Sunday, June 26, 2011


The Floating Palace was a warren of empty rooms and hidden passages. Dusty chambers sat unused behind sealed doors. Heated baths in the Thulhun style, leftover ornaments from the Imperial Governorate's long and storied reign in Carnassa, gaped like dry stone mouths in deep vaults excavated from the living bedrock of the cliff. Near the crest of the southeast tower, a great blocky structure sheathed in marble and overlooking the Sinner's Gate from its corner of the Palace's crumbling bluff, there was a ballroom that had stood unused for better than forty years, according to the oldest slaves who still remembered the days before the Hierophant's revolution. Aliya, like most of the younger slaves, had walked through a hundred dead places and gone hunting for others, plumbing the depths of the Palace after its masters had taken to their beds. Once she and Moana had found a room with a gold-banded polearm thrust deep into the floor and strange words carved deep into the walls, but neither of them could read and the gold bands around the polearm had unnerved them.

The room that Scheza had sent her to investigate, an unused scullery on the ninth level, well below the clifftop, was different. It had the same air of abandonment, the same dusty counters and stained floors, but there was something cold and slow to it that made the slave's skin pimple. Broken crockery was strewn around the dry washbasins and on the floor in the shadow of the granite counters. Mice had nested in the rotting cabinetry. In the center of the sloped stone floor was a grate of cold iron, waiting to drink spilled dishwater that would never come. Aliya swallowed. The sound was loud in the silence. Nowhere in all the cobwebbed corners and dank cupboards of the scullery had she found the thing that Scheza had sent her to find. An egg of gold filigree hinged with leather and within it a smaller egg of pure obsidian, the untransmutable stone. Why such a wonder would be left in a scullery Aliya had no idea, but she had spent an hour searching for it in the wreckage of the room.

Life as Scheza's handmaid was full of strange errands. Once the Princess had even sent her down into the sewers, her only instructions to sit for an hour on the bottommost rung of the iron ladder leading down into the pipes and listen for a song sung by a fish. She hadn't seemed disappointed when Aliya reported that she'd heard nothing. Another time they had gone together to the coops beside the stables at the base of the cliff where the Floating Palace's chickens and compsognathi roosted. Scheza had taken one of the chickens from its nesting box and slit its throat there in front of the slaves and servants. The other chickens had watched, silent and merciless, as one of their own bled out onto the straw. Scheza had dropped the twitching body with a snort of disgust and they had left.

Sometimes Aliya almost missed the monotony of slavery, the shouted imprecations of the taskmasters, the evenings spent bathing the Prophet's half-wild concubine. She blew out a long breath and sank down onto one of the scullery's moldering stools. She rested her head in her hands. The smells of grease and pepper lingered in the air, and for a moment Aliya could almost see the gross form of Mulkut, the Palace's ferocious head chef. She had slaved in the kitchens before Chamyde had chosen her to bathe the Son of Heaven's concubines. The wiry, temperamental woman had been little better than the bellowing Mulkut, but at least her hand had been lighter. Once Mulkut had broken Aliya's jaw for dropping a tureen of onion soup.

A slave's dreams were small, mean things. Chains and lashes beat them down, drained the glory from them until they longed only for dreamless sleep and a crust of stale bread at the end of the day. Aliya could hardly remember a time when she'd imagined freedom, her own freedom, as something attainable. Sixteen years of shuffling beneath the yoke of servitude had cracked some part of her. She rubbed her stinging eyes and stood. She would just have to tell Scheza she hadn't been able to find the egg. Aliya turned to leave. She froze. In the doorway, coated in dust as though it had sat there for years, was precisely the artifact Scheza had described. The craftsmanship was incredible, hypnotic in its complexity. It was ten times the size of a chicken's egg and rested comfortably on four stubby claw feet. Aliya clutched at the front of her dress, suddenly unsure. The second egg Scheza had told her of was just visible through the golden filigree of the first, and something about its smooth blackness made Aliya want to turn and climb into one of the cabinets rather than stare at it a moment longer.

In the end she wrapped it in dusty rags and fairly fled back to the Princess's chambers. It had taken some practice to locate them reliably. The halls around them, like the halls surrounding the Shah's apartments, seemed to shift and distort. Sometimes it almost seemed one stood in two places at once, so great was the sense of disorientation. Scheza was alone in her washroom, dressed in her usual stained and open-fronted black robe. She looked up as Aliya slipped into the porcelain-tiled chamber, decorated with symbols and patterns of Scheza's own contrivance.

Aliya clapped a hand to her mouth, choking on bile as a vile stench assaulted her nostrils. The copper bath was nearly overflowing with runny, flyblown dung. Insects buzzed around it in a miasmal cloud. Scheza, apparently unfazed by the appalling odor, held out a hand. “You found it?”

“I...I did, Princess,” Aliya managed to choke. She placed the cloth-wrapped egg in Scheza's outstretched hand. The Princess took it and for an instant she looked her age as pure joy pulled her plump lips into a smile and she clasped the golden egg against her breasts. Then, without a thought, she opened the gold filigree cage, withdrew the smaller obsidian egg and cast the glittering contrivance aside. She dropped the egg into the bath and watched as it settled atop the miniature hill of shit, sinking half its height into the offal.

Something small and so like-colored to the dung as to be almost invisible rose from the refuse. Aliya watched it, eyes watering in the foul air. It was a fat grey toad, its eyes yellow and evil, its skin gross with boils and warts. Slowly, it struggled up the hill of dung until it bestrode the egg. Then, with a vile gassy sigh, it settled down like a brooding hen atop the obsidian curio. Scheza clapped her hands together. “Beautiful,” she said.

For an instant Aliya could almost see what her mistress meant. A weird, pustulant glow seemed to surround the toad and its egg. A low, dull thumping resounded in the air. Like a fat heart beating time. The smell redoubled. Aliya fled the washroom, retching. She made it to the hall before falling to her knees and vomiting. A passing slave looked at her, scowled and moved on before the puddle of bile and half-digested gruel could foul his shoes. Aliya knelt shivering on the cold stone, hugging herself as fresh tremors wracked her body. What had that egg really been?

Aliya choked, sobbing for breath. She threw up again, watery vomit splattering over the flagstones of the hall. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut as the world spun around her.

“Are you alright?”

A man's voice, not cultured but finer than the rough tongues of the slaves. Aliya looked up, still gasping and saw a slim, goateed man of medium height looking at her with concern. He wore his hair short and slicked back and his uniform was the plain sludge-grey of the Tranquil Guard. “Please, agha,” Aliya whispered. “I did not mean to offend you.”

“You haven't,” said the man. He offered a hand and Aliya took it. Her stomach turned over as he helped her up, but there was nothing else in it to come up. She took a deep, ragged breath.

“You should see the surgeon,” said the man. His hand was warm on her shoulder.
Aliya looked down at her feet. “Please, agha.”

The door to Scheza's apartments swung open and the Princess moved into the hall. “What are you doing with my handmaiden, Captain Khalid?”

The officer took his hand from Aliya's shoulder and sketched a quick bow. When he straightened his face was composed into a statesman's mask, but for an instant Aliya thought she saw disquiet in his dark eyes. “The lady is ill,” he said.

“I am no lady, agha,” mumbled Aliya, silently begging the man to go, to leave before something terrible happened.

“Get out,” said Scheza. Her hand twitched and suddenly it held a phial of blood.

The Captain's eyes darted to it, then back to Scheza's. He licked his lips. “I was just going.” Slowly, arms stiff at his sides, he backed toward the steps. “It has been a pleasure, your Serenity.”

Scheza watched the man until he vanished down the stairwell. Aliya huddled against the wall, sick and miserable. Her skin felt slick and clammy and her nostrils were choked with the memory of shit and the acid reek of her own vomit. “Please,” she said. “Don't hurt him.”

“Men are swine,” said Scheza, and her voice was hard and cold as black iron. Her gaze lingered on the empty stairwell. “I'm going to kill every last one of them.”

Aliya retched again and sick spattered over her shoes. Her last feverish thought was that cleaning them would be a nightmare when her knees buckled and darkness swallowed her.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011


The dead had taken to the walls of Soma. Their sightless golden eyes stared out across the barren no-man's land between the city and the Imperial camp. Yussef sat with several of his command on a crag overlooking the pass. He studied the defenses with concern, ignoring the day's heat. The dead had repulsed their every assault at great cost.

“We won't get through,” said Moustaffa Horus, gesturing with his stump toward the dead standing motionless at their posts. “The infidels have broken even their own ghoulish laws. As though their shambling servants are not abhorrent enough.”

“Be resolute, General,” said Yussef. He put his hands on his knees and stood. His staff followed suit, looking to him for guidance. “They cannot last forever behind those walls, and if they sally forth not even their dead can match our numbers. Whatever necromancers hold the walls cannot hope to press-gang many more into their rotten legion.”

