CHAPTER SIXTEEN

‘Heaven’s teeth, can’t you do this any quicker?’ asked the marine officer from the Imperial Aerial Squadron, his hand sweating on the pommel of his holstered pistol.

‘Quicker, perhaps, with your silence,’ snapped the bombardier squatting by the ventilation shaft to the barracks. He opened the last of the line of fin-bombs connected together by a knot of rubber pipes. ‘Gas bombs are meant to be triggered by impact with the ground. They were never designed to have their mixing chambers detonated on a slow release.’

The marine officer glanced nervously across the tower concourse towards the large sealed doors of the barracks, and, seeing their anxiety, the womb mage from the Sect of Razat supervising the cull attempted to reassure the two airship sailors. ‘You have all the time you need. The beyrogs have been ordered to stay inside their barracks.’

‘That would be the same disloyal regiment of beyrogs with a serious fault in their breeding pattern?’

‘They will stay confined inside, and the womb mage responsible has already been punished,’ said the sorcerer. ‘The Sect of Razat doesn’t accept such errors in our followers’ work.’

Kneeling by the shells, the sailor continued to work. ‘Nearly there. I just have to disable the safeties on the gravity switch.’

‘Last thing we need,’ said the marine officer. ‘God-cursed rogue drak riders outside dropping grenades on our heads, and now we could have one of our own regiments of beyrogs rampaging through the citadel. I sometime wonder who our enemy is.’

‘That would be me,’ said a female voice. As the marine officer turned, he was smashed back into the row of gas shells, his nose bone fatally struck back into his brain by the flat of First Lieutenant Westwick’s hand.

Omar kicked the bombardier in the face, hard enough to spin him back unconscious just as Westwick grabbed the fleeing womb mage and broke his — or in reality, more likely, her — neck.

Commodore Black peered over the unconscious sailor’s work and quickly slid some of the disassembled components on the floor back into the exposed shell’s works before ripping out the rubber pipes connecting it to the ventilation shaft. The commodore lifted the pistol and holster from the marine, checking the body’s leather ammunition pouch for the number of charges inside. Omar took the other sailor’s gun and passed the cutlass-style sword to Westwick.

‘Enough wicked dirt gas here to choke half of the sewer rats back in Middlesteel,’ said the commodore.

‘Larger prey than rats, my strange Jackelian angel,’ said the Caliph Eternal. ‘Let us see how disloyal my defective regiment of beyrogs truly is …’

Whatever genetic sorcery the caliphs had relied on across the ages to control their beyrogs, the potency of that power could not be denied. As soon as the young ruler entered the barracks complex, the monstrously large ranks of biologick soldiers came flooding towards him as though they were a pack of hunting hounds at feeding time and he the kennel keeper. Exhibiting much the same strange fascination as the caliph’s murdered flesh brother had shown — not quite daring to touch his person, as if he were surrounded by an invisible wall — the beyrogs demonstrated their devotion by falling to one knee, excitedly shaking their scimitars and crossbows in recognition of the ruler of rulers. The power to command them quite literally running through the Caliph Eternal’s blood.

‘They’re a grand old size,’ noted the commodore, trying not to be jostled out of the way as the eager beyrogs crowded around to confirm their fealty in front of their master. ‘They put me in mind of a bludger of my acquaintance who used to guard the door on a Spumehead harbour drinking house. Small Eli was his name, a brawler who could chew iron nails and spit them through a u-boat’s hull when he was in a mood.’

‘The beyrogs will follow the Caliph Eternal,’ said Westwick. ‘And that is enough.’

‘Let us hope so, sweet lady,’ said the caliph. ‘I fear they are all we can count on inside the citadel.’ He raised his arms in the air and the beyrogs ceased their excited shoving. ‘Hear me, my guardians. I have uncovered treachery and treason of the vilest sort here within the citadel. The grand vizier is plotting to murder me and claim the empire’s throne for himself.’

There was a wave of unease and agitated growls through the towering ranks and Omar realized that while the beyrogs could understand the Caliph Eternal’s words well enough, they had no voices of their own to articulate their outrage at the reports of the chief minister’s sedition.

