THE HAND OF AFAZ



THE HAND OF AFAZ, by Euan Harvey

Farid found the murderer huddled close to a small fire at the base of a scrawny tree. Firelight winked through the reeds, and Farid poled his raft in slowly, silent as a gar gliding through the water below.

Drawing close, he slipped off his robe and slid naked into the water. Slow strokes to the reeds, then a stealthy approach. For three days he’d eaten nothing but wrinkled apples and leathery mutton, and the smell of roasting waterfowl made his mouth water.

He crept through the thin screen of reeds, then rushed forward in silence. But Hasan saw him, grabbed his sword and slashed out, the blow clumsy with fear. Farid struck at the same moment: one hand to Hasan’s wrist, the other on the elbow, then a savage yank and Hasan’s elbow exploded with a crack. Heel-blow to the sternum; kite to the liver, fist to the throat, and Hasan was down and sobbing, blood dripping from his mouth.

Farid went back to his raft, took shackles from a leather bag, and grabbed his robe. Back at the fire, Farid splinted Hasan’s arm — ignoring the howls of pain this elicited — then shackled the murderer’s ankles and wrists and put on his robe.

Hasan started cursing then, calling Farid a killer and a son of many fathers. When he would not be silent, Farid gagged him with a strip of cloth, then spent a restless night slapping mosquitoes and waiting for the sunrise.

The lies began the next day.

* * *

“I didn’t kill him,” Hasan said.

Farid poled the raft forward through the still waters of Heshem’s Midden. The air was sultry, and sweat darkened the cloth under the arms of Farid’s robes. Ahead, a snake slipped from the reeds. It swam across the channel of dark water, a vee of ripples spreading behind its arrow-shaped head.

“You’re a Hand of Afaz,” Hasan said. “I thought you cared for justice.”

Reeds rustled. Farid lifted the pole. Water dripped from the end, plinking into the still, black water below.

“Listen to me!” Hasan demanded. “I didn’t kill him!”

A snout poked through the reeds, followed by a brown-furred head. The water-pig looked at Farid, eyes liquid, then retreated. The reeds shivered with movement, marking the pig’s passage.

Farid turned to Hasan. “Loud noises bring swamp-dragons, and I have no spear.”

Hasan’s mouth closed with a click of teeth. He stared at the reeds on either side of the channel, as if expecting at any moment to see the evil wedge-shaped head of a swamp-dragon poking through.

Then he glared at Farid. “Will you listen to me?”

“You have nothing to say.”

“I didn’t kill my father.”

“If you shout again, I will gag you again.”

“If you will not listen, then I’ll shout.” Hasan glowered at Farid.

“And you’ll be gagged.”

Hasan’s face contorted in sudden anger. “Fool. You know nothing.”

Farid turned his back on Hasan and thrust the pole into the black waters of the swamp. It hit bottom, and he pushed hard, sending the raft gliding forward. “Four men saw you leave the house.”

“Four of Gamal’s servants, you mean.”

“Yes.” Farid continued poling the raft. A duck rose from the reeds with a clatter of wings. “What of it?”

“Gamal i Hufas is a dog, and a son of dogs. It was Gamal who killed my father. And you’re taking me back to him.”

“You killed your own father. You argued with him outside the house — this was seen by many people. You threatened him. Again — witnesses saw you. He threatened to disown you, so during the night, you crept back into the house and cut his throat.”

“I loved my father,” Hasan said. “You are a Hand of Afaz. Look at me and see if I lie.”

Farid stared at Hasan, watching his face for the signs of a lie. “Say it again.”

“I did not kill my father.”

You lie, Farid wanted to say, but instead found himself asking, “Who killed him, then, if not you?”

“I told you: Gamal!” Hasan spat. “That bastard has the greed of Kavus. As soon as Atifa married the old man, Gamal started plotting. He knew his way in.” Hasan paused, then continued defiantly. “And he knew you, too.”

“What?” Farid frowned.

“He knew you, fool!” Hasan laughed bitterly. “The Hands of Afaz! So bold! So pure!”

Farid  gripped the pole with clenched fists.

“The House of Afaz! Home of justice!” Hasan said and sneered. “Petition Afaz and watch justice be done — only you’d better live in the Upper City; Afaz doesn’t want potters or weavers leaving dirt in his House. Corrupt and venal — that is your House!”

Farid knelt and grabbed Hasan’s face, pressing his fingers hard into the criminal’s flesh. “Do not speak to me again,” he hissed. “As you wish to live, do not speak to me.”

Hasan laughed. His voice was distorted by the pressure of Farid’s fingers on his cheeks. “Don’t threaten me. We both — ”

Farid squeezed. His fingers dug into Hasan’s face. Hasan’s voice cut off with a gasp of pain. “Be silent,” Farid said, speaking with the voice of command — cold, and full with the promise of violence.

Hasan nodded.

Without speaking, Farid turned and began poling the raft north, toward the far side of Heshem’s Midden where the slope of the World of the Living rose up in the blue-hazed distance.

They crossed Heshem’s Midden, then left the raft and entered the dark jungle at the base of the slope. Next they climbed through a field of wheat, with Quysayrah’s walls shining above, and from there passed through the Gate of Potsherds and the Lower City, through the Middle City, into priestly Keshet, and at last to the House of Afaz, where bronze statues of The God as Axe and Lash stood guard at the gates.

And at the gates, Gamal was waiting with his troops.

* * *

Gamal i Hufas was a man whose clothes shouted wealth. Gold threads glinted in his silk robes. He wore his hair up, in the Pelishti manner, and a net of tiny jewels covered his bun, catching the light like dew on grass. But under the gold and gems, Gamal had the face of a starving pauper from the Steps of Tanners.

“Suf Farid i Hudhayfah.” Gamal bowed, touching his fingers to his chest, lips and forehead. “You have brought the killer. Ma’Suf Mu’tasim will be pleased.”

“Stand aside,” Farid said.

“Ah. If only I could.” Gamal made a tiny gesture with his fingers. His guards spread out, hefting their swords meaningfully. “But not possible, anymore. You will give the killer to me. And I will hang him. Emotions run high, you see.”

The sound of bare feet running on stone came from inside the House. Farid glanced in that direction, saw the novice Tawfiq skidding to a halt by the bronze statue of Afaz as Axe and Lash, his eyes wide.

