Nassar Qasim rode through his city with a full honor guard and state procession to the gates of Soma, his seat and fiefdom and the lynchpin of the entire Confederacy's southern provinces. The people watched in silent ranks from the raised walkways built on either side of the Street of Moons. Some few threw meager handfuls of whiteblossom petals onto the marching procession, but the flowers were lone snowflakes against the iron grey of the sky and most of the watchers were joyless and said nothing. Nassar ignored the stares of his people and instead concentrated on looking magisterial and confident, neither of which he felt with any particular conviction. At least his heavy black robes of office, sewn with the Maintainer's golden sun, concealed the tremors in his hands. His hadrosaur lumbered down the thoroughfare, its rolling gait causing Nassar's howdah to rock gently from side to side. The beast let out a long, mournful honk as they neared the towering iron gates. Great engines concealed within the walls ground into motion and the gates began to rise, dirt and refuse sifting free of the great iron teeth that slotted into the road as they were pulled free of their sockets. Guardsmen in the gilt-painted armor of the soldiery of the People's Holy Confederacy saluted him from their posts in the statuary guard towers that flanked the gates.
The first thing Nassar saw was the smoke rising from distant Shibola. It marred the whole southern horizon with its brownish stain, darkening the land below the mountain pass where Soma sprawled astride the pass between the gnarled and hoary horns of the highest peaks of the Mountains of Madness, stark Rafiq's Folly and ice-capped Winter's Crown. The rumors of the Tabernacle's burning were true, then. Nassar said nothing, though he heard several of his honor guard mutter the Maintainer's name and furtively mark themselves with the sign of obeisance. More immediate than the smoke, and more worrisome to Nassar and his city, was the army of long-haired fanatics camped in the shadow of Soma's walls. Maintainer's Eyes, but there were a lot of them. Their tents stretched across the pass in orderly profusion, ringed with stakes and ditches behind which archers stood in tireless sentinel rows. Downslope, teams of slaves, saurians and laborers toiled along the mountain road, hauling lumber to the camp where the rebel's artificers were constructing their siege engines.
Leaving the city, humble as it was before the rebel horde, felt like crawling out of a suit of armor and into a raging gale. Soma had been Nassar's home for the best part of his thirty-eight years and its squat, statuary walls and the low stone sprawl of its high-piled domiciles were more raiment than habitation after so long. He wished he could have stood atop the gatehouse and bellowed down to the upstarts, but a meeting on neutral ground made him look stronger, more martial. He had to risk it.
Nassar let his hadrosaur lumber its way to just outside of bowshot of the wall before he reined it to a halt. The dun-colored beast swung its long, curved crest and honked again. The sound echoed from the slopes of the mountains. His escort fanned out around him, yellow-robed mullahs with their dark beards and stern eyes, knights mounted on mail-barded gallus saurians with long, slender necks and powerful legs. They chirped and rumbled to one another, thick tails lashing the air as their beaklike mouths snapped open and shut. Nassar allowed himself a brief moment of satisfaction at the grandeur of his party, framed as it was by the great guardian statues of Soma's walls. Surely, even the barbarian prophet's famous son would be awed. His short-lived smirk died on his lips as from the enemy encampment a lone figure came walking.
Serene General Yussef Levi was the spitting image of his father, clean-shaven and handsome despite his soiled campaigning gear. He wore a simple leather surcoat over mail, quilting and boiled leather. The sign of his father's newborn fief, a mask half dark and half light, graced the breast of his surcoat. He went unarmed and carried his helmet beneath his arm. Nassar watched him cross the bare earth between his camp and the Soma delegation. The fool left himself vulnerable, gambling on Nassar's honor to make himself look the fearless hero to his men and, more importantly, to the men on the walls of Soma.
Yussef halted a few yards from where Nassar sat his mount. He raised a hand in greeting. “Well met in the light of the Two Who Are One, magistrate,” he said, “and in the name of my father, the Shah of Five Thousand Years and Glorious Son of Heaven. I have come to demand the surrender of your city, agha.”
Nassar shifted in his seat, then leaned forward. He spoke just loud enough so that his men could hear him. “Is it two gods, or is it one?”
Yussef's brow furrowed. “I don't understand.”
“I think a proper deity should be able to make up its mind on the count of how many there are of it,” said Nassar. “It seems only common divine decency.”
“I am not here to debate theology,” said Yussef, frowning. “I deliver my father's terms to you, magistrate. Hear them or ignore me as you will. First, you will open the gates of this city to my father's army. Second, you will not resist our occupation of this city in any way. Third, you will render up all your stores and submit your treasury to an Inquisitorial Audit. Fourth, you will raze every Tabernacle to the Maintainer within the walls of Soma. Do these things, swear fealty to my father and your city will be spared the ravages of siege.”
