Monday, August 22, 2011


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.


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.   

1 comment:

  1. Better and better. I think of all the characters Khalid has the most internal conflict. I find him very enjoyable to read. The Shah, too, is coming off as a great antagonist.

    I confess myself confused as to where the action is now in relation to everything else. A map of the continent might be super sweet.