Yussef hoped, as he climbed down the long switchback trail from the crag back to the canvas city that was the camp, that he spoke the truth. In the last days of the Thulhun Empire the greatest of the Houses had turned their dead upon each other and whole armies of the living had fallen beneath the boots of the dead like wheat beneath the scythes of farmhands. If Soma's garrison grew stronger, there would be no taking it. At the base of the ridge, in amongst the foothills of Rafiq's Folly where their grooms waited with the galluses, Yussef turned back to face his Generals. Horus met his eyes with steely resolution, gaunt Nephru with reptilian inscrutability and massive Bobek with patience and serenity. “We will take Soma,” he said. That was all.
“As His Serenity commands,” said Nephru, flashing a quick salute before moving to mount his gallus. The others followed suit. They rode back to the camp in silence.

In amongst the tents the mood was subdued. Yussef had ordered the medical pavilions moved to the furthest outskirts of the encampment so that the screams of the dying would not demoralize the men, but the occasional cry of agony still drifted through the silence. The men weren't drinking. They weren't at dice or cards or chess. They sat outside their tents in the midday heat, shirts open and armor removed. Mail cuirasses hung from tentpoles and washing lines. Yussef clenched his wounded hand, feeling the scab across his palm begin to crack.

He must not doubt his father's will.

The officers' latrine pits were located at the camp's southwestern extreme and Yussef chose his path to them with care, assessing along the way the disposition of the camp's beating heart. It was good for the men to see their commander, even if he was on his way to the bogs. Good for them to remember that they fought not for him but for his divine father, the Son of Heaven. Men did straighten when he passed, even if they slouched when he'd rounded the next corner. The enginers, nearly dead center to the besieging army, bent their backs to their work with renewed vigor, stripping parts to build new trebuchets and scaling ladders while others directed teams of hadrosaurs in dragging extant engines into new dispositions. Yussef stopped to discuss the day's bombardment schedule with his chief enginer, a gruff Carnassan-born man called Wooden Surat by his men for his wooden leg and humorless comportment.

“There's cannon coming in from Shibola,” the man grunted as he stumped through the mad tangle, decipherable only to himself and his aides, of the camp's siege battery. “A fifty pounder cracked and repaired during the siege and two twenty-fives made before His Divinity's requisitions. We'll have them scrambling to patch their walls, dead or no dead.”

Yussef did his best to match the one-legged man's brisk pace while around him counterweights the size of millstones swung back and forth like the pendulums of murderous clocks and wooden yardarms dipped, rose and creaked with ferocious rhythm. “I'm glad to hear it,” he said. His bladder was aching, but he could spare the chief enginer a moment more. “As to the dead, I wonder if you might know any way to deal with them. I never expected the Confederates to make the move.”

“Caught with your pants down,” said Surat, limping without comment across a pace of bare earth mounded with hadrosaur shit. He halted and turned to Yussef, spinning neatly on his wooden peg-leg. “I ain't fought the dead before,” he said. “If it were me storming those walls, I'd want the necromancers found and done for. Get them and the game is over.”

“Something to consider,” Yussef said, forcing a smile. “Send word when the cannon arrive.”

Surat tipped his cap and resumed his trek down the bombardment line, bellowing orders and curses with equal fluency. Yussef watched the man a moment, then headed for the latrines.

Flies buzzed in the hot air, thick with the smells of sweetgrass and shit. Yussef pushed aside the canvas flap of his personal stall, unbuttoned his trousers and pissed with considerable relief into the morass beneath the wooden bench with its single round hole. He closed his eyes, letting his bladder's release drain the day's tension from his shoulders. A last few drops spattered the seat's edge and he buttoned himself up, turning back toward the unappealing idea of spending the rest of the day in the strategic tent with Horus and the others. He would see no more men butchered in fruitless attempts to gain Soma's walls.

“The dead will come up from the sea.”

Yussef froze. He glanced at the wooden bench. Eyes of emerald green met his. In the filth and muck of the latrine pit lay a crocodile colored so alike with its surroundings its presence would have been guesswork had its eyes not been so striking. No. It was not like-colored with the camp's offal. It was of the same substance. He tried to speak and found his voice no more than a hoarse croak.

“They were banished to its depths,” said the crocodile. It smiled and its teeth were as vivid a green as its eyes. “Banished along with their master who is called the Lord-Without-Mercy-or-Death, Master of Lost Souls and King of Moths. Now they return to herald his coming, and the sacrifice they will lay upon his altar will be the sons and daughters of this land.”

Yussef found his voice. “What are you?”

“I am the deep places,” said the crocodile. Its tail moved lazily from side to side, stirring the shit. “I am the gold-child of the fair departed.”

With frightening rapidity it plunged beneath the surface of the latrine's sluggish flow and, with a flick of its armored tail, it was gone. Yussef stood watching the ripples fade, his heart hammering in his chest. What had he seen? A demon? It had called itself gold-child. But no. The books of the Divided God spoke against that fallacy. Some agent of the Maintainer, that pretender to Machen's heavenly throne. Only when he pushed aside the canvas flap of Horus's tent and saw the puzzlement in the older man's face did Yussef realize he had decided to tell his father's friend.

“Serenity?” the General said.

“In the latrines,” said Yussef. His legs suddenly weak, he sank into a camp chair as the tent flap fell to behind him with a puff of dust. “I saw a crocodile swimming in the shit.”

“A crocodile?” Horus's brow furrowed. “I hardly think-”

“It spoke to me, Horus,” said Yussef dully, knowing he sounded worse than mad. “It spoke of the dead. Of Emperor Azurean's Drowned Legions, I think. The armies he took with him to his grave.”

“Fairy tales,” said the older man firmly. He stood and put a callused hand on Yussef's shoulder. “Serenity, you must be weary. I've seen twenty-year campaigners with the scars to prove it hallucinate worse in better weather.”

Yussef almost gave in. It was so tempting to dismiss the madness of the shit-stinking latrines as heat-shimmers and hysteria. A grave chill settled in his bones. His sister would have called it the bad colds, when she was young and innocent. ...banished along with their master who is called the Lord-Without-Mercy-or-Death, Master of Lost Souls and King of Moths. “No, Horus,” he said. “I know what I saw. Send for a scribe. I will take dictation for a letter.”

Eight days passed before a pigeon returned bearing a message from Carnassa. The heat in the pass had become almost intolerable. The camp followers lolled naked in the sun, taking turns at fanning one another. Custom at the whores' tents was so slack that they took to fucking for water, which was in short supply. The sauropod convoys that brought supplies up from the lowlands had been replaced by infrequent caravans of handcarts, hadrosaur drovers and tinkers. The rarefied air and heat together were too much for the great lumbering beasts.

Yussef took the letter in his tent where he sat shirtless and dripping with sweat, trying to make sense of reports sent by his scouts on the far side of the city. Each passing day brought closer the threat of Confederate reinforcements from Leng. Each night brought fresh dreams of the dead bursting up out of the earth, shit-colored and gold-eyed. The runs swept through camp and city both and soon the smell on the wind was always war's blood-and-shit stink. At least nothing burned. Who would set a fire in summer's worst heat? Awash in reek he could forget the screams of Shibola. He sighed and smoothed the tightly-rolled parchment out on his writing desk.

My beloved son,
Your diligence and courage daily strengthen my heart.
Your vision is cause for distress and moves me to contemplate the bearer, your crocodile, of these messages of import. The spirits of Cthun have come abroad to usher in my reign, but there are dangers to us greater even than Massud Madras. Soma must be taken, and swiftly. I command you to storm its walls on the first day of the month of Light before the sun has set. Do this, holding fast to your faith, and you will be delivered to victory.
In the hand of an unworthy slave.

Yussef closed his eyes and crumpled the parchment in his hand. He pressed it to his sweating breast as though it were a suckling babe. Salvation. At last, salvation. His heart sang. A great weight had been lifted from his shoulders and even the constant headache he had nursed since the arrival of the cannons from Shibola seemed suddenly a distant thing. He felt with shame the salty warmth of tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Soldiers struggled atop the southern wall of Soma in the wild light of flickering alchemical beacons. To Nassar, watching from a guardhouse not fifty feet from the bloodiest of the fighting, it seemed a madman's puppet show. Limbs jerked. Spears thrust, piercing bodies with linear exactitude. Life spilled out in hot torrents over rain-spattered stone. In the wall's shadow labored other figures, shambling troglodytes with iron teeth and gold coins set in the empty sockets of their skulls. Nauseous quartermasters gave to them the fleshly toll of the embattled wall, passing down the bodies of the newly dead from hand to hand. Slack forms slicked in blood were stacked like cordwood in handcarts while one of the Maintainer's clerics stood at the base of the wall's switchback stair to bless swiftly each corpse ferried past his station.

“This is folly,” said Ora. The old cleric sat cross-legged on a divan, his face drawn in the shadows cast by the tower room's single alchemical lamp. “You desecrate our noble dead, Nassar. The Hierophant will expel you from the faith for your sins.”

