July 2019


“I need to be assured of your support in the Edelkammer when this measure comes up,” said Voss. “We have the power to use it through, if need be, but things will be easier if it is a large majority with respected statesmen like yourself behind it.”

Blohm did not rise from his seat, instead combing his whiskers to one side and blithely refilling his great horn pipe, on which he continued to puff meditatively. “What does the Emperor think of this? As much as we may dislike the successionists, they are still subjects of His Imperial and Royal Majesty.”

Voss laughed, a short, sharp, bitter sound almost like a strangled cough. “I am, of course, the Emperor’s loyal servant,” he said, “but these arcane matters of state do not rise to His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s notice. We are doing the Emperor’s work by using to powers he has delegated to us and not pestering him about minutae.”

A fresh puff wafted up from Blohm’s armchair. “If matters of state are beneath the Emperor’s notice, to say nothing of the welfare of his subject, then what have we left to him?”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to cling to that fairy tale and fig leaf as your only response,” said Voss. “The Emperor is a unifying symbol, the grandfather of his nation. He reviews troops, feeds ambassadors, and recites jolly nothings to small children for newspapermen and photographers. When it comes to the actual filthy work of running the Empire, we are the ones who must do it.”

“I see,” said Blohm. “And you feel that rounding up and executing the secessionist leaders will force their fellows to lie down, beg the Emperor his indulgence, and learn to speak fluent Old High Imperial with no accent?”

“I am not so blundering as you appear to think me,” Voss replied. “But I do know that if we leave them be, we’ll find ourselves both out of a job when the old man finally dies.”

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They say it’s been a summer of violence, in the papers. But you’ve gotta wonder if it’s any different, or if our eyes are just open wider. Are we only seeing afresh the thousand little violences that make up life in a place where there is no middle? Maybe the difference is that lives are getting chewed up quicker, chalk outlines on what should have been a safe floor instead of husked-out rinds beaten down by years of violence spring, fall, summer, winter. No one could–no one would–lift a hand against threats muttered on sultry air, unjust blows rained down behind doors closed and locked. No one can–no one does–lift a hand against machines of death chewing up supermarkets and festivals. By the time they got to the perpetrator, there was never anything left to punish. The people are the same, the misery is the same, it is only death that has become more efficient, stalking us all on copper-clad wings. When no one stands against it, great or small, fast or slow, nine millimeters or the width of a thumb, is it all the same?

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Couv was almost late to his job due to the holy war.

The Lightfaith had come down like a hammer, and as Couv walked casually through the streets of Edeleve, hands in pockets, he could see the results of their purge. Streams of people, many of them broken or bloodied, staggered toward the citadel in long lines, each bound to the others. Many were still wearing the white robes of the Aulites, though most were showing muddy blood at the very least.

“Shame,” Couv said to himself. “I was sick of them, but not enough to want them all smashed.” Like anyone else with business in Edeleve for the last twenty years or so, he’d gotten used to the Aulites preaching on street corners, the constant pleas for love and universal brotherhood. He’d filled up on thin gruel from time to time at the Aulites’ run-down missions where they served all comers.

“Look! Behold, the great mercy of the Martyr upon these sorry and weary folk!” one of the Edeleve city guard cried, walking beside the prisoners. “The law decrees death for apostasy, and yet they will be given the chance to redeem themselves through labor! Is that not good and just, brother?”

It took Couv a split second to realize that the guardsman was talking to him. “I wouldn’t know,” he said. “Just passing through.”

With a dissatisfied snort, the guardsman continued haranguing all passersby as the column moved on. For his part, Couv was just happy that the guard had been so focused on shouting about redemption that he hadn’t noticed the handoff. A small envelope, wax-sealed, had flicked between a passing man’s hands and Couv’s, with no one being any the wiser.

He slipped into one of the many pubs lining the Edeleve docks and ordered their smallest, cheapest drink before wandering over to the fire. The seal was good, a clean impression from an authentic signet ring. Couv broke it and tossed the envelope into the embers after it had spilled two small scraps into his hand: an address in the slums of Edeleve, and a scrawled note from his employer.

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The skipper had taken the night watch. He wasn’t able to do it often, since taking the day to sleep meant he would inevitably be roused by the hundred little issues that could befall a sailing ship with a green crew. But when the almanac said that there would be a full moon and the clouds were just right, he would stand watch at the bottom of the night and watch the second-largest lamp to shine on the world reflect brilliantly off its largest mirror.

It took him back, in a way that nothing else could, to the nights he had spent on the bluffs as a boy, watching the lighthouse and the moon and looking for any sign of his father’s ship gliding into port. It was a sense of wonder that didn’t come easily to anyone who’d ever had men under their command, much less as far from home as the skipper’s ship tended to wander.

But it was one of his only pleasures, and his easiest.

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“The dining car will be closing soon, sir.”

Cam reached into his wallet and pulled out a $20 silver certificate. “Let me stick around,” he said. “You can turn the lights off if you want, but I can’t go back to my car.”

The steward took the bill and folded it. “Anyone in here? Dining car is closing!” he said. Then, looking through and around Cam, he buttoned up the place and turned off the lights. Cam was left with only the odd light outside and dim moonlight glistening through the dining car windows as he continued to nurse the bottle he’d bought hours before.

“You can come sit down, if you like,” Cam said, two half-glasses on. “No sense just standing there alone in the dark.”

A shadow slid into the seat opposite him. “Very kind of you. Not that it will make any difference.”

“Of course not,” said Cam. “No need to shout and beat one’s breast at the inevitable. You could probably see that by my…feeble efforts to hide.”

“A feeble effort is still more than most will put forth, at least before the end when they begin whining and pleading.”

