Либрусек (книги fb2)
The white-luck warrior
R. Scott Bakker The white-luck warrior
Wars, as a rule, fall within the compass of history. They mark the pitch of competing powers, the end of some and the ascendency of others, the ebb and flow of dominance across the ages. But there is a war that Men have waged for so long they have forgotten the languages they first used to describe it. A war that makes mere skirmishes out of the destruction of tribes and nations.
There is no name for this war; Men cannot reference what transcends the short interval of their comprehension. It began when they were little more than savages roaming the wilds, in an age before script or bronze. An Ark, vast and golden, toppled from the void, scorching the horizon, throwing up a ring of mountains with the violence of its descent. And from it crawled the dread and monstrous Inchoroi, a race who had come to seal the World against the Heavens and so save the obscenities they called their souls.
The Nonmen held sway in those ancient days, a long-lived people that surpassed Men not only in beauty and intellect but in wrath and jealousy as well. With their Ishroi heroes and Quya mages, they fought titanic battles and stood vigilant during epochal truces. They endured the Inchoroi weapons of light. They survived the treachery of the Aporetics, who provided their foe with thousands of sorcery-killing Chorae. They overcame the horrors their enemy crafted to people his legions: the Sranc, the Bashrag, and, most fearsome of all, the Wracu. But their avarice at last betrayed them. After centuries of intermittent war, they made peace with the invaders in return for the gift of ageless immortality-a gift that was in fact a fell weapon, the Plague of Wombs.
In the end, the Nonmen hunted the Inchoroi to the brink of annihilation. Exhausted, culled of their strength, they retired to their underworld mansions to mourn the loss of their wives and daughters and the inevitable extinction of their glorious race. Their surviving mages sealed the Ark, which they had come to call Min-Uroikas, and hid it from the world with devious glamours. And from the eastern mountains, the first tribes of Men began claiming the lands the Nonmen had abandoned-Men who had never known the yoke of slavery. Of the surviving Ishroi Kings, some fought, only to be dragged under by the tide of numbers, while others simply left their great gates unguarded, bared their necks to the licentious fury of a lesser race.
And so human history was born, and perhaps the Nameless War would have ended with the fading of its principals. But the golden Ark still existed, and the lust for knowledge has ever been a cancer in the hearts of Men.
Centuries passed, and the mantle of human civilization crept along the great river basins of Earwa and outward, bringing bronze where there had been flint, cloth where there had been skins, and writing where there had been recital. Great cities rose to teeming life. The wilds gave way to cultivated horizons.
Nowhere were Men more bold in their works, or more overweening in their pride, than in the North, where commerce with the Nonmen had allowed them to outstrip their more swarthy cousins to the South. In the legendary city of Sauglish, those who could discern the joints of existence founded the first sorcerous Schools. As their learning and power waxed, a reckless few turned to the rumours they had heard whispered by their Nonman teachers-rumours of the great golden Ark. The wise were quick to see the peril, and the Schoolmen of Mangaecca, who coveted secrets above all others, were censured and finally outlawed.
But it was too late. Min-Uroikas was found-occupied.
The fools discovered and awakened the last two surviving Inchoroi, Aurax and Aurang, who had concealed themselves in the labyrinthine recesses of the Ark. And at their hoary knees the outlaw Schoolmen learned that damnation, the burden that all sorcerers bore, need not be inevitable. They learned that the world could be shut against the judgment of Heaven. So they forged a common purpose with the twin abominations, a Consult, and bent their cunning to the aborted designs of the Inchoroi.
They relearned the principles of the material, the Tekne. They mastered the manipulations of the flesh. And after generations of study and searching, after filling the pits of Min-Uroikas with innumerable corpses, they realized the most catastrophic of the Inchoroi's untold depravities: Mog-Pharau, the No-God.
They made themselves slaves to better destroy the world.
And so the Nameless War raged anew. What has come to be called the First Apocalypse destroyed the great Norsirai nations of the North, laying ruin to the greatest glories of Men. But for Seswatha, the Grandmaster of the Gnostic School of Sohonc, the entire world would have been lost. At his urging, Anasurimbor Celmomas II, the High-King of the North's mightiest nation, Kuniuri, called on his tributaries and allies to join him in a Holy War against Min-Uroikas, which Men now called Golgotterath. But his Ordeal foundered, and the might of the Norsirai perished. Seswatha fled south to the Ketyai nations of the Three Seas, bearing the greatest of the legendary Inchoroi weapons, the Heron Spear. With Anaxophus, the High-King of Kyraneas, he met the No-God on the Plains of Mengedda and, by dint of valour and providence, overcame the dread Whirlwind.
The No-God was dead, but his slaves and his stronghold remained. Golgotterath had not fallen, and the Consult, blasted by ages of unnatural life, continued to plot their salvation.
The years passed, and the Men of the Three Seas forgot, as Men inevitably do, the horrors endured by their fathers. Empires rose and empires fell. The Latter Prophet, Inri Sejenus, reinterpreted the Tusk, the First Scripture, and within a few centuries, the faith of Inrithism, organized and administered by the Thousand Temples and its spiritual leader, the Shriah, came to dominate the entire Three Seas. The great Anagogic Schools arose in response to the Inrithi persecution of sorcery. Using Chorae, the Inrithi warred against them, attempting to purify the Three Seas.
Then Fane, the self-proclaimed Prophet of the so-called Solitary God, united the Kianene, the desert peoples of the Great Carathay, and declared war against the Tusk and the Thousand Temples. After centuries and several jihads, the Fanim and their eyeless sorcerer-priests, the Cishaurim, conquered nearly all the western Three Seas, including the holy city of Shimeh, the birthplace of Inri Sejenus. Only the moribund remnants of the Nansur Empire continued to resist them.
War and strife ruled the South. The two great faiths of Inrithism and Fanimry skirmished, though trade and pilgrimage were tolerated when commercially convenient. The great families and nations vied for military and mercantile dominance. The minor and major Schools squabbled and plotted. And the Thousand Temples pursued earthly ambitions under the leadership of corrupt and ineffectual Shriahs.
The First Apocalypse had become little more than legend. The Consult and the No-God had dwindled into myth, something old wives tell small children. After two thousand years, only the Schoolmen of the Mandate, who relived the Apocalypse each night through the eyes of Seswatha, could recall the horror of Mog-Pharau. Though the mighty and the learned considered them fools, their possession of the Gnosis, the sorcery of the Ancient North, commanded respect and mortal envy. Driven by nightmares, they wandered the labyrinths of power, scouring the Three Seas for signs of their ancient and implacable foe-for the Consult.
And as always, they found nothing.
Some argued that the Consult, which had survived the armed might of empires, had finally succumbed to the toll of ages. Others thought that they had turned inward, seeking less arduous means to forestall their damnation. But since the Sranc had multiplied across the northern wilds, no expedition could be sent to Golgotterath to settle the matter. The Mandate alone knew of the Nameless War. They alone stood guard, but they suffocated in a pall of ignorance.
The Thousand Temples elected a new, enigmatic Shriah, a man called Maithanet, who demanded the Inrithi recapture the holy city of the Latter Prophet, Shimeh, from the Fanim. Word of his call spread across the Three Seas and beyond, and faithful from all the great Inrithi nations-Galeoth, Thunyerus, Ce Tydonn, Conriya, High Ainon, and their tributaries-travelled to the city of Momemn, the capital of the Nansurium, to swear their swords and their lives to Inri Sejenus. To become Men of the Tusk.
And so was born the First Holy War. Internal feuds plagued the campaign from the very beginning, for there was no shortage of those who would bend the Holy War to their selfish ends. Not until the Second Siege of Caraskand and the Circumfixion of one of their own would this fractiousness be overcome. Not until the Men of the Tusk found a living prophet to follow-a man who could see into the hearts of Men. A man like a god.
Far to the north, in the very penumbra of Golgotterath, a group of ascetics called the Dunyain had concealed themselves in Ishual, the secret redoubt of the Kuniuric High-Kings. For two thousand years they had pursued their sacred study, breeding for reflex and intellect, training in the ways of limb, thought, and face-all for the sake of reason, the Logos. In the effort to transform themselves into the perfect expression of the Logos, the Dunyain had dedicated their entire existence to mastering the irrationalities of history, custom, and passion-all those things that determine human thought. In this way, they believed, they would eventually grasp what they called the Absolute, and so become true self-moving souls.
But their glorious isolation had been interrupted. After thirty years of exile, one of their number, Anasurimbor Moenghus, reappeared in their dreams, demanding they send to him his son, Kellhus. Knowing only that Moenghus dwelt in a distant city called Shimeh, the Dunyain dispatched Kellhus on an arduous journey through lands long abandoned by Men-sent him to kill his father.
But Moenghus knew the world in ways his cloistered brethren could not. He knew well the revelations that awaited his son, for they had been his revelations thirty years previous. He knew that Kellhus would discover sorcery, whose existence the forefathers of the Dunyain had suppressed. He knew that given his son's abilities, Men would be little more than children to him, that Kellhus would see their thoughts in the nuances of their expression, and that with mere words he would be able to exact any devotion, any sacrifice. He knew, moreover, that eventually Kellhus would encounter the Consult, who hid behind faces that only Dunyain eyes could see-that he would come to see what Men with their blinkered souls could not: the Nameless War.
For centuries the Consult had evaded their old foe, the School of Mandate, by creating doppelgangers, spies who could take on any face, any voice, without resorting to sorcery and its telltale Mark. By capturing and torturing these abominations, Moenghus learned that the Consult had not abandoned their ancient plot to shut the world against Heaven, that within a score of years they would be able to resurrect the No-God and bring about a second Apocalypse. For years he walked the innumerable paths of the Probability Trance, plotting future after future, searching for the thread of act and consequence that would save the world. For years he crafted his Thousandfold Thought.
Moenghus knew, and so prepared the way for Kellhus. He sent out his world-born son, Maithanet, to seize the Thousand Temples from within, so that he might craft the First Holy War, the weapon Kellhus would need to seize absolute power, and so unite the Three Seas against the doom that was their future. What he did not know, could not know, was that Kellhus would see further than he had, think beyond his Thousandfold Thought…
And go mad.
Little more than an impoverished wayfarer when he first joined the Holy War, Kellhus used his bearing, intellect, and insight to convince ever more Men of the Tusk that he was the Warrior-Prophet, come to save Mankind from the Second Apocalypse. He understood that Men, who embrace baseless beliefs the way drunkards imbibe wine, would render anything to him, so long as they believed he could save their souls. He also befriended the Schoolman the Mandate had dispatched to watch the Holy War, Drusas Achamian, knowing that the Gnosis, the sorcery of the Ancient North, would provide him with inestimable power. And he seduced Achamian's lover, Esmenet, knowing that her intellect made her the ideal vessel for his seed-for sons strong enough to bear the onerous burden of Dunyain blood.
By the time the battle-hardened remnants of the campaign at last invested Holy Shimeh, he possessed the host body and soul. The Men of the Tusk had become his Zaudunyani, his Tribe of Truth. While the Holy War assailed the city's walls, he confronted his father, Moenghus, mortally wounding him, explaining that only with his death could the Thousandfold Thought be realized. Days later Anasurimbor Kellhus was acclaimed Aspect-Emperor, the first in a millennium, by none other than the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, his half-brother, Maithanet. Even the School of Mandate, who saw his coming as the fulfillment of their most hallowed prophecies, knelt and kissed his knee.
But he had made one mistake. He had allowed Cnaiur urs Skiotha, a Scylvendi chieftain who had accompanied him on his trek to the Three Seas, to learn too much of his true nature. Before his death, the barbarian revealed these truths to Drusas Achamian, who had harboured heartbreaking suspicions of his own.
Before the eyes of the entire Holy War, Achamian repudiated Kellhus, whom he had worshipped, Esmenet, whom he had loved, and the Mandate masters he had served. Then he fled into the wilderness, becoming the world's only sorcerer without a school. A Wizard.
Now, after twenty years of conversion and bloodshed, Anasurimbor Kellhus plots the conclusion of his father's Thousandfold Thought. His New Empire spans the entirety of the Three Seas, from the legendary fortress of Auvangshei on the frontiers of Zeum to the shrouded headwaters of the River Sayut, from the sweltering coasts of Kutnarmu to the wild rim of the Osthwai Mountains-all the lands that had once been Fanim or Inrithi. It was easily the equal of the old Ceneian Empire in terms of geographical extent and likely far greater when it came to population. A hundred mighty cities, and almost as many languages. A dozen proud nations. Two thousand years of mangled history.
And the Nameless War is nameless no longer. Men call it the Great Ordeal.
For twenty years Drusas Achamian has kept a painstaking record of his Dreams of the First Apocalypse.
He lives as an exile, the world's only Wizard, on the savage northeastern frontier of the empire Anasurimbor Kellhus has raised about his supposed divinity. The Sranc once besieged his half-ruined tower, but the scalpers have driven the inhuman creatures over the mountains, chasing the Holy Bounty. For years now Achamian has lived in peace, hunting his sleep for hints and rumours of Ishual, the hidden fastness of the Dunyain. If he can find Ishual, he believes, he can answer the question that burns so bright in so many learned souls…
Who is the Aspect-Emperor?
This peace is shattered when Anasurimbor Mimara, the daughter of his former wife, arrives demanding that he teach her sorcery. Her resemblance to her mother, Esmenet-who has become Empress of the Three Seas-returns the old Wizard to all the pains he sought to escape. He refuses her demand, bids her to leave time and again, but she defies him and takes up a vigil outside his tower.
Mimara, who has never forgiven her mother for selling her into childhood slavery, has fled the Imperial Court with no intention of returning. She is one of the Few. She possesses the ability to see the fabric of existence and so the power to learn sorcery-and this, she has decided, is the one thing that will lift her from the mire of shame and recrimination that is her life. She believes she has nothing else.
But she also possesses a different kind of sight, one both more precious and more significant: on rare occasions, she can see the morality of things, the goodness and the evil inherent to them. She has what the ancients called the Judging Eye.
Day and night she howls at the old Wizard in his tower, demanding that he teach her. The first time he comes down, he strikes her. The second time he tries to reason with her. He explains his lifelong quest to discover the truth of Anasurimbor Kellhus-her stepfather. He seeks the location of Ishual because it is the Aspect-Emperor's birthplace, and the truth of a man, he insists, always lies in his origins. He tells her how his Dreams have slowly transformed, abandoning the epic atrocities of the First Apocalypse and focusing more and more upon the mundane details of Seswatha's ancient life. Because of this, he now knows how to find Ishual: he must recover a map that lies hidden in the ruins of ancient Sauglish, far to the north.
"You have become a prophet," she tells him. "A prophet of the past."
And then, in yet one more attempt to win his tutelage, she seduces him.
Only in the shameful aftermath does she tell the old Wizard that he has dwelt upon his suspicions for too long. The Aspect-Emperor has already embarked on his quest to destroy the Consult and so save the world from a Second Apocalypse. The Great Ordeal marches.
Achamian abandons Mimara at his tower and strikes out for the nearest scalper outpost. Here he contracts a company called the Skin Eaters to join his quest, deceiving them with promises of the Coffers, the Holy Library's famed treasury. The Captain of the company, a Veteran of the First Holy War named Lord Kosoter, troubles him, as does Incariol, his mysterious Nonman companion, but time is short, and he can think of no one else who would accompany him on such a mad trek. He must somehow reach the Library of Sauglish, and thence Ishual, before the Great Ordeal reaches the gates of Golgotterath. The scalper company departs shortly thereafter, planning to cross the Osthwai Mountains into the Sranc-infested North.
Mimara is not so easily dissuaded. She shadows the scalpers without appreciating the cunning of their forest craft. She is discovered, and Achamian is forced to save her, saying that she is his wilful daughter. Fearing that she will reveal his true purposes, he at last relents. He allows her to accompany him on his quest and agrees to teach her sorcery.
Shortly after, they learn that a spring blizzard has closed the passes through the Osthwai Mountains, perhaps delaying them for weeks-for too long. Only one path remains open to them: the accursed halls of Cil-Aujas.
They camp before the entrance to the derelict Nonman Mansion, plagued with apprehensions. Then, with the coming of dawn, they descend into the heart of the mountain. For days they wander the wrecked halls, led by Incariol and his ancient memories. Deep in the Mansion, Mimara finally confesses her sporadic ability to see the morality of things, and Achamian, obviously troubled, tells her that she possesses the Judging Eye. She presses him to tell her more, but the old Wizard refuses. Before she can berate him properly, the company discovers that it is not alone in the Mansion.
Sranc assail them with fury and countless numbers. Despite the sorcerous toll exacted by Incariol and Achamian, the company is overcome, and the survivors are forced to flee down into the bowels of Cil-Aujas. Achamian is knocked unconscious by a Sranc bearing a Chorae. Mimara kills the creature and pockets the thing. They flee through the mines that riddle the foundations of the mountain and find themselves on the scorched rim of a burning lake. The Sranc pour after them, a howling tide. They flee along a stair and would certainly perish were it not for Incariol and his sorcerous might. Their route sealed behind them, they find themselves in an ancient slave pit, huddling among the bones of a dead dragon. Only a handful survive.
While they recover themselves, Incariol dispenses Qirri, an ancient Nonman remedy. Mimara finds herself staring at her Chorae. It is an abomination in her sorcerous eyes, yet she persists gazing. The Judging Eye opens, and the thing is miraculously transformed. Suddenly she sees it for what it truly is: a white burning Tear of God. She turns to Somandutta, the scalper who has become her protector with the Wizard incapacitated. But he sees nothing…
Then she notices the stranger sitting in their midst.
Incariol recognizes the figure as the shade of Gin'yursis, the ancient Nonman King of Cil-Aujas. The wraith dons the Nonman as if he were clothing. While the company stands watching in dread, the Qirri finally revives the old Wizard. Recognizing their peril, he begins screaming at them to flee.
Again they race into the black, while something dark and nebulous pursues them. In desperation, Achamian brings the ceiling crashing down, sealing the company even deeper within the doomed Mansion.
They find themselves at the bottom of a vast well, what Achamian remembers as the Great Medial Screw from his ancient Dreams, a stair that plumbs the whole mountain. The sky is little more than a prick of light above them. The battered Skin Eaters rejoice. All they need do is climb…
But Gin'yursis rises from the deeps to claim them, dragging Hell itself as his mantle.
Mimara's Judging Eye opens. She raises high her brilliant Tear of God…
The Great Ordeal:
Far to the north, young Varalt Sorweel finds himself staring down upon the boggling might of the Southron Believer-Kings. He is the only son of Varalt Harweel, the King of Sakarpus, who has resisted the Aspect-Emperor's demand to yield his ancient city and its famed Chorae Hoard. Standing with his father on the high curtain walls, the adolescent realizes that he and his people are doomed. Then, miraculously, a stork-a bird that is holy to the Sakarpi-appears on the battlements above his father. The two commune in the charged silence that follows, then King Harweel turns and commands that Sorweel be taken to safety. "See that no harm comes to him!" he cries. "He will be our final sword-stroke! Our vengeance!" Dragged away screaming, the young man watches sorcerous flames engulf the parapets and his father upon them. A desperate flight ensues, and it seems that the Aspect-Emperor himself pursues them through the chaotic streets.
The pursuit ends in the apparent safety of the citadel. Blasting through walls, Anasurimbor Kellhus effortlessly kills his protectors. He approaches the adolescent Prince, but rather than seizing or striking him, he embraces him. Tells him that he is forgiven.
The city secure, the Great Ordeal prepares for the long march across the trackless wilds. Sorweel finds himself desolate for the loss of his father and the shame of his new circumstances. As the new King of Sakarpus, he is naught but a tool of the New Empire, a way for the Aspect-Emperor to legitimize his tyranny. Before the host departs, none other than Moenghus and Kayutas, the eldest sons of Anasurimbor Kellhus, visit him in his palace. They tell him he is to join the Ordeal as the symbol of his nation's commitment to their holy cause. The following day Sorweel finds himself part of the Scions, a horse company composed of princely hostages from across the rim of the New Empire. This is how he meets and befriends Zsoronga ut Nganka'kull, the Successor Prince of Zeum.
A Mandate sorcerer named Eskeles is assigned to tutor him in Sheyic, the common tongue of the Three Seas, and through him the young King learns the reasons why so many worship the Aspect-Emperor so fervently. For the first time he begins to doubt his father… What if the Aspect-Emperor spoke true? What if the world really was about to end?
Why else would someone so cunning march so many Men to their doom?
Sorweel is also provided a slave named Porsparian to attend to his needs, a wizened old man who is anything but the submissive thrall he pretends to be. One night Sorweel watches him tear away the turf and mould the face of the Goddess Yatwer from the dirt. Before his eyes, mud bubbles up as spit from her earthen lips. The slave palms this mud and smears it across the incredulous King's cheeks.
The following morning Sorweel attends a Council of Potentates with Zsoronga and Eskeles. His dread waxes as he watches the Holy Aspect-Emperor move from lord to lord, declaring the truths they think hidden in their souls. He fears what will happen when he sees the hatred and treachery smouldering in his own. But when Anasurimbor Kellhus comes to him, he congratulates Sorweel for grasping the truth and, before everyone assembled, declares him one of the Believer-Kings.
Far to the south in Momemn, the capital of the New Empire, Esmenet struggles to rule in her husband's absence. With Kellhus and the bulk of his armed might absent, the embers of insurrection have begun to ignite across the Three Seas. The Imperial Court regards her with condescension. Fanayal ab Kascamandri, the Padirajah of what had been the heathen Kianene Empire before the First Holy War, grows ever more bold on the fringes of the Great Carathay Desert. Psatma Nannaferi, the outlawed Mother-Supreme of the Cult of Yatwer, prophesies the coming of the White-Luck Warrior, the god-sent assassin who will murder the Aspect-Emperor and his progeny. Even the Gods, it seems, have turned against the Anasurimbor Dynasty. Esmenet turns to her brother-in-law, Maithanet, the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, for his clarity of vision and strength, yet she wonders why her husband would leave the Mantle in her incapable hands, when his brother is Dunyain like himself.
She also has the travails of her own family to contend with. All her eldest children have gone. Mimara has fled-to Achamian, she hopes and prays. Kayutas, Serwa, and her stepson, Moenghus, ride with their father in the Great Ordeal. Theliopa remains with her as an adviser, but the girl is scarcely human, she is so narrow and analytical. The next youngest, the mad and murderous Inrilatas, Esmenet keeps imprisoned atop the Andiamine Heights. Only her very youngest, the twins Samarmas and Kelmomas, provide her with any comfort. She clings to them as if they were flotsam in a shipwreck, not realizing that Kelmomas, like his brother Inrilatas, has inherited too many of his father's gifts. The boy has already driven away Mimara with the cunning of his insinuations. Now he plots deeper ways to secure sole possession of his mother's heart.
He will tolerate no rivals.
In the city of Iothiah, meanwhile, the White-Luck Warrior reveals himself to Psatma Nannaferi, who summons all her High Priestesses to plot the destruction of the Anasurimbor. None other than Yatwer, the monstrous Mother of Birth, moves against the Aspect-Emperor. As the Goddess most favoured by slaves and caste-menials, she commands tremendous temporal power. Unrest spreads among the servile poor.
Even as the first rumours of this sedition reach his mother in Momemn, young Kelmomas continues his own devious insurrection. Where before he had driven Mimara away, now he engineers the death of his idiot twin, Samarmas, knowing that grief for his loss will make his mother even more desperate for his love.
Capsized by the death of Samarmas, bewildered by the possibility that the Hundred themselves now hunt her family, Esmenet turns to her brother-in-law, Maithanet. He reminds her that the Gods can see neither the No-God nor the coming Apocalypse and so perceive her husband as a threat instead of a saviour.
At his bidding, Esmenet summons Sharacinth, the officially sanctioned Matriarch of the Yatwerians, with the intention of setting the Cult against itself. When they fail to cow the woman, Kellhus himself arrives and breaks her will to resist with sheer force of presence. The blubbering Matriarch yields, promising to wrest her Cult from Psatma Nannaferi. The Aspect-Emperor returns to the Great Ordeal, dismaying his Empress with his indifference to their son's death.
Realizing that his mother turns to him the more circumstances turn against her, Kelmomas sets out that very night, using his Dunyain blood to steal across the Imperial Precincts, and murders Sharacinth and her retinue.
Rumours of her assassination travel quickly, igniting the embers of sedition among the slaves and caste-menials. Riots erupt across the New Empire.
Esmenet does turn to Kelmomas for comfort. At night, she takes to embracing him in her bed while the smell of smoke and the sound of screams and shouts waft through windows. Intoxicated with success, the young Prince-Imperial begins plotting against his uncle, Maithanet, knowing that the man alone possesses the ability to see through his deception.
The Meorn Wilderness
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), the "Long Side"
Even when the Skin Eaters walked ways sheeted in sunlight, some shadow of Cil-Aujas lingered in their eyes. The reflection of friends lost. The glint of things not quite survived.
Not two days had passed since they had escaped the derelict underworld mansion. There was madness in the deep, and the scalpers wore it more as fact than trophy. Decimated by Sranc. Pursued through serpentine deeps to the very brink of Hell. They had been transformed, these men who had survived seasons of hunting and harvesting inhuman scalps in pursuit of the Holy Bounty. Their hearts, which had been heaped with scars, now stood cracked open. They walked raw, whether trekking across mountain ridges or filing through forest tunnels. And for all their regret they were thankful. Gentle breezes carried the kiss of blessings. Shadows. Rain. Any sign of an open sky, no matter how indirect, occasioned some small rejoice.
They walked with the wonder of those who could not fathom their breath, their heartbeat. Who could not believe they still lived.
Too few of them remained for the old scalper discipline to hold-or so it seemed to the old Wizard. If any Rules of the Slog remained, they would have to be discovered on the way.
The Captain still commanded them. If anything he seemed more archaic, more inscrutable and cruel. His Ainoni garb, which was tattered before, had been reduced to black-stained rags. His shield, which he wore slung over his back, sported innumerable dents and clefts. But his authority, like everything else, had been transformed by their passage-not so much eroded as superimposed over other possibilities. Events had sorted them.
Sarl was the primary example. Once the mouthpiece of the Captain, he now skulked in the rear of their ragged line, his eyes fixed on his drunken steps, his fingers picking at the scabbed remnant of the wound on his cheek. Periodically he would cackle, a sharp, glutinous sound that jarred the others from their marching reveries. He spoke to no one, content to endlessly mutter to himself-nonsense about seeing Hell mostly. Once or twice a day he would begin barking about the Coffers. "The Slog of Slogs! Yes! Yes!" The few glances he spared his Captain were filled with wounded terror.
If the decimated company yet possessed a second it was Galian. The Nansur had emerged almost unscathed from Cil-Aujas-a tribute to his luck and a boost to his prestige. Aside from soldiers, no one understood the importance of luck quite so profoundly as scalpers. Galian, along with Pokwas and Xonghis, had become a nucleus of sorts, a kind of conspiracy of the sane within the greater company. Strangely enough, they found their power in keeping their counsel. When the Captain described this or that course of action, the Skin Eaters' eyes inevitably turned to the Nansur Columnary. Almost without exception Galian would pause for the sake of words unspoken, then nod his head aye: he was never so foolish as to contradict the Captain.
And the Captain was never so foolish as to provoke his contradiction.
As always, Xonghis ranged ahead, continually trotting where everyone save Cleric trudged. Were it not for his hunting skills, the expedition would have almost certainly perished. Pokwas, his scalp gruesome with clotted blood, rarely ventured from Galian's side. Every dusk the three would find a place apart from the others, gnaw sorcery-cooked meat, and trade murmurs. Xonghis was always glancing about, fingers combing his slight Jekki beard, his almond eyes sorting his surroundings even as he spoke or listened to his comrades. He rarely laughed. Pokwas invariably ministered to his great tulwar, sometimes praying as he did so. Something in his voice continually seemed to swing about the possibility of outrage, like a drunk nursing grudges. His laughter typically boomed. Galian always seemed to be sitting between them, even though their little triangle possessed no centre. The former Columnary was forever scraping the stubble from his chin. He seemed to watch his scalper brothers to the exclusion of the world, his eyes as keen as an alarmed father's. His laughter was always silent.
For whatever reason, Soma and Sutadra found themselves on the outside of this impromptu cabal. The gaunt Kianene, Sutadra, remained silent and watchful the same as before, though an intensity had crept into his eyes that was almost audible. He looked like a man hanging on the words of his wife's murderer, waiting for a confession. Soma was perhaps the least changed, the one most inclined to speak and act in the old ways. And true to form, the Nilnameshi caste-noble seemed utterly oblivious to the distrust that this incited in his comrades.
Nothing should be the same after Cil-Aujas.
The surviving Galeoth formed another small faction, one that was at once more mutinous and more complacent. If they were more liable to bellyache or, worse yet, openly question the expedition, then they were also more inclined to shrink from the scalding chill of the Captain's gaze. For whatever reason, the underworld trial had exacted the heaviest toll from them. Wonard's injuries, which he took to hiding like a wounded dog, had become septic. He marched with the flat-eyed look of someone who simply carried himself from place to place without wit or comprehension. Hameron continually cried out in his sleep, and seemed to sob as much as breathe over the course of the day. Only Conger seemed to improve as the days wore on. Despite the endless trudging, his limp had all but vanished.
But no one had been more transformed in the collective eye than Cleric. Where before they had walked with an enigma, one rounded warm and smooth by long acquaintance, now they walked with a Nonman Ishroi
… a Quya Mage.
Even for men so bitten, it was no small thing to walk with a legend. And for a Wizard steeped in the ancient ways, it was cause for more than a few sleepless watches…
With the Osthwai Mountains to the southwest, night fell with the finality of a hammer. Since this was skinny country, they marched "on the dark," as Sarl had put it, without fires or illumination of any sort. They became a company of shadows, skulkers between the trees, loathe to speak. The fact of their losses always loomed the largest, it seemed, when they made camp. A kind of desolation haunted them. They would eat with the vacant look of those thrown from the grooves of a kinder life.
Each night, Cleric wandered among them, wordlessly dispensing miniscule smudges of Qirri. He seemed taller without his cloak. Cracked blood still clotted the nimil links of his hauberk. The Nail of Heaven threw lines of blue and white across the polish of his scalp and skin. His eyes, when they blinked, seemed more animal than otherwise.
Afterward he would sit, head bowed, next to the Captain, who either sat like a stone or leaned forward to lecture the Nonman in a continuous, growling whisper. No one could fathom what was said.
The Qirri would soak into their veins, a touch of bitter on the tongue that became a slow-spreading warmth, stretching revival. And their thoughts, relieved of bodily deprivations, would climb into remembered moulds.
The shadows would begin to mutter, like children testing the absence of a violent father.
The Nonman's voice would rise from the hushed chorus, Sheyic spoken with foreign accents and deep, alien intonations. A different kind of silence would fall across them, the Skin Eaters as well as the Wizard and the girl. A silence, not of expectation, but of men who awaited tidings of themselves. Places faraway.
And the sermon would begin, every bit as disordered and beautiful as the speaker.
"You have wandered out of light and life," he began one night. They still picked their way through the foothills, following ridges flanged by innumerable ravines, so they had camped high. Cleric sat upon a bare stone shelf, his face toward the blackening bulk of Aenaratiol, the Ziggurat. By some fluke of happenstance, Achamian and Mimara found themselves sitting a stage higher, so they could see the mountain shadows encompass the forested tracts over his shoulders. It almost seemed they had found him thus, sitting cross-legged before the wilderness they would dare cross, a sentinel waiting to judge their folly.
"You have seen what so few of your kind have seen. Now, no matter where you walk, you will be able to look about and see the piling of powers. Empires of the sky. Empires of the deep…"
His great head leaned forward, white and waxen as a candle against the dark.
"Ever are Men stranded on the surface of things. And ever do they confuse what they see with the sum of what matters. Ever do they forget the rank insignificance of the visible. And when they do honour the beyond-the beneath — they render it according to what is familiar… They disfigure it for comfort's sake."
The old Wizard sat rigid.
"But you… you know… You know that what lies beyond resembles us no more than the potter resembles the urn…"
A sudden mountain gust swept the high ridges, whisked through the gnarled jack pine that crooked the stone about them. Mimara raised a hand to brush the hair from her face.
"You who have glimpsed Hell."
"The Slog!" Sarl exclaimed in hoary tones. "The Slog of Slogs-just as I told you!" His laugh was half gurgle and half rasp.
But the company had ceased to hear these intrusions, let alone glance at their former Sergeant.
"All things have a place," Cleric said. "Death has its place. You have plumbed the depths, passed beyond the gates of life, and you have been where only the dead have been, seen what only the dead have seen…"
The Wizard found himself flinching from the Nonman's black-glittering gaze.
"May it greet you as an old friend when you return."
A moment of pondering silence.
"The Coffers!" Sarl croaked, his face raisin-wrinkled with hilarity. "The Coffers, lads!"
Darkness claimed the wild horizon.
– | Kiampas dead. Oxwora dead. Sarl deranged. And dozens of other Skin Eaters the Wizard had never known outside the continuity of their presence… Dead.
The toll Achamian had feared had become real. Blood had been let, lives had been lost in the deep tumble, all in the name of his convictions… and the lie he had told in their dread service.
Distance and abstraction are ever the twin lures of disaster. When he paused to recollect it, that first step from his tower seemed absurd with ease. What was one step? Two? And all the walking that followed, across the wild, into the Obsidian Gate, step after step… Down into mountainous nethers.
All for the sake of finding Ishual… The name spoken by a mad barbarian so many years ago. The cradle of Anasurimbor Kellhus. The hidden refuge of the Dunyain.
Now, wrecked and heartbroken, they continued the long march to Sauglish, the ruined City of Robes, in the hope of plundering the Coffers, the famed sorcerous vault beneath the Library of Sauglish. Achamian had promised them riches, baubles that would make them princes. He had told them nothing of the map he hoped to find there, nor of the capricious Dreams that guided him.
He had glimpsed the Whore's shadow from the very beginning-from the moment he had set eyes on Mimara, it seemed. All along he had known the toll of his mad mission. And yet, he had let his lies and transgressions accumulate, taking heart in flabby rationalization.
The truth, he had told himself. The truth demanded sacrifice, from him and from others.
Could a man be called murderer when he killed in the name of truth?
Come nightfall, Achamian often peered at them through the gloom, these men who had risked all in the name of his lies. Scalpers hugging themselves against the chill. Foul. Ragged. Eyes pricked with madness. Not so much broken as disfigured-crippled strong. Only yesterday, it seemed, he had watched them strut and caper, trade jokes and boasts in the manner of men in the shadow of imminent battle. They were going to follow their Captain across the ends of the earth to loot a treasury out of legend. They were going to return princes. Now, scarcely anything remained of that bombast-save Soma, whose peculiar idiocy had rendered changeless, and Sarl, who had gone insane. The old Wizard watched them and he mourned what he had done almost as much as he feared what he was about to do.
One night he caught Mimara watching his watching. She was one of those women with a canny gift for seeing into masculine faces. She was forever guessing his chaotic humours.
"You feel remorse," she said in reply to his quizzical look.
"Cil-Aujas has made you right," he replied under his breath. She had called him a murderer on the far side of the mountains, had threatened to reveal his lies to the others if he turned her away.
"It has wronged me more," she replied.
In the absence of consequences, lies were as easy as breathing, as simple as song. During his days as a Mandate Schoolman, Achamian had told innumerable falsehoods to innumerable people, and a fair number of fatal truths as well. He had destroyed reputations, even lives, in the pursuit of an abstraction, the Consult. He had even killed one of his beloved pupils, Inrau, in the name of what could not be touched or seen. He found himself wondering what it must be like for his former brothers now that the Consult had been revealed. What would it be like to belong to an Imperial School, to have princes and kings stammer in your presence? According to Mimara, they even carried Shrial Warrants, holy writs that exempted them from the laws of the lands that hosted them.
Mandate Schoolmen with Shrial Warrants! What would that be like?
He would never know. On the day the Consult had ceased being mere abstraction, the day Anasurimbor Kellhus had been declared Aspect-Emperor, he had decided to hunt another obscurity: the origins of the man who had revealed them-and in his Dreams, no less. Maybe that was his doom. Maybe that would be the tragic irony that defined the lay of his life. Hunting smoke. Throwing the number-sticks of damnation. Sacrificing the actual for the possible.
The eternal outcast. Doubter and Believer.
With more men to kill.
Dreams are only possessed upon waking, which is why men are so keen to heap words upon them after the fact. They engulf your horizons, pin your very frame to turbulent unreality. They are the hand that reaches behind the mountains, beyond the sky, beneath the deepest sockets of the earth. They are the ignorance that tyrannizes our every choice. Dreams are the darkness that only slumber can illuminate.
The old Wizard walked slots beneath mighty foundations. The stones, he knew, were among the oldest in the complex, part of the original structure raised by Caru-Ongonean, the third and perhaps the greatest of the Umeri God-Kings. Here… This was the place where the Nonmen of the famed Tutelage, the Siqu, had come to live among the Kuniuri. This was the place where the first Quyan texts had been translated and stored, and where the first sorcerous School, the Sohonc, had been born.
Here… The famed Library of Sauglish.
Temple. Fortress. Granary of many things, wisdom and power foremost among them.
The walls seemed to close about him, so narrow was the way. Candles squatted in sconces along the walls. Whenever he neared one, it sparked to white life, while the one previous vanished into strings of smoke. Over and over, until it seemed there was but one flame leaping from wick to wick.
But the illumination was never quite enough. For every ten steps, five took him through absolute shadow, allowing him to see the layering of ancient Wards without the confusion of worldly sight. Ugly, the way all sorcery is ugly, and yet beautiful all the same, like the rigging of great ships, only ethereal-and as deadly as gallows. In the millennium since its construction, the Library-and the Sohonc-had never been conquered. The Cond Yoke. The Skettic invasions. No matter what the conquering nation, civilized or barbaric, they all sheathed their swords and came to terms. Whether perfumed and erudite like Osseoratha or unwashed and illiterate like Aulyanau the Conqueror, they all came to Sauglish bearing gifts instead of threats… They all knew.
This was the Library.
The corridor ended in blind walls. Holding tight the ornate map-case Celmomas had given him, the Grandmaster spoke the sorcerous words. Meaning flashed through his eyes and mouth, and he trod through monolithic stone. The Cant of Sideways Stepping.
Blinking, he found himself in the Upper Pausal, a narrow rostrum overlooking the Pausal proper, a dark antechamber long and deep enough to hold a war galley. Batteries of candles set below sparked to spontaneous life. Seswatha descended the right stair, map-case firmly in hand. Of all the innumerable rooms of the Library, only the Pausal could boast Nonmen artisanship because only it had been hewn out of living rock. Twining figures adorned the walls, frieze stacked upon frieze, representations of the Tutelage and the first great peace between the High Norsirai and the False Men-as the Tusk called the Cunuroi. But like so many who entered this room, Seswatha scarcely noticed them. And how could he when the stigmatic blemish of sorcery so assaulted his gaze?
It was always the same whenever one of the Few, those who could see the mark that the sorcerous cut into the natural, walked the Pausal. One thing and one thing only commanded their gaze… the Great Gate of Wheels. The portal that was a lock, and the lock that was a portal.
The entrance to the Coffers.
To mundane eyes it was a wonder of scale and machination. To arcane eyes it was nothing less than a miracle of interlocking deformities: enormous incantation wheels carved from milk-white marble, turning through a frame of bronze set with constellations of faces carved of black diorite, instilled animata-or proxies, as they called them-enslaved souls, whose only purpose was to complete the circuit between watcher and watched that was the foundation of all reality, sorcerous or not. So hideous was the Mark of the thing, so metaphysically disfigured, that bile bubbled to the back of his throat whenever he found himself before it.
Quya magic. Deeper than deep.
Seswatha paused on the stair, warred with his stomach. He looked down and for some reason felt no surprise, no alarm, to see that the golden map-case had become an infant's inert form. Blue and grey. Mottled with black bruising, as if it had perished while lying on its face. Slicked with the sweat of the dead.
Such is the madness of dreams that we can assume the continuity of even the most jarring things. An infant corpse, it seemed, had always been what he carried. Achamian followed the grooves of the Dream thoughtful only of what had been thought, oblivious to the discrepancies. Only when he came to a halt beneath the arcane machinery of the Gate, only when he commanded the proxies to roll back the Gate, did he find himself skidding across unlived life…
Squirming. The dead baby was twisting and straining against his hands.
The Great Gate of Wheels rumbled to cracking life. At last the Archmage gazed down in horror.
Black eyes shining up with newborn bleariness. Fat-webbed arms reaching out, tiny fingers clutching.
Revulsion. Flailing panic. He cast the thing the way a boy might throw off a spider or a snake, but it simply hung in the air before him, made a cradle of empty space. Behind it, the wheels of the Gate continued their groaning tumble.
"This," Seswatha gasped, "is not what hap-!"
The last of the great bronze cogs had ceased their clacking. The Gate of Wheels was drawing open…
The infant had dropped from the air. A golden tube clattered where it had fallen. Beyond it, the ponderous bronze machinery of the Gate folded into blackness. A gust swept out across the antechamber.
Achamian stood immobile.
Wind roiled and twisted. His gown tugged at his limbs. A rumble shivered through the walls and lintels, deep, as if a tempest lashed some world inside the world. The Gate, which stood within the Library's deepest heart, now opened onto the sky-not the Coffers, the sky! And he could see the Library, as though the Pausal hung from a great height above it. Bastions collapsing. Walls flying outward in strings of sand. And he could see it… the horror of horrors within billowing skirts of dust and debris, a mountain of black-spinning wind that linked wrecked earth to flickering clouds. Existence itself howled.
Tell me… the Whirlwind said.
What do you see?
What am I?
The Mandate libraries in Atyersus possessed many maps, some old, others new. On all save the most ancient, the land the Skin Eaters dared cross was called the Meorn Wilderness, a name that carried many implications for the learned squints that regarded it.
The scalpers, however, simply called it the Long Side. They had heard the stories, of course. They knew the vast forests they plumbed had once been cultivated horizons. Even more, they had seen the ruins: the stone-stumped grottos that were the lost city of Teleol, and the fortress of Maimor-or Fatwall, as they called it. They knew of the Meori Empire. They knew that once, so very long ago, the wilderness and savagery had lain to the south of the Osthwai Mountains. And the thoughtful among them would wonder at the way the slow leakage of years could bring about such grand and dramatic reversals.
When the first companies of Scalpoi had crossed into the Wilderness some ten years previous, they had been overwhelmed by the numbers and the ferocity of the Sranc clans they had found. The "Stick Days," the old veterans called them, because every slog seemed a throw of the number-sticks. But the game was plentiful. And the foothills offered endless possibilities for ambush-the key to nearly every Captain's success. Within a matter of five years, the Scalpoi had driven the Sranc into the lowland forests, the Great Mop, taking so many scalps that the Holy Bounty had to be halved, lest the New Empire go bankrupt.
The reconquest of the Great Meori Empire had begun, albeit by Men who resembled the Sranc more than otherwise. When Fatwall, or Maimor, was discovered, the Holy Aspect-Emperor even sent a Judge and a company of Ministrate Pikemen to occupy the abandoned fortress over the summer months. Many among the Imperial Apparati spoke of reclaiming all the ancient Meori provinces-from the Osthwai Mountains to the Sea of Cerish-within ten scant years. Some even argued the Holy Bounty should take precedence over the Great Ordeal. Why wage war against one, they dared ask, when with mere gold you could battle against all?