‘They cannot speak,’ said Omar.

‘The pattern of their minds is too far removed from the race of man’s for them to attempt speech, guardsman,’ whispered the Caliph Eternal. ‘But they can reply well enough in war sign using the fingers of their hands.’ The caliph raised his voice. ‘Where are my captains?’

A grizzled pair of beyrogs emerged from the ranks, one sporting an eye-patch, the other with ugly scars running down his face.

Reaching out, the caliph grasped their arms in greeting. ‘Still alive, then? Good. I must ask you to serve one last time, and not against any common guild assassins or palace conspirators. Apart from my three friends here, you should trust no one.’

One of the old beyrog officers twisted his fingers around in a dance that seemed too intricate for his oversized hands as he growled softly. Omar’s war sign was not advanced, but he caught the gist of what the beast had said.

We trust our blades to your service. Only our steel should be trusted.

Nodding in sombre agreement, the caliph faced Westwick. ‘You remember the way to the producers’ chambers where the skoils are being bred, sweet lady?’

‘I can retrace the journey,’ said Westwick.

‘There are two routes through the citadel to reach the chambers we saw,’ explained the caliph. ‘Once we leave the barracks with the beyrogs, the grand vizier will realize that we are moving to expose him and the Sect of Razat’s deceit. He will come at us with every one of his new guardsmen beasts and all the soldiers and marines whose loyalty he thinks he has purchased.’

‘You have a scheme, then, your majesty,’ said the commodore. ‘I can see it by the twinkle in your noble eyes — just as I can sense in my waters that it means a right bad end for brave old Blacky.’

‘You and the First Lieutenant shall take a quarter of the beyrogs and strike out first, retracing your route from the cells. Myself and my most loyal guardsman here will follow the alternative route with the main force and secure the evidence of the grand vizier’s corruption from the citadel below.’

‘I knew it,’ said the commodore. ‘Leading a diversion again. Made into a mortal sacrificial goat tethered to a stake in the hope of drawing out some sand lions to gnaw on my bones.’

‘Anyone who can break out of the most secure cell in Mutantarjinn is not fated to die here,’ said Omar. ‘Old man, the hundred faces of the one true god are surely smiling down upon you.’

‘If they are, lad, then they’re laughing at my blessed misfortunes. Glad to squeeze some more amusement out of my unlucky stumbles through the world.’

‘We will lead the diversionary force,’ assured Westwick, without a trace of doubt or emotion in her voice. ‘Success here is all that matters.’

‘Not all that matters,’ said the caliph, thoughtfully. ‘But all that matters today, perhaps.’ He turned to the beyrog officer sporting an eye-patch. ‘A quarter of your brothers to follow these two, captain, and keep them as safe as the fates allow. Fight your way towards the chamber of producers on the citadel’s lowest level; keep them busy long enough for us to secure proof of the grand vizier’s vile sorceries.’

The officer pounded a fist against his gold breastplate in salute and the two Jackelians made to leave, a company of beyrogs falling into line behind them, drawing their helmets, weapons and supplies from racks on the side of the barracks, armour and weapons rattling as the creatures shook the floor with their massive boots.

Omar watched the two foreigners leave. There goes a brave man. ‘He complains like a slave, but he fights like a guardsman.’

‘No higher praise,’ said the Caliph Eternal, with what might have been a touch of irony in his voice. ‘I may be the most recent of the ruler of rulers, but there’s one constant in my chain of inherited memories. They all serve, those who do not oppose. Come, guardsman, let us ensure that our Jackelian friends’ sacrifice is not made in vain.’

‘Are you sure you are not related to Little Eli?’ the commodore asked the massive beyrog officer leading the company of flesh-twisted soldiers. ‘You’ve much of the same taciturn nature and a cold eye towards an old u-boat man down on his luck.’

Westwick translated the flicker of oversized fingers as the officer replied in sign language. ‘He says you talk too much.’

‘But I’m the only one doing the talking here, lass,’ said the commodore, indicating their surroundings. ‘If you discount the shouts of those unlucky womb mages that tried to stop us entering this dark place.’

