Thursday, July 28, 2011


The letter offering apprenticeship had not come from Omar. Safa stared at the scrap of parchment, trying to puzzle out why Sharif Anasazi would want anything to do with her. Her performance in her surgical studies had been adequate, but never exceptional, and besides that they had hardly spoken. Yet here was his invitation in his own long, plain hand. Safa dropped heavily into a chair at the small rough-cut table in the kitchen and set the letter down beside her half-eaten breakfast of flatbread, dates and goat cheese spiced with radish shavings.

I, Sharif Anasazi, Master Surgeon, choose as my newest acolyte the alchemist Safa Khan, daughter of the state. Should she wish it, her training will commence on the Day of Visions just after sunrise in the Surgery of the Tabernacle of Learned Wisdom.
In my own hand,

The letter had arrived by pigeon with the dawn, summoning her to an apprenticeship in two days' time. Safa had not told Bassam, still sleeping after a long day at his workshop in the Plaza of Dust. Between his trade as an artificer and his work on the panoculum in the basement of their apartment he had little time for anything but sleep and rushed meals. Safa scratched at her breast beneath her robe, running her fingernails along the line of the scar where her second heart had been implanted by Sharif's own hand. It was true that she and Omar had never been close compared to other senior alchemists and their favored students, but she had always assumed he would take her on out of appreciation. She was the most skilled transmuter to have attended the Tabernacle in twenty years. Everyone said it. Why, then, had the note come from Sharif?

Wings beat around the edges of Safa's thoughts. She saw the city from above, watched coldly its man-clogged streets and soaring edifices of dead stone. Lights twinkled below her like a million eyes. To the east and the south lay the ocean, murderous and impassable save to the albatross. To the west lay the open road, to the north the empty steppe the tribes had abandoned after their conquest. Now only dusty madmen and penniless dervishes wandered there. Sometimes they died in the heat and Safa would swoop down upon them to claim their softening flesh before the jackals came.

Safa blinked and saw the plain wooden walls of her apartment, washed in candlelight. She inhaled deeply and clasped her shaking hands in her lap. Every day it grew harder and harder to fend the visions off. Once it had come upon her in the bath and she would have drowned if Bassam had not hauled her from the copper tub and pounded her back until she'd spat up nearly a liter of water and bile. Afterward she had screeched at him like a crow, struggling to remember words as he held her tight against his chest. He had found reasons to delay the testing of his artifice, the Opticus he had built for her from plans forbidden after the fall of the Thulhun Empire. He was concerned. Afraid. Soon, if he didn't come around, she would have to force his hand. She needed that machine.

A knock at the street door interrupted Safa's thoughts. She glanced up at the narrow wooden door and reflexively turned her outward eyes upon the steps. Birds roosting in the eaves of nearby buildings or preening themselves on washlines and flower boxes gave her a window through which to observe the robed and bald-headed man standing outside her door in the fading light. He was tall and rangy, his robe well-worn by travel. As Safa watched he raised a scarred fist and knocked again, scowling. She withdrew from the birds on the street, cold apprehension gnawing at her stomach. The man was no messenger from the Tabernacle. Standing, Safa retied her stained and unwashed robe, checked her sleeves to make sure her reagents were in place and moved to answer the door. If the man was a problem, she would deal with him herself. Her sweat-damp fingers closed on the door's handle. She opened it.

“Good evening,” she said, her mouth dry.

“Khanum,” said the man, inclining his head. He was taller than he'd looked through the eyes of the birds, his face gaunt and raw-boned, his scalp peeling, his eyes colorless behind wire-framed spectacles. In his long black robes he looked something like a crow himself. “Am I correct in stating that you hold the rank of alchemist?”

“You are, agha,” said Safa. “If you're looking for a transmuter, you'd be better off at the markets in the Plaza of Dust. I don't work freelance.”

The man nodded as though he had expected her response. “You were born in Carnassa, unless I miss my guess.”

“How did you-”

“To Daud Khan's lowborn mistress, Alaya.

Safa stepped back, a cold lump forming in her throat as the man slipped through the doorway. His shadow fell across her, black-winged and immense. “He kept you in his home for two years and seven days, raised you as his own until the city's noblemen began to whisper that he had lost his edge.”

There had been a house on the bluffs beneath the Floating Palace, a palatial villa with a bright, clear pool for swimming and the smell of ripe oranges from the orchard thick in the air. Slaves cleaning marble floors, women laughing in the baths. Safa put a hand to her mouth.

“He gave you a toy, a little monster made of rags”

No. No. It was impossible. Nobody knew about Baba, hidden safely beneath the floorboards under the mattress. Nobody knew.