But the forests, vast and deep and dark, made a mockery of these hopes. No matter how many companies filed into them, no matter how many bales of scalps they carried out, the frontier ceased its creeping retreat and remained fixed, year after year. For the first time since the calling of the Holy Bounty the Sranc did not dwindle and withdraw. One Imperial Mathematician, the notorious Mepmerat of Shigek, claimed that the Scalpoi had at last encountered a population of Sranc that could reproduce as fast as they could slaughter-that the Bounty had become futile, in effect. He would be imprisoned for his impious accuracy.
For their part, the Scalpoi cared nothing for squint-eyed calculations or petty political aspirations. One need only probe the verges of the Great Mop to understand why the skinnies had stopped running. The Mop was like no forest known to Men of the Three Seas. Trees so vast and hoary they had raised berms about their bases, creating troughs like the swells of a stormy sea. The thatching of the canopy so dense that little more than grey-green light attenuated the filtered gloom. The ground devoid of undergrowth, broken only by the colossal bones of trees long dead. For Sranc, the Mop was a kind of paradise: perpetually dark with easy earth rich in grubs. It provided for all but their most dread appetites.
That is, until the coming of Men.
– | Xonghis had led them down from the mountains into the foothills at a northwest tangent, so nearly a week passed before the expedition entered the Mop. The plan was to skirt the forest's edges and march to Fatwall, ancient Maimor, with the hope of resupplying. Mimara fairly clung to the Wizard during this time, sometimes actually leaned against him, even though she possessed no real wounds of consequence. Her mother had done the same, years before in the First Holy War, and the memories would have struck Achamian deep-pain deep-had not the pandemonium of the previous days been so complete. He could scarce blink without glimpsing some shredded glimpse of their ordeal.
When he asked her what happened at the bottom of the Great Medial Screw, she never answered, at least not satisfactorily. According to her, the Wight-in-the-Mountain had been driven away by her Chorae and that was that. When he reminded her that the Captain also carried a Chorae, one that apparently made no difference, she would simply shrug as if to say, "Well, I'm not the Captain, am I?" Time and again, Achamian found himself circling back to the issue. He could not do otherwise. Even when he ignored her, he could sense her Chorae against her breast, like a whiff of oblivion, or the scratch of some otherworldly burr.
The School of Mandate had long eschewed the Daimotic Arts: Seswatha had believed Ciphrang too capricious to be yoked to human intent. Still, Achamian had some understanding of the metaphysics involved. He knew that some agencies could be summoned shorn of the Outside, plucked whole as it were, while others bore their realities with them, swamping the World with porous madness. The shade of Gin'yursis, Achamian knew, had been one of the latter.
Chorae only negated violations of the Real; they returned the world to its fundamental frame. But Gin'yursis had come as figure and frame — a symbol wedded to the very Hell that gave it meaning…
Mimara's Chorae should have been useless.
"Please, girl. Indulge an old man's confusion."
It involved the Judging Eye… somehow. He knew it in his bones.
"Enough. It was madness, I told you. I don't know what happened!"
"More. There has to be something more!"
She fixed him with her damning glare. "What an old hypocrite you are…"
She was right, of course. As hard as he pressed her about what had happened, she pressed him harder for details of the Judging Eye-and he was even more evasive. A part of him suspected that she refused to answer out of some peevish desire for retribution.
What does one say to the doomed? What could knowing provide other than the air of an executioner's vigil? To know one's doom was to know futility, to walk with a darkened, deadened heart.
To forget hope.
The old Wizard knew this as much from his Dreams as from his life. Of all the lessons he had learned at life's uncaring knee, perhaps this was the most hard won. So when she pestered him with questions-gazing at him with Esmenet's eyes and airs-he would bristle. "The Judging Eye is the stuff of witches lore and old wives' tales! I have no knowledge to share, only rumours and misapprehensions!"
"Then tell me those!"
"Bah! Leave me in peace!"
He was sparing her, he told himself. Of course his refusal to answer simply stoked her fears, but fearing and knowing were two different things. There is mercy in ignorance; Men are born appreciating this. Scarce a day passes when we do not save others from things-small and great-they would be worse for knowing.
The old Wizard wasn't the only one to suffer Mimara's rancour. Somandutta drew abreast of them one morning, his manner at once pensive and breezy with false good humour. He began by asking her questions, then plied her with various inane observations when she refused to reply. He was trying, the old Wizard knew, to rekindle something of their old banter, perhaps hoping to find unspoken forgiveness in the resumption of old ways and manners. His approach was at once cowardly and eminently male: he was literally asking her to pretend that he had not abandoned her in Cil-Aujas. And she was having none of it.
"Mimara… please," he finally hazarded. "I know… I know I wronged you… down… down there. But everything happened so… so quickly."
"But that's the way it is with fools, isn't it?" she said, her tone so light it could only be scathing. "The world is quick and they are slow."
Perhaps she had happened upon an old and profound fear of his. Perhaps she had simply shocked him with the summary ease of her condemnation. Either way, the young Nilnameshi caste-noble came to an abrupt stop, stood dumbfounded as the others trudged past. He ducked away from Galian and his teasing attempt to pinch his cheek.
Afterward Achamian joined him on the trail, moved more by the memory of Esmenet and the similarities of her pique than by real pity. "Give her time," he said. "She's fierce in her feelings, but her heart is forgiving…" He trailed, realizing this wasn't quite true. "She's too quick not to appreciate the… difficulties," he added.
Achamian frowned at the petulance of the young man's tone. The fact was he agreed with Mimara: He did think Soma was a fool-but a well-meaning one. "Have you ever heard the saying, 'Courage for men is fodder for dragons?'"
"No," the fulsome lips admitted. "What does it mean?"
"That courage is more complicated than simple souls credit… Mimara may be many things, Soma, but simple isn't one of them. We all need time to build fences about what… what happened."
The wide brown eyes studied him for a moment. Even after everything they had endured, the same affable light illuminated his gaze. "Give her time…" Soma repeated in the tone of a young man taking heart.
"Time," the old Wizard said, resuming his march.
Afterward he found himself hoping the daft fool didn't confuse his advice for paternal permission. The thought of the man wooing Mimara made him bristle as if he really were her father. The question of why he felt this way plagued him for a good portion of the afternoon. For all her capricious strength, something about Anasurimbor Mimara demanded protection, a frailty so at odds with the tenor of her declarations that it could only seem tragic… beautiful. The air of things too extraordinary to long survive the world's rigour.
This realization, if anything, made her company more irritating.
"The woman saved your life," Pokwas told him one evening, when the to-and-fro of men milling found them side by side. "That means deep things in my country."
"She saved all our lives," Achamian said.
"I know," the towering Sword-dancer replied with a solemn nod. "But yours in particular, Wizard. Several times." A look of wonder crept into his face.
"What?" Achamian could feel the old scowl building, the one that had aged into his expression.
"You're so old," Pokwas said with a shrug. "Who risks everything to pluck an empty wineskin from a raging river? Who?"
Achamian snorted in laughter, wondered how long it had been since he had laughed. "An empty wineskin's daughter," he replied. And even as a part of him flinched from the lie-for it seemed sacrilegious to deceive men with whom he had shared utter and abject hardship-another part of him slumped backward in a kind of marvelling anxiousness.
Maybe this lie had also come true.
She watches the Wizard by moonlight, reviews his features the way a mother reviews her children: the counting of things beloved. The eyebrows like moustaches, the white hermit beard, the hand that clutches his breast. Night after night she watches.
Before, Drusas Achamian had been a riddle, a maddening puzzle. She could scarce look at him without railing in anger. So stingy! So miserly! There he sat, warm and fat with knowledge, while she haunted his stoop, begging, starving… Starving! Of all the sins between people, few are so unforgivable as being needed.
He looks every bit as wild as before, hung in wolf-pelts, stooped with years. Despite bathing in the chill blast of mountain streams (an episode that would have occasioned hilarity had the expedition not been so battered), he still carries the stain of Sranc blood across his knuckles and his cheek. They all do.
And still he denies her. Still he complains, upbraids, and rebukes.
The only difference is that she loves him.
She remembers her mother's first descriptions of him, back when the Andiamine Heights had been her home, when gold and incense had been her constant companions. "Have I ever told you about Akka?" the Empress asked, surprising her daughter in the Sacral Enclosure. There was always this twitch, a body-wide plucking of tendons, whenever her mother caught her unawares. Her jaw would tighten, and she would turn to see herself — as she knew she would be in twenty years' time. Mother, draped in white and turquoise silks, a gown reminiscent of those worn by Shrial Nuns.
"Is he my father?" she had replied.
Her mother shrank from the question, recoiled even. Asking about her father was Mimara's weapon of choice. Questions of paternity were at once accusations of whorishness. Woe to the woman who did not know. But this time the question seemed to strike her mother particularly hard, to the point where she paused to blink away tears.
"Your f-father," she stammered. "Yes."
Stunned silence. Mimara had not expected this. She knows now that her mother lied, that Esmenet said this simply to rob her daughter of the hateful question. Well… perhaps not simply. Mimara has learned enough about Achamian to understand her mother's passion, to understand how she might name him her daughter's father… in her soul's heart, at least. Everyone tells lies to dull the world's sharper, more complicated edges-some more pretty than others.
"What was he like?" she asked.
Her mother never looked so beautiful as when she smiled. Beautiful and hateful both. "Foolish, like all men. Wise. Petty. Gentle."
"Why did you leave him?"
Another question meant to injure. Only this time, Mimara found herself flinching instead of celebrating. Hurting her mother where she herself was concerned was one thing: victims have rights over criminals-do they not? Hurting her for things entirely her own, however, said more about Mimara than Mimara cared to hear.
Few passions require quite so much certainty as spite.
"Kellhus," Esmenet replied, her voice dim and damaged. You win, her eyes conceded as she turned to leave. "I chose Kellhus."
Now, watching the Wizard by moonlight, Mimara cannot stop thinking about her mother. She imagines the wrack that had to have been her soul, coming to her daughter again and again, each time with new hope, only to be punished and rebuked. Guilt and remorse crash through her, for a time. Then she thinks of the little girl who had shrieked in the arms of slavers, the child sobbing, "Mumma!" into the creaking dark. She remembers the stink and the pillows, the child who wept within her still, even though her face had become as flat and chill as new fallen snow.
"Why did she leave you?" she asks the old Wizard the following afternoon on the trail. "Mother, I mean."
"Because I died," the old Wizard says, his brown eyes lost in the fog of distant seeing. He refuses to say anything more specific. "The world is too cruel to wait for the dead."
"And the living?"
He stops and fixes her with that curious stare of his, the one that makes her think of artisans reviewing the work of more gifted rivals.
"You already know the answer to that one," he says.
He seems to catch his smile, condense it into pursed lips. Galian and Sutadra file between them, the former frowning, the latter intent and oblivious. There are times when they all become strangers to one another, and now is one of them-though it seems that Sutadra has been a stranger all along. Bald stone ridges flange the distances beyond the Wizard, promising toil and arms bundled against high wind.
"Why…" the Wizard begins, then trails. "Why didn't you leave me back in the pit?"
Because I lov "Because I need you," she says without breath. "I need your knowledge."
He stares at her, his beard and hair trembling in the breeze. "So the old wineskin has a few swallows left," he says inexplicably.
He ignores her glare, turns to follow the others. More riddles! She fumes in silence for the remainder of the afternoon, refuses to even look at the old fool. He laughs at her, she decides-and after acknowledging that she had saved him! Bent-back ingrate.
Some starve. Some eat. Disparity is simply the order of things. It's only when fat men make sauce out of other's starvation that it becomes a sin.
– | She belongs.
The others have shown this to her in ways numerous and infinitesimal. The pitch of their talk does not change when she enters their midst. They tease her with brotherly skepticism instead of masculine daring. Their eyes are less inclined to linger on her limbs and more inclined to remain fixed on her gaze.
The Skin Eaters are less and they are more. Less because of what Cil-Aujas has taken, more because she has become one of them. Even the Captain seems to have accepted her. He now looks through her the way he looks through all his men.
They make camp on a ridge that falls in a series of gravel sheaves into the Mop. She stares at the forests for a time, at the play of sunlight across the humped canopy. Birds like floating dots. She thinks of how the expedition will crawl across the landscape, like lice picking their way through the World's own pelt. She has heard the others mutter about the Mop, about the dangers, but after Cil-Aujas, nothing seems particularly dangerous, nothing that touches sky.
They dine on what remains of Xonghis's previous kill, but she finds herself more eager for the smudge of Qirri that Cleric dispenses. Afterward, she keeps to herself, makes a point of avoiding Achamian's many looks, some questioning, others… searching. He does not understand the nature of his crime-like all men.
Somandutta once again tries to engage her, but she simply glares at the young caste-noble until he slouches away. He had saved her in Cil-Aujas, actually carried her for a mad term, only to abandon her when her need was greatest-and this she cannot forgive.
To think she had thought the fool charming.
She watches Sarl instead: he alone has not bathed since climbing out of the Ziggurat's bowel, so he sometimes seems more shade than man. Sranc blood has soaked into the very texture of his skin. His hauberk is intact, but his tunic is as foul as rags worn by a latrine beggar. He huddles against a rust-stained boulder the size of a cart, huddles in a way that suggests hiding one moment, conspiring the next. The boulder is his friend, she realizes. Sarl now sits with everything as if it were his closest friend.
"Ah, yes…" he murmurs in the gurgle that is his voice. His small black eyes glitter. "Ah… yesss…" The dusk carves his wrinkles so deep that his face looks woven of bundled string.
"The fucking Mop… The Mop. Eh, lads? Eh? "
Viscous laughter, followed by a snapping cough. The back of his thought is broken, she realizes. He can only kick and claw where he has fallen.
"More darkness, yes. Tree darkness…"
She does not remember what happened at the bottom of the Great Medial Screw, and yet she knows nonetheless, knows with the knowledge that moves limbs and drums hearts.
Something was open that should not have been open. She closed it…
Achamian, during one of his many attempts to sound her out on the matter, mentions the line between the World and the Outside, of souls returning as demons. "How, Mimara?" he asks with no small wonder. "What you accomplished… It should not have been possible. Was it the Chorae?"
No, she wants to say, it was the Tear of God… But she nods and shrugs instead, in the bored manner of those who pretend to have moved on to more decisive things.
She has been given something. What she has always considered a blight, a deformity of the soul, has become fraught with enigma and power. The Judging Eye opened. At the moment of absolute crisis, it opened and saw what needed to be seen…
A tear of the God, blazing in her palm. The God of Gods!
She has been a victim her whole life. So her instinct is the immediate one, to raise a concealing hand, to turn a shoulder in warding. Only a fool fails to hide what is precious.
Precious-and of course utterly incompatible with the one thing she desperately wants. Chorae and witches, as the Ainoni would say, rarely prosper beneath the same roof.
She finds a sour comfort in this-even a kind of warrant. Had it been pure and simple she would have shunned it out of jaded, melancholy reflex. But now it is something that demands to be understood-on her terms…
So of course the old Wizard refuses to tell her anything.
More comfort. Frustration and torment is the very shape of her life. The one thing she trusts.
That night she awakens to the sound of Sarl crooning in a low, lilting voice. A song like smoke, quickly drawn into soundlessness by the ridge's height. She listens, watching the Nail of Heaven as it peeks through the tattered garments of a cloud. The words to the song, if there are any, are incomprehensible.
After a time, the song trails into rasping murmur, then a moan.
Sarl is old, she realizes. He left more than his wits in the bowel of the mountain.
Sarl is dying.
A pang of terror bolts through her. She turns to look for the Wizard among the rocks, only to find him immediately behind her, bestial with hair. He had crept to her side after she had fallen asleep, she realizes.
She stares into the shadow of his rutted face and smiles, thinking, At least he does not sing. She crinkles her nose at his smell. She drifts back asleep to the fluttering image of him.
I understand, Mother… I finally see… I really do.
She dreams of her stepfather, wakes with the frowning confusion that always accompanies dreams too sticky with significance. With every blink she sees him: the Aspect-Emperor, not as he is but as he would be were he the shade that haunted the accursed deeps of Cil-Aujas…
Not a man but an emblem. A living Seal, rising on tides of hellish unreality.
"You are the eye that offends, Mimara…"
She wants to ask Achamian about the dream but finds the memory of their feud too sharp to speak around. She knows what everybody knows about dreams, that they are as likely to deceive as to illuminate. On the Andiamine Heights, the caste-noble wives would consult augurs, pay outrageous sums. The caste-menials and the slaves would pray, usually to Yatwer. The girls in the brothel used to drip wax on pillow-beetles to determine the truth of their dreams. If the wax trapped the insect, the dream was true. She has heard of dozens of other folk divinations besides. But she no longer knows what to believe…
It's the Wizard, she realizes. The damned fool is rubbing off on her.
"The eye that must be plucked."
They breakfast on the last of a juvenile buck. The sky is cloudless, and the morning sun is chill and sharp. An air of renewal surrounds the scalpers; they talk and prepare the way they used to, the animation of men reacquainting themselves with old and arduous tasks.
The Captain sits on a boulder overlooking the forested vista below, sharpening his blade. Cleric stands below him, shirtless beneath his nimil hauberk. He nods as though in prayer, listening as always to the grinding mutter of the Captain. Galian huddles in close conference with Pokwas and Xonghis, while Soma hovers over them. Sutadra has withdrawn up the trail to pray: he is always praying of late. Conger speaks to his countrymen in avid tones, and though Gallish defeats her, she knows that he attempts to rally them. Sarl mutters and cackles to himself as he shaves tiny slices no bigger than a fingernail from his breakfast cut, which he then chews and savours with absurd relish, as if dining on snails or some other delicacy.
Even Achamian seems to sense the difference, though he says nothing. The Skin Eaters have returned. Somehow, they have recovered their old ways and roles. Only the worried glances exchanged between jokes and declarations betray their fright.
The Mop, she realizes, the famed primeval forests of the Long Side. They fear it-apparently enough to forget Cil-Aujas for a time.
"Skinnies," Sarl cackles, his face flushed red. "Chop and bale them, boys… We have skin to eat!"
The cheer raised is so winded, so half-hearted, that the shadow of Lost Mansion seems to leap across them anew… There are so few left.
And Sarl is not one of them.
A tin clank alerts the company, tells them that their Captain has slung his battered shield over his back-what has become the signal for them to resume their march. The slopes are treacherous, and twice she infuriates the old Wizard by offering him a steadying hand. They wend their way down, descending lower and lower, picking and barging their way through massed ranks of scrub. It seems she can feel the mountains climbing into sky-high absurdity behind her.
The Mop grows beneath and before them, becoming larger and larger, until she can make out the vying of individual limbs across the tossed canopy. Despite the descriptions she has heard, she finds herself gawking in wonder. The trees are nothing short of monumental, such is their size. Through screens of leaves she glimpses soaring trunks and spanning limbs and the dark that is the world beneath the canopy.
The air fairly shivers with the sound of birds singing, screeching, hooting, creating a vast and shrill chorus that reaches, she knows, across the horizon to the shores of the Cerish Sea. They find themselves following a shelf that runs parallel to the forest edge about a length or so taller than the canopy. Her glimpses take her deeper now, though still far from the gloom-shrouded floor. She sees limbs reach like sinuous stone, bearing barn-sized shags of greenery and sheets of moss hanging like a mendicant's rags. She sees the piling on of shadows that makes blackness out of the forest depths.
It will swallow us, she thinks, feeling the old panic buzzing through her bones. She has had her fill of lightless bellies. Small wonder the scalpers were anxious.
Tree darkness, Sarl had said.
For the first time, it seems, she understands the sheer enormity of the task the Wizard has set for them. For the first time she understands that Cil-Aujas was but the beginning of their trial-the first in a parade of unguessed horrors.
The shallow cliff dips and collapses into a rugged slope, spilling gigantic stones into the forest verge. The expedition picks its way down and files into the Great Mop…
Into the green darkness.
The Istyuli Plains
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The High Istyuli
The Sakarpi tell of a man who had two puppies in his belly, the one adoring, the other savage. When the loving one nuzzled his heart, he became joyous, like the father of a newborn boy. But when the other gored it with sharp puppy teeth, he became desperate with sorrow. Those rare times the dogs left him in peace, he would tell people he was doomed. Bliss can be sipped a thousand times, he would say, whereas shame need only cut your throat once.
The Sakarpi called him Kensooras, "Between Dogs," a name that had since come to mean the melancholy suffered by suicides.
Varalt Sorweel was most certainly between dogs.
His ancient city had been conquered, its famed Chorae Hoard plundered. His beloved father had been killed. And now that he found himself in the Aspect-Emperor's fearsome thrall, a Goddess accosted him, the Dread Mother of Birth, Yatwer, in the guise of his lowly slave.
The cavalry company that was his cage, the Scions, had been called to the hazard of war. The collection of young hostages who composed the Scions had long feared their company was naught but ornamental, that they would be cozened like children while the Men of the Ordeal fought and died around them. They pestered their Kidruhil Captain, Harnilas, endlessly. They even petitioned General Kayutas-to no apparent avail. Even though they marched with their fathers' enemy, they were boys as much as men, and so their hearts were burdened with the violent longing to prove their mettle.
Sorweel was no different. When word of their deployment finally arrived, he grinned and whooped the same as the others-how could he not? The recriminations, as always, came crashing in afterward.
The Sranc had ever been the great foe of his people-that is, before the coming of the Aspect-Emperor. Sorweel had spent the better part of his childhood training and preparing for battle against the creatures. For a Son of Sakarpus, there could be no higher calling. Kill a Sranc, the saying went, birth a man. As a boy he had spent innumerable lazy afternoons mooning over imagined glories, chieftains brained, whole clans annihilated. And he had spent as many taut nights praying for his father whenever he rode out to meet the beasts.
Now, at long last, he was about to answer a lifelong yearning and to embark on a rite sacred to his people…
In the name of the man who had murdered his father and enslaved his nation.
He gathered with the others in Zsoronga's sumptuous pavilion the night before their departure, did his best to keep his counsel while the others crowed in anticipation. "Don't you see?" he finally cried. "We are hostages!"
Zsoronga watched with an air of frowning dismissal. He reclined more than the others so that the crimson silk of his basahlet gleamed across his cheek and jaw. Plaits of his jet medicine-wig curled across his shoulders.
The Zeumi Successor-Prince remained as generous as always, but there could be no denying the chill that had climbed between them since the Aspect-Emperor had declared Sorweel one of the Believer-Kings. The young King desperately wanted to explain things, to tell him about Porsparian and the incident with Yatwer's spit, to assure him that he still hated, but some inner leash always pulled him up short. Some silences, he was learning, were impossible not to keep.
To Sorweel's left sat Prince Charampa of Cingulat-the " true Cingulat," he would continually insist, to distinguish his land from the Imperial province of the same name. Though his skin was every bit as black and exotic as Zsoronga's, he possessed the narrow features of a Ketyai. He was one of those men who never ceased squabbling, even when everyone agreed with him. To his right sat the broad-faced Tzing of Jekkhia, a land whose mountain Princes paid grudging tribute to the Aspect-Emperor. He never spoke save through an enigmatic smile, as though he were privy to facts that made a farce out of all conversations. Opposite Sorweel, beside the Successor-Prince, sat Tinurit of the Akkunihor, a Scylvendi tribe whose lands lay no more than two weeks' ride from the New Empire's capital. He was an imperious, imposing character and the only one who knew less Sheyic than Sorweel.
"Why should we celebrate fighting our captor's war?"
No one understood a word, of course, but enough desperation had cracked through his tone to capture their attention. Obotegwa, Zsoronga's steadfast Obligate, quickly translated, and Sorweel was surprised to find himself understanding much of what the old man said. Obotegwa rarely had a chance to complete any of his translations of late-primarily because of Charampa, whose thoughts flew from soul to tongue without the least consideration.
"Because it is better than rotting in our captor's camp," Tzing replied through his perpetual smirk.
"Yes!" Charampa cried. "Think of it as a hunting expedition, Sorri!" He turned to the others, seeking confirmation of his wit. "You can even scar yourself like Tinurit here!"
Sorweel looked to Zsoronga, who merely glanced away as though in boredom. As fleeting as the wordless exchange had been, it stung as surely as a slap.
So says the Believer-King, the Zeumi's green eyes seemed to say.
As far as Sorweel could tell, the single thing that distinguished their group from the other Scions was geography. Where the others hailed from recalcitrant tribes and nations within the New Empire, they represented the few lands that still exceeded its grasp-at least until recently. "Between us we have the Aspect-Emperor surrounded!" Zsoronga would sometimes cry in joking terms.
But it was no joke, Sorweel had come to realize. Zsoronga, who would one day be Satakhan of High Holy Zeum, the only nation that could hope to rival the New Empire, was cultivating friendships according to the interests of his people. He avoided the others simply because the Aspect-Emperor was renowned for his devious subtlety. Because spies had almost certainly been planted among the Scions.
He had to know Sorweel was no spy. But why would he tolerate a Believer-King?
Perhaps he had yet to decide.
The young Sakarpi King found himself brooding more than contributing as the night wore on. Obotegwa continued translating the others for his benefit, but Sorweel could tell that the white-haired Obligate sensed his despondency. Eventually, he could do little more than gaze at their small flame, plagued by the sense that something stared back.
Was he going mad? Was that it? The earth speaking, spitting. And now flames watching…
He had been raised to believe in a living world, an inhabited world, and yet for the brief span of his life dirt had always been dirt, and fire had always been fire, dumb and senseless. Until now.
Charampa accompanied him on the walk back to his tent, speaking far too fast for Sorweel to follow. The Cingulat Prince was one of those oblivious souls who saw only excuses to chatter and nothing of what his listeners were thinking. "It's a poor hostage," Zsoronga had once joked, "whose father is relieved to see him captive." But in a sense, this made Charampa and Sorweel ideal companions, one from the New Empire's extreme southern frontier, the other from the extreme north. The one talking without care of comprehension, the other unable to comprehend.
The young King walked, scarcely pretending to listen. As always, he found himself awed by the scale of the Great Ordeal, that they could come to blank and barren plains and within a watch raise a veritable city. He groped for a memory of his father's face but could see only the Aspect-Emperor hanging in shrouded skies, raining destruction down upon Holy Sakarpus. So he thought of the morrow, of the Scions winding into the wastes, a frail thread of some eighty souls. The other Scions talked of battling Sranc, but the real purpose of their mission, Captain Harnilas had told them, was to find game to supply the host. Even still, they rode far beyond the Pale-who could say what they would encounter? The prospect of battle fluttered like a living thing in his breast. The thought of riding down Sranc screwed tight his teeth, hooked his lips into a broad grin. The thought of killing…
Mistaking his expression for agreement, Charampa grabbed his shoulders. "I knew it!" he cried, his Sheyic finally simple enough to understand. "I told them! I told them!"
Then he was off, leaving Sorweel dumbfounded behind him.
The Sakarpi King paused in momentary dread before entering his tent, but he found his slave, Porsparian, sleeping on his reed mat, curled like half-starved cat, his breath caught between a wheeze and a snore. He stood over the diminutive man, hanging in confusion and anxiousness. He need only blink to see Porsparian's knob-knuckled hands moulding Yatwer's face in the soil, the impossible vision of spit bubbling to her earthen lips. His cheeks burned at the memory of the slave's rough touch. His heart lurched at the thought of the Aspect-Emperor declaring him one of his Believer-Kings.
A slave-a slave had done this! More Southron madness, Sorweel found himself thinking. In the story and scripture of Sakarpus, the Gods only treated with the heroic and the highborn-those mortals who resembled them most. But in the Three Seas, he was learning, the Gods touched Men according to the extremity of their station. The abject were as apt to become their vessels as the grand…
Slaves and kings.
Sorweel crept into his cot as silently as he could manage, tossed in what he thought was the beginning of another sleepless night, only to dissolve into a profound slumber.
He awoke to the tolling of the Interval. With his first breath, he could taste the wind his people called the Gangan-naru-too warm for dawn, tinged with dust. The troubling glamour that Porsparian had possessed the previous night had evaporated. The slave scuttled about with nary a significant look, readied Sorweel's packs and saddle as he ate his meagre morning repast. The little man dragged the gear outside his tent, where he helped load the young King. The tablelands swirled with industry and purpose about them. Horns scored the brightening sky.
"You return…" Porsparian began, pausing to search for some word his owner might understand. "Hatusat…" he said, scowling with old-man concentration. "Exalted."
Sorweel frowned and snorted. "I will do my best."
But Porsparian was already shaking his head, saying, "She! She! "
The young King stepped back in terror, turned away, his thoughts buzzing. When the Shigeki slave clutched at his arm, he yanked himself free with more violence than he intended.
"She!" the old man cried. "Sheeee!"
Sorweel strode away, huffing beneath his gear. He could see the others, the Scions, a small eddy of activity in an ocean of seething detail-an army that extended into the colourless haze. Tents falling. Horses screaming, their caparisons flashing in the early dawn light. Officers bawling. The dip and wave of innumerable Circumfix banners.
The great host of the Aspect-Emperor… The other dog.
Yes, the young King of Sakarpus decided. He needed to kill something.
That or die.
Grassland roamed the horizon, every direction the eye could see, rising in chaotic tiers, panning into bowls, and tumbling into ravines. The greening of spring could be glimpsed in its contours, but it was little more than a haze beneath the sheets of dead scree. For the plainsmen who had taken up the Circumfix-Famiri and Cepalorans, who were used to seeing the detritus of winter swallowed in flowers and surging grasses-this was as ominous as could be. Where others were oblivious, they saw emaciated cattle, horizons burnt into long brown lines, horned skulls in summer dust.
The clouds that baffled the northwest never sailed toward them. Instead a breeze, preternatural for its constancy, swept in from the south, drawing the thousands of Circumfix banners into one rippling direction. The Sakarpi scouts called it the Gangan-naru, the "Parching Wind," a name they spoke with the flat look of men recalling disaster. The Gangan-naru, they said, came but once every ten years, culling the herds, forcing the Horselords to abandon the Pale, and all but transforming the Istyuli into a vast desert. The Kianene and Khirgwi among the host swore they could smell the dusty scent of their home, the faraway Carathay.
When the hour was late, and the Judges no longer walked the encampment, the grizzled Veterans of the First Holy War murmured stories of woe. "You think the path of the righteous is one of certainty and ease," they said to younger faces, "but it is trial that separates the weak from the holy." Only the most drunk spoke of the Trail of Skulls, the First Holy War's catastrophic march along the desert coasts of Khemema. And without exception their voices became murmurs, overcome by memories of the weak and the fallen.
Arrayed in great roping lines, the Men of the Circumfix trudged onward with dogged resolution, travelling ever northward. They formed a veritable sea, one churning with many-coloured currents-the black shields of the Thunyeri, the silvered helms of the Conriyans, the crimson surcoats of the Nansur-and yet the emptiness continued to open and open, vast enough to even make the Great Ordeal small. A cloud of horsemen encircled the host, companies of household knights riding beneath the banners of the Three Seas caste-nobility-Ainoni Palatines, Galeoth Earls, Kianene Grandees, and many more. They probed the distances, searching for an enemy who never appeared, save for the ever greater swathes of raked earth they galloped across.
At the Council of Potentates, the Believer-Kings finally petitioned their Holy Aspect-Emperor, asking whether he knew anything of their elusive foe. "You look about you," he said, stepping luminous among them, "see the greatest host of Men ever assembled, and you yearn to crush your enemies, thinking yourself invincible. Heed me, the Sranc will scratch that yearning from you. A time will come when you look back to these days and wish that your eagerness had gone unrequited."
He smiled, and they smiled, finding levity in his wry humour, wisdom in his sober heart. He sighed, and they shook their heads at their juvenile foolishness.
"Fret not about the absence of our foe," he admonished. "So long as the horizon remains empty, our way is secure."
Grassland roamed the horizon, drying beneath a succession of cool spring suns. The rivers dwindled, and the dust rose to shroud the farther pageants. The Priests and Judges organized mass prayers, fields of warlike men abasing themselves for want of rain. But the Gangan-naru continued to blow. At night, the plains twinkling with innumerable fires, the Men of the Three Seas began to murmur about thirst-and rumours of discord back home.
The horizon remained empty, and yet their way no longer seemed secure.
The Holy Aspect-Emperor declared a day of rest and consultation.
The quartermasters became ever more stingy. The Men of the Circumfix had exhausted the bulk of their supplies, and they had outrun the supply-trains that chased them from the south. The rivers they tramped across had become too slight to readily fill their skins with clean water. They had come as far as their beasts and their backs could take them, which meant they had indeed passed beyond the limits of civilization. From this point, they had to fend for themselves.
The time had come for the Great Ordeal to break into foraging columns.
That was the only way to describe the Aspect-Emperor's bed chamber. A simple cot for sleeping, no different than those issued to low-ranking officers. A knee-high worktable, without so much as a single cushion to sit upon. Even the room's leather walls, which were swagged with decoration elsewhere throughout the Umbilicus, were bare. No gold could be seen. No ornament. The only symbols visible were those inscribed, column after meticulous column, about the octagonal circuit of the small iron hearth set in the room's heart.
King Nersei Proyas had known and served Anasurimbor Kellhus for more than twenty years, and still he found himself regularly perplexed by the man. As a youth he had often watched his tutor, Achamian, and his sword master, Xinemus, play benjuka-an ancient game, famed for the way the pieces determined the rules. Those had been sunny days, as the days of privileged youth often are. The two men would draw a table over to one of the seaside porticos and call out curses across the Meneanorean wind. Careful to be quiet, for tempers would flare more often than not, Proyas would watch them contest the plate, a winking partisan of whoever happened to be losing-Achamian usually. And he would wonder at decisions he could rarely understand.
This, he had come to learn, was what it meant to serve the Holy Aspect-Emperor: to be a witness to incomprehensible decisions. The difference was that Anasurimbor Kellhus took the World as his benjuka plate.
The World and the Heavens.
To act without understanding. This, this he had decided, was the essential kernel, the spark that made worship worship. In High Ainon, during the fevered height of the Unification Wars, he had overseen the Sack of Sarneveh, an act of brutality that still jarred him from sleep from time to time. Afterward, when the Mathematicians reported that more than five thousand children had been counted among the dead, Proyas began shaking, a flutter that began with his fingers and bowel but soon climbed through his every bone. He dismissed his staff and vomited, wept, only to find him standing in the gloom of his pavilion, watching. "You should grieve," the Aspect-Emperor said, his figure etched in a faint glow. "But do not think you have sinned. The World overmatches us, Proyas, so we make simple what we cannot otherwise comprehend. Nothing is more complicated than virtue and sin. All the atrocities you have committed in my name-all of them have their place. Do you understand this, Proyas? Do you understand why you will never understand?"
"You are our father," he had sobbed. "And we are your headstrong sons."
The chamber was vacant. Even still, Proyas fell to his knees and lowered his face to the simple reed mats. He suffered a pang of shame, realizing that his own quarters possessed at least four times the baggage and so exacted four times the burden on the collective host. That would change, he resolved. And he would challenge all his officers to follow his parsimonious example.
"My Lord and Salvation?" he called to the empty air. The wheeze and pop of the hearth's fire filled the silence. Its light mottled the hanging walls with wavering patterns of light and dark. It almost seemed he could glimpse images in the dancing blur. Cities burning. Faces.
"Yes… Please, Proyas. Share my fire."
And there he was, sitting cross-legged before the octagonal hearth. Anasurimbor Kellhus. The Holy Aspect-Emperor.
He sat with the slack repose of someone who had not moved for some time. The outer edges of his plaited beard and shoulder-length hair gleamed in counterpoint to the fire. He wore a simple robe of grey silk embroidered only about the hems. Aside from the faint haze of illumination about his hands, only his eyes seemed extraordinary.
"Is everything-?" Proyas began, only to catch himself in embarrassment.
"Ours has always been a convoluted bond," Kellhus said smiling. "Clad in ritual armour one moment, naked the next. The time has come for us to recline side by side as simple friends."
He gestured for Proyas to sit beside him-on his right, the place of honour. "Truth be told," he said in his old, joking way. "I prefer you clothed."
"So all is well?" Proyas asked, crouching and crossing his legs.
"I remember when you laughed at my jokes," the Aspect-Emperor said.
"You were funnier back then."
"Before you beat the World to the last laugh."
The Aspect-Emperor grinned and frowned at once. " That remains to be seen, my friend."
Proyas often was astonished by the way Kellhus could, utterly and entirely, just be what he needed to be given the demands of circumstance. At this moment, he was simply an old and beloved friend, nothing more or less. Usually Proyas found it difficult-given all the miracles of might and intellect he had witnessed-to think of Kellhus as a creature of flesh and blood, as a man. Not so now.
"So all is not well?"
"Well enough," Kellhus said, scratching his brow. "The God has allowed me glimpses of the future, the true future, and thus far everything unfolds in accordance with those glimpses. But there are many dark decisions I must make, Proyas. Decisions I would rather not make alone."
"I'm not sure I understand."
A twinge of shame accompanied this admission, not for the fact of his ignorance, but for the way he had hedged in confessing. Proyas most certainly did not understand. Even after twenty years of devotion, he still succumbed to the stubborn instinct to raise his pride upon little falsehoods and so manage the impressions of others.
How hard it was to be an absolutely faithful soul.
Kellhus had ceased correcting these petty lapses; he no longer needed to. To stand before him was to stand before yourself, to know the warp and woof of your own soul, and to see all the snags and tears that beggared you.
"You are a king and a general," Kellhus said. "I would think you know well the peril of guesses."
Proyas nodded and smiled. "No one likes playing number-sticks alone."
His Lord-and-God raised his eyebrows. "Not with stakes so mad as these."
By some trick of timing, the golden flames before them twirled, and again Proyas thought he glimpsed fiery doom flutter across the leather-panelled walls.
"I am yours, as always my Lor… Kellhus. What do you need of me?"
The leonine face nodded toward the fire. "Kneel before my hearth," the Aspect-Emperor said, the flint of command hardening his voice. "Bow your face into the flame."
Proyas surprised himself with his lack of hesitation. He came to his knees before the edge of the small iron hearth. The heat of the fire pricked him. He knew the famed story from the Tusk, where the God Husyelt asked Angeshrael to bow his face into his cooking fire. He knew, verbatim, the Sermon of the Ziggurat, where Kellhus had used this story to reveal his divinity to the First Holy War twenty years previous. He knew that "Bowing into the Fire" had since become a metaphor for Zaudunyani revelation.
And he knew that innumerable madmen wandered the Three Seas, blinded and scarred for taking the metaphor literally.
Even still, he was on his knees, and he was bowing, doing exactly as his Prophet and Emperor commanded. He even managed to keep his eyes open. And a part of him watched and wondered that a devotion, any devotion, could run so deep as to throw a face into the furnace…
Across the crazed bourne of opposites. Into the lapping glitter. Into the needling agony.
Into the light.
His beard and hair whooshed into tinder. He expected agony. He expected to scream. But something was tugged from him, sloughed like flesh from overboiled bone… something… essential.
And he was looking out from the fire, into a thousand faces-and a thousand more. Enough to wrench the eyes, dazzle and bewilder the soul. And yet somehow he focused, turned from the battering complexity and took refuge in a single clutch of men, four long-bearded Men of the Ordeal, one gazing directly at him with a child's thoughtless fixity, the others bickering in Thunyeri… Something about rations. Hunger.
Then he was out, on his rump in Kellhus's gloomy chamber, blinking and sputtering.
And his Lord-and-God held him, soothed his face with a damp cloth. "The absence of space," he said with a rueful smile. "Most souls find it difficult."
Proyas padded his cheeks and forehead with fumbling fingertips, expecting to feel blasted skin, but found himself intact. Embarrassed, he bolted upright, squinting away the last of the fiery brightness. He glanced about and for some unaccountable reason felt surprised that the iron hearth burned exactly as before.
"Does it trouble you that I can watch men from their fires?" Kellhus asked.
"If anything, it heartens me…" he replied. "I marched with you in the First Holy War, remember? I know full well the capricious humour of armies stranded far from home."
Afterward, he would realize that his Aspect-Emperor had already known this, that Anasurimbor Kellhus knew his heart better than he himself could ever hope to. Afterward, he would question the whole intent of this intimate meeting.
"Indeed you do."
"But why show me this? Do they speak of mutiny already?"
"No," Kellhus replied. "They speak of the thing that preoccupies all stranded men…"
The Aspect-Emperor resumed his position before the hearth, gestured for Proyas to do the same. A moment of silence passed as Kellhus poured him a bowl of wine from the wooden gourd at his side. Gratitude welled through the Exalt-General's breast. He drank from the bowl, watching Kellhus with questioning eyes.
"You mean home."
"Home," the Aspect-Emperor repeated in assent.
"And this is a problem?"
"Indeed. Even now our old enemies muster across the Three Seas. As the days pass they will grow ever more bold. I have always been the rod that held the New Empire together. I fear it will not survive my absence."
Proyas frowned. "And you think this will lead to desertion and mutiny?"
"I know it will.
"But these men are Zaudunyani… They would die for you! For the truth!"
The Aspect-Emperor lowered his face in the yes-but manner Proyas had seen countless times, though not for several years. They had been far closer, he realized, during the Unification Wars…
When they were killing people.
"The hold of abstractions over Men is slight at best," Kellhus said, turning to encompass him in his otherworldly scrutiny. "Only the rare, ardent soul-such as yours, Proyas-can throw itself upon the altar of thought. These men march not so much because they believe in me as they believe what I have told them."
"But they do believe! Mog-Pharau returns to murder the world. They believe this! Enough to follow you to the ends of the World!"
"Even so, would they choose me over their sons? How about you, Proyas? As profoundly as you believe, would you be willing to stake the lives of your son and daughter for my throw of the number-sticks?"
A kind of strange, tingling horror accompanied these words. According to scripture, only Ciphrang, demons, demanded such sacrifices. Proyas could only stare, blinking.
The Aspect-Emperor frowned. "Stow your fears, old friend. I don't ask this question out of vanity. I do not expect any man to choose me or my windy declarations over their own blood and bones."
"Then I don't understand the question."
"The Men of the Ordeal do not march to save the World, Proyas-at least not first and foremost. They march to save their wives and their children. Their tribes and their nations. If they learn that the world, their world, slips into ruin behind them, that their wives and daughters may perish for want of their shields, their swords, the Host of Hosts would melt about the edges, then collapse."
And in his soul's eye Proyas could see them, the Men of the Ordeal, sitting about their innumerable fires, trading rumours of disaster back home. He could see them prod and stoke one another's fears, for property, for loved ones, for title and prestige. He could hear the arguments, the long grinding to and fro of faith and incessant worry. And as much as it dismayed him, he knew that his Lord-and-God spoke true, that Men truly were so weak.
Even those who had conquered the known world. Even the Zaudunyani.
"So what are you proposing?" he asked, nodding in sour agreement.
"An embargo," the Aspect-Emperor replied on a pent breath. "I will forbid, on pain of death, all Cants of Far-calling. Henceforth, the Men of the Ordeal shall march with only memories to warm them."
Home. This, if anything, was the abstraction for the Exalt-General. There was a place, of course. Even for beggars, there was a place. But Proyas had spent so many years campaigning that home for him possessed a wane and fleeting character, the sense of things attested to by others. For him, home was his wife, Miramis, who still wept whenever he left her bed for the wide world, and his children, Xinemus and Thaila, who had to be reminded he was their father upon his rare returns.
