Friday, August 19, 2011


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.

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