"Hate is a vengeful steed. One that will tear the reins from your hands and trample all you love if it can.
Yet ever faithful. Always there when all else have abandoned you."
--Asphyxiations, Canticle 39
The greatflutes sounded over the wide red expanse as the Vitruvian walkers lumbered into view, the notes piercing the horizon even before the heavy drumbeat of their footsteps, the procession dragging itself across the sand step by inevitable step. They marched under long canopies of colored silk, seeming to glow from beneath as the blinding sun cast colored shadows through the fabric, painted with glyphs and heraldry, draped in lanterns and baskets and walls of ragged tapestry. Clan banners flapped noisily in the burning breeze, robed, armored figures moving to and fro across the hot metal of their bodies. Many with weapons at the ready, helms scanning the horizon to the east. A few children scampered from rope ladders, shouting at one another, oblivious to the growing unease.
And ahead lay the monolith-city of Zar Vorgul, the heat-shimmer veil rippling over the sands beneath the city, its dark spires glinting in the light like obsidian teeth. Fate, knew the sorcerer, weighed the city in its many hands. Coveting. Calculating. Its shadow fell like a physical weight across the sands. Everyone knew it was so, in some dark and dreaded place in their hearts.
But only Sothis-Sa, deep in his meditative sleep, truly understood what it meant.
“Are you szo czertain the czity will fall?”
Ysod-El sat nestled in his cushions, in his antechamber at the rear of his clan’s husk; unarmored but still swathed in the concealing brown rags he had come to favor. His voice was deep and heavy, thickly accented with the old speech of his blood, and his eyes were serpentine above the scarves that concealed his features, deep amber jewels that glittered against cracked sinew and burned, scarred flesh.
“Many dezire to retain the Union,” he continued, “They will bargain for itz defenze.”
The Envenomer, sat opposite him, was a study in contrast. She was impeccable, her face painted expertly, dark leather tight against her cheeks and throat. Her distorted helm sat taking up most of her lap, a delicate glass cup clinking in one hand where it met the glass claws at the tips of her gloves. A painted iron teapot sat on a low, elaborate wooden table between them, spice-scented steam curling gently from its spout.
Though each had their cup, neither had taken so much as a sip.
“The Shashul wouldn’t dare move on Zar Vorgul so openly if he wasn’t sure he could take it.” said Malkut, flatly, “And you can be well assured the Saliszi aren’t bickering like children like the Drathan’s sellsword rabble undoubtedly are. We need to stay one step ahead of them, and we need to be ready to bleed them, Ysod.” The matriarch’s voice fell to a crooning whisper. “We need to bleed them when they come.”
The Collector spread his hands, evenly, noncommittal. “The Szalish will rezpect our neutrality,” he rumbled, “They have no cauze to do otherwize. If the Immanent takez the czity from the Dratha, then when the sztarz come round again, we will trade with him inztead. They know thisz.”
Malkut-Ba narrowed her eyes. “You’re thinking like a merchant,” she hissed, softly, “This is war
, Ysod. Not one of your pitiful marketplace assasinations. War
“War iz tranzaction.” He shrugged, unnerving eyes not leaving hers. ”Cities. Livez. One iz bartered for another. It iz no different.”
“Then you don’t know them like I do.” The woman leaned forward over the table, thickening the air with perfume and the fever-thick smell of hate. “Whatever you may think of Salished pragmatism, trader, once an army like that begins moving, it takes on a life of its own. It stops thinking and becomes a swarm of locusts with the taste of blood in its mouth, and I tell you now that once they have battered down the walls of that city and torn it to pieces it will not be enough. They will loot anything that isn’t nailed down and burn anything that is, and when they are done they will turn here, and they will butcher your sons and rape your daughters and they will salt the f***ing earth--
There was a musical jingle of crystal and brass from behind her. The Collector lifted his hand, gently, turning his head to the opened curtain where his daughter now hung silhouetted from one arm. Malkut ground her teeth, forcing down a sip of tea as the cup shook in her hands, glass tinkling dangerously. Binah glanced between them.
“Is this a bad time?” she asked, hoarsely.
Ysod-El beckoned her on, two-fingered. The girl lifted her helm, oiled braids and sand spilling from beneath the shell, and drew a breath.
“It all looks normal so far,” she cleared her throat, unsuccessfully, “business as usual, yes? But the boys have been asking if we’re setting up or moving on. Yes?”
The trader paused, unreadable under the eyes of the dancer and the murderess. At length, he nodded, once -- but lifted his hand again abruptly as the girl moved to withdraw. She paused, hanging back.
“...Szmall.” He said. He steepled his fingers, thoughtfully, eyes flicking from Malkut to his daughter. “Nothing we cannot pack quickly, Binah.”
“Yes, father. Weapons?”
“Weaponz. Yesz. And food.” He settled back down into his meditative position. “For thisz, I think, the Dratha will pay much.”
The great instruments sounded again as the hulks slowed, dragging themselves to a halt a distance outside the gates. Already people were running to them, shouting offers, the brewing war hanging over their heads like a thundercloud, like an hourglass running dry. Binah leant over the rim of her rusting palanquin, shouting back, a score of armored figures unfurling banners and carpetry, lighting colored lanters and tossing down bundles of staves. A trio of war-insects trampled past, their riders clearing a perimeter for the marketplace as the sun sank lower in the sky.
And the Ichor-Mage slept.