Wednesday, August 24, 2011

THE MAGISTRATE III


Nassar Qasim and Ibrahim the Necromancer walked together in silence along the ramparts of Soma's southern wall. No more talkative were the sentinels who stood upon the walls, dead men in scratched and battered plate the same grey as the leaden sky above the Magistrate and his deadly ally. Eyes covered over with funereal coins of gold stared out at the camp of Yussef Levi's besieging army. Gauntleted hands gripped crescent-bladed axes impregnated with latent alchemical transmutations by the city's few minor practitioners of that art. Soma was a waystation, not a metropolis. Its alchemists were second-rate, back-alley operators and academy hopefuls cast out for poor marks or dissolute behavior. The hum of the hematological batteries that imbued the dead with animation made Nassar feel as though he were at the center of a gathering thunder storm, waiting for the lightning.

“How many are there?” he asked.

“One thousand,” said Ibrahim. The necromancer, a fat man before his long imprisonment under the rule of Nassar's father, had become gaunt in his advancing years. His beard was shot through with grey, his hair thinning badly. “Our dead and theirs in equal measure, more or less. Twenty guard your prisoners. The rest man the wall. The expense in batteries is considerable, but with my current supply of bodies we will be able to launch a counteroffensive before the month is out...”

Nassar stopped listening to the other man's soft, reasonable voice. He thought of the prisoners, of grizzled, insubordinate Abbas and faithful, disappointed Ora who had been his tutor in statecraft, philosophy and the faith of the Maintainer. The others he cared little for, in truth, but imprisoning Ora had gouged a hole in his heart. I am another poor sinner, he thought wryly, glancing skyward for a moment. Theology had never been his strongest discipline. Others seemed comforted by the Maintainer's priests, by the long sermons on Rainday in the echoing galleries of the faith's Temples. Nassar's mother had been religious, before sickness had stolen her mind. Even at the end, though, she had muttered little snatches of her favorite hymns and prayers to herself.

“...dead,” Ibrahim concluded. He paused between two dead soldiers and put a pale, scarred hand on the rain-slicked battlements. His dark eyes seemed to plumb the distance between Soma's battered walls, shored up with dirt and makeshift barricades, and the earthworks surrounding Yussef Levi's stark encampment. Nassar watched the necromancer, trying to assess the other man's thoughts. He might as well have tried to coach a brick in alchemy. That Ibrahim, sooner or later, would betray him he was certain of. When, though? That was the question that kept him up at nights. For now the madman's fate was tied to Soma's, and so his miscreations manned the walls. For now. Nassar had a few tricks up his sleeve he thought might prolong the engagement, but he would need to survive the week to see them implemented. Now, with Levi's cannons ripping at the walls and the Serene General massing his men for a final assault, that prospect seemed uncertain.

Nassar passed a hand over his goateed face and blew out a long, tired breath. Have I thrown my honor and my teacher both aside for nothing?

“He will attack tomorrow,” Ibrahim said.

“I thought so,” said Nassar, though in truth he'd had no idea. His grasp of tactics on a scale larger than backroom maneuvering had never been good. “Will you take dinner with me tonight?”

“Yes,” said Ibrahim. They were one of the things that disturbed Nassar most, those flat little one-word answers the necromancer gave. Never an “it would be my pleasure,” or a “certainly.” Just “yes,” or “no.” It made his every pronouncement sound like a judge's verdict.

They returned together to Nassar's manse. Somehow, thought the Magistrate as he dismounted from his gallus in the courtyard, the building looked shabbier in the rain. Petty, somehow. If Ibrahim noticed, he said nothing. They ate together in silence in Nassar's study. Food stores were dwindling and the meal was simple: stuffed compsognathus with fiery peppers and chilled lemon tea served afterward, to soothe their palates. Ibrahim ate mechanically, saying nothing. Nassar picked at his own portion, though the saurian flesh was invitingly tender, its skin crisped to perfection. He would have to remember to congratulate the cook. When at last the necromancer had finished his saurian, a serving girl brought out the lemon tea. Ibrahim took his cup without comment, but he did not drink.

