Dust swirls. Breezes sigh. The metallic tang of blood is heavy in the air. The doorposts of the slave quarters are smeared, sticky, dark. Elsewhere no meaty iron scent corrupts the night air, just ordinary cooking fires, burning lamps, the muddy river. Night sounds join scents: soft voices, barking dogs, croaking frogs.
It is a wealthy land, fertile, educated, artistic. Great architecture in every street, great art on every wall, great politics in the courts
The stench of death is heavy over this land. Not just tonight’s sacrifices, although they too count in the toll. No, this land bears slaughter many times the weight of these bleating sheep, throats cut, blood drained, meat roasted. This land groans under death multiplied beyond nature’s limits.
A slave driven with whips, kept to short rations, worked long hours. A hard task made foolishly harder as the drivers withhold the necessary tools. This cruelty multiplied five hundred thousand times to every slave on every work gang on every day.
A slave woman brought to bed in her due time, the pains taking her mid-day, each one leaving her breathless, shaken by the expected agony. Exhausting hours pass and with a truly final effort she pushes her child forth with the shreds of will and muscle left to her. A girl? A boy! The midwife slices the cord quickly and flees the woman’s cries. To the river. Always to the river.
Such a guilty land should be wiped from the earth. Fire and brimstone. Judgement from heaven.
Instead, Azrael is waiting with his flaming sword.
The sweat of Sobek flows north through the land, the source of all her wealth. But lately the river has been untrue. Bloodied by the deaths of thousands of baby boys it was bloodied in fact some days since. Un-bloodied it vomited forth millions of croaking frogs crushed underfoot.
The jackal-headed god cannot understand. He sees death dealt and knows he should drink deeply tonight but is restrained by one hand lightly upraised.
Azrael knows his task and sets about his work. Mercy in every death. Mercy heavier than the weightiest justice. The first born fall before his sword. One only in each family for each generation. One only.