Farid turned back to Gamal. “Gamal i Hufas. I order you to stand aside. Now.”

“Alas. You no longer have the authority.” Gamal smiled briefly. “Sena Atifa — the murdered man’s wife — she has appealed to the Shah, may he live for ever. In his peerless wisdom, the Shah has decreed that the Mukhabarat will take the killer.”

Farid folded his arms.

“Give me the man,” Gamal said.

“No.”

Gamal reached into a pocket sewn into his robes and pulled out a clay seal. It showed the winged sun of the Shah, with the Great Seal of Obedience round it. Underneath the winged sun was the sharp-eyed hawk of the Mukhabarat.

“I see,” Farid said.

“I knew you would.” Gamal replaced the seal. “Now give us the killer.”

“No.”

Gamal blinked. “What?”

“No.”

“You are rash,” Gamal said. “Give me the man, and perhaps I will be able to forget about this.”

“Threats.” Farid shook his arms free of his sleeves. “Do not forget who I am, Sama Gamal. You speak to a Hand of Afaz as Axe and Lash. Now stand aside.”

Gamal stared at Farid, his gaze calculating.

But Farid had spoken the truth, which he knew Gamal was comtemplating: he was a Hand of Afaz as Axe and Lash, taken from the orphans of the city, raised to work the god’s will on the recalcitrant. Hands lived with their gods, and their gods gave them power.

“There will be consequences.” Gamal turned on his heel and stalked toward the Steps of Divine Harmony. His men followed, casting dirty glances at Farid.

“You see?” Hasan said. “That ill-born pig Gamal, he killed my father. Can’t you see that?”

“Be silent.” Farid pointed through the gates.

“You don’t have an answer, do you?” Hasan said defiantly. “My father was a merchant, nothing more. And his bitch-wife and her lover Gamal killed him, then blamed me for the murder. And now the Mukhabarat want me? You know what’ll happen if Gamal takes me. But what do you care?”

A sudden fury gripped Farid. He backhanded the parricide hard across the mouth. “For the last time, be silent!” Farid bellowed. “I will hear no more of your lies!”

He strode through the gates, yanking the chain attached to Hasan’s fetters. The novice Tawfiq ran toward Farid, looking from him to Hasan and almost hopping with impatience. “Suf, Suf! Mu’tasim is looking for you!”

Farid frowned.

“I mean, Ma’Suf Mu’tasim is looking for you, Suf Farid.” Tawfiq bowed. “He has Da’oud and Asbaq watching the ghûl casket. When you put it in the wall, can I watch?” He looked at Hasan. “Is that the parricide? Ma’Suf Mu’tasim told me — ”

“Enough!” Farid snapped.

“I’m sorry, Suf. I . . .” Tawfiq swallowed again, looking miserable.

Farid looked at the top of the boy’s shaved head gleaming in the sunlight, then let out his breath in a long sigh. Parricide was the vilest of crimes, and his anger at Hasan had spilled over. “Go. Tell Ma’Suf Mu’tasim I have the murderer.”

“He knows,” a hard voice snapped.

Farid looked up and saw Mu’tasim striding toward him, scarlet robe flapping around his legs. Farid bowed, holding the obeisance for a long moment before straightening.

Ma’Suf Mu’tasim i Hamakh — the Voice of Afaz — was a hard man. He was nearing fifty years of age, and the stubble on his shaved head was white now, rather than black, but his stare could still induce trembling in novices and lesser priests.

“Tawfiq.” Mu’tasim said, but did not look at the boy. “You will go to your quarters. Recite the second Hymn of Praise to Afaz as Protector of Virtue; repeat it twelve times. You will not eat this evening. Reflect instead on your willful lack of dignity.”

“But Ma’Suf, I — ”

“Go!” Mu’tasim’s voice cracked like a whip.

Tawfiq’s eyes glistened.

“You are hard on the boy, Ma’Suf,” Farid said while watching Tawfiq walk away.

“The Hands are the foundation of the House of Afaz.” Mu’tasim’s face was stony. “If the foundation is weak, the House falls. This is the parricide?”

“I have a name, old man,” Hasan said angrily.

“Doubtless rats have their names also.” Mu’tasim turned to Farid. “Remove him. Do not listen to his lies.”

Farid bowed, then dragged Hasan into the House of Afaz.

He strode through the Great Hall, its marble floor gleaming, then into the Square of Justice with its dark-framed gallows, executioner’s block, rack, wheel, and the ultimate tools of judgment: a podium and bench high on one side of the square, and a grim-faced statue in each corner — Afaz as Axe and Lash, Shieldbearer, Avenger, or Protector of Virtue. At last Farid reached the point where the buildings rose high and cramped, where he descended square-cut steps into the dark of the Evildoer’s Lamentation — the cells deep beneath the House of Afaz.

Farid pushed Hasan into a cell, then swung the door shut and shot the iron bolts.

Hasan watched him through the barred opening in the door. “Listen. Please!”

Farid’s face hardened. Still Hasan denied his guilt. “Your trial will begin tomorrow.” Farid walked away. But as he climbed the steps out of the Evildoer’s Lamentation, he couldn’t stop thinking about what Hasan had said. Farid knew the signs of lying, the footprints of deception. Either Hasan was an accomplished liar, or he was telling the truth.

At the top of the stairs, Farid stopped. And what had Gamal been thinking? That the House of Afaz would simply hand over its prisoners to the Mukhabarat? The Shah ruled the city of Quysayrah — but he did not rule the Houses of the Gods. Farid owed his obedience to the Voice of Afaz, to Ma’Suf Mu’tasim. And Mu’tasim owed obedience to the Afaz — not to the Shah, nor the Mukhabarat.

And besides, why had Gamal been so eager to take Hasan? He could have sent a request, but instead he had skulked outside the gates like a footpad.

Dark Ahret in his aspect of the Illegitimate Judge was whispering, spinning illusions and hiding the truth under a shroud of lies and deception. Mu’tasim needed to hear of this, Farid decided; the Voice of Afaz would know what action to take.

Feeling more purposeful now, Farid strode through the House, heading for the rooms adjoining the Great Hall.

But when he arrived at Mu’tasim’s chambers, he found that Mu’tasim was already waiting for him — along with a messenger bearing the Great Seal of Obedience.