“You're going to want to drink that,” said Nassar.

“The nine great alchemical poisons can only be delivered in liquid form,” said the necromancer, his voice flat and toneless. He set the cup down on the table. “Lemon to mask the taste of arsenic? I am not a fool, Magistrate.”

“No, no,” said Nassar, shaking his head. “You have me all wrong, Ibrahim. It was the peppers I had poisoned. The antidote is in the lemon tea.”

There was a long, ugly silence. Ibrahim's nostrils flared as he drew deep breaths. His hands shook. “Going to kill you,” he said.

“I rather doubt-”

The necromancer moved. With a roar he was out of his seat, and in another instant he seized the chair by one leg. There was a flash, a crackling noise and the chair was made of tin. Ibrahim flung it at Nassar, and at the moment it left his hand another flash blinded the Magistrate and the chair transmuted into solid iron. Nassar threw himself out of the way, upending his own chair and scrabbling on hands and knees for the door as the thrown chair slammed into the mantelpiece and smashed it into shards of dusty marble. “Guards!” he shouted as Ibrahim, with a snarl, started toward him. The necromancer's pointed shoes approached across the carpet. Nassar scrambled to his feet, wishing, as Ibrahim produced a stiletto from his sleeve, that his plan had included a high, thick wall between himself and the madman.

A guardsman burst through the door, halberd lowered. “Kill him!” Nassar shouted. Ibrahim flicked something at the man as he lunged. Glass shattered against skin and a suit of lacquered armor crashed to the ground, spilling dust over the carpet. The guard's halberd landed point-down between Ibrahim's feet and the necromancer seized its haft, spun it around and drove it through Nassar's leg. Bone snapped. The world went black. Nassar heard himself screaming, and then nothing. When he woke the table was on its side in front of the door, Ibrahim was crouched in shadow beneath the window and from the direction of Levi's camp came the thunder of firing cannons, playing counterpoint to the hatchets crashing against the door, transmuted into granite, from the hall outside. The halberd rammed through Nassar's left leg was a burning brand that pinned him to the floor. He bared his teeth and clutched at the wound. He felt cold and tired. “Ibrahim,” he said, blood pulsing through his fingers. “Ibrahim, we can work something out. The city-”

“I can defend the city from here,” said the necromancer, distracted. He had something in his hands, something made of glass that glittered in the light of distant explosions. A little vase, dark liquid sloshing in it. The cold feeling in the pit of Nassar's stomach deepened.

“I transmuted your little drop of blackmail into water,” said Ibrahim, not looking up. “Never try to poison an alchemist.” His fingers slid up and down the sides of the vase. “You're going to help me keep Soma safe, Nassar,” he said. “Together, we're going to save it. Then I'm going to rule it.”

Nassar saw what Ibrahim had in his hands in the next flash of cannon-fire. “No,” said the Magistrate. “Please, don't.”

“Your father should have stayed in his bedchamber with his harem,” he said. “He made a mistake, coming after me. I couldn't get him.” Ibrahim's eyes glittered in the light reflected from the battery he held. “I wanted to kill him, you know, but in so many ways...this is better.”

Nassar closed his eyes before the necromancer opened his breast and slipped a second heart inside it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

THE CONCUBINE III


Alice touched her silver earring, her reagent, to the scrap of silk she had taken from a gown ruined during one of the Shah's increasingly infrequent visits. She could feel what the sages said, the tingling rush of blood in her hands that came with the advent of transmutation. A foul, acrid scent filled her nostrils and a second later she had fallen back onto her rear, coughing and choking as a cloud of white gas slowly dissipated in the damp, warm air of her privy. Chlorine. She'd been expecting lead, but any result was better than none. She had been through so many failures since the slave girl had brought her Scheza's book.