Nassar said nothing. His knuckles had grown white from the force of his grip on the windowsill. The battle, the day's second, raged on. Ten times Yussef's men had stormed the walls, heralded by thundering drums and the peel of brazen trumpets. Long-haired warriors threw hooked siege ladders up against the carved bulwarks of the city, screaming prayers to the Divided God as they swarmed up the siege equipment to cast themselves upon the defenders' spears so that their brethren could gain footholds on the wall. Cauldrons of boiling oil were emptied on the bellowing attackers, reducing men to wailing pillars of unsteady flesh. Still, more raced up the ladders toward their deaths. The campfires of the rebel bivouac were a field of stars blazing behind the carnage. Somewhere in that scattered conflagration waited the Serene General, commanding his army's archers and trebuchets to deadly effect. Whenever the wall's defenders managed to push back the besiegers, arrows fell upon them like locusts. Huge chunks of stone arced over the city, heralded by the creak and thud of counterweights and clattering iron gears. There was damage in the miller's district already. Soon there would be fires.

Ora's voice softened. “What would your father say, Nassa?”

Nassar scowled. That was easy. Abad Qasim would have stroked his massive black beard, sighed and said: “Necessity is a sword with two edges, Nassar. Never grip it too tightly.”

Ora nodded. “You shoulder remember Abad's wisdom.”

“My father forgot something when he said that,” said Nassar through gritted teeth. “A sword, even one that can turn in your hand, is still a sword.”

The battle ended an hour later as the sun began to rise, washing the pass in a bloody glow. Great gongs rang out from the rebel camp and the attackers abandoned the walls, leaving their dead and their ladders behind them as ragged volleys of arrows fell among them, felling dozens. Already alchemists were on the walls, transmuting ladders into smoke with their rings of ivory. Not a cheap reagent, but a reusable one. The dead laborers finished their grisly business, donned the black cloaks they had been ordered to wear while abroad in the city, and bore away their carts down the narrow, winding road through the millery to the warehouse where Nassar had placed Ibrahim under heavy guard. The Magistrate watched them go.

Was Ora right? Had he doomed his city to a fate worse than Yussef's invasion?

Nassar's doubts had only worsened by the time he sat down to council with his cabinet in the dusty light of the manse's solarium. The scarred Lord Captain of the city guard, Abbas Hamun, brought his mailed fist down on the table as soon as Nassar had taken his seat at its head. “Magistrate,” he growled, “my breach force is not large enough. If I do not receive new workmen the next breach Levi's trebuchets make could be the last they need. My details can't move enough debris to plug the gaps.”

The old man was part of the same cabinet that had served Nassar's father, and his experience showed in the scars stretching back from the edges of his mouth to just below his ears, one of which was little more than a scarred stump. His mouth was a hard, wrinkled slash, his teeth uneven and interrupted by black gaps. Nassar often thought that he might prove a useful ally if he could ever stop thinking of his Magistrate as his old master's half-grown son. “You have my permission to draft laborers from the prisons,” he said to the older man. “I'll have a crier offer a sovereign a day in the forum for volunteers.”

“The treasury is already strained,” began Shahid, but Nassar silenced him with a raised hand. The other four cabinet members looked to him. Two of the room's five, Ora and Abbas, had served his father. That the other three had not was down entirely to his own scheming, and the acquisition of loyal men had cost him. His cabinet was a treacherous place. Malek, his Master Alchemist, had financed the expansion of the City Guard. Interest alone made the alchemist a wealthy man. Shahid, the city's official tax collector, owned by magisterial decree the city's only cannon foundry. Only Nassar's old friend Hakim, his steward and Master of House, was truly loyal. For now, though, the room's occupants fell silent and donned expressions of respectful attentiveness.

Now, if there were ever such a moment, was the time to strike.

Nassar cleared his throat. “Some of you think Soma is doomed,” he said.

Abbas flushed an ugly shade of red. Ora looked puzzled. Hakim raised an eyebrow. Malek and Shahid remained motionless, their faces inscrutable. Nassar pushed on. “We are outnumbered and ill-supplied, cut off from the aid of His Holiness. The self-styled Son of Heaven looms to the South, more terrible even than his son, the General. With these odds stacked against us, you will understand why I ordered Ibrahim the Butcher freed and placed under my direct supervision.”

Ora made a disgusted noise at the back of his throat. Abbas went so far as to spit on the solarium floor. The other three councilors simply stared openmouthed at Nassar. Malek was the first to recover himself. “You what?”

“This is not a time for dissent,” said Nassar.

Malek stood abruptly. His chair hit the floor with a loud clack of wood on stone. “You,” he said, his fists shaking, “have betrayed the interests-”

“Lotus petal,” said Nassar.

Iron-shod boots clanged loud against the floor's tiles. With slow, sure tread the dead came into the solarium. There were ten of them, armored in plain steel and with axes to hand. Their eyes, plain coins of gold, stared blankly at nothing as they took up positions around the table. The councilors fell silent. Malek took a step back and nearly fell. Abbas's face was bloodless behind the thicket of his beard. His scars stood out like fresh wounds. Nassar remained in his seat. Ibrahim had chosen fine specimens for his soldiers. Strong men, heavily muscled and not much decayed. The smell of them, though, was thick in the air. Flies buzzed. “This is not a time for dissent,” Nassar repeated. “This council is hereby dissolved. You will stand under guard, your interests under care of the city.”

“A coup?” Ora asked. The old man's voice was broken.

Nassar swallowed past the lump in his throat. They would understand his reasoning, in the end. He hoped they might understand. “Yes,” he said. He pushed himself back from the table and stood, weathering their hateful stares. Shahid, a thin and nervous man, made the sign of the Maintainer across his breast again and again without seeming to know that he did. The fingers of his right hand curled to meet his thumb, forming a mute twin to the distant Sungrave. “From this moment forward, Soma is mine and mine alone. The dead will man its walls.”

“Heresy,” said Abbas. He stood slowly and with deliberation placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. “You cast dishonor upon your father's grave.”

“I am magistrate now, captain,” said Nassar coldly. “My sins are my own. Stay your hand.”

Abbas's sword scraped clear of its sheath and the aging soldier rushed for Nassar with a cry of rage. Nassar's eyes widened in surprise. He forced himself not to flinch. An ax caught Abbas's arm just above the elbow. Bone and flesh gave way beneath the razor-edged blade and in a flash the captain was on his knees, his gushing stump clutched tight against his chest. The dead man stood over him, an impassive sentinel in dull plate, its ax resting on the nape of its victim's neck. It turned its golden gaze to Nassar. “Master?” Its voice was cold and heartless as a winter wind.

“Take him to the physicians,” said Nassar. “When he's recovered, throw him in a cell.”

The dead man nodded, seized Abbas by the collar of his uniform and dragged him bodily from the solarium. The aging captain uttered no sound as he vanished through the door. Nassar watched him go and listened to the receding thud of the dead man's footsteps until they faded into silence. “My sins are my own,” he said again, not looking at his councilors. “The dead will man the walls.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011


From the skull of the righteous daughter came the roots of the tree that was the sun, and though her life was extinguished, she lived on. To her, oak-skulled and nameless, the Maintainer gave the Doors of Iron and the corridors between all things.

Alice set the book down on her lap and drew a deep breath. After so long starved of words, even the nameless little volume's enigmatic parables made her feel light, as though they were breathing life back into her. She could only read a few pages at a time without being overwhelmed. The fear that Ahmad would appear from nowhere and snatch the book from her hands dogged her relentlessly. She didn't think she could bear its loss. When the slaves came she hid it under a loose brick in the hearth and submitted in silence to their razors and cosmetics, their milk baths and spiced perfumes. She let them bind her into a silk tama which, while beautiful, was so tight she could hardly breathe. The plain girl who had delivered the book to her had been replaced by two others, younger and prettier. Alice had no way to ask them what had become of her erstwhile handmaid.

What had possessed the girl to bring the book? Certainly they had never shared a moment, never come to any understanding or suffered for one another thoughts of sisterly love. Alice had tormented her slaves, abused them as she was abused, and they had endured her. Now she had a book, a precious escape from her gilded cell, and she had received it from the hands of one to whom she had given nothing but venom. As always, though, the strangeness of the book itself drew her back from her troubled musing. She leafed through its well-worn pages, fingers tasting faded ink. Not for the first time that day she silently thanked her tutors, who had beaten the Machi language into her before her voyage from Maturin to wed Daud Khan. Her lips twisted, forming a bitter grimace.

What the book was about, precisely, continued to escape Alice's understanding. It began with a lengthy tract, written in an obscure form of Machi elegiac, describing in detail the creation of the world by an enigmatic demiurge referred to only as the Watchmaker. It dealt extensively with subjects Alice had seen handled only in the dustiest geological and alchemical texts. The formation of the Four Continents of Cthun, the waxing and waning of the first empires of Man, the Death of the Living Sun and the drowning of the Fourth Continent, Innesia, ancestral homeland of the Thulhun people. Where it differentiated itself from banal religious histories was that no pantheon was given primacy. Priests, it had been Alice's experience, liked to ignore the gods of other priests. The Maintainer's clerics hadn't waited long after the fall of the Empire to tear down every statue of the Three, the ancient gods of Innesia and of Maturin, and even from her room Alice had seen the smoke of Carnassa's burning Tabernacles and the rise of Ahmad's Divided Temple. Priests and prophets were jealous creatures.