“He threw you out into the streets.”

Cold. Hungry. Running fleet-footed from the rapers and the thieves, from the slavers at the market where she went to steal rotten fruit and old bread. Hiding in the alleyways with the filth and the dogs, fighting with other children for the merest scrap of food.

The man seated himself at the kitchen table and set down at his feet a little iron stove no bigger than a teakettle. His colorless eyes continued to pry into Safa's. She hugged herself, reagents forgotten. Birds shrieked at the corners of her mind while their wings battered her thoughts to pieces. “Who are you?” she whispered.

“I am Azurean,” he said.

Safa felt faint. She stumbled to a chair by the window and fell into it, hearts thumping. “Azurean,” she said. “You're dead. Drowned and dead.”

The last Emperor of Thul smiled a gaunt, humorless smile. “The dead have come up from the sea,” he said. “I am Azurean, Safa.”

“Why are you here?”

“To teach you. Cthun will have need of you before summer's end.”

“He is too late, khanum,” said a voice from the stove. “Man's world will burn.”

Safa stared at the little iron box, feeling faint. Outside, trumpets and horns announced the passing of a column of soldiers. They marched past beneath standards flying the Hierophant's blazing sun, boots raising clouds of dust from the parched and sweltering street. Safa watched them go by, trying desperately to think of nothing. Officers on galluses led each company, and after them came white-robed Hierophantic Alchemists seated in howdahs atop the backs of plodding hadrosaurs. The Confederate Anthem, drummed out by a hundred soldiers with cymbals, horns and muleskin drums matched the rhythm of their march. At the head of the column a Marshal with a close-trimmed greying beard and weary eyes rode a roan gelding. Golden spurs gleamed on the heels of his sabatons.

She licked her dry lips. “Why...why me?”

“The Golden Way has opened. The Moth-King comes.”

“The Moth-King?”

Azurean leaned toward her. His spectacles slid down his long, thin nose. “He is coming, a hunger from the heart of our drowning world. When the stars align he will be born into Cthun.”

“What can I do?”

“Find him,” said Azurean. “Find his vessel before his rebirth. I have wandered far and wide in search of him, but I have only my failing eyes.”

“You know what I did.” The crow's eye, wet in the palm of her hand as the black bird writhed in its death throes in the dirt.

“I will be your master,” he said, and his voice was frosted steel. “Take the surgeon's tutelage. Learn what you can from him and the rest of that tower of eunuchs and mystics, but know that your true loyalty is to me. Through me you will know power you cannot imagine. Through me you will regain all that your father stole from you, and more.”

The iron stove made a strange sound, almost like a child's cry.

“Don't tell Bassam,” said Azurean, and then he and the stove were gone. A bead of malachite appeared in midair and fell to the ground. It rolled away across the floor, throwing mad shadows over the walls as it went. Safa stood unsteadily, keeping a hand on the table for support. Azurean's seat was empty. The door was closed. Had he dared to transmute distance? Had he dared? She rounded the table on shaking legs and touched a finger to the back of his chair.

For an instant she stood in a different room, a vaulted chamber walled in books with a fire burning merrily in a marble grate. Azurean stood beside it, pouring something dark from a long-necked bottle. He spoke to the fire and the fire answered. And then he was gone and Safa was alone in her kitchen, tears drying on her cheeks. How had he known?

How had he known?

Friday, July 22, 2011


Deep summer brought an evil heat to the sun-baked streets of Leng. It lingered rudely even in darkened rooms, penetrated the darkness beneath thorny acacias and sheltering oaks. Noblewomen sweated through their silks and samites while the peasants, dressed only in sodden cotton, milled in stinking, miserable throngs through the streets of the city. The heat clung to stone, to brick and marble long after the sun vanished each night. Saurians gasped in the traces of rattling, sun-warped wagons, laboring to pull their masters' goods. In the fields outside the walls of Leng golden wheat waited to be harvested, fat stalks nodding like the weary heads of somnambulant old men. The ten thousand slaves of the Bureau of Agriculture, the second most powerful of the Three Holy Bureaus, marched out each morning before sunrise to cut and bale. The cracks of their overseers' whips and the plaintive cries of the elderly and the infirm presaged the bloody glory of the dawn.

It was awash in that same carnelian splendor that Rashid watched his men drill in the shadow of the the northernmost guard tower of the Tabernacle of Divine Sacrifice. He paced the rearmost lines, scowling in the growing humidity as the foremost ranks threw siege ladders up against the tower and its surrounding stretches of wall. The Tabernacle Guard struggled against them. Blunted swords and spears thumped and crunched against armor and flesh. The thick straw-stuffed mats around the ladders ensured that any recruit who fell from the walls would, more likely than not, survive his tumble. Headless arrows hissed and buzzed back and forth between besieger and besieged, propelled by fat-stringed training bows. “Faster, you dogs!” roared Rashid. “No mercy!”

