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.

1 comment:

  1. I really like that this chapter is just a hunting party (with dinosaurs!). And Ahmad fascinates me.