The little blue-bound book had no prejudices. In it the Watchmaker gave over command of Cthun's functions to the Maintainer, styled as a sort of lieutenant angel, while other gods descended to live among their subjects. The Three ruled as God-Emperors over Maturin and Innesia. The Legion, mysterious and powerful, chose Aligher as their seat, parceling it out between them. There was a brief mention of Twin Gods of night and day that Ahmad would have killed to lay hands on, and then the poetics wound down into an examination of lesser deities and nature spirits, the mythical asura the alchemists of drowned Innesia had supposedly dealt with in blood, flesh and secrets.

The author, whoever it had been, was eloquent and talented. Their analogies were strange, their metaphors alien, but the text bore scrutiny well. One hundred and twenty-two written pages, plus three more of illustrations of complex alchemical symbol structures. She hadn't read it all, yet. The strange poetry of the first quarter drew her back again and again, entrapping her in parables and flowing verse. At last she came to the furthest extent of what she had read. The Death of the Living Sun. It read:

That slow, bright star
Born of Cthun and Heaven
First teacher of Man
Betrayed by loving neophytes
To flood and death.

Beside the poem was a sketch of a robed man sitting cross-legged on a hilltop, and where there should have been a head there was a burning solar disc. The Living Sun. Avatar of the Maintainer. His ten disciples, the sages of the Three had taught her, had turned against him and tried with a knife of cursed gold to transmute his heart to water and so drown his light, but the avatar's reaction to the forbidden reagent had been violent. His heart, transmuted, had become an inland sea and his killers had drowned with him. Now, of course, the Maintainer's Hierophant reigned in his name from his seat in Leng and the sigil of the sun flew over every great Machi city north of the Mountains of Madness. Why, in the names of the Three, had that slave given her a book of fables?

“I asked her to give it to you.”

Alice screamed and fell from her seat by the bone-latched window, her book flying from her hands as she scrambled back over the carpet away from the short, slender girl seated on the edge of her bed. Ahmad's blood was obvious in the slant of her high cheekbones and the gold of her large, almond-shaped eyes. She wore a long, dusty officer's dress sherwani that hung past the knees of her gold-embroidered leggings. “Try to keep it down, Maturi,” said the girl. “I've transmuted your guards' thoughts into dreams, but it won't hold up against anything too loud.” It was said casually, as though the mere idea were not enough to land one in Alchemical Court for infractions against the Oldest Laws.

Alice forced herself to choke down the scream that had been building in her chest. She stood, eyes darting between the girl and the book where it lay open on the carpet, its pages staring blindly at the ceiling. The girl's Maturi was flawless. “You're the Princess? Scheza?”

“And you're my father's favorite whore.”

“Yes,” Alice said dully.  There was no anger at that word.  Not anymore. “I am.  Or I would be, if he paid.”

“Then I pity you,” said the girl, her tone softening. Real sorrow dulled the bite of her caustic smirk. “His affections aren't gentle, are they?”

Horror struck Alice dumb. His own daughter? “Please,” she said, desperate to avoid the crippling monstrosity of the subject. However awful her own suffering, Scheza's must have eclipsed it. “Why did you send me the book? Why would you bother talking to me at all?”

The girl steepled her fingers beneath her chin in a curiously adult gesture. “Did you know that my father permits his other concubines the use of the Palace library?”

A bright stab of anger drove other thoughts from Alice's mind. “What?”

“Yes,” said Scheza. She leaned her chin against her hands and tilted her head birdlike to one side, regarding Alice with unblinking golden eyes. “Of course, none of the others are latent alchemists. That might have something to do with it, Maturi.”

“I'm not an alchemist,” said Alice, her ears still ringing. “All the children at court are tested-”

“For real potential,” Scheza said dismissively. “No government wants a cheap conjuror. The alchemically capable population of Machen is twenty times its number of trained alchemists. Most Covens don't bother with anyone who can't handle a Totemic Binding. Normally, I wouldn't either, but my father had first choice of Carnassa's scholars. Pickings are slim.”

Alice bent to pick up her book, ignoring the loose hair that fell across her face. A wave of dizziness overcame her and she sat down on the carpet, swaying. She stared at the young girl seated on her bed. When she managed to find the breath to speak, her voice was cracked and thin. “I've been his for two years,” she said. Tears slid down her cheeks. She tasted salt. “Why are you here now?”

The girl slipped off of Alice's bed and padded across the floor. Her small hand cupped Alice's jaw, lifting her face up toward her own. Alice felt the chill of a metal ring pressed against her skin. “My father is powerful,” she said. “He knows secrets I haven't uncovered, techniques I have yet to master. He's dueled master alchemists in the Carnificata. His people, and there are millions of them, love and fear him as a manifestation of frightening new gods. He is a Living Sun to them. I, by contrast, am sixteen and a woman. Is it any surprise that I've had to move slowly?”

“What do you want from me?”

The golden eyes widened, as though surprised at the question. “I want to kill my father and bring his accomplishments crashing down around his corpse,” she said. “I should think that much was obvious. Will you help me do it? Even your small potential might be of use.”

Alice narrowed her eyes. Her mouth felt dry. “What do I get?”

The girl stepped back, her hands falling to her sides. “Freedom, Alice,” she said. She paused to open the door. “Keep reading, and make certain my father doesn't see that book.”

The door slammed shut. Alice was alone. She swallowed past the lump in her throat, her eyes straying to the window Ahmad had shut against her forever. Outside lay Carnassa, city of a thousand lights. Outside lay freedom. Her fingers dug into the book's cover, distorting its shape. If she really was an Alchemist, then Ahmad's throat would be the first thing she transmuted. Into shit, if she could manage it. Her hands shook.

She was afraid.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Azhar tugged at the collar of his new sherwani, a plain grey garment cut in the latest fashion and woven from triple-layered silk so smooth it felt like burnished steel to the touch. The single staring eye of the Tranquil Guard adorned its breast. His trousers, also grey, were loose and tucked neatly into the tops of his tall saurian-leather boots. Gloves, black moleskin, completed the blandly tasteful ensemble of the new Lord Captain Commander of the Son of Heaven's private, silent police force. Azhar eyes flicked from the bland, heavy face of Lieutenant Captain Aziz Jalafi, his morning interviewer, to the half-drunk tumbler of transmuted liquor sitting by his left boot on his desk. Too early to finish it off, and besides the stuff was growing rare. Carnassa's alchemists were hard at work in the bell foundries, perfecting the Transcendent Army's new artillery batteries. No time to produce their trademark beverage. Alas. Jalafi was droning on, and a drink would have been welcome.

The office of the Lord Captain, buried deep in the bowels of the Floating palace, was another study in stark modernity. The walls were whitewashed stone, the ceiling a solid slab of transmuted iron.  Books lined three of the four walls. Azhar had mustered up the enthusiasm to peruse nearly a dozen titles. Files. Files on, as near as he could determine, every entity, business and group inside the half-built walls of Carnassa. The amount of information the Guard had managed to amass in such a short time was staggering. Azhar had, on general principle, avoided reading his own file. Jalafi read enough for the both of them.

A hulking wooden desk, its attendant chair and one other, currently occupied by Jalafi, were all the furnishing the office possessed. In its antechamber a black-robed slave girl waited, her ankle chained to a writing desk, to record his appointments. Beyond the stark, featureless antechamber were the Guard's two hundred holding cells, its barracks where he had his new apartments, its repository for seized goods and the iron spiral stair that led up to the Palace proper. A whole maze of secret passages honeycombed the Palace, and most of them had their origins in the wing occupied by the Tranquil Guard. Anyone snooping in the walls was likely to encounter an unpleasant surprise. Guardsmen patrolled the corridors of their miniature kingdom day in and day out, all scrupulously deferential to Azhar. They saluted when he passed, snapped to attention when he entered a room and Jalafi never failed to apprise him of the slightest development in their order's affairs. Sacrilegious mutterings in a wine sink by the quarries. A Thulhun woman raped to death in the Garden and strung up from a fig tree. Disease, unrest, a thousand petty treacheries and knotted webs of intrigue. It was a rare day Azhar got to noon without a drink.

“...doubled our presence in the Princess's wing of the Palace, pursuant to the wishes of His Divinity.” Paper rustled as the brick-shaped officer shuffled through his reports. He looked up, his sludge-colored eyes dull. “That concludes the morning briefing, my Lord Captain.”

“Yes, thank you Jalafi,” Azhar said, putting his palms flat on the desk. “I'll review the midnight watch this evening, before their patrol. Inform the men.” Inspections were by far the least strenuous way, Azhar had discovered, of appearing engaged in his new position.

Jalafi rose and executed a sharp salute. “His Divinity has also sent word that you are to attend him at this afternoon's hunt, Lord Captain,” he said. “I will pray for your success.”

