Delfine le Fleur sits patiently in the barber's chair as the fat, mustachioed man shaves the stubble from her scalp. “Just a moment more, magistra,” says the barber, as he does every few moments. “Just a moment more and we'll be quite through.”
The Summer Arcade of the Golden Cabal's temple in Tsang is a beautiful place to sit. Columns of transmuted gold line a walkway open to the temple gardens where alchemists wander alone or in groups along the labyrinthine paths through twisting hedgerows and sand gardens, through stands of cherry trees in roseate bloom. Dead allosaurs with golden collars around their throats patrol the gardens, silent and sleek as death. They pass like ghosts between the hedges, ignored by all but the Cabal's newest acolytes who watch them in awe. Delfine watches one such beast from the corner of her eye, admiring the play of muscles beneath its leathery skin. The Iron Cabal makes soldiers and drudges, but her order makes works of art.
“Just a moment more,” the barber says, wetting his razor in a dish of rosewater. He draws the blade along Delfine's scalp in a succession of quick, confident motions, then pats the bare skin with a moistened towel to collect any hairs left behind. With a flourish he removes the catch-cloth from around her throat and steps back, smiling. “There we are.”
“Thank you, maestro,” says Delfine. She stands, an imposing figure in her lavish alchemist's gowns, and smiles at the barber. “My slave will arrange for your payment as usual.”
“Magistra.” He wais deeply.
The temple pays the barber a healthy retainer, but Delfine likes to remind him where the real power lies. She departs his little stand in the shadow of the Summer Arcade and sets off across the garden toward the low, red-tiled eaves of the Pagoda of Silent Contemplation, the nine-tiered tower where Delfine and the other master alchemists of the Cabal keep their workshops and come together in council. Her postosuchus, Malvolio, detaches himself from the shadows of the arcade and lopes after her, armored tail swinging. Acolytes and Adepts wai at Delfine's passing and shrink back from Malvolio's jaws. The beast is nearly twelve feet long, better than four feet tall at the shoulder, and he weighs as much as five acolytes. Taming Malvolio was the work of years, but what assassin could be paid enough to dare his wrath in killing Delfine?
“This is a good day, Malvolio,” says the alchemist. She pauses to admire a cherry tree of particular beauty. Its blossoms drift in the air like snow touched with the lightest dab of blood. “All of Tsang will know the Cabal's greatness tonight. The City of Cities will gather us close to her breast and the Lich King will be forgotten, just another corpse shut up in a glorious mausoleum.”
Malvolio grunts, ropes of drool dangling from his parted jaws. A passing lecturer swallows and quickens his pace, darting glances over his shoulder at the monstrous reptile.
In the conclavorium of the Pagoda of Silent Contemplation three of the eight Golden Councilors, the most senior amongst the Cabal's upper echelons, are already deep in consultation when Delfine enters. She watches them from the shadows of the doorway, Malvolio pressing up against her side like a great scaled hound. Idly, she scratches the reptile's armored snout as the Councilors, seated on woven mats, debate amongst themselves.
“It would be too gaudy,” says Mona le Croyel, the Cabal's withered Grand Archivist. “Surely we can think of a more tasteful way?”
The current Flesh Sculptor, a slender, handsome man of thirty or so, makes a tsk-ing noise. “We require gaudiness, Magistra. We need to make the whole Shogunate stand up and take notice. And besides, our new creation defies the laws of taste.”
“Here, here,” says Delfine, clapping her hands as she steps into the dim light of the teak-walled chamber. She descends the five steps to the Council Floor, Malvolio keeping close beside her. The other Councilors watch her with varying expressions. Mona le Croyel distrusts her, holds their old grudge close and dear. The Flesh Sculptor is a grinning cipher, talented certainly, but whether buffoon or serpent none has yet determined. The third Councilor, Jean-Marie de Flambeux, High Justice of the Cabal's internal courts, looks at Delfine with undisguised contempt, the same expression he levels at anything less than six hundred years old.
“Grand Transmuter,” says the ancient Justice, a scowl deepening the myriad lines that web his sagging features.