Nassar regarded the younger man, unspeaking. Seconds ticked by, measured by the silver Maturi pocketwatch Nassar kept in the breast of his underrobe. “No,” he said at last. “I don't think so. You can understand my concerns, given the view?” He gestured toward Shibola. “I'm afraid it must be war, boy. May your strength fail you and your sword shatter.”
“As you will it, agha,” said Yussef. He bowed stiffly, then turned his back on Nassar and returned to his camp. Nassar watched him go, a cold feeling of unease growing in his stomach as his hadrosaur turned and began to make its slow, plodding way back toward Soma. Yussef Levi was a true believer, a man absolutely assured of his own correctness. In short, a dangerous bastard.
His escort streamed after him. In slow procession they made their way back through the silent city to Nassar's seat, the Magisterial Manse. The manse was a vast, militaristic edifice hacked out of the living stone of Winter's Crown a year after the Battle of Leng and the revolution's triumphant end. Its grim facade loomed forbiddingly over a narrow bridge and dry moat, a constant reminder to the remote city, along with the onion-domed Tabernacle opposite it, of the presence of the Confederacy. Nassar dismounted his hadrosaur amidst the bustle of the manse's crowded inner courtyard and, waving off a storm of aides and shouting clerics, made his way inside.
Ora Tamir was waiting for him in his dining room. The old mullah, Nassar's childhood tutor and the current head of Soma's tabernacle, rose from his cushion at the table's head as Nassar slammed the room's heavy double doors at his back. The silence echoed between them, as did Ora's disapproving stare. “I haven't the patience for your remonstrations, Ora,” said the magistrate. “I've been hectored by the guilds and council since midwinter. We cannot negotiate with Levi or his son. Orders from the Hierophant.” He stalked to the table and seized a date from a silver dish laid out after the morning meal. He regretted his harsh tone almost at once. Ora looked frail beneath his yellow cassock, worn down by age and sickness.
“You are rash, Nassa,” said the old man as he sank back down upon his cushion. He held a porcelain cup of coffee in his gnarled hands. “Too swiftly do you turn to bloodshed as an answer to your problems. I tried to teach you to act like a man, but you insist on playing the child. Your banquets, your women-”
“They're your problems, too, Ora,” said Nassar. He took another date and popped it into his mouth. “We've ninety thousand men, women and children locked in a mountain pass with reinforcements months away at best, never coming at worst, and six thousand soldiers to man our walls against fifty thousand. The Maintainer himself couldn't-”
“I won't hear your blasphemy, boy,” said Ora, his reedy old man's voice dark with anger. “Keep a pious tongue in your head when you speak of our maker.”
Nassar chewed, swallowed and dipped his hands into a bowl of rose oil set out for that purpose. He dried them on a rough white towel, then turned back to his mentor. “My apologies, Ora. It was a long night, and this morning has been hard. Did you make the appointment I asked you to?”
“No good will come of it,” said Ora. He set down his cup and ran a hand through his magnificent white beard. “He awaits you in your solar.”
“Thank you,” said Nassar. He left the room by the servants' door, jogging quickly up the narrow stone steps behind it and making his way through the bustling kitchens to the quiet rooms of the manse's sixth floor. In his solar, a comfortable room lined with books and redolent with the odor of tobacco, sat a gaunt, bearded man of perhaps fifty. He looked up from his book, a slim red volume on philosophy from the solar's collection, at Nassar's entrance. His eyes were pale, curiously so, as though all the color had been leached out of them. He had the look of a man once much fatter and his clothes were very poor. Old scars marred his wrists and neck.
“Agha,” he said in a voice as dead as his stare. “I owe you my freedom.”
“And my father your imprisonment,” said Nassar as he stepped past the other man and sat on the edge of his desk. It was hard not to be unnerved by the alchemist's soulless mien. “I wonder, Ibrahim,” he asked. “What did you learn in your cell, these past ten years?”
“Patience,” said Ibrahim. “Some chemistry. Six hundred poems.”
“Have you forgotten the crime for which you were jailed?”
The man didn't blink. “Illegal philosophy. Sixteen counts of militarization of the dead.”
“Have you forgotten the craft?”
Nassar laced his hands together. Ibrahim's pale stare bored into him. The once-fat man's hands clutched the slim leather book as though it were a piece of driftwood in a storm at sea. At last, Nassar slid off of his desk and offered Ibrahim his hand. “This city will die without your help,” he said. “A full pardon, and passage to wherever you wish once the siege is done.”
Ibrahim gripped Nassar's hand without hesitation. The alchemist's palm was soft and damp. “I'll need batteries,” he said, “and corpses.”
“You'll have the first now,” said Nassar, “and the second soon enough.”