Azhar blinked. A hunt? He'd never so much as sat a gallus or taken raptors elking, never mind attended a sovereign prophet and his retainers. Did Ahmad think him some highborn gentleman? He leaned back in his chair and laced his gloved hands together, wondering if Jalafi could see the panic boiling off of him in greasy waves. If so, he certainly didn't show it. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” he said.

Jalafi sketched another salute and departed the office, his broad shoulders almost scraping the doorframe as he left. Azhar slumped in his seat and covered his face in his hands. “Divided God,” he groaned to himself. “Hunting.”

The Palace stables, cut deep into the base of the chalk cliff upon which the great structure had been raised, stank of rutting and manure. Galluses, hadrosaurs and ceratopsians shifted in their stalls, snorting and chuffing as robed slaves curried their hides, refilled their troughs and shoveled their shit into barrels for use in the fields. Azhar, dressed in hunting leathers and with his riding bow slung over his shoulder, stepped carefully over a drainage canal flowing with piss and wastewater. A liveried groom awaited him with the reins of a handsome bull gallus in his hands. Azhar approached it with some trepidation. The saurian eyed him askance, rubbing its clawed forearms together in a weirdly mannish way. Two slaves trotted up to it with a portable wooden mounting stair which they set down on the unwashed marble floor. Azhar looked from the stair to the gallus's high-cantled saddle. His stomach fluttered at the prospect of vaulting up onto the towering thing's back, but he was due at the Sinner's Gate in a quarter hour and he couldn't afford to hesitate.

“Brutus has been thoroughly gentled, my Lord Captain,” said the groom, leaning solicitously close to Azhar's ear. “He should give you no trouble, or-”

Azhar seized the man by the front of his tunic and pulled him close until their faces were almost touching. “Insinuate I can't ride again,” he growled at the smaller man. “See what happens.” His own ears burned with shame, but seeing the groom quake did wonders for his temper.

“My affront is unthinkable,” the groom stammered. “Please, agha, forgive me.”

Azhar tore the reins from the groom's sweat-damp hands and pushed the man away. He stumbled, slipped in a slick of gallus shit and fell on his arse with a squeal. The gallus let out an ear-splitting squawk. Still flushed and fuming, Azhar climbed the mounting stair, swung a leg over the saurian's back and snapped the reins against its hide. The gallus screamed, stretched out its serpentine neck and loped toward the yawning stable doors. Azhar choked down a yelp, struggling to get his feet into the stirrups as the gallus's gait jounced him brutally up and down. His quiver bounced against his hip. The saurian's birdlike feet threw up billowing clouds of dust as it raced along the road that curved around the chalk cliffs down to the Sinner's Gate. Azhar clung to the reins for dear life, wincing every time his balls met the saddle's ridge. The gallus screamed again, veering toward the road's outer edge to avoid a party of returning riders. Azhar felt his breakfast threaten rebellion as, lurching in the saddle, he caught a glimpse of the city. The rough tenements and tumbledown shacks of the Garden nestled like an infestation of barnacles against the sloped foundations of the cliff road better than two hundred feet below. Ant-sized men wandered muddy tracts of street.

By the time he reached the gate Azhar had managed to slow his saurian to a brisk walk. It strutted sedately into the shadow of the half-built wall. Struts and scaffolding, deserted now, made the blocks of smooth-cut stone seem more like a half-dissected corpse than the beginnings of a mighty fortification. The gate itself was, as yet, nothing more than two massive posts of transmuted iron, fully eighty feet high and so wide it might take ten men to circle them with arms outstretched, framing the road to the forest vale. In accordance with the city's new laws no building stood within a hundred yards of the wall. The ground between the fortifications and the city proper was bare and trampled flat. In the shadow of the gate's rightmost pole waited a party of men variously mounted and on foot. The Son of Heaven was with them, seated cross-legged in the saddle of a cream-colored gallus draped in silken barding. His golden eyes were fixed on the distant wood beyond the Gate. Several men of the Tranquil Guard rode with him in mail and leathers while a short distance away a kennel-master was letting his muzzled raptors scent a bloody slab of meat.

“Captain Khalid,” said the Shah, not turning from his scrutiny of the forest verge. He wore a robe of plain brown rather than his usual white cassock. “I had feared you might nor come.”

Azhar reined in his gallus with some difficulty. “My humblest apologies, Divinity,” he said. “I was delayed in the stables.”

“No matter. Come. Ride with me.”

The Shah's gallus started toward the gate seemingly without coercion. Azhar heeled his own mount after Levi's, one eye still on the kennel-master and his raptors. Packs of the vicious little saurians had roamed feral in the slums of Enochia, picking off beggars and orphans whenever they could corner them. He had known a boy who'd woken up to find the beasts eating his left foot. They passed out through the gate, trailed by the Shah's guard. The kennel-master jogged ahead with his charges bounding and snarling around him. “They have the scent, Divinity!” he called out.

The Shah ignored the man. “How do you find the Floating Palace, Captain?”

“Beautiful, Divinity. Like nothing I've seen before.”

“And your duties?”

Azhar hazarded a glance at the Shah, but Levi's clean-shaven face betrayed no hint of what he might really feel. “To serve you is to know the will of the Divided God. What man could ask more?”

“Well-said,” said the Shah, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Come. Let's enjoy ourselves. Loose the beasts, Udar!”

The kennel-master began to unmuzzle his raptors without breaking stride. The little saurians screamed with glee, snapping at the air and each other as they gamboled and raced in circles around their master. “Get after them!” the kennel-master cried, clapping his hands together. “Aye, aye, aye!”

The raptors bolted for the woods in a flying wedge, their strange hopping gait devouring distance. “Stay close!” said the Shah, and then he slapped his gallus on the side of its neck and the beast burst into a fluid sprint. Azhar swallowed, muttered a swift prayer to any god that cared to listen, and gave his mount a taste of his heels. The gallus screamed, reared and then plunged after the Shah. Azhar bent low over the saddle as the ground flew by in mad lurches beneath the gallus's feet. They were in among the poplar trees in the space of a few heartbeats, following the cries of the hunting raptors through the underbrush. The smooth trunk of a solitary baobab tree, water-bloated and with rootlike branches clutching at the sky, flashed past as Azhar's gallus vaulted a deadfall, crashed through a stand of rotten sumac and raced on in the wake of the Shah's mount.

The first terrified shrieks echoed through the woods. Azhar, fighting his gorge, caught glimpses of the party's other riders crashed through the forest to his left and right in staggered formation. He heard raptors shrilling, and in a moment of perfect clarity he realized that he hadn't thought to ask their quarry. The answer to his question staggered from the boscage and into his mount's path. A ragged Machi woman, her belly already opened by a raptor's dewclaw. Her eyes were glassy, her purplish entrails hanging like macabre pennants between her legs. Azhar's gallus bounded over her in an impossible leap that stole the breath from its riders lungs. His scrotum tightened uncomfortably, and then the saurian slammed back to earth and the woman was gone, vanished into the undergrowth.

Raptors shrieked. Men bellowed and shouted. Azhar heard the insect hiss of an arrow passing close by, but he didn't see the shaft. His gallus darted to the right to avoid a rotten tree gradually collapsing against its living neighbor. Azhar unslung his own bow, trying desperately not to think of what would happen if he fell from the saddle. He had no grudge against the city's outcast peasantry, he thought as he knocked an arrow, but he would be damned if he let them club him to death. A clear head would see him through. Avoid the worst of it, kill only if he had to, and do nothing to offend the Shah. Another escalating hiss, and then the telltale thunk of metal biting into flesh. Azhar's gallus screamed, missed a step and plunged face-first into the forest floor. Azhar rolled free, bruised and battered. He put an arrow in the screaming saurian's skull, spat on it for good measure and then scrambled into a copse of rotting sumac as two unkempt men and a young child, its gender indiscernible beneath layers of caked-on filth, moved out of the brush.

“He ain't there,” said the larger of the two, a one-eyed brute with a bulging brow and a long, greasy black beard. He had an iron cudgel in one scarred, paw-like hand.

His compatriot, an arrow knocked to his huntsman's longbow, made no reply. His glittering eyes scanned the trees. Azhar held his breath and sank lower into the fetid shelter of the sumac. Velvet leaves rubbed against his skin.

“He ain't there, Niz,” the big one repeated dully.

“Shut up,” said the archer. He stared at the still-twitching gallus for a moment, and then his eyes snapped abruptly to Azhar's hiding place.

"Shit," said Azhar in the moment before salvation came shrieking through the underbrush.

The first raptor took the archer from behind, leaping onto his shoulders like a playful child with kitchen knives strapped to its ankles. The brigand screamed and dropped his bow, clawing at the saurian even as more poured from the underbrush and swarmed over his hollering companion. Hot blood splashed the forest floor. The child fell last, opened from belly to chin in a single slash of a big bitch's claw. It lay shivering on the ground, blood pumping from its unstitched body. Azhar huddled in his tenuous shelter, praying the beasts knew enough to distinguish his scent from the reek of the masses. He needn't have worried. Almost as soon as the raptors had begun to squabble over their kills, they fell silent. A dozen pairs of bright, birdlike eyes fixed on something Azhar couldn't see, and then the saurians fled in weird unison back into the woods.