* * *

As he stepped into Mu’tasim’s chambers, Farid bowed. When he straightened, Mu’tasim pointed to a spot on the floor. Farid sank down, folding his legs and looking at the Shah’s messenger. The man’s face was average in every way, a face to blend into any crowd.

A spy, Farid thought. One of the Shah’s eyes.

Mu’tasim gestured to the spy. “This is — ”

“Names are not important,” the spy interrupted. His voice was calm. “Suf Farid knows who I am. Is that not so?”

Farid nodded.

“Explain,” Mu’tasim said. “Why do I have a messenger from the Shah of Quysayrah — may he live forever — sitting in front of me?”

“Sama Gamal met me at the gates, Ma’Suf,” Farid said. “He demanded the prisoner. I said no.”

The spy smiled. “That is one story. Sama Gamal has another.”

Farid stared at him. “That is the truth. Or do you say I lie?”

The spy stopped smiling. He turned to Mu’tasim. “You see? He is unreasonable.”

“He is a Hand of Afaz,” Mu’tasim said. “I do not expect him to be ‘reasonable’. You have spoken. I have listened. Leave.”

The spy rose, bowed gracefully from the waist, and backed from the room.

When he had left, Mu’tasim stared unblinking at Farid for a long time. Farid sat in silence, enduring Mu’tasim’s examination as best he could.

“Tell me what you know of this dead man, this Karim i Tahir,” Mu’tasim said finally.

Farid gathered his thoughts. “A merchant, Ma’Suf. A trader with Pelisht, Mashid, the other western edge cities. Four wives — all dead save for the last, Sena Atifa.” Farid shrugged. “And that is all.”

“How wealthy a man would you say he was?”

“I don’t know, Suf. But the family house is high in Lakaf, and anything on the Steps of Felicity is expensive.”

“Last year, Karim paid fifteen hundred dinars in the head tax.”

Farid blinked. Fifteen hundred dinars? The head tax levied by the Shah claimed twelve parts in a hundred of a man’s wealth each year. Fifteen hundred dinars in the head tax meant Karim i Tahir was worth more than twelve thousand dinars. Farid simply couldn’t imagine that much money. A skilled artisan could expect to earn a little over one dinar a month.

“Of course, he had more he did not declare,” Mu’tasim said. “Merchants learn to lie as instinctively as they take in their mother’s milk. And gold buys men’s eyes and ears, their loyalty. The Shah’s revered grandfather — may he dwell in Hormuz’s grace — ascended the Peacock Throne over the dead body of his cousin, poisoned by his food taster. Wealthy men are more dangerous to the Shah than the armies of Pelisht and Mashid.”

“I understand, Ma’Suf.” Farid frowned. “But what has this to do with us?”

“The Mukhabarat want the murderer.” Mu’tasim gestured at the scroll by his knees. “This carries the Great Seal of Obedience, and politely requests that we hand over custody of Hasan to Sama Gamal i Hufas. We will comply. A request from the Mukhabarat means an order from the Shah.”

“The Shah cannot order us, Ma’Suf,” Farid said. “We belong to Afaz.”

“That is the law.” Mu’tasim paused. “But law is not life. This is something you will learn. If the House were to defy the Shah, it would pay. Perhaps we would find the Steps of Divine Harmony closed at both ends. Perhaps an unfortunate series of murders would force the Shah to post asshuri outside the gate to thoroughly check congregants for weapons.”

“But the Court?”

“It would be legal,” Mu’tasim said. “The Line of Sayun is old and cunning. A nick here, a nick there, and we would be hamstrung, stretched out and waiting for him to cut our throats.” Mu’tasim stared at Farid. “That will not happen. We do Afaz’s work here. We bring justice to those whose evil deeds would otherwise go unpunished. We are the Righteous Sword, the just blade of vengeance.”

“The Mukhabarat will kill him,” Farid said. “They will torture him first, then kill him.”

“Yes.” Mu’tasim’s face didn’t give an inch. “But of what consequence is this? He killed his father.”

“I do not know if he is guilty,” Farid said, surprising himself.

Mu’tasim glared at him. “Explain.”

Farid told Mu’tasim of watching Hasan as he told Farid he hadn’t killed his father, of seeing none of the signs of lying on his face, of what Hasan had said about Gamal.

“He lies. He is the son of a merchant,” Mu’tasim said, as another man might have said ‘he is a leper’.

“I do not think he is lying, Ma’Suf. I cannot see it in him.”

“You are wrong,” Mu’tasim said flatly.

“But — ”

“Recite your vows!” Mu’tasim snapped.

Farid bowed his head in obedience. “Mighty Afaz, first son of Hormuz and beloved of Diesh, Great Shield of the Weak and Executor of Justice: Hear the vow of Your servant who puts his trust in You. Whoever loves father or mother more than justice is not worthy of You; whoever loves friend or companion more than justice is not worthy of You; and whoever loves honor or gold or adulation more than justice is not worthy of You. So will I always strive for justice, and hold it close above all things.”

As Farid recited the words of the first vow, Mu’tasim simply watched.

“You send me out as a sword into battle,” Farid continued. “I will not question the hand that holds me, nor the will that directs me where to strike. I will not doubt what I am to say or what I am to do, or what I am told to say or told to do, for it is not I who will speak or do, but the Spirit of Afaz, who works his will through me and the House.”

Farid drew breath to move on to the third and fourth vows, but stopped when Mu’tasim held up a hand.

“What does the second vow mean?” Mu’tasim asked.

“Obedience, Ma’Suf,” Farid said.

“Yes. Obedience. Do not forget your place. The murderer will be given to the Mukhabarat, where he will receive the justice that awaits him. You will not interfere. Swear it on Afaz.”

Farid hesitated, but Mu’tasim’s eyes were unrelenting. Reluctantly, Farid held up his hand. “I so swear.”

“Good. Da’oud and Asbaq watch the casket. Go, and perform your duty.”

Farid bowed, and backed from the room. As he strode through the House, heading for the Room of Segregation where Da’oud and Asbaq would be watching the ghûl casket, Farid thought of Hasan’s face. Was it possible Hasan had duped him? Farid didn’t think so; he now knew Hasan was telling the truth — intuition came from Afaz and was not to be dismissed.

In the Great Hall, where narrow spears of sunlight shone though slit windows high in the walls, Farid stopped.