And even they seemed strangers whenever melancholy steered his thoughts toward them.
No. This was his home. Dwelling in the light of Anasurimbor Kellhus.
Waging his endless war.
The Aspect-Emperor reached out, grasped his shoulder in unspoken acknowledgment. Never, in all their years together, had he promised any reprieve, any respite, from the toil that had so burdened his life. Never had he said, "After this, Proyas… After this…"
Warmth sparked through the Exalt-General, the tingle of grace.
"What will you tell them?" he asked roughly.
"That Golgotterath has the ability to scry our scrying."
Kellhus arched his eyebrows. "Perhaps. Twenty centuries have they prepared-who could say? It would terrify you, Proyas, to know how little I know of our enemy."
A resigned smile. "I have not known terror since I have known you."
And yet he had known so many things just as difficult.
"Fear not," Kellhus said sadly. "You will be reacquainted before all this is through."
The Seeing-Flame fluttered and twirled before them, caught in some inexplicable draft. Even its warmth seemed to spin.
"So," Proyas said, speaking to ward against the chill falling through him, "the Great Ordeal at last sails beyond sight of shore. I see the wisdom-the necessity. But surely you will maintain contact with the Empire."
"No…" Kellhus replied with an uncharacteristic glance at his haloed hands. "I will not."
"But… but why?"
The Warrior-Prophet looked to the dark leather panels rising about them, gazed as if seeing shapes and portents in the wavering twine of light and shadow. "Because time is short and all I have are fragmentary visions…"
He turned to his Exalt-General. "I can no longer afford backward glances."
And Proyas understood that at long last the Great Ordeal had begun in earnest. The time had come to set aside burdens, to shed all complicating baggage.
Only death, war, and triumph remained. Only the future.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Holy Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas, declared the Breaking of the Great Ordeal at the Eleventh Council of Potentates. The same concerns echoed through the ensuing debates, for such is the temper of many men that they must be convinced several times before they can be convinced at all. The Believer-Kings understood the need to disperse: without forage there was no way the Great Ordeal could reach its destination. But even so early in the year, the rivers were languishing, and the new growth of spring still slept beneath the detritus of the old. As the plainsmen among them knew, game followed the rain in times of drought. What use was dividing the host when all the game had fled in search of greener pasture?
But as the Aspect-Emperor and his planners explained, they had no choice but to pursue the route they had embarked upon. Any deviation from their course would force them to winter in the wilds, rather than Golgotterath, and so doom them. Tusullian, the senior Imperial Mathematician, explained how everything was knitted to everything, how forced marches meant more food, which in turn meant diminishing supplies, which in turn meant more foraging, which in turn meant slower progress.
"In all things," the Aspect-Emperor said, "I urge you to walk the Shortest Path. The road before us is no different, save that it is also the only path. We will be tried, my friends, and many of us will be found wanting. But we will prove worthy of salvation! We shall deliver the World from destruction!"
And so the lists were drawn, and the nations of the Believer-Kings were allotted to what would be called the Four Armies.
Prince Anasurimbor Kayutas, General of the Kidruhil, was given command of the Men of the Middle North, the Norsirai sons of the kings who had ruled these lands in Far Antiquity, ere all was lost in the First Apocalypse. They consisted of the fractious Galeoth under King Coithus Narnol, the elder brother of King Coithus Saubon; the black-armoured Thunyeri under King Hringa Vukyelt, the impetuous son of Hringa Skaiyelt, who had fallen in glory in the First Holy War; the long-bearded Tydonni under King Hoga Hogrim, the quick-tempered nephew of the sainted Earl Hoga Gothyelk and awarded the throne of Ce Tydonn for service in the Unification Wars; and the far-riding Cepalorans under Sibawul te Nurwul, a man noted only for his silence during councils.
With them would march the Swayal Sisterhood and their Grandmistress, Anasurimbor Serwa, the younger sister of General Kayutas, and widely thought to be the most powerful witch in the world.
Of the Four Armies, the Men of the Middle-North marched what was perhaps the most perilous path, since it skirted the westward marches of the plain, a route that would take his host near the vast forests that had overgrown ancient Kuniuri. "This is the land of your ancient forefathers," the Aspect-Emperor explained. "Hazard is your inheritance. Vengeance is your birthright!"
King Nersei Proyas, Exalt-General, Veteran of the First Holy War, was given command of the Ketyai of the East, the sons of ancient Shir. They consisted of the javelin-armed Cengemi under indomitable General Couras Nantilla, famed for championing the independence of his long-oppressed people; the silver-mailed Conriyans under Palatine Krijates Empharas, Marshal of the fortress of Attrempus; the bare-chested Famiri under the tempestuous General Halas Siroyon, whose mount, Phiolos, was rumoured to be the swiftest in the world; the Xiangol-eyed Jekki under Prince Nurbanu Ze, the adopted son of Lord Soter, and the first of his people to be called kjineta, or caste-noble; and the white-painted Ainoni under cold-hearted King-Regent Nurbanu Soter, Veteran of the First Holy War, renowned for his pious cruelty through the Unification Wars.
Two Major Schools were assigned to this column: the Scarlet Spires under Heramari Iyokus, the so-called Blind Necromancer, and another Veteran of the First Holy War. And the Mandate, the School of the Aspect-Emperor himself, under their famed Grandmaster, Apperens Saccarees, the first Schoolman to successfully recite one of the Metagnostic Cants.
King Coithus Saubon, Exalt-General, Veteran of the First Holy War, was charged with leading the Ketyai of the West, the sons of ancient Kyraneas and Old Dynasty Shigek. They consisted of the disciplined Nansur under the young General Biaxi Tarpellas, Patridomos of House Biaxi, a shrewd tactician; the spear-bearing Shigeki levies under the indomitable General Rash Soptet, hero of the interminable wars against the Fanim insurrectionists; the desert-born Khirgwi under the mad Chieftain-General Sadu'waralla ab Daza, whose epileptic visions confirmed the divinity of the Aspect-Emperor; the mail-draped Eumarnans under General Inrilil ab Cinganjehoi, son of his famed father in both limb and spirit and an ardent convert to Zaudunyani Inrithism; and the celebrated Shrial Knights under Grandmaster Sampe Ussiliar.
Two Major Schools were also assigned to this column: the Imperial Saik, the School of the old Nansur Emperors, under the aged Grandmaster Temus Enhoru, and the rehabilitated Mysunsai under the irascible Obwe Guswuran, a Tydonni who behaved more like a Prophet of the Tusk than a sorcerer.
As the heart of the Great Ordeal, both these columns would march within one or two days of each other, utilizing the far greater gap between the outer columns to gather what forage the Istyuli offered. In this way, the Aspect-Emperor hoped to concentrate a greater part of the Believer-Kings' strength, should some calamity overtake either of the flanking columns.
King Sasal Umrapathur was made Marshal of the Ketyai of the South, the sons of Old Invishi, the Hinayati, and the southern Carathay. They consisted of the dusky-skinned Nilnameshi under the brilliant Prince Sasal Charapatha, the eldest son of Umrapathur, and called the Prince of One Hundred Songs in the streets of Invishi because of his exploits during the Unification Wars; the half-heathen Girgashi under the fierce King Urmakthi ab Makthi, a man giant in limb and heart, said to have felled a rampaging mastodon with a single blow of his hammer; the shield-bearing Cironji Marines under the eloquent King Eselos Mursidides, who during the Unification Wars stole his island nation from the Orthodox with a legendary campaign of bribery and assassination; and the regal Kianene under the sober-hearted King Massar ab Kascamandri, youngest brother of the Bandit Padirajah, Fanayal, and rumoured to be as devoted to the Aspect-Emperor as his eldest brother was devoted to his destruction.
With them marched the Vokalati, the feared Sun-wailers of Nilnamesh, under the Grandmaster known only as Carindusu, notorious for his insolence in the presence of the Aspect-Emperor and for his rumoured theft of the Mandate Gnosis.
Umrapathur was given the most uncertain route, in that he would march into the great vacant heart of the Istyuli, into a land so blank that it bore no witness to the ages but simply remained. If the Consult contrived to strike from the east, then he would bear the brunt of that fury.
The Men of the Circumfix spent the following day trudging to their new assignations, mobs cutting across mobs, columns tangling through columns. The chaos was good humoured for the most part, though it was inevitable that some tempers would be thrown out of joint. A dispute at one of the watering tributaries between Galeoth Agmundrmen and Ainoni Eshkalasi knights lead to bloodshed-some twenty-eight souls lost, another forty-two sent to the lazarets. But other than several isolated incidents between individuals, nothing untoward marred the day.
When the Interval tolled and camp was broken the following morning, the Breaking was complete, and four great tentacles, dark with concentrated motion, twinkling as though dusted with diamonds, reached out across the endless plate of the Istyuli. Songs in a hundred different tongues scored an indifferent sky.
Thus began the longest, most arduous, and most deadly stage of the Great Ordeal's bid to destroy Golgotterath and so prevent the Second Apocalypse.
The Meorn Wilderness
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), the "Long Side"
Birds permeate the soaring canopies, but their chorus is distant somehow, muffled, as if they sing from the bottom of a sock. The air is close, thick with the absence of breeze. An earthen reek clings to her every breath: the smell of detritus pounded into mush by the seasons, into earth by the years, and into stone by the ages. When she looks up she sees pinpricks of white shining through pockets of ragged green. Otherwise, there is a quality to the filtered gloom that makes the darkness palpable, viscous, as if they trudge through a fog. The pillared depths are uniformly black. The parallax of intervening trunks slowly scissors a thousand grottoes into invisibility. It almost seems a game, the accumulation of hidden spaces. Enough to conceal nations.
Though heaped about the massive trunks and roots, the ground is soft and easy to tread. They follow a winding line between the monstrous trees, but even still they are continually climbing and descending. Often they are forced to hack their way through hanging veils of moss.
It seems unthinkable that men had once taken hoe and plough to this earth.
The scalpers fear the Mop for good reason, she supposes, but for some reason her fear has left her. It is strange the way trauma deadens curiosity. To suffer cruelty in excess is to be delivered from care. The human heart sets aside its questions when the future is too capricious. This is the irony of tribulation.
To know the world will never be so bad.
She fairly jumps at the sound of her name, so intent and absent is her concentration. The old Wizard is beside her. Somehow he seems of a piece with their new surroundings, no different than when crossing the wild mountain heights or passing through Cil-Aujas before that. He has spent too many years among the wild and the ruined not to resemble them.
"The Judging Eye…" he begins in his curious Ainoni. There is something embarrassed in his apologetic look. "You will be furious when you realize how little I know."
"You tell me this because you are afraid."
"No. I tell you this because I truly know very little. The Judging Eye is a folk legend, like the Kahiht or the White-Luck Warrior, notions that have been traded across too many generations to possess any clear meaning…"
"I can see the fear in your eyes, old man. You think me cursed!"
The Wizard regards her for several unblinking heartbeats. Worry. Pity.
"Aye… I think you are cursed."
Mimara has told herself this from the very beginning. There is something wrong with you. There is something broken. So she assumed hearing the same from Achamian would leave her intact, confirmed more than condemned. But for some reason tears flood her eyes, and her face rebels. She raises a hand against the gaze of the others.
"But I do know," Achamian hastily adds, "that the Judging Eye involves pregnant women."
Mimara gawks at him through tears. A cold hand has reached into her abdomen and scooped away all warring sensation.
"Pregnant…" she hears herself say. "Why?"
"I don't know." He has flecks of dead leaf in his hair, and she squelches the urge to fuss over him. "Perhaps because of the profundity of childbirth. The Outside inhabits us in many ways, none so onerous as when a women brings a new soul into the world."
She sees her mother posing before a mirror, her belly broad and low with the twins, Kel and Sammi.
"So what is the curse?" she fairly cries at Achamian. "Tell me, old fool!" She rebukes herself immediately afterward, knowing that the Wizard's honesty would wither as her desperation waxed. People punish desperation as much out of compassion as petty malice.
Achamian gnaws his bottom lip. "As far as I know," he begins with obvious and infuriating care, "those with the Judging Eye give birth to dead children."
He shrugs as if to say, See? You have nothing to fear…
Cold falls through her in sheets.
A scowl knits his brow. "The Judging Eye is the eye of the Unborn… The eye that watches from the God's own vantage."
A cleft has opened about their path: a runoff that delivers them to a shallow ravine. They follow the stream that gurgles along its creases-the water is clear but seems black given the gloom. Monstrous elms pillar the embankments, their roots like great fists clenched about earth. The stream has wedged the trees far enough apart for white to glare through seams in the canopy. Here and there the water's meandering course has gnawed hollows beneath various trees. The company ducks beneath those that had fallen across the ravine, trees like stone whales.
"But I've had… had this… for as long as I can remember."
"Which is my point exactly," Achamian says, sounding far too much like someone taking heart in invented reasons. He frowns, an expression Mimara finds horribly endearing on his shaggy old features. "But things are always tricky where the Outside is concerned. Things do not… happen… as they happen here…"
"Riddles! Why do you constantly torture me with riddles?"
"I'm just saying that in a sense your life has already been lived — for the God or the Gods, that is…"
"Nothing," he says, scowling.
"Tell me what it means!"
But that cool glint has sparked in his eyes. Once again her words have cut through the fat of the old Wizard's patience and struck the bone of his intolerance. "Nothing, Mimara. Noth-"
A blood-curdling cry. She finds herself against sloped ground, tackled in the Wizard's wiry grasp. She senses the whisper of incipient sorceries-Wards strung out and around them. Cleric is booming something incomprehensible. She glimpses Sutadra staggering, a shaft and fletching jutting from his cheek. He's trying to scream but can only cough.
Again, she realizes. The Skin Eaters are dying again.
"Hold my belt!" Achamian cries to her, jerking himself to a crouch. "Don't let go!"
"In the trees!" someone shouts-Galian.
"Stone Hags! Stone Hags!"
Cleric's laughter booms through the hollows.
In her thirst for all things sorcerous, Mimara has read much about Mandate Schoolmen, and more still regarding the Gnosis and the famed War-Cants of the Ancient North. She knows about the incipient Wards they use to secure their person in event of surprise attacks. Even back at Achamian's collapsed tower, she had sensed them hanging about him, like faint child-scribbling marring the art of the immediate world. Now they crackle with life-preserving ugliness.
Arrows pelt the Wizard's Wards, sparking into nothingness. She throws her gaze to and fro, trying to make sense of the surrounding madness. She hears shouts beyond those of her companions. She glimpses shadowy figures ducking along the heights to either side: bowmen, possessing the rangy gait and mien of scalpers. The ravine has delivered them to a human ambush. Galian and Pokwas squat behind a heaped dead fall nearby. Sutadra is down. Soma she cannot see. Cleric has a sorcerous bulwark of his own. The Captain stands tall at his side.
"To me!" Achamian cries to the others. He's standing now, his feet braced in water and muck, and she has pulled herself beside him. "Close about me!"
Other shouts, other voices, across the heights and through the gloom. Their attackers, crying out in alarm. "Gur-gurwik-wikka!" she hears a broken chorus cry, one of the few Gallish words she understands.
Achamian has already begun his otherworldly mutter. His eyes and mouth flare white, painting the figures crowding about them in shades of blue.
She senses a rush of shadows above, sees men shimming down trees. They drop to the forest floor, scramble for earthen cover. They're running-fleeing.
"Stone Hags!" Pokwas booms, crying out the name like a curse. Only Galian's scarred grip prevents the Sword-dancer from bolting after them.
A thunderous crack-somewhere to the fore of their small column. She sees Cleric's silhouette against the glare of roiling fire. A sorcerer assails him. A man hangs between vaulting branches, dressed in black, his limbs like rag-bound sticks. An ethereal dragon head rears from his hands, vomits fire…
She squints against sunset brilliance.
A whooshing hiss returns her gaze to things more immediate. Achamian stands rigid, his hands raised, his face a mask of grizzled skin across sunlight. He sweeps a line of blinding white across the heights of the ravine. She throws a forearm across her eyes, glimpses her shadow as it chases a circle across the ground… The Compass of Noshainrau.
Fire laves barked surfaces. Wood explodes into char.
But where the trees on the Galeoth side of the mountains toppled, the leviathans of the Mop merely groan and crack. Leaves shower across the ravine. A burning clutch of branches crashes into the creek, bursts into steam. Flutters of deeper movement catch her eye: more men fleeing…
She looks again to the Nonman. He stands unharmed before flashing breakers of fire, crying out in his mundane voice but in a tongue she does not understand. "Houk'hir!" he shouts in a booming laugh. "Gimu hitiloi pir milisis!" The sorcerous mutter of his opponent continues to rise up out of space and substance. The figure still hangs above the ravine, black against swatches of sky and levels of brightening green…
Achamian is gripping her arm, as if holding her back from some ill-advised rush.
Smoke blooms from nothingness, piles outward from the heart of every hollow. Within heartbeats a pall has obscured the overmatched sorcerer.
Cleric simply stands as before, both feet planted in the shining course of the stream. His laughter is strange, like a murder of crows crying across thunder.
For several moments no one does anything more than stare and breathe.
The Captain climbs alone to the crest of the ravine, lifts himself onto the back of a long-fallen tree, one that reaches across the gully like a collapsed temple column. A lone shaft of sunlight illuminates him and the tattered remnants of his dress. Light hooks about the dents in his shield and armour.
"Knife our bales?" he roars into the crotched depths. " Our bales?"
Sarl starts cackling, hard enough to begin hacking phlegm.
Lord Kosoter turns, rakes the surrounding dark with a look of preternatural fury. "I will stab out your eyes!" he bellows. "Gut your peach! I will kick vomit from your teeth! "
Mimara finds herself kneeling beside Sutadra-she is not sure why. The Kianene has curled onto his side, hissing breaths that end in grunts, holding riven hands to either side of the arrow embedded in his cheek.
They have shared no words, she and this man. They have lived shoulder to elbow on the trail for weeks, and yet they have scarcely exchanged glances. How could such a thing be? How could this life dwindling beneath her be little more than scenery one moment and… and…
"Please-please," she mumbles. "Tell me what to do…"
The heathen scalper fixes her in his gaze-a look of absurd urgency. He sputters something but can only speak blood. His goatee, which has become a full beard since Cil-Aujas, is clotted with it.
"Stone Hags," she hears Galian say in explanation to Achamian. "Bandits. A scalper company that preys on its own. They saw our numbers, I'm guessing, thought we were low-hanging fruit." A wry laugh.
"Aye," Pokwas says. " Sorcerous fruit."
Hands held out and helpless, she stares down at the dying stranger. Why are you doing this? something cries within her. He's dying. There's nothing to be done! Why The Judging Eye opens.
"But have we seen the end of them?" the old Wizard asks.
"Depends," Galian replies. "No one knows what they do over the winter months, where they go. They could be desperate."
And she learns what it means to stare into the moral sum of a man's life. Sutadra…
Soot, the others had called him.
You can count the bruises on your heart easily enough, but numbering sins is a far trickier matter. Men are eternally forgetting for their benefit. They leave it to the World to remember, and to the Outside to call them to harsh account. One hundred Heavens, as Protathis famously wrote, for one thousand Hells.
She can see it all, intuitions bundled into the wrinkled architecture of his skin, the squint about his eyes, the cuts across his knuckles. Sin and redemption, written in the language of a flawed life. The oversights, the hypocrisies, the mistakes, the accumulation of petty jealousies and innumerable small selfish acts. A wife struck on a wedding night. A son neglected for contempt of weakness. A mistress abandoned. And beneath these cankers, she sees the black cancer of far greater crimes, the offences that could be neither denied nor forgiven. Villages burned on fraudulent suspicions. Innocents massacred.
But she also sees the clear skin of heroism and sacrifice. The white of devotion. The gold of unconditional love. The gleam of loyalty and long silence. The high blue of indomitable strength.
Sutadra, she realizes, is a good man broken down, a man forced, time and again, to pitch his scruples against the unscalable walls of circumstance- forced. A man who erred for the sake of mad and overwhelming expediencies. A man besieged by history…
Regret. This is what drives him. This is what delivered him to the scalpers. The will to suffer for his sins…
And she loves him-this mute stranger! One cannot see as much as she sees and not feel love. She loves him the way one must love someone with such a tragic past. She knows as a lover knows, or a wife.
She knows he is damned.
He kicks against the mud of the stream, gazes with eyes pinned to sights unseen. He makes fish mouths, and she glimpses the arrow digging into the back of his throat. A small cry escapes him, the kind you would expect from a dying child or dog.
"Shhh…" she murmurs through burning lips. She's been weeping. " Paradise," she lies. "Paradise awaits you…"
But a shadow has fallen across them, a darker gloom. The Captain-she knows this without looking. Even as she turns her face up, the Judging Eye closes, but still she glimpses blasted back, coal-orange eyes leering from a charred face…
He raises his boot and kicks the arrow down. Wood popping in meat. Sutadra's body jerks, flutters like a thread in the wind.
"You rot where you fall," the Captain says with a queer and menacing determination.
Mimara cannot breathe. There is a softness in the Kianene's passing, a sense of fire passing into powdery ash. She raises numb fingers to brush the bootprint from the dead man's nose and beard but cannot bring herself to touch the greying skin.
"Weakness!" the Captain screams at the others. "The Stone Hags struck because they could smell our weakness! No more! No more wallowing! No more womanish regret! This is a slog! "
"The Slog of Slogs!" Sarl screeches out, chortling.
"And I am the Rule of Rules," the Captain grates.
Xonghis altered their course, leading them away from the Stone Hags and their flight. They left Sutadra behind them, sprawled across the muck, the broken arrow jutting like a thumb from his swelling face. Scalpers lie where they fall-such was the Rule. The cyclopean trunks were not long in obscuring him.
Sutadra had always been a mystery to Achamian-and to the others, from what he could tell. Galian sometimes made a show of asking the Kianene his opinion, then taking his silence as proof of agreement. "See!" he would crow as the others laughed. "Even Soot knows!"
This was the way with some men. They sealed themselves in, bricked their ears and their mouths, and spent their remaining days speaking only with their eyes-until these too became inscrutable. Many, you could wager, held chaos in their hearts, shrill and juvenile. But since ignorance is immovable, they seem immovable, imperturbable. Such is the power of silence. For all Achamian knew, Sutadra was little more than a weak-willed fool, a peevish coward behind the blind of an impassive demeanour.
But he would always remember him as strong.
None of this, however, explained Mimara's reaction. Her tears. Her subsequent silence. After the debacle in the mines of Cil-Aujas, he had assumed she would be immune to terror and violence. He tried to sound her out, but she simply looked away, blinking.
So he paced Galian and Pokwas for a time, asking about the Stone Hags. The bandits had haunted the Mop for some five years now, long enough to become the scourge of the Long Side. Pokwas absolutely despised them: preying upon one's own was an outrage for the Zeumi, apparently. Galian regarded them with the same wry contempt he took to everything. "It takes figs to do what they do!" he cried at one point, obviously trying to bait his towering friend. "As big and black as your own!" Achamian was inclined to agree. Hunting Sranc was one thing. Hunting Men who hunted Sranc was something else entirely.
They told him the story of the Stone Hag captain, Pafaras, the Mysunsai Schoolman who had assailed Cleric. According to rumour, he was a notorious Breacher, someone who failed to expedite his arcane contracts: a cardinal sin for a School of mercenaries. He had been chased into the wilds more than a decade ago.
"He was the first spitter to chase the Bounty," Galian explained. "Pompous. One of those fools who turns the world upside down when he finds himself at the end of the line. Arrogant unto comedy. They say he was outlawed for burning down an Imperial Custom House in one of the old camps."
And so the Stone Hags were born. Scalper companies always vanished in skinny country, swallowed up as if they had never been. "It's chop-chop-chop with the skinnies," Pokwas said. "Runners always die." But the Stone Hags invariably left survivors, and so word of their atrocities spread and multiplied.
"More famous than the Skin Eaters," Galian said cheerfully. "The one and only."
Achamian stole several glances at Mimara over the course of their account, still puzzled by her blank face and distracted gait. Had she somehow come to know Sutadra?
"He died the death allotted to him," he said, resuming his place at her side. "Sutadra…" he added in response to her sharp look.
"Why? What makes you say that?" Her eyes gleamed with defensive tears.
The old Wizard scratched his beard and swallowed, reminded himself to take care, that it was Mimara he was speaking to. "I thought you mourned his loss."
"The Eye," she snapped, her voice cracking about a bewildered fury. "It opened. I saw… I saw him… I saw his-his life…"
It seemed he should have known this.
"It's his damnation I mourn," she said. The damnation you will share, her look added.
Drusas Achamian had spent the bulk of his life knowing he was damned. Stand impotent before a fact long enough and it will begin to seem a fancy, something to be scorned out of reflex, denied out of habit. But over the years the truth would creep upon him, steal his breath with visions of Schoolmen in their thousands, shades, shrieking in endless agony. And even though he had repudiated the Mandate long ago, he still found himself whispering the first of their catechisms: "Though you lose your soul, you shall gain the World."
"The damnation you want me to teach you," he said, referring to the sorcery-the blasphemy — she desperately wanted to learn.
She ignored him after that-so damned mercurial! He fumed until he realized that days had passed since their last Gnostic lesson. Everything had seemed half-hearted after Cil-Aujas, as if sand had been packed into the joints of all the old motions. He scarce had the stomach to teach, so he simply assumed that she scarce had the stomach to learn. But now he wondered whether there was more to her sudden disinterest.
Life's harder turns had a way of overwhelming naive passions. He found himself recalling his earlier advice to Soma. She had been given something, something she had yet to understand.
Time. She would need time to discover who she had become-or was becoming.
The Captain called them to a halt in what seemed a miraculous clearing. An oak had been felled in its hoary prime, leaving a blessed hole in the otherwise unbroken canopy. The company milled about, blinking at the clear blue sky, staring at the remains of the titanic oak. The tree had crashed into the arms of its equally enormous brothers and now hung propped and skeletal above the forest floor. Much of the bark had sloughed away so that it resembled an enormous bone braced by scaffolds of winding branches. Timbers had been set across several forks, creating three platforms at different heights.
"Welcome to Stump," Pokwas said to Achamian with a curious grin.
"This place is known to you?"
"All scalpers know of this place." With a gesture, the Sword-dancer led him up to the tree's base. A knoll rose about it, stepped and knotted with roots. The stump itself was as broad as a caste-menial's hovel but only as high as the Wizard's knees. The bulk of the severed trunk loomed just beyond, rising into the confusion of the surrounding forest.
"For the longest time," Pokwas explained, "the legend was that these trees were crypts, that each of them had inhaled the dead from the earth. So several years ago, when it seemed the Fringe would retreat into the Deeper Mop, Galian and I hacked this very tree to the ground. We worked in shifts for three days."
The old Wizard scowled in camaraderie. "I see."
A jovial wink. "Look what we found."
Achamian saw it almost instantly, near the peak of the rough-hewn cone. At first he thought it had been carved-the product of some morbid scalper joke-but a second look told him otherwise. A skull. A human skull embedded in the coiled heartwood. Only a partial eye socket, a cheek, and several teeth-molars to canine-had been chiselled clear, but it was undeniably human.
A shudder passed through the old Wizard, and it seemed he heard a voice whisper, "The heart of a great tree does not burn…"
Memories from a different age, a different trial.
"Some," Pokwas was saying, "will tell you the skinnies own the Mop."
"What do you say?"
"That they're tenants, same as us." He frowned and smiled, as if catching himself in the commission of some rank Three Seas folly. "The dead own this land."
The oblong of bare sky quickly darkened. After a sombre repast, the company spread across the three platforms built into the fallen giant, relishing what was likely a false sense of security even as they cursed the unforgiving edges that crooked their backs and poked their shoulders.
That night was a difficult one. The surrounding darkness was every bit as impenetrable as in Cil-Aujas, for one. And the threat of the Stone Hags had them "on the sharp," as Sarl might say. But the real problem, Achamian eventually decided, lay with the trees.
In the wild lore of witches-those scraps that Achamian had encountered, anyway-great trees were as much living souls as they were conduits of power. One hundred years to awake, the maxim went. One hundred years for the spark of sentience to catch and burn as a slow and often resentful flame. Trees begrudged the quick, the old witches believed. They hated as only the perpetually confused could hate. And when they rooted across blooded ground, their slow-creaking souls took on the shape of the souls lost. Even after a thousand years, after innumerable punitive burnings, the Thousand Temples had been unable to stamp out the ancient practice of tree-burial. Among the Ainoni, in particular, caste-noble mothers buried rather than burned their children, so they might plant a gold-leaf sycamore upon the grave-and so create a place where they could sit with the presence of their lost child…
Or as the Shrial Priests claimed, the diabolical simulacrum of that presence.
For his part, Achamian did not know what to believe. All he knew was that the Mop was no ordinary forest and that the encircling trees were no ordinary trees.
Crypts, Pokwas had called them.
A legion of sounds washed through the night. Sighs and sudden cracks. The endless creak and groan of innumerable limbs. The hum and whine of nocturnal insects. Eternal sounds. The longer Achamian lay sleepless, the more and more they came to resemble a language, the exchange of tidings both solemn and dire. Listen, they seemed to murmur, and be warned…
Men trod our roots… Men bearing honed iron.
According to Pokwas, nightmares were common in the Mop. "You dream horrors," the towering man said, his eyes waxy with unwelcome memories. "Wild things that twist and throttle."
The Plains of Mengedda occurred to the old Wizard, and the Dreams he had suffered marching across them with the Men of the Tusk. Could the Mop be a topos, a place where trauma had worn away the hard rind of the world? Could the trackless leagues before them be soaked in Hell? He had been forced to flee the First Holy War some twenty years previous, so crazed had been his nightmare slumber. What would he suffer here?
Aside from his one nightmarish dream of the finding the No-God, he had dreamed of naught but the same episode since climbing free of Cil-Aujas: the High-King Celmomas giving Seswatha the map detailing the location of Ishual-the birthplace of Anasurimbor Kellhus-telling him to secure it beneath the Library of Sauglish… In the Coffers, no less.
"Keep it, old friend. Make it your deepest secret…"
He lay on the crude platform, his back turned to Mimara. A warmth seeped through the exhausted weight of his body. Pondering rose out of pondering, thought out of thought. He drifted ever further from the mighty trees and their conspiracies, ever further from the ways of the wakeful. And as so often happened when he stood on the threshold of slumber, it seemed he could see, actually see, things that were no more than wisps, shreds of memory and imagination. The golden curve of the map-case. The twin Umeri inscriptions-token curses common to ancient Norsirai reliquaries-saying, "Doom, should you find me broken."
And he thought, Strange…
Finding knowledge in sleep.
He stood shackled, one among the gloom of many…
A line of captives, wrist chained to wrist, ankle to ankle, wretched for abuse…
Standing encased in horror and ignorance, a file running the length of a shadowy tunnel…
His eyes rolled in equine panic. What now? What-what now?
He saw walls, which for an instant seemed golden but formed of mangled thatch, scrub and undergrowth, surging and twining to weave a black corridor about their miserable passage. He could even discern the terminus, over shoulders slouched in woe and capitulation, an opening of some kind, a clearing…
Bright with things he did not want to see.
His teeth were missing… Beaten?
Yes… Beaten from his skull.
"N-no," Achamian sputtered, awareness rising like a fog within him. The trees, he realized.
Trees! Crypts, the scalpers called them…
"Cease!" Achamian cried. But not one of the chained shadows raised their heads in acknowledgment. "Cease!" he raged. "Cease, or I shall burn you and your kin! I will make candles of your crowns! Cut trails of ash and black through your heart!"
And somehow he knew that he screamed with the wrong lips in the wrong world.
Gagging shrieks filtered down the hall, ringing as though across iron shields.
Something blared, a sound too engulfing, too guttural to be a mere horn. Without warning the chains yanked him and the shadowy procession forward, one stumbling step toward the light… the clearing.
And though all the world's terror loomed before him, the brutalized stranger thought, Please…
Let this be the end.
Achamian found himself sitting, gripping his boney shoulders with boney fingers. His ears roared, and the blackness spun. He panted, gathering his wits and wind. Only then did the other sounds of the night creep into his hearing. The distant howl of wolves. The creak of sentience through vaulting limbs. The sound of Pokwas and his gentle snore. Sarl's mumbling growl…
And someone wailing without breath… on the platform below him. "N-no…" he heard a hitching, glutinous voice murmur in Gallish. "Please…" Then again, hissed through teeth clenched against returning waves of terror, "Please!"
Hameron, he realized. The one most broken by Cil-Aujas.
There was a time when Achamian had thought himself weak, when he had looked on men such as these scalpers with a kind of complicated envy. But life had continued to heap adversity upon him, and he had continued to survive, to overcome. He was every bit the man he had been, too inclined to obsess, too ready to shoulder the burden of trivial sins. But he no longer saw these ingrown habits as weaknesses. To think, he now knew, was not a failure to act.
Some souls wax in the face of horror. Others shrink, cringe, bolt for an easy life and its many cages. And some, like young Hameron, find themselves trapped between inability and the inevitable. All men cry in the dark. Those who did not were something less than men. Something dangerous. Pity welled through the old Wizard, pity for a boy who had found himself stranded on scarps too steep to climb.
Pity and guilt.
Achamian heard the whine and scuff of someone on the platform above him. He blinked against the dark. The limbs of the fallen tree forked black across the stars. The Nail of Heaven glittered above, higher on the horizon than he had ever seen it before-with his waking eyes at least. The clearing lay bare and silent about them, a swatch of wool soaked in the absolute ink of shadows at night. Mimara lay curled at his side, as beautiful as porcelain in the bluing light.
The platform above formed a ragged rectangle shot with strings of luminance between the timbers. The figure who climbed down from its edge looked a wraith, his clothing was so shredded about the edges. Starlight rippled across the unrusted splints of his hauberk.
The Captain, Achamian realized with dim horror.
The figure shimmed along the trunk, black sheets of hair swaying. He had scarcely set foot on the corner of Achamian's platform before swinging down to the next as nimble as a monkey. The two men regarded each other-for scarce a heartbeat, but it was enough. Ravenous, was all Achamian could think. There was something starved about the eyes that glared from the disgusted squint, something famished about the grin that cut the plaited beard.
The man dropped out of sight. Still staring at the point where their eyes had connected, Achamian heard him land on the platform below, heard the knife whisk from the sheath…
"Sobber!" a voice hissed.
There were three thuds in quick succession, each carrying the dread timbre of flesh.
Gasping. The choking rattle of pierced lungs. The sound of a heel scraping across barked wood-a feeble kicking.
A poisonous fog seemed to fill the Wizard, steaming out from his gut into his extremities, something that at once burned and chilled. Without thinking he lay back beside Mimara, closed his eyes in the pretense of sleep. The noise of Lord Kosoter climbing back to his platform seemed scabrous thunder in his ears. It was all Achamian could do not to raise warding hands against the sound.
For several moments he simply breathed against the fact of what had happened-against the absence of the life that had been weeping below him only moments before. He had sat immobile and listened to it happen. Then he had pretended to sleep. He had sat there and watched a boy murdered in the name of his lie… The lie of a Wizard who had made benjuka pieces out of men.
Strength, Achamian told himself. This! This is what Fate demands of you… If his heart had not yet hardened to flint, he knew it would before this journey was done. You could not kill so many and still care.
Fail or succeed, he would become something less than a man. Something dangerous.
Like the Captain.
Nothing was said about the dead man in the morning. Not even Mimara dared speak, either because the atrocity was too obvious or too near. They simply gnawed and stared off in random directions while Hameron's blood dried to a rind along the bottom of his platform's timbers. Even Sarl seemed loathe to breach the silence. If any looks were exchanged, Achamian found Lord Kosoter's presence too oppressive to watch for them.
The fact that nothing was said about anything — including the Stone Hags and their attack-said everything: the Captain's new-found faith in the Rules did not sit well with his men. The company resumed its march through the deep forest gloom, somehow more desolate, more lost and exposed, for the absence of just two souls.
Once again they struck at a tangent to the mountains, down, so that walking at once seemed easier and harder on the knees. They skirted the banks of a swift-flowing tributary for a time, eventually crossing where it panned across boulder-chocked shallows. The elms and oaks, if anything, were even more gigantic. They threaded a makeshift path between the trunks, some of them so immense and hoary they seemed more natural formations than trees. All of their lowermost limbs were dead, shorn of bark, radial tiers stacked upon radial tiers, creating a false, skeletal canopy beneath the canopy proper. Whenever Achamian glanced up at them, they resembled black veins, networks of them, wending and forking across higher screens of sun-glowing green.
As the day wore on, the gaps between the walkers seemed to expand. This was when Pokwas and Galian, doing their best to shun Somandutta, happened to find themselves abreast Achamian and Mimara. They walked in guarded silence for a time. Pokwas softly hummed some tune-from his native Zeum, Achamian decided, given its strange intonations.
"At this rate," Galian finally ventured, "it'll just be him sitting on a pile of bones by time the skinnies get to us." The Nansur spoke without looking at anyone.
"Aye," Pokwas agreed. " Our bones."
They were not so much searching for an understanding, it seemed, as they were acknowledging one that already existed. If anything proves that Men are bred for intrigue, it is the way conspiracies require no words.
"He's gone mad," Achamian said.
Mimara laughed-a sound the old Wizard found shocking. Ever since the Stone Hags and their abortive ambush, she had seemed bent on silent brooding. " Gone mad, you say?"
"No one's survived more slogs," Galian said.
"Yes," Pokwas snorted. "But then no one has a pet Nonman either."
"Things are topsy out here," Galian replied. "You know that. Crazy is sane. Sane is crazy." The former Nansur Columnary fixed his canny gaze on Achamian.
"So what do we do?" Achamian asked.
Galian's eyes roamed the surrounding gloom, then clicked back. "You tell me, Wizard…" There was anger in his tone, a resolution to voice hard questions. Achamian found his gaze as piercing as it was troubling-a fellow soldier's demand for honesty. "What are the chances a company this small will make your precious Coffers? Eh?"
This was when Achamian realized that he stood against these men. Mad or not, Lord Kosoter showed no signs of wavering. If anything his most recent acts of madness displayed a renewed resolve. As much as Achamian hated to admit it, Hameron had been a liability…
The old Wizard found himself warding away thoughts of Kellhus and his ability to sacrifice innocents.
"We've scarce reached the Fringe," Pokwas exclaimed, "and we're three-quarters dead!"
The Fringe, the Wizard recalled, was what scalpers called the boundary of Sranc country.
"As I said," Galian replied. "At this rate."
"Once we clear the Meorn Wilderness," Achamian declared with as much certitude as he could muster, "we'll be marching in the wake of the Great Ordeal. Our way will be cleared for us."
"And the Coffers?" Galian asked with a kind of sly intensity-one that the old Wizard did not like. "They are as you say?"
Achamian could feel Mimara watching his profile. He could only pray her look was not too revealing.
"You will return princes."
Cleric was the first to hear the cries. The sound was distant, small, like the wheeze at the bottom of an old man's breath. They had to look to one another to be sure others had heard it. The land was rutted with wandering slopes and gullies, yet no matter how steep the grade, the canopy remained unbroken above them, and nothing save a dim shower of gold and green filtered to the forest floor. This made determining the distance, let alone the direction, of the cries all but impossible. Then they heard a crack of thunder, too unnatural to be anything other than sorcerous. The scalpers all looked to Cleric-a reflex borne of previous slogs, Achamian imagined.
"The Mop," the Nonman said, raking the surrounding gloom with his gaze. "The trees play games with sounds…" A blink belonging to things nocturnal. "With us."
"Then we need to be free of them," Achamian said. With scarce a look at the Captain, he began intoning the inconceivable and dug fingers of spoken meaning into the soft muck of the World.
Heedless of the wondering looks, he trod into the open air.
He climbed through the lower regions of the canopy, using his hands to pull himself around the dead limbs blocking his sorcerous ascent. Vertigo tipped his stomach. Even after so many years, so many Cants, his body still resented the impossibility. He threw his forearms across his face to fend lashing branches as he approached the greenery. He found himself fighting, embroiled in nets of foliage, then the veils fell away…
Pointed wind. Naked sunlight. He blinked against the brightness, savoured the daub of sun across his rutted cheeks.
He could scarce step above the crowns, so immense were the trees. He found himself walking around and between the stacked heights to gain a better view. On and on, as far as his old eyes could see, mighty shags of leaves, heaped and hanging, fluttering pale silver in the breeze, all the way to the horizon. Were it not for the way the leafy surface followed the summits and troughs of the underlying land, he would have likened what he saw to the slow-tossing surface of a sea.
The cries were clearer, but their direction escaped him until he glimpsed the flash of sorcery in the corner of his eye-to the north. A scarp of bald stone rose across the distance, rising and falling so as to resemble a young woman slumbering on her side. He mouthed a quick Cant of Scrying, and the air before him became watery with distorted images. Then he glimpsed them…
Men. Scalpers. Running through the foliage along plummet's edge.
They ran as fleet as children, a scattered file of them, flashing between screens of leaves and mighty trunks, in and out of shadow. A stand of strangler oaks dominated the waist of the escarpment, monsters who clenched the living rock of the edge and sent skeins of roots, interlocking fans of them, roping down the cliff face. This was where the scalpers clustered, throwing panicked glances back the way they had come. Several had already begun their perilous descent…
A second party of scalpers abruptly appeared on the edge, farther back, high on the hip. Achamian had assumed the company was being chased along the ledge, but now he realized they fled the forest deeps behind them-that they were running toward the Skin Eaters. The Men hesitated for a moment, their mouths shouting holes in their beards. Whatever pursued them, Achamian realized, was close, too close for them to join their comrades among the oaks. Numb and blinking, he watched them begin leaping… tiny human figures dropping along sheer stone faces, vanishing into the canopies below. It seemed he could feel the plummet of each tingling through his gut.
Then they appeared, rising from the gloom, engulfing those who had elected to stand and fight.
Sranc. Raving multitudes of them.
Shrieking white faces. A cacophony of miniature cries, human and inhuman, threaded the air. Men hacked at the white-skinned rush, stumbling, falling. One wild-haired scalper, obviously a Thunyeri, stood on a raised thumb of stone, wielding a great axe in each hand. He cut and hammered the first wave to ruin, managed to cow a second before black shafts began jutting from his unarmoured extremities. A stagger, then a misstep sent him skidding and jerking down the cliffside.
A kind of breathless remorse struck the old Wizard. This was how scalpers died, he realized. Lost. Thrown over the edge of civilization. A crazed death-not simply violent. Unwitnessed. Unmourned.
The scalpers down among the strangler oaks seemed to be making good their escape. A dozen of them were now clinging to hanging skirts of roots, daring a breakneck descent. More fugitives crowded the lip, tossing what gear they still carried below. Then one of them simply stepped out over the ledge… and continued walking, though he wobbled and almost fell. The Mysunsai Schoolman, Achamian realized. Pafaras. Too high to use the ground, the fool was trying to negotiate the arcane echo of a promontory that jutted outward about half the height of the cliffs proper. Even from this distance his Mark was clear.
The Stone Hags… He was watching the very Men who had tried to murder them-watching them die.
Achamian could see the Sranc high on the scarp's hip exulting in the flesh of those they had overcome. Others raced toward the remaining scalpers on the waist below, individuals dog-loping along the ledge, masses surging through the parallel deeps. Helpless, Achamian watched more suicidal leaps and another round of desperate, hopeless battles.
