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.”