The two Jackelians and the beyrog company were traversing an ossuary — a gloomy hall filled with the dusty bones of hundreds of generations of the womb mages’ creations, strung together with thin copper wire and marking the incremental evolution of the order’s most successful accomplishments. Draks that had started out as barrel-ribbed, short-necked things with almost wholly human skulls, before being bred towards their present, elongated arrow-like forms. Beyrogs that had begun as hump-backed giants, some with four arms, before growing slightly smaller and less crudely formed over the centuries. Less primitive. More deadly. It was a terrible, eerie thing to see the skeletons’ living descendants filing silently past the exhibits, fully flesh-laden and wielding mammoth weapons designed to strike fear in the hearts of any who saw them.

All the womb mage novices inside the hall had fled screaming when the first of their number fell backwards into one of the skeletons, his chest broken by a beyrog crossbow bolt.

Only our steel should be trusted.

Commodore Black just counted his blessings that the beyrogs’ orders were explicit about trying to keep him and Maya alive. Along the sloping wall of the hall, long, thin windows looked out onto Mutantarjinn, and the commodore caught the distant thump of a grenade and a brief glint of light blossoming from the explosion.

‘The guardsmen are still out there, Maya. Harassing the city. Ah, what I’d give for one of those ugly flying man-lizards to land on the roof outside and whisk us to safety right now.’

‘The drak riders will fight to the end,’ said Westwick.

‘What about you, lass? Does that stand for you too?’

‘There’s only one way you’re getting out of here,’ said Westwick, in answer.

‘Now, I did rather figure that,’ said the commodore, his eyes narrowing slyly.

Looking up as snarls sounded from the beyrogs surrounding them, Commodore Black spotted a group of the grand vizier’s claw-guards fanning out across the end of the hall, Imperial Aerial Squadron marines too, the men trading shouted instructions between each other as they sprinted to take up position.

‘Well then,’ said the old u-boat man as he drew his heavy Cassarabian pistol. ‘Can there be a more suitable place than this to leave my weary old bones?’

When the Caliph Eternal had talked of an alternative route to reach the grand vizier’s twisted creations in the chambers below, Omar hadn’t realized it would entail a gusty detour down the outside of the Citadel of Flowers’ central tower.

While the maintenance stairwell corkscrewing around the tower was wide enough to accommodate their beyrog battalion marching three abreast, the stairs were completely unprotected by railings or a balustrade. It took every iota of Omar’s drak training to keep his sense of vertigo under control while descending. To keep himself from ducking as lightning forked over the giant spinning blades scraping their wind-driven passage around the chasm’s tallest tower. This will not be my death, falling off a tower before I have a chance to remove the grand vizier’s head from his sorcery-twisted body. It is too ridiculous to contemplate.

At times it was hard for Omar to differentiate between the steady crack of the thunder and the relentless rumble of the beyrogs descending behind him. They were marching under the weight of yellow cuirass-style breastplates with gilded copper rivets, golden helmets mounted with red plume-like brushes on top, and a full canvas backpack loaded with canteens, rations, crossbow bolt quivers and scimitar sharpening stones. As much as their finery was designed to reflect their master’s wealth and power, putting beyrogs inside the showy dress uniforms was like trying to disguise the feral nature of a sand lion with a gem-studded collar. It only served to underline that these vast creatures really required nothing more than a length of sharp, shining steel with which to hammer their enemies.

The Caliph Eternal hadn’t ordered the beyrogs to change into their full field uniforms and he seemed almost blithely unaware of their presence as he walked down the lightning wreathed spire. Perhaps, Omar mused, it was as the caliph had confided during their captivity in the cells: his mind was full of past lives, all of the empire’s petty jealousies and ambitions repeating before him like a shadow play. But whether it was by accident of nature, blood, or the final changes the previous caliph had worked upon his replacement’s young body, Akil Jaber Issman had turned out nothing like the nervous, needy puppet whose life the grand vizier had preserved to install on the throne. I suppose that the empire should at least be grateful for that.

