Friday, June 22, 2012


Tomas Dutiful Boar, Senior Adjunct of the Imperial Maturi Bank, sits alone on a soiled mat in his drafty tent. He huddles beneath the quilt his wife Mara sewed for him before his departure from Tsang, eyes red and nose running. The wind howls like a lunatic along the Road of Dust, bringing with it the Grand Ocean's stinging spray. The seabirds that nest on the dreary span are screaming at the gale, raucous voices rifling the iron dawn. Tomas has not slept at all. He has scarcely closed his eyes since leaving Tsang two weeks ago, and now that Machen's sandy coast is in sight, the Mountains of Madness looming like teeth over the Road, he sleeps even less. Today the Legion will take the road to Soma, and Tomas will ride with them, mocked, jeered at, or else ignored. Since Sieur Lorelei's stunt in her war tent, her signature in blood, no one in the camp takes Tomas seriously.

Outside the banker's tent the soldiers are stirring, their galluses making inquisitive sounds as the grooms saddle them for the day's ride. The dead, Tomas knows, stand ready as well. They make no preparations because when night falls they do not billet down. Instead they stand in ranks, those false men with their golden eyes, spears in hand, shields at the ready, and they do not move again until Maestro Longardeux orders them forward. They fight naked like the ancient Thulhuns, lockstep warriors who kill without remorse. Even thinking of them turns Tomas's stomach.

There comes a rap on the post beside Tomas's tent flap. “Banker,” says Sieur Jocelin, Sieur Lorelei's brute of a second. His outline hulks against the canvas wall. “We march. Done sleeping?”

“Yes, yes,” says Tomas. He rises from his chair. He will forgo shaving today, he decides as he crams his second-best wig onto his stubbled head. Sieur Jocelin departs, his shadow slipping away from the tent's rough wall. Tomas watches him go as he dresses, retying his underrobe where his gut has popped the straps. Mara badgers him to eat less, but he never listens. He pulls on his robe, his culottes and hose, his traveling coat, and finally his thick leather gloves. They hide his fat fingers admirably well, he thinks, inspecting them as he steps outside into the waning dark. The cold is fading fast so close to shore, but the chill in the air is still enough to rattle his teeth.

Two glowering soldiers stand a little ways off, waiting to break down his tent. Tomas ducks past them, head down, already chilled by the salt breeze. One of the men sniggers. Tomas blushes. The rest of the camp is moving, tents packed into the wagons, cavaliers mounted, officers oiled and ready to order men into death. Tomas's ancient manservant, Gregoire, materializes at his elbow like a cadaverous shadow. “Maestro,” the old man mumbles, brushing dust from Tomas's sleeve with his arthritic fingers. “Will you take breakfast?”

“Hmm.” Tomas thinks guiltily of Mara, of her stern mouth and icy glare. He swallows. “Octopus, rice, the seaweed cakes if there's any left, warm wine, a dumpling, no, two. And eggs.”

“Yes, maestro.” The old man makes a slow, deliberate wai with much creaking and puffing before he straightens up and shuffles off in pursuit of breakfast.

Tomas's stomach growls. His vision is bleary, his stubble greasy, unwashed. His wig, unpowdered since the first week of travel, itches fiercely. When will he go home again? So much is waiting for him there. The junior partnership Director de Somme promised last autumn, his parents settling grumpily into old age, his eldest son, Pascal, turning three. And Mara. He's given up so much to please her, to please her unpleasable father who had married her off for the Dutiful Boar fortune, modest as it was. He loosens his collar. Thinking of Maestro de Carnelia always upsets his lungs, and usually the rest of him as well. With a sigh he sets off for the pickets, head bent against the wind.

Tomas's mule, Philippe, is waiting like a particularly patient boulder at the end of the last picket row by the precipitous drop to the sea. The swaybacked beast, unfazed by the surf crashing yards below, glances sidelong at Tomas he approaches. He makes no move but to slowly, deliberately continue chewing. He's already been saddled, though the grooms have ignored his currying again. Tomas sighs, finds a brush discarded next to a pat of fresh gallus manure, and sets to work rubbing the mule down. If Philippe is moved by his master's attention, he chooses not to display it. Gregoire's own mount, their nameless baggage mule, looks on from further up the picket line with what Tomas can only assume is murderous rage in its eyes.

Gregoire returns with a loaded bowl and tin mug of wine just as Tomas is finishing up Philippe's grooming. The banker wolfs down his breakfast as around him the camp dissolves, peeling apart into its constituent persons and canvas heaps, its supply wagons and chattering nemicolopteri cages. Tomas hoists himself awkwardly onto Philippe as the cavaliers form up in ranks further down the Road of Dust. Sieur Lorelei rides up and down their lines, exhorting her soldiers to a fast march. “We're nearly there, you rotten bastards,” she shouts, turning her gallus. Seabirds rise in shrieking clouds from the nameless sand-washed metal of the road. “The Hierophant's armies, I've heard, are out of swords. Shall we bring them ours?” The soldiers laugh and cheer, even those still disassembling the camp.

The woman's bloodlust sours Tomas's stomach. Is there nothing she does not wish slain? He grips Philippe's reins tightly in his gloved hands as a double line of armed soldiers marches past, boots clattering on the road's impervious surface. Tomas wonders, not for the first time, who built the Eight Great Roads that link the three continents and the grave of the vanished fourth. What other wonders did they work before the ruin of Thul and the end of humanity's golden age? His research, the hundred little half-finished essays crammed into the drawers of his desk at the bank, has led him no closer to an answer. That the alchemists who built the Roads are long since dust is his only certainty.

“The resource reports, maestro,” husks Gregoire, now mounted. He hands Tomas a sheaf of wrinkled papers covered in the illegible scrawl of the legion quartermaster, Emil Standing Water. The man, like most of the legion, is a southerner, but their shared ancestry has as yet yielded no brotherly love. Instead Emil has sought to sabotage Tomas at every turning. Stealing his inkpots, exchanging his carefully-written letters with profanity-filled diatribes, always positioning camp so that the latrines stand just beside Tomas's tent.

His current report reads simply:

We have some of some things and less of others. -Emil.

Tomas sighs. He heels Philippe into motion as the rest of the legion settles into its routine. In the distance Machen waits for them, a kingdom of dust where the burnt-skinned nomads nest in cities built by greater men. What will happen when they reach that barren kingdom, Tomas wonders? He passes a hand over his face and heels Philippe into motion, the resource report and Emil's useless letter stuffed in his breast pocket.   

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