The book's diagrams and treatises detailing alchemy's basics were simple, but Alice was unschooled and nervous. The cryptic warnings against certain transmutations and reagents set her on edge whenever she so much as considered attempting to use the talent she hadn't even known she'd possessed until her jailer's daughter had told her. In Southern Maturi alchemy was practiced only by the Gold and Iron Cabals, the two covens directly beholden to the Dead Senate and the Lich King. Here in Machen there were guilds, temples, tradesmen and priests all capable of and trained in the Noble Art. To Alice, though, the Art was strange and frightening. Now, propped up coughing and red-faced on her elbows in the lavatory, she had another mixed success to add to her short list of triumphs.

Alice got to her feet, spitting to clear the taste of chlorine from her mouth, and replaced her earring in her left ear. The silver teardrop, dangling from the hook on a fine silver chain, felt warm to the touch as she left the privy and went back into the goosedown-padded cage that was her room with its deep four-poster bed, its elaborate tapestries, calligraphied prayer-sheets and lavish d├ęcor. Her bare feet made no sound on the carpets. Water fell from an ornamental spigot worked to resemble a gallus's head into a porcelain basin. Her breath still rasping in her throat, Alice went to the basin and cupped her hands beneath the ice-cold flow. She drank, washing the taste of chlorine from her lips. Faint cries from the city far below assailed her ears as she went to the window seat, but she did not look out. What could she do for those suffering under Ahmad's rule? She could learn, and she could strike against their oppressor, but she could not save them from his soldiers.

With her rings, one of steel, one of silver set with topaz, and one of filigreed bone, she ran through the transmutations she had managed to master. The comforting pulse of heat in her hands built as she worked. First, she turned the onyx bracelet on her right wrist into quartz, then back again. Next came a fingernail clipping turned to water, then an iron cobbler's nail prized from a shoe which she transmuted inch by inch into crackling flames. She had to be careful with iron. Once, when she had transmuted an iron candlestick she'd found discarded behind her bed the flames had escaped her control and set fire to one of the tapestries. She'd had to lie to Mistress Chamyde, the foul-tempered and walleyed Slavemistress of the Palace, telling her in her broken Machi that a lamp had overturned. She'd even pushed over one of the heavy brass lamp stands and smashed its oil reserve, but she didn't think she'd fooled the old witch.

No, she had to be careful. Exceedingly careful. Chamyde was the least of her worries. Ahmad would find out, sooner or later. He was brilliant, but his contempt for her might give her the moment she needed to turn his throat to water. It had been the first transmutation she'd mastered, once she'd worked up the courage to exert her will on a reagent. Her own blood, drawn with a pinprick to the thumb and applied to a mouse that had drowned in her bath. The unfortunate rodent had dissolved into the bathwater like a bad memory. Alice's lips curved upward at the memory. She laced her hands together and looked out at the setting sun, doing her best to ignore the smoke and screams rising up from the city. There is nothing, she thought, that I can do for them.
The sound of something heavy slithering over the lavatory tiles rasped suddenly against the room's illusion of tranquility. Alice froze, her gaze shifting to the thick, oaken lavatory door. Her beringed hands closed into fists. The sound came again, closer now. She heard a long, rattling hiss, and then nothing. Wetting her lips, she stood and said: “Is that you, Divinity?”

No.

Her knees failed her and she dropped abruptly to the carpet, the impact muffled by its plush weave. The thing behind the door hissed again, and again it spoke. Its voice was more in the mind than in the air, a cold and fetid thing with dripping teeth and huge, lurid eyes. Even through the door she could feel its eyes upon her, could feel them reaching deep inside her. “Please,” she said.
Will the Sssssshah come tonight?

“Please, I don't know.”

When he comessssss, you will tell me. I will be lissssssstening.

Alice stared at the door, her pulse thundering in her ears. What color were the voice's eyes? She longed to know. The desire consumed her, drew her to her feet. She crossed the room with brittle tread and pressed her cheek against the door. The wood felt good against her skin, cool and unyielding. “I want to see you,” she mumbled, her voice little-girl slow. “Please, let me come and see you.”

