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.