Then, with several stalwarts still roaring and battling, the floating Mysunsai set the cliff ledge alight. Even from such a distance his sorcerous cry tickled edges that could not be seen. A great horned head rose before the Mysunsai's slight figure, real enough for sunlight to glint from black scales yet stamped in smoke all the same: the Dragonhead, the dread mainstay of Anagogic sorcery. Golden fire spewed out over the bristling ledge, washed into the avenues between the great trees, making burning shadows of Sranc and Men alike. A chorus of screams climbed across the bowl of the sky.
The scalpers hanging from the roots below raised arms against the shower of burning debris. The Dragonhead dipped again, and more fire washed across the carpets of smoking dead. The Sranc retreated, howling and screaming, vanished into the safety of the deeper forest. There was a blinking pause. The Mysunsai struggled with his arcane footing, seemed to stumble, then simply dropped…
Achamian hung in indecision. Gone were the shouts, the cries. Fires smouldered along the length of the scarp's waist, trailing long plumes of black smoke. Miles of canopy swayed and rebounded in the open wind.
"We should return…"
The old Wizard fairly soiled his wolf-skin robes, such was his shock. He whirled. Cleric hung in the air a mere span behind him, yet the old Wizard had heard nothing, sensed nothing.
"Who?" he cried before his wits returned to him. "Who are you?"
A Mysunsai Schoolman keeping company with scalpers seemed mad enough, but a Nonman?
A Quya Mage?
"The Sranc. They move in force," the ageless Ishroi said, his face white and immaculate in the high sun. The Mop swayed and tossed to the horizon beyond him. "The others must be warned."
– | Back to the gloom, to the reek of moss and earth.
Cleric began describing what they had seen, only to falter as his memories outran him. Achamian finished, doing his best to sound indifferent even though his heart still hammered.
"Fucking Hags!" Pokwas exclaimed, his eyes bright with imagined mayhem. "Serves them. Serves them!"
"You're missing the point," Galian said, staring at Achamian with solemn concentration.
"Pox is right," Soma chimed in. "Good riddance!" He turned, grinning.
"I say we run them," Pokwas cried. "Lop them and bale them." He looked to Soma and laughed. "Repay the favour in their own ski-!"
"Fools!" Lord Kosoter spat. "Nothing will be run. Nothing!"
The black-skinned giant turned to regard his Captain with round-eyed outrage. Lord Kosoter's scrutiny, which was angry at the best of times, narrowed into a murderous squint.
"Don't you see?" Galian said, imploring. Achamian could see the warning in the look he shot his Zeumi friend, as if to say, Too soon! You press too soon! The question was whether the Captain had seen it as well.
Achamian glanced at Mimara and somehow knew that she had sensed it as well. New lines had been drawn, and for the first time they were being tested.
"The Hags are bigger than any company-harder," Galian continued explaining. "That's how they can hunt the likes of us. If those skinnies lopped them, then those skinnies can lop us…" He let his voice trail into the significance of what he had just said.
"If they catch our scent…" Xonghis said, nodding. "Did you say the skinnies were chasing the Hags this way?" he asked the Wizard.
The implication was plain. Sooner or later the Sranc would cross their trail. Sooner or later they would start hunting them. According to what Achamian had learned from the others, scent was what made the creatures at once so deadly and so vulnerable. Laying trails to gull the Sranc into ambushes was the primary way scalpers hunted. But if the skinnies caught a company's spoor before they had time to prepare…
"Fatwall," the Captain said after a moment of furious meditation. "Same as before, except we slog it day and night. If we lose them, we lose them. If not, we chop it out there!"
"Fatwall!" Sarl cackled, his gums blood red and glistening. His grins had seemed to eat up his whole face as of late. "Latrine of the Gods!"
They skip-marched-as the scalpers called it-after that, hiked at a trot brisk enough to steal the wind for words. Once again Achamian found himself fearing his age, so exhausting was the pace. For him, the years had accumulated like dry rot: the fabric of his strength seemed healthy enough, but only so long as it wasn't pressed or stretched. By the time evening's shroud climbed across the Mop, the march had become a fog of petty miseries for him: reeling breathlessness, stitches in his side, cramps in his left thigh, needles in the back of his throat.
Dinner provided him with a brief respite. In truth, Cleric and his dispensation of Qirri was the only thing that interested him. Mimara slumped between the crooks fluting the base of the nearest trunk, propped her elbows on her knees, and laid her face in her palms. Xonghis, who seemed as tireless as Cleric or the Captain, set about preparing their measly repast: rank strips from a kill he had made three days ago. Others flopped across the soft humus, using fallen limbs and the like to support their heads.
Achamian leaned against his knees, did his best to spit away the nausea welling through him. He peered through the darkness, searching for Cleric and the Captain. For whatever reason, the two of them always retreated a short distance from the others when they made camp. He would see them, whether high on a promontory or in a depression on the far side of a tree, Cleric sitting, but with his head bowed in such a manner that he seemed to be kneeling, while the Captain-who so rarely spoke otherwise-muttered over him, grinding out words that he could never quite hear.
Just one of many mysteries.
The old Wizard hacked out the last of the fire pooled in his lungs, then shuffled toward the two figures. Cleric crouched on his toes, his cheek pressed against his knees while he listened with eyes both empty and black. The last of the remaining light seemed to linger along the bare-skin contours of his head and arms. Aside from his leggings and the tattered remains of a ceremonial kilt, he wore only his shirt of nimil mail, its intricate links always shining no matter how clotted with filth they became. The Captain stood above him, discoursing in the same scarcely audible mutter. His hair hung listless across the splinted sections of his hauberk, ropes of black shot with grey. His pleated Ainoni tunic, threadbare at the beginning of their expedition, fairly reeked to look at-though Achamian could scarce smell anything above his own rotting garb.
They both looked up, fixed him with twin gazes-one unearthly, the other not quite sane.
A kind anxiousness seized the moment.
"Qirri…" Achamian said, shocked by the croak that was his voice. "I'm… I'm too old for this… this pace."
Without a word, the Nonman turned to rummage through his satchel-one of the few things any of them had managed to carry out of Cil-Aujas. He withdrew the leather pouch, and Achamian found himself hefting the thing in his soul, divvying pinches into the near and distant future. Cleric unknotted the drawstring, reached in with thumb and forefinger.
But Lord Kosoter stayed him with a wave of his hand. Another pang plucked through the old Wizard, this one coloured with intimations of panic.
"We need to speak first," the Captain said. "Holy Veteran to Holy Veteran."
Achamian had the impression of a sneer over and above the contempt that generally ruled the man's expression. Something, a demoralizing wave, crashed through him. What now? Why? Why did this mad fool insist on beating complexity and confusion out of simple things?
He needed his pinch.
"By all means," the old Wizard said stiffly.
What could be more simple than that?
The Captain regarded him with dead eyes. "The others," he finally asked. "What do they say?"
Achamian did his best to match the madman's glare. "They worry," he admitted. "They fear we no longer possess the strength to reach the Coffers."
The Captain said nothing. Thanks to the Chorae beneath his armour, void and menace throbbed where his heart should have been.
"So?" Achamian asked crossly. All he wanted was his pinch! "Does talk violate some Rule of the Slog as well?"
"Talk," the Captain said, spitting to the left of his feet. "I care nothing for your talk…" The man's smile reminded Achamian of the dead he had seen on the battlefields of the First Holy War, the way the sun would sometimes shrink the flesh of the face, drawing cadaverous grins on the fallen.
"So long as you don't weep."
Sranc. The North means Sranc.
She fled them in Cil-Aujas, and now she flees them here, in the Mop. On the Andiamine Heights, where everything turned on the Great Ordeal and the Second Apocalypse, scarce a day passed without hearing something about the Ancient North-so much so that she openly scoffed at its mention. She would actually say things like, "Oh, yes, the North…" or "Sakarpus? You don't say?" There was an absurdity to places far, a sense of insignificant people scratching meaningless earth. Let them die, she would sometimes think, whenever she heard tidings of famine in Ainon or plague in Nilnamesh. What are these people to me? These places?
A fool… that's what she had been. A pathetic little slit.
Their souls and their wind fortified with Qirri, the company fairly sprints across the pitching ground-even Achamian, who had been in obvious straits before Cleric and his medicinal pinch. The Nonman leads, a Surillic Point floating low and brilliant above his right brow. The illumination pulls their scissoring shadows out into the dark, alternately revealing the sinuous arch of limbs and falling into pockets too deep to reach. Where Cil-Aujas had encased them at every turn, sealed them in impenetrable stone, now it seems they race through a void, that nothing exists beyond narrow corridors of earth, trunk, and branching lattices. Nothing. No murdering Stone Hags. No obscene Sranc. No prophecies or armies or panicked nations.
Just the Skin Eaters and rushing shadows.
For no reason she can fathom, images from her old life on the Andiamine Heights plague her soul's eye. Gilded folly. The farther she travels from her mother, it seems, the more a stranger she becomes to herself. She cringes at the thought of her former self: the endless straining to stand aloof, the endless posturing, not to convince others — for how could they not see through her in some measure? — but to assure herself of some false moral superiority…
Survival, she realizes, is its own kind of wisdom. Scalper wisdom.
She almost snorts aloud at the thought. But running, it seems nothing could be more true. All things perish. All things are weak, execrable. Nothing more so than the conceits of the perpetually wronged.
"A smile?" someone says.
She turns and sees Soma pacing her. Caste-noble tall. Lean and broad-shouldered. With his gowns torn and twisted, he resembles the Disowned Prince that the other girls used to dream about in the brothel-the fabled customer who would rescue rather than abuse.
His dark-lashed eyes seem to laugh. There is a relentlessness to him that she does not quite trust, she realizes. A strength out of proportion to his foppish character.
"We all… start laughing… at some point…" he says between breaths.
She turns away, concentrates on what shreds of ground she can glimpse between shadows. On the long and hard trail, she knows, a twisted ankle means death…
"Knowing how to stop…" the man persists. "That is… the real trick… of the slog."
Unlike her sisters in the brothel, Mimara had despised men like Soma, men who continually apologized with grand gestures and false concerns. Men who had to smother their crimes beneath pillows of silken guilt.
She much preferred those who sinned with sincerity.
"Mimara…" the man begins.
She keeps her eyes averted. Soma is nothing to her, she tells herself. Just another fool who would grope her in the dark, if he could. Sticky his fingers with her peach.
The world rises into the sphere of Cleric's light, then pours into oblivion. She peers at the oncoming ground as it vanishes into the shadows of those before her. Running. There is peace in flight, she realizes, a kind of certainty she has never understood, though she has known it her entire life. Running from the brothel, running from the mother who abandoned her there: these are fraught with doubt and worry and regret, the heart-cracking recriminations of those who run to punish as much to flee.
But running from Sranc…
Her lungs are bottomless. The Qirri tingles through her thought, her limbs. She is little more than a feather, a mote, before the forces that inhabit her. And there is a thickness to it, an eroticism, being the plaything of enormities.
I have the Judging Eye!
Anasurimbor Mimara marvels and laughs. Galian joins her, then Pokwas, then the rest of the company, and for some reason it seems right and true, laughing while fleeing Sranc through a cursed forest…
Then Cleric stops, his head bent as though listening. He turns to them. His face burns so bright beneath the Surillic Point that he seems an angel-an inhuman angel.
Then they all hear it… to their right, the dull scuff and drum of someone running. The air whisks to the sound of drawn weapons. Squirrel is in her hand.
A stranger staggers as much as leaps into existence. His hair is tied into a Galeoth war-knot. Blood slicks his right arm. Exhaustion has beaten his panic into resignation-you can see it on his face. And Mimara realizes that her flight has yet to begin. To flee, to truly run, is to throw yourself as this man has thrown himself, past effort and determination to the convulsive limit of endurance.
To run as they ran in Cil-Aujas.
The man crashes into Galian's arms, bawling out something inarticulate.
"What's he saying?" the Captain barks at Sarl.
"Skinnies!" the withered Sergeant cackles. "The skinnies are on them!"
"Sweet Seju!" someone cries.
"Look!" Pokwas cries, peering into the blackness that had delivered the man. "Look! Another light!"
Everyone, the newcomer included, turns in the direction the Sword-dancer indicates. At first they see nothing. Then it materializes, a floating point of white, appearing and disappearing to the rhythm of intervening obstructions. Sorcerous light. They glimpse figures as it nears, at least a dozen.
More men-surviving Stone Hags…
Even from this distance you can see their fear and haste, but something slows them… A litter, she realizes. They carry someone on a litter. The small mob passes behind the grand silhouette of a tree and she glimpses the man they carry-the sorcerer…
Galian and Pokwas are shouting. They've thrust the sobbing Stone Hag to his knees as if preparing to execute him. "No!" Achamian is crying. "I for-"
"He's a Hag!" Galian cries as if mystified, as if summary execution is a courtesy compared with what the man deserves-a scalper who hunts scalpers.
The Captain pays no attention whatsoever, instead mutters to Cleric, who peers into the blackness behind the approaching party. She watches the bald head turn, the white face smile. She sees the glint of fused teeth.
"Haaaaags!" Sarl gurgles. His eyes are squeezed into crescents above his cheeks.
The fugitives begin calling out as they approach, a cracked chorus of relief and desperate warning. Within heartbeats they blunder into the greater light of Cleric's Surillic Point, terrified and bleeding. The litter is dropped. Some skid to their knees. Others raise abject hands before the weapons brandished by the Skin Eaters.
Mimara feels someone clutch her sword arm, turns to see Soma standing grim beside her. He means to give reassurance, she knows, yet she finds herself offended all the same. With a jerk she pulls her arm free.
"No time!" someone is screeching-one of the Hags. "No time!"
All is argument and confusion. In the gaggle of shouts and voices they fail to hear the loping approach. Now they stand rigid and peering, their ears pricked to the invisible rush. Twigs snapping. Throats grunting. Feet kicking.
Mimara is dead. She knows this absolutely. She and Soma are standing on the periphery, several paces from the commotion of the latest arrivals-from Achamian and his life-preserving Wards.
"To meee!" she hears the old Wizard cry. She hears the inside-out mutter of sorcery, sees shadows tossed, lights plumbing the barked blackness.
They come howling out of the black. Crude weapons held high and wide. Faces twisted into ravenous sneers. Streaming between trunks. Unshod feet kicking up humus.
The first flies at her like a thrown dog. She parries its crazed swing, ducks and strings the thing as it sails past her. Others follow a mere heartbeat behind. Too many blades. Too many teeth!
Then something impossible happens. Soma…
Somehow before her, when he had stood behind. Somehow catching each raving creature in its instant. He does not fight as scalpers fight, matching skill against ferocity, hammering strength against wild velocity. Nor does he dance as Pokwas dances, trusting ancient patterns to parse the surrounding air. No. What he does is utterly unique, a performance written for each singular moment. He throws and snaps his body. He moves in rings and lines, so fast that only inhuman screams and slumping bodies allow her to follow the thread of his attack.
Then it's over.
"Mimara!" Achamian is crying. She sees him fighting his way toward her.
He clutches her tight against his rank robes, but she is as numb to the smell as she is to everything else. She returns his hug out of reflex, all the while watching Soma standing above the twitching dead, watching her.
She survived. He had glimpsed her stranded, had expected the worst, yet there she stood, utterly untouched. Holding her, the old Wizard did his best not to sob in relief. He blinked at the panicked burning in his eyes…
Exhaustion. It had to be.
They turned to the roar of the Captain, who held the prostrate Hag sorcerer upright. The infamous Pafaras. The man was at least as old as Kosoter, but he possessed nowhere near the stature and strength. He was Ketyai, though his unkempt beard lent him a barbaric, Norsirai countenance. His accent suggested Cengemis or northern Conriya. He swayed in the Captain's grip, capable of standing on his left foot only. His right was bootless-bare and purpling. His foul leggings had been sawed open to the thigh, revealing blood-sopped bandages about his shin. When Achamian had first glimpsed him on the litter, he had assumed the man was simply wounded. But now he could see the leg was broken-severely broken. The length of his right shin was only two thirds that of his left.
"Tell me!" Lord Kosoter roared. With his left hand, he held the man up as much by the hair as by the scruff of the neck. With his right, he held his Chorae before the ailing Schoolman's face. The fact that the Stone Hag scarcely glanced at the thing told Achamian he was already dying.
The other Hags, some eleven of them, milled in gasping shock. They looked more like beggars than warriors. Most had shed their armour in their haste to flee, leaving them with only winter-rotted tunics and leggings. Several were thin to the point of bulbous elbows and knees. These were the men he had seen descending the cliff face, Achamian realized.
"Four clans… maybe more," the swaying Hag was saying. "Numerous… Very aggressive."
" More than one clan?" Galian interjected. "Are they mobbing?" The horror was plain in his voice.
A moment of silence. "Maybe…" Pafaras said.
"Mobbing?" Achamian asked aloud.
"A scalper's greatest fear," Pokwas replied in low tones. "The skinnies usually war clan against clan, but sometimes they unite. No one knows why."
"There was a cliff…" Pafaras managed between gasps. "Some climbed down after us… the ones you k-killed… But the rest… backtracked… we think."
"Your sort," the Captain grated in disgust. He bent his face back to show the mayhem in his eyes. "Come to flee the Ordeal, is that it? Come to lord your power?"
"N-no!" the man coughed.
The Captain raised his Chorae as though inspecting a jewel, then, with a kind of casual malice, slammed the thing into the Hag's mouth.
Sparking light. The whoosh of transubstantiation.
Achamian stood blinking, a burning pang where his breath should have been. He watched the salt replica of Pafaras fall backward. It thudded hard against the sponge-soft turf. The Captain crouched, hunched over the petrified sorcerer. He seemed little more than an apish shadow given the war of light and after-image in the Wizard's eyes. He pulled a knife from his boot, wedged the point in the salt cavity that had been the Hag's mouth. He raised his elbow in a prying motion, cracked off the alabaster jaw.
He retrieved his Chorae, then stood, glaring at everyone but Cleric.
"What's he doing?" Mimara whispered with alarm.
"I think he's recruiting," the old Wizard replied, bracing himself against a deep shudder. As much as he despised Mysunsai Schoolmen as mercenaries, he could not help but feel a certain kinship with the man. Nothing instills brotherhood like the sharing of vulnerabilities. "Witho-"
He fell silent, feeling the bite of the Captain's lunatic gaze.
Lord Kosoter prowled about the fugitive scalpers, scrutinizing them with a slaver's indifference. As miserable as the Skin Eaters appeared, the Stone Hags seemed even more wretched. Starved and wounded and absolutely terrified.
"You dogs have a choice," he grated. "You can let the Whore play number-sticks with your pitiful lives…" A rare grin, sinister for the murder in his eyes.
"Or you can let me."
And with that, the Stone Hags ceased to exist, and the Skin Eaters were reborn.
– | Fugitive, they ran, a bubble of light falling through pillared blackness.
The trees seemed to claw at them with stationary malice, slow them with insinuations of frailty and doom. The Hags, who had no Qirri to brace them, cried out from time to time, begging them to stop, or to at least slow their pace. But no one, not even Achamian or Mimara, listened, let alone answered their pleas. This was the Slog of Slogs. The sooner they understood that, the greater their prospects for survival.
The lesson was dear. Two of them fell behind, never to be seen again.
Dawn rose in sheets of brightening green. The impenetrable black yielded to the murk of deep forest hollows. They encountered a surging river the scalpers called the Throat. It fairly raged with spring melt, the water brown with sediment, spouting white plumes where the current crashed against the boulders it had rolled down from the mountains. The sunlight it afforded was welcome, but the glimpse of smoke in the distance apparently was not. "Fatwall," Xonghis explained to Achamian and Mimara. "It burns." They were forced to follow the river's thundering course several miles before finding a crossing. Even still, they lost another of the Hags to the kicking waters.
They plunged back into the Mop and its temple gloom, the mossed ground wheezing beneath their feet. As always they found themselves craning their necks from side to side as if to catch some secret observer. Achamian need only glance at the others to know they suffered the same plaguing sense he did, as if they were the people hated, like the mummer tribes that migrated across the Three Seas.
Some fluke of the terrain delivered them back to the Throat, this time opposite the point they had first encountered it. Cleric bid them pause. "Listen," he called over the white roar. Achamian could hear nothing, but like the others he could see… On the far bank, through the screens of foliage stacked beneath the canopy's verge, he glimpsed shadows running. Hundreds of them, following the path they had taken down-river.
"Skinnies, boys!" Sarl cried with a gurgling laugh. " Mobs of them! Didn't I promise you a chopper? Eh? Eh? "
They continued climbing, the grades at times so steep that thighs burned and sputum flew. If the Qirri failed to whip them forward, then the glimpse of the Sranc who pursued them certainly did. Despite the profundity of their exhaustion, the sight of sunlight through the gallery ahead spurred them to a run.
They found themselves at the Mop's blinking edge, squinting across a slope of felled trees.
Fatwall. The long-dead fortress of Aenku Maimor.
Maimor was a name that Achamian had encountered only a few times in his dreams. The ancient Meori Empire had been little more than a tarp thrown across the fractious tribes of the Eastern White Norsirai, and Maimor had been one of several nails that had held it in place over the generations, a High Royal Fastness, which would house the High-King during his seasonal tour of his more rebellious provinces. Like everything else during the First Apocalypse, it had come crashing down in a hail of fire and Sranc.
The old Wizard wondered whether a Meorishman of yore would recognize what remained. The Maimor lost versus the Maimor cut from the Wilderness some two thousand years later…
Trees had overgrown the ruined outer defences, strangler oaks mostly. The great stumps yet stood, as tall as towers, clutched like fists about the foundations. The scalpers had incorporated them in their reclamation of the fortress, using them as ad hoc bastions. Elsewhere they had raised palisades across the gaps and timber hoardings along the ruined heights. This was what smoked and burned, the flames all but invisible in direct sunlight.
The Skin Eaters lingered in the shadows, panting and peering. Something had attacked the fortress-and recently.
Achamian heard Galian murmur, "Bad…" to Pokwas, who towered at his side. Catching the old Wizard's look, the former Columnary said, "Skinnies behind us and now skinnies before us? This is more than just a mobbing."
"Then what is it?"
Galian shrugged in the scalper manner, as if to say, We're all dead anyway. Achamian thought of these men, Skin Eater and Stone Hag alike, spending season after season letting blood in these wastes. They feared for their lives, certainly, but not the same as other men feared. How could they? Coin lost to the number-sticks is far different from coin lost to thieves, even if the penury that resulted was the same.
Scalpers knew the gamble.
When nobody could discern any sign of friend or foe, the Captain instructed Cleric to scout ahead. The Nonman strode into the sky, his skin shining, his nimil hauberk gleaming. The mongrel company watched with exhausted wonder. He walked high over the slope of felled trees, receding until he was little more than a thin dash of black hanging over Maimor's ruined precincts.
Veils of smoke wafted about him, drawn to the lazy west. The Osthwai Mountains loomed in the distance beyond, clouds massing about their summits. After several moments of peering, Cleric waved them forward.
The company set across the bone-yard of trees, following the zigzag of trunks like beached whales, picking their way through wickets of skeletal branches. At times it seemed a labyrinth. Open daylight offered Achamian another opportunity to appraise the newcomers, the Hags, who seemed even more mangy and forlorn. They had the watchful look of captives and the voices of slaves living in fear of a violent and mercurial master. Like the Skin Eaters, they hailed from across the Three Seas. But who they were did not seem to matter, at least not to Achamian. They were Stone Hags, bandit scalpers who killed Men to profit from Sranc. In a real sense they were no better than cannibals and perhaps even more deserving of death. But they were human, and in a land of mobbing Sranc, that kinship trumped all other considerations.
Any reckoning of their crimes would have to come after.
Maimor's gate had collapsed into utter ruin long, long ago. A makeshift replacement had been raised across its uneven remains, a timber palisade untouched by the fires that smouldered elsewhere. The doors stood open and unmarked. The company filed beneath the crude fortifications, gazing about in different directions. Achamian had braced himself for the sight of slaughter within-few things were more disturbing than the aftermath of a Sranc massacre. But there was nothing. No dead. No blood. No seed.
"They've fled," Xonghis said, referring to the Ministerial contingent that was supposed to be stationed here. "The Imperials… This is their work. They've evacuated."
In some places the ruins spilled into gravel, while elsewhere they seemed remarkably intact. Hanging sections of wall. Alleyways through waist-high remnants. Blocks breached the interior turf, scattered and heaped, creating innumerable slots and crevices for rats. Several more massive stumps hunched over and across the stonework, their roots splayed out in veinlike skirts-two storeys high in some places. The fundamental layout of the fortress followed the ancient sensibility, where recreating some original model trumped more practical considerations. Even though the heights formed a distended oval, the walls were rectilinear. The citadel, in contrast, was round, forming the circle-in-square pattern that Achamian immediately recognized from his dreams of ancient Kelmeol, the lost capital of the Meori Empire, when Seswatha had stayed at the fortress of Aenku Aumor.
The stone was pitted and multicoloured, here black with moulds, there frosted with white and turquoise lichens. What ornamentation that survived, though plain in comparison to Cil-Aujas, seemed exceedingly elaborate by human standards. Every surface had been worked in patterns, animal totems for the most part, beasts standing, their arms articulated in humanlike poses. As numerous as the reliefs were, Achamian found only one intact representation of Meori's ancient crest: seven wolves arrayed like daisy petals about a shield.
His whole body hummed, at once scraped of all strength and steeped in giddy vigour. Qirri. Despite everything, Achamian found himself gazing and wandering as he had so many years ago, lost in thoughts of times long dead. He had always found sanctuary in ruins, freedom from the demands of his calling as well as connection with the ancient days that so tyrannized his nights. He had always felt whole in the presence of fragments.
"Akka…" Mimara called, her voice so like her mother's that goosepimples climbed the old Wizard's spine. A plaintive echo.
He turned, surprised by his smile. This was her first time, he realized, her first glimpse of the ancient Norsirai and their works.
"Remarkable, isn't it? To think ruins like this are all that remain of…"
He trailed, realizing that she looked at the others, not the ruined pockets climbing about them.
She turned to him, her eyes pinned with indecision. "Skin-spy…" she said in Ainoni.
She blinked in momentary indecision. "Skin-spy… Somandutta… He's a… a skin-spy."
"What? What are you saying?" Achamian asked, struggling to collect his thoughts. She was a Princess-Imperial, which meant she had doubtless received extensive training regarding Consult skin-spies: who they were inclined to replace, how they were apt to reveal themselves.
She probably knew more about the creatures than he did.
"When the Sranc attacked," she continued under her breath, watching the Nilnameshi caste-noble where he stood with the others. "Earlier… The way he moved…" She turned to the Wizard, fixed him with a look of utter feminine certainty, as serious as famine or disease. "What he did was impossible, Akka."
Achamian stood dumbstruck. A skin-spy?
Half-remembered passions galloped through him. The heat and misery of the First Holy War. Images of old enemies. Old terrors…
He turned to where the Nilnameshi stood. "Soma…" he called, his voice rising thin.
"He saved my life," she murmured beside him, obviously every bit as bewildered as he was. "He revealed himself to save me…"
"Soma!" Achamian called again.
The man spared him a sideways glance before turning back to the mutter of those about him. Conger. Pokwas. Achamian blinked, suddenly feeling very feeble and very old. The Consult? Here?
The entire time.
"He revealed himself to save me…"
The confusion did not so much lift as part about necessity, leaving only naked alarm and the focus that came with it.
" Somandutta! I am speaking to you!"
The affable brown face turned to him, smiling with…
An Odaini Concussion Cant was the first thing to the old Wizard's lips.
Without warning, Soma leapt over the milling scalpers, boggling eyes and snuffing voices. He twisted mid-air with an acrobat's grace, landed with the scuttling fury of a crab. He was two-thirds across the courtyard before Achamian had finished. He leapt, sailing over the ruined wall as the Cant smashed stone and scabbed mortar.
The company stood pale and uncomprehending.
"Let that be a warning!" Sarl cackled in abject glee. He turned to the Hags as if they were unkempt cousins requiring lessons in jnanic etiquette. "Steer clear the peach, lads!" He glanced at Achamian, his eyes possessing enough of the old canniness to unnerve the old Wizard.
"What the Captain doesn't gut, the Schoolman blasts!"
They slept in bare sunlight.
As was proper, since nothing was as it should be. Battling men instead of Sranc. Taking refuge in a fallen fortress. Finding a skin-spy in their midst, then saying nothing of it.
The Qirri had faded and, despite the longing looks, the Nonman kept his pouch hidden in his satchel. Of exhaustion's many modalities, perhaps none is so onerous as apathy, the loss of sense and desire, where you wish only to cease wishing, where mere breathing becomes a kind of thoughtless toil.
Achamian's sleep was fitful, plagued by flies-the biting kind-and worries, too numerous and inchoate to resolve into anything comprehensible. Soma. The Sranc pursuing them. The Captain. Cleric. Mimara. The dead in Cil-Aujas. His lies. Her curse…
And of course Kellhus… and Esmenet.
Fire and their lack of numbers had convinced Lord Kosoter that the outer walls were indefensible, so they had retreated to the shattered citadel. At some point the structure had collapsed inward, leaving only the great blocks of the foundation intact. Centuries of vegetation had choked the inner ruin with uneven earth so that the remaining walls, which towered the height of three men along their outer faces, climbed only chest high for those standing within. The scalpers salvaged what they could find, those few trifles left behind by the retreating "Imperials," as they called them. Then they climbed into the citadel's earthen gut to await the inevitable.
The subsequent vigil was as surreal as it was forlorn. While the rest dozed in what shade they could find, Cleric took a position on one of the great blocks, sitting cross-legged, gazing over the ruins below, across the field of felled trees, to the Mop's black verge. Achamian actually found comfort in the sight of him, a being who had survived who knew how many sieges and battles, back into the mists of history.
The Nonman waited until late afternoon to begin his sermon, when the air had cooled enough and the shade had grown enough to provide the possibility of real sleep. He stood on the lip and turned to regard them below, his slim and powerful figure bathed in light. The sky reached blue and infinite beyond him. Achamian found himself watching and listening the way the others watched and listened.
"Again, my brothers," he said in impossibly deep tones. "Again we find ourselves stranded, trapped in another of the World's hard places…"
Stranded. A word like a breath across a dying coal.
Stranded. Lost with none to grieve them. Trapped.
"Me," the Nonman continued, letting his head sag. "I know only that I have stood here a thousand times over a thousand years-more! This… this is my place! My home…"
When he looked up, his eyes glittered black for fury. A snarl hooked his colourless lips.
"Wreaking destruction on these perversions… Atoning… Atoning!
This last word rang metallic across the stone, sent ever-dwindling echoes across the heights. Roused, several of the Skin Eaters mouthed their approval. The Stone Hags simply gaped.
"And this is your place as well, even if you loathe numbering your sins."
"Yes!" Sarl coughed out over the rising clamour. His eyes were slits for his grin. "Yes!"
That was when the inhuman baying began, a few throats cascading into a hundred, a thousand, rising from the Mop below…
Achamian and the others leapt to their feet. They crowded the wall beneath Cleric, and to a man peered at the forest verge a half-mile or so to the south.
And saw nothing save lengthening shadows and boundaries of scrub bathed in sunlight. The inhuman chorus dissolved into a cacophony of individual shrieks and cries. Birds bolted from the canopy.
"A thousand times over a thousand years!" Cleric cried. He had turned to face the Mop, but otherwise stood as exposed as before. Achamian glimpsed his shadow falling long and slender across the ruins below.
"You live your life squatting, shitting, sweating against your women. You live your life fearing, praying, begging your gods for mercy! Begging! " He was ranting now, swaying and gesticulating with a kind of arrhythmic precision. The setting sun painted him with lines of crimson.
Unseen throats howled and barked across the distance-a second congregation.
"You think secrets dwell in these mean things, that truth lies in the toes you stub, the scabs you pick! Because you are small, you cry, 'Revelation! Revelation hides in the small! '"
The black gaze fixed Achamian-lingered for a heartbeat or two.
"It does not."
The words pinched the old Wizard deep in the gut.
"Revelation rides the back of history…" Cleric said, sweeping his eyes to the arc of the horizon, to the innumerable miles of wilderness. "The enormities! Race… War… Faith… The truths that move the future!"
Incariol looked down across his fellow scalpers, his awestruck supplicants. Even Achamian, who had lived among the Cunuroi as Seswatha, found himself staring in dread and apprehension. Only the Captain, who simply watched the Mop with grim deliberation, seemed unmoved.
"Revelation rides the back of history," the Nonman cried, bowing his head to the failing sun. The light etched the links and panels of his nimil so that he appeared garbed in trickles of glowering fire.
"And it does not hide…"
Incariol. He seemed something wondrous and precarious, Ishroi and refugee both. Ages had been poured into him, and poured, overflowing his edges, diluting what he had lived, who he had been, until only the sediment of pain and crazed profundity remained.
The sun waxed against the distant peaks, hanging in reluctance-or so it seemed-sinking only when the watchers blinked. It rode the white-iron curve of a mountain for a moment, then slipped like a gold coin into high-stone pockets.
The shadow of the world rose and descended across them. Dusk.
All eyes turned to the ragged crescent of the tree-line, to the grunting hush that had fallen across the distance. They saw the first Sranc creep pale and white from the bowers, like insects feeling the air… A savage crescendo rifled the air, punctuated by the moan of urgent horns.
Then the rush.
– | They came as they always came, Sranc, no different from the first naked hordes that had surged across the fields of Pir-Pahal in an age that made Far Antiquity young. They came, over the slope of felled trees, sluicing between the trunks, racing across barked backs. They came, through the palisade gate, thronging across the ancient courtyards, braiding the wall's ruined circuit with gnashing teeth and crude weapons. They came and they came, until they seemed a liquid, streaming and breaking, spitting an endless spray of arrows.
The blue and violet of the evening sky faded into oblivion, leaving only the starry dome of night. The Nail of Heaven glittered from raving eyes, gleamed from notched iron. The scalpers huddled behind what few shields they possessed, shouted curses, while Cleric and the Wizard stood upon the wall's disordered summit.
All was screaming destruction below. Monochrome madness. The Men gagged on the porcine smoke. And they watched, knowing that they witnessed something older than nations or languages, a Gnostic sorcerer and a Quya Mage, singing in impossible voices, wielding looms of incandescence in wide-swinging arms. They saw hands glow about impossible dispensations. They saw light issue from empty air. They saw bodies pitched and prised, and burned, burned most of all, until the ground became croaking charcoal.
Incariol had spoken true… It was a mighty thing, a sight worthy of the pyre.
The Istyuli Plains
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The High Istyuli
The Company of Scions picked its way across the broad back of Earwa. The days passed without any visible sign of having travelled whatsoever. They had been charged with trolling the grasslands to the southwest with the hope of finding game they could drive back to the Army of the Middle-North. They did not see so much as a hoofprint. They could scarce feed themselves as the days passed, let alone an army.
The Parching Wind continued to blow, kneading scalps and hair with warm fingers, hissing through the dead scrub that bristled the endless plate of the Istyuli. Even though they rode with purpose, it seemed they drifted, such was the expanse surrounding them. The land was devoid of track or direction and so vast that Sorweel often found himself hunching in his saddle-cringing in the dim way of bodily fears. He was bred to the plains, to open endless skies, and even still he felt shrunken, soft, and exposed. Men tend to forget the World's true proportion, to think the paltry measure of their ambition can plumb the horizon. It is a genius of theirs. But some lands, by dint of monumental heights or sheer, stark emptiness, contradict this conceit, remind them that they are never so big as the obstacles the World might raise against them.
For watch after watch, Sorweel rode with the itch of this reminiscence floating within him. No distraction could scratch it away, not even Eskeles at his worst. To his chagrin, the rotund Schoolman insisted on practising language drills no matter who was in their vicinity-Zsoronga and Obotegwa more often than not. On one occasion, the entire company took up his chant, shouting Sheyic numerals across the plains while Sorweel gazed about in despair and disgust. Eskeles seemed to find the spectacle horribly amusing-as did Zsoronga, for that matter.
The Mandate Schoolman proved as much a source of embarrassment as irritation. His mere presence rendered Sorweel a schoolboy, though the man insisted he had been sent as much to chaperone the entire company as to tutor the woefully ignorant King Sorweel of Sakarpus. "The Holy Aspect-Emperor takes his enemies seriously," the sorcerer said with a glib twinkle in his eye, "and his enemies take their children seriously." Sorweel found the comment at once laughable and troubling. Eskeles, with his foppish Three Seas beard and portly stature, not to mention his lack of armour or weaponry, seemed almost absurdly defenceless and ineffectual-another soft-pawed leuneraal. And yet Sorweel had no reason to doubt the truth of what he said, that he had been sent to safeguard their company-especially after witnessing the sorcerous destruction of Sakarpus.
At night, Sorweel could almost pretend, when he kept his eyes hooked to the starry heavens, that none of what happened had happened, that the droning voices belonged to his father and his uncles, not the sons of exotic lands and distant kings. This was the time of the Lioning, when the Saglanders planted their crops, and when the male members of House Varalt and their boonsmen rode out into the mountains in search of puma. Since his twelfth summer he had accompanied his father and his uncles, and he adored every moment of it, even though his youth chained him to the hunting camp with his cousins. And he loved nothing more than lying with his eyes closed, listening to his father speak before the late-night fire, not as a king but as a man among others.
The Lioning was how he learned his father was truly funny… and genuinely beloved by his men.
So he would lie with these memories, curl about their warmth. But whenever it seemed he could believe, some dread would lurch out of the nethers and the pretense would blow away like smoke before gusting apprehensions. Zsoronga. The Aspect-Emperor. And the Mother — the Mother most of all.
One question more than any other dominated the crowded commons of his soul. What? What does She want? And it would be the "She" who appalled him the most, who filled his bowel with nervous water. She. Yatwer. The Mother of Birth…
He spent many sleepless watches simply hefting the vertiginous weight of this fact in his thoughts. He found it strange the way one could kneel, even pray with sobbing intensity, and yet never ponder, let alone comprehend, what lay behind the ancient names. Yatwer… What did that holy sound mean? The priests of the Hundred were dark and severe, every bit as harsh as the Tusk Prophets they took as their examples. They brandished the names of their Gods the way stern fathers raised whips: obedience was all they asked for, all they expected. The rest fell out of their hard readings of hard scriptures. For Sorweel, Yatwer had always been dark and nebulous, something too near the root of things, too aboriginal, not to be filled with the sense of peril belonging to sudden knives and fatal falls.
All children come to temple with a fear of smallness, which the priests then work and knead like clay, shaping it into the strange reconciliation-to-horror that is religious devotion, the sense of loving something too terrible to countenance, too hoary to embrace. When he thought about the world beyond what his eyes could see, he saw souls in their innumerable thousands with only frayed threads to hold them, dangling over the gaping black of the Outside, and the shadows moving beneath, the Gods, ancient and capricious, reptilian with indifference, with designs so old and vast that there could only be madness in the small eyes of Men.
And none were so old or so pitiless as the dread Mother of Birth.
That was what her name was: childhood terror.
To be pinched between such things! Yatwer and the Aspect-Emperor… Gods and Demons. Somehow he had been pulled into the world's threshing wheels, the grinding immensities-small wonder he had been so eager to escape the clamour of the Great Ordeal! Small wonder the travelling sway of his pony, Stubborn, carried the promise of deeper escape.
He posed the question to Zsoronga and his impromptu court one night, careful to conceal the intensity of his interest. Fires were of course forbidden, so they sat side by side facing south, alternately staring into their hands and into the starry heavens: the Kings and Princes of lands cowed but not quite conquered by the New Empire, yearning for homes thrown far over the night horizon. Obotegwa sat dutifully behind them, translating when needed. If anything spurred Sorweel in his language lessons with Eskeles, it was the burden his stupidity had become for the wise old Obligate.
They had been discussing omens and portents, how more and more signs seemed to inveigh against the Aspect-Emperor-none more so than the persisting drought. Charampa, in particular, was convinced that the Anasurimbor Dynasty's doom was imminent. "They overreach! Think of their gall! How could they not be punished? I ask you! I ask you!"
Tzing seemed inclined to agree, and as always, no one could fathom Tinurit's opinion-or whether his smile was in fact a sneer, for that matter. Zsoronga, however, remained skeptical.
"What happens," Sorweel finally ventured, "if we fail the Gods simply because we don't know what they demand?"
"Ka sircu alloman…" Obotegwa began droning from behind him.
"Damnation," Tzing replied. "The Gods care nothing for our excuses."
"No," Zsoronga snapped, loud enough to pre-empt Charampa's eager reply. "Only if we fail to properly honour our ancestors. The Heavens are like palaces, Horse-King. One does not need the King's permission to enter."
"Pfah!" Charampa cried, as much to avenge his interruption as otherwise, Sorweel suspected. "Here I thought the Zeumi were too sensible to believe that Inrithi nonsense!"
"No. It is not Inrithi nonsense. Honouring ancestors is far older than the Thousand Temples. You Cingi are as bad as the sausages…" Zsoronga turned to the young King of Sakarpus. "Family survives death. Don't let this fool tell you different."
"Yes…" Sorweel replied, listening far too keenly to what was said. This was what it meant to be a conquered people, a part of him realized: to turn to the foreign beliefs of foreign peoples. "But what if your… your family is damned?"
The Successor-Prince watched him appreciatively. "Trempe us mar-"
"Then you must do everything in your power to discover what the Gods do want. Everything. "
Though Zsoronga was not overtly pious, Sorweel knew from previous discussions that the Zeumi had a far different way, not so much of conceiving life and death, as valuing them, a way that made them seem zealots on occasion. Even the peculiarities of Obotegwa's interpretations revealed as much: the Zeumi used two versions of the same word to speak of life and death, words that roughly translated into "small life" and "great life," with death being the latter.
The Successor-Prince looked at Sorweel as if he were searching for something.
Grounds for trust?
"Otherwise you are lost."
The World seems greater in the morning, and Men smaller. The ground shrank beneath the rising sun, scalded into white blindness, so that it seemed they woke on the very edge of creation. Raised hands shielded eyes. Broke-back grasses cast shadows like black wire.
Sorweel had grown up in this country; its imprint lay deep in his soul, so deep that simply looking at it braced him, like legs and a wide stance for his soul. Even still, it dizzied him to think how far they had ridden beyond the Pale. He had been educated, of course, and so knew the Pale for what it was: the northern terminus of Sakarpic power, and not the point where waking reality tipped into nightmares. But the superstitions of the rabble had a way of steaming upward, of soaking the more worldly understanding of the nobility. Despite his tutors, the Pale remained a kind of moral boundary in his imagination, the line that marked the fading of the good and the gathering of what was evil. Enough to catch his breath when he thought of the miles between him and his holy city. For a company as small as theirs to ride the emptiness as they did, a nagging part of him insisted, was nothing short of madness.
If anything silenced these worries, it was his growing respect for Captain Harnilas. He had not thought much of Old Harni at first. Like many other Scions, he had tried to detest the man, if not for who he was, then for what he represented. Diminishing others is ever the way men raise themselves, and the might of the Aspect-Emperor was such, the glory and the competence of the Kidruhil so obvious, that petty targets like Harnilas seemed to be the only ones remaining.
But the Captain was nothing if not dogged in his warlike wisdom. Gruff. Bearded in manner, even though he shaved like so many of his Nansur countrymen. His scars picked up where his wrinkles left off so that his face seemed tattooed with different sigils depending on the angle and intensity of the light. He so obviously cared so little for what his wards thought of him that they could not but esteem him.