He was in a foul mood and the heat had done nothing to improve his disposition. Several of the men had already collapsed under the sun's merciless eye. A reasonable commander, a small corner of Rashid's mind suggested, might call a halt to the afternoon's exercises until evening brought relief from the heat. After all, a soldier dead of sun-sickness was no use to the Hierophant. Rashid was not feeling reasonable. “My mother could take that tower unarmed and one-legged!” he bellowed. “I buried her sixteen years ago and she still makes you look like a wet shit!”

The men surged forward toward the ladders, crying out in inarticulate rage and hatred. Rashid watched them, chest heaving, teeth bared. His leg throbbed like it was newly broken. “That's it,” he snarled. “Get it all out.” He'd half-expected a knife in the back since he'd caught the idiot who'd tried to poison his morning coffee. The boy was still crucified in the courtyard over the entrance to the Tabernacle, a sobbing reminder to the rest that treachery's price was not lightly paid. He'd be rid of them soon enough, anyway. The whole blasted legion was marching out with the dawn on the Road of Dust, bound south for the siege of Soma and the Bandit Shah's rebel empire. Marching to war and death, away from their sweethearts and their weeping mothers.

They did not take the tower that day.

“You are a disgrace to His Holiness,” said Rashid, limping down their bedraggled line. Flushed faces stared murder at him. Chests heaved beneath sweat-soaked shirts. Rashid's cane clicked against chipped, weather-worn flagstones. “Your cowardice, your weakness of heart and of character, your lack of resolve on the field of honor. When we rode against the Thulhun Empire we were less than ten thousand horsemen and hunters against the hundred thousand crack troops of the legions. We stole victory from their jaws and broke their backs. We drowned their cities in the blood of their soldiers, and when they raised up new legions against us, we crushed them.” The hate had faded from their eyes, replaced by fear. Rashid limped onward, sweat dripping from his nose, his brow, his back. “I did not make you men, but that is neither your failing nor mine.” He halted and rested against his cane, letting them see for an instant his weariness, his weakness, the price exacted daily by the mace of a long-ago Thulhun legionnaire whose throat he had slit. “Only war can make a man, and you have not known war.” He paused, a ruthless smile carving his face. “Can anyone tell me what the difference between war and a woman is?”

Silence. Puzzled looks. Shifting feet. Rashid's grin widened. “You fuck a woman,” he said. “War fucks you.”

It was midnight when Rashid awoke to the sound of someone knocking at his bedchamber door. He stumbled out of bed, clad only in his dressing gown, and limped to the door which he wrenched open with a savage tug. “What the hell is it?” he snarled at the bald-headed slave standing in the hall, fist raised to knock again.

The slave took an involuntary step backward, then proffered a scroll sealed with fresh red wax. His brow suddenly cold with sweat, the old soldier took the scroll, broke its seal and read, squinting in the dim light of the slave's lantern as the man stammered apologies for waking him. Rashid waved him off, too engrossed by the note to take notice of the slave's discomfiture.

Faithful Servant of the Maintainer
This poor one has observed your labors and found them meet and fitting.
Your presence is requested in the House of the Living Sun.

Rashid carefully rerolled the scroll and tapped it against the palm of his hand. “I'll need to change,” he said to the slave, “unless you think the Hierophant would approve of my attending him in my fucking nightgown.”

The slave prostrated himself at once, his shuttered lantern banging against the flagstone floor of the hall. “This fool is beholden to you, agha,” he said. “I am unworthy to convey you to his Holiness.”

“Just wait there,” Rashid snarled, and he slammed the door on the bald man's grief-stricken face. His bad leg, already remembering the man who'd lamed it, screamed protests as he struggled into his dress uniform. First the white roughspun underrobe, then the burgundy hose, boiled leather breastplate, gauntlets and greaves and finally the sun-blazoned tabard proclaiming his allegiance to the Maintainer's faith. He splashed rosewater on his face, ran his hands through his greying hair and took his cane from where it stood against his bed. “Fuck,” he said to himself as he limped toward his door.

