Drusilla Khavari ground her teeth as she watched the funeral procession emerge from the Temple of Haizoro, the Two-Faced God, the crow’s feet on her ebon skin cutting deeper as she scowled. At almost fifty years of age, she had plenty of lines and wrinkles, but they had never been more pronounced than on this day, the day of the funeral of the governor of the city of Osisa-Kagaza, Soubashi Objala-jaffa Ubar Rafati. Ironically, her face mimicked those of the Soubashi’s wife and brother, whom she meant to kill this day.
Standing in a crowd of hundreds ostensibly grieving for the Soubashi, she was a cuckoo in the nest, her heart hard as she beheld the Soubashi’s body being carried through the streets on a traditional Zamphian casket open to the sky, the body held upright and visible on the thick wedge of wood so that the gathered masses could properly mourn. The body looked clean, immaculate, its mahogany skin just starting to grey, garbed for its journey to the afterlife in a crisp white kaftan embroidered with golden Dragons. Crows circled, cawing, high above the corpse.
Amid a vast entourage of officials, servants, relatives and guards, and drummers tolling an endless, mournful tattoo like the heartbeat of a dying man, the Soubashi’s wife and brother walked by the casket’s side, heads bowed. Both wore black, as did the rest of the crowd, even Drusilla, so that the Soubashi would seem a pure white swan gliding through a scummy pond. Drusilla hated the imagery, but she wanted to blend in until it was time to strike and so she was dressed just as was every other woman, just as was the Soubashi’s apparently grief-stricken wife, in a black robe and veil. Drusilla did not believe the wife, Pakpao Rafati, to be grief-stricken at all; rumours were flying around the city like a flock of garrulous bats that she had been having an affair with her husband’s brother and that the two of them had conspired to poison the Soubashi. Word spread fast in Osisa-Kagaza.
The Soubashi’s brother, Vizier Qadir-jaffa Ubar Rafati, who it was whispered would be appointed the new Soubashi within a day or two, was the runt of the litter, a small, skeletal man whose sharp sense of vanity could not be entirely blunted even at his own brother’s funeral; his mourning robe was embroidered with silver serpents. His dark, thinning hair and watering eyes gave him the look of a man lost outside of a library. The Soubashi’s infamous right-hand man, his executioner, was by his side, Gripyak Ubar Fatoom, a mammoth of a man and nearly as hairy, with a great double-headed battleaxe strapped to his back. It was said he had killed thousands at the Soubashi’s orders, that he was a pitiless dog who could tear a man apart with his bare hands. Eyeing his club-like fists, Drusilla could almost believe the hyperbole. She made a mental note not to let him escape, either. His spree of terror would end this day.
She wanted to fly at him, at the wife, at the brother, to feel their eyes explode beneath her fingernails and hear their screams echo off the red granite walls; but she bided her time like a dragonet, a vast species of creature camouflaged in the seabed around Zamphia, which would rear up and eat any passerby that swam too close, be it fish, crustacean or human. She would have her revenge on the dead Soubashi and his entire family before day’s end. She had not snuck into the inner city for nothing.
She watched as the grand procession finally slithered out of the Temple of Haizoro, its straggling tail comprised of black-clad priests singing benedictions for the Soubashi’s soul, begging Haizoro to grant him a new face full of cunning and guile in rebirth. The Zamphians believed in reincarnation. Drusilla believed if she ever found the Soubashi living another life, she’d kill him, even if he was but a babe in arms. If she could be sure of his identity, she’d strangle it with its own umbilical cord and save the world from its monstrousness. The monumental Temple of Haizoro reared high in the sky, carved in the shape of a basalt horse ready to bear souls away to the next life. The procession exited under and between its flailing front hooves, exquisitely frozen in motion, like a tiny garden snake fleeing a full-sized steed, the bass rumble of the priests’ chanting casting a pall over the sunburned city.