"In Zeum," Zsoronga once said, "we call men like him nukbaru, masons… stone-hewers…" After Obotegwa finished translating, the Successor-Prince nodded toward the head of their small column. "Our Captain."
When Sorweel asked him why, Zsoronga smiled and said, "Because to hew stone you must be stronger than stone."
"Or smarter," Eskeles had added.
Riding as they did had a way of nursing and smothering conversations. Sometimes they chattered as loudly as wives filing from Temple. Sometimes they rode in desert silence, with only the arrhythmic gait of their ponies to punctuate the perpetual wind. Usually their talk would be momentary, sparking here, fading there, as though a single animate spirit drifted through them all, drawing thought into voice one by one.
The morning of their tenth day of ranging, they embarked in silence and continued riding that way.
They sighted the elk trail before noon, a mottled water-stain across the linen distances, as broad as a valley. They did not reach it until early afternoon, a thin file of cavalrymen picking their way across land battered by a thousand thousand hoofs, a trail as great as any of the World's enormities.
Sorweel cursed himself for a fool, such was his relief.
The following day began the same as any other. The elk trail continued its southern arc, resembling the imprint of a curved sword left overlong in the grass, only writ across the entire landscape. The Scions filed through its great trampled heart, silent save for the clank of gear and the warbling of one or two desultory conversations. Even Charampa seemed disinclined to speak. Sorweel rocked in his saddle like the others, listening to the sweep of wind and the low ghost noises it made when it caught his ears.
The first shouts came from the head of the column: a pair of vultures had been sighted to their left. The entire company rode perched in their saddles, fingers pointing, eyes scanning the wandering line of the eastern horizon. The plain seemed to curl and fold more and more as it diminished in the haze, like a mangy carpet kicked against a wall. The sky rose high and endless above.
"We've found our herd!" Obotegwa cried, translating Zsoronga's jubilant words.
Sorweel blinked and squinted, his face angled against the sun's glare. He found and tracked the two floating specks-even glimpsed the bar of wings riding faraway winds. Before he knew what he was doing, he spurred Stubborn into a gallop. The pony leapt into its stride with almost doglike exuberance. The Scions watched with curiosity and amusement as he pounded to the fore of the line. Captain Harnilas was already scowling at him when he reined Stubborn to a reluctant halt.
"Merus pah veuta je ghasam!" the old cavalryman shouted.
"Captain!" Sorweel cried in Sheyic. With a sweeping gesture he directed the man's grizzled attention toward the horizon. Then as emphatically as he could he spoke the one word that transcended all the languages of Men.
He matched the officer's hard gaze, noticing, not for the first time, the scar on his left cheek, burn-puckered as though he had once shed a fiery tear. For the first time he saw the small soapstone figurines hanging about his neck: three children joined at the hands and feet, chipping across his cuirass. A strange sense of recognition welled through the young King, a realization that Harnilas, despite his exotic complexion and furious brown eyes, was not so different than his father's boonsmen, that he chambered his heart, as so many warlike men did, to keep his sense clear of his compassion. Harnilas loved, as all men loved, in the cracks and crevices of a warring world.
Eskeles finally trotted into earshot, gasping as though his pony had ridden him instead of otherwise. Sorweel turned to the Schoolman. "Tell him to study those birds carefully. Tell him that they're storks — the most holy of birds. Tell him that storks only follow Sranc on the plain."
Eskeles frowned in his thoughtful way, then relayed the information to Captain Harnilas. Aside from a quick glance at the sorcerer he continued to watch Sorweel intently.
"Sranc," the Captain repeated. The leathery face turned to squint at the specks floating in the distant sky.
Sorweel pursed his lips and nodded.
"The bird is holy."
"Your tutor argues that the Sranc should be left to him," old Obotegwa explained, "so that no lives need be lost. Harnilas disagrees. He thinks the Scions need… practice, even at the cost of lives. Better to begin with an easy blooding, he says, than a hard one."
They had gradually closed on the high-circling storks over the course of the afternoon, taking care to remain upwind and to use the creases in the broken plain to keep their approach hidden. If Sorweel had entertained any fears regarding Harnilas, they had been allayed by the patient sensibility of his tactics and the thoughtless ease with which he exercised his command. After ascertaining the direction of their march, he angled their pursuit to better intercept their trail: they now knew they followed a warband of some three hundred-a number too small to suggest a migrating clan. They had almost been sighted twice now, crossing the crest of some knoll at the same time as their inhuman quarry, but they had managed to close within a mile of the warband. The sun had smouldered into evening, scorching the western horizon gold and crimson. Now the Company of Scions sheltered in a trough of cool shadow, watching Eskeles argue with their Captain.
The afternoon had been tense, certainly, but far more thrilling than anything else. With the possible exception of the Scylvendi, Tinurit, the Scions rode with grins whipped across their face. A kind of glee had possessed them, one that sparked low snorts of laughter whenever glances were exchanged, childlike in that sneaking way, murderous in its ultimate intent. For his own part, Sorweel felt none of the fear, not a whisper of the cowardice that he had thought would unman him. A limb-gripping eagerness filled him instead, a will to ride down and kill. Even his pony, Stubborn, seemed to sense the impending violence-and to welcome it.
Of course Eskeles was intent on ruining everything. Blasphemer, Sorweel found himself thinking.
Sorweel had no real idea how much influence his tutor wielded; Mandate Schoolmen were rumoured to be more powerful than Judges, but whether this extended to the field, or to Kidruhil Companies particularly, he did not know. He could only hope that their surly old Captain prevailed. Harnilas did not strike him as a particularly political man-which was probably why he had been given the Scions in the first place. Sorweel's father had told him several times that intriguing killed far more men on the field than otherwise.
The two middle-aged men waved hands and shouted for several moments more, then Eskeles apparently said something either too clever or too impertinent. Harnilas stood in his stirrups and began thundering at the sorcerer, who fairly wilted before the savage display. Sorweel found himself laughing with Zsoronga and Obotegwa.
"Fool!" Eskeles cried in corpulent exasperation as he rejoined them. "The man is a fool!"
"Practice-practice," Sorweel sang, mimicking the tone the Schoolman took whenever he groaned about language drills. "You're the one always saying the easy way is never the proper way."
Zsoronga chortled at Obotegwa's translation. The Schoolman glared at Sorweel for an angry moment, then collected himself with a harried smile. He looked up to the storks circling high above a crest that bowled the earth before them. Their white spans carried sunset gold. "I pray you prove me right, my King. I really do."
A chill seemed to creep into the shadow.
Once decided, their pursuit became determined. At Harnilas's gestured command they fell into wedge formation, rode the rising and falling knolls like a loose-jointed raft on ocean swells. They trotted to prevent winding their horses, a pace that allowed for more than a little excited chatter, though the anxiousness of cresting each rise knocked them into gazing silence.
"They don't move," Zsoronga said through Obotegwa. "Why? Have they seen us?"
"Could be," Sorweel replied, fighting against the breathlessness that pinched his voice. "Or they could be resting… Sranc prefer the night. Sun exhausts them."
"Then why not use the high ground, where they can keep watch?"
"The sun," he repeated, speaking through a pang of sudden apprehension. "They hate the sun."
"And we hate the night… which is why we double our watches."
The Sakarpi King nodded. "But no Man has walked this land for thousands of years, remember. Why should they keep watch for myths and legends?"
His earlier eagerness seemed to slip out of him, plummet through the soles of his boots. They climbed a slope, riding into their shadows at an angle to the dust that pealed away from them. Everywhere he looked he saw ground, and yet it seemed he rode the lip of a perilous chasm. Vertigo leaned out from him, threatened to pull him from his saddle. There was no certainty, he realized. Anything could happen on the field of war.
A keening noise climbed into the earthen thunder of their advance, high and ragged, as though cutting the throats that were its crying origin. The storks seemed to hang in the air directly above them, lines of virgin white etched in the sun. The Scions swung through the shadow of the shallow basin, scraping through a haze of brush and dead grasses, then raced upward. The knoll's crown met their rush. The sun broke across their backs, crimson flashing from silver and crimson.
The shrieking chorus collapsed into squeals and yammering alarums.
The Sranc mobbed the spaces below them, a putrid congregation scattered across the gap between sunlit summits. Thin white arms yanked at weapons. Faces collapsed into squints of fury. Clan standards-human skulls haired with bison hide-jerked and wagged.
Sorweel did not need to look down the line of his fellows to know their faces. Disbelief is ever the door between young men and murder.
An impossible moment followed, one Sorweel had heard various Horselords mention from time to time. The line of lancers, their helms and mailed sleeves gleaming in the sunlight, stood motionless save for the most anxious of ponies. The Sranc band roiled with shriek and gesture but likewise did not move. The two parties simply regarded each other, not out of hesitation and certainly not for calculation's sake. It was more a warlike equipoise, as if the encounter were a coin spinning in the air, needing only the hard ground of murder to judge.
Sorweel lifted himself forward to whisper in Stubborn's ear: "One and one are one…"
And they were off, shouting the war-cries of a dozen heathen nations, a thundering, trampling line. A flying rake of lance-points. From the stories his father's boonsmen told him, he had expected each heartbeat to last an age, but in fact everything happened fast-far too fast to be terrifying, or exhilarating, or anything, for that matter. One heartbeat, the Sranc were a tangle of sprinting forms before him, skin white, armour black with filth, iron weapons wild in the air. The next heartbeat, he was crashing through them like something thrown. His lance glanced off the corner of a shield, skewered the throat of a wagging creature he had not even seen, let alone intended to kill. The heartbeat after, he was drawing his sword, reining Stubborn about, and hacking. Shrieks and cries and shouts pealed skyward. The dreadful clatter of war.
Seven, maybe eight, threshing heartbeats passed. He wondered at the ease with which sword points punctured faces-no different from practice melons. Otherwise, he was his blade, his horse, dancing between the jabber of pale shadows, raining ruin and destruction. Purple blood jetted, flew black across the dead scrub.
Then it was just the low dust, the clutch of the maimed and the dying, and the cacophony had moved beyond him-continued moving.
He spurred Stubborn in pursuit, glimpsed Zsoronga grinning from a passing saddle.
The surviving Sranc ran before an uneven wave of horsemen, a kind of jerking scramble. Sorweel seized a lance jutting from the ground as he galloped past, leaned into Stubborn's exertions. He quickly overtook the laggards among the Scions, soon found himself in the pounding fore of the pursuit. A crazed grin seized his lips. He howled his people's ancient war-cry, the lung-cracking sound that had marked innumerable such pursuits through the ages.
The Sranc ran, bolting through dead scrub like wolverines, opening the interval between them and the slowest of the Scions-only the quickest of the quick overtook them.
There was joy in the race. His legs and hips had become mere extensions of Stubborn's leaping gallop The ground pouring away like water. His hand gripping his lance, loosely as he had been taught from childhood, floating, tingling as if he held a thunderbolt. He was a Son of Sakarpus, a Horselord, and this-this! — was his calling. He struck with a viciousness that seemed holy for its thoughtlessness. One in the neck, rolling limbs akimbo into caged bracken. Another in the heel, left limp-running, mewling like a knifed cat. Anything he overran he instantly forgot, knowing that the pounding wall behind him would eat them up.
They scattered and he followed-there was no hiding beneath the shining plains sun. They bent their white faces back to him as he closed, black eyes glittering, features pinched ancient with fear and fury. Their limbs little more than a flutter of shadows in the grass-thatched dust. They coughed. They screamed as they spun falling.
There was joy in the race. Ecstasy in the kill.
One and one were one.
Their victory was complete. Among the Scions, three were fallen, and some nine others were wounded, including Charampa, who took a spear in his thigh. Despite the dark looks thrown by Eskeles, Old Harni was obviously satisfied with his young wards, perhaps even proud of them. Sorweel had witnessed death enough during his city's fall. He knew what it meant to watch familiar faces spit their final breath. But for the first time he experienced the jarring of elation and regret that comes with triumph on the field. For the first time he understood the contradiction that blackens the heart of all martial glory.
His fellows cheered him, clapped his back and shoulders. Zsoronga even embraced him, a kind of madness cackling in his wide green eyes. Stunned, Sorweel climbed the hump of the nearest knoll, stared out across the plains. The sun lay on the horizon, burning crimson through a band of violet, dousing the innumerable crests and low summits in pale orange. He stood and breathed. He thought of his ancient fathers wandering as he did across these lands-killing those who did not belong. He thought of the way his boots rooted him to the earth.
The darkening sky was so broad that it seemed to spin with slow vertigo. The Nail of Heaven glittered.
And the World towered beneath.
That night Harnilas indulged them, knowing that they were boys drunk on the deeds of men. The last of the Ainoni rum was uncorked, and each of them was granted two burning swallows.
They took one of the surviving abominations and staked it to the turf. At first scruples held them back, for among the Scions were more than a few youths of gentle breeding. They would do no more than kick the shrieking creature. Disgusted, Sorweel finally knelt over the Sranc's white head and put out one of its eyes. Some among the Scions hooped and cheered, but more cried out in consternation, even outrage, saying that such torture was a crime against jnan-what they called their effeminate and obscure laws of conduct.
The young King of Sakarpus turned to his fellows in disbelief. The creature thrashed across the ground immediately behind him. Captain Harnilas strode to his side, and all fell silent in expectation.
"Tell them," he said to Sorweel, speaking slowly so that he might understand. "Explain their foolishness to them."
More than eighty faces watched, a moonlit congregation. Sorweel swallowed, glanced at Obotegwa, who simply nodded and stepped to his side…
"They-they come…" he began, only to falter at the sound of Eskeles translating in Obotegwa's stead. "They come in winter, mostly, especially when the ground freezes too hard for them to scrounge the grubs that are their staple. Sometimes in single clans. Sometimes in shrieking hordes. The Towers of the Pale are strong for this reason, and the Horselords have become reavers beyond compare. But every year at least one Tower is overcome. At least one. The Men are slaughtered, mostly. But the women-and the children particularly-are taken for sport. Sometimes we find their severed heads nailed to doors and walls. Little girls. Little boys… Infants. We never find them whole. And their blood is always… thrust from them. Instead of crimson the dead are smeared black… black"-and his voice broke upon this word-"with… seed…"
Sorweel stopped, his face flushed, his fingers trembling. In his fourteenth winter, his father had brought him north on a punitive expedition to see their ancient and implacable enemy first-hand. Hoping to find supplies and accommodation, they had come to a Tower called Grojehald, only to find it sacked. The horrors he had seen there haunted his dreams still.
"We could torment a thousand of these creatures for a thousand years," his father had told him that night, "and we would have repaid but a droplet of the anguish they have visited upon us."
He repeated these words now.
Sorweel was not accustomed to addressing men in numbers, and so he took the silence that followed as a kind of condemnation. When Eskeles continued speaking, he simply assumed the Schoolman tried to undo his foolishness. Then Obotegwa, translating the sorcerer, muttered, "King Sorweel speaks as eloquently as he speaks true." Sorweel was shocked to find he could follow much of what the Mandate Schoolman said.
"Shus shara kum…"
"These are beasts without souls. They are flesh without spirit, obscenities like no other. Each of them is a pit, a hole in the very fundament. Where we possess feelings, where we love and hate and weep, they are void! Cut them. Rend them. Burn and drown them. You can sooner wrong dirt than sin against these vile abominations!"
As strong as these words sounded, Sorweel noticed that most of the Scions continued to regard him rather than the Schoolman, and he realized that what he had thought was condemnation was in fact something entirely different.
Respect. Admiration, even.
Only Zsoronga seemed to watch him with troubled eyes.
The sport began in earnest after that. The Mannish laughter was as shrill as the inhuman screams were crazed.
What was left twitched and glistened in the blood-sodden grasses.
They broke camp discussing the strange absence of vultures, then rode out into the broad light of the plains. To a soul they discussed the previous day's battle, boasting of kills, comparing nicks, and laughing at gaffes. The Scions thought themselves veterans, but their talk remained that of boys. Easy victories, as a Horselord would say, grow no beards.
They recovered the elk trail without difficulty, followed it beneath an afternoon sun rendered small for the gaping horizon. They caught the reek on the wind before seeing anything. It was a wide smell, a rot that reached as far as the air. The vista rose into view in inexorable stages, the far corners, swathes of dun and black and bone, buttressing the line of the horizon, then the welter of nearer regions, too still, too silent. The Company of Scions assembled along the crest of a low ridge, eighty-seven of them abreast, the men slack-faced, the ponies nodding and stamping in equine anxiousness. Their Kidruhil standard, the Black Circumfix and Golden Horse, flapped and waved against endless blue. Aside from coughs and curses, none possessed the will to speak.
Carcasses. Fields of them, dead elk, soaking the dust black.
Vultures hunched like priests beneath cowls or raised wings in imperious accusation. In any given heartbeat, dozens could be seen dropping from the skies across points near and miles away. Their cries rose hoarse through a great buzzing hum: flies, so many they appeared as living smoke across the distances.
An elk carcass lay gutted not far from Sorweel, its gut strewn like rotted clothes. Several feet beyond lay a clutch of three more, ribs cracked out from articulated spines. Beyond that lay another, and yet another, ribs opened like gigantic traps, on and on and on, a thousand circles of gore across the wasted pasture.
Captain Harnilas called out, and the Company of Scions descended the slope in formation, opening only to skirt the carcasses. The nearest vultures screeched at their approach, a kind of reptilian outrage, then took to the wind. Sorweel watched them anxiously, knowing that others could use their ascent to track their progress from miles away.
"What kind of madness is this?" Zsoronga murmured from his side. Sorweel did not need Eskeles's translation to understand.
"Sranc," the Schoolman said, his voice curiously tight. "A Hording…"
Sorweel glimpsed the creatures in his soul's eye, hacking and tearing, stabbing the beasts still living, then coupling with shining wounds. A shrieking landscape of them.
"In ancient days," his Mandate tutor continued, "before the coming of the No-God, the Sranc would continually retreat before hosts too powerful for any one clan to assault. Back and back, clan heaped upon clan. Until their hunger forced them to take game, until their numbers blackened the very earth…"
"And then?" Sorweel asked.
"So all this time…"
A grim nod. "The clans have been driven before the Great Ordeal and its rumour, accumulating… Like water before the prow of a boat…"
"Hording…" Sorweel repeated, weighing the term on his tongue. "Does Harni know about this?"
"We shall know soon enough," the corpulent Schoolman said. Without further word, he spurred his overtaxed pony to overtake the Kidruhil Captain.
Sorweel allowed his gaze to range across the ground before the Company, saw strings of blood flung across the scree, welters of cracked bone, and skulls, some with the eyes sucked out, others with cheeks chewed away to the snout. No matter where he looked he saw another gory circle.
The largest Sranc clans the Horselords battled rarely numbered more than several hundred. Sometimes a particularly cruel and cunning Sranc chieftain would enslave his neighbours and open warfare would range across the Pale. And the legends were littered with stories of Sranc rising in nations and overcoming the Outermost Holds. Sakarpus itself had been besieged five times since the days of the Ruiner.
But this… slaughter.
Only some greater power could have accomplished this.
Meat sweated in open sunlight. Flies steamed about the scrub and grasses. Cartilage gleamed where not chapped with gore. The stink was raw unto gagging.
"The war is real," he said with dull wonder. "The Aspect-Emperor… His war is real."
"Perhaps…" Zsoronga said after listening to Obotegwa's translation. "But are his reasons?"
"Otherwise you are utterly lost…"
So Zsoronga had said.
Despite the clamour and triumph of the past days, these words continued to sink and to surface through the young King's turbulent soul. He had no reason to doubt them. For all his youth, Zsoronga possessed what the Sakarpi called thil, salt.
The fact was, Yatwer, the patroness of the weak and dispossessed, had chosen him, even though he had been trothed to her brother Gilgaol since his fifth summer, even though he possessed the blood of warriors-even though he was what the Yatwerians called weryild, a Taker, a thief by virtue of his bones. Railing against the absurdity, let alone the shame, of her choice did nothing but prove him worthy of the humiliation. He had been chosen. Now he only needed to know why.
Porsparian was the obvious answer. It seemed clear now that the slave was a secret priest of some kind. Sorweel had always thought that only women attended to the worldly interests of the Ur-Mother, but he scarce knew anything of the low and mean peoples of his own nation, let alone the ways of those a world away. The more he considered it, the more he felt a fool for not realizing as much earlier. Porsparian had come to him bearing this terrible burden. He was the one to tell him what that burden was and whither it should be borne.
That was, if Sorweel could learn to wrap his tongue and ears around Sheyic.
That night, while the others slept, the young King of Sakarpus rolled to his side on his sleeping mat and, in the way anxious bodies choose small tasks of their own volition, started picking at the grasses before him. Porsparian-his cheeks rutted like withered apples, his eyes like wet chips of obsidian-floated beneath his soul's eye the entire time, spitting fire into his palm, rubbing mud into his cheeks…
Only when he had bared a small patch of earth did Sorweel realize what he was doing: moulding the dread Mother's face the way Porsparian had the day the Aspect-Emperor had declared him a Believer-King. It seemed a kind of crazed game, one of those acts that send the intellect laughing even as the stomach quails.
He could not pinch and mould the way the Shigeki slave had because the earth was so dry, so he raised the cheeks by cupping dust beneath his palms, sculpted the brow and nose with a trembling fingertip. He held his breath clutched and shallow, lest he mar his creation with an errant exhalation. He fussed over the work, even used the edge of his fingernail to render details. It was a numb and loving labour. When he was finished, he rested his head in the crook of his arm and gazed at the thing's shadowy profile, trying to blink away the deranged impossibility of it. For a mad moment, it seemed the whole of the World, all the obdurate miles he had travelled, multiplied on and on in every direction, was but the limbless body of the face before him.
King Harweel's face.
Sorweel hugged his shoulders with a wrestler's fury, grappled with the sobs that kicked through him. "Father?" he cried on a murmur.
"Son…" the earthen lips croaked in reply.
He felt himself bend back… as if he were a bow drawn by otherworldly hands.
"Water," the image coughed on a small cloud of dust, "climbs the prow…"
Sorweel raised a crazed fist, dashed the face into the combed grasses.
– | He neither slept nor lay awake.
He waited in the in-between.
"So all this time?" he heard himself ask Eskeles.
"The clans have been driven before the Great Ordeal and its rumour, accumulating… Like water before the prow of a boat…"
Sorweel had seen few boats in his life: fishing hulls, of course, and the famed river galley at Unterpa. He understood the significance of the sorcerer's description.
The problem was that the Scions tracked game to the southwest of the Great Ordeal.
So very far from the prow.
He bided his time in turmoil. His body had lost its instinct for breathing, so he drew air in its stead. Never did the sun seem so long in climbing.
"With all due respect, my King…" the sorcerer said with a waking sneer. "Kindly go fuck your elbows."
Eskeles was one of those men who never learned to bridle their temper simply because it was so rare. The sun had yet to breach the desolate line of the east, but the sky was brightening over the scattered sleepers. The sentries watched with frowning curiosity, as did several of the horses. Harnilas was awake as well, but Sorweel did not trust his Sheyic enough to go to him directly.
"The Sranc war-party we destroyed," Sorweel insisted. "It had no sentries posted."
"Please, boy," the corpulent man said. He rolled his bulk away from the young King. "Let me get back to my nightmares."
"It was alone, Eskeles. Don't you see?"
He raised his puffy face to blink at him over his shoulder. "What are you saying?"
"We lie to the southwest of the Great Ordeal… What kind of water piles behind a boat?"
The Schoolman stared at him for a blinking, beard-scratching moment, then with a groan rolled onto his rump. Sorweel helped haul him to his cursing feet and together they went to Harnilas, who was already ministering to his pony. Eskeles began by apologizing for Sorweel, something the young King had no patience for, especially when he could scarce understand what was being said.
"We're tracking an army!" he cried.
Both men looked to him in alarm. Harnilas glanced at Eskeles for a translation, which the Schoolman provided with scarce a glance in the Captain's direction. "What makes you say that?" he asked Sorweel on the same breath.
"These Sranc, the ones who cut down the elk, they are being driven."
"How could you know that?"
"We know this is no Hording," the young King replied, breathing deep to harness his thoughts, which had become tangled for a long night of horror and brooding. "The Sranc, as you said, are even now fleeing before the Great Ordeal, clan bumping into clan, gathering into a hor-"
"So?" Eskeles snapped.
"Think about it," he said. "If you were the Consult… You would know about the Hording, would you not?"
"More than any living," the Schoolman admitted, his voice taut with alarm. For Sorweel, the word Consult as yet possessed little meaning beyond the fear it sparked in the eyes of the Inrithi. But after the incident with the skin-spy in the Umbilicus, he had found it increasingly difficult to dismiss them as figments of the Aspect-Emperor's madness. As with so many other things.
"So they would know not only that the Great Ordeal will be attacked, but when as well…"
"Very possibly," Eskeles said.
Sorweel thought of his father, of all the times he had heard him reason with his subjects, let alone his men. "To be a worthy King," Harweel had once told him, "is to lead, not to command." And he understood that all the bickering, all the discourse he had considered wasted breath, "tongue-measuring," was in fact central to kingship.
"Look," he said. "We all know this expedition is a farce, that Kayutas sent us to patrol a rear flank that would never have been patrolled otherwise simply because we are the Scions-the sons of his father's enemies. We cover territory that a host would otherwise be blind to, territory a cunning enemy could exploit. While patrolling this imaginary flank, we stumble across a war-party with no sentries posted, oblivious enough to find respite in the shade. In other words, we find proof that for this corner of the Istyuli, at least, the Great Ordeal does not exist…"
He trailed to let the Schoolmen complete his translation.
"Then we find the slaughtered elk, something you say Sranc only do when Hording-which we know cannot be the case…"
Sorweel hesitated, looked from man to man, the stern old veteran and the square-bearded sorcerer.
"You have our attention, my King," Eskeles said.
"All I have are guesses…"
"And we are dutifully astounded."
Sorweel looked out over the milling ponies to the vast elk trail, which was little more than the mottling of darker greys across the predawn landscape. Somewhere… Out there.
"My guess," he said, reluctantly turning back to the two men, "is that we've stumbled across some kind of Consult army, one that-" He paused to gulp air and swallow. "One that shadows the Great Ordeal using the elk both to feed itself and to conceal their trail. My guess is they plan to wait until the Great Ordeal comes against the Hording…" He swallowed and nodded as if suddenly recalling some adolescent insecurity. He flinched from an image of his father, speaking dust from the dirt. "Then… then attack the host from behind… But…"
"But what?" Eskeles asked.
"But I'm not sure how this could be possible. The Sranc, they…"
Eskeles and Harnilas exchanged a worried glance. The Captain looked up, gazed at the young King in the fixed manner officers use to humble subordinates. Without breaking eye contact, he said, "Aethum souti sal meretten," to the Mandate Schoolman beside him. Then he continued in Sheyic spoken slowly enough for Sorweel to follow. "So. What would you do?"
The young King of Sakarpus shrugged. "Ride hard for the Aspect-Emperor."
The old officer smiled and nodded, slapped him on the shoulder before bawling for camp to be broken.
"So it is possible?" Sorweel asked Eskeles, who remained beside him, watching with a strange, almost fatherly gleam in his eyes. "The Sranc could be doing what I think?"
The Schoolman crushed his beard into his barrel chest, nodding. "In ancient times, before the coming of the No-God, the Consult would harness the Sranc, chain them into great assemblies that the Ancient Norsirai called Yokes…" He paused, blinking as though to pinch away unwanted memories. "They would drive them the way we drive slaves in the Three Seas, starve them until their hungers reached a fever pitch. Then, when they reached a position where the Sranc could smell Mannish blood on the wind, they would strike the chains and let them run."
Something within the Sakarpi King, a binding of fear and hope, slumped in relief. He almost reeled for exhaustion, as if alarm alone had sustained him through all the sleepless watches.
The Schoolman steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.
Sorweel shook his head to dismiss the sorcerer's worry. He looked out across the morning plain: Sakarpus could be directly behind him instead of weeks away, for all the difference the horizon made.
"The Captain…" he said, returning the sorcerer's gaze. "What did he say to you just then?"
"That you possess the gifts of a great king," Eskeles replied, squeezing his shoulder the way his father had, whenever he took pride in his son's accomplishments.
Gifts? something within him wanted to cry. No…
Only things that the dirt had told him.
The Western Three Seas
Late Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Somewhere South of Gielgath…
That which comes after determines what comes before-in this World.
The Gift-of-Yatwer walked across ordained ground. His skin did not burn, thanks to the swarthiness he had purchased with his seed. His feet did not blister, thanks to the calluses he had purchased with his youth. But he grew weary as other men grew weary, for like them, he was a thing of flesh and blood. But he always tired when he should grow tired. And his every slumber delivered him to the perfect instant of waking. Once to the sound of lutes and to the generosity of travelling mummers. Another time to a fox that bolted, leaving the goose it had been laboriously dragging.
Indeed, his every breath was a Gift.
He crossed the exhausted plantations of Anserca, drawing stares from those slaves who saw him. Though he walked alone, he followed a file of thousands across the fields, for he was always the stranger he pursued, and the back before him was forever his own. He would look up, see himself walking beneath a solitary, windswept tree, vanishing stride by stride over the far side of a hill. And when he turned, he would see that same tree behind him, and the same man descending the same slope. A queue of millions connected him to himself, from the Gift who coupled with the Holy Crone to the Gift who watched the Aspect-Emperor dying in blood and expressionless disbelief.
He was the ripple across dark waters. The bow of force thrown across a length of a child's rope.
He saw the assassin gagging on his own blood. He saw the besieging armies, the hunger in the streets. He saw the Holy Shriah turn oblivious and bare his throat. He saw the Andiamine Heights crashing upon itself, the Empress's eyes flutter about her final breath…
And he walked alone, following a road of fields, stranded in the now of a mortal soul.
Day after day, across mile after mile of tilled earth-the very bosom of his dread Mother. He slept between the rising stalks, the nascent heads, listening to his Mother's soothing whisper, staring at stars that were silver lines.
He followed his footprints across the dust, witnessing more than plotting the murder of the dead.
The River Sempis
At least, Malowebi thought to himself as he swayed in his saddle, he could say he had seen a ziggurat before he died. What could that fool, Likaro, say? There was more to travel than bedding Nilnameshi slave boys, just as there was more to diplomacy than wearing an ambassador's wig.
Cohorts of horsemen fanned across the land, filing along irrigation dikes, filtering through groves and across millet fields. Hills like broken molars fenced the north, marking the arid frontier of Gedea. The River Sempis lay to the immediate south, black and green and placid, broad enough to shroud the South Bank in blue-grey haze. Five plumes of smoke rose from disparate points on the horizon before them.
One of those plumes, Malowebi knew, led the dusty army to Iothiah.
"It is a dangerous thing," Fanayal ab Kascamandri said from his side, a sharp grin drawing wide his elaborate goatee, "to parlay with the enemies of dangerous men. And in the whole wide world, my friend, no man is so dangerous as Kurcifra."
Despite the Padirajah's smile, something shrewd and quite humourless glinted in his eyes.
Second Negotiant Malowebi, Emissary of High Holy Zeum, matched the man's gaze, careful to conceal his frown. "Kurcifra…" he repeated. "Ah… you mean the Aspect-Emperor."
The Mbimayu sorcerer was old enough to remember the days when Kian ruled the Eastern Three Seas. Of all the outland peculiarities to leak into Zeum, few proved more vexing than the Fanim missionaries who trickled across the frontier, bearing their absurd message of fear and damnation. The God was Solitary. The Gods were in fact devils. And all their ancestors had been damned for worshipping them- all of them! You would think that claims so preposterous and repulsive would require no rebuttal, but the very opposite had been the case. Even the Zeumi, it turned out, were quick to embrace tales of their own iniquity, so universal is self-loathing among Men. Not a month passed, it sometimes seemed, without some public flaying.
Even still, when Fanayal's Padirajah father had sent an embassy to attend the coronation of Malowebi's cousin, Nganka'kull, the Kianene Grandees had caused a sensation among the kjineta. High Holy Zeum had always been an inward nation, too distant and too vain to concern itself with events or peoples beyond its sacred frontier. But the Kianene's pale skin, the stark luxury of their dress, their pious reserve-everything about them had hummed with exotic allure. Over night, it seemed, the Zeumi fondness for elaborate image and ornamentation had become dowdy and obsolete. Many caste-nobles even began cultivating goatees-until, that is, his cousin reinstated the ancient Grooming Laws.
Malowebi could scarce imagine these Kianene inspiring an upheaval in fashion. Where the Grandees of Kascamandri's embassy possessed the dress and bearing of heroes, Fanayal's men were little more than desert bandits. He had expected to ride with the likes of Skauras or Cinganjehoi, men terrible in war and gracious in peace, not a ragtag army of horse-thieves and rapists.
Fanayal alone reminded him of those ambassadors from long ago. He wore a helm of shining gold, five spikes rising from the peak, and perhaps the finest coat of mail Malowebi had ever seen-a mesh of inhuman manufacture, he eventually decided. His yellow-silk sleeves hung like pennants from his wrists. His curved sword was obviously a famed heirloom. The instant he had noticed it, Malowebi had known he would say, "That glorious blade-was that your father's?" He even knew the solemn way he would pitch his voice. It was an old diplomat's trick, making a conversational inventory of the items his counterparts wore.
Relationships went much smoother, Malowebi had learned, in the absence of verbal holes.
"Kurcifra…" the Padirajah repeated with a curious smile, as if considering the way the name might sound to an outsider. "The light that blinds."
Fanayal ab Kascamandri was nothing if not impressive. Handsome, in the hard way of desert breeding. His falcon eyes set close about a hooked nose. Arrogant to the point of being impervious to insult and slight-and being quite agreeable as a result.
The Bandit Padirajah he might be, but he was no bandit, at least.
"You said no man is so dangerous," Malowebi pressed, genuinely curious. "Is this what you think? That the Anasurimbor is a man?"
Fanayal laughed. "The Empress is a woman — I know that much. I once spared a Shrial Priest for claiming he had bedded her when she was a whore. The Aspect-Emperor? I know only that he can be killed."
"And how do you know this?"
"Because I am the one doomed to kill him."
Malowebi shook his head in wonder. How the World revolved about the Aspect-Emperor. How many times had he poured himself some unwatered wine just to drink and marvel at the simple fact of the man? A refugee wanders into the Nansurium from the wilderness-with a Scylvendi savage, no less! — and within twenty years, he not only commands the obedience of the entire Three Seas but its worship as well.
It was mad. Too mad for mere history, which was, as far as Malowebi could tell, every bit as mean and as stupid as the men who made it. There was nothing mean or stupid about Anasurimbor Kellhus.
"This is how Men reason in the Three Seas?" he asked. He repented the words even as he spoke them. Malowebi was Second Negotiant for no small reason. He was forever asking blunt questions, forever alienating instead of flattering. He had more teeth than tongue, as the menials would say.
But the Bandit Padirajah showed no outward sign of offence. "Only those who have seen their doom, Malowebi! Only those who have seen their doom!"
Fanayal, the Mbimayu sorcerer noted with no small relief, was a man who relished insolent questions.
"I notice you ride without bodyguards," he ventured.
"Why should that concern you?"
Though horsemen clotted the fields and berms about them, he and the Padirajah rode quite alone-aside from a cowled figure who trailed them by two lengths. Malowebi had assumed the man was a bodyguard of some description, but twice now he had glimpsed-or thought he had glimpsed-something resembling a black tongue within the cowl's dun shadows. Even still, it was remarkable, really, that someone like Fanayal would treat with anyone face to face, let alone an outland sorcerer. Just the previous week the Empress had offered another ten thousand gold kellics for the Bandit Padirajah's head.
Perhaps it spoke to the man's desperation…
"Because," the Mbimayu sorcerer said with a shrug, "your insurrection would not survive your loss… We would be fools to provoke the Aspect-Emperor on the promise of a martyr."
Fanayal managed to rescue his grin before it entirely faltered. He understood the power of belief, Malowebi realized, and the corresponding need to project confidence, both fatuous and unrelenting.
"You need not worry."
"Because I cannot die."
Malowebi was beginning to like the man but in a way that cemented, rather than softened, his skepticism of him. The Second Negotiant always had a weakness for vainglorious fools, even as a child. But unlike the First Negotiant, Likaro, he never let his sympathies make his decisions for him.
Commitments required trust, and trust required demonstrations. The Satakhan had sent him to assess Fanayal ab Kascamandri, not to parlay with him. For all his failings, Nganka'kull was no fool. With the Great Ordeal crawling into the northern wastes, the question was whether the New Empire could survive the absence of its Aspect-Emperor and his most fanatical followers. As the first real threat to the Zeumi people and nation since Near Antiquity, it needed to fail-and decisively.
But wishing ill and doing actual harm were far different beasts. Care had to be taken-extreme care. High Holy Zeum could ill afford any long throws of the number-sticks, not after Nganka'kull had so foolishly yielded his own son as a hostage. Malowebi had always been fond of Zsoronga, had always seen in him the makings of a truly great Satakhan. He needed some real assurance that this desert outlaw and his army of thieves could succeed before recommending the monies and arms they so desperately needed. To take isolated fortresses was one thing. But to assail a garrisoned city — that was quite another.
Iothiah, the ancient capital of Old Dynasty Shigek. Iothiah would be an impressive demonstration. Most assuredly.
"Kurcifra was sent as punishment," Fanayal continued, "an unholy angel of retribution. We had grown fat. We had lost faith with the strict ways of our fathers. So the Solitary God burned the lard from our limbs, drove us back into the wastes where we were born…" He fixed the sorcerer with a gaze that was alarming for its intensity. "I am anointed, Outlander. I am the One."
"But Fate has many whims. How can you be sure?"
Fanayal's laughter revealed the perfect crescent of his teeth. "If I'm wrong, I always have Meppa." He turned to the enigmatic rider trailing them. "Eh, Meppa? Raise your mask."
Malowebi twisted in his saddle to better regard the man. Meppa raised bare hands, pulled back the deep cowl that had obscured his face. The mask Fanayal referred to was not so much a mask as a kind of blindfold: a band of silver as wide as a child's palm lay about his upper face, as if a too-large crown had slipped over his eyes. The sun flashed across its circuit, gleamed across the innumerable lines etched into it: water rushing sideways, around and around in an infinite cataract.
His cowl thrown back, Meppa raised the band from his head. His hair was as white as the peaks of the Atkondras, his skin nut brown. No eyes glinted from the shadow of his sockets…
Malowebi fairly gasped aloud. Suddenly, it seemed absurd that he had missed the hue of ochre in the man's dust-rimmed robes or that he had mistaken the serpent rising from the folds about the man's collar for a black tongue.
"Look about you, my friend," Fanayal continued, as if this revelation should settle the Second Negotiant's every misgiving. He gestured to the pillars of smoke bent across the sky before them. "This land simmers with rebellion. All I need do is ride fast. So long as I ride fast, I outnumber the idolaters everywhere!"
But the sorcerer could only think, Cishaurim!
Like every other School, the Mbimayu had assumed the Water-Bearers were extinct-and like every other School, they had been happy for it. The Tribe of Indara-Kishauri was too dangerous to be allowed to live.
Small wonder the Bandit Padirajah had such a talent for survival.
"Then what need do you have of Zeum?" Malowebi asked quickly. He had hoped Fanayal would overlook his obvious fluster, but the sly glint in the man's eye confirmed what the Second Negotiant had already known: very little escaped the claws of Fanayal's acumen. Perhaps he was the first foe worthy of the Aspect-Emperor.
"Because I am but one," the Padirajah said. "If a second strikes, then a third will join us, and a fourth…" He flung out his arms in an expansive gesture, setting alight the innumerable links of his nimil mail. "The New Empire- all of it, Malowebi! — will collapse into the blood and lies from which it was raised."
The Zeumi Emissary nodded as though acknowledging the logic, if not the attraction, of his argument. But all he really could think was, Cishaurim.
So… the accursed Water still flowed.
Discord is the way of imperial power. Triamis the Great once described empire as the perpetual absence of peace. "If your nation wars," he wrote, "not at the periodic whim of aggressors both internal and external, but always, then your people continually imposes its interests upon other peoples, and your nation is no longer a nation, but an empire." War and empire, for the legendary Near Antique ruler, were simply the same thing glimpsed from different summits, the only measure of power and the only surety of glory.
In the Hoshrut, the Carythusali agora famed for the continuous view it afforded of the Scarlet Spires, the Judges publicly lashed a slave they had apprehended for blasphemy. She was lucky, they reasoned, since they could have charged her with sedition, a capital crime, in which case the dogs would already be lapping her blood from the flagstones. For some reason the unruly temper of the crowds that surrounded them escaped their notice. Perhaps because they were true believers. Or perhaps because the Hoshrut Pole, like the thousands of others scattered across the Three Seas, was so often used for matters of expedited justice. Either way, they were entirely unprepared for the mob's rush. Within a matter of moments they had been beaten, stripped, and hung from the hanging stone gutters of the Imperial Custom House. Within a watch, a greater part of the city rioted, slaves and caste-menials mostly, and the Imperial Garrison found itself engaged in pitched battles in the streets. Thousands died over the days following. Nearly an eighth of the city burned to the ground.
In Oswenta, Hampei Sompas, a high-ranking Imperial Apparati, was found in bed with his throat cut. He was but the first of many-very many-assassinations. As the days passed more and more Shrial and Imperial functionaries, from the lowest tax-farmers to highest judges and assessors, were murdered, either by their body-slaves or by the bands of armed menials that had taken to revenge killings in the streets.
There were more riots. Seleukara burned for seven days. Aoknyssus was only wracked for two, but tens of thousands were killed, so savage were the Imperial reprisals. The wife and children of King Nersei Proyas were removed to Attrempus for safety's sake.
Long-running insurrections flared into renewed violence, for there was no shortage of old and sequestered foes eager to take advantage of the general discord. In the southwest, the Fanim under Fanayal ab Kascamandri stormed and seized the fortress of Gara'gul in the province of Mongilea, and in numbers so alarming that the Empress ordered four Columns rushed to defend Nenciphon, the former capital of the Kianene Empire. In the east, the wilder Famiri tribes from the steppes below the Araxes Mountains overthrew their Imperial administrators and massacred the Zaudunyani converts among them: sons of the families that had ruled them from time immemorial. And the Scylvendi raided the Nansur frontier with a daring and viciousness not seen for a generation.
Middle-aged veterans were called up. Militias were levied. A dozen small battles were fought across lands famous and obscure. Curfews were extended. The Yatwerian temples were closed, and those priestesses who did not flee were imprisoned and interrogated. Plots and conspiracies were uncovered. In more orderly provinces, the executions were celebrated in garish spectacles. Otherwise, they were carried out in secret, and bodies were buried in ditches. The Slave Laws, which had afforded protections the enslaved had not known since the days of Cenei, were repealed. In a series of emergency sessions, the Greater Congregate passed several laws curtailing congress according to caste. Speaking at public fountains became punishable by immediate execution.
The caste-nobility of all nations suddenly found unity in their general terror of their servants and slaves. Suits were dropped, freeing the courts for more pressing prosecutions. Old and honourable enmities were set aside. The Shriah of the Thousand Temples summoned high-ranking Cultic priests from across the Three Seas for what would be called the Third Pan-Sumni Council, urging them to set aside their parochial worship, to recall the God behind the Gods. Shrial Priests everywhere inveighed on behalf of their Prophet and Sovereign. Those Zaudunyani who had not joined the Great Ordeal raised their voices to harangue their peers and their lessers. Groups of them took to murdering in the dark of night those they deemed unfaithful.