The ghûl casket had rested in Segregation for two days already, since the killings on the Steps of Potters. A thief had found the ghûl pendant, a tiny golden statue of a many-armed god holding knives. He’d pricked his finger on a sharp edge, and the ghûl trapped inside the pendant had crept into his blood, poisoning his mind and warping his body. The stricken thief murdered fourteen people before his lover cut away the pendant from where it had fused to his flesh, and so freed him from the claws of the ghûl. The asshuri would have taken the thief, tried him for the murders, then beheaded him in the Square of Justice Delivered. As was their duty — that was the law. But it was not the thief who had killed those men; it was the ghûl, one of the nighted children of Ahret as Devouring Maw thrust into the void by Hormuz Greatest and Best, but ever seeking to creep back through the left-hand gate and wreak their malice upon the World of the Living.

And so Farid had let the thief and his lover leave the city, and he had locked the ghûl pendant in a lead-lined casket, which now rested at the exact center of the Room of Segregation, ringed by salt, oil, and water, and watched at all times.

It had been there for two days, waiting for the Kem-na Afaz. Surely another few hours would not matter?

After all, although Mu’tasim was a great man, he was still only a man. The Enumeration of Errors warned of losing sight of that fact. The burdens of the House weighed heavily on Mu’tasim’s shoulders, so Farid would have to help him see the truth. Hasan had not killed his father. To prove that to Mu’tasim, Farid needed to speak to the dead man’s wife, Sena Atifa.

Resolved on a course of action, Farid headed for the gate, then out onto the Steps of Divine Harmony.

A short time later, he stood in Lakaf, on the other side of the Pillar of Heaven — the pink granite blade that divided the Upper City into two halves. He climbed the Steps of Felicity to where Karim’s house rose, its high wall dominating the Steps.

Outside the main door stood Gamal’s men.

* * *

Two of them leaned against the wall next to the door, the third squatted on the other side. Frowning, Farid strode up the Steps of Felicity. The man squatting stood; the two leaning against the wall pushed themselves away. They did not draw their swords, but their hands rested on the hilts.

When Farid reached them, one of the men spat on the stone. “This house is under the hawk’s wing. You may not enter.”

Farid considered the words of his vow. He’d sworn not to interfere with the Mukhabarat. He hadn’t said anything about not speaking to them. “I wish to speak with the Sena Atifa. Stand aside.”

“You need to remember your place, priest,” the man said. “Turn around and leave. There are prayers to be said.”

Farid itched to simply push the man aside — but there was his vow. Details sprang into focus: a bead of sweat rolling down the man’s cheek, the flaking paint on the door behind, the hot sun on Farid’s neck.

A bolt clunked. The door swung open. Gamal i Hufas stepped through, closed the door behind him, then locked it with a large iron key.

“Where is the Sena Atifa?” Farid asked.

Gamal turned to face him. He smiled. “Alas. Grief has overcome her. The loss of her husband. The perfidy of her son.” He shrugged. “It is too much for a woman to bear. The fruit of the hemakh tree, truly it is the final balm for all ills; mourn you for the passing of the Sena Atifa by her own hand.”

She was dead? Anger seethed in Farid, anger equally directed against Gamal i Hufas and at his own stupidity. He should have realized this would happen. He should have gone to see Atifa as soon as he’d had doubts about Hasan. But he hadn’t, and so Gamal had gone there first. Now Atifa was dead, and Farid knew Gamal had killed her. Farid had known the Mukhabarat murdered for the Shah — but this was the first time he’d been confronted with it directly.

Farid took a half-step forward.

Gamal held up a finger. “Ah. Not a good idea, I think. Perhaps you should speak to Mu’tasim. He appears to understand how affairs are run here in the World of the Living.”

Once again Farid recalled that he had sworn an oath of obedience — and Mu’tasim had ordered him not to interfere with the Mukhabarat.

“I see you understand,” Gamal said. “Perhaps Mu’tasim has already spoken to you? I think it is so. Truly, with patience and discipline, dogs can be taught the most amazing tricks.” He flicked his fingers at Farid. “Go now. Run home, little dog.”

Farid glared at him in impotent rage. He turned on his heel and strode away down the Steps of Felicity. A snicker of laughter followed him, and Farid hunched his shoulders as if it struck him physically.

When he reached the House, Mu’tasim was waiting.

* * *

“Where have you been?” Mu’tasim snapped.

Farid bowed. “Sen Karim’s house, Ma’Suf.”

“Why?” Mu’tasim’s stare bored into Farid.

Farid took a deep breath. “I do not believe Hasan killed his father. I went to the house to speak to the Sena Atifa. I hoped she could tell me something.”

“Tell you something?” Mu’tasim’s eyebrows rose. “What, exactly?”

“I don’t know.” Farid had to fight the urge to rub his palms on his robe. “Something. Anything.”

“And what did she say?” Mu’tasim asked.

“Nothing. She’s dead.” Farid told Mu’tasim what had happened, and as Farid spoke, Mu’tasim’s face hardened.

“What of it?” he said when Farid had finished.

“Ma’Suf, Gamal murdered her!” Farid spread his hands.

“Do you have proof?”

“No, Ma’Suf, but — ”

“Yes or no will suffice. Do you have proof?”

“No, Ma’Suf.”

“You have nothing, then.” Mu’tasim’s face was stone. “And even if you did, still I would forbid you from pursuing this.”

“Ma’Suf!” Farid protested.

“Silence!” Mu’tasim stepped forward, and Farid retreated before the older man’s sudden flinty rage. “They were merchants! Ticks! Of what worth are they? I tell you this, the House will stand! Justice flows from us, Farid! From us! We seek out evil and lay it low and I will not see that destroyed. I will not! What is the worth of a merchant against justice? Nothing!”

Farid drew breath to reply, but Mu’tasim cut him off with a chop of his hand.

“Enough! There is no more! I ordered you not to interfere with the Mukhabarat again. You deliberately disobeyed me. You have sworn an oath of obedience, Farid. An oath to Afaz himself! An oath you have broken!”

“I did not break my oath,” Farid said stiffly. “I did not lay even one finger on Gamal — or his men.”

“Don’t play market-Sufi with me. I won’t have it. You may not have laid a finger on the men — but you broke the spirit of the oath. You know it full well. I can read it in your eyes.”