For Omar, there was nothing else left to him now but to follow this deposed ruler according to his guardsman’s oath, and take one final chance to smash the schemes of the wicked Immed Zahharl. Everyone else had gone to their inescapable end — his father, Farris Uddin, Boulous, the drak riders he had trained and fought alongside, even the two Jackelian spies and their sailors on their outlandish ironclad airship. There was just Omar left with the Caliph Eternal and he had never felt so tired or alone.

By his side, the caliph slipped on one of the stairway’s wet treads and Omar reached out to steady the ruler by his arm. ‘Are you alright, your majesty?’ Omar instinctively touched his own gut, noting the strange feeling of emptiness there. The changes being worked by the grand vizier’s sorcery had quietened for the last hour, but how much longer before he swelled up like a whale and could only survive inside the choking nutrient mist of a producer’s tank? Oh Shadisa, why did you do this to me? Did you hate me so much back in Haffa?

‘It is not the grand vizier’s foul virus that is making me sick,’ said the caliph, as if reading Omar’s mind — or at least his body language. ‘I am starving. Apart from that gruel in the cells, I haven’t had a meal for months that wasn’t fed to me through a tube stuck into my veins. Heaven’s silver gates, what I wouldn’t give for a roasted side of gravy-soaked lamb from the palace kitchens.’

Their scar-faced beyrog officer commented with a flicker of his fingers.

The Caliph Eternal shook his head. ‘No, I don’t need my sedan chair. This is not the Jahan, and I have been isolated enough from the empire, from the world. If it had been otherwise, the grand vizier would not so easily have been able to exchange my flesh brother and I as if we were both dolls from the same toy chest.’

‘The distance of command,’ said Omar. ‘That is what Master Uddin called it.’

‘It was an early lesson from my tutors, too. Detachment from those you must ask to die for you. I always used to wonder whose benefit that was for. My soldiers, or mine? When you detach yourself too much from life, the world and reality, I believe you start walking the path towards insanity.’ The ruler threw his hands towards the storm, as if he could command the very heavens around the Forbidden City. ‘I like the rain on my bare face. Have you got anything to say about it, all you caliphs who have passed before me? No whispers of advice for me? No pearls of wisdom to cast down before my sopping-wet toes?’

Protecting him from the wild discharges of energy in the sky, the beyrog formation gently eased the Caliph Eternal away from the open edge of the twisting staircase. ‘My voices seem quiet today,’ said the caliph. ‘Perhaps they have been embarrassed to silence by failing to spot the perverted nature of Immed Zahharl’s plot against me before it was too late. It was you and my two Jackelian angels that came to save me, guardsman, not the wisdom of the ages. When the time comes, I vow that I will see to it you do not suffer the producer’s fate the grand vizier has set for you.’

‘They all serve, those who do not oppose,’ said Omar.

The caliph shook his head. ‘Your faithfulness is much more than that, guardsman. Unlike that of my beyrogs, it is not instinctive. All that you have achieved, you have achieved for yourself.’

‘The famous Barir luck,’ whispered Omar. To have lost everything. To be left nothing by fate except revenge.

He was about to find out how far it could be stretched before it snapped. As they rounded the bend on the tower’s stairs, Omar discovered himself facing rank after rank of the grand vizier’s claw-guards on the steps below, their talons already outstretched and glinting in the evil electric light of the chasm. And in the middle of the first line was Salwa, resplendent in the full regalia of the grand marshal of the imperial guardsmen; the faint, hidden pulse of Shadisa concealed somewhere far deep within the rain-slicked uniform.

No, this is what I have been left.

Howling like a banshee, the claw-guard crashed back through the skeleton of a sandpede, hundreds of leg bones sent scattering through the air and spinning across the polished floor of the ossuary. Lowering his pistol’s smoking barrel, the commodore broke the gun and cleared its spent charge, feeding in a fresh shell while Westwick emptied her own pistol into one of the charging monsters. The noise of her shot was lost against the splintering volley of the grand vizier’s forces and the air-splitting thud of the beyrogs’ crossbows replying in kind.