Sons and husbands simply vanished.
And though the New Empire tottered, it did not fall.
Anasurimbor Kelmomas sat where he always sat when attending the Imperial Synod, in the Prince's Box on a bench cushioned with plush red leather: the same place where his older siblings had sat when they were young-even Thelli before she had joined Mother beneath the Circumfix Throne.
"Recall who it is you address, Pansulla," Mother called down in a tight voice.
Though positioned relatively low on the palace heights, the chamber, the Synodine, was one of the more luxurious ones in the palace, and certainly among the most curious. Unlike other council chambers, it possessed no gallery for visiting observers and absolutely no windows. Where airy grandeur was the rule elsewhere, the chamber was long and narrow, with elaborately panelled boxes-the Prince's Box one of them-lining the short walls and with steep benches stepping the entire length of the long walls, as if an amphitheatre had been straightened and then snapped in half, forcing the audience to confront itself.
To accommodate the Circumfix Throne, a deep marble recess shelved the stepped slope to Kelmomas's left, blue-white stone trimmed with bands of black diorite. A scale replica of the Circumfix as it had hung in Caraskand, including his father hanging spread-eagled and upside down, rose in sinuous gold from the throne's back. His mother's chair and Thelli's had been cut into the marble tier immediately below it, their simple design concentrating the glory of the throne above. Some thirty identical seats had been set into the steps rising opposite, one for each of the Great Factions, whose interests governed the New Empire.
The floor lay well below all the seats, forcing those who walked it to continually crane their heads up and around to meet the gaze of their interlocutors. It was a narrow strip of bare floor, no bigger than several prison cells set end to end. Kelmomas had heard several functionaries refer to it-and with no little dread-as the Slot.
Because the man who now paced its length was so fat, Cutias Pansulla, the Nansur Consul, it looked even more narrow than usual. He had been strutting back and forth for several moments now, long enough for dark stains to bloom from his armpits.
"But I must… I must dare speak it!" he cried, his shaved jowls trembling. "The people are saying that the Hundred are against us!"
The Imperial Synod, his mother had told Kelmomas, was a kind of boiled-down version of the Greater Congregate, what other kings in other lands often called a privy council, the place where representatives of the New Empire's most important interests could confer with their divine ruler. Of course, he always pretended to forget this explanation when he spoke to his mother and to always whine as he accompanied her to the sessions, but he secretly adored the Synod and the games within games it invariably revealed-at least when his father failed to attend them. Elsewhere, the words always seemed to be the same, glory this and glory that, and the lofty tone seemed to drone on and on and on. It was like watching men dual with bars of iron. But in the Synodine, both the words and the voices were honed to a cutting edge.
Real disputes instead of pantomime. Real consequences instead of heavenly petitions. Lives, sometimes in the thousands, were decided in this place as in no other. The young Prince-Imperial could almost smell the smoke and blood. This was where real cities were burned, not ones carved of balsa.
"Ask yourself," Mother cried to the assembled men. "Who will you be when the scripture of these days is written? The craven? The weak-kneed doubter? All of you- All of you! As the trial deepens, and the trial always deepens, all of you will be judged. So stop thinking of me as his weaker vessel!"
Kelmomas jammed his mouth into his forearms to conceal his smile. Though his mother angered often, she only rarely expressed it as anger. The boy wondered whether the fat Consul below understood the peril of his situation.
He certainly hoped not.
"Holy Empress, please!" Pansulla exclaimed. "This… this talk… it does not answer our fears! At the very least you must give us something to tell the people!"
The Prince-Imperial sensed the power in these words, even though he did not fully understand their import. He certainly could see the indecision in Mother's eyes, the realization she had erred…
That one, the secret voice whispered.
Yes. His breathing offends me.
Ever keen to exploit weakness, the round-bellied Consul pressed his advantage. "All we ask, Most Holy Empress, is for the tools to work your will…"
Mother glared at him for a moment, then glanced nervously across the assembly. She seemed to flinch from the gravity of their regard. At last she waved a loose-wristed hand in weariness and capitulation. "Read The Sagas…" she began but without breath. She paused to firm her voice. "Read The Sagas, the history of the First Apocalypse, and ask yourself, Where are the Gods? How can the Hundred allow this?"
And the little boy could see the craft behind his mother's manner and words. Silence had seized the Imperial Synod, such was the force of her question.
"Thelli…" his mother said, gesturing to her daughter who sat gowned in absurd intricacy at her side. Dreadfully thin, she looked like a bird stranded between too many crumbs and the inability to choose. "Tell them what the Mandate Schoolmen say."
"The Gods are-are finite," Theliopa declared in a voice that contradicted the stark angularity of her frame. "They can only apprehend a finite por-portion of existence. They fathom the future-future, certainly, but from a vantage that limits them. The No-God dwells in their blind spots, follows a path-path they are utterly oblivious to…" She turned, looking from man to man with open curiosity. "Because he is oblivion."
Mother rested her hand atop Thelli's in a thoughtless gesture of thanks. Behind the panels of his box, the young Prince-Imperial fairly cut open his palms for balling his fists.
She loves me more! he thought.
Yes, the voice agreed, she loves you more.
The Empress spoke with renewed confidence. "There is a world, my Lords, a world concealed, a world of shadow that the Gods cannot see…" She looked from Consul to Consul. "I fear we now walk that world."
A wall of bewildered looks greeted her. Even Pansulla seemed taken aback. Kelmomas almost chirped in glee, so proud was he of his mother.
"And the Hundred?" old Tutmor, the Consul for King Hoga Hogrim of Ce Tydonn croaked, his eyes rimmed with real fear. Alarmed voices clamoured in his wake.
Their Empress graced them all with a sour smile. "The Gods chafe, because like all souls, they call evil what they cannot comprehend."
More astounded silence. Kelmomas found himself squinting in hilarity. Why anyone should fear the Gods was quite beyond him, let alone fools as privileged and powerful as these.
Because they are old and dying, the secret voice whispered.
Pansulla still held the Slot. He now stood directly beneath his Empress.
"So…" he said, looking to the others with a strategically blank face. "So it is true, then? The Gods…"-his gaze wandered-"the almighty Gods… are against us?"
Disaster. It fairly slapped the blood from Mother's painted face. Her lips retreated, the way they always did during such moments, into a thin line.
He offends me… the secret voice cooed. The fat one.
"Now…" she began, only to halt to master the emotion in her voice. " Now… Pansulla, is the time for care. Heretical superstition will be the end of us all. Now is the time to recall the God of Gods and his Prophet."
The threat was clear-enough to trigger another exchange of whispers among the tiered men. Smiling with greasy insincerity, Pansulla knelt to the floor, so big and so floridly gowned that he looked more a heap of laundry than a man.
"But of course, Holy Empress."
For the slightest instant, his mother's hatred lay plain on her face.
"Courage, Pansulla," she said. "And you too, loyal Tutmor. You must find courage, not in the Hundred, but, as Inri Sejenus and my divine husband have taught, in their sum."
The Nansur Consul struggled back to his feet.
"Indeed, Empress," he said, smoothing his silk robes. " Courage… Of course…" His eyes strayed to the others. "We must remind ourselves that we know better… than the Gods."
Kelmomas grappled with the squeal of joy clawing at his throat. He so loved his mother's fury!
We've never killed someone so fat before.
"Not 'we,' Cutias Pansulla. Not you, and certainly not me. Your Holy Aspect-Emperor. Anasurimbor Kellhus."
The young Prince-Imperial understood what his mother was trying to achieve with these appeals to his father. Always using him as a goad. Always trying to vanish into the might of his name. But he could also see, with a kind of child-cunning, how this undermined her authority.
Once again the obese Consul nodded in jowl-quivering exaggeration. "Ah, yes-yes… When the Cults fail us, we must turn to the Thousand Temples." He glanced up as if to say, How could I be such a fool? He made of a show of turning to Maithanet's vacant seat, then looked to his Empress with mock confusion. "But when can we hope to hear our Holy Shriah's most wise couns-?"
"Tidings!" a voice pealed. "Tidings, Empress! Most dire tidings!"
All eyes in the Synodine turned to the figure gasping on the chamber's threshold: an Eothic Guardsman, red-faced for exertion.
"Most Holy Empress…" The guardsmen swallowed against his wind. "The Kianene-the loathsome bandit, Fanayal!"
"What of him?" Mother demanded.
"He has struck Shigek."
Kelmomas watched his mother blink in confusion.
"But… he's marching on Nenciphon…" A frantic note climbed into her voice. "Don't you mean Nenciphon?"
The messenger shook his head in sudden terror.
"No, most Holy Empress. Iothiah. Fanayal has taken Iothiah."
The Andiamine Heights was a city in its own right, albeit one enclosed beneath a welter of rooftops, with gilded concourses instead of processional avenues and mazed dormitories instead of alley-riddled slums. Any number of routes could be taken between any two points, allowing the inhabitants to travel in celebrity or discretion. Unlike his father, Kelmomas's mother almost always chose the most discreet route possible, even if it made the journey twice as lengthy. Though some might think this was yet one more sign of her general insecurity, the young boy knew otherwise. Anasurimbor Esmenet simply despised the sight of people falling to their faces.
The Imperial Synod dissolved, the Empress led her small retinue down into the Apparatory before turning to climb the rarely used stairs and halls that threaded the palace's eastward reaches. She clutched Kelmomas's hand with the too-tight desperation he so adored, tugging him when his pace faltered. Theliopa followed close behind with Lord Biaxi Sankas breathing hard at her side.
"Will Uncle Maithanet get mad at you again?" Kelmomas asked.
"Why would you say that?"
"Because he blames you for everything that goes wrong! I hate him!"
She ignored him after that, visibly angered.
Glutton, the secret voice reproached. You need to take care.
"Most Holy Empress," Lord Sankas said into the ensuing silence. "I fear the situation with your brother-in-law grows untenable…" Kelmomas glanced back at the man. He almost looked like Thelli's grandfather, he was so tall and slender. Decked in full martial regalia-a ceremonial Kidruhil cuirass and the purple cloak of a retired general-and cleanshaven in the traditional way, he resembled the old Nansur that Kelmomas so often saw engraved or painted in the original parts of the palace.
"Fanayal is in Shigek," she replied testily. "If you haven't noticed, Sankas, I have more pressing concerns."
But the Patridomos was not so easily silenced. "Perhaps if you were to speak with hi-"
"No!" the Empress exclaimed, wheeling around to glare up at the man. The wall to their left had yielded to an open colonnade that overlooked the Imperial Precincts and the east more generally. The Meneanor heaved dark beneath the sun on the horizon beyond.
"He must never see my face," she said more evenly. The shadow of an arch divided her from waist to shoulder so that her lower gown shimmered with light. Kelmomas pressed his face into the warm, scented fabric. She combed his scalp out of maternal reflex. "Do you understand, Sankas? Never. "
"Forgive me, Most Holy!" the caste-noble fairly cried. "It-it was not my intent to cause offence…"
He trailed awkwardly, looking as though he had tripped across some disastrous suspicion. "Most Holy Empress…" he said tightly. "May I ask why the Shriah must not see your face?"
Kelmomas almost chortled aloud, saved himself by looking away in the appearance of little-boy boredom. Over a jumble of roof and structure, he glimpsed a formation of distant guardsmen doing drills on one of the seaward campuses. More soldiers were arriving every day, so many it was becoming impossible for him to adventure in the old way.
"Thelli," his mother said from above. "Please, would you assure Lord Sankas that I am not a skin-spy."
The Patridomos blanched. "No… No!" he blurted. "That is certainly no-"
"Mother is not-not a skin-spy," Theliopa interrupted.
His mother's hands and presence slipped away from the boy. Ever conscious of her menial stature, the Empress used the view as an excuse to step clear of the looming Patridomos. She gazed out over the Meneanor. "Our dynasty, Sankas, is a… a complicated one. I say what I say for good reason. I need to know that you have faith enough to trust that."
"But what, Sankas?"
" Maithanet is the Holy Shriah…"
Kelmomas watched his mother smile her calm, winning smile, the one that told everyone present that she could feel what they felt. Her ability to communicate compassion, he had long since realized, was easily her strongest attribute-as well as the one most likely to send him into jealous rages.
"Indeed, Sankas… He is our Shriah. But the fact remains: my divine husband, his brother, decided to trust me with the fate of the Empire. Why might that be, you wonder?"
The man's pained squint relaxed in sudden comprehension. "Of course, Most Holy! Of course!"
Men cast their lots, the Prince-Imperial realized. They gambled time, riches, even loved ones, on those great personages they thought would carry the day. Once the gambit was made, you need only give them reasons to congratulate themselves.
His mother dismissed both Sankas and Theliopa shortly afterward. Kelmomas's heart cartwheeled for joy. Again and again and again, he was the one she brought with her to her apartments.
He was the one! Again and again. The only one!
As always, they passed the ponderous bronze door to Inrilatas's room with their ears pricked. Kelmomas's older brother had ceased screaming of late-like the seasons he had his tempests and his idylls-leaving the young Prince-Imperial with the troubling sense that he was there, his cheek pressed against the far side of his door, listening to their comings and goings. The fact that he never heard Inrilatas doing this troubled him even more, for he was quite fond of hearing things. Theliopa once told him that of all his brothers and sisters, Inrilatas possessed his father's gifts in the greatest measure, so much so they continually overwhelmed his mortal frame. Though Kelmomas did not begrudge Inrilatas his insanity-he celebrated it, if anything-he did resent his greedy share of Father's blood.
And so he hated Inrilatas as well.
Mother's body-slaves rushed from their antechambers to line the hall to either side, kneeling with their faces to the floor. The Empress brushed past them in distaste, pushed open the bronze doors to her apartments herself. Kelmomas never understood why she disdained using people-Father certainly never hesitated-but he adored the way it gave them more time alone. Again and again, he got to hug her and to kiss her and to cuddle-cuddle…
Ever since he had murdered Samarmas.
Sunlight rafted through the airy interior, setting the white-gossamer sheers aglow. A sycamore stood dark and full in the light beyond the balconies, close enough to glimpse the limbs forking through the shadows behind the bushing leaves. Sandalwood scented the air.
Capering across lavish carpets, the Prince-Imperial breathed deep and smiled. He swept his gaze across the frescoes of Invishi, Carythusal, and Nenciphon. Around a corner's fluted edge, he glimpsed the tall silvered mirror in her dressing-room. He saw the chest with the toys he pretended to play with when she was preoccupied. Through the propped doors to her sleeping chamber, he saw her great bed gleaming in the murk.
This, he thought as he always thought. This was where he would live forever!
He assumed she would seize him in a hug and spin in a pirouette. A mother finding strength in the need to be strong for a beautiful son. A mother finding respite in the love of a beautiful son. She always held him when she was frightened, and she literally reeked with fear. But instead she wheeled him about by the arm and slapped him hard across the cheek.
"You are never to say such things!"
A tide of murderous hurt and outrage swamped him. Mummy! Mummy had struck him! And for what? The truth? Scenes flickered beneath his soul's eye, strangling her with her own sheets, seizing the Gold Mastodon set upon the mantle and "But I do!" he bawled. "I do hate him!"
Maithanet. Uncle Holy.
She was already holding him in a desperate embrace, shushing and kissing, pressing her tear-slicked cheek against his own.
"You shouldn't," she said, a thumb's breadth from his ear. "He's your uncle. Even more, he's the Shriah. It's a sin to speak against the Shriah-don't you know that?"
He fought her until she pressed him back.
"But he's against you! Against Father! Isn't that a si-?"
"Enough. Enough. The important thing, Kel, is that you never say these things. You are a Prince-Imperial. An Anasurimbor. Your blood is the very blood that flows in your uncle's veins…"
Dunyain blood… the secret voice whispered. What raises us above the animals.
"Do you understand what I'm telling you?" the Blessed Empress continued. "Do you realize what others think when they hear you disputing your own blood?"
"They hear dissension… discord and weakness! You embolden our enemies with this talk-do you understand me, Kel?"
"We have come upon fearful times, Kel. Dangerous times. You must always use your wits. You must always be wary…"
"Because of Fanayal, Mommy?"
She held him tight to her breast, then pressed him back. "Because of many things…" Her gaze became suddenly absent. "Look," she continued. "There's something I need to show you." She stood and with a rustle of silk moved across the bed chamber, paused before the frieze on the far wall, belts of mythic narrative piled one atop the other.
"Your father raised two palaces when he rebuilt the Andiamine Heights," she said, gesturing to the sun slanting through the unshuttered balcony. "A palace of light…" She turned, leaning forward on her toes to peer at the top panel of the marble frieze. She pressed the bottommost star of a constellation Kelmomas had never seen before. Something clicked elsewhere in the room. The Prince-Imperial literally swayed with vertigo, so surprised were his senses. The marble-gilded wall simply dropped away and swooped out, rotating on a perfect central hinge.
Light only filtered several feet into the black passage beyond.
"And a palace of shadow."
| "Your uncle," Mother said. "I don't trust him."
They sat where they always sat when the Empress took her "morning sun," as she termed it: on divans set near the heart of the Sacral Enclosure between two of the taller sycamore trees. A thin procession of clouds rode high in the blue sky above. The Imperial Apartments surrounded them on all sides, colonnaded walkways along the ground, verandas on the upper floors, some with their canopies unfurled, all forming the broad, marmoreal octagon that gave the Enclosure its famous shape.
Theliopa sat immediately next to Mother, a distance that suggested mother-daughter intimacy but was really an artefact of the girl's blindness to the rules that governed proximity. Her face, as always, was pale and sunken-skin stretched across the tent-poles of her bones. She wore what looked like several luxurious gowns sown into a florid motley, as well as dozens of jewelled broaches set end to end along the sleeve of either arm. Tree shadows waved across her, so that she seemed continually ablaze with reflected sunlight.
Wearing only a morning robe, Mother looked plain and dark in comparison-and all the more beautiful for it. Kelmomas played in the adjacent garden. With blackened fingers, he had started forming walls and bastions, a small complex of dirt structures he could strike down, but had quickly stopped when he discovered a stream of ants crawling from the earth to the blue-tiled walkway, hundreds of them. He began executing them, one by one, using his thumbnail to chip off their heads.
"Wha-what do you suspect?" his sister asked, her voice as dry as the air.
A long breath. A hand drawn to the back of her weary neck. "That he is somehow behind this crisis with the Yatwerians," his mother replied. "That he intends to use it as a pretext to seize the Empire."
Of all the games he played, this was the one the young Prince-Imperial relished the most: the game of securing his mother's constant attention while at the same time slipping beneath her notice. On the one hand, he was such a sad little boy, desolate, scarred for the tragic loss of his twin. But he was also just a little boy, too young to understand, too lost in his play to really listen. There was a time, not so long ago, when she would have sent him away for conversations such as this…
The real ones.
"I see," Theliopa said.
"Are you not surprised?"
"I'm not sure surprise-surprise is a passion I can feel, Mother."
Even watching from his periphery, Kelmomas could see his mother's expression dull. It troubled her, the little boy knew, filling in what was missing in her children. Perhaps this was why he didn't despise Theliopa the way he had that bitch, Mimara. Mother's feelings for Thelli would always be stymied by the girl's inability to reciprocate her love. But Mimara…
Some day soon… the secret voice whispered. She will love you as much… More!
"Have you conferred with Father-Father?" Theliopa asked.
His sister was a face reader. She had to see Mother's bewildered heartbreak as easily as he could. Did Thelli lack the heart to grieve this as well? Kelmomas had never been able to read much of anything in his sister. She was like Uncle Maithanet that way-only harmless.
If Mother were to ever look at him with those eyes…
"The Far-callers…" Mother said with the reluctant air of admission. "They've heard nothing for two weeks now."
The merest flicker of horror slackened Theliopa's pale face. Perhaps she could feel surprise after all-as crippled as her heart was. "What?"
"Do not fear," Mother said. "Your father lives. The Great Ordeal continues its march. I am certain of that much at least."
"Then-then what has happened?"
"Your father has declared an Interdiction. He has forbidden every Schoolmen in the Great Ordeal, on pain of execution, from contacting any soul in the Three Seas."
Kelmomas recalled his lessons on Cants of Far-Calling well enough. The primary condition of contacting someone in their dreams was to know, precisely, where they were sleeping. This meant the Great Ordeal had to contact them, since it travelled day by day.
"He suspects spies among the Schools?" Theliopa asked. "Is this some kind of ruse to draw them out?"
His sister was generally averse to eye contact, but those rare times she deigned to match someone's gaze, she did so with a peculiar intensity-like a bird spying worms. "You mean Father hasn't told you anything?"
"He abides by his own embargo? Mother… has Father deserted us?"
The young Prince-Imperial abandoned the pretense of his garden play. He even held his breath, so profound was his hope. For as long he could remember, Kelmomas had feared and hated his divine father. The Warrior-Prophet. The Aspect-Emperor. The one true Dunyain. All the native abilities possessed by his children, only concentrated and refined through a lifetime of training. Were it not for the demands of his station, were he more than just a constantly arriving and departing shadow, Father would have certainly seen the secret Kelmomas had held tight since his infancy. The secret that made him strong.
As things stood, it was only a matter of time. He would grow as his brothers and sisters had grown, and he would drift, as his brothers and sisters had drifted, from Mother's loving tutelage to Father's harsh discipline. And one day Father would peer deep into his eye and see what no one else had seen. And that day, Kelmomas knew, would be his doom…
But what if Father had abandoned them? Even better, what if he were dead?
He has the Strength, the voice whispered. So long as he lives, we are not safe…
Mother raised a finger to scoop tears from either eye. This, the young Prince-Imperial realized. This was why she had struck him the previous day! This was why the fat fool, Pansulla, had so easily goaded her, and why the tidings from Shigek had so dismayed her…
If Father is gone… the secret voice dared whisper.
"It would appear so," she said, speaking about a crack in her voice. "I fear it has something to do with your uncle."
Then we are finally safe.
"Maithanet," Thelli said.
The Empress mastered her feelings with a deep breath. "Maybe this is a… a test of some kind. Like the fable of Gam…"
Kelmomas recalled this from his lessons as well. Gam was the mythical king who faked his own death to test the honour of his four sons. The boy wanted to shout this out, to bask a moment in Mother's pride, but he bit his tongue. For the briefest of instants, he thought he saw his sister glance at him.
"It need not have anything to do with Uncle," Theliopa said. "Maybe the Consult has discovered some way of eavesdropping on our communications…"
"No. It has something to do with Maithanet. I can feel it."
"I can rarely fathom Father," Theliopa admitted.
"You?" the Empress cried with pained hilarity. "Think about your poor mother!"
Kelmomas laughed precisely the way she wanted.
"Ponder it, Thelli. Your father assuredly knows about the strife growing between us, his wife and his brother, so then why would he choose this moment to strand us each with the other?"
"That much is simple-simple, at least," Thelli replied. "Because he believes the best solution will be the one you find on your-your own."
"Exactly," Mother said. "Somehow he thinks my ignorance will serve me in this…" Her voice trailed into pensive thought. For several moments she let her gaze wander across points near and far within the Sacral Enclosure, then shook her head in sudden outrage and disgust.
"Damn your father and his machinations!" she cried, her voice loud enough to draw looks from the nearby Pillarian Guardsmen. She glanced skyward, her eyes rolling with something like panic. "Damn him!"
"Mother?" Theliopa asked.
The Empress lowered her head and sighed. "I am quite all right, Thelli." She spared her daughter a rueful look. "I don't give a damn what you think you see in my face…" She trailed, her mouth hanging on these words. Kelmomas held his breath, so attuned had he become to the wheel of his mother's passion.
"Thelli…" She began, only to hesitate for several heartbeats. "Could… Could you read his face?"
"Uncle's? Only Father has that-that ability. Father and…"
Theliopa paused as if weighing the wisdom of honest answers. " Inrilatas. He could see… Remember Father trained-trained him for a time…"
"Father trained who?" Kelmomas cried, the way a jealous little brother might.
Esmenet raised two fingers to Theliopa, turned to Kelmomas, her manner cross and adoring. "Your older brother," she explained. "Your father hoped teaching him to read passions in others would enable him to master his own." She turned back to her daughter. "Treachery?" she asked. "Could Inrilatas see treachery in a soul so subtle as Maithanet's?"
"Perhaps, Mother," the pale girl replied. "But the real-real question, I think, is not so much can he, as will he."
The Holy Empress of all the Three Seas shrugged, her expression betraying the fears that continually mobbed her heart.
"I need to know. What do we have to lose?"
Since Mother had to attend special sessions with her generals, the young Prince-Imperial dined alone that evening-or as alone as possible for a soul such as his. He was outraged even though he understood her reasons, and as always he tormented the slaves who waited on him, blaming his mother for each and every hurt he inflicted.
Later that night he pulled the board from beneath his bed and resumed working on his model. Since his uncle's treachery had loomed so large that day, he decided to work on the Temple Xothei, the monumental heart of the Cmiral temple complex. He began cutting and paring miniature columns, using the little knives that Mother had given him in lieu of a completed model. "What a man makes," she had told him, "he prizes…" Unerringly, without the benefit of any measure, he carved them, not only one identical to another, but in perfect proportion to those structures he had already completed.
He never showed his work to Mother. It would trouble her, he knew, his ability to see places just once, and from angles buried within them, yet to grasp them the way a bird might from far above.
The way Father grasped the world.
But even worse, if he showed his little city to her, it would complicate the day when he finally burned it. She did not like the way he burned things.
Bugs, he thought. He needed to fill the streets of his little city with bugs. Nothing really burned, he decided, unless it moved.
He thought of the ants in the garden.
He thought of the Pillarian Guardsmen patrolling the Sacral Enclosure. He could even hear their voices on the evening breeze as they whiled away the watches with fatuous talk…
He thought about the fun he could have, sneak-sneaking about them, more shadow than little boy.
He thought about his previous murders and the mysterious person he saw trapped in the eyes of the dying. The one person he loved more than his mother-the one and only. Convulsing, bewildered, terrified, and beseeching… beseeching most of all.
Please! Please don't kill me!
"The Worshipper," he declared aloud.
Yes, the secret voice whispered. That's a good name.
"A most strange person, don't you think, Sammi?"
"The Worshipper…" Kelmomas said, testing the sound. "How can he travel like that from body to body?"
Perhaps he's locked in a room. Perhaps dying is that room's only door…
"Locked in a room!" the young Prince-Imperial cried laughing. "Yes! Clever-clever-cunning-clever!"
And so he slipped into the gloom-gloomy hallways, dodging and ducking and scampering. Only the merest shiver in the shining lantern-flames marked his passing.
Finally he arrived at the Door… the high bronze one with seven Kyranean Lions stamped into its greening panels, their manes bent into falcon wings. The one his mother had forbidden the slaves to polish until the day it could be safely opened.
The door to his brother Inrilatas's room.
It stood partially ajar.
Kelmomas had expected, even hoped to find it such. The slaves who attended to his brother generally did so whenever lulls in his tantrums permitted. During his brother's calm seasons, however, they followed an exact schedule, cleansing and feeding Inrilatas the watch before noon and the watch before midnight.
The boy mooned in the corridor for several moments, alternately staring at the stylized dragons stitched in crimson, black, and gold across the corridor's carpet and stealing what glimpses the narrow slot provided of the cell's bare floor interior. Eventually his curiosity mastered his fear-only Father terrified him more than Inrilatas-and he pressed his face to the opening, peering past the belt of brushed leather that had been tacked to the door's outer rim to better seal in the sound and smell of his mad brother.
He could see an Attendant to his left, a harried-looking Nilnameshi man soaping the walls and floor with a rake-mop. He saw his brother sitting hunched like a shaved ape to the right of the room, his edges illuminated in the light of a single brazier. Each of his limbs were shackled to a chain that ran like an elongated tongue from the mouth of a stone lion head, one of four set into the far wall, two with their manes pressed against the ceiling, two with their chins across the floor. A winch-room lay beyond that wall, Kelmomas knew, with wheels and locks for each of the chains, allowing the Attendants to pull his brother spread-eagled against the polished stone, if need be, or to grant him varying degrees of freedom otherwise.
From the look of the links curled across the floor, they had afforded him two lengths or so of mobility-enough both to relieve and to embolden the boy. Inrilatas usually howled and raged without some modicum of slack.
At first, Kelmomas thought him absolutely motionless, but he was not.
He sat making faces… expressions.
Not any faces, but those belonging to the slave who bent to and fro with his mop a mere toss away, scrubbing away urine and feces with a perfumed astringent. Periodically the deaf-mute would cast a terrified glance in his prisoner's direction, only to see his face reflected back to him.
"Most of them flee," Inrilatas said. Kelmomas knew he addressed him even though he did not so much as glance at the boy. "Sooner or later, they choose the whip over my gaze."
"They are simple fools," Kelmomas replied, too timid to press open the door, let alone cross the threshold.
"They are exactly what they appear to be."
The shaggy mane turned. Inrilatas fixed the young Prince-Imperial with wild and laughing blue eyes. "Unlike you, little brother."
Save for his long face, Inrilatas looked utterly unlike the brother Kelmomas remembered from his infancy. His growth had come, gilding his naked form in a golden haze of hair. And years of warring against his iron restraints had strapped his frame in luxurious muscle. A beard stubbed his chin and the line of his jaw but had yet to climb his cheeks.
His voice was deep and beguiling. Not unlike Father's.
"Come, little brother," Inrilatas said with a comradely grin. He leapt toward the entrance so suddenly that the deaf-mute fumbled the handle of his mop and tripped backward. He landed at a point just shy of where the chains would bring him up short.
Kelmomas watched his brother squat and defecate, then retreat to his previous position. Still smiling, Inrilatas waved his little brother forward. He possessed a man's wrists now: the hands of a thick-fingered warrior.
"Come… I want to discuss the shit between us."
With anyone else, Kelmomas would have thought this a mad joke of some kind. Not so with Inrilatas.
The boy pressed the door inward, strode into the stench, pausing but two steps from the coiled feces. The slave glimpsed Kelmomas in his periphery, wheeled in sudden alarm. But the man was quick to resume his cleaning when he recognized him. Like so many palace slaves, terror kept him welded to the task before him.
"You show no revulsion," Inrilatas said, nodding at the feces.
Kelmomas did not know what to say, so he said nothing.
"You are not like the others, are you, little brother? No… You … are like me."
Remember your face, the secret voice warned. Only Father possesses the Strength in greater measure!
"I am nothing like you," the little Prince-Imperial replied.
It seemed strange, standing on the far side of the Door. And wrong
… So very wrong.
"But you are," Inrilatas chuckled. "All of us have inherited our Father's faculties in some mangled measure. Me… I possess his sensitivities, but I utterly lack his unity… his control. My natures blow through me-hungers, glorious hungers! — unfettered by the little armies of shame that hold the souls of others in absolute captivity. Father's reason mystifies me. Mother's compassion makes me howl with laughter. I am the World's only unbound soul…"
He raised his shackled wrists as he said this, gestured to the polluted floor before him.
"I shit when I shit."
A ringing filled the boy's ears, such was the intensity of his older brother's gaze. He began to speak, but his voice caught as though about a hook in his throat.
Inrilatas grinned. "What about you, little brother? Do you shit when you shit?"
He sees me… the secret voice whispered. You have become reckless in Father's abse "Who?" Inrilatas laughed. "The shadow of hearing moves through you-as it so often does when no one is speaking. Who whispers to you, little brother?"
"Mommy says you're mad."
"Ignore the question," his older brother snapped. "State something insulting, something that will preoccupy, and thus evade a prickly question. Come closer, little brother… Come closer and tell me you do not shit when you shit."
"I don't understand what you mean!"
He knows you lie…
"Of course you know… Come closer… Let me peer into your mouth. Let me listen to this whisper that is not your voice. Who? Who speaks inside of you?"
Kelmomas fell backward a step. Inrilatas had managed to creep forward somehow, to steal slack from his chains without the boy noticing.
"Uncle is coming to see you!"
A heartbeat of appraising silence.
"Again you ignore the question. But this time you state a truth, one that you know will intrigue me. You mean Uncle Holy, don't you? Uncle Holy is coming to visit me? I smell Mother in that."
The boy found strength in her mere mention.
"Y-yes. Mother wants you to read his face. She fears that he plots against Father-against us! She thinks only you can see."
"But Uncle has learned how to fool you."
Even as he spoke the words, Kelmomas cursed them for their clumsiness. This was an Anasurimbor crouched before him. Divinity! Divinity burned in Inrilatas's blood as surely as in his own.
"Kin," Inrilatas crowed. "Blood of my blood. What love you possess for Mother! I see it burn! Burn! Until all else is char and ash. Is she the grudge you bear against Uncle?"
But Kelmomas could think of nothing else to say or do. To answer any of his brother's questions, he knew, was to wander into labyrinths he could not hope to solve. He had to press forward…
"He has learned to disguise his disgust as pity, Uncle Holy. His treachery as concern!"
There was no other way through the monstrous intellect before him.
This is a mistake…
"The whisper warns you!" Inrilatas laughed, his eyes bright, not for the twin flames they reflected, but something more incendiary still: apprehension. "You do not like sharing… Such a peevish, devious little soul! Come closer, little brother."
He sees me!
"You cannot let him fool you!" the boy cried, trying to goad a pride that did not exist.
"I see him — the one you hide, oh yes! The other one, the whisperer. I seeeeeeeee him," Inrilatas crooned. "What does he tell you? Is he the one who wants Uncle Holy dead?"
"You will want to kill him, Brother, when he comes. I can help you!"
More laughter, warm and avuncular, at once teasing and protective. "And now you offer the beast candy. Come closer, little brother. I want to stare into your mouth."
"You will want to kill Uncle Holy," Kelmomas repeated, his thoughts giddy with sudden inspiration. "Think, brother… The sum of sins."
And with that single phrase, the young Prince-Imperial's dogged persistence was rescued-or so he thought.
Where his brother had fairly radiated predatory omniscience before, his manner suddenly collapsed inward. Even his nakedness, which had been that of the rapist-lewd, virile, bestial-lapsed into its chill and vulnerable contrary. He actually seemed to shrink in his chains.
Suddenly Inrilatas seemed as pathetic as the human shit breathing on the floor between them.
The young man's eyes flinched from the boy's gaze, sought melancholy reprieve in the shadowy corners of his cell's ceiling.
"Do you ever wonder, Kel, why it is I do what I do?"
"No," the boy answered honestly.
Inrilatas glanced at his brother, then down to the floor. Breathing deep, he smiled the sad smile of someone lost in a game pursued too far for too long. Too long to abandon. Too long to continue.
"I do it to heap damnation upon myself," he said as if making an absurd admission.
"But why?" the boy asked, genuinely curious now.
Be wary… the secret voice whispered.
"Because I can think of no greater madness."
And what greater madness could there be, exchanging a handful of glorious heartbeats for an eternity of anguish and torment? But the boy shied from this question.
"I… I don't understand," he said. "You could leave this room… anytime you wished! Mother would release you-I know it. You just need to follow the rules."
His brother paused, looked to him as if searching for evidence of kinship beyond the fact of their blood. "Tell me, little brother, what rules the rule?"
Something is wrong… the voice warned.
"The God," the boy said, shrugging.
"And what rules the God?"
"Nothing. No one."
He breaths as you breathe, the secret voice whispered, blinks as you blink-even his heartbeat captures your own! He draws your unthinking soul into the rhythms of his making. He mesmerizes you!
Inrilatas nodded in solemn affirmation. "So the God is… unconstrained."
Inrilatas stood with sudden grace, walked to the limit of chains. He seemed godlike in the gloom, his hair falling in flaxen sheets about his shoulders, his limbs bound in veined muscle, his phallus laying long and violet in a haze of golden down. He placed his foot upon his feces, and using his toes, smeared it in a foul arc across the floor below him.
"So the God is like me."
And just like that, the boy understood. The senseless sense of his brother's acts. The miraculous stakes of his mad exchange. Suddenly this little room, this shit-stained prison cell hidden from the light of shame, seemed a holy place, a temple to a different revelation, the nail of a darker heaven.
"Yes…" the boy murmured, lost in the wisdom-the heartbreaking wisdom! — of his brother's constant gaze.
And it seemed his brother's voice soaked into the surrounding walls, cupped everything that could be seen. "The God punishes us according to the degree we resemble him."
Inrilatas towered before him.
"And you resemble him, little brother. You resemble…"
What was this trap he had set for him? How could understanding, insight, capture?
"No!" the boy cried. "I am not mad! I am not like you!"
Laughter, warm and gentle. So like Mother when she is lazy and wishes only to tease and cuddle her beautiful little son. "Look," Anasurimbor Inrilatas commanded. "Look at this heap of screams you call the world, and tell me you would not add to them-pile them to the sky!"
He has the Strength, the secret voice whispered.
"I would…" Anasurimbor Kelmomas admitted. "I would." His limbs trembled. His heart hung as if plummeting through a void. What was this crashing within him? What was this release?
And his brother's voice resonated, climbed as if communicating up out of his bones. "You think you seek the love of our mother, little brother-Little Knife! You think you murder in her name. But that love is simply cloth thrown over the invisible, what you use to reveal the shape of something so much greater…"
Memories tumbled into his soul's eye. Memories of his Whelming, how he had followed the beetle to the feet of the Grinning God, the Four-horned Brother, how they had laughed when he had maimed the bug-laughed together! Memories of the Yatwerian priestess, how she had shrieked blood while the Mother of Fertility stood helpless…
And the boy could feel it! An assumption of glory. A taking possession of a certainty that had possessed him all along-possessed him in ignorance… Yes!
"Come closer," Inrilatas said in a whisper that seemed to boom across all creation. He nodded to the arc smeared across the floor between them. "Wander across the line others have etched for you…"
The young Prince-Imperial watched his left foot, small and white and bare, step forward But a gnarled hand caught him, held him with gentle insistence. Somehow the deaf-mute Attendant had circled around without the boy noticing. The man wagged his face in alarm and horror.
Inrilatas began laughing.
"Flee, little brother," he said, passion fluting through his voice. "I can feel the…" He dandled his tongue on his lips as if savouring his own sweetness, even as his eyes widened in animal fury. A coital shudder passed through him. "I feel the rage!" he roared to the stone vaults. "The furies!" He seized the slack chains, wrenched them savagely enough to make the links screech for biting one another. Saliva swung from his mouth when he jerked his face back to Kelmomas. "I can feel it come… come upon me…" His phallus climbed into a grinning arc.
The boy stood astounded. At last he yielded to the Attendant and his shoulder-tugging hands, allowed the wretch to pull him from his brother's cell…
He knew Inrilatas would find the little gift he had left for him, lying along the seam between floor-stones.
The small file he had stolen from the palace tinker… not so long ago.
Fire, fierce enough to sting the skin from paces away. Smoke, rolling in oily sheets, acrid enough to prick the eyes, needle the throat. Screams, violent enough to cramp the heart. Screams. Too many screams.
Dizzy and nauseated, Malowebi rode close beside Fanayal ab Kascamandri as the Padirajah toured the streets, some raucous, others abandoned. The Second Negotiant had never witnessed the sacking of a village, let alone a city as vast and mighty as Iothiah. It reminded him that High Holy Zeum, for all its high holy bluster, knew very little about war. The Men of the Three Seas, he had come to realize, warred without mercy or honour. Where the dynastic skirmishes his Zeumi kinsmen called war were bound by ancient code and custom, Fanayal and his men recognized no constraints that he could see, save that of military expediency and exhaustion.
They fought the way Sranc fought.
The Mbimayu sorcerer saw entire streets carpeted in bodies. He saw several rapes, the victims either vacant or shrieking, and more summary executions than he cared to count. He saw a pale-skinned Columnary holding a squalling babe in one arm while trying to battle two laughing Kianene with the other. He saw an old man jumping from a rooftop, his clothing afire.
Perhaps glimpsing something of his dismay, Fanayal was at pains to describe the atrocities suffered by his own people during the First Holy War and the subsequent Wars of Unification. A kind of madness warbled through his outrage as he spoke, condemnation spoken in the tones of divine revelation, as if nothing could be more right and true than the slaughter and rapine about them. The Bloodthirsty Excuse, the sage Memgowa had called it. Retribution.
"But there is more to this than crude vengeance," Fanayal explained, as if suddenly recalling the learning of the man he addressed. The Padirajah was proud of his own youthful education, Malowebi knew, but found the posture difficult to recover after decades of brutality and fugitive insurrection. "You make an example of the first," the man continued, "then you show mercy to the second. First, you teach them to fear you, then you earn their trust. Nirsi shal'tatra, we call it. The Honey and the Goad."
Malowebi could not but reflect on how easily the whip and the honey became confused. Everywhere they rode, the Kianene turned from their sordid labours and called out to their lord in exultation and gratitude-cheered as if famished guests at a sumptuous feast.
Savages, Cousin. You have sent me out among savages.
Something, Malowebi's silence, perhaps, convinced the Bandit Padirajah to cut their tour short. They reversed direction, rode for what seemed an entire watch plagued by the sound of a babe crying-Malowebi could almost believe someone followed them torturing a cat. Silence haunted the empty windows. Smoke sheeted the west in gauze rags, lending an eerie, watery timbre to the sunlight that slanted across the dying city. Finally they returned to the wrack and ruin of the city's northwestern walls-the section brought down by Meppa.
Once again, Malowebi found himself gawking.
"It frightens you, no?" Fanayal said, watching his profile. "The spilling of the Water."
"What do you mean?"
The Padirajah graced him with an upside-down smile. "I've been told that Schoolmen find the Cishaurim Psukhe troubling. You see a violation with your mundane eyes-the glare of sorcery-when your other eye, the one that itches, sees only mundane creation."
Malowebi shrugged, thinking of the brief dual between Meppa and the lone Saik sorcerer-a decrepit and dishevelled old man-who had defended the hapless city. The rogue Cishaurim floating, impervious to the fire of the Schoolman's Anagogic dragonhead, disgorging cataracts of blue-twinkling light as pure as it was beautiful. As awesome as Meppa's power had been-there was no doubting he was a Primary-it had been the beauty that had most astounded, and mortified, the Second Negotiant.
To be a sorcerer was to dwell among deformities.
"It is extraordinary," Malowebi admitted, "to see the Work without the Mark." He smiled the wise and slippery smile of an old diplomat. "But we Schoolmen are accustomed to miracles."
He said this last more in bitter jest than anything. What he witnessed had left many profound impressions. The power of Meppa, certainly. The martial acumen of the Padirajah. The cunning and the bravery of the Fanim, not to mention their barbarity…
But nothing loomed so large as the weakness of the New Empire.
The rumours were absolutely true: the Aspect-Emperor had boned his conquests to pursue his mad invasion of the northern wilds. Disaffected populations. Ill-equipped soldiers, poorly trained and even more poorly led. Infirm and doddering Schoolmen. And perhaps most interestingly, absolutely no Chorae…
Nganka-nay, Zeum — needed to be informed. This night would be filled with far-calling dreams.
"The people call him Stonebreaker," Fanayal said. "Meppa… They say he was sent to us by the Solitary God."
Malowebi turned to him, blinking.
"What do you say?"
"I say he was sent to me!" the hawk-faced Padirajah cried laughing. " I am the Solitary God's gift to his people."
"And what does he say?" the Second Negotiant asked, now genuinely curious.
"Meppa? He does not know who he is."
The Meorn Wilderness
Late Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), the "Long Side"
It tracked their blundering flight through the Wilderness. It watched and it hungered and it hated…
How it hated.