I am death. To look upon me issss to know desssspair.

“I want to see you.”

Slow, huge coils shifted behind the door. She could feel it, close at hand. Water slopped onto tiles. Was it coming out of the bath? Had it come up through the drain? Its bulk rasped against the door and Alice's teeth chattered. Little chills of longing ran up and down her spine as her fingers, fumbling gracelessly, found the cut-crystal doorknob. “Let me come in,” she said. Her thoughts circled a great drain like the water she had made out of the drowned mouse. From a way long way off she could hear herself crying, breath hitching in her chest.

No. You will await your Sssshah in ssssilensssse, and you will remember nothing of thissss, ssssssave that when he comessssss into your chamberssss you will announsssse it.

All at once the world was crystal clear. Alice smiled ruefully, dabbing at the tears of pain on her cheeks. How silly she'd been, stubbing her toe on the lavatory door. Sighing, she limped across the room and sank down onto the edge of her bed. She ran her hands through her long, dark hair. Her rings felt heavy on her fingers, especially the golden one she'd used to transmute the toenails of her little toes into pure agate. The toes still ached, but it had been worth it. She preferred the lesser reagents. Using gold made her feel wild and inspired strange moods, but it was surer. If her other knowledge failed her, she could use the ring of gold against the Shah.

As Scheza's book said, the Golden Way is the road to freedom.

Alice fell back against the embroidered pillows at the head of her bed. The scent of jasmine and coriander was strong in the air. Can I kill him, she wondered, if he comes tonight?

He did not come that night, but there was screaming in the halls and twice someone pounded on the doors of Alice's little apartment. She smelled smoke and huddled in the corner of her room, wondering when the men would come crashing through her door. They never did, in the end, and when a watery sun sent its rays like hesitant soldiers through her window and there were no sounds from the corridors outside her cell, she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD III

No alchemists in Carnassa. There were mutterers and dissidents in the streets now, hand-in-hand with the devotional processions constantly circulating around the skeletal beginnings of the Divided Temple to the Two Who Were One.  No riots yet, but still enough dissent that Azhar Khalid was forced to order arrests and interrogations through a fog of horrified resignation. He did his best to ignore the screams of the men he condemned to the tender mercies of the Divine and Rectifying Inquisition, a group of thirty ordained torturers who never left their suite of filthy apartments adjoining the Palace cells. What was their suffering, though, beside the agonies of the child whose heart the Shah had eaten in the forest?

In his dreams Azhar Khalid saw the blood on the Shah's chin, the righteous fury in his eyes as he tore at the tough muscle of the heart before casting its ragged remains aside. They had ridden back to the Palace together, and somehow Khalid had managed to keep his seat and refrain from vomiting. That he had done later in the privacy of his own chambers. He had heaved until his stomach was empty, until all that came up were strings of bile-tasting mucous, and then not even that. Then he had poured himself a glass of transmuted liquor, drunk it down in one swallow and shaved himself in front of a mirror with painstaking care. Now, a week later, he sat poring over reports from the insufferable Aziz Jalafi, who in spite of all Azhar's wishes to the contrary, insisted on remaining both alive and attentive to his highly irritating duties as Captain-Informer of the Tranquil Guard.

How the slack-faced ape collected any information at all, much less while hampered by the malevolent and, seemingly, ever-shifting halls of the Floating Palace, was a mystery to Khalid. Mysteries were good. They distracted him from the horror of his Shah's twisted rule, and from his dreams which sometimes spilled into waking. His, though, was not the only troubled mind in the Palace. The Princess's slave, a lovely creature of eighteen or nineteen years, had nearly vomited on his shoes just a few days ago when he had come upon her, pale and sweating, in the hall outside Scheza's apartments. What was the Shah's daughter doing in her sealed and silent rooms?