Cam nodded, then gestured to his bottle. “Care for a nightcap? I’ve got a clean glass, still. I had them put it out, for…I don’t know what. Maybe I had a premonition.”

“I’ll have a sip, but no more than that. Can’t be impaired on the job, hmm?”

“No, of course not.” Cam poured two fresh glasses. He took a deep drink from his own, first. “There, you can be sure I haven’t doctored it.”

A hand reached out took up the other stem, sipped. “A fine vintage. Shall we settle up, then?”

Cam nodded. “Very well. Will it be quick?”

“No need to drag it out.”

His drink finished, Cam set the stem back down. “Do it, then, and let’s have done with it.”

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Santorini’s sallow eyes flicked up from the menu. “How’s business, Katy? Still taking classes at night?” Santorini had taken his customary booth, near the back, and with a thick, sturdy wall behind him.

“Let’s just say that when I’m done with classes, you won’t be seeing me here anymore,” Katy said with a smile. “What can I get started for you, Mr. Santorini?”

“I can think of a few things,” he laughed. “What’s the special?”

“Boss…” one of the two younger men, the one that had been practicing his stony face since coming in, spoke up. Katy had seen him relaxing for a moment, even cracking a secret smile, when he thought no one was looking. “I don’t know if…”

“What?” Santorini said, turning to look at his companion. “You don’t know if what?”

The poor kid’s facade was crumbling, his cheek twitching desperately as he tried to keep his expression even. “If you don’t get one of your usuals, it might me…I dunno…dangerous!”

Katy had alwys been struck by how Santorini commanded the room even when he was just sitting there; now, the full force of that was turned on his poor little bodyguard. “What, you think someone’s gonna try to poison me with the greasy spoon special? What’s the matter with you? If anything, they’d do my usual!”

“Look, boss, I’m just trying-” the facade was gone, and the young man looked about to cry.

Santorini had already turned away. “Bah,” he said. “I know what you were trying to do. Heart’s in the right place, brain’s not.” Then, looking back up at Katy: “I’ll take the special, whatever it is.”

“All right; one special.” Katy didn’t write it down; five years of waitressery had given her a mind like a steel trap when it came to orders. Phone numbers, dates, birthdays…that might fall through. But she’d never forget a meal, even if it were being served her in a retirement home. “What about you?” she said to the younger man, the bodyguard.

“He’s having what I’m having,” said Santorini with a grin. “If it’s poisoned, I’m taking him with me.”

“Right, two specials,” Katy said. “He can work for you in the hereafter, hmm?”

“Ha!” Santorini chortled. “Good idea. Like the pharaohs of old Egypt. You hear that, Spinelli? Normani? When I croak, I’m having you buried with me to continue to protect and serve in the afterlife. Can you think of a better reward for your loyal service?”

The two young gunsels looked nervously at one another as Katy took the remaining orders and drinks. Then Santorini and his guest began discussing something animatedly in Italian, and Katy slipped into the kitchen to give the orders to Hal, the cook.

“You’re due a break,” Hal said. “This’ll take a hot minute to put together anyway. Go have a cigarette or something, Janice will take out the drinks.”

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The circle was drawn fresh, laid out in blood taken from a virgin ram that was the seventh son of a seventh son. The book, laid out before Anovi on an ornate wrought-iron stand, was properly made–inked in ichor drawn from the sac of an abyssal squid, bound in the flesh of a cold-blooded murderer by a morally questionable bookbinder, the eldritch runes within carefully calligraphied by a seventh-level monk of art history.

All that remained was the incantation, spake forth in the Darktongue, to bring forth the unholy knowledge that Anovi sought and finally give him the vile insights into evil that he craved.

H’bin odommoc t’necov menomead ecce!” Anovi cried, reading the vile sigils in a voice that grew more distorted, more profane, with each twisted syllable.

The effect was immediate. Anovi’s elaborate summoning circle flared to luminescent life, as the blood of an unfortunately-lineaged goat became the conduit to the iron city of Dís in the chaos and evil of the infinite Abyss. There was a roar, a smell of brimstone mixed with lemongrass, and a pillar of fire burst from the circle, rising upward to scorch the stone arches of the desecrated abandoned chapel where Anovi had made his unholy workshop. Within the flames, a dark shaped writhed, stark in its inky inhumanity.

“Yes, yes!” he cried. “Demon! I command you to heed my words and obey my commands!”

Abruptly, the fire sputtered out like a candle being huffed out by an errant breeze. As Anovi coughed and swatted away the wispy smoke, he saw that the circle was occupied by…

…a young woman with short blond hair and an aristocratic raiment and bearing. If not for the distinct reddish hue of her flawless skin and the batlike wings trailing behind her, Anovi could have mistaken her for a royal courtesan.

“A-as the one who brought you here, I command you!” Anovi continued, “share with my the eldritch secrets of the Abyss, that I might become the most most brilliant the world has ever seen!”

“Hmm.” The succubus looked Anovi over with a cocked eyebrow, and bit her lip coyly with a meaty fang, drawing forth a single droplet of blood. “I’d say you’re rather poor clay to be fashioned into the most brilliant lover the world, but it’s your summoning circle. We’ll start with Demogorgon’s Double-Kangaroo Scissors and then teach you the Backdoor Mailman–an musty standby in Dís, you see, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways.”

“W-what?” Anovi stammered. “I didn’t mean-”

“Of course you did,” the succubus said with a wicked smile. “You wouldn’t have summoned me otherwise. Now, if you’re still alive and in one piece after the Backdoor Mailman, we’ll try the Frothy Walrus of Doom, and of course the the Cheerleader And The Angry Nighwatchman. I’d advise removing anything flammable before that one…”

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