Drusilla sneered as she witnessed the priests waving incense burners as they went, wafting away the Soubashi’s spirit. They were animals, lechers, greedy vainglorious fools who cared more about the material rewards the Soubashi could provide than the eternal rewards of reincarnation. Thus, their temples were gilded from top to bottom on the inside, lavish as palaces, and they were gifted the most beautiful slaves for their foul carnal needs on a daily basis. In return, they seeded goodwill for the Soubashi among the people – or they tried to, while at the same time the Soubashi oppressed, extorted, intimidated and murdered them in droves. Any who spoke out were culled. Any who opposed his business ventures were removed. Any whose property he desired were disposed of. Any who slighted him disappeared. Any who displeased him in any way swiftly vanished. The priests had also collected excessive amounts of tax for the Soubashi in recent years, growing in numbers thanks to his largess and taking clubs with them everywhere they went lest they meet with resistance, and so for that alone they were generally despised.
She watched the head of the serpentine procession begin to wind down the stone road that ran through the heart of Osisa-Kagaza, the Khuna Saraka, or Blood Road, so named not only because it was the equivalent of the city’s main artery, but also because of the blood that streamed down its winding slopes from the temple at the top after dark, sacrificial rituals to Haizoro. Those who had the misfortune to live close by told of screams heard at all hours, screams of utter horror as of men and women being exposed to the blackest gulfs beyond the wildest nightmares. Situated at the heart of the city at its highest point, the temple was raised on a natural rocky pedestal above the rest of Osisa-Kagaza, which already climbed a hummock to claim dominion over the surrounding land, little of which was arable.
Cupped on three sides by jagged crags, the only way to approach the temple was by Blood Road, stepping through the previous petitioner’s ichor and wondering if the next victim could be you. One simple misinterpretation of a shifting shadow or a squawking bird flying in the wrong direction as a bad omen, and any petitioner would be ground down and served as sausages as alms to the poor, but not before the priests used the worshipper’s innards to divine an omen for the next petitioner. And on the cycle went. Only the rich escaped the Two-Faced God’s priests’ clutches.
The procession was hemmed in on both sides by rows of city guardsmen in bronze lamellar armour wielding pikes – a necessary precaution, for half of the crowd was not there to mourn. Half of the crowd was there to see the Soubashi’s head on a spike, along with his wife and brother’s. It was all the guards could do to hold them back, using their polearms like staves to shove away men and women who were desperately trying to reach the procession to interrupt it. Half of the crowd were aristocrats from the inner city, some genuinely upset to see one of their own brought down, some excited by the prospects opening up for them upon his departure; and half of the crowd were from the outer city at the bottom of the hill, both metaphorically and geographically.
The two halves of the city had long been separated from one another – a necessary measure, the aristocrats had deemed – by a massive manmade moat that ran around the entire hill, drawing on the adjacent sea for constant sustenance. The only way across the moat was by one of several bridges with barbicans guarding drawbridges and portcullises. A channel had been carved long ago from the ocean to the moat, so that the tides would keep it ever full. Thousands of slaves had died in the project. Their descendants lived on in the slums at the bottom of Osisa-Kagaza, Oasis of Crows.
Drusilla was one of them.
The head of the procession, made up of fifty armoured warriors wielding pikes, slithered down from the plinth on which the temple rested and into the city proper.
Drusilla narrowed her eyes, spotting the Warlock, Farrokh Hisan Fahim-imir Ubar Mahjoub-amar, for the first time amid the entourage and muttering to Haizoro beneath her breath, “Two-faced git. You couldn’t have struck him down with a meteor like I asked?”
The Warlock was as infamous as the Soubashi, as his right hand, Gripyak. Varied were said to be his mysterious and arcane methods of torture, cruel his nature. It was whispered that just as beautiful women were delivered to Haizoro’s priests as slaves, little boys were delivered to Farrokh Hisan Fahim-imir Ubar Mahjoub-amar, delivered to him and never heard from again. His powers were reputed to be superfluous in the household, however, an ancillary measure should Pakpao Rafati’s own powers one day somehow be incapacitated. Her vaunted eldritch talents were well-known. More than once, she had put an end to a public occasion by growing vexed and lashing the crowd with a whip forged of lightning, despite her husband’s protestations. Many were the times she had publicly whipped a man to death for insulting her or her husband. Drusilla had an inkling that Pakpao was the worst of the lot, the driving force behind the Soubashi’s evil acts.