Ahmad Levi strode calmly into the break, his brown robe billowing behind him. He examined the corpses with a strange, almost melancholy expression on his chiseled face. “You may emerge, Captain,” he said after a moment had passed. “You are quite safe.”

Azhar stepped out of the sumac stand. His legs felt shaky and the sight of the dead Machi lying torn and worried on the ground made his stomach churn. Noonday sun did nothing to alleviate the mixed stink of blood and bowel. “I lost my mount, Divinity,” Azhar said, his mouth dry. “I feel a fool for not inquiring as to the day's prey.” He felt a monster. A butcher.

The Shah nodded, not really listening. His attention was on the child, still struggling to draw breath even as its skin grew white and waxy. Its small, bloodstained hands clutched at the gaping rent in its belly. Its mouth moved, stuttering out some silent word. The Shah knelt at its side and pressed his lips to its forehead. “Be one with death,” he whispered. He plunged his hand into the child's ruined chest. Muscle and moist ligature snapped. Levi's jaw worked, and then he stood with the child's heart cupped in his hands. He turned back to Azhar. “You've heard the stories of my birth.”

Azhar forced himself to meet his sovereign's eyes, to see the man he'd thought divine and not the blood-soaked trophy in his slender hands. “Rumors only, Divinity,” he said. His voice sounded distant and hollow, as though someone else were speaking for him at a great distance.

“Most of it is pure fancy,” Ahmad mused. “If even half of it were true, well...that's all immaterial. One rumor, a particularly persistent one, has a grain of truth at its core. My mother was Thulhun. A concubine of Emperor Azurean's. She fled south in the wake of the revolution, pedaling her cunt on the road until she arrived in mighty Carnassa. My fucking pig of a father, some low-born fucking cobbler, raped her in an alley.  Since then I've kept a little ritual, a sort of vengeance by proxy.  I'm not an unreasonable man, though, Captain. I don't want to bleed your whole race into the sand.

"I just want my mother to know I haven't forgotten her.”  He raised the nameless child's heart to his mouth and bit into it.

 Azhar watched, his expression impassive. He wondered, as he watched red blood run in rivulets down the Shah's chiseled chin, if he ought to kill himself.

The child had been so small.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Jafar cursed the eighty-nine steps from the upper reaches of the Tabernacle of Divine Sacrifice to the marmoreal vastness of its primary audience chamber, the House of the Living Sun. He cursed each one with imagination and diligence. Every step sent a lance of white-hot pain from his ass up to the base of his skull. Little spots of black danced before his eyes as, one hand on the cool marble wall, he made his unsteady way down to the Hierophant's court. The massive bronze gongs set on stands behind the throne had ushered in the first supplicants by the time Jafar, sweating and pale, arrived. The aging scholar pushed his way through the assembly of yellow-robed Mullas, alchemists and soldiers on the tiered seats around the Holy Dais. With every agonizing step he repeated in his head a grinding, inexorable mantra.

I have no need of a cane.

His Holiness sat isolate and majestic on the Peacock Throne of the bygone Thulhun Empire, framed by the sweeping view of the city afforded by the hall's missing southern wall. The House of the Living Sun was a room calculated to overawe. Its frescoed ceiling towered over a mosaic floor depicting the Death of the Living Sun, the Maintainer's earthly avatar, at the Sungrave where his disciples had turned against him and transmuted his heart into water only to be drowned in the flood that had ensued. Horns of gold and marble framed the throne. Jafar mounted the dais, wincing as a new flash of pain in his spine nearly blinded him. He wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and sank with what dignity he could muster into his seat behind the throne as the last echoes of the gongs' sounding faded in among the soaring columns that stretched the length of the sloping hall to its vast bronze doors. Chanting Mullas swung smoking censers in the aisles.

The men of the Hierophantic Guard stood between the columns like living statues, resplendent in their sun-embossed breastplates and spiked sunburst helms. Their lacquered white armor shone in the ruddy dawn. Gauntleted hands rested on the hilts of alchemical swords. Dark eyes scanned the crowds of petitioners waiting in the shadow of the great brass doors at the hall's end. The Hierophant himself sat serene and unassailable on the massive edifice of the Peacock Throne, his dark hands gripping tightly its bone-white arms. Behind him rose the throne's back, a great solar disc of finely-latticed porcelain through which sunlight poured in diluted glory. Jafar wrestled his writing board into position on his knees, trying through sheer willpower to quell the shaking in his hands. It had been a week since the disastrous letter from Shibola, a week of frantic midnight meetings, lengthy tracts recorded, edicts issued and new taxes levied. He took a quill from his sleeve and dipped it into the ink-pot on the arm of his low seat. With painstaking care he wrote: 

Twenty-first, Dust, 1498.

The Grand Vizier, a tall and stringy Coven alchemist named Matteus, beat his bronze staff of office against the dais. “His Holiness, mouth of the Maintainer, protector of the Machi people and regent of Heaven on Cthun, will now receive your pleas for aid.” He thumped the staff again against the marmoreal floor. The crowds, dwarfed by the cyclopean vastness of the House of the Living Sun, began to move forward into the light shed by angled gaps cut with cunning and skill into the roof of the hall. Jafar's quill hovered over a clean sheet of cream-colored parchment, awaiting the Hierophant's first public declaration of the day. The first of the petitioners, a gaunt, bearded man in a dark sherwani, approached the Dais. The walk down the hall seemed endless, but at last the man came to a halt a stone's throw from where the Hierophant sat and, kneeling, pressed his brow to the mosaic tiles.

“Rise, my son,” said the Hierophant.

Jafar began to write, his aches and pains forgotten.

The gaunt man rose to his knees. He seemed a child before the immensity of the Peacock Throne. “Effendi,” he said in a dry, hoarse voice, “I am Omid of the village of Loom. I have traveled many days to prostrate myself before you and to beg your aid, although I am unworthy.”

“All of the Maintainer's children merit the aid of His servants,” said the Hierophant.

Quill scratched over parchment, recording history in bloody sweeps of ink.

“Effendi.” The man's voice cracked. “Our village is poor. What little we can scratch from the desert can barely sustain our children. Most of what we have comes from traveling merchants, men who purchase the water from our well for sale in other towns. But since the lighthouse has come, Effendi, they fear our town. They do not trade with us, and we are starving.”

The court was silent. The men seated to either side of the Dais stared in silence, their expressions ranging from incredulous to amused. Jafar shook his head ruefully as he paused in his writing to examine the man's ramblings. There was always one in every crop of petitioners. Some dusty madman from the provinces slipped through the Questioners at the gates of the Tabernacle precincts and managed to babble a few incomprehensible sentences to His Holiness before the Guard dragged them away. Indeed, two Hierophantic Guardsmen had left their posts and were converging on the oblivious man with grim intent in their bearings. Their shadows swept over the floor toward his broken, kneeling figure.

The Hierophant raised a hand and the Guardsman, shock written in plain language across their faces, halted. Jafar blinked, looking up from his parchment as the Hierophant rose from his throne and descended to where the gaunt man knelt. The light streaming through the eyes of the Peacock Throne seemed to brighten at his approach, bathing him in radiance. “Explain,” he said.

The man stared up in awe at Massud, words forgotten. The Hierophant, always a tall and virile man, seemed suddenly a colossus amongst fearful children. His oiled beard jutted from his chin like a scarp of ancient, hoary rock. His dark brows just managed to shadow eyes that would surely burn them all to cinders if exposed. Jafar's quill trembled. Little specks of ink fell to the parchment and spread like flowers unfolding withered tendrils. The supplicant's mouth worked. He swallowed. When he spoke, Jafar's hand seemed to record his words of its own volition.

“I don't know where it came from, Effendi. One day I woke up and there it was in the distance, real as life. I went with a few other men to see what it was. We couldn't find a way in, Effendi. There was a door but it was locked and we couldn't force it.”

The Hierophant, to the instant consternation of the hall's occupants, gripped the petitioner by by narrow shoulders and drew him easily to his feet. “I will remedy this blight upon our people,” he said, his voice quiet but iron-hard. He kissed Omid once on each cheek, then released him and stepped back. Without a word he turned and strode toward the concealed stair at the rear of the hall, beckoning Jafar to follow him as he passed the Dais. Jafar struggled to his feet in the midst of an uproar, maneuvering his writing board carefully so that he did not smudge his transcript of the unusual audience. The petitioners at the gate were shouting, pleading with the Hierophantic Guard as they formed a cordon and, step by measured step, forced them back out into the shadow of the Tabernacle. The Mullas, full of desperate politeness, entreated His Holiness to share his wisdom with them as the Vizier, unbalanced and flustered, banged his staff against the floor.
“This session of the Radiant Court is adjourned!”

