “I don't need the accursed thing.”

“He says your hip is worsening, father. Perhaps you could-”

“A man's word is law beneath the roof of a virtuous House,” said Jafar as he straightened the collar of his underrobe. “I won't have my daughter telling me what to do. It isn't seemly, Naree.”

“But Jamshid is your physician, father,” protested Naree, close to tears. “You must at least listen to him! Let him explain-”

“Enough!” snapped Jafar, rounding on the girl. A particularly violent twinge in his side nearly buckled his leg, but he seized hold of the bureau and kept his feet with some measure of decorum. Maintainer, but the pain was bad! Anger burned bright in his chest as he stared at his daughter, weeping openly now. “I am not some cripple to be caged and fed on sweetmeats,” Jafar growled as he lurched away from the bureau and took up his writing board and instruments. He limped past his daughter, fighting the urge to groan at the pain that lanced up and down his bade side. “Find some way to employ yourself besides torturing me. Maintainer's Eyes, would that I had been given a son!”

He slammed the door on the girl's anguished face and forced himself down the hall, toward the steps and his morning appointment with the Hierophant. His anger still flamed hot within him as he began the long, arduous task of climbing the spiral stair. His leg burned as though it had been dipped in boiling lead and his hip felt as though it were fresh broken, the injury twenty minutes past instead of twenty years. At the door to the Hierophant's office he paused to compose himself. A thin tendril of guilt crept into his resolute displeasure. Had he been too harsh? Jani had always spoiled the girl, their only child, and she was willful. Jafar shook his head, ran a hand through his grey hair and limped into the Hierophant's study. He would mend things with his daughter later, make it up to her somehow.

The Hierophant was standing exactly where he had been when Jafar had left him the night before. He did not turn as Jafar took his customary seat and prepared a fresh sheet of paper. The quill's nib clinked against the glass of the inkwell. It was raining outside the picture window.

“O Shah,” began the Hierophant, “great has been the spilling of blood accomplished by the swords of your ardent followers. Great has been the grief of the Somnium in the wake of so much death. Our holy office wishes only to see an end to misery and the toil of war, but We will not shrink from the punishment merited by your crimes. Repent and drink from the glass of mercy. Persist and taste the poison of your hubris.”

Jafar's quill flew in neat, swift arcs. The Hierophant paused, lost in thought, and then turned from the window. His eyes were sunken, his long black hair uncombed. “There was a messenger in the night from the watchtower in the Pass of Unth,” he said. “The Shah of Five Thousand Years has burned the Great Tabernacle of Truth and Revelation in Shibola, with all its clerics and worshipers inside it. It's said their screams could be heard on the wind for miles.”

He turned back to the window, leaving Jafar to stare dumbly at his back. “It's no good,” he said. “Throw that away. We'll start again.”

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