“Jean-Marie,” says Delfine, wai-ing. She takes a mat opposite the old man, who eyes Malvolio with distrust as the postosuchus lowers himself to the floor. Delfine lays her hand on the reptile's armored back. “He's quite tame, you know.”
“We were discussing the details of tonight's...display,” says the Flesh Sculptor. “Mona and Jean-Marie feel that we ought to curb our approach, rein in the fireworks until the Red Turbans are put down and Marshal de Grande has returned to the city.”
“They return within the week,” says Delfine. “I had a nemicopterus this morning from my man with the legions. Nevertheless, we should press our point tonight. Besides, the Raptor of Tsang will never be more unpopular with Senate, King, or Shogun than he is now.”
“But he's just put down the rebellion, if that's true,” sputtered Jean-Marie.
“Ah,” says the Flesh Sculptor.
Delfine raises one penciled eyebrow. “Precisely. His reputation has become too great. Certain factions will expect an coup, certain others will demand it, and those against whom it might be carried out will become more paranoid with each passing day. We must be seen to distance ourselves from the Marshal, and now is as good a time to start as any.”
Mona le Croyel looked scandalized. “The Marshal Louis has been our staunch ally!”
“Delfine is right,” says the Flesh Sculptor. “He's finished.”
Delfine reaches into her sleeve, produces a cigarillo on a long ash holder and lights it. The tip of her left index finger is capped with flint to transmute oxygen into flame. A little parlor trick. The alchemist inhales clove-scented smoke. “We go through with tonight's presentation.”
The other four Councilors join them before dusk, but there is no debate, no deliberation. They had worked tirelessly and in secret for better than a month, and even Jean-Marie, Delfine is convinced, wishes only to see the fruits of their long labor. He fears it, too, though, as all old men fear what is new and terrible. It is only the little children who know that change cannot be stopped. They leave the Pagoda just after sunset, processing out into the gardens and then to the Gate of Chains where dead iguanodons barded in the Cabal's black and gold wait patiently, palanquins slung between them.
The city of Tsang lies glittering in the shadow of the temple complex's hill. There the soaring heights of the Palace of Regret where tonight the Cabals, the Shogun, the Senate and the King will meet tonight, and there the huge expanse of the Bay of Laughing Swine where a thousand ships bob at anchor, beyond it the grim shadow of the Iron Citadel where their sister Cabal holds sway. The city is a salt-smelling oasis, a paradise of old stone crazed with moss, of alleys reeking of stagnant water. It is an ancient city, its fanes and whorehouses of an age with one another, both crumbling and full of lechers. Some say a million souls dwell here where the air is hot and close, where the sea threatens always to swamp shops, markets, slave pens, tenements and villas. Mosquitoes buzz in the gathering gloom and their whine is nearer than the million-fold lights of Tsang.
Delfine leaves Malvolio with an uneasy stablehand and takes a palanquin with the Flesh Sculptor. She ties the silk curtains shut as the great reptiles lumber into motion, their passengers swaying between them. Her skin prickles at the Flesh Sculptor's touch, at the warmth of his lips on her throat and the stiffness of his short, thick cock pressed against her thigh. She forces him back against the palanquin's padded boards and lowers herself onto him, takes his member into her vagina. He shudders, legs jerking, and his hands move beneath her robes to the small of her back. In silence they make love as the dead iguanodons bear them with ponderous tread down the long, winding road to the city of Tsang.
In the streets of Tsang there are crowds, and Delfine peers out at them in delight through sweat-damp curtains while the Flesh Sculptor busies himself between her legs. Shopkeepers, street-sweepers, lamplighters, fullers, drovers and merchants stand alongside robed civil servants and the occasional knight in lacquered bamboo armor. City guardsmen occupy the corners of each street, and here and there Delfine sees nobles, masked and robed or armored. Dead servants and soldiers are everywhere. Delfine bites her lip, fighting the urge to scream as the Flesh Sculptor's tongue touches, licks. “This is all going to be ours,” she breathes.
