Burnt Offerings

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Did Mekhane lie beneath the Shining City?

This was a question that flittered about the outer quarters, its wings dipping and swooping between houses and markets. All believed in Mekhane; none could doubt, with their own eyes, the gifts they had been given. The priests of the iron-smoke shrines proclaimed her word daily, offering sacrifices rendered in copper and fuladh scraps to the Throne's treasuries.

But was she there? Was she really beneath the earth? There were those who began to form the beginnings of a new doctrine. Had Mekhane ever visited this world at all? Was she truly formed of metal and iron, or was she a thing of spirit, an ideal form to which they were striving for? Was fuladh, too, impure?

The priests did not know what to do with these new ideas. There were no formal doctrines concerning heresy. There had never been a reason. What need did they have to coerce their citizens when Mekhane's gifts stood all around them? Many did not want to do anything. Their purpose was sacrifice and service, not theology. That was for the academics and thinkers in their vast skyscrapers, and they had little true authority. The church's power was the Emperor, who had more pressing concerns.

But others saw something else in this. What was this impurity but an obsession with spirit, with the impermeable, the immaterial? Many of them had served on the frontlines. They had seen what "spirits" could do. They held the vine-scars to prove it.

The rumours fluttered on, and the priests grew jealous of their flock.

Horticulture had not been a popular pursuit in Amoni-Ram for many years. The war had gone on too long. Old soldiers did not want to come home only to see more greenery, more vines and shrubs lurking on their own land. So the gardens dried up, the parks were closed, and agriculture moved out to well beyond the city gates.

Atham had been a gardener. He had lost his job, of course, and had found it difficult to use his skills for anything else. All he knew was plants, how to look after them, pruning and watering, shaping beds and lawns…

So Atham withdrew from the world, living off a pittance from his clan. They preferred it that way; it would keep him quiet, keep him away. He tended his own little patch, making it green. He raised high bushes around the edge of his land, away from the other houses. Date palms loomed over wooden fences, and the sun stopped at the house's walls.

There was only a single house near him, a dozen or so yards away. The outer suburbs were a mess of run-down homes, abandoned junkyards and blasted shrubland. The sands would frequently clog up the machinery, people's augments, everything. It was not a popular neighbourhood, but the city expanded ever outwards, and not everyone could live in the high-rises.

The house had been empty for many years when Fara turned up. She came alone one day, one of the interminable days, while Atham was in his garden. He saw her draw up in a thin car, a single bronze augment creeping halfway up her arm. Her hair was covered by a scarf. She was thin, in her thirties, and unsmiling.

He didn't think much of her at first. He'd seen all sorts of people move into that house; aging widows, broken soldiers, poets trying their hand at poverty. He ignored them all, withdrawing further and further inwards, barely leaving the house at all.

But then he saw her garden, one morning on the way back from the market. There were no plants there, but she had placed a thing of iron. A twisted sculpture, reminiscent of a tree but distinct from one, dominating the centre of the plot. Around it were shrubs, bushes, wrought in steel and zinc. Each one was unique, and each contributed to the greater whole. Between them, the sand was curved into strange, precise lines.

He walked over to the fence, and leaned over it. "That's a beautiful garden," he said, thinking of nothing else to say.

She stood up, and smiled. "Thank you."

The heresy spread further and further. What if Mekhane was not beneath us? What if this was not the first Ram after all? Doubt was sewed in minds across the city, spreading, worming and twisting through the districts.

It reached the ears of the engineers, up in their tall towers. They scoffed, publically, but privately they all thought the same thing. Who had seen Mekhane? The Emperor was their god's will, but who besides the emperor had seen her? And it had been so long since the first Bumaro was on the throne. How carefully had the records really been kept?

It reached the ears of the historians, who quaked and argued and lamented. Their records, though complete, were cryptic and vague. Many were firm- too firm- in their protests. Of course this was Mekhane's rest. What else could it be? In their archives wrought from glittering fuladh, they pored, again and again, over the archives.

It reached the ears of the automata, who did not understand it, because they understood no command not directed from the Throne. But they felt it, in some distant piece of programming, and they shuddered inside. It was a hard, cold idea, with implications beyond implications they could not conceive of.

At last, it reached the ears of the Emperor. He considered it for a long time.

Over many months, Atham and Fara became close. They traded ideas on gardening, on technique. She was hesitant, predictably, to use plants in her garden, but he freely adapted her sculptures in his own designs. He managed to barter a few scraps of fuladh and wrought a twisted sculpture of a bird drinking from a fountain.

He told her about his life; his career, his clan, his decline. She was more cagy. He found out she was a Lu'ad, the largest of the clans from the northern district, with hundreds of cousins spread across its markets and roadways. But this was the south. He wondered if that was why she had come here.

Sooner or later, they got into rhythms and patterns of their own. She would always start the morning with a boiled egg, bread and coffee, that strange drink from the Empire's southern reaches. He started coming over before starting the day, chatting about the news, the weather. She, in her turn, would often lounge in his dining room each evening as he prepared dishes of chickpeas, flatbread and spice from far-distant archipelagos.

The one benefit of living on the city's outskirts was the view. The sunset burnt, carving and cutting a way into the desert, the heat rising from the daytime sand. They would sit, in one garden or another, and watch it. He'd cut down his high bushes, and the light flooded in, lapping at his crumbling walls.