It remained in the trees for the most part, running with glee along the dead limbs of the under-canopy. It fed on squirrels, eaten raw, and once upon a wildcat that had tried to feed on it. It supped on the mewling litter afterward, laughed at their miniature hisses and struggles. Their tiny skulls cracked like delicacies.
Over gnarled miles, through rain falling in sheeted fury. It watched them trudge and it watched them sleep. It watched them feud and bicker. Three times it saw them battle the errant children of the Old Fathers, the Sranc, and it crouched, its eyes wide and wondering as tangles of sorcerous light and shadow fluttered through the forest's mangled depths.
And sometimes it dared crawl close, like a serpent worming toward prey. Grinding its phallus against hoary bark, it would watch her, the girl who had saved them in the ancient-old deeps. And it would know lust, malice. It would gaze with a singularity unknown to Men.
The thing called Soma.
Each night it sought some tree greater than the others, a tower among lesser pillars, and it climbed, leaping and swinging through the canopies, from dead to living, following fork and branch to the wiry limit, until it breached the final leafy weave. There, gently creaking side to side in the breeze, it stared across an ocean of arboreal crowns.
It would bend its neck back until its head pressed its spine, and it would scream.
Watch after watch, night after night, shrieking in tones that not even dogs could hear. Only rats.
Screaming. Until its mouth filled with blood.
– | The Hags could not keep up.
They would begin complaining around midday-at least at first. Belmorn, the particularly brutish Galeoth who had become their de facto leader, even went so far as to accuse the Skin Eaters of devilry. With a kind of immovable indifference, Achamian watched the Captain stroll up to the arm-waving giant and plunge a knife in his armpit.
"Your lives are mine!" he screamed at the others. "Mine to beat! Mine to torture! Mine to murder!"
That night two of the Hags disappeared-Achamian could not remember their names. Nothing was said of them the next day or any of the days following. Scalpers did not speak of the dead, even ones so despicable as the Stone Hags.
The rains began after that, and below dark skies the world beneath the forest canopies was darker still. Lightning strikes were little more than sparks and glows glimpsed through the gauze of a million leaves, but the thunder crashed undulled through the brachiated gloom. Guttered by the trees, the rainwaters fell in the form of countless hanging rivulets, a pissing army of them, soaking the ground to wheezing muck. And if the way became more arduous for the Skin Eaters with their nightly ration of Qirri, it became harder still for the Hags.
One, a ritually scarred Thunyeri named Osilwas, they lost to a river crossing. With a wound festering in his arm, the man had staggered as much as marched for days. One evening Achamian had watched him cut his hair away, lock by lock-to shed weight, he supposed. Despite the man's condition, the old Wizard had thought Osilwas would survive, perhaps mistaking the gleam of fever in his eyes for the light of determination. One stumble in roiling waters was all it took to sweep him away.
Another, a bow-legged Cepaloran the others called Scroll-apparently because of the elaborate blue tattooing across his limbs-simply began wailing like a madman one night and had to be put down as a sobber. The day after, Erydides, who continually claimed to be a Cironji pirate in the chaotic days preceding the New Empire, developed a limp. No matter how hard he laboured, he fell ever farther behind. Achamian's last memory of him was his grimace: a kind of panicked grin stretched across expressions of abject pain. A look that urged wild effort in the utter absence of strength.
Then there was the dispute between Pokwas and Wulgulu, the strutting Thunyeri who for a time had assumed titular command of his brothers. Achamian did not know what caused the altercation, only that it occurred in the course of dividing a joint of wild boar. Pokwas, in particular, was inclined to heap abuse on the Hags, alternately calling them dogs, wretches, and "mibus"-apparently a mibu was a kind of Zeumi jackal renowned for eating its own kind during the dry season. "Be a good mibu," Achamian had overheard him say on more than one occasion, "and we will feed your dead to you." One moment everything was gloom and milling exhaustion, the next the two men were grappling, their heels kicking up leaves and dirt as they heaved at each other. Pokwas was easily the stronger: the green-eyed giant twisted Wulgulu around, wrenched him to the ground. Then he began pounding the prostrate Thunyeri about the head and face. Again and again, while everyone gnawed and chewed their dinner, their hands and faces gleaming with grease. Nothing was said, and aside from the black giant's laboured breathing, nothing was heard beyond the slapping thud of his fists. Again and again. The Sword-dancer continued striking the man long after he was dead, while Achamian and the others continued watching and eating. Only Mimara turned away.
Afterward Sarl began cackling in his strange, inward way, muttering, "I told you, Kiampas! Eh? Yes!"
Something was happening…
Achamian could feel it in his bones-catch glimpses of it in the eyes of the others. Mimara especially. He had watched a human head hammered into a wineskin, and he had felt nothing more than… curiosity?
It was the Qirri. It had to be. The medicine seemed to numb their conscience as much as it quickened their limbs and stretched their wind. Even as Achamian felt himself becoming closer to Mimara, he found himself caring less for the surviving Skin Eaters and not at all for the wretched Hags.
The old Wizard had enough experience with hashish and opium to know the way drugs could alter the small things, stretch and twist the detailed fabric of life. In the fleshpots of Carythusal, he had seen the way the poppy, especially, could conquer the myriad desires of men, until their hunger for the drug eclipsed even lust and love.
He knew enough to be wary, but the fact was they were moving fast, far faster than Achamian had dared hope. Several days into the rains they had found the ruins of a bridge on the banks of a great river, a bridge that Achamian recognized from his dreams as the Archipontus of Wul, a work famed across the Ancient North in Seswatha's day. That meant they had travelled over half the distance from Maimor to Kelmeol, the ancient capital of the Meori Empire, in the space of two weeks-a spectacular distance. If they could maintain this pace, they would easily reach Sauglish and the Coffers before summer's end.
But it was a pace that was killing the newcomers. More and more the remaining Hags took on the vigilant aspect of hostages, a look at once surly, bewildered, and terrified. They ceased speaking, even among themselves, and as much as the Skin Eaters found their gaze inexorably drawn to Cleric, their eyes continually circled about the Captain and the threat of his discipline. Night would fall, the rains would thread the dark with lines of silver, and the Hags would huddle in shivering clutches, while Galian, Conger, and the others would bare their arms and marvel at their steaming skin.
"Where we going?" the youngest of them, a Galeoth adolescent with the strange name of Heresius, began shrieking one evening. "What madness?" he screamed in broken Sheyic. "What madness you do?" Staring was the most any of the original company could manage, so sudden and crazed was the young man's outburst. Finally, with the same murderous deliberation Achamian had seen many times, the Captain stood. The youth, who was no fool, bolted like a spooked doe into the murk…
Afterward, Galian insisted he had seen something-arms, he thought-hook out of the dead under-canopy and yank the young wretch into oblivion.
No one mourned him. No one, Stone Hag or Skin Eater, so much as spoke his name. The dead had no place in their history. They were scalpers. As much as they feared their mad Captain, none of them disputed his simple and dread logic. Death to sobbers. Death to loafers. Death to limpers, bellyachers, and bleeders…
Death to weakness, the great enemy of enmity.
So day after day they threw themselves at horizons they could not see, trudged with bottomless vigour into lands obscured and obscure, whether the sky cracked and poured water or the sun shone through sheets of green luminescence. And day after day the Stone Hags dwindled-for they were weak.
As the Skin Eaters were strong.
There was no place for pity, even less for regret, on the slog. And this, as Sarl continually slurred under his breath, was the Slog of Slogs. You could not be wholly human and survive the Long Side, so you became something less and pretended you were more.
In subsequent days Achamian would come to look at this leg of their journey with a peculiar horror, not because he had lived necessary lies, but because he had come to believe them. He was a man who would rather know and enumerate his sins, bear the pain of them, than cocoon himself in numbing ignorance and flattering exculpation.
You can only believe so many lies before becoming one of them.
What began as a remedy in the Cil-Aujan deeps had somehow transcended habit and become sacred ritual. "The Holy Dispensation," Mimara once called it in a pique of impatience.
Each night they queued before the Nonman, awaiting their pinch of Qirri. Usually Cleric would sit cross-legged and wordlessly dip his index finger into his pouch, darkening the pad with the merest smear. One by one the Skin Eaters would kneel before him and take the tip of his outstretched finger into their mouths-to better avoid any waste. Achamian would take his place among the others, kneel as they did when his time came. The Qirri would be bitter, the finger cold for the spit of others, sweet for the soil of daily use. A kind of euphoria would flutter through him, one that stirred troubling memories of kneeling before Kellhus during the First Holy War. There would be a moment, a mere heartbeat, where he would buckle beneath the dark gaze of the Nonman. But he would walk away content, like a starving child who had tasted honey.
Thoughtless, he would sit and savour the slow crawl of vitality through his veins.
The first and only Stone Hag to dare ridicule the act was found dead the following morning. Afterward, the renegade scalpers restricted their opinions to sullen looks and expressions-fear and disgust, mostly.
Sometimes the Nonman would climb upon some wild pulpit, the mossed remains of a fallen tree, the humped back of a boulder, and paint wonders with his dark voice. Wonders and horrors both.
Often he spoke of war and tribulation, of loves unravelled and victories undone. But no matter how the scalpers pressed him with questions, he could never recall the frame of his reminiscences. He spoke in episodes and events, never ages or times. The result was a kind of inadvertent verse, moments too packed with enigma and ambiguity to form narrative wholes-at least none they could comprehend. Fragments that never failed to leave his human listeners unsettled and amazed.
Mimara continually pestered the old Wizard with questions afterward. "Who is he?" she would hiss. "His stories must tell you something!"
Time and again Achamian could only profess ignorance. "He remembers the breaking of things, nothing more. The rest of the puzzle is always missing-for him as much as for us! I know only that he's old… exceedingly old…"
"Older than iron. Older even than human writing…"
"You mean older than the Tusk."
All Nonmen living were impossibly ancient. Even the youngest of their number were contemporaries of the Old Prophets. But if his sermons could be believed, Cleric-or Incariol, Lord Wanderer-was far older still, in his prime before the Ark and the coming of the Inchoroi.
An actual contemporary Nin'janjin and Cu'jara Cinmoi…
"Go to sleep," the Wizard grumbled.
What did it matter who Cleric had been, he told himself, when the ages had battered him into something entirely different?
"You look upon me and see something whole… singular…" the Nonman said one night, his head hanging from his shoulders, his face utterly lost to shadow. When he looked up tears had silvered his cheeks. "You are mistaken."
"What did he mean?" Mimara asked after she and the Wizard had curled onto their mats. They always slept side by side now. Achamian had even become accustomed to the point of absence that was her Chorae. Ever since that first Sranc attack, when she had been stranded with Soma beyond the protective circuit of his incipient Wards, he had been loathe to let her stray from his side.
"He means that he's not a… a self… in the way you and I are selves. Now go to sleep."
"But how is that possible?"
"Because of memory. Memory is what binds us to what we are. Go to sleep."
"What do you mean? How can somebody not be what they are? That makes no sense."
"Go to sleep."
He would lay there, his eyes closed to the world, while the image of the Nonman-mundane beauty perpetually at war with his arcane disfiguration-plagued his soul. The old Wizard would curse himself for a fool, ask himself how many watches he had wasted worrying about the Erratic. Cleric was one of the Pharroika, the Wayward. Whatever the Nonman once was, he was no longer-and that should be enough.
If he had ceased pondering Incariol altogether in the days following the battle in the ruins of Maimor, it was because of the skin-spy and what its presence implied. But time's passage has a way of blunting our sharper questions, of making things difficult to confront soft with malleable familiarity. Of course, the Consult had been watching him, the man who had taught the Gnosis to the Aspect-Emperor, and so delivered the Three Seas. Of course, they had infiltrated the Skin Eaters.
He was Drusas Achamian.
But the further Soma fell into the past, the more Cleric's presence irked his curiosity, the more the old questions began prickling back to life.
Even his Dreams had been affected.
He had lost his inkhorn and papyrus in the mad depths of Cil-Aujas, so he could no longer chronicle the particulars of his slumbering experience. Nor did he need to.
It almost seemed as if he had become unmoored when he pondered the transformations. First he had drifted from the central current of Seswatha's life, away from the tragic enormities and into the mundane details, where he had been delivered to knowledge of Ishual, the secret fastness of the Dunyain. Then, as if these things were too small to catch the fabric of his soul, he slipped from Seswatha altogether, seeing things his ancient forebear had never seen, standing where he never stood, as when he saw the Library of Sauglish burn.
He continued to dream that he and nameless others stood shackled in a shadowy line. Broken men. Brutalized. They filed through a tube of thatched undergrowth, bushes that had grown out and around their passage, forming vaults of a thousand interlocking branches. Over the stooped shoulders of those before him, he could see the tunnel's terminus, the threshold of some sunlit clearing, it seemed-the spaces beyond were so open and bright as to defeat his gloom-pinched eyes. He felt a dread that seemed curiously disconnected from his surroundings, as if his fear had come to him from a far different time and place.
And he did not know who he was.
A titanic horn would blare, and the line would be pulled stumbling forward, and peering, he would see a starved wretch at the fore, at least a hundred souls distant, stepping into the golden light… vanishing.
And the screaming would begin, only to be yanked short.
Again and again, he dreamed this senseless dream. Sometimes it was identical. Sometimes he seemed one soul closer to the procession's end. He could never be sure.
Was it the Qirri? Was it the deathless rancour of the Mop, or a cruel whim of Fate?
Or had the trauma of his life at last unhinged him and cast his slumber to the wolves of grim fancy?
For his whole life, ever since grasping the withered pouch of Seswatha's heart deep in the bowel of Atyersus, his dreams had possessed meaning… logic, horrifying to be sure, but comprehensible all the same. For his whole life he had awakened with purpose.
"So what was it like?" Achamian asked her as the company filed through the arboreal maze.
"What was what like?"
They always addressed each other in Ainoni now. The fact that only the Captain could comprehend them made it seem daring somehow-and curiously proper, as if madmen should oversee the exchange of secrets. Even still, they took care that he did not overhear.
"Life on the Andiamine Heights," he said, "as an Anasurimbor."
"You mean the family you're trying to destroy."
The old Wizard snorted. "Just think, no more running."
At last she smiled. Anger and sarcasm, Achamian had learned, were a kind of reflex for Mimara-as well as a fortress and a refuge. If he could outlast her initial hostility, which proved difficult no matter how much good humour he mustered, he could usually coax a degree of openness from her.
"It was complicated," she began pensively.
"Well then, start at the beginning."
"You mean when they came for me in Carythusal?"
The old Wizard shrugged and nodded.
They had slackened their pace enough to fall behind the others, even the dour file of Stone Hags, who stole longing glances as Mimara drifted past. Despite the chorus of birdsong, a kind of silence reared about them, the hush of slow growth and decay. It felt like shelter.
"You have to understand," she said hesitantly. "I didn't know that I had been wronged. The brutalities I endured… But I was a child… and then I was a brothel-slave-that's what I was… Something made to be violated, abused, over and over, until I grew too old or too ugly, and they sold me to the fullery. That was just the… the way… So when the Eothic Guardsmen came and began beating Yappi… Yapotis… the brothel master, I didn't understand. I couldn't understand…"
Achamian watched her carefully, saw a rare strand of sunlight flash across her face. "You thought you were being attacked instead of saved."
A numb nod. "They took me away before the killing began, but I knew… I could tell from the soldiers' manner, cold, as merciless as any of these scalpers. I knew they would kill anyone who had a hand in my… my fouling…"
She had the habit of slipping into Tutseme when she became upset, the rough dialect peculiar to menials and slaves from Carythusal. The clipped vowels. The singsong intonations. Achamian would have teased her for sounding like an Ainoni harlot, had the subject matter been less serious.
"They brought me to a ship-you should have seen them! Stammering, bowing and kneeling, not the soldiers, but the Imperial Apparati who commanded them. They asked me- begged me! — for some kind of request, for something they could do, for my health and my ease, they said. For my glory. I'll never forget that! My whole life my only prize had been the lust my form incited in men-the face of an Empress, the hips and slit of a young girl-and there I stood, the proud possessor of what? Glory? So I said, 'Stop. Stop the killing!' And they looked at me with long faces and said, 'Alas, Princess, that is the one thing we cannot do.' 'Why?' I asked them…
"'Because the Blessed Empress has commanded it,' they said…
"So I stood on the prow and watched… They had moored on the high river, on the quays typically reserved for the Scarlet Spires-you know those? — so I could see the slums rise to the north, all the Worm laid out for inspection. I could see it burn… I could even see souls trapped on their roofs… Men, women, children… jumping…"
The old Wizard watched her, careful to purge any hint of pity from his frown. To be a child-whore one moment and a Princess-Imperial the next. To be plucked from abject slavery and hurtled to the heights of the greatest empire since Cenei. And then to have your old world burned down around you.
Esmenet, he understood, had tried to undo her crime with the commission of another. She had mistook vengeance for reparation.
"So you understand," Mimara continued, swallowing. "My first years on the Andiamine Heights were hateful… shameful, even. You understand why I did everything I could to punish Mother."
Achamian studied her for a moment before nodding. The company had crested a gradual slope and now descended, using webs of bared roots as steps. A rare glimpse of the sun flashed above, making silhouettes of shagged leaves.
"I understand," he said as they picked their way down, feeling the raw weight of his own story, his own grievances, press through the tone of his reply. They were both victims of Esmenet.
They walked in silence, their strides as thoughtless as they were quick.
"Thank you," Mimara said after a time, fixing him with a curious gaze.
"For not asking what all the others ask."
"How I could have stayed all those years. How I could have allowed myself to be used as I was used. Apparently everyone would have run away, slit their master's throat, committed suicide…"
"Nothing makes fools of people quite like a luxurious life," Achamian said, shaking his head and nodding. "Ajencis says they confuse decisions made atop pillows for those compelled by stones. When they hear of other people being deceived, they're certain they would know better. When they hear of other people being oppressed, they're certain they would do anything but beg and cringe when the club is raised…"
"And so they judge," Mimara said sourly.
"They certainly picked the wrong woman in your case!"
This coaxed another smile-another small triumph.
She began talking about her younger siblings, haltingly at first, then with more confidence and detail. She seemed surprised by her own reminiscences, and troubled. She had foresworn her family-he knew that much. But watching and listening to her describe the embittered object of her anger, he came to suspect she had gone so far as to deny her family, to tell herself that she was in fact alone, without the guy ropes of kith and kin to prop her.
Small wonder she had been so reluctant to tell him anything. People are generally loathe to describe what they need to forget, especially the small things, the loving things that contradict their precious sense of injustice.
She started with Kayutas, the child Esmenet had carried in her womb the day Achamian had repudiated her before the assembled Lords of the Holy War. He would have seemed a kind of god to her, she said, had her stepfather not been Kellhus-a real God. "He is the very image of his father," she said, nodding as if agreeing with her own description. "Not so remote, certainly… More…"
"Human," the old Wizard said, scowling.
She then turned to Moenghus, whom she described as the most normal and difficult of her younger siblings. Apparently he was quite the terror as a youth, given to episodes of inconsolable anger and continually brooding, if not sulking. Esmenet regularly left the boys in her care-with the hope of fostering some tenderness for her younger siblings, Mimara presumed. She despised the swimming expeditions most of all.
Apparently Moenghus enjoyed diving under the water and not reappearing for the longest time. The first incident was the worst-she even called on their bodyguards to help her, only to watch Moenghus's head break the flashing water several spans away. He ignored her commands and curses, and repeated the stunt again and again. Each time she would tell herself he was simply playing, but her heart would continue counting beats, and the panic would well higher and higher-until she was fairly beside herself with fear and fury. Then his head would magically pop into sight, his black hair glazed in white sunlight, and he would glare at her shouting antics before descending again. Finally she turned on his brother, demanding an explanation.
"Because," Kayutas said with a detachment that clammed her skin, "he wants people to think him dead."
The old Wizard responded with a nodding snort. When he asked her whether anyone knew about his true parentage, she merely frowned and said, "Questioning our holy parentage is sacrilege."
Lies, Achamian mused. Deceit heaped atop deceit. In the early days of his exile, he would sometimes lie awake at night, convinced that sooner or later someone would see through Kellhus and his glamour, that the truth would win out, and all the madness would come crashing down…
That he could come home and reclaim his wife.
But as the years passed he came to see this for the rank foolishness that it was. He-a student of Ajencis, no less! Truths were carved from the identical wood as were lies-words-and so sank or floated with equal ease. But since truths were carved by the World, they rarely appeased Men and their innumerable vanities. Men had no taste for facts that did not ornament or enrich, and so they wilfully-if not knowingly-panelled their lives with shining and intricate falsehoods.
Mimara's eldest sister, Theliopa, would be the only one of her siblings to occasion a true smile. According to Mimara, the girl was almost incapable of expressing passion of any sort and was oblivious-sometimes comically so-to all but the most obvious social graces. She was also dreadfully thin, famine thin, and had to be continually cajoled and bullied to eat. But her intellect was nothing short of a miracle. Everything she read, she remembered, and she read voraciously, often to the point of forgetting to sleep. Her gifts were so prodigious that Kellhus made her an Imperial Adviser at the tender age of twelve, after which she became a continual presence in her mother's entourage: pale, emaciated, decked in absurd gowns of her own design and manufacture.
"It's hard not to pity her," Mimara said, her gaze flat with memories, "even as you marvel…"
"What do people say?"
"About her… peculiarities. What do they think caused them?" Few things inspired more malicious speculation than deformities. Conriya even had a law-back before the New Empire, anyway-rendering misshapened children the property of the King. Apparently the court diviners thought a careful reading of their deformations could reveal much about the future.
"They say my stepfather's seed is too heavy for mortal women to bear," Mimara said. "He took other wives, 'Zikas' they call them, after the small bowls they pass out for libations on the Day of Ascension. But of those who became pregnant, none carried to term-either that or they died… Only Mother."
Achamian could only nod, his thoughts roiling. Kellhus had to have known this, he realized. From the very beginning he had known Esmenet possessed the strength to survive him and his progeny. And so he had set out to conquer her womb as one more tool-one more weapon — in his unceasing war of word, insight, and passion.
You needed her, so you took…
Regarding her sister Serwa, Mimara said very little, save that she was cold and arrogant.
"She's the Grandmistress of the Swayali, now. Grandmistress! I don't think Mother ever forgave Kellhus for sending her away… I saw very little of her, and when I did my teeth fairly cracked for envy. Studying with the Sisters! Attaining the only thing I truly desired!"
Inrilatas, on the other hand, she discussed for quite some time, partly because Esmenet had sought to involve her in the boy's upbringing. According to Mimara, none of her siblings possessed more of their father's gifts-or more of their mother's all too human weaknesses. Speaking long before any infant should. Never forgetting. And seeing deeper, far deeper, than any human could… or should.
His subsequent madness, she said, was inevitable. He was perpetually at a loss, perpetually overwhelmed by the presence of others. Unlike his father, he could only see the brute truths, the facts and lies that compelled the course of lives, but these were quite enough.
"He would look into my eyes and say impossible things… hateful things…"
"How do you mean?"
"He told me once that I punished mother not to avenge my slavery, but because… because…"
"Because I was broken inside," she said, her lips set in a grim and brittle line. "Because I had suffered so much so long that kindness had become the only cruelty I could not endure-kindness! — and so suffering would be all I… all I would ever know…"
She trailed, turned her face away to swat at the tears clotting her eyes.
"So I told him," she continued, avoiding Achamian's gaze. "I told him that I had never known kindness because everything-everything! — I had been given had been just another way to take-to steal! 'You cannot stroke a beaten dog,' he replied, 'because it sees only the raised hand…' A beaten dog! Can you believe it? What kind of little boy calls his grown sister a beaten dog?"
A Dunyain, the old Wizard thought in unspoken reply.
She must have glimpsed something of his sorrow in his eyes: the outrage in her expression, which had been helpless in the face of memory, turned in sudden fury upon him.
"You pity me?" she cried, as if her pain were something with its own outrage and volition. "Pity?"
"Don't, Mimara. Don't do this…"
"Do what? What? "
"Make Inrilatas true."
This smacked the fury from her expression. She stared at him speechless, her body jerking as her legs carried her thoughtlessly forward, her eyes wide with a kind of desolate horror.
"What about the others?" the old Wizard asked, snipping all memory of her outburst from his tone. The best way to retrieve a conversation from disaster, he often found, was to speak as if the disaster had never happened. "I know there's more-the twins. Tell me about them."
She marched in silence for a time, collecting herself, Achamian supposed. The footing had become even more treacherous: a stream had gullied the forest floor, cutting away the loam beneath the feet of several massive elms so that roots hung in tentacled sheets to their right. Achamian could see the rest of the party below, picking their way under a toppled giant with the same haste that was taking such a toll on the Hags. He glimpsed Cleric behind the Captain, white and bald and obviously not human. Even from a distance, his Mark blotted out his inhuman physical beauty, stained him with gut-wrenching ugliness.
The stream glittered, a ribbon of liquid obsidian in the gloom. The air smelled of clay and cold rot.
"They were the only ones, really…" she finally said. "The twins. I was there, you know… there from the beginning with them. I saw them drawn squalling from Mother's womb…" She paused to watch her booted feet pick steps across the ground. "I think that was the only moment I truly… truly loved her."
"You've never stopped loving her," Achamian said. "You wouldn't care to hate her otherwise."
Anger shrouded her eyes once again, but to her credit she managed to purge it from her voice. She was trying, the old Wizard realized. She wanted to trust him. Even more, she wanted to understand what he saw when he looked upon her-perhaps too desperately. "What do you mean?"
"No love is simple, Mimara." Something hooked his voice while saying this, something like weak eyes and a burning throat. "At least no love worth the name."
"But nothing," he said. "Far too many of us confuse complexity for impurity-or even pollution. Far too many of us mourn what we should celebrate as a result. Life is unruly, Mimara. Only tyrants and fools think otherwise."
She frowned in a mock here-we-go-again manner. "Ajencis?" she asked, her eyes bright and teasing.
"No… Just wisdom. Not everything I say is borrowed, you know!"
She walked in silence for a time, her smile fading into a look of puzzled concentration. Achamian paced her in silence.
She resumed her account, describing the Imperial twins, Kelmomas and Samarmas. The latter was indeed an idiot, as Achamian had heard. But according to Mimara, the Imperial Physicians had feared both children were idiots in the beginning. Apparently the two infants would simply stare into each other's eyes, day after day, month after month, then year after year. If separated, they ceased to eat, as if they shared but one appetite between the two of them. It was only after Esmenet contracted a celebrated physician from Conriya that their two souls were finally pried apart and the idiocy of Samarmas was revealed.
"It was a wonder," Mimara exclaimed, as if reliving the memories of their cure in a rush. "To be so… so strange, and then to waken as, well, beautiful little boys, normal in all respects."
"You were fond of them."
"How could I not be? They were innocents born into a labyrinth-a place devious beyond compare. The others could never see it, no matter how much they complained and clucked, they could never see the Andiamine Heights for what it was."
"And what was that?"
"A prison. A carnival. And a temple, a temple most of all. One where sins were counted according to harms endured rather than inflicted. It was no place for children! I told Mother as much, told her to take the twins to one of the Refuge Estates, some place where they could grow in the light of the sun, where things were… were…"
They had stooped to make their way beneath the fallen tree he'd seen earlier, so he supposed she had trailed to better concentrate. The limbs of the giant had folded and snapped, either bending back or prying deep into the earth. Dead leaves hung in rasping sheets. Finding passage was no easy task.
"Where things were what?" he asked when it became apparent she did not care to continue.
"Simple," she said dully.
Achamian smiled in his wise old teacher way. The thought occurred to him that she had sought to protect the memory of her own childhood as much as the innocence of her two little brothers. But he said nothing. People rarely appreciate alternative, self-serving interpretations of their conduct-especially when suffering ruled the balance of their lives.
"Let me guess," he ventured. "Your mother refused, said that they would need to learn the perils and complexities of statecraft to survive as Princes-Imperial."
"Something like that," she replied.
"So you trusted him. Kelmomas, I mean."
"Trusted?" she cried with open incredulity. "He was a child! He adored me-to the point of annoyance!" She fixed him with a vexed look, as if to say, Enough, old man… "He was the reason I ran away to find you, in fact."
Something troubled the old Wizard about this, but as so often happens in the course of heated conversations, his worries yielded to the point he hoped to press home. "Yes… But he was a child of Kellhus, an Anasurimbor by blood."
"So, that means he possesses Dunyain blood. Like Inrilatas."
They had sloshed across the stream and were now climbing the far side of the gully. They could see the rest of the company above them, a string of frail forms labouring beneath the monumental trunks.
"Ah, I keep forgetting," she said, huffing. "I suppose he simply must be manipulative and amoral…" She regarded him the way he imagined she had regarded countless others on the Andiamine Heights: as something ridiculous. "You've been cooped in the wilds too long, Wizard. Sometimes a child is just a child."
"That's all they know, Mimara. The Dunyain. They're bred for it."
She dismissed him with a flutter of eyelids. She had no inkling, he realized-like everyone else in the Three Seas. For her, Kellhus was simply what he appeared to be.
In the first years of his exile, the hardest years, Achamian had spent endless hours revisiting the events of the First Holy War-his memories of Kellhus and Esmenet most of all. The more he pondered the man, the more obvious the Scylvendi's revelatory words came to seem, until it became difficult to remember what it was like living within the circuit of his glamour. To think he had still loved the man after he had lured Esmenet to his bed! That he had spent sleepless hours wrestling with excuses-excuses! — for him.
But even still, after so many years, the appearances continued to argue for the man. Everything Mimara had described regarding the preparations for the Great Ordeal-even the scalpers accompanying him! — attested to what Kellhus had claimed so many years previous: that he had been sent to prevent the Second Apocalypse. Achamian had suffered that old sense several times now while feuding with Mimara, the one that had plagued him as a Mandate Schoolman travelling the courts of the Three Seas arguing the very things Kellhus had made religion (and there was an irony that plucked, if there ever was one). The anxious urge to throw words atop words, as if speaking could plaster over the cracked expressions that greeted his claims. The plaintive, wheedling sense of being disbelieved.
Maybe you need it, old man… Need to be disbelieved.
He had seen it before: men who had borne perceived injustices so long they could never relinquish them and so continually revisited them in various guises. The world was filled with self-made martyrs. Fear goads fear, the old Nansur proverb went, and sorrow, sorrow.
Perhaps he was mad. Perhaps everything-the suffering, the miles, the lives lost and taken-was naught but a fool's errand. As wrenching as this possibility was, and as powerful as the Scylvendi's words had been, Achamian would have been entirely prepared to accept his folly. He was a true student of Ajencis in this respect…
Were it not for his Dreams. And the coincidence of the Coffers.
The old Wizard continued on in silence, mulling the details of Mimara's tale. The picture she had drawn was as fascinating as it was troubling. Kellhus perpetually distracted, perpetually absent. His children possessing a jumble of human and Dunyain attributes-and half-mad for it, apparently. Games heaped upon games, and sorrow and resentment most of all. Esmenet had fetched her broken daughter from the brothel only to deliver her to the arena that was the Andiamine Heights-a place where no soul could mend.
Not hers, and certainly not her daughter's.
Was this not a kind of proof of Kellhus? Pain followed him, as did tumult and war. Every life that fell into his cycle suffered some kind of loss or deformation. Was this not an outward sign of his… his evil?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Suffering had ever been the wages of revelation. The greater the truth, the greater the pain. No one understood this quite so profoundly as he.
Either way, it was proof of Mimara. Our words always paint two portraits when we describe our families to others. Outsiders cannot but see the small peeves and follies that wrinkle our relationships with our loved ones. The claims we make in defensive certainty-that we were the one wronged, that we were the one who wanted the best-cannot but fall on skeptical ears since everyone but everyone makes the same claims of virtue and innocence. We are always more than we want to be in the eyes of others simply because we are blind to the bulk of what we are.
Kellhus had taught him that.
Mimara had wanted him to see her as a victim, as a long-suffering penitent, more captive than daughter, and not as someone embittered and petulant, someone who often held others accountable for her inability to feel safe, to feel anything unpolluted by the perpetual pang of shame…
And he loved her the more for it.
Later, as the murk of evening steeped through the forest galleries, she slowed so that he could draw abreast, but she did not return his questioning gaze.
"What I told you," she eventually said, "that was foolish of me."
"What was foolish?"
"What I said."
This final exchange left him sorting through melancholy thoughts of his own family and the wretched Nroni fishing village where he had been born. They seemed strangers, now, not simply the people who inhabited his childhood memories, but the passions as well. The doting love of his sisters… Even the tyranny of his father-the maniacal shouts, the wordless beatings-seemed to belong to some soul other than his own.
This, he realized… This was his true family: the mad children of the man who had robbed him of his wife. The New Anasurimbor Dynasty. These were his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. And this simply meant that he had no family… that he was alone.
Save for the mad woman trekking beside him.
His little girl…
Back when he had been a tutor in Aoknyssus, he took up the antique Ceneian practice of considering problems while walking-peripatetics, the ancients had called it. He would trudge down from his apartment by the Premparian Barracks, through the wooded pathways of the Ke, and down to the port, where the masts made a winter forest of the piers. There was this defunct temple where he would always glimpse the same beggar through a breach in the walls. He was one of those unravelled men, unkempt and withered, slow-moving and speechless, as if dumbfounded at where the years had delivered him. And for some reason it always knocked Achamian from his stride seeing him. He would pass gazing, his walk slowing to a numb saunter, and the beggar would simple stare off, beyond caring who did or did not watch. Achamian would forget whatever problem he had set off to ponder and brood instead about the cruel alchemy of age and love and time. A fear would clutch him, knowing that this, this, was true solitude, to find yourself the feeble survivor, stranded at the end of your life, your loves and hopes reduced to remembered smoke, hungering, suffering…
And waiting. Waiting most of all.
His mother was dead, the old Wizard supposed.
Making water or mud has always been an irritating challenge for her. She cannot simply retreat behind a tree as the others might, not for the sake of modesty-a sentiment that had been pummelled from her in childhood-but out of a keen awareness of men and their lustful infirmities. She has to plunge deeper, beyond the possibility of craning looks. "A glimpse is a promise," the brothel masters used to say. "Show them what they would steal, and they will spend- spend! "
She squats, her breeches crowded about her knees, stares up into the veined complexities of the canopy as she relieves herself. She follows the dark lines of silhouetted limbs scrawling across foliated stages, ragged screen set across ragged screen, each brighter than the next. She doesn't see the figure… not at first.
But then its shape is unmistakable: human limbs clutched and hanging about arboreal. Unlike other forests, where trees branch and thicken according to their exposure to the sun, the trees of the Mop fork into the low nethers, as though begrudging all open space. The creature hangs from the lowermost skein, unnaturally still, intent with scrutiny and malice.
The thing called Soma.
Her fear falls short of reason. If it had wanted to kill her, she would already be dead. If it had wanted to steal her, she would already be missing.
No. It wants something.
She should cry out, she knows, send it fleeing into the sepulchral depths, chased by the crack and thunder of sorcerous lights. But she does not. It wants something, and she needs to know what. Slowly, deliberately, she stands and draws up her leggings, winces at her own humid reek.
Its face hangs down just far enough to be discernable in the murk. Soma, as if glimpsed through a veil of black gauze. The canopy's high-hanging glow paints his edges with traceries of green.
"He's killing you," it coos. "The Nonman."
She stares up, breathless, immobile. She knows this thing, she reminds herself, knows it as surely as scalpers know Sranc. Assassins. Deceivers. Sowers of resentment and mistrust. Discord arouses them. Violence spills their cup. They are, as her mother once told her, the consummate union of viciousness and grace.
"Then I shall kill him first," she says, shocked by the resolute tenor of her voice. Her whole life she has been surprised by her ability to appear strong.
This is not the reply it was expecting. She's not sure how she knows this: its hesitation, perhaps, or the click of indecision that passes like smoke across its false expression. Regardless, she knows that it does not want the Nonman dead… at least not yet.
"No…" it whispers. "Such a thing is beyond your power."
"He too would certainly perish."
She glares upward, peering, trying to discern the folding digits that compose its face. She cannot.
"There is only one way to save yourself," it rasps.
"And how is that?"
"Kill the Captain."
– | She rejoins the company as if nothing has happened. She should tell Achamian. She knows this without wanting to know. Her reflex is to hide and to hoard-a product of the brothel, no doubt. Too much had been stolen.
Soma came to me…
She circles this thought, stalks it, returns to it the way she continually reaches for her Chorae where it hangs about her neck. As troubled as she is, as frightened as she is, a part of her soul exults-in the mystery of it, certainly, but also because it had chosen her before any of the others.
Why had it saved her during the Stone Hag attack? At the cost of revealing itself, no less!
Why was it following them in the first place?
And why was it reaching out to her?
After the nightmare of Maimor, Achamian spent long miles verbally pondering the skin-spy and its presence among the Skin Eaters. From the outset he made assumptions, forgivable assumptions: that the skin-spy had infiltrated the Skin Eaters immediately after he had contracted them. That he, the outcast inheritor of their ancient and implacable enemy, Seswatha, was the motive for the infiltration. That it was charged with killing him, lest he discover something too decisive… And so on.
More than anything else, what prevents her from telling the old Wizard is the fear that he is wrong — utterly and catastrophically. The suspicion that the Consult has sent the skin-spy, not to assassinate Achamian or to sabotage the expedition, no. Her fear is that the Consult has sent it to assist them… to ensure they reach Sauglish and the Coffers.
And why not, when Drusas Achamian is the enemy of their enemy? According to her mother, the Consult waited months before finally attacking Kellhus during the First Holy War. "The only thing they found more terrifying than your stepfather," she said, "was the possibility there could be more like him."
The possibility of Ishual.
The origin of the Aspect-Emperor. As much as Achamian desires this knowledge to judge Anasurimbor Kellhus, would not the Unholy Consult covet it even more?
She has seen the Wizard with the Judging Eye-seen his damnation. At the time she simply assumed that sorcery was the cause, that contrary to her stepfather's claims, sorcery remained the unpardonable sin. And this seemed to lend credence to Achamian and his desperate case against the man who had stolen his wife. But what if this wasn't the case? What if this very quest was the ground of his damnation? There is poetry in the notion, as perverse as it is, and this more than anything else is what hones her fear to a cutting edge. To strike out in the name of love, only to inadvertently unleash the greatest terror the world has ever seen. When she mulls the possibility, it seems to smell of the Whore through and through… at least from what she has seen of Her.
This is what makes telling the Wizard all but impossible. What was she supposed to say? That his life and the lives of all those his deceptions have killed have been in vain? That he is a tool of the very apocalypse he hopes to prevent?
No. She will not speak what cannot be heard. Soma would have to remain her secret, at least for the immediate future. She needs to discover more before going to the Wizard…
Kill the Captain…
She knows this creature. She can number the bones in its false face. She even knows the questions that will confuse it, hint at the absence that is its soul. It stands upon a different field of battle, vast and spectral and devious with a thousand years of patient calculation. And for some reason, it needs Lord Kosoter to be a casualty of that cryptic battle.
Kill the Captain. Understand this command, she realizes, and she will understand Soma's design.
She has watched the slow transformation of loyalties and rivalries within the company. She has seen the glint of sedition in Galian's eyes. She has noticed the way Achamian has come to accept, even prize, the Captain and his ruthless methods. Lord Kosoter will deliver them to the Library of Sauglish-despite all the perils and uncertainties. He is simply one of those men, possessed of a will so cruel, so domineering, that the world could not but yield.
He was the Captain. The harsh shadow, bloodthirsty and pitiless, forever standing in her periphery.
She has always watched, and her eyes are nothing if not critical, but she has never probed, never tested. According to Soma something was happening, something that would eventually imperil their lives. According to Soma things transpired that neither she nor the old Wizard could see.
So she will squint against the glare of the obvious, peer into the gloom of implication. She will pretend to sleep while pondering possibilities and assembling questions. She will solve this one mystery…
She will become a spy.
So far the Mop has climbed and conquered every terrain they have encountered, scaffolding the sides of hills, braiding the heights above rivers, pillaring broad plains. She has peered through the green murk and trod across root-heaved earth for so long that sometimes she forgets the arid smell of open places, the flash of sunlight, and the kiss of unobstructed wind. All is humid and enclosed. She feels like a mole, forever racing beneath the thatch, always wary of flying shadows. When she thinks of the Stone Hags who have fallen in exhaustion, they are already buried in her soul's eye.
Finally they come to a stone formation jutting like a great fractured bone from the earth. Scrub clings to its scarped shelves, but nothing else, and peering up they actually catch ragged glimpses of sky where its bulk breaches the canopy. Standing aloof from their curious peering, the Captain bids them to find a way to the summit. Though hours of daylight remain, they will camp.
The sun glares. The air chills. The Mop tosses on and on, an endless ocean of swaying crowns. Whatever relief they hope to find in wind and sunlight is snuffed when they look to one another. Squinting. Eyes glittering from blackened faces. Ragged like beggars. In the gloom below, they seemed as true to their surroundings as the moss or the humus. Here on the heights, there is no overlooking either their straits or their desperation.
They look like the damned. Achamian, in particular, given the Mark.
They make camp on the formation's rump, where enough soil has accumulated to sustain a thin wig of foliage. They sit in scattered clots, watching the setting sun fall crimson into distant canopies. The Mop seems to mock and to beckon in turn, a susurrus unlike any she has heard, a horde of a million million leaves rattling in the dying breeze.
Opposite their camp, the formation rears into a promontory, stone horned like a bent-back thumb. The Captain stands in the dying light, beckons Cleric to follow him. Mimara pretends not to watch them vanish about the treacherous ledges. She counts fifty heartbeats, then strikes out along the opposite face, where they have designated their latrine. She continues past the putrid smell, literally risks life and limb scaling a serrated pitch. Then she creeps forward in a crouch, moving toward the sound of muttered voices.
The breeze or the play of echoes across chaotic stone fools her, for she almost blunders upon them. Only some instinct to freeze saves her from discovery. She breathlessly shrinks behind the cover of a tortoise-humped outcropping.
" They remind you…"
The Captain's voice. It shocks her as surely as a knife point pressed against the back of her neck.
She creeps along the outer circuit of the tortoise stone, nearer, nearer… As shallow as it is, her breath burns against the tightness of her high chest. Her heart thumps.
"What's happening?" the Nonman says. "I don't… I don't understand…"
"You are truly a blasted idiot."
She steps from behind the rising shell of rock, finds herself standing almost entirely exposed. Only the direction of their gazes prevents them from seeing her. Cleric sits in a pose of dejected glory, at once beautiful and grotesque for the blasted depths of his Mark. The Captain stands over him, a vision of archaic savagery, his Chorae so close to the Nonman that she can see a faint husk of salt rising across his scalp.
"Tell me!" Incariol cries in hushed tones. "Tell me why I am here!"
A moment of glaring impatience. "Because they remind you."
"But who? They remind me of who?" Even as Cleric says this his glittering black eyes wander toward her.
"Someone you once knew," the Captain grates. "They remind you of someone you once-"
He whirls toward her. His hair swings in broken sheets of black and grey.
"What are you doing?" he barks.
"I–I…" she stammers. "I think I need more… more Qirri."
A moment of murderous deliberation, then something like a grin hooks his eyes. He turns wordlessly to the Nonman, who remains seated as before.
"No," Cleric says with a strange solemnity. "Not yet. I apologize… Mimara."