‘There’s too many of the wicked things, Maya,’ coughed the commodore, snapping his pistol shut and pulling back its clockwork firing mechanism.

They were coming like a black flood through the exhibits, a vast, relentless tide of fury breaking against the beyrogs’ cuirasses and swords. While the claw-guards loped forward en masse, snaking past the displays of the ossuary, the Imperial Aerial Squadron marines had taken snipers’ positions at the rear of the hall, maintaining a constant rain of fire in their direction. Balls whizzed through the air, buzzing with the evil song of angry hornets.

‘That is rather the point,’ said Westwick. ‘A diversion must divert.’ She rubbed tiredly at her eyelids, just underneath where her forehead had been splashed by a claw-guard’s blood. ‘Damn my itching eyes; is the blood of these creatures poisoned?’

‘No, lass. It’s only sleep you need. Sleep and a good hearty meal with a fine bottle or two of wine to wash it down.’ Commodore Black glanced around. The beyrogs had formed a semicircle-shaped double line halfway down the hall, the front row beating back the wave attacks of their more diminutive cousins with their blades. Behind them stood a second rank of crossbow-wielding beyrogs, pouring independent fire into the charges coming at them and exchanging bolts for bullets with the marine snipers at the rear.

It was proving a mortal effective defensive formation, but there wasn’t enough cover in the hall as exhibits were smashed into clouds of bony shards, while the grand vizier seemed to have an entire citadel full of these new claw-guard regiments to throw against them. A diversion must divert.

Another wave of the stone-faced claw-guards came leaping and howling like wolves against the front line of beyrogs, the imperial bodyguard unit’s scimitars swinging and cutting in response, claw-guards screaming as they died, beyrogs stumbling back where the beasts broke through the tight line and swarmed over the giant defenders.

This was no battle for men, no battle for old Blacky. Not with both armies supplied by the empire’s dark womb mages. Attacking and defending without any sign of fear or care for their own skins. They were living machines driven only by raw animal instincts and the cruel whims of their masters. This wasn’t a battlefield, it was a vast gladiatorial pit, starving lions and wolves thrown against each other for someone else’s advancement.

A ball buzzed past the commodore’s ear. Tracing the shot back to the short-stocked airship carbine pulled tight against a marine’s shoulder, the commodore sighted his pistol and was rewarded with the sight of the man slamming back through a discharge of gun smoke as his pistol bucked once.

Still the relentless claw-guards crashed against the beyrogs’ lines, the defenders’ crossbow-fire finally faltering and slowing. Commodore Black noted the empty quiver swinging from the nearest beyrog’s back. They were running out of ammunition.

‘Fall back,’ shouted the commodore. ‘Move back out of the hall.’

‘Those are not their orders,’ said Westwick, translating for the massive one-eyed officer.

‘Their orders were to keep them busy, not to die here like blessed fools,’ said the commodore. ‘The passages behind us are narrow. You can funnel their assault down tight and hold them with your front rank’s bulk. You want to sell your mortal lives, then sell them dearer than this.’

‘There!’ shouted Westwick, interrupting the argument. She’d thrown a hand towards a figure at the far end of the hall. It was Immed Zahharl, the grand vizier waving a sword and urging the claw-guards forward to overwhelm the beyrogs.

‘I can say goodbye to my blessed chance to act as broker for the next king of Jackals,’ said the commodore.

‘I’m out of charges,’ said Westwick.

The commodore picked out the very last crystal shell from his cartridge pack and kissed it before tossing to the first lieutenant.

Westwick broke her pistol, pushed the charge into its breach and cocked her gun, sighting it along her forearm. She squeezed the trigger and a marine running past the grand vizier collapsed and went sprawling as the ball took him in the skull.

‘Luck of the bloody devil,’ she cursed.

The grand vizier looked across the marine’s corpse and spotted the two Jackelians behind the beyrog ranks, then yelled in red-faced rage, shoving his monsters forward with the flat of his blade.

‘And you’ve lost your chance to join the Sect of Razat,’ said the commodore.