Khalid pushed Jalafi's mind-numbing reports away and stood up from his desk. He put a hand to his throbbing head. A drink would be good. Yes, just one drink to take the razor edge from the day. He went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself three fingers of aged Maturi brandy. It tasted like honey and forgetfulness. He set down the empty glass on his desk, and then he realized that he was standing alone in the privy chamber adjacent to his bedroom, which was entirely impossible. But no, his desk stood on the polished tiles of the floor and through the glazed window he could see the half-built spires of the Divided Temple rearing over Carnassa's decaying sprawl. He looked down at his glass, wondering if Jalafi had poisoned him, or if he had gone mad.

“My office is not in the privy,” he said out loud.

“No,” said the Shah, who was sitting cross-legged on a bench by the door. He held a duduk in his hands, graceful fingers poised over its holes. “It isn't.” He raised the flute to his lips and began to play. The sound was low and haunting. It echoed from the walls like fading whispers.

Khalid managed, barely, not to scream. A drop of clear well water fell from the pump by the copper bath. It steamed on the frigid tiles. “Divinity,” he said, and in that moment he meant the honorific with every bone of his body. His hands shook like an old man's.

Ahmed Levi took his lips from the duduk's mouthpiece. His golden eyes seemed to glow. “Captain Khalid,” he said, raising a long, slender hand. Two ball bearings rested between his spread fingers. “I have a mission for you.”

Khalid wondered, in a moment of mad panic, if he would kill a child to save himself. “Of course, Divinity. Whatever you command.”

The ball bearings flashed as the Shah danced them across his knuckles like a peddler dancing coins. Golden eyes followed the little spheres of iron. “I must leave the city for three days and three nights,” he said. Another drop of water fell from the pump to strike the puddle that lay beneath its spigot. “When I return the temples of the Divided God will be complete. I have foreseen it.”

Khalid glanced involuntarily at the jagged, half-built towers beyond the windows. They were colossal, each half again as large as the Maintainer's Temple Levi's men had burned when the city had fallen. How could they be finished in the span of three days? Khalid licked his lips and put a hand on his desk to steady himself. His glass of alchemical liquor, glowing with an inviting amber light, lay an inch from his thumb. Oh, if he could just have one drink...

“There will be unrest in my absence,” said the Shah of Five Thousand Years. “There are those in this city who seek to unseat me. I need to know that Carnassa will be in capable hands, Captain. Can I rely upon you to do what must be done when the madness begins?”

Khalid swallowed. A drink, a drink, a beautiful, wonderful drink and then a whore like the one he had promised Raed a million years ago when they had chased Scheza Levi through the market. “I am your hand, Divinity.”

Levi's eyes rose from the flashing ball bearings and met Khalid's. “I like that, Lord Captain,” he said. “You have a poet's soul. From now on you shall be the Hand of the Shah.”

“You are too...too generous, Divinity.” Khalid's mouth was dry as he sank down onto one knee, more to avoid collapsing than to reverence his Shah. “I will do all I can to honor the office you have raised me to.”

Levi nodded like a father humoring a precocious child. In an instant, though, his good humor was gone and his eyes were hard. He slipped his duduk into his robes and stood, the motion sudden and fluid. “There is one last thing, Khalid,” he said.

“Divinity?”

The Shah's bare feet disturbed the water puddling on the floor as he paced to the window. He paused, staring out at his city. “After I depart the city,” he said slowly, “take forty men to my daughter's rooms. Burn anything you find. Papers, furniture, bedclothes. When you've finished, kill her. Do it privately and let no word escape the Palace. If a slave, a servant, anyone not inducted into the Tranquil Guard sees you, silence them.” He turned back to Khalid, his face expressionless. “When you're sure she's dead, burn the body.”

The Shah's hand flicked up before Khalid could so much as open his mouth. A ball bearing struck him square in the chest and suddenly he stood in his office, his uniform covered in thick white dust. Before him stood the square, bland-faced Lieutenant Aziz Jalafi, whose heartless expression showed not one whit of surprise. The man held out a thick sheaf of papers. “The afternoon's reports, my Lord Hand,” he said without delay.