The crowds part for the Golden Cabal's procession. Parents hoist children up on their shoulders to watch the dead saurians and their palanquins lumber past in the light of the flickering streetlamps. Soon enough they reach the outskirts of the palace precincts, the vast marble plaza that fronts the Palace of Regret. The quetzalcoatli of the Iron Cabal already roost on their shit-streaked landing towers, stirrups dangling from their saddle girths. The huge pterosaurs flex their wings at the approach of the iguanodons, unsettled by the dead behemoths with their spiked thumbs and pressed-gold eyes. Delfine deftly rearranges her underclothes, pushing the Flesh Sculptor away. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve and slips out of the palanquin. She follows, a picture of magisterial dignity.
The Palace of Regret looms above them, its stone bulk cold and reverent in the dark at the heart of Tsang. Paper lanterns drift through the air around it like a swarm of sleepy fireflies, casting wild shadows over the plaza and the palace walls. The rest of the Golden Council gathers around Delfine, though the Flesh Sculptor has already begun to climb the great stone steps toward the yawning entryway. “Come,” says Delfine to the others. “We have an impression to make.”
The Golden Council follows its Flesh Sculptor up the steps, ignoring the hundreds of dead palace guards that watch them from alcoves carved into the crumbling facade. A word of discord and the Lich King's bodyguard will be upon them in their uncounted thousands. At the top of the steps one of the Sixty-Six, the Lich's personal Cabal, awaits them, naked but for the pointed black hood that obscures his face and shoulders. Carious eyes, untempered by slave-making gold, stare out at them through holes cut in that rough sackcloth. Delfine makes a shallow wai in passing, though Jean-Marie neglects even this brittle courtesy.
The entry hall swallows them in its moldering vastness. It is a living thing, the moist, dark throat of the Palace of Regret. Delfine counts her steps as her sandals scuff the mosses and lichens that cling to the cracks between uneven stones. One hundred. Two. Three, and now she can glimpse the light at the end of the hall, the Flesh Sculptor silhouetted against it. She smiles in the lessening gloom, the whisper and clack of her fellow Councilors building all around her a second palace made of echoes. Their Cabal is smaller than the Iron order, but their prestige is greater, their history rich. They are not sellswords. They are not slavers. They are the disciples of the Monkey, the Third God, who was born in the heart of the sun and who one day will return there to die.
This is their hour.
The Flesh Sculptor waits for Delfine near the hall's terminus, the very mouth of the Hall of One Thousand Glorious Senators. He looks back at her, his long hair brushing the collar of his embroidered gown. The Hall is an amphitheater, hundreds of tiers of long stone benches rising in a great half-circle around a deep pool where crocodilians swim lazily in brackish water. The benches are not empty. The nobles of Maturin, masked and swathed in their richest finery, sit or stand in private boxes while the alchemists of the Iron Cabal, bearded men and ropy, scarred women in robes of undyed cloth, their silly alchemical bells sewn to their sleeves, are clustered together on a round platform jutting out above the pit, a platform mirrored by an empty twin on the pit's far side.
Opposite the mouth where Delfine stands are the thrones of Shogun and Lich King, the divided sovereigns of Maturin. The Shogun, Jacqueline le Guerre, is an enormous woman, a wall of fat and muscle perpetually straining the joints of her much-scarred armor. Her face is hawkish, enormous hooked nose and beady eyes. Her big hands grip the arms of her throne as though trying to strangle the polished oak. By contrast the Lich King, Real de Thanatos, appears close to a second death so attenuated has his ancient husk become. He is naked, his wizened flesh exposed uncharitably for all to see from his wormlike member to the trembling folds of his throat and his scabrous head with its wisps of yellowing hair.
The rest of the hall is occupied by the corpses of the Dead Senate, the three thousand sentient dead who have administrated Maturin since the birth of its first Lich King after the fall of Thul. Their nude multitudes only grow, a desiccated quorum of fading minds and crumbling bodies. Delfine does not sneer, but contempt boils in her stomach. These dead things have no place among the living. They belong in chains, tilling fields and toiling in the sewers. Their formaldehyde reek fills the air.
Iris de Chymede, Grandmaster of War of the Iron Cabal, has the floor, though he has ceased his speech and now looks at the Golden Councilors with dislike printed plainly on his square, sunburned face. The Hall has fallen silent, has become the mausoleum the peasants mock it as.
