The sun was setting over the city of Leng as Rashid Hadar walked home from the market, his bad leg aching more with every step. His stride, once a parade-ground strut, had become an old man's shuffle. When had that happened? He shook his balding head and gripped more tightly the head of his plain oak cane. In his satchel were the tobacco, hummus and flatbread he had ventured out to buy from irascible old Nasira who ran a bakery and a market stall. He could almost taste the pipe he would enjoy once his dinner was finished, the familiar woody taste of its stem in his mouth, the rich aroma of the smoke moving in and out of his lungs. He looked skyward for a moment, thanking the Maintainer he still had his teeth. How Leng's other dotards, chess-playing whitebeards half blind from drinking, enjoyed life without the teeth to hold a pipe was a mystery to Rashid.
The city's bells began to toll. Old bells, older than the city's new name and the ruler Rashid had helped to seat on its throne. He could still remember the war if he closed his eyes, the roar of cannons and the thunder of drums as he rushed for the breach with his comrades in arms. He had found hell there, in the shit-stink of battle as he clambered over corpses to ram his sword into whatever unprotected flesh presented itself. Stabbing and hacking, bleeding from a dozen wounds and choking on smoke as he killed and killed. An ugly, rotten, tiresome business. Not worth the nightmares. Not worth the empty cradles and the graves of grown sons. Not worth streets with too many old men, empty of the laughter of children. Rashid shook his head, scowling, and banished the war from his mind. The melancholy often came upon him when he went for his walks. Perhaps it liked the fresh air, or else the worsening of his limp.
Rashid's home was in the Veterans' District, a dome-shaped daub-and-wattle hut among thousands of identical others. Young oaks lined the boulevards between developments and in the distance the Tabernacle of Benevolent Sacrifice, once a temple to the heathen gods of the Thulhun Empire, loomed over the expanse of spent humanity, its bell still tolling. Rashid limped down the empty street toward his hut, his satchel thumping against his hip with every step. He stopped. Ten yards down the road his door was swinging freely in the warm breeze. He scratched his unshaven chin. Should he go to the Guard? What if the intruder left before they arrived? Grunting, Rashid put his free hand on the hilt of the curved knife he wore under his sherwani. It would be good to have a little excitement, and if it ended badly, well...who would miss one old soldier?
As quietly as he could, Rashid sidled toward his door and looked inside. His small, cramped kitchen and solar looked undisturbed. He squinted, cursing old age's theft of his sharp eyes. Nothing. Sighing, he stepped into his kitchen and pulled the door shut behind him. He locked it. The recklessness he had felt was past. No sense in being careless.
“You've gotten old, Rashid agha.”
His knife seemed to draw itself as he spun, bad hip twinging sharply. A white-haired man dressed in elaborate black gowns sat with one leg thrown casually over the other in one of Rashid's two chairs beside the hut's only window. Rashid sheathed his knife, breathing hard. “Matteus?”
The old sorcerer stood and offered Rashid his hand. “It's good to see you haven't lost your reflexes,” he said, grinning as Rashid took his hand and kissed him first on one cheek, then the other. Matteus returned the gesture, then stepped back. Rashid released his hand reluctantly.
“Please,” he said, waving a hand at the chairs, “sit. I'll make coffee.”
Matteus resumed his seat while Rashid ground sweet-smelling caf beans in his worn mortar. “What brings you here?” asked Rashid, tipping the grounds into the cloth filter of his father's battered biggin. He stirred the smoldering coals in the fire pit with the ash-blackened tip of his cane, then filled the biggin's top with clean water and hung it from a hook over the pit.
“Have you heard of the Bandit Shah?”
Rashid stirred the coals again. Sparks flew. “Some.”
“A rebel from Somnium,” said Matteus. “Last winter he and his raiders seized Monastus, raised an army and began laying waste to the countryside. Crops burned, villages butchered. Now he's set himself up as the Shah of Five Thousand Years in Carnassa. The province is suffering, the magistrates and satraps are clamoring for aid and the Hierophant, our beloved ruler, rends his beard each morning in his consternation.”
“It's war, then.”
Steam hissed from the biggin's lid. Matteus drummed his long-nailed fingers against the arms of his chair.
“I won't do it.”
“The levies are a mass of idiot fieldhands, potters, fullers and foragers. One in ten knows how to hold a spear. What's going to happen, I wonder, when they march through the Mountains of Madness to confront the Bandit's hardened riders? They say he has a bellfounder casting him cannons. What do you think will happen, Rashid, when we march against him?”
“Men die,” said Rashid. He removed the biggin from its hook and poured two cups of boiling-hot coffee. His hand shook. “That's what happens in war.” He felt old and tired, used up by the years.
Matteus took his cup from Rashid in both hands. He inhaled the steam rising from the hot coffee. “I don't want to beg, old friend,” he said. The levity was gone from his voice.
He looked up and for the first time Rashid noticed the bags beneath the other man's eyes. A pang of pity moved him. “I could conduct a few drills with the recruits,” he said quickly. “For old time's sake.” He put a callused hand on Matteus's knee.
The white-haired man stiffened. He set down his cup, undrunk, and stood. His gowns slithered into place as he stepped away from the chair and the crackling fire pit. His face was an expressionless mask. “The People's Heavenly Confederacy appreciates your loyalty,” he said. “Men from the Bureau of Readiness will move your effects to more suitable lodgings for a Holy Veteran Centurion.”
“Thank you,” said Rashid.
Matteus looked as though he wished to speak, but instead he turned and left in a swirl of black cloth. The door slammed shut behind the sorcerer and Rashid was left alone, his cheeks burning with shame. How could he have thought, after all this time, that Matteus still cared? And even if he had, the new laws... He stared into his own tin mug of cooling coffee, wondering if he would live to regret the day's decisions.