The ball bearing struck the floor and rolled away as, laughing madly, Khalid fell back into his chair, snatched up his glass and drank down the rest of his liquor in one huge, choking gulp. Alcohol ran down his chin and stained his grey sherwani. Like blood.

The next morning, when word had filtered down into the city that the Shah had vanished in the night, there were riots. Men and women spilled into the streets, abandoning factory work and shunning the carts that brought the day-laborers and slaves out to the cornfields. Some cried out that the Shah had abandoned them. Others invoked the Maintainer's name, praying for relief from their demonic conqueror. Where are the alchemists, roared the crowds. Where is our Shah? Khalid, commanding eight divisions of the city's constabulary along with a thousand of his own Tranquil Guardsmen, conducted arrests and riot control with the greasy throb of a hangover pounding at his temples and a cold knot of fear sunk deep into the pit of his stomach. The third mob, a knot of workers three thousand strong and intent on marching to the great bellfounders' forge in the shadow of the half-built temples, was the worst. The workmen fought viciously against the constables, shaven-headed men in chainmail and boiled leather with the names of the Divided God tattooed in calligraphy onto the backs of their heads, but the workers were armed with knives, with bricks and broom handles and the constables had swords and iron-banded shields. There was blood. It frothed in the gutters like the runoff after a rain storm. Men screamed and died. Galluses ran wild in the chaos, vaulting over the fallen and the struggling to vanish into the twisted alleyways of Carnassa. From the rooftops, crows and buzzards watched the slaughter with hungry eyes.

Afterward, the grey-uniformed men of the Tranquil Guard went in amongst the groaning survivors to black-bag and manacle whoever seemed most vocal. Seated in a silk-curtained howdah on the back of a complacent bull hadrosaur and sweating through his dark sherwani and riot mail, Khalid watched his men at work. He barely knew them. Jalafi and a handful of other officers were his only liaisons within the Guard. He couldn't have described its structure had he been held at swordpoint. That didn't disturb him half as much, though, as the knowledge that when the chaos subsided he would be forced to execute Ahmad Levi's daughter. Even the memory of the girl disturbed him. Her sneering look, her eyes gilt like her father's.

Khalid gripped the hilt of his scimitar where it hung at his belt. Sweat dripped from the tip of his nose onto the crotch of his pressed trousers. His hadrosaur honked mournfully. At his side, mounted on a swaybacked Gallus, was Raed. Khalid had appointed the old fool his envoy to the constabulary and an honorary member of the Tranquil Guard. It felt good to have a familiar face close at hand. “Clearing right up,” growled the aging constable. “They didn't have much fight in 'em.”

Smoke drifted over the city in a brownish haze. The peasants were firing warehouses and granaries in the slums. Khalid sniffed at the air, squinting into the sunlight. “Raed,” he said, “find Lieutenant Jalafi. Tell him to bring forty of his best men back to the Palace at once. I'll meet him on the Concourse.” Without waiting for an answer he took hold of the hadrosaur's reins and snapped them against the saurian's massive flanks. His escort, a quartet of mounted Tranquil Guardsmen in the tall, pointed grey hoods they wore in public fell into formation around him. Lowing, the beast turned in a ponderous circle and set off, flanked by riders, toward the distant immensity of the Floating Palace, which rose from the chalk cliffs overlooking the city like a spear aimed at the beating hearts of any gods that waited there.   

Friday, August 19, 2011

THE HIEROPHANT'S SCRIVENER III

The men and women assembled in the antechamber of the Hierophant's study paid Jafar little mind. They were a mixed lot, sellswords, cutthroats, bushwhackers and journeyman alchemists. They played kurut by lamplight or diced on the mosaic floor. One greasy-haired freedwoman had had the audacity to light her pipe, but Jafar had threatened to call the guards and the woman had subsided, muttering nastily. In the corner opposite Jafar's sat Astana Marid, the Coven's enormous Senior Philosopher. A pair of dead servants flanked the blunt-featured woman, their slack faces staring at nothing with golden eyes stamped with the Hierophant's profile. Jafar watched them all over his tablet, lips pressed into a thin line as he struggled to ignore the polished ashwood cane leaning against his high-backed wicker chair. It lurked there like a venomous serpent, taunting him.