“Proceed, Grandmaster,” says the Shogun through gritted teeth. “Councilors, to your post.”
Delfine wais deeply to the sovereigns and then sets off down the sweeping obsidian stair toward the dais reserved for the Golden Council. Arriving late is part of the plan, another way to build anticipation. Everyone in the Hall, even as Grandmaster de Chymede resumes his dry speech on treaties with the Floating Empire, on the movements of dead troops and the new insults offered by the People's Holy Confederacy in Machen, thinks now of nothing but the Golden Council. Delfine takes her place at the platform rail and fixes de Chymede with a humorless stare. He returns it, losing more and more of his audience as he stammers through the end of his report.
The dry, papery voice of Real de Thanatos cuts through de Chymede's muttered conclusion. “The Apparati will hear now the words of the Golden Cabal, who have requested one hour of our time.”
de Chymede's brow furrows as he steps down from his lectern and Delfine mounts hers. Who, after all, would request longer than a quarter-hour of the Apparati's time? More than that and boredom is certain. de Chymede's look of confusion becomes one of smug confidence, certainty that his rivals are burying themselves beneath their own legendary arrogance. Delfine ignores him. She directs her words to the twin thrones, to Shogun and Lich King. “Our armies have struggled for centuries against the great behemoths of the Machi hordes. Their sauropods, their tyrannosaurs. Our natural philosophy has proven itself insufficient to prize back from death the corpses of the great inland saurians, and we are not a people given to scratching in the dust with living beasts.”
The dead senators, those who still deign to listen to words spoken by the breathing, lean forward on their benches. Yellowing beards sweep the floor as the dead crane their necks with much popping and snapping of joints. They peer down at the bald alchemist before them. de Chymede's smile widens. He believes his enemy about to confess to some great failure. Surely even this brute knows the resources consumed by the Golden Cabal, the loans taken out by its senior magi. He suspects that they have gutted themselves. Delfine is hard-pressed to hide her grin as the first tremor rocks the Hall.
Nobles cease their quiet banter, abandon their flutes of wine and opium tea. Their masked faces turn in the direction of the hall. Delfine keeps her expression carefully neutral, though at her back she feels the concentrated excitement of the other Councilors. The Flesh Sculptor alone seems immune to the infectious glee, protected by his natural air of cavalier dismissal. Delfine grips the lectern, fingers whitening. “We have done what no other alchemists have dared to try.”
The Hall shakes again. Dust sifts down from the domed ceiling with its gilt friezes, its murals of the Three. Delfine turns her back on the Shogun, on the Lich King, on the Senate, the nobles, and the sweating, discomfited de Chymede. It is a calculated risk, a breach of etiquette meant to secure the new order of things. Delfine clasps her hands behind her back, sharing a private look with her fellow Councilors. No matter what they think of one another, now is their moment. Tonight is their night. Again, the Hall trembles.
Delfine looks back over her shoulder.“If you will deign to follow this unworthy one?”
There is an exodus, a crush of potentates shambling, shuffling, hustling down the long stone throat of the Palace of Regret toward the distant tympanic rumble of what approaches. Conversation bounces from the walls, echoing and re-echoing until in blather secrecy re-emerges from pure nonsense. Delfine's skin is aflame with anticipation. Her hands tremble. She is the first out through the towering entryway, first to see the great inanimate diplodocuses making their way up the Dead Road from the sea. The behemoths, concealed in the harbor for weeks now, still look fresh. Their slack grey skin is like expensive leather, their whiplike tails still supple. Each of the three saurians is over one hundred feet from long, blunt head to lashing tail. Their slow tread shakes the earth. Their sides heave like bellows, neat stitching concealing the immense hematological batteries necessary to preserve their motive force. They tower over shops and tenements. Their feet crack the cobbles.
The populace cries out in a mixture of fear and awe. At Delfine's back the men and women and dead of the Apparati are struck speechless, or else gibbering to one another like madmen. Delfine turns back to them, allowing herself at last a thin, knifelike smile. “One hour for questions.”