Then, one night, he saw something moving through her window.

The Emperor was bored, because he was always bored. He had been bored for centuries. He could barely tell which Bumaro he was any more; they were all composites, interlocking mechanisms with only minor alterations.

He sat on his throne, staring up at the riot of colour on the ceiling. Craftsmen from across Africa and Asia had been employed in its design. It was timeless, supposedly. The augurs predicted that the remembrance of it would be ingrained and scattered to the wind, and that it would be millenia before a new empire, possessing only half a memory, would make a palace to compare.

But the Emperor knew this was wrong, because that would mean Amoni-Ram would fall. And it would never fall.

He stretched upon his throne, idly, and considered heresy. It would provide a brief diversion.

He should be angry. He could see, in his mind, in the first Bumaro's memories, the face of Mekhane. She gazed down up him. She shone with pale light. She gave him a metal leg, and carved the throne he sat on. Then she sank, slowly, into the sands, leaving only the fuladh behind.

It was true. He knew it was true - but he was not Bumaro.

Oh, he tried, they all tried. They drank each other's memories every day, trying harder and harder to align themselves with the imperial ideal. But he, and he alone, with his fist plugged into the endlessness of ancestry, knew that it could never be. There was too much there. Too much humanity.

What had happened on that day in the sands? The memories looked like a mummer's stage, too perfect, too clean. Were they real? Were they imagined? Had they been placed there afterwards? How many centuries had passed? Why was it all so fragmented?

The Emperor sighed again, and signalled to a guard to fetch his generals. It would not do. The Cult of the Broken God functioned on the Emperor's power, and without the Cult, there was just fuladh. And anyone could wield fuladh.

None of them understood what it was to be an emperor. He wondered if the barbarian kings, his sworn Daevite and Nälkan foes, were the only people in the world who could understand him. All reality was meant to emanate forward from his person, infusing everything, but it always felt the other way around; like the people had an iron grip on him, making him a tyrant or a saint in a strange dance with their true desires.

His general arrived. His mask was silver and steel. The Emperor spoke a few words, and his spears slid forth.

Fara was napping in a chair in his dining room, waiting for the meal to finish cooking. Atham was staring out of the window, at the thing moving behind the light.

It was large, shapeless - he couldn't properly make it out. But it was alive, and moving, passing to and fro in the window. He grimaced, and tightened his grip on the saucepan.

He left by the front door and slowly, carefully, made his way across to her house. The door was unlocked - but why wouldn't it be, in an area as remote as this? He entered the kitchen, and crept over to the hallway door.

Slowly, he pushed it open. There was nothing on the other side; only a dark room, with doors leading off it. Atham began to feel foolish. What if it was only nothing, just a shade his feverish mind had-

A clatter from upstrairs. Atham swore beneath his breath. He held the pan aloft, and walked up, trembling, until-

A vine was there, a huge and powerful vine. It was swaying, matching his movements. Other vines were creeping across the ceiling, and turned in his direction as he moved upwards. A strange, low hissing could be heard.


Fara was standing at the top of the stairs, tears streaming down her cheeks. The vines let out an almighty hiss, before diving downwards, smashing through the floor. Atham was knocked back, choking on dust.

Brushing it out of his eyes, he leapt down and looked around. Fara was standing there - mercifully unhurt - her back to the wall, edging away from the huge, dark hole that had sprung up in her carpet.

The heresy had reached Atham as well. It reached everyone.

He did not know what to think of it. It went against everything he was taught - but, then, he was a gardener. His very purpose was, now, against everything he'd been taught.

The city shined with electricity. It heaved with fuladh, squeezing into the small places, extruding into the desert. It was like an open wound- but there were no open wounds, were there? One man's wound was another's perfection, a balm for the body, soothing the spirit through the sensation of metal on skin.

Fara was, of course, a Daevite. She was a Daevite who liked to sculpt things out of metal, and had been whipped for it. So she had fled at night, and changed, and over long miles transformed from a Daevite slave into Fara of the Lu'ad.

But her vines, her little house spirits… she couldn't just let them go…

The two of them teetered on the edge of the hole, staring downwards. Fara shuddered. "What if it goes on forever?"

Atham rubbed his chin. It was dark outside, but the lights glowed so strongly that you would hardly know. "What if Mekhane is beneath our city? What if she's at the bottom?"

Fara looked at him, and said nothing. She unwound her long scarf, and dropped it into the hole. The black swallowed it, and there was silence. She squeezed Atham's hand, and, at last, smiled.

The Emperor stared, unseeing, into space.

The heresy had dissolved almost as fast as it had begun. His general had done nothing, in the end. The historians formed a consensus, based on a unanimous decision to recognise certain early documents as fact. The scientists launched new endeavours, analysing the minutiae of the soil and determining - conveniently - that a vast concentration of metal lay deep beneath the city.

The people returned to the shrines, and the burnt offerings were held aloft once more. The priests were happy. The body politic was solid. The Emperor sat on his throne, and stared into nothing, emanating his principality once more.

One small matter had caught his attention. A house, a ramshackle thing in the outer suburbs, had disappeared. There was no record of anyone living there, but a neighbour, a man named Atham, had vanished too. The earth was reported to be angry and disturbed. A few leaves were found scattered on the soil.

The Emperor wondered if Mekhane really was below the city's surface. But then, it hardly mattered.

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