“You cannot run from your death, old man,” it seemed to say. “It comes in the twisting of your spine, in the few fitful drops of piss you squeeze out in the middle of the night, in your rotting teeth and thinning hair. Soon you will die and face the Maintainer's judgment. What will he think, I wonder?”

Jafar fought the urge to kick the cane away from him. He forced himself to go about mixing his inks and positioning his shakers of drying sand. The Hierophant had requested full transcripts of his meetings with every one of the men and women who had responded to his summons. Some few had, to Jafar's horror, refused His Holiness's invitation. One, a physician, had actually fled Leng in the night. The dishonor was too great for Jafar to so much as consider.

The Hierophant entered the room without ceremony, striding through the doors even as his slaves labored to drag them open. He wore a simple saffron-colored cassock and moved with purpose, ignoring the sudden consternation of those he had invited into his presence. A slave jogged ahead of him, carrying a bench of polished oak which he set down in front of the doors to the Hierophant's office. His Holiness thanked the slave and sat, hands clasped between his knees. He bowed his head, his beard brushing the tops of his thighs, and for a long while he said nothing at all. The assembled crowd watched him, some with wide eyes, others wary as treed cats. At last, when it seemed the silence could stretch no longer, Massud opened his eyes. “The Machi people have been purified,” he said. “We have been tested by fire, by steel, and by sorcery.”

Jafar's pen flicked over the sheet of fine paper, recording the Hierophant's words in perfect longhand. In his mind's eye, though, he saw the pale bodies of the Thulhun heaped in the streets and on the battlefields after First Leng and at Kakarot. He saw flames licking at alabaster skin and Machi horsemen riding on gallusback through the streets, long spears darting out to skewer the fleeing citizenry of the ruined Empire. He recorded his master's words, his hand steady.

“We have been purified, but there are those who would contaminate that purity. There are those who wish a return to the Rule of Thul, to depravity and sin, extravagance and licentiousness. The Bandit Shah opposes us in the west, across the desert. Across the sea the faithless Maturi delve into forbidden sorceries, denying the Maintainer's guiding light. We are beset on all sides by the iniquities of the wicked and the profane.”

Silence reigned. In a room of back-alley cutpurses and luminaries, footpads and narcotics sellers, the Hierophant of Machen preached humility and piety of spirit.

“In the north, in the furthest reaches of the desert where the Mountains of Madness rise into the fathomless sea of the sky, there is a tower. A lighthouse.”

Jafar glanced at the Hierophant, noting the other man's furrowed brow and serious aspect. His pen dashed notes across a new page as with his free hand he spread sand over the drying ink of the previous sheet. Massud stood and clasped his hands behind his back. “If you so choose, you may take my writ and go north in search of this tower. Kill all who occupy it. Set it to the torch, and when the flames have cooled pull it down, brick by cursed brick, and smash those bricks with hammers until the wind has taken the dust. There will be danger, and many travails, but to the survivors will go power, riches and eternal esteem in the Maintainer's eyes.” He gestured and his slave removed his bench, toting it back out of the chamber without a word. Massud put his hand on the knob of his office door. “Those who agree to do this thing, give your signatures to my scrivener.”

He went into his study and closed the door. The dozens packed into the antechamber turned to Jafar. One by one they either left the room without a word or came to put their signatures to a blank sheet the scrivener held out for them. Astana Marid signed, as did the greasy-haired woman, whose name was Sharun and who Jafar saw carried a sword beneath her coat in defiance of Hierophantic Law, and better than twenty others. When they had gone Jafar sprinkled sand over their signatures, crude scrawls and languid calligraphy both, and, taking up his cane with only a momentary flicker of revulsion, went into the Hierophant's office. Massud took the sheet and nodded, his face betraying nothing.