‘For the Caliph Eternal,’ yelled Westwick. ‘For the honour of the Caliph Eternal, fall back and hold them in the citadel’s passages.’

With the logic of the move undisputed by the officer this time, two of the beyrogs sounded the retreat using circular trumpets coiled around their cuirasses. Giving ground, the caliph’s monstrous bodyguard marched back in lockstep even as the grand vizier’s claw-guards intensified their assault. Wave after wave of the beasts harried the retreating line, leaving corpses spilled from both sides, many fastened around each other in death. With no more bolts left to fire, most of the beyrogs had thrown aside their crossbows and drawn their scimitars, the hall echoing to the clash of claws against tempered steel, the snarls and growls of an animal pit fight filling the chamber.

His empty pistol discarded, the commodore held his position in the retreating line alongside Westwick, his sword hacking and thrusting as the number of claw-guards pushing them back swelled, both Jackelians made mere components in the living war machines savaging each other. Every metre they lost littered with dead. Every minute they gained for the main attack purchased with their blood and bodies; every second closer to their ranks being thinned to a complete rout.

No place for a man — no place for Jared Black’s unlucky bones.

‘Go back, Omar,’ called Salwa from the line of claw-guards blocking his passage down the tower steps. ‘You do not have to die here tonight for the sake of someone else’s palace intrigue.’

‘It is not a palace intrigue I die for,’ said Omar. ‘It is the Caliph Eternal and my guardsman’s oath. I already gave you my answer back on the walls of the palace fortress.’

‘You thought you were giving your answer to Salwa,’ called the new grand marshal of the guardsmen. ‘Not to Shadisa.’

‘No! I was right. Salwa did kill Shadisa, for I see nothing of her in you,’ shouted Omar.

‘Then you have been blinded by your stupid male pride,’ retorted Salwa, ‘for we are exactly the same. You never knew me at all, did you? Only the idea of a golden-haired girl you filled with all your hopes back in Haffa.’

And how I wish to the hundred faces of god that idea was still alive, somewhere.

‘Order your soldiers aside,’ demanded the caliph, stepping forward. ‘You have fallen under the glamour of the grand vizier, I can see that. Stand down your force here and I will see that you are pardoned for your treason. There are womb mages inside the city who can undo the evil changes that have been worked upon you.’

‘The changes that really count, little enculi,’ spat Salwa, ‘aren’t the ones your sorcerers can undo at your whim. You and your ossified regime have held back progress for so long that you have forgotten how to bend with the winds of change. And if you can’t bend, you must be made to snap.’

Omar rested his hand on the pommel of his sheathed sword. ‘I only hear the propaganda of the Sect of Razat. None of your own words.’

Salwa slipped the scimitar out of his belt and raised it ready to commence the attack as the leather-uniformed ranks of his claw-guards jostled each other, preparing to spring up the stairs and begin the slaughter. ‘Then you may hear mine now.’

There was a splintering sound behind Omar as the snarling beyrogs’ massive crossbows were cranked back and projectiles pushed into position, ready to release the first of their heavy three-fletched bolts.

The caliph spoke softly to Omar. ‘Let the beyrogs go in first. I heard your voice when you spoke of this Shadisa back in our cell; I would not order you to do this, guardsman.’

‘You do not have to, your majesty,’ said Omar, drawing his scimitar. ‘This is my fate and this is my choice.’

The caliph smiled sadly. ‘So be it, then. They are coming up the stairs while we are going down, with only enough space for one of us to pass. That’s a story as old as time. Let us settle it now …’

There was a moment’s silence, the claw-guards’ quivering talons left shaking in the air, the wordless growling beyrogs holding their oversized scimitars out high as though they were totems to the storm shifting above them. Both sides’ roars rose up almost simultaneously and the two ranks surged towards each other, Omar and Salwa’s swords clashing in the centre of the melee as they ran to do murder. It begins.

