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.

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