The procession passed by several aristocrats’ mansions, red granite affairs adorned with marble archways and architraves, pilasters and porticos, and Drusilla sidled through the heaving crowd to keep up. She felt like she was lost at sea amid the turbulence, drowning in people, buffeted on every side. She cast her gaze skyward in hopes of a moment’s release and saw people leaning over balconies and cheering or booing the procession, hurling petals or rotten fruit. The verdigrised copper roofs glinted in the morning sun, for the Rafati family had decided to hold the procession soon after dawn – presumably hoping that all those who had hated the Soubashi would still be fast asleep. Some of the people of Osisa-Kagaza hated the Soubashi with such vehemence, however, that they would willingly have stayed up several nights in a row just to make sure they did not miss the chance to show him the proper disrespect.
Then, the procession was making its way past the Soubashi’s decadent red granite palace. Drusilla ogled the oversized and overly opulent building, recalling all the sights of the slums as she did so. The Soubashi had constructed his palace using marble for his pillars and jade for his domes, while some in the slums were so poor they were forced into a life of cannibalism, or thievery, or whoring, or thuggery. The docks at the bottom of the hill were teeming with cyst-ridden, toothless folk so scrawny that their bones could be counted. The slaughterhouse barely functioned. The bakers and butchers and tanners had all turned to lives of crime. And the Soubashi had embossed his front door with his family crest picked out in gold. Gold that had cost the lives of her people. Drusilla ground her teeth, her jaw starting to ache. She would make these fools pay, she resolved.
The Soubashi’s gardens alone contrasted so strongly with the outer city that it made her want to weep. The thriving greenery there seemed a mocking testimony to all that could be achieved in Osisa-Kagaza if only a ruler were to care for the entirety of his city as the Soubashi cared for his garden. All the fruit growing in the plot of several acres could feed many families, she knew, and yet it was walled off and forbidden to the general populace, visible only through iron bars. Trees such as grew nowhere else in Osisa-Kagaza thrived there, leaching the water from the soil so virulently that no other tree could survive in their vicinity. The trees were called ironwoods, but the people of Osisa-Kagaza called them Rafatis. Some said the Soubashi even had his own private collection of exotic animals caged in the garden, so that he could view them at his leisure.
The moat that separated the inner city from the outer had been diverted to feed the garden and to form various pools around the palace, many overhung with sweet-scented cherry blossoms whose petals turned the waters lilac. The idyllic setting for the Soubashi’s abominable nature made Drusilla’s stomach heave. She knew the world was unfair, but to see it painted so vividly before her was surreal and infuriating. Why did the villains get the privilege of witnessing such beauty on a daily basis, while common folk suffered, drinking in the beauty of occasional wallflowers just like wallflowers guzzled down the infrequent rain? Why were they living in luxury while the rest of the people were suffering? Well, no more, Drusilla vowed.
As the procession passed more aristocrats’ marble monstrosities of mansions, Drusilla saw in her mind’s eye the other temples that had once lined Blood Road in their place. She had liked some of the priests who worshipped Gods other than Haizoro. Once, pantheism had been encouraged in Zamphia. Now, however, the priests of the Two-Faced God would tolerate no competition. The temples dedicated to other Gods had long since been burned down, their priests put to the sword in the name of Haizoro, their worshippers converted or scattered.
It was some of these scattered pantheistic worshippers who attacked the funeral procession as it made its way past the site of the old temples, ululating and calling out to various Gods for aid in smiting down the evil Vizier, Qadir-jaffa, and the Witch, Pakpao. They broke out of the crowd like a pack of jackals barking for blood, but they were ill equipped, with no armour whatsoever. With only rusty daggers and staves, they were easy prey to the city guard’s pikes and the Warlock’s blistering yellow energy globules. Their screams reverberated down the avenue. Drusilla thought they charged valiantly, and died equally valiantly. As she watched the last of them cut down, his blood spilling down the walkway, she cursed inwardly. She had approached the fanatics in efforts to unite their two causes, but they had refused, citing their fervour as their reason as they so often did. Now, they were gone and no cause had profited. The procession stepped over the bodies and walked on, heads held high as if they did not even see the blood staining their hems. Drusilla saw the bodies of a few armoured guards on the ground then and adjusted her assessment of the fanatics; they had helped her cause a little, after all.
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