Farid looked away, then back at the stone-hard gaze of the old man. “But, Ma’Suf, I — ”

“No more! The Mukhabarat have taken the parricide already. The Kem-na Afaz is waiting for you. Asbaq and Da’oud have the cords. Go, take a goat from Ghassan. Go!”

Farid stared at Mu’tasim, but the old man’s gaze didn’t waver. Farid looked down first.

He backed from Mu’tasim’s chambers, then stalked through the corridors of the House of Afaz, out to the back of the House, to the animal pens, where the gentle-faced Ghassan lived with his goats in a low building that reeked of the animals. Farid waited while Ghassan picked out a goat, the man hesitating, visibly reluctant to part with any of them. When Ghassan had finally chosen one, Farid leashed it, then half-led, half-dragged the unwilling animal out of the building and down the stairs into the cellars. He descended into the catacombs, passing silent tombs and slowly crumbling coffins; then farther down, to where the coffins were worm-eaten husks and the inscriptions written in Middle Assur, then down yet more, to where yellowed fragments of bone lay on stone shelves, and the epitaphs were carved in Old Assur, little removed from the language of dead Sumiri before the Fall.

Down here the air was musty, and underneath was a spiritual pollution that fouled the air. Farid could feel it on his skin: greasy, slick with poison. For here, in the lowest of the catacombs, ghûls were sealed in the walls and floor, interred in stone, with the weight of the House of Afaz crushing them and the bones of the holy watching them.

Farid found Asbaq and Da’oud waiting by a fresh hole in one of the walls. Torchlight flickered. The stone blocks from the wall lay neatly stacked on the floor, a lead-lined casket nestled within the hole.

Da’oud nodded to Farid, then handed him a copper sickle. Farid took it, then stood in front of the opening in the wall, holding the goat firmly. The animal seemed to know what was coming, and struggled. Da’oud and Asbaq fastened the cords, lit the candles, and they began the Kem-na Afaz.

Farid spoke the words first, then listened as Da’oud and Asbaq repeated them:

“What protector hast thou given unto me, O Afaz! While the maleficience of the wicked encompasses me? Whom but thyself, through whom I remain on the path of Righteousness?”

Farid held the goat tightly and stared at the casket containing the ghûl pendant. He continued with the next lines of the ritual. “Keep us from our hater, O Afaz! Perish, O fiendish ghûl! Perish, O brood of the Maw! Perish, O creation of the Maw! Perish away, O ghûl!”

Farid waited for Da’oud and Asbaq’s echo, then slit the goat’s throat with a quick flash of the sickle. The animal kicked hard, but Farid’s stroke had been merciful, and the goat died quickly. Dipping his fingers in the blood, Farid flicked it around the hole in the wall, then traced out the four corners of Afaz as Shieldbearer, drawing the seal in blood on the dusty stones.

“Be thee bound, O ghûl!” Farid intoned, Da’oud and Asbaq joining him this time. “Be thee constrained, O ghûl! Perish away to the World Below, never more to give death unto the Living World of Righteousness!”

Farid stepped away from the wall, the Kem-na Afaz finished. The ghûl was bound now, sealed in its prison for as long as the House of Afaz stood.

“Go.” Farid looked again at the casket. “I will fill in the masonry.”

Asbaq and Da’oud departed silently, dragging the corpse of the goat and leaving Farid alone in the dusty silence and gloom of the catacombs, the shadows around him fluttering as the torch flame flickered.

Farid turned to the mortar, a thick slurry in a wooden bucket. He picked up the first of the stones, troweled on mortar, murmuring to himself, “O Afaz, rise within me. Grant me steadfastness of purpose.”

He thought of Hasan, gone now; those the Mukhabarat took did not return.

He slotted another stone into place in the wall. Farid whispered, “Indeed, Afaz knows all the names of all the Righteous.” He smeared mortar into the cracks, carefully sealing every crevice. “What protector hast thou given unto me, O Afaz?” he said, repeating the words of the Kem-na Afaz. He pushed the last of the stones into place. “Whom but thyself?” Farid worked mortar into every crack, spreading it around to blend in with the rest of the wall.

The only sign of the ghûl now was the fresh mortar. Soon enough it would harden. Time would darken the cement until it blended seamlessly with the wall. In a hundred years, there would be no sign that it had ever been disturbed.

But underneath, buried in stone, the ghûl would fester. A cyst of evil, entombed and forgotten, but always waiting.

“Afaz,” Farid whispered. “Reveal to me your will.”

In ten years, nothing would mark the murdered Karim, nor his son Hasan or his wife Atifa. The slow drip of time would smooth down memory, erode the edges of the holes they’d left in the world. Their house would be sold, the echoes of their footsteps in its halls lost in the bustle of a new family and the cries and laughter of new children as they trod Umun’s road to adulthood.

But even as the ghûl lurked unseen beneath the mortar, so too would a bitter stone of injustice be left behind when all else of Karim’s line had gone. And just as the ghûls’ malice slowly curdled the air in the catacombs, the knowledge of that injustice would seep out and corrupt those that it touched.

Farid stared at the damp mortar, thinking of the evil that it hid.

He had sworn an oath — to obey Mu’tasim: I will not question the hand that holds me, nor the will that directs me where to strike.

And imposed on top of that, another oath: not to interfere with the Mukhabarat. But how could he just stand by and watch injustice be done? He had sworn to Afaz!

So will I always strive for justice, and hold it close above all things.

 

Farid looked at his hands. Thick fingers, a ring of callus round his sword hand from thumb to the tip of his forefinger. Strong hands, hard hands. They had killed: murderers, thieves, rapists, pederasts — the list went on unending. Farid had been in Afaz’s service since before he could remember. He had donned the crimson robe of Justice Transeunt fourteen years ago, and since then had lived with Afaz in his aspect of the Axe and Lash.

Farid stared at the mortar as the torch sputtered and the shadows capered in a mocking dance, as if the ghûls could sense Farid’s inner turmoil and wanted to feed on it.

What should he do? What was right?

Farid clutched at the wall behind him for support. Afaz, grant me a sign, he silently pleaded. Tell me what I must do.

But the only reply Farid found was the sizzle-spit of the torch, the smells of burned naptha and ancient corpses, the laughing shadows, and the putrescent-slick touch of the ghûls — the stain of their evil seeping slowly through the stone.