Jafar hurried after his master, writing board cradled in his arms. He was winded by the time he reached the stair, a curved sweep of carpeted marble that led up to the warrens of the Tabernacle's midmost levels and then to the austere sanctuary of the Hierophant's study. Massud was already fifty steps or so advanced from the House of the Living Sun, the train of his robe whispering over stone and carpet as he climbed the stair. Jafar bared his teeth. “I do not need a cane,” he hissed to himself as he clamped his writing board against his side, put a hand to the marble wall and began to climb. The first step sent a jolt of pain up his spine. The second set his teeth on edge. Sweat beaded on his scalp as, wheezing and red-faced, he struggled after the Hierophant. On the sixth step Jafar stumbled and nearly fell. His spectacles slipped down the sweat-slicked bridge of his nose. His spine felt as though it were attempting to twist itself into a rhombus. He sucked in a breath and lurched blindly onward, his palm smearing sour sweat across the wall. A muscle in his jaw began to jump.

The stair leaped suddenly ahead of the scrivener. It was an endless slope of jagged steps, each ten paces high and carpeted with flayed skin. The muscles of his back seized. Cold stone swam like melting butter before Jafar's eyes. He paused, pushed his glasses up his nose and waited for the world to right itself. When it had, the Hierophant had left the stair and the House of the Living Sun was silent at Jafar's back. He inhaled, filling his lungs with the incense-tainted air. Fifteen steps left to climb. He levered himself up another hateful pace. His spine made a horrible click-ing noise. He climbed another step, numb-footed and drooling through his teeth. As he paused to rest, Naree appeared at the top of the stair. Her eyes went wide. “Father,” she breathed.

In an instant she was at Jafar's side and had pulled his arm over her shoulder. “You must rest, father,” she began. “Please, if you'll just let me help you we can go back to your rooms and-”

“I don't need your help,” hissed Jafar, not looking at his daughter. Maintainer's Eyes! When had she become so like her mother? Always nagging, nagging. Couldn't she see he had enough to do? “This is not your place, Naree. Leave me at once, and do not forget yourself again.” With an heroic effort of will he mounted another step, leaving Naree standing below him. He looked back, incensed and trembling with the strain of his climb. “You shame me.”

“I shame you?” Tears glistened in her eyes. “I only want to help you, father. You're killing yourself and you can't see it!”

Jafar slapped his hand against the wall, fighting off a sudden wave of nausea. “A man does not lean upon his daughter for strength!”

She was crying now, sniffling between breathes like a little child. “If you would only use the cane, father,” she whined. “Jamshid says-”

“I DO NOT,” roared Jafar, “NEED A CANE.”

Naree wilted, her eyes wide. She said nothing as he scowled down at her, breath rasping in his chest. At length he turned and left her standing there. The last few steps hardly tried him, so all-consuming was his wrath, and minutes later he limped through the door of the Hierophant's study to assume his usual seat. His pain was forgotten. He fumbled with his writing board, noting with bitter pride that he had not smeared the record of the morning's court. Massud turned from his inspection of the cityscape. “What kept you?” he asked, but he quickly shook his head. “No, never mind that. Get this down. Beloved Omar, Master of the Blessed Art, this humble servant entreats you..”

Jafar scrambled to clip a new sheet of parchment into place. He wetted his quill and began to write, steadiness returning to his hands as his temper faded. For the best part of the day he took down the Hierophant's correspondence. Most of the letters went to the Coven of the Sun, and all, Jafar was sure, concerned the strange events of the morning's court. One by one the Hierophant invited men of means and skill to attend him at a special session of the Radiant Court, a private audience for a score of individuals ranging from the Master Alchemist of the Coven to a six-man band of traveling mercenaries renting a room at the Bloody Sewer, famed as Leng's least-reputable inn. The sun had faded when Jafar at last put down his quill and sprinkled clean white sand over the last of the Hierophant's letters. A small hill of communications already sat beside his chair, each rolled into a neat tube and tied with black ribbon. The Hierophant sat propped up on his elbows at his desk, his hands buried in his curly black hair. “That will be all for today, Jafar,” he said distantly.

Jafar got to his feet with some difficulty. His legs were stiff, his back wracked with tremors. In a daze he made the long, torturous journey back to his rooms. He relieved himself, squeezing out a few dribbles of piss into his chamberpot, and forced down a few mouthfuls of honeyed oatmeal and a half an overripe tangerine before his stomach rebelled and he gave dinner up as a bad job. He had just begun unbuttoning his sherwani when there was a knock at the door. Jafar closed his eyes and marshaled his composure. “Come in,” he grated.

His visitor was not, as he had feared it might be, his daughter but instead his physician. Jamshid Khan was a massive man in his late thirties with grave, outsize features and skin as dark as a Lamian Islander's. They had known each other since the early days of the Confederacy. Now Jamshid brushed into Jafar's modest room without comment, his robes billowing as he slammed the door shut behind him. “Your daughter visited me today,” he said curtly. “She told me you haven't been taking the tincture I mixed for you. She told me you nearly collapsed on the Winding Stair, and that you refuse to use a cane. That you bellowed at the poor girl is a matter of public discussion throughout the city, given the volume of the exchange. Have you taken leave of your senses entirely, Jafar agha?”

Jafar's mouth worked, fishlike, for several heartbeats before he could manage a reply. “Naree has overstepped herself,” he snapped. “My health is a matter for my own concern, Jamshid.”

“Maintainer's eyes!” said Jamshid. He slumped into one of Jafar's chairs, which creaked ominously beneath his weight. “You sound like my sister the witch,” he said, passing a hand over his chiseled face. “You'll kill yourself before winter, Jafar. You're not a young man anymore. Take the tincture, use the cane and for your dead wife's sake, if not for decency's, apologize to your daughter.”

“I will not be treated as a cripple,” said Jafar. Nilou's memory gnawed at his conscience. Her smile had been so very like Naree's. “I will not be shamed by my own daughter.”

“Age shames us all in the end,” said Jamshid, “just as surely as it cripples us. Use the cane.”

Jafar said nothing for a long while. He stared at his hands. They were long and slender, their blue veins prominent, their knuckles swollen. “Have one brought here tomorrow,” he said. His voice sounded hollow to his own ears.

“I will,” said Jamshid. He heaved himself to his feet and opened the door, then looked back over his shoulder. “Take the damned tincture, agha.”

Jafar grunted noncommittally. Jamshid sighed, stepped outside and closed the door behind him.

Jafar undressed and climbed with some difficulty into bed. He closed his eyes.

The room felt cold.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Bassam was in his workshop when Safa awoke, stiff and sore, in their bed to the sound of wings flogging air. She shook her head. The metallic clang of hammer on nail echoed through the apartment. She stretched, savoring the delicious ache of tortured muscles slowly uncoiling. The tympanic thumping of her new heart sent quiet little shocks through her chest. Safa yawned, kicked free of the tangled sheets and slipped out of bed. The morning sunlight slid across her skin as she hunted through discarded clothes for something clean. She found an unstained robe hung over the back of a chair and threw it on. It was novice brown, but her black philosopher's robes hadn't arrived yet. She snatched a softening peach from the low stone counter where Bassam did his baking and padded barefoot down the rickety wooden steps behind her reagent cabinet to the basement workshop.

The mingled stenches of tanned leather, gutted fish and wet sawdust assailed Safa's nostrils as she pushed past the heavy tapestry at the base of the stair. Bassam's workshop was a square dirt-floored space twenty paces to a side, its walls occupied with low wooden benches and pegboards where the countless tools of his artificery hung, all polished to a ruthless sheen. A small forge bulked in one corner beneath a canvas-covered vent, its coals glowing cherry red. Stout beams, transmuted by Safa from cheap pine to solid granite, supported the ceiling. Bassam was at his lathe in the center of the room, whistling as he worked the treadle Sawdust flew as the arch he was shaping scraped back and forth across the lathe's steel blade. He grinned, catching sight of Safa, and the arch came to a halt in its leather braces. He removed his protective goggles. “It should be ready for next week,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder at the half-assembled skeletal sphere of oak and iron looming behind sagging canvas sheets at the back of the workshop. A bench beside it held a score of fine-ground glass lenses pillowed on crushed velvet. A battered wicker chair sat despondently within the sphere, joined by heavy chains to its higher supports so that it hung hammock-like at the center of the construct.

Safa clasped her hands together. “It's beautiful.”

Bassam went to the lenses and slid one carefully from its velvet cushion. He turned back to her, grinning. “Once the mountings are finished they should rotate smoothly. You'll use the pedals on the chair to switch between lenses.”

Safa joined her lover at his workbench, sliding her arm around his as she bit into the peach she'd taken. She leaned against him. “It's all very clever. I'm afraid I'm but a poor woman and can't fathom the complexity of your craft.” She kissed his neck with juice-stained lips.