Biologicks from both sides crashed into their enemies in multiple waves of animal frenzy, the claw-guards’ charge fleet and furious, the beyrogs meeting them with the weight of moving mountains, beating aside sabre-fingered strikes with four-foot tall scimitars as bestial yells were hurled between the hacking, thrusting, howling forces. Dead soldiers spilled over the sides of the twisting staircase, living ones too, still locked in fierce combat. Lightning flashes illuminated the hellish scene while the heavens split and roared, two armies from a nightmare spiralling towards each other far above the black spires of the Forbidden City.

Lost in the sodden stench of the animal rage all around him, the world reduced down to his own private combat, Omar struggled against Salwa, his fingers locked around the wrist of his opponent’s sword arm, as Salwa’s were locked around his, the two of them desperately shifting and struggling for advantage.

‘Is this,’ Salwa panted through gritted teeth, ‘what you want?’

‘No,’ said Omar, his arm burning as held back the blade inching towards his nose. ‘But it is what we have.’

Salwa grinned through a snarl. ‘Yes.’ Their swords danced, and Omar turned one of Salwa’s thrusts a little too clumsily, the point cutting his left cheek and drawing a bitingly painful thin rivulet of blood there.

‘A duelling scar for you,’ said Salwa. ‘But there’ll be none left among your old guardsmen friends to appreciate it.’

Try for my heart next time. You’ve already filleted it.

They both fell back as a beyrog collapsed into their space, three claw-guards slashing at the giant’s yellow breastplate, taking out slices of metal armour with each swing. Free of Salwa’s grasp, Omar warily circled the new commander of the guardsman, both their scimitars held high in the classic duellist’s pose.

‘I am stronger than you, Omar. Faster.’

‘The grand vizier’s sorcerers refashioned your muscles well,’ spat Omar, not taking his eyes off the gently swaying blade. ‘And your soul too. It used to be as clear as a lake. Now it is a dirty puddle.’

‘The Sect of Razat freed me!’

‘I felt your soul!’ shouted Omar, turning aside Salwa’s blade as it came out in an exploratory tap. ‘You don’t even know what they’ve done to you.’

Again Salwa’s steel sprang out, far faster and more decisive this time. ‘I could say the same about you, Omar. Spouting dull platitudes about the honour of the Caliph Eternal. Is this what the guardsmen have done to you? Made you care about a dying age? Made you pick the wrong side of history when all you used to care about was a life of ease and your belly?’

Omar feinted right and cut left, but Salwa was too quick, blocking his thrust. ‘The guardsmen are right.’

‘This makes right,’ yelled Salwa, pushing forward with a quick sequence of thrusts so rapid that Omar had to give ground up the steps as he parried. ‘Victory and nothing else. You’ve picked a bad time to learn to care about something at last, Omar Barir.’

Omar nearly stumbled back over one of the dead claw-guards. ‘I used to care about you.’

‘Another lost cause. What a pity you didn’t join us when I offered you the chance. The future could have been ours.’

No future I want.

‘I am going to gut your sect’s future,’ snarled Omar. ‘And when I’m done with them, I’m going to hunt down Immed Zahharl and feed him my sword inch by inch for what he’s done to you and everyone I ever cared about.’

‘Through me first,’ said Salwa, meeting Omar’s blade with a chime of metal. ‘I’m the future! These beautiful claw-guards are our new guardsmen. More loyal and reliable than you and your men ever were.’

Omar fell back again. Perhaps this twisted shadow of the woman he had loved was correct. We’re too alike, too evenly matched. Salwa met every blow Omar gave out, turned every thrust, reversed every parry. Salwa was even wearing the same uniform as the claw-guards; monsters following their new grand marshal, in crude, bestial mockery of the brave men that Omar had served alongside. Omar’s jacket was soaked with rain, sweat and the blood of the dying biologicks still impaling and battering each other around him. His muscles and tendons seemed made of living fire as he tried to summon up enough strength to beat his way through Salwa’s guard. Is this the fight you wanted, fate? Is this what you have spared me for? I must kill the sole piece of Shadisa that hasn’t already been murdered by the grand vizier.