He leaned against the wall and gripped the stone hard, as if its solidity could anchor him.

What should he do? The question ran around and around his head, looping and whirling and beating at him until he felt dizzy with it and the floor seemed to drop away.

The torch guttered in the smoky air. The lurking shadows closed in as the flame fought against its extinction — leaping, sputtering, dying low, only to flicker back to life. But finally the torch died and Farid was swallowed by blackness.

He stood motionless for a long time — how long, he could not have said, only that it was long enough for him to realize that no answer was coming from Afaz

Finally, he pushed himself away from the wall, then shuffled blindly along the tunnel in the direction of the stairs. But in the dark, he missed them, and spent long hours stumbling through the gloom of the catacombs until his fingers encountered an archway, a crumbling wooden door standing open.

Farid shuffled through, found steps leading up. He climbed in darkness, keeping one hand on the wall as the stairs spiraled upward. When he reached the top, he stepped into a small square room, dusty and cobwebbed. The air tickled the back of his throat. The warm afternoon light of Quysayrah shone in through narrow windows high up in the walls.

He was in one of the oldest parts of the House, Farid realized. The House of Afaz had stood on the Steps of Divine Harmony since the founding of Quysayrah in the years after the Fall. Year upon year, century upon century, the House had grown, building added to building, gardens roofed over, quadrangles built in, newer buildings enclosing old until the original House, like a grain of sand in a pearl, was entirely encased in the marble-pillared glory that was the House now.

The light shining through the window illuminated an archaic statue in an alcove at the back of the room. The statue was of wood, age-blackened and riven by cracks. It depicted a primitive Afaz wearing the heavy bronze armor of centuries ago: face hidden behind a full, crested helm; hourglass shield raised, embossed with the axe and lash; and a long spear — a dowel of ancient wood tipped with a verdigrised bronze tip.

Through the narrow windows came the hollow sound of a watchman striking the hour upon a gong, followed by a mournful cry as someone called the afternoon prayer.

Not bothering to sweep the dust away, Farid knelt in front of the likeness of Afaz, readying himself for the first obeisance. The statue was frozen in the act of striking, one foot forward, arm back, muscles bunched in anticipation of the spear-thrust. The narrow eye-slits in the helm revealed nothing of Afaz’s face.

Farid wondered how old the statue was. Centuries at least. Men hadn’t fought with full bronze armor and the hourglass shield for hundreds of years, not since the time of the Tyrants.

How many generations? Twenty? Thirty? The Tyrants were long gone, the last — Sarfaz the Unwise — thrown from the Pillar of Heaven. After them, the Shahs: the Umayads, the Abasids, the Al-Samaks — one noble family after another, one upon the next as Umun flowed and all men rode its stream through their life and finally down into the sand of the Lands of the Dead, where all things ended.

And through it all, through that vast slow passage of time — through war, through fire, through revolt, through repression, through benevolent rulers and tyrants both — the statue had stood in its alcove, its wood slowly blackening, its bronze corroding into something more like jade.

So will I always stand for justice, and hold it close above all things.

 

Always, Farid thought. Tyrants died. Shahs died. But justice was eternal. The House was not Afaz, nor Afaz the House. Destroy the House, and justice would still live. But deny justice to preserve the House, and though the stones would stand, the House would become nothing more than a hollow and echoing tomb for a god who had died.

I will not question the hand that holds me, nor the will that directs me where to strike. I will not doubt what I am to say or what I am to do, for it is not I who will speak or do, but the Spirit of Afaz, who works his will through me and the House.

 

And as with the layered construction of the physical House, so it was with the Oath — with clauses and caveats piled one upon the next. One by one they fell away, leaving Farid conscious of the simple truth at its core:

I will not doubt . . . for it is the Spirit of Afaz who works his will through me . . .

 

Farid’s eyes burned in the bright afternoon sunlight. The statue blurred as hot tears pricked at his eyes. He had asked for a sign, and Afaz had answered. He prostrated himself in front of the icon, his tears splashing unheeded on the dusty stone. A great and wordless joy filled him, and he felt something shift inside him, a pain that wrenched and made him cry out as if something was being torn from him, a dark and hateful thing that clawed and shrieked.

Drawing in a great shuddering breath, Farid sat back on his heels and wiped his face — not caring that it left streaky trails of dust and grime.

Justice would be done.

* * *

When Farid reached his room, his armor gleamed on its stand, spotless. He nodded in satisfaction, then began putting the armor on, reciting the Horsht-tu Afaz for each piece. The leather first, smelling of wax and oil and sweat; then the greaves; steel hauberk, polished scales glinting; gauntlets; crimson cloak over his armor, shaking out the wool so it draped properly. Axe on his belt. The asshuri shield — a metal-rimmed rectangle of layered sarapis wood.

As he murmured the last lines of the Horsht-tu Afaz, Farid looked for his helmet, and saw Tawfiq standing in the doorway holding the helm. The blank-faced asshuri helmet looked huge and terrifying in the boy’s hands: broad cheekpieces, flaring nasal — all an enemy would see of Farid’s face were narrow eye-slits filled with blackness. The helm’s transverse scarlet crest of horsehair — the mark of the divine asshuri — shivered with the faint movements of the boy’s hands.

Tawfiq’s eyes were wide.

“aFiq,” Farid said, using the affectionate diminutive of the boy’s name. “Go to Ma’Suf Mu’tasim. When you find him, tell him that Afaz lives in me. Tell him . . .” Farid groped for the words, but the essence of what he wanted to say eluded him; it ran through his fingers like sand and was gone. “Tell him . . . I understand,” Farid said finally. “You can remember that?”

Tawfiq nodded.

Farid reached forward and took the asshuri helmet from Tawfiq’s unresisting fingers. He settled it on his head. The steel was cold, even through the leather lining, and his breathing sounded loud in his ears. He took an ash-handled long spear from the rack against the wall, then left his room.

He strode through the House of Afaz, scale armor clinking with each step, cloak billowing behind him scarlet as blood. He passed through the Gates, with Da’oud turning to watch him go, his mouth open to frame a question Farid never heard. Then up the Steps of Divine Harmony, across the Street of Exaltation of Righteousness, where the immense facade of the House of Hormuz rose in shining magnificence and the congregants and azure-robed priests of Hormuz gaped at him, then up the vast white marble expanse of the Steps of Ascension — the highest in the city.