This is the first time he has spoken her name. She retreats, flinching from the Captain's manic glare, her skin buzzing with the shame of her exposure. Afterward she remembers the Nonman's lips more than his voice, their fulsome curves, white tinged with too-long-in-the-water blue. She sees them moving to the rhythm of consonant and vowel.
Like a kiss, she thinks, her arms bundled against a curious sense of chill.
Like a kiss.
She keeps to herself the following day. The Wizard seems only too happy to oblige her. The trail has its rhythms, its own ebb and flow. Sometimes everyone seems to be engaged in low conversation, while other times everyone appears sullen and wary or simply lost in their own labouring breaths, and naught can be heard above the whistling chorus of birdsong. Their descent back into the Mop has replaced their anxiousness with melancholy.
She is quite lost in thought when Cleric comes alongside her, senseless ruminations, more a collage of recriminations and pained memories than anything meaningful.
She smiles at her shock. The unearthly beauty of his face and form unsettles her, almost as much as the horrid depth of his Mark. Something wrenches at the inner corners of her eyes whenever she allows her gaze to linger. He is contradiction incarnate.
"Is it true," he inexplicably asks, "that being touched by another and touching oneself are quite distinct sensations for Men?"
The question bewilders and embarrasses her, to the point of drawing even more heat to her flushed face. "Yes… I suppose…"
He walks in silence for a time, eyes tracking the ground before his booted feet. There is something… overwhelming about his stature. The other men, with the possible exception of Sarl, exude the same aura of physical strength and martial brutality as had so many warlike men on the Andiamine Heights. But Cleric possesses a density beyond intimations of force and threat, one that reminds her of her stepfather and the way the world always seemed to bow about his passage.
She thinks of all the skinnies he has killed, the legions incinerated in the existential thunder of his voice. And he seems hardened for the multitudes that flicker shrieking before her soul's eye-in Cil-Aujas, on Maimor, across the Mop-as if murder draws flesh to stone. She wonders what it would be like, dying beneath his black-glittering eyes.
Beautiful, she decides.
"I think I once knew this," he finally says. At first she cannot identify the passion twining through his voice. Achamian has told her much about the Nonmen, how their souls often move in ways counter to the tracks of human passion. She wants to say sorrow, but it seems more somehow…
She wonders if tragedy could be a passion.
"Now you know it again," she says, smiling at the frigid gaze.
"No," he replies. "Never again."
"Then why ask?"
"There is… comfort… in rehearsing the dead motions of the past."
She finds herself nodding-as if they were peers discussing common knowledge. "We are alike in this way."
"Mimara," he says, his tone so simple with astonishment that for an instant he seems a mortal man. "Your name is… Mimara…" He turns to her, his eyes brimming with human joy. She shudders at the glimpse of his fused teeth-there is something too dark about his smile. "Ages have passed," he says wondering, "since I have remembered a human name…"
Afterward, her thoughts racing, she ponders the absurdity of memory, the fact that so simple a faculty can make a being so powerful so pathetic in its faltering. But the Wizard has been watching, of course. He's always watching, it seems. Always worried. Always… trying.
"What did he want?" he rasps in heated Ainoni.
"Why do you fear him?" she snaps in return. She is never sure where this instinct comes from, knowing how to throw men on their heels.
The old Wizard walks and scowls, frail against a murky background of colossal trunks and mossed deadfalls. Trees growing in a graveyard of trees.
"Because I'm not sure that I could kill him when the time comes," he finally says. He speaks as much to the matted ground as to her, his beard crowded against his breastbone, his eyes unfocused in the manner of men making too-honest admissions.
"When the time comes…" she says in mocking repetition.
He turns to her profile, studies her.
"He's an Erratic, Mimara. When he decides he loves us, he will try to kill us."
The words she overheard the previous night seem to clutch with their own fingers, to scratch with nails like quills…
"But who? They remind me of who?"
"Someone," the Captain replies in his grinding voice, "you once knew…"
She composes her face into the semblance of boredom. "How can you be so sure?" she asks the Wizard.
"Because that is what Erratics do. Kill those they love."
She holds his gaze for an instant, then looks down to her trudging feet. She glimpses the skull of some animal-a fox, perhaps-jutting from the humus.
She doesn't mean this as a question, and apparently understanding, the old Wizard says nothing in reply. He always seems preternaturally wise when he does this.
"But his memory…" she says. "How could he be more powerful than you when he can barely follow the passage of days?"
Achamian scratches his chin through the wiry mat of his beard. "There's more than one kind of memory… It's events and individuals he forgets, mostly. Skills are different. They don't pile on the same way across the ages. But like I told you, sorcery depends on the purity of the meanings. What makes magic so difficult for you to learn turns on the same principle that makes him so powerful-even if he has forgotten the bulk of what he once knew. Ten thousand years, Mimara! The purity that escapes you, the purity that I find such toil, is simply a reflex for the likes of him."
He stares at her the way he always does when trying to press home some crucial point: his lips slightly parted, his eyes beseeching beneath a furrowed brow.
"A Quya Mage," she says.
"A Quya Mage," he repeats, nodding in relief. "Few things in this world are more formidable."
She tries to smile at him but looks away because of the sudden threat of tears. Worry and fear assail her. Over Cleric and the Captain, over the skin-spy and what it has insinuated. She draws a deep breath, risks looking at the old man. He grins in melancholy reassurance, and suddenly it all seems manageable, standing here at his gruff and tender side.
Akka. The world's only sorcerer without a School. The only Wizard.
"Akka…" she murmurs. A kind of gentle beseeching.
She understands now why her mother still loves him-even after so many years, even after sharing her bed with a living God. The uniform teeth behind his smile. The sheen of compassion that softens even his most hostile glare. The heart and simple passion of a man who, despite all his failings, is capable of risking everything-life and world-in the name of love.
"What?" he asks, his voice querulous, his eyes twinkling.
An unaccountable shyness climbs into her face. He is, she realizes, the first man to have ever made her feel safe.
"May our dooms be one," she says with curt nod.
The old Wizard smiles. "May our dooms be one, Mimara."
The pebble it throws is round and chipped, drawn down from the high mountains, its surface cracked and polished by ages of blasting water and migrating gravel. It threads the sieve of dead branches, climbing its low-thrown arc, before sailing into the midst of supine company, over the slumbering form of Pokwas, into the tangle of hair about her head.
She awakens instantly, knows instantly.
She recoils from the thought, knowing that Soma, the real Soma, lies dead somewhere near Marrow-that what awaits her in the black has no name because it has no soul.
She wanders from the camp, following a rare lane of low light, beyond the first ring of towering sentinels, beyond the reach of any incipient Wards. She feels more than sees the shadow atop the blunt limb above her. Breathless, she looks up…
The shadow leans down and forward, and she sees it, staring at her with wide, expectant eyes…
Her own face.
"I can smell the fetus within you…" she hears her voice say.
"Kill the Captain, and it will be saved."
No. No. No.
Deceit! Devilry and deceit!
All her life she has thought in whispers. A habit of slaves, who must practise within what will save them without.
But her heart shouts as she tries to find her way back to sleep.
Lie. This is what they do, skin-spies. Uncertainty is their contagion; fear and confusion are their disease. "They seduce," her mother once told her. "They play on your fears, your vulnerabilities, use them to craft you into their tool."
But what if…
Coupling. It was something she did… A kind of blankness rose within her, an absence where human feeling should have been. Men always wanted her, and she almost always despised them for it. Almost always. Sometimes, when she needed things or when she simply wanted to feel dead, her body answered their want, and she took them into her. She held them while they laboured and trembled, she bore them as a burden upon her back. And she almost never thought about it afterward, simply continued running through her running life.
She had endured innumerable suitors while on the Andiamine Heights, an insufferable parade of dandies and widowers, some cruel, others despondent, all of them hungry for the peach of Imperial power. To a man she had spurned them, had even managed to provoke a handful of formal protestations. One, the Patridomos of House Israti, even brought a suit before the Judges, claiming that she should be forced to marry him as punishment for her slander. Mother had seen to that fool.
But she had been bedded nonetheless. And despite years of carrying a whore-shell, despite the chaos of her menstrual cycle, pregnancy was not impossible. The strong seed forces the womb…
Her mother was proof of that.
Three, she tells herself. There are only three occasions she can think of that would make the accursed creature true. There was the darling body-slave-little more than a boy-who attended to her ledgers before her flight. As absurd as it is, she owns estates across the Three Seas-as does everyone in the Imperial Family. There was Imhailas, the vain Captain of the Eothic guard, who helped her escape in exchange for a taste of her peach.
Then there was Achamian, who yearned so for the mother she so resembled. She had yielded and he had taken-their "first mistake together," he had called it-in exchange for a sorcery she no longer desired.
Three, she tells herself, when in fact there is only one.
She dwells on the skin-spy and its revelation, makes adversaries of its words and an arena of her soul.
"I can smell the fetus within you…"
She battles it with unvoiced denunciations. Liar! she rails within. Obscene deceiver! But hers is a treacherous heart, forever miring what should be simple with unwanted implications. So she hears the Wizard speaking in rejoinder…
"The Judging Eye is the eye of the Unborn…"
Trying to explain away the horror of her accursed sight.
"The eye that watches from the vantage of the God."
On and on the voices tangle, until it seems they are one and the same, the sorcerer and the spy.
"Kill the Captain, and it will be saved."
No, she tells herself. No. No. No. The brothel has taught her the power of pretense, the way facts will sometimes fade into oblivion, if you deny them with enough ferocity.
This is what she will do.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Several days pass without sign of the thing called Soma. She tells herself she is relieved, yet she lingers in the lonely dark nonetheless, gazing up through the dead branches, listening to the blackness croak and creak.
One night she finds a small pool bathed in a miraculous shaft of moonlight. She crouches beside it, stares up through the hanging tunnel to consider the moon. She gazes at her image poised between floating leaves and finds herself troubled. The skin-spy, she realizes, was the last time she saw her own face. She wants to fret over her appearance in the old way, to primp and preen, but it all seems so foolish, life before this, the Slog of Slogs.
Then, in the empty interval between breaths, the Judging Eye opens.
For a time she gazes in stupefaction, then she weeps at the transformation.
Her hair cropped penitent short. Her clothing fine, but with the smell of borrowed things. Her belly low and heavy with child…
And a halo about her head, bright and silver and so very holy. The encircling waters darken for its glow.
She convulses about breathless sobs, falls clutching her knees for anguish…
For she sees that she is good — and this she cannot bear.
The old Wizard pesters her with questions when she returns. He wonders at her swollen eyes-worries. She withdraws the way she always withdraws when dismay overwhelms her ability to think clearly. She can see the hurt and the confusion in the Wizard's eyes, knows that he has treasured the gradual intimacy that has grown between them-that he truly has come to think of her as his daughter…
But this can never be, for fathers do not lie with their daughters.
So she spurns him, even as she allows him to curl about her.
Weeks pass. Weeks of marching gloom and touches of Qirri. Weeks of battling clans of Sranc.
Weeks of tracing the line of her stomach in the murk.
At last they walk clear of the Mop, and it seems like climbing, setting foot on land open to the sun. They gather in a line across a low ridge, thirteen of them including the Hags, their skin and clothes black from sleeping across mossy earth, the splint and chainlinks of their armour rusted for rain and torn for battling Sranc. The Skin Eaters remain intact, but the Hags have dwindled to three: the Tydonni thane, Hurm, who remains as hale as any; the Galeoth freeman, Koll, whose body seems to be wasting about his will; and the deranged Conriyan, Hilikas-or Grinner, as Galian calls him-who seems to draw sustenance from madness.
The ground collapses into broad skirts of rock and gravel below the company's feet. A smattering of trees cling to the base, hedged by surging nettles and sumac, a tangle of stem and colour that abruptly ends in blue-green swathes of reed, a kind of papyrus, hazy miles cut by black-water channels. Salt marshes. The Cerish Sea forms a featureless plate across the northern horizon, iron dark save where the sun silvers its faraway swells.
They watch ripples of lighter green sweep over the marshes-the apparition of the wind across the rushes. And then they see it, the bones of once-mighty walls, the scapular remains of a gate, and the fields beyond clotted with ruins. She gazes in silent wonder, watches the shadow of a cloud soundlessly soak the distances grey and blue.
"Behold!" the old Wizard calls out from her side. "Ancient Kelmeol. Home to the Sons of Meori. The Far Antique capital of these wastes ere the First Apocalypse."
She gazes at him, unaware of the palm that has strayed to her belly.
She bites her lip, hard, as proof against getting sick.
Achamian could scarce believe his fortune.
Until sighting Kelmeol, he had not realized just how little he had believed in his own mission. Ever since Marrow, some seditious faction within his soul had doubted he would survive even this far. And it seemed a kind of miracle that Men could suffer such trials in the absence of belief, that deeds worthy of wonder and song could be accomplished on the strength of a doubting will.
Unable to find the causeway, the company waded through the mire, beset by clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies. Several actually cried out in relief when they finally clambered onto hard ground and into the wind. After a mere watch Sarl looked poxed, he was covered with so many welts.
Kelmeol lay before them, the terrain humped with tells, the grasses so high it seemed a field in Massentia save for the grand remains of towers and temples breaching the near distance. Achamian had wandered the ruins of antique cities before, but never one so vast or so old. Seswatha had come to Kelmeol in 2150, one more refugee of the fall of the High Norsirai nations. And though those dreamed glimpses were two thousand years old, Achamian could not shake the sense that Kelmeol had fallen in his lifetime, that he was witness to a miraculous obliteration. With every glance a part of him wanted to cry out in disbelief.
There, where the mighty twin statues of Aulyanau had looked down the processional and out across the harbour and over the turquoise sea. Later he would find one of the great heads staring out of the high grasses, more than half-buried and yet still taller than a man. The harbour itself had been swallowed by waving miles of reeds, its very shape lost to the creep of earth and ages.
There, where the Hull, the white-washed curtain walls, had traced the circuit of the city. In some places nothing more than a berm remained of the once-celebrated fortifications, whereas in others sections remained remarkably intact, missing only the polished bronze spikes that had once adorned the crenulations.
There, where the ponderous lines of the Nausk Mausoleum had loomed over the lesser structures of the Pow, the low harbour district-a place of drawn blades and bared breasts. He could still see the rear walls of the Nausk rising like a husk from the ruins of the facade, the stone black save where matted with white and green lichens. The Pow, however, had utterly vanished beneath the waving sheets of green.
And there, the Heilor, the sacred acropolis where the Three Auguries once read the future in the blood of stags, rising like a low-hewn tree stump against the blue band of the Cerish Sea. The citadel had been razed to its foundations. The palace, where Seswatha had taken refuge from the Whirlwind, was little more than a mouth of ruined teeth behind the marble-pillared porticoes.
The decision was made to camp on the ruined acropolis, where they could defend against whatever Sranc clans ranged the marshes. In the Mop, they had slogged in a loose file. Now they spread out across the fields, walked in a ragged rank. They opened and closed about fragments of structure and ornamentation, heaps of spilled masonry, and square columns fallen for so long that the ground had climbed to encompass all but their leaning crowns. In some places, the ruins crowded thick enough to break their formation altogether.
A sadness welled through the old Wizard as he walked and peered, a mourning that possessed the airy clutch of premonition. There was poetry in loss and ruin, a wisdom that even children and idiots understood. For a time he suffered the eerie sense that he walked one of the great capitals of the Three Seas, that these were the ruins of Momemn, Carythusal, or Invishi, and they were the Last Men, thirteen instead of the one hundred and forty-four thousand of legend, and that no matter how far they travelled, how many horizons they outran, all they would find was soot and broken stone.
The world became strange with loneliness. And quiet, very quiet.
Insects whirred to and fro. Fluff scribbled across the back of warring gusts.
Without thinking he reached out for Mimara's hand. He did not answer her wondering gaze.
By happenstance, he found himself abreast Galian and one of the remaining Stone Hags, the dispossessed Tydonni thane, Tuborsa Hurm.
Hurm was perhaps the strangest of Stone Hags, both in appearance and behaviour. He continued to shave, for one, long after even Galian had abandoned his bare chin. At the close of the day's march, when his brothers could scarce speak for exhaustion, he would set to sharpening his dagger, which he had worn as narrow as a fish knife, for use on his cheeks at first light. Apparently this was a kind of ritual protest among the ordinarily long-bearded Tydonni, a way to proclaim the theft of one's honour.
Either way, it spoke to the man's stamina: even without Qirri he seemed to have little difficulty matching the company's pace. He had one of those lean physiques, with powerful shoulders perpetually angled forward as if in anticipation of a sprint. His face, which remained ruddy even in the perpetual gloom of the Mop, was shaped like the outward curve of a bow, with close-set eyes and a tiny, even womanish mouth beneath a shark-fin nose.
Galian was pressing the man with questions about the Stone Hags and the scalpers they robbed and murdered-an indelicate topic even given the crude standards of the slog.
"Gali…" Achamian heard Pokwas murmur in warning.
The former Columnary scowled up at the towering Zeumi. "I want to know what moves a man to kill his own kind when skinnies are stacked to the horizon."
"Scalps," Hurm said, grinning. "The Custom House counts. It makes no distinction between the likes of you and the likes of me."
"I don't understand," Galian said, his voice lowered in mock caution. Somewhere, somehow, Achamian realized with more than a little dismay, the man had lost his fear of their Captain. "The Bounty is the Holy Bounty, is it not?"
"Holy, is it?"
"What else would it be?"
A phlegmatic snort. "Gold," Hurm said after spitting a string of phlegm. "Gold for mead. Gold for pork-and-onion stew…" His porcine gaze clicked from place to place, then settled on Mimara, appraised her with a kind of milky viciousness. His lips parsed about rotted teeth. "Gold for pretty, pretty peaches."
Perhaps this was when Achamian first sensed the madness about to happen.
"You would wager damnation for these things?" Galian asked.
A sly grin. "The Holy Bounty is Holy because it has been decreed by the Aspect-Emperor."
"The Aspect-Emperor, is it? Would you like to know what I think of our glorious tyrant?"
Achamian recognized the triumph in the Columnary's look. Galian used the same baiting manner with Soma, only with more mischief than malice in his eyes.
What was happening here?
The Tydonni thane grinned with alehouse cruelty. "I think his gold was born to burden my purse. I think he overlooks the likes of me… and of you! I think all those prayers, all those little wire circumfixes, are naught but wasted effort! Because in the end," he continued with a conspiratorial lean, "I think he's no different than you or me. A sinner. A dog. A demon when too deep in his cups! A fool. A fraud. A scalper of sou-!"
Lord Kosoter materialized at the man's side, his knife out… Achamian blinked in confusion. A stabbing motion. Hurm crushed his cheek against his shoulder, as if plagued by a mosquito in his ear.
Mimara cried out for shock. Achamian stood dumbfounded.
Gripping a nest of black hair, the Captain-impossibly- held the man upright while he hacked at the man's neck with his free hand. For an instant there was no blood. Then it seemed to gush from the jerking form.
"Blasphemer!" Sarl chortled, his teeth and gums shining, his eyes squeezed into creases. "No blasphemers on the slog!"
Galian had known this would happen, the old Wizard realized.
The Captain continued his savage work, grimacing in yellow-toothed disgust. He did not so much cut the head from the body as hack the body from under the head. The Hag's black-stained limbs flumped senseless between the grasses. His head yanked high like a freed kite.
"Anasurimbor Kellhus!" the Captain raved at the survivors. " He is the God! And this "-he swung Hurm's head so that blood flew from the crimson lobes of its mouth-"is His work!"
Achamian could only watch with detached wonder, the kind that afflicts the survivors of sudden catastrophes. He saw well enough. He knew well enough. And yet none of it made the slightest sense.
He found himself wondering how long before Cleric called on them to dispense the Qirri. He needed it. To the point of wringing hands and clenched teeth, he needed it.
The Captain, it seemed, was a Believer.
The pretense of thought twined through the fraud that was its soul…
It ran like a dog, bent, so that the grasses whipped in wet shags about its face and shoulders. The morning sun hung low, a pale orb in the mists that always greeted the dawn on the shore of a great sea. Gold limned any stonework bared to the sky. The acropolis rose from the ink of its own shadow, a silhouette without depth in the haze. There was beauty in the destruction, as well as thunderous proof of the Old Fathers and their power. Here, the will and might of Men had perished before the rapacious hunger of the Derived. Here, the glorious multitudes had coupled with the screaming, the broken and the dead.
These were holy facts-sacred. But the thing called Soma did not raise its head to contemplate or to consider. It did not dare. There was the tracker, Xonghis, whose almond eyes missed little. And there was the Nonman, whose senses almost rivalled its own in some respects.
There was the mission.
It paused over the headless corpse of the Stone Hag, listened to the music of carrion flies. It lingered for a moment, long enough to savour the thickness between its thighs, the arching bloat. Then it continued racing along the company's blundering trail.
On the heights of what had once been called the Heilor, it dashed through concentric shells of ruin, crept along debris-choked foundations. It ignored the vista: the city scattered like bones, the steaming marshes, the plate of the Cerish Sea. Instead it rooted through the remains of the scalper camp, sniffing the sweet where their anuses had pressed against the grasses. It found the spot where the female had made water, only to flee from the reek of her fetus.
It paused over the sour musk of the Nonman.
Something was happening… Something unanticipated by the Old Fathers.
It cringed, swatted its face in slouching fear. Had anyone happened upon it at that moment, they would have seen a crazed creature, limbed like a man but possessing a woman's beautiful face, greased with blood and filth, rocking from foot to foot like a bereaved ape.
It bent back its head until the base of its skull pressed against the crown of its spine, unsheathed its second voice…
"There's no need…" a small voice piped from above. "I have followed you since sunrise."
It whirled in feral alarm.
A series of ruined walls fenced the ground behind, each rising and falling like miniature mountain ranges. A bird perched on the summit of the nearest, its body glossy black, shot with strains of violet, its head white with marmoreal translucence-and human.
A Synthese… vessel of the Old Fathers. Flowering weeds trembled in the wind beside its clicking feet. A daylight moon, pale as a blind cat's eye, rose above its obsidian back.
The thing called Soma fell to its false face.
"You were to watch him," the bird said, a miniature scowl creasing its expression.
"Things have changed."
Eyes like blue beads closed then opened. "How so?"
The thing called Soma dared raise Mimara's face. "A sorcerer, a Gnostic sorcerer, hired the company several weeks ago… He hopes to find the Coffers."
A moment of palm-sized confusion.
"The Mandate? The Mandate has hired the Skin Eaters?"
"No… I'm not sure… He claims to be a Wizard, a sorcerer without a School. Even still, Chigra burns strong in him. Very strong."
The Synthese bent its tiny head down in momentary meditation. "So the old fool has found his way back to the benjuka plate… And he discovered you? Drusas Achamian? "
"No… There is a woman with him-one who has been taught how to recognize us. A pregnant woman…"
A sharp puppet nod. "The face you wear… I see." Shadows fluttered around the bird form, as if some greater eye blinked about the world. An intimation of rage and power. "Mimara."
The thing called Soma cringed and retreated. "Yes."
"She's pregnant. You are certain of this?"
"The stench is unmistakable."
Another moment of bird-hesitation, as if each thought had to be untangled… It was no small matter planting a soul so mighty into a skull the size of an eggshell.
"Then she cannot be harmed. All the prophecies must be respected, the false as much as the true."
"Yes, Old Father. I anticipated this, which is why I… refrained."
A sideways twitch of the head. "She leaves the safety of the others?"
"To piss and shit. I have spoken with her twice now. She will yield their secret in time."
"And the Schoolman has not intervened?"
"He does not know."
The small head flicked back. Laughter tinkled like glass. The Consult Synthese looked from the Heilor, its gaze ticking between points across the fields of papyrus out to the featureless reaches of the Cerish Sea. The wind combed its feathered tailings, blowing wide with the inaudible roar of absence and ruin.
The thing called Soma breathed deep the scent of ash become earth.
" Brave girl…" the Old Father cooed, still considering the crumbs of the age-long feast that was the Meorn Empire. "Continue tracking them, Tsuor. At the very least, they will take you home."
The Istyuli Plains
Late Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The High Istyuli
They had fled and they had gathered, like sawdust before the sweep of the carpenter's hand.
The clans that infested the Sakarpi Pale had fled long before the Great Ordeal trod their nourishing earth. They, unlike their wilder cousins to the north, had long, hard experience with the cunning ways of Men. They knew the folly of closing for battle absent overwhelming numbers, so they fled where other clans would have raced gibbering to their doom. They fled, bearing word of the dread Israzi'horul, the Shining Men, who marched with world-cracking strength behind them.
Their cousins to the north heeded them, as did their cousins in turn. Hundreds became thousands became tens of thousands. So the clans fell back, ever back, wincing from chance encounters with Mannish pickets, forming a rind that grew ever more raucous with numbers as it retreated across the empty leagues. And growing ever more hungry.
What began as the flight of a few scattered clans soon became a shrieking migration. The Parching Wind whipped high the dust of their discord, raised veils of arid filth to the arch of Heaven. The sun was blotted. The Sranc teemed as insects across the obscured flats and shallows, so many the land became desert waste in their wake, stamped and scratched into lifelessness.
And as their numbers swelled so did their fear of the Shining Men dwindle.
Shortly after the Breaking of the Ordeal, General Sibawul te Nurwul, intent to demonstrate the skill and daring of his Cepalorans, disobeyed the orders of Prince Kayutas and rode far ahead of his fellow Kidruhil pickets. He would be the first among Men to lay eyes on the storm brewing in the Istyuli wastes. There was no question of giving battle, for the inhuman multitudes blackened the circuit of all that could be seen. A full third of his riders fell that day, for the fleetest among the Sranc were quicker than the slowest among the Cepaloran riders. Sibawul and his Cepalorans raced fleeing toward their fellow pickets, drawing thousands in pursuit, and a running battle, the first since the Fall of Sakarpus, was fought as the Kidruhil companies scrambled to fend them. Several hundred cavalrymen were lost before the day's end-a needless waste.
When Sibawul was brought before Kayutas, the Prince-Imperial rebuked him in the harshest terms, saying that the Aspect-Emperor had known of the Hording all along, but realizing the ardour this knowledge would spark in the hearts of his men, he waited for the most opportune time to inform the Sacred Host.
"How do you, a master of men, punish those who disobey your commands?" Kayutas asked.
"Flogging," Sibawul fearlessly replied.
So was the first Lord of the Ordeal whipped for a martial transgression.
And so did the Zaudunyani learn that beyond the northern horizon, their foe roiled in numbers that encompassed the horizon-numbers far greater than their own. About the campfires, those who had argued a bloodless march to Golgotterath were silenced.
None could deny that a grievous toll was about to be paid.
King Nersei Proyas had seen the way hosts accumulate infirmities more times than he cared to remember. Supplies dwindled, spirits flagged, diseases multiplied, and so on, until armies that once appeared invincible came to resemble doddering old men. There was the war against the Tydonni Orthodox, of course, and the disastrous campaign across the Secharib Plains, where he had almost succumbed to the Fevers. But more and more, he found himself thinking of the First Holy War, the way it had marched into Fanim lands the mightiest host the Three Seas had even seen, only to be starved into cannibalism in a matter of months.
The Great Ordeal, he had come to realize, was no different. The cracks had opened, and Fate had set the wedges as surely as shipbuilders striking boards from felled trees. What was cracked could be hammered asunder. The Army of the Middle-North, especially, seemed to be marching under a pall of imminent disaster.
And yet, time and again, at least once every week, his Lord-and-God called him to his spare, leather-panelled bed chamber in the Umbilicus to sit and discuss… madness.
"It troubles you often, that day in Shimeh."
That day in Shimeh, when Kellhus had been acclaimed Aspect-Emperor. Proyas found himself clearing his throat and looking away. Twenty years had passed, twenty years of toil and strife, and yet the image of his old tutor standing derelict before his Holy Aspect-Emperor plagued him as insistently as ever. A memory like a childhood burn, not quite stinging but too puckered not to probe with idle fingertips.
"I loved Achamian."
How could a boy, especially one as curious and precocious as he had been, not love his first true teacher? Children can smell the difference between duty, which is merely a form of self-regard, and the temper of genuine concern. Achamian taught not to serve, but to teach, to arm an errant boy against a capricious world. He taught young master Proyas, and not the Conriyan King's second son.
"But it troubles you…" Kellhus said, "that a soul so wise and gentle would so condemn me."
"He was a man spurned," Proyas replied on a heavy breath. "No cuckold possesses a wise and gentle soul." He remembered Achamian coming to him-coming back from the presumption of death-when the First Holy War lay besieged in Caraskand. He remembered his own cowardice, how he spared himself the heartbreak of watching the sorcerer absorb tidings of the impossible…
News that Esmenet, his wife, had abandoned hope and turned to the Warrior-Prophet's bed.
"Even still, it troubles you."
The Exalt-General gazed at his Lord-and-God, pursed his lips against the difficulty of admission.
"So much so that you read his Compendium."
Proyas smiled. For years he had wondered when Kellhus would call him out on this small secret. "I read a summary of its charges against you."
"Did you believe those charges?"
"Of course not!"
The Holy Aspect-Emperor frowned as if troubled by the vehemence of his denial. He lowered his gaze to the fire twirling in the arcane octagon of his hearth.
"But why would that be, when they are true?"
The small Seeing-Flame wheezed into the silence.
The Exalt-General stared at his Lord-and-God in breathless bewilderment. The simplicity of his garb. The scriptural profile of his face, long featured, profound for the archaic cut of his beard and hair, wise for the clarity of his gaze. The lingering glow about his hands, as if unseen clouds were forever breaking above them.
"What… What are you saying?"
"That Men are children to me, precisely as Achamian claims."
"As you are father to us!"
Anasurimbor Kellhus regarded him with the utter absence of expression.
"What father murders so many of his sons?"
What was this melancholy? What was this doubt? After campaigning so long, surviving so much calamity, how could the man who gave meaning to it all ask such corrosive questions?
"A divine one," the Exalt-General declared.
The Sranc waxed ever more bold in measure with their hunger. Soon, not a day passed without word of some violent encounter. When they dared scout or patrol at all, the Kidruhil did so in force, stung by the loss of two entire companies, one of them captained by King Coithus Narnol's youngest son, Agabon. The Army of the Middle North began marching and camping on the ready. During the day they assembled into a vast, mile-long chevron, with the heavily armoured Thunyeri at the point, the Galeoth on the left flank, the Tydonni on the right, and all the baggage scattered behind and between. During the night, they arrayed their camps in tight, concentric circles, with a full quarter of their numbers assigned to defend the perimeter in rotating shifts. Drills were scheduled at irregular intervals to ensure that each man knew his place. Habitual laggards were publicly whipped. The last companies to the line were assigned to the latrines.
Despite their growing exhaustion, the Men of the Ordeal took to singing as they marched, Zaudunyani hymns for the most part, but folk songs from faraway homes as well. Some were ribald and merry, others melancholy, but one song in particular, the "Beggar's Lament," became especially popular. In some cases groups more than a thousand strong would cry out, bemoaning everything from the boils on their rumps to the pox on their members, only to be answered by thousands more complaining of even more outrageous afflictions. One man in particular, a Galeoth Agmundrman named Shoss, became famous for the hilarity of his lyrics.
And so the Army of the Middle-North marched into the Horde's shadow laughing.
No such humour could be found in Kayutas's evening councils. The Prince-Imperial always began by insisting he had no news of home, so preempting the inevitable parade of questions. His conferences with his Holy Father, he explained, were too rare and too brief to permit such questions-especially when the challenges they faced were so grievous.
The supply situation had become perilous, so much so that rationing had reduced the slaves who marched with the Ordeal to less than half the fare they needed to recoup their daily expenditures. Indeed, diseases of malnutrition were beginning to claim them in ever greater numbers; dozens were lost every day, either to death outright or to the straggling wastes behind them.
The presence of slaves, Kayutas reminded his commanders, was but one of many concessions his Holy Father had made to appease the caste-nobility- them. Soon, he would demand they sacrifice in return. The Prince-Imperial bid them to recall the First Holy War and the infamous Slaughter of the Camp-followers.
"When the time comes, each will kill his own," he said. " Each. Those who fail to do so will be executed in their slave's stead. Remember, my brothers: cruelty is only injustice in the absence of Necessity. Compassion. Generosity. These are fast becoming gluttonous sins."
He did not need to speak the obvious, that unless their foraging began providing game in far greater quantities, Necessity would be upon them in a matter of days. They did not even possess pasture enough for their ponies and beasts of burden, thanks to the drought and the scourging of the land.
As always, the discussion returned to the reason for their straits: the Horde. Kayutas polled his cavalry commanders, one by one, drawing martial wisdom from their observations: tactics to draw them out for easy slaughter, how the relative starvation of the creatures predicted their aggression, and the like.
There was no doubt, the Prince-Imperial informed his charges, that the Sranc were becoming more desperate and therefore more bold. He explained the way the snows accumulated in the high mountains, week after week, season after season, until the snow beneath could no longer hold the snow above.
"They will come crashing down upon us," he said. "And when they do, they will not be cowed so easily as they are now. They will come and they will come, until you cry out to the Gods for respite."
"How many are they?" King Hogrim asked. There was no missing the Imperial Mathematicians, as pale as sorcerers beneath their parasols, riding out with Anasurimbor Moenghus on their daily forays.
"More than us, my friend. Far more."
King Narnol, who still grieved the loss of his beloved son, chose this moment to voice a sentiment common among his peers: that the Breaking of the Great Ordeal had been ill advised. "We should stand together!" he protested. "Shoulder to shoulder with our brothers! Divided, they can engulf and overwhelm us one by one. But if the Great Ordeal confronts this Horde entire…"
"We cannot feed ourselves as it is," the Prince-Imperial answered. "We are gathering far more fare as four than we could as one, and still we hunger. To stand together is to starve together."
Though his reasoning was sound, Kayutas could see that Narnol, in the course of framing his argument, had sparked real fear in the hearts of his commanders.
"Trust in my Father," he pressed, "who has foreseen and planned for all of these dilemmas. Think of how fifty of your knights can rout a mob of thousands! The Sranc battle in crazed masses, bereft of design or coordination. You need not fear for your flanks, only stand your ground! Hack and hew!" He turned to gesture to his sister, Anasurimbor Serwa, the Grandmistress of the Swayali, whose beauty was ever a lodestone for idle eyes. "Most importantly, recall the Schools and the destruction they can rain down upon our foes! Have no fear, my brothers. We will cobble the horizon with their carcasses!"
And the Lords of the Ordeal filed from the council striking their chests and crying out in renewed resolution. So easy it was to kindle the lust for blood in the hearts of Men. Even those thrown more than a thousand miles from their home.
To look at skies bright and arid and to sense a darkness unseen.
The Men of the Ordeal marched, little more than shadows in the sheeted dust. Knowing what gathered in the distance, they gazed ever forward, pondering what they could not see. There is an exhaustion peculiar to hanging threats, a needing-to-confront that tires the soul the way overstuffed packs sap the limbs. They would look out across the blasted plate of the Istyuli, and they would wonder at the rumour of their enigmatic foe. The Horde. They would argue numbers, exchange speculations, discuss battles waged by long-dead men. It became a game for some, counting the hundreds of dust plumes that marked the Kidruhil and the various companies of knights that patrolled ahead of them. They would wager rations on which plume marked who, a practice that became so common that some companies found themselves returning to the shouts of uproarious thousands.
For the pickets themselves, it seemed they had come to the ends of the earth. The ground was all but gutted dust by this time, so the Horde always appeared as a peculiar dust storm that spanned the horizon, one tethered to the irregularities of the earth. Ochre clouds piled upon billowing foundations, a great curtain that climbed into a haze that stained the northern sky, obscuring the lower constellations at night. Streamers preceded it, tails of gauze hooked as though on nails, marking those clans that had fled the longest, starved the longest. On and on it extended, powder raised into sinuous mountains, beautiful for its slow-blooming complexities, wondrous for its mad scale. A sense of impunity had grown upon many of the riders, one of those thoughtless convictions that arise when something expected perpetually fails to arrive. They rode their trackless circuits, and the unseen hordes before them retreated, always retreated. This was simply the way.
Then some trick of the Gangan-naru would kick open a door across the distance, and the windy hush would suddenly tingle with sound of the Horde, a roar that was at once booming and thin. "Like shrieking children," one of the Kidruhil Captains would explain to General Kayutas. "For the life of me, they sound like shrieking children."
Or, more rarely, given the sheer number of companies pacing the Horde, one of the retreating streamers would reverse direction and begin racing toward one of the slender fingers of dust that marked the pursuing cavalry companies. Then the choreographed race would begin, with the company pursued turning back to the main host, drawing the reckless clan ever farther from the Horde and so delivering it to the lances of those companies flanking. The battles would be so one-sided as to scarce be battles at all. Ghostly riders pounding out of the smoke of powder-dry earth, riding down the shadows of screeching Sranc, some so starved as to be little more than dolls of knotted rope. Men with chalked faces would congratulate one another, exchange petty news, then ride on with whatever trophies they so prized.
Originally, they tallied the dead, thinking this a means of measuring the Sranc's defeat. And squads would always be sent back for the gratification of the host, their lances heavy with severed heads. The counting was abandoned after they reached some ten thousand-for who bothers to count inexhaustible things? The practice was forsaken when the trudging infantrymen began jeering at the lancers' approach. The hearts of men are like buoys: the more water you give them, the higher their expectations swim. All that would survive of the custom was the use of lance as a term for twelve Sranc-the average number of heads that could be carried on a standard Kidruhil shaft.
And so did a kind of unspoken accord arise between the Men of the Ordeal and the Sranc of the Horde, a truce whose falseness lay in the meagreness of the former's rations-the footmen of most nations had been reduced to gnawing amicut. Every morning, the number of slaves abandoned to die climbed a handful of souls. Camp would be broken, and the Army would begin crawling toward the northern horizon, leaving several dozen forlorn and broken souls sitting amid the detritus, waiting to be claimed by whatever it was that ailed them. Many just vanished, and the vassals of different lords began trading rumours of midnight murder. Some tales, like the story of Baron Hunrilka demanding his thanes dip their beards in the blood of their slaves, transcended bounds of kin and vassalage and were traded through the Ordeal as a whole.
Fewer and fewer fires glittered at night, for the Sranc Horde had so raked the earth that the Judges forbade the binding of grasses-or anything else that could be used as fodder-for fuel. Here and there enterprising souls would raise fires of thistles and scrub, but for the most part men whiled away the watches in apprehension and gloom, uncounted thousands of them, sitting in small, shadowy bands, with only the Nail of Heaven to reveal the worry in the eyes around them. It was a soldier's nature to accumulate grievances over the course of a campaign. In civilized lands, where marches were brief and battles quick in coming, a commander could rely on either victory to cleanse the ledgers or defeat to render them moot. But this march was unlike any other, and the surrounding wastes offered nothing to ease the frustrations of a warlike heart.
They believed still, for they were Zaudunyani, and they feared the Judges enough to stay their tongues, but they were simple men and so thought the solution to their travails was simple.
Battle. They need only close with their inhuman foe and hack them to the ground.
Earlier, when the Horde had been more novelty than existential threat, the Lords of the Ordeal had hoped that one of the Istyuli's many rivers would catch the Sranc as though in a bottle, forcing them to close. But the severity of the drought had choked even the greatest of the Istyuli's rivers into muddy channels. The Horde fled across them as though they scarce existed, fouling the waters with their waste as they did so.
And so was the Great Ordeal thrown open to Disease, dread Akkeagni, who reached through the host seizing men in his pestilent hands. Sick Columns were formed, ever growing formations that trailed each of the Four Armies. They quickly became pageants of death and misery, men marching with heads slumped, many of them naked from the waist down, their backsides stained with blood and feces. Hemoplexy was far and away the most common ailment-as well as the most deadly, given the lack of clean water. Only in the madness that is war could men die of thirst through drinking. And so did many learn what the poets and historians left unspoken: that more warriors die in offal than in blood.
And still the Sranc continued to fall back, a mad seething that scarred the very curve of the world. More and more clans fell upon the companies of horsemen that shadowed them throughout the day, attacks that fooled several Captains into thinking the Horde itself descended on the Ordeal. Miles were lost to their false alarms.
Of the innumerable skirmishes, two in particular became famous. General Siroyon was already notorious because of the way he and his Famiri rode into battle bare-chested and because of the legendary beauty and speed of his mount, Phiolos. Since his Famiri could easily outdistance the Sranc, he began riding ever closer to the Horde, threading the dust streamers that marked the straggling clans, so close his men's necks were pained for gazing up at the mountainous skirts of dust that obscured their foe.
"It is like riding into canyons of smoke," he told King Proyas and his war-council, "a land where storm clouds war directly with the earth. The shrieks are too… too many to sound of shrieking… The world simply… rings. And then you see them, like a plague of insects clotting the ground, leaping, sprinting, massing without order or reason… Madness. Threshing madness! Only the outermost are visible, so they seem frail, at first, such is the proportion of the dust piling above them. But then you catch glimpses of the countless thousands swirling beyond… and you know, just know, that what you see is but the edge of screaming miles…"
The edge of screaming miles. This phrase in particular would find itself passed from lip to lip, until fairly every soul in the Army of the East had heard it.
Knowing that he would arouse the creatures, the Famiri General took care to coordinate his expeditions with King-Regent Nurbanu Soter and his Ainoni. Arrayed some miles in advance of the Army, Soter's heavily armoured Palatines and their household knights would await Siroyon's howling return. They would wonder at the thin thread of half-naked Famiri flying across the waste and the mobs of leaping shadows that pursued them. They would open alleys for the men to flee between, then they would close ranks and begin thundering forward…
And so were the Sranc felled in the thousands.
When these tales reached Sibawul te Nurwul in the Army of the Middle-North, he commanded his Cepalorans to strip off their armour, reckoning this was what enabled Siroyon and his Famiri to outrun the creatures. Bent on redeeming his earlier failure, he passed informal word to several caste-nobles and Kidruhil Captains that he planned on repeating Siroyon's tactics, allowing them to destroy the creatures by the thousands. What he failed to realize was that the uneven accumulation of Sranc before the Army of the Middle-North meant his horses had far less fodder than General Siroyon's. The Cepalorans rode into the smoke canyons as the Famiri had, wheeled as they had wheeled when the Sranc began racing toward them. And fled as they fled, howling out with the same exhilaration.
But their ebullient mood quickly faltered. Once again, the Sranc closed upon the laggards among them. Sibawul commanded his hornsmen to signal for assistance, but the General had not discussed contingencies with any of the lords or captains who commanded the jaws of his trap. The inhuman masses gained on the rearmost horsemen, shrieked in obscene triumph as the first stragglers were pulled down. Men crouched in their saddles, whipped their ponies bloody, wept as the slavering masses engulfed them…
Some two thousand of Sibawul's kinsmen were lost to the gibbering pursuit. It would be the first true disaster suffered by the Great Ordeal. And so did the ill-fated General earn a second flogging, as well as everlasting shame in the scripture that would survive.
As the days passed, the shape of what had been an unthinkable fate had become clear to anyone who pondered the Ordeal's straits. They faced a more mobile enemy on open terrain-and this meant doom. They could not close with their foe, and as a result they could not secure the supplies they needed to survive. Tales of various historical battles, especially those involving the Scylvendi, the famed People of War, began filtering through the host, traded between shrugging men and pensive looks. More than one antique emperor, the Men of the Ordeal learned, had led the pride of his people to doom on