Sieur Lorelei Dancing Crane, vassal of the Daimyo de Ponsier and commander of the ninth senatorial legion, rides north with her men along the Road of Dust, the indestructible bridge that joins Machen to Maturin. The great track, raised in centuries past by the mighty alchemists of long-lost Thul, is a marvel beyond mortal reckoning. It is made of some stark black metal, a single unimaginable length transmuted from water, and it cannot be transmuted or destroyed by any weapon known to man. It has borne the weight of armies, Lorelei knows, and more than one war has been decided on its span. Not this war, though. No, this war lies in the west of Machen, that dusty, sanctimonious neighbor to lush Maturin. Machen with its cruel religion, its stern god and hard-eyed warriors. Rocking in the saddle, her gallus's spine shifting beneath her sore arse, Lorelei is sure that if her luck holds to its course she'll be buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in fucking Machen.
The banker interrupts her bad mood. He looks like a toad, like a storyteller's idea of a banker plucked from the pages of a whorehouse scroll. He clears his throat, adjusts his wig with fingers that must be modeled on short, fat sausages. He rides a mule, leaving him a dwarf among the legion's gallus-mounted knights and cavaliers. “Sieur,” he says in his whistling, nasal tone, “I must remind you that my employers specified an arrival date which, according to my most recent calculations, we will miss by fully three days.”
“Yes,” says Lorelei. She is irritable in the heat, sweating under the weight of her lacquered bamboo armor. The ko-flags jutting from her shoulders hang limp in the dead, salt-stinking air.
“I said yes, maestro. Yes, we're going to be late. Yes, it's unavoidable. Yes, your ledger-scribbling masters are going to wet themselves with anger. What would you like me to do about it?”
The little man's round cheeks redden. “I fail to see-”
“Can't march faster,” grunts Jocelin Summer Pollen, Lorelei's hulking second-in-command. He scratches at his stubbled chin. “Not enough water.”
Lorelei spits neatly through the gap between her front teeth. “My verbose colleague's summation suffices. This isn't the Road of Tears, or the Broken Road. There's no source of fresh water between here and Machen except for our alchemists, and they can only make so much. If we run the galluses, they'll die, and then we will. So, we walk.”
The banker's mouth opens, closes, opens again. He settles on a scowl and, flipping open his ledger with saddle-horn as writing stand, begins to scribble furiously. Lorelei imagines kicking him in the side of the head, imagines him pitching off the edge of the Road of Dust, down that sheer ten-foot cliff of nameless metal and into the hungry sea where mosasaurs wait to pick the flesh from the bones of the clumsy, the unlucky, the suicidal.
Not an unattractive option after a week on the Road of Dust. The track is monotonous, an endless stretch of black. Its width and appearance are both uniform, its surface uninterrupted. Maturin is no longer visible behind the legion, and it will be weeks yet before Machen appears on the horizon. The Daimyo, curse his mother's fertile gash, could have given command of the exploratory expedition to any legion, to any of his hundred knights. And he chose Lorelei.
Scowling, the knight heels her mount forward. The gallus, a strapping bay gelding she has not yet bothered to name, squawks in indignation and quickens its pace. Jocelin follows, keeping pace with the easy skill of a natural cavalier. Lorelei remembers the Daimyo's masked face as they spoke in his solar, remembers his wrinkled hands on the stem of his wineglass and the wig-powder dusting his shoulders. Her hands tighten on her gallus's reins. “Why in the name of the Hollow God are we out here shilling for a Machi warlord?”
“Can't break his word,” says Jocelin. He spits neatly, efficiently. “Made a deal.”
Lorelei grinds her teeth. “Ahmad Levi.”
Jocelin grunts in the affirmative. He removes his wig to pat his scalp dry with a kerchief. “Land. Money. Troops.”
“Gods,” adds Lorelei. The new temple complex in Tsang is part of the pact between Daimyo and Shah. Two temples, one of marble, the other of obsidian, linked by a bridge of gold that stretches across the river Melieur. The shrines of the Divided Gods are greater now than the Thousand Temples of Maturin's pantheon. Lorelei dislikes them, those stark bastions of an unfamiliar faith with their maskless priests, their echoing halls and mumbling congregations. She prefers the heat and incense of the old fanes, the aging priest-whores of the Bloody Lady with their rheumy eyes and wrinkled mouths. She likes the warm, coppery smell of iguanodon blood on the low stone altar.
“Banker,” says Jocelin, jerking his chin back over his shoulder.
Lorelei looks back to see the little toad waving a message cylinder at her quartermaster, Emil, who keeps the legion's tiny nemicolopteri, the little pterosaurs they use to send messages back to the mainland. Emil is studiously ignoring the banker, his nemis shrieking in their cages slung over the flanks of his lumbering styracosaurus. Lorelei smiles at the sight of the banker's beet-red face, but sooner or later she'll have to order Emil to attend to the odious creature. The bank is too important to de Ponsier for her to get away with flouting their agent's authority completely.