Bassam assumed an air of ponderous dignity. From the pocket of his loose work robe he produced a foot-long ruler which he tapped against the largest of the sphere-cage's iron supports. “It's all terribly academic,” he drawled, affecting a passable imitation of the Coven's Master Historian, the ancient and universally disliked Ustad Babar. “The iron superstructure focuses your raging ego into an alchemical medium which, when interpreted by the lenses, will allow mere mortals to apprehend your closeness to godhood and thus attain a proper state of awe.”

Safa laughed and punched Bassam in the ribs. She slipped free of him to pace around the sphere, pushing past the musty canvasses around it. Its four thick iron legs were worked to resemble crows' claws. The whole ponderous contraption stood almost eight feel tall. Its wooden frame, built within the larger iron one, was joined to the chair's base by a series of oaken poles connected by leather straps to the chair's pedals. The frame itself was a series of interlocking runners, dowels and mounts so clever that Safa had trouble tracing its convolutions. She ran a hand over one of the curved iron bars. It was rough and cold against her palm. “It really is beautiful,” she whispered.

Bassam replaced the lens in its cushioned box. “How long until you return to your lessons?”

“Three days is usual for a new philosopher. Sharif will inspect the battery and then I'll stand for examinations. I think Omar wants to take me on as his apprentice.” Wings beat at the edges of Safa's thoughts in a sudden storm of feathers, glossy black as midnight. She pinched her nose between thumb and forefinger until they faded.

A heavy hand descended on her shoulder. “What is it, darling?”

“Nothing I didn't expect,” said Safa. She turned to Bassam and hitched her lips into a radiant smile. “I'm going upstairs to make tea. I want to try something after breakfast.”

Her lover glowered at her, dark eyes narrow and suspicious. She kissed him on the cheek and retreated back up the stairs to their cramped apartment where she hung a kettle over the hearth and spent a quiet while prodding at the coals with an iron poker. Sparks danced up from the reddish dregs of their last night's fire After a while the kettle began to whistle and Safa removed it. She made tea. The room smelled sweet. She stood bent over the counter, gripping it tightly as the wingbeats in her head grew in volume. Buzzards croaked. Songbirds warbled to one another, wooing blindly. Owls shifted in their musty parliaments, deaf to the clamor of Leng's daytime bustle.

And then she was soaring over the city on coal-black wings, riding the thermals in the bellfounders' quarter. Her eyes picked out even the meanest details of the streets below. Lepers reaching out with rotten hands for the alms of passers-by. A lizard no longer than a man's thumb basking atop a tiled roof, near the chimney. A noblewoman in her howdah raising a finger dusted with powdered poppy to her lips. She flapped her wings and the city wheeled beneath her. The raven's bright, hungry mind turned its attention to the spires of the Tabernacle of Learned Wisdom. In minutes it was there, hopping along a windowsill outside the office of one of the Elders of the Coven. A huge man in black robes sat bent over a desk incongruously small. He was writing in a cramped, spidery hand. His lips moved in time with his quill. The raven cocked its head, watching.
Safa watched through its bright black eyes.

...cannot sacrifice any more of our alchemists. They are needed here, to guide and instruct the next generation of novices through the difficulties of our art. Your Holiness, I beseech you-

Safa lay gasping for air on the kitchen floor, her ears full of screams and scrabbling claws. She sat up, smoothing her robe with unsteady fingers. Was the Hierophant demanding aid from the Elders' council itself? Had some of them already pledged themselves to the brewing war? She took a long, steadying breath. More time. More reconnaissance around the Tabernacles. Once she had mastered her new gift, she could begin to exploit it in earnest. Until then she would go slowly. Carefully.

Everything, her father had once said, comes to she who waits.

Three days passed in a pleasant blur of wine, work and lovemaking. The battery became a familiar sensation, its cold presence in her breast as natural as breathing. She ventured out to the market several times for fish, fruit and bread, but otherwise she closeted herself with new, unproven theorems and the design for the alchemical overlay she would need to complete Bassam's machine. It was a staggering work of art, the centerpiece of their plan. If it worked, it she could sync it perfectly to the precepts of her illicit totemic linkage, the depth of her scrutiny of Leng great and powerful would be without limit. The Hierophant, the Elders, the merchants' guilds, the tradesmen and the mullas would stand beholden to her. Enough with seniority. Enough with corruption. Enough with posturing, with empty words, with the entrusting of godly knowledge to priggish idiots.

It was time for something different.

On the morning of her third day of rest a messenger in novice brown rode from the Tabernacle to invite her formally to her examinations. He also delivered six new black robes embroidered on the collar and back with the suns of Coven and Confederacy. Safa felt a perverse thrill of triumph as she cinched one of the soft, flowing gowns over her underrobe. It felt like water against her skin. She closed her eyes and inhaled its flowery scent.

Sharif's surgery was bare and cold. The Master Surgeon greeted her masked and robed in white, his dead servant standing blank-eyed and expressionless at his shoulder. “Please,” he said, gesturing to a padded iron chair. “Disrobe and be seated. I must wash.” He swept out of the room, leaving Safa to undress herself. The dead servant stared at the wall as she folded her clothes and placed them on the low bench that ran along the stone chamber's north wall. She sat in the chair, knees together, hands clasped together on her thighs. Pickled organs floated opposite her in jars of milky fluid. Silvery instruments gleamed on a velvet-padded stand. Wild thoughts chased each other through Safa's head. What if he discovered the circle Bassam had branded into her mouth? It was still apparent, if only faintly. What if he somehow detected her trick with the eye? She would be scourged. Expelled. The room seemed suddenly small and claustrophobic.

Sharif stepped into the surgery and closed its only door behind him. His hands gleamed with oils. “This is routine, you understand,” he said as he approached Safa. “I must verify that your body has accepted its new heart without complaint.” He pressed a cold, wet hand to her left breast.

“Are they often rejected?” Safa asked.

Sharif removed his hand and bent down to inspect the fading scars beneath her breast. “Not often,” he said. “Sometimes, though, depending on the nature of the totemic synthesis, complications arise. Fevers. Nausea. In some cases the effects are more severe.” He accepted a long, thin silver needle from the dead man's hand. Safa gritted her teeth as he slid the needle's tip gently into the center of her little map of scars. He drew it out and a bead of bright red blood welled up in its place. It ran down Safa's stomach, tracing its way to the contours of her groin where it vanished into the downy hair of her sex. Sharif didn't notice. He had raised the bloodied needle up to the light. Producing from the neck of his robes a little golden amulet, he touched the bauble to the needle. At once the blood became a cloud of lilac petals, falling slowly. Satisfied, he returned the needle to his servant. The dead man replaced it on the velvet stand as the petals drifted to the floor.

“A clean transmutation,” said Sharif. “Your blood remains untainted, the battery walls secure.” He began to clean his hands with a rough white cloth. “I wish you luck in your examinations.”

“Thank you, Elder,” said Safa as she pulled on her underrobe and began to do up the clasps of her philosopher's gown. She left the surgery as quickly as was polite, all the while shivering inwardly at the sight of Sharif's bland, expressionless mask and how much it resembled his slave's grey face.

The Elders' council had scheduled Safa's examination for just past noon in the echoing, dusty rectory on the Tabernacle's fifth floor. Safa arrived disheveled and out of breath with minutes to spare to find Omar, Abena and three other Elders waiting at a long stone table. Omar waved her forward with a long, brown hand. “Be seated, philosopher,” he said, gesturing to a high-backed wooden chair facing the examination table.

Safa sat. The Elders rustled through sheaves of paper, muttering to one another. One, Safa recognized with a start, was the massive alchemist she had glimpsed through the window of his study. After a moment Omar, seated at the table's center, looked up from his notes and said: “You were raised to the rank of philosopher on the sixteenth of Dust in the year 1498 of Our Holy Maintainer. The Coven's records indicate that your blood is untainted by Thulhun filth, that your parentage is acceptable and your tuitions paid by the Bureau of Readiness. These things are in order. The Coven of the Sun will now evaluate your progress as a neophyte of the Hundredfold Year and the Oldest Laws. Are you prepared, philosopher?”

“Yes, Elder.”

The hulking alchemist spoke first, his voice surprisingly high for a man of his size. “What are the Oldest Laws?”

“The immutable precepts of Alchemy,” said Safa. “The ten thousand base substances and their reagents, created by the Maintainer for our use.”

Abena drummed lacquered nails against the table. “Which transmutations are forbidden?”

“Thought, age, memory and distance.”

Ustad Babar spoke next. Safa fought the mad urge to giggle at how closely Bassam had captured his voice. “Which reagents must never be employed?”

“Gold, for it touches with Hell all that it transmutes. The brain of Man, for it is a font of madness.” She swallowed, hands clasped tightly. “The eye, for its sight is bound to alien flesh.”

There were other questions. Endless reams of them. What reaction does bone occasion in seasoned wood? How much blood is required to transmute nine pounds of flesh? What order of purity is required in bronze for the transmutation of a heart? At what temperatures is such purity achieved? Safa answered them all mechanically, reeling off lists of memorized facts. They were impressed. She could see it in their weak, blinkered eyes.

They could not hear the wingbeats echoing from the rectory walls.