A beyrog struggling with a pair of the claw-guards came smashing down the steps, and both Omar and Salwa leapt desperately over the slashing, rolling landslide of bodies, but Omar was a second too slow, his boot catching on a trailing crossbow strap. Unbalanced, he landed a single boot on the stair’s blood-slicked surface and went falling down the treads. Omar saw Salwa following his tumbling passage like a mountain gazelle, leaping through the carnage of combat around the tower stairs. Omar landed hard by the edge, his momentum broken by the corpse of one of the claw-guards, the body nearly shifting over the stair’s boundary with the sky and sending Omar plunging into the chasm’s abyss. His scimitar had spun away in the fall and Omar desperately frisked the beast’s corpse for a pistol, a knife, anything, but of course, its weapons were its claws.

Your sword is not the weapon. You are the weapon. The cadet master’s words echoed in his mind. True for the grand vizier’s bestial new army, at least.

The point of Salwa’s sword turned him around, digging into his spine. ‘I warned you. My body is faster than yours. Stronger.’

Omar looked up into eyes he did not know. ‘Womb mages’ tricks.’

‘Call it progress,’ said Salwa, raising the scimitar and striking down to bury it into Omar’s chest.

Your sword is not the weapon. You are the weapon.

Omar seized the claw-guard corpse’s cloak and whipped it out, rolling and kicking as he wrapped it around Salwa’s leg. The new commander of the guardsmen was sent sprawling forward, meeting Omar’s sweeping leg and sent stumbling over the edge of the stairs with a surprised bellow. Omar looked down. Salwa was hanging just two feet below the ledge, body thrashing in the wind, one hand grasped around the rod of a rain-slicked lightning conductor.

Omar threw down the cloak, turning it into a makeshift line. ‘Take it!’

Salwa’s spare hand flailed up — trying to reach the cape, or perhaps the safety of the lightning conductor. ‘What for?’

‘For me.’

Salwa’s hand flailed up again, catching the lightning conductor, desperately holding on against the fierce gusts with both hands. There was a flicker of a smile around Salwa’s lips. ‘What will you give me if I win?’

‘A kiss.’

Salwa looked up, the rain cascading down the grand marshal’s face. ‘I’ve been a slave before, Omar, I didn’t much like it.’

Omar dropped the cloak as far as his aching arm could stretch. ‘Please, reach out.’

Freedom!’ Salwa called up, the fingers of both hands opening, letting gravity catch hold. Omar watched the body turning and shrinking in the wind, swallowed by the darkness and the storm until there was nothing left but the chasm below and the raging battle behind. He let the useless cloak drop after the vanished body.

The press of the skirmish had shifted further down the tower’s stairs now, leaving dead beyrogs and claw-guards strewn in its wake. So many times I lost her. So many times. All she wanted was to be free, and now she is. Free of everything. What have I made myself into? A slave pretending to be a soldier, the last son of a dead house. A uniform filled with muscle and blood, a uniform disguising a killer, a uniform holding onto nothing but duty and sharpened steel. Which of us is the larger monster now, Shadisa, you or Omar Barir, truly the greatest of all the guardsmen? Falling to his knees, Omar turned his bleeding face to the sky and let the rain roll down his features, clearing away the blood from his cheeks. The storm ripped against him and he tipped his face back to howl at the heavens and rail at the fates. ‘What more do you want from me? Why am I still alive? Is my blood so noble you will not shed it? Am I so celebrated you cannot crush me or cast me off this bloody tower?’ Do I have to avenge everyone in Haffa?

He lay there weeping. It could have been for minutes, it could have been for days, until appearing through the litter of the carnage, the Caliph Eternal walked towards Omar. The guardsman’s lost scimitar lay balanced in his untroubled hands.

The Caliph Eternal offered the blade. He didn’t seem to notice Omar’s tears in the rain. ‘This is yours, guardsman.’

Omar rose shakily to his feet, grasping the pommel and cleaning its curved edge uncertainly against his trouser leg. As he stood, the shaking lessened, falling away until he was as still as the dark stones of the city towers below. Slowly then, his bearing grew straighter, his shadow longer across the stairs, darker across the dead. What was filling him? Destiny or inevitability? Then he looked at the weapon as if seeing it for the first time. ‘Your majesty, you are mistaken. It is yours.’

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