Wednesday, August 24, 2011


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.

1 comment:

  1. For some reason I keep forgetting what happens in Nassar's chapters, but I always like them. Ibrahim is also a very fun character. Always fun to see master alchemists at work.