Jocelin spits again. “Something has to be done.” For him, an expansive speech.
“I suppose it will,” says Lorelei, still watching the banker as he begins to shout at the unresponsive Emil.
That night they make camp on the bare road, legion tents weighted down against the fierce salt-smelling wind, galluses picketed well away from the precipitous cliffs where sometimes plesiosaurs lurk in wait, long necks craning up in search of unwary prey. Lorelei holds council with her high officers. Sieur Jocelin, Sieur Raymonde, Sieur Elaine and Maestro Longardeux of the Iron Cabal, accompanied by his servants with their eyes of gold and their loose grey skin. The banker insists on sitting in, watching them through his spectacles over the edge of his notebook. She does her best to ignore him as she briefs her staff for the dozenth time on their mission west: ride to the aid of Levi's upstart kingdom, rendezvous with his forces at Soma and make sure that when Levi plopped his arse into the Hierophant's throne in Leng that he knew whose swords had put him there.
The banker's dry, forced cough draws all eyes. Lorelei turns from her maps to stare at the little man as he adjusts his cravat and clears his throat. “Yes?” she says tersely.
“What if Lord Levi has abandoned Soma when we reach it?”
Jocelin taps the map with an armored finger. “Find him in the field.”
“Sieur Summer Pollen is correct,” says Lorelei. “Now, as to the matter of the cannon. Maestro, when would be the ideal time to convert our wooden castings?”
“Surely as late as possible, Sieur,” says the pallid alchemist. He is an odd-looking man with his watery eyes and his bald, wigless head. He wears lacquered bamboo armor dyed grey and hung with little iron fetishes, the emblems of his order, obscure tokens of his training. He tents his gauntleted fingers beneath his chin. “I can transmute the full battery in two days, with notice.”
“When we reach the mainland, then,” said Lorelei, satisfied. The Cabal's fees are outrageous, but she isn't the one paying them.
Lorelei suppresses with difficulty the urge to draw her knife and fling it at the banker's smug, fat face. “What is it?” she grates through bared teeth.
“I require your signature, sieur,” the banker says through an iron smile. “These expense reports and estimate sheets, which must be returned to the home office by week's end.”
Lorelei puts both hands on the table, just to take the knife at her belt out of the equation. “Send your messages then. I'll put my name on them, sign them with a kiss, spritz perfume on the parchment, if you'll just leave them with my aide and shut up about it.”
The banker blinks, taken aback, and then his lumpish face slides back into its usual infuriating placidity. “I think now would be best.” He proffers a sheaf of parchment paper crammed with his miniscule writing. “At the bottom, sieur.”
Sieur Elaine, a battle-scarred veteran of the first years of the Red Turban Rebellion, snorts derisively. She slaps the table. “This is a circus. Where is your shul, money-changer?”
“Sign,” says the banker, eyes narrowing.
Lorelei straightens up, ears ringing. It took sixteen years to claw her way to legion commander. Sixteen years of infighting, backstabbing, scheming and fucking to get where she is now. Her hand moves to the knife's hilt. She draws it, smiles at the fear in the banker's eyes, the involuntary widening. She draws the knife's point down the pad of her thumb and, crossing the tent in two swift strides, presses her bloody digit to the sheet. Three terse lines and her name is signed. Lo for ambition, re for water, lei for victory. “Send that home,” she snarls in the banker's bloodless face, and then she throws the papers into his lap and stalks out of the tent into the cool, windy night, leaving the banker and her officers to stare. Elaine is laughing heartily.
A legion messenger approaches her as she nears her tent. “Sieur,” says the smooth-cheeked young boy, saluting. “A messenger from the Shah awaits you in your tent.”
Lorelei raises an eyebrow. “A message?”
“A messenger, sieur,” says the boy.
“Take me to him.”
He is near the picket lines, a handsome Machi man dressed in riding leathers. There are lines at the corners of his haunted eyes, but he cannot be more than thirty, perhaps thirty-five. He is laving his gallus's heaving flanks, petting the saurian's serpentine neck as it pants in exhaustion. “I rode a long time to reach you, Sieur Dancing Crane.”
“You might have sent a pterosaur.”
The man shrugs, still tending to his mount. “The Shah prefers a personal touch. Consider me his Hand.” He turns from the spent gallus, wringing dirty water from the cloth in his scarred hands. “I am here at his request to appraise you of the situation in Machen.”
“The war, you mean.”
The Hand smiles sadly. “Yes,” he says, water dripping from his fingers. “That, and other things.”