“Sit,” he said to Jafar.

Jafar sat, his hip protesting even after the short walk from the antechamber to his accustomed seat opposite the Hierophant's desk. The cane was making him weaker, he suspected. Weaker with every step until someday he would collapse into dust, leaving no trace that he had ever been.  He licked his dry lips.  “What is the tower, Holiness?”  The question left him before he could check his tongue. Perhaps it was his age, or the lateness of the hour, or his weariness after hours of Jamshid's needling reminders to use his cane, to exercise in the morning, to eat figs with every meal. No matter the cause, though, the words had flown. It was the first time he could remember questioning his master unsolicited.

Massud turned from his window and fixed Jafar with an iron look. “You'll know soon enough, old friend,” he said. “You are to ride North as my eyes and ears, to record the expedition.”

“Holiness,” said Jafar, his mouth dry, “I am no warrior. My age-”

“I ask much of you, I know,” said Massud, “but I can trust no other. Will you do this for me, my friend? I cannot in good conscience do it myself with the Bandit Shah's depredations to consider.”

The black loathing in Massud's voice at the mention of Ahmad Levi sent cold fingers racing up Jafar's spine. He swallowed, absurdly conscious of his aching hip and of the sweat soaking the collar of his sherwani. “Of course, Holiness,” he said. “Of course. I live to obey.”

The next day Jamshid plied him with medicaments and herbs, with teas and tinctures to relieve the difficulties of the road. The physician warned against the diseases carried by the mosquitoes of the northern marshes and the anger in his eyes was plain. He knew as well as Jafar that the road was no place for the Hierophant's Scrivener. Naree was worse. She wept, sobbing even when Jafar gathered her into an embrace and promised her a speedy return, lying through his teeth about the rigors of the journey to come. He held her close, stroking her fine, dark hair. So like her mother.

“I'm not a child, baba,” she whispered, though she had not called him baba since her sixth birthday. “I know there will be danger.”

“Not so much danger, Naree,” said Jafar. He regretted so much of his life, not least his harshness with her in the past months. Somehow, though, he could not unstick his tongue to tell her. “Not so much as all that.” They sat together through the night, and when she fell asleep with her head on his shoulder he whispered a prayer to the Maintainer that she would outlive even Machen itself.

In the morning, Jafar met the brigands, physicians, cutthroats and scholars of the Hierophant's expedition on the outskirts of the city at the Gate of Dust. The scrivener wore a simple black sherwani, high-collared and with loose sleeves for the storage of his papers. His house slave, Nussut, led a mule laden with bags and water skins and a pair of galluses meant to bear them north. The others were arrayed in the shadow of Leng's towering yellow walls with their own motley retinues in attendance. Astana sat in a howdah atop the back of a dead hadrosaur, its leathery skin peeling in the heat, the hematological batteries that gave it motive force visible between its barrel-hoop ribs. A pair of long-haired sellswords had brought a string of camels from the eastern wastes beyond the mountains and the brutish Sharun was mounted on an ankylosaur barded all in black. Slaves and dead servants were scattered throughout the group.

“Scholar,” said Sharun. “At last, you appear. We had thought to pitch our tents and wait.”

“I am prepared,” said Jafar, glaring icily at the younger woman. With Nussut's aid and a wooden stepping block he mounted his gallus, an old swaybacked female well past her brooding years. His hip began to ache even as he slipped his feet into the stirrups and stowed his cane in the saddle sheath meant to receive a warrior's sword. His back would be afire before the day's ride was out, be he would give Sharun no satisfaction. He set his teeth against the building discomfort at the base of his spine. “Let us be on our way.”

They left Leng behind and set off in a long, straggling procession along the Road of Dust. Tears of pain stung the corners of Jafar's eyes, but he did not shed them.

I will show them nothing of my suffering.