The House of the Living Sun was everything Rashid had heard and more. Great gongs, one to either side of the enormous Peacock Throne, sounded as he entered through the brazen doors at the front of the hall. He felt small and shoddy, overshadowed by the chamber's gilt columns and by the moonlight flooding through its absent southern wall through the filigreed crest of the throne where Massud Madras sat, flanked on his left by an old balding scribe and, on his right, Matteus dressed in flowing robes of black and holding a brazen staff of office. The alchemist's expression was unreadable. The slaves who had sounded the gongs withdrew in silence as Rashid, kneeling awkwardly on the tiled frieze of the Death of the Living Sun, fought against the urge to grind his teeth. He had known Matteus was highly-placed in the Coven, but Grand Vizier? Why hadn't he said anything?

“Holiness,” Rashid managed. His bent knee was already ablaze with pain. “I am unworthy even to kneel before you.”

The Hierophant rose and descended his dais. He moved spryly for his age, just as Rashid remembered when last he had seen the great man during the end of the Summer Jihad, just before the battle of Mem. A flash of irrational jealousy colored Rashid's vision. Why should the mighty Massud keep his strength while he, Rashid, was forced to hobble about like an old man with one foot in an open grave? Then the Hierophant was before him and his complaints were forgotten as the leader of all the People's Heavenly Confederacy helped him to his feet and kissed him twice, first on one cheek and then the other.

“Your soldiers have been well-trained,” said Massud Madras. Up close the lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth were evident. His dark skin hung slack from his bones and threads of white ran through his long black beard and moustaches. “The value of a good spear wall was one lesson the Thulhun pretenders had to teach the Machi.”

“A lesson hard-learned, Holiness,” said Rashid, his mouth dry. His hand was slick with sweat on the head of his cane. Even Matteus seemed to have receded into the distance. “I was at Mem when the Princes Imperial made their last stand.”

The Hierophant nodded. He clasped his hands behind his back and, without warning, began to circle Rashid. His plain yellow robes trailed behind him over the tiles. Rashid stood still, ignoring the itch of his tight collar and the sweat running down the small of his back. The Hierophant's footsteps were loud in the deserted hall. When he had completed his circuit he halted and met Rashid's eyes with his frank black stare. “Matteus,” he called, not turning.

The alchemist came swiftly down the dais steps, leaving the old scribe to scratch out his notes in the shadow of the throne. Rashid noticed that the vulture-like man had his own cane leaning against the side of his wooden bench. He felt a twinge of sympathy, then returned his attention to Matteus and the Hierophant. Massud held out a hand as his vizier approached and from within his voluminous robes the alchemist produced a scimitar in a battered leather scabbard tipped with steel. The Hierophant took it and looked Rashid in the eye. His gaze seemed depthless. Behind him, Matteus remained impassive and silent, but his hands were white-knuckled on his staff of office.

“When I rode out to marshal my father's tribe,” the Hierophant said, “I took only the clothes on my back, my camel, a waterskin and this sword my grandfather left to me. My clothes are lost, my camel dead, my waterskin burned with my own son, Mani. This is all that is left of the beginning of the civilization that the Machi have built.” He held it out to Rashid. “Take it, if you would fight again in the cause of your god and your people.”

“Holiness,” Rashid said, his voice hoarse. “I cannot touch such a sacred thing. I would profane it.”

The Hierophant seemed to consider that for a moment, then he hawked, snorted and spat on the scabbard. White saliva oozed over the cracked leather. A drop fell and hit the floor. Rashid stared in horror, trying to find his voice.

“It is only a sword, Rashid,” the Hierophant said softly, “but I give it as a gift to you, poor though it is.” He wiped the scabbard clean with the sleeve of his own robe and pressed it into Rashid's trembling hand. He leaned close and spoke in a hushed voice. “Nizzam Nizzar, my Horde General, is a stalwart friend to me, but he is old and set upon by rivals and enemies. You will protect him as best you can, support his rulings and command your legions. Not only must we conquer this murdering pretender in the west, but also our own dissension. Can I trust you?”

Rashid's eyes flicked to Matteus, then back to Massud. He swallowed, the fingers of his left hand tightening on the oiled scabbard. “Yes, Holiness.”

The Hierophant stepped back and spread his arms. “I raise you, Holy Veteran Rashid Hadar, to the rank of Horde Adjutant. May you do good works in the Maintainer's service until the end of your days.” Without ceremony he turned and left, sweeping away over the tiled floor toward the darkness behind his throne. His aged scribe struggled to his feet and limped after his master, clutching the tools of his trade against his breast with one arm while in his free hand he held his cane as though it had done him a personal wrong. Matteus lingered only for an instant, his misery plain, and then he too followed the Hierophant into the shadows.

“Until the end of my days,” Rashid muttered to the empty chamber. He turned and began the long, painful trek back to his quarters. The click of his cane against the tiles was loud in the silence.

He was alone.