Here, at the topmost point of Quysayrah, there were only three buildings: the Shrine of Hormuz Greatest and Best, an airy pavilion of marble and porphyry; the Upper Court, an imposing mass of pink granite hewn from the Pillar of Heaven; and the Shah’s Palace.

The Mukhabarat waited for him at the palace gate.

* * *

A line of men blocked the gate. They wore ashafri armor: half-face helms with flaring cheekpieces and molded masks in the likeness of Tukecht as the Heresiarch, molded breastplates with exaggerated muscles, bracers and greaves of embossed steel inlaid with gold, round shields polished so the rosewood glowed with warmth. They carried short spears, all of them pointing at Farid like a thicket of steel. Mounted on a pike above them, the decapitated head of Hasan stared down, blackened tongue protruding. Its empty eye-sockets told of torture; the bloody pits seemed fixed on Farid, accusing.

Farid said a silent prayer for the soul of Hasan, looked at the spear tips, then turned his attention to Gamal i Hufaz. The nobleman stared at Farid as a man might stare at a wolf with two heads. A muscle just underneath his right eye twitched.

Neither man spoke. Farid knew the other man could see nothing of his face through the narrow slits of the asshuri helm. The wind blew from behind, making Farid’s scarlet cloak flap around him. The pennants on the battlements cracked in the stiff breeze.

Gamal glanced away, then back, his lip curled. “Are you mad?”

For answer, Farid slammed the buttspike of his long spear on the paving: once, twice, three times — a measured and deliberate crang that echoed from the city wall behind him.

When the last of the echoes died, Farid spoke. “Hear me. I am a Hand of Afaz in His Aspect of Axe and Lash.” The asshuri helm metalled his words, giving them a deep resonance. He pointed his spear at Gamal and spoke the ritual words of the Execration of the Evildoer: “Th’art guilty, Sama Gamal. With malice in your heart, thou slew Sen Karim i Tahir and Sena Atifa u Qadr. Thou murdered their son, Sen Hasan i Karim. Th’art despised of Afaz, vile malefactor, and I will work the god’s judgment upon you. Step forward, and thy death shall be swift.”

Gamal laughed, a tight bark like a jackal.

Farid felt as if he stood outside himself and watched. The words had been said, and he would not turn back. Serenity and clarity of purpose filled every fiber of Farid’s being. The god walked with him.

“Go home, little priest!” Gamal sneered, but Farid heard a tremor in his voice.

Farid did not reply.

“Go!” Gamal shouted again, his face twisting with the strength of his emotion.

Farid drew a deep breath, then began singing the paean — the battle-hymn of the Hands of Afaz. The deep notes reverberated in his chest, and the asshuri helm thrummed, redoubling in his voice the steely timbre.

“Are you deaf?” Gamal shrieked, spittle flying from his mouth.

Farid unclasped his cloak and let it fall to the ground.

A man on the far left of the Mukhabarat shield wall broke and ran, fleeing along the tree-lined causeway.

Farid readied himself, shield up, spear back, gripping the long ash handle halfway along its length. He sang of Afaz, pouring his certainty and devotion into the paean until it seemed to him that he was merely a channel for the notes which flowed into him from Afaz and lifted him and filled him with power and light.

“Kill him!” Gamal shouted, taking a single step back.

The spear points of the Mukhabarat trembled as the men’s hands shook. Another man dropped his shield and ran.

Farid charged.

The Mukhabarat were killers — killers of women, of trussed and helpless men; they were the masters of poison, knives in dark places, the garrote and stiletto. But here, in the clean and open air of the Upper City, there were no shadows for them to hide in, no darkness through which to creep.

The Mukhabarat were killers — but Farid was a Hand, and Afaz was with him and made him death.

The leaf blade of his long spear flashed forward, taking a man in the facemask above the shield rim. The mask’s thin steel — fabricated more for ceremony than real protection — crumpled like paper and the blade punched through, sinking deep. Blood. The man fell backward as Farid jerked the spear free; the first Mukhabarat died before the others realized what was happening.

A man stabbed at Farid from the right, his blade glinting in the bright sunlight. Farid flicked the spear aside with his own, then jabbed down, pinning the man’s foot. The man yelled and lowered his shield momentarily — and then the yell of pain ended with a gurgle as Farid freed his spear and ran him through the throat with it

Two dead, and now another man turned to flee as Farid sang the deep notes of the paean. A spear struck Farid’s leg but glanced off his thick steel greaves. The man drew back to strike again, but Farid thrust with such force that his spear blade penetrated the man’s breastplate and lung and burst free from his back.

Pain exploded in Farid’s foot; he glanced down — blood and a neat hole in his boot. He let go of his spear — the impaled man gurgled and pawed at the shaft — and unslung his axe, blocked another blow with his shield, then struck — a full overhead blow. The axe blade crunched through the crest of a man’s half-face helm, splitting his skull down to the teeth. He fell, twitched, and died.

And then there was no one in front of him — just the backs of the last three Mukhabarat as they fled.

Farid looked down at his foot. Blood pulsed in a steady stream through the rent in his armor — but strangely he now felt no pain. He re-hooked his axe on his belt, yanked his spear free of the Mukhabarat he’d impaled, then showed mercy to the dying man by driving the buttspike into his heart and killing him quickly.

He walked at a steady pace toward the palace proper. Bloody footprints marked his path. The doors to the palace opened, and men rushed out: asshuri in full battle order, pouring from the gates and assembling in a phalanx. Sunlight glinted from the forest of spears facing Farid. It caught the helmets, gleamed from the bronze rims of the shields. Their helms bore the longitudinal crests of the secular asshuri. The crests were dyed purple — the color of the Shah’s Household Guard.

Their officer stood to one side of the phalanx. He pointed his axe at Farid. “In the name of the Shah, First in Quysayrah, I order you to lay down your arms!”

Farid advanced, step by measured step.

The officer tore off his helmet and threw it on the ground. He glared at Farid while the echoes of the metal striking stone died away. “You cannot do this!” he shouted. “You will not go further! Lay down your arms! Please!”

An asshuri in the phalanx in front of Farid shook his head, as if a blowfly was caught in his helmet, but Farid did not step back.

Farid looked at the spearpoints through the narrow slits of his helmet. Here was his death, he knew. But to turn around now would be to turn his back on Afaz, to spurn all that made him who he was and, though he would live, it would be a life filled only with the wormwood dregs of knowing he had betrayed Afaz and himself. And what was death? Bloody pain and awful terror — but only for a short time, and then he would pass through Ghairud’s Gate and flow down Umun’s Path to the desert, there to be gently cleansed of sin before reaching Paradise. Compared to a life of poison and twisted bitterness, what was death?

Nothing.

So Farid hefted his spear and readied his shield.

“Stop!” shouted a powerful voice from somewhere behind Farid, who ignored it. Farid took another step forward, then halted after all.

The asshuri knelt as one.

In moments, Farid was the only one standing.

“What is the meaning of this?” the same powerful voice demanded.

Farid turned to see a slender man striding toward him. He wore a brilliant emerald-green khalat embroidered with roses of gold. His hair was tied back in the formal court style, held in place by pins of gold at whose ends diamonds twinkled. Behind him were two men, one a grim-faced man in plain asshuri armor. The third man was Mu’tasim, his arms folded in the sleeves of his scarlet robe and his dark eyes glittering with suppressed rage.

“Do you know who I am?” the first man asked.

Farid recognized his features vaguely — but he knew if he prostrated himself, the wound in his foot would never let him rise without assistance. So he settled for bowing deeply. “Sovereign of the World. I am your slave.”

The man smiled very briefly. “No. I am his cousin, Ma’Sama Qudumah i Taqib ben Sayun. And I doubt very much you believe yourself to be his slave.” He regarded Farid and raised an eyebrow. “Tell me, what is the meaning of . . . this?” He waved an elegant hand to indicate the kneeling asshuri.

Mu’tasim drew breath, but Qudumah simply held up a hand and the old man subsided into furious silence, glaring at Farid with eyes like flint.

“I have already heard you, Ma’Suf,” Qudumah drawled. “Now I would hear from the man himself, as it were. Well?”

“I am here to execute justice on the murderer Sama Gamal i Hufaz,” Farid said. “And that is all the explanation you will receive from me.”

The armored man behind Qudumah hissed in anger, his face darkening, but Qudumah just smiled.

“Such . . . candor. Refreshing, really. One finds oneself tiring of sifting through flowery phrases searching for a man’s true meaning.”

Mu’tasim’s face hardened. Barely contained anger radiated from him like heat from the bricks of a kiln.

Farid said nothing.

“Tell me why I should not punish you,” Qudumah asked. “After all, this is the Palace of the Sovereign of the World. One does not simply wander in and start making demands.”

Farid pushed the helmet back from his face. He had no doubt that Qudumah had been trained to spot deception and dissembling, and Farid would have him know that he spoke only the truth. “We are not in the shadows here. We stand in the light of Hormuz,” Farid said, trusting Afaz to speak through him. “Strike me down and watch as the knowledge that the Shah places himself above even the gods spreads through the city. Watch as the knowledge of the public injustice done here seeps into the hearts of all men, poisoning them against you. I am a Hand of Afaz as Axe and Lash. I bring justice — justice to all, justice for all, justice without fear or favor. And I’ve come for Sama Gamal i Hufaz.” Farid reached up for his helmet. “Now order your men to stand aside, Ma’Sama Qudumah, or stay silent and plant the seeds of your own destruction.”

And with that, Farid pulled down the helm and turned toward the waiting asshuri.

Who parted for him.

The asshuri shuffled aside with metallic jangles to reveal Gamal, his eyes dark with rage and fear.

Farid started forward, blood seeping from his wounded foot. With measured steps he advanced on Gamal, leaving bloody footprints behind.

Gamal fled, but the main doors of the palace had been bolted. He ran from Farid, his armor clinking, casting rage-filled glances over his shoulder.

Farid followed steadily, inexorable, pitiless.

Gamal ran around the length of the palace, skirting its walls, fleeing through gardens, blocked and herded and channeled by the asshuri who refused to listen as Gamal first ordered, then threatened, and finally pleaded with them to let him pass.

But they would not let him enter the palace, and Gamal was herded toward the Sky Garden — an unwalled courtyard at the very tip of the Pillar of Heaven where the bulk of the palace towered to the north and where on all other sides cliffs fell away sheer for hundreds of feet and hawks rode currents of air, wheeling over the Middle City as the wind moaned.

There, in the Sky Garden with his back to the cliff, Gamal turned at last to face Farid.

And there Farid slew him.

* * *

Though the thin clouds to the east flamed pink on their bellies and the palest of blues limned the roofs and the eastern city wall, the gate to the House of Afaz lay in pre-dawn shadow.

Farid stood at the gate holding his folded crimson cloak — Tawfiq had retrieved it for him — looking at Mu’tasim. The old man’s back was spear-shaft straight, unforgiving.

The slap of bare feet against stone broke the silence. Farid looked to the far side of the courtyard and saw Tawfiq skidding to a halt beside Da’oud. The boy looked from Farid to Mu’tasim, then took a half-step forward — but Da’oud’s hand closed on the boy’s shoulder, restraining him.

“Go then, apostate!” Mu’tasim snapped. “Leave this House! Never return.”

Farid held out his folded cloak.

After a moment Mu’tasim took it, holding it rigidly away from him as if it had been contaminated by Farid’s touch. “Go,” Mu’tasim said, his voice unforgiving as granite.

Silent, Farid walked through the gate.

The sky lightened and the hollow call of the Morning Prayer rang through the air of the courtyard. Farid felt a shiver run through him as the reality of what he had done struck home.

When he reached the bottom of the Steps of Divine Harmony and stepped onto the Street of Lilies, he heard a distance-blurred shout from behind him. He turned and looked. At the top of the stairs, Tawfiq raised one arm and shouted again, but across the expanse Farid could not make sense of the words.

And then the sun rose over the city wall, leaving Farid squinting against bright sunlight and looking up the steps to where the tiny figure of Tawfiq stood, lost in the shadow of the House of Afaz.

___________________________________________________________

Euan Harvey teaches writing at Mahidol University International College, Thailand. His short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, and Year’s Best Horror Vol. 1, and is forthcoming in Black Gate. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in Applied Linguistics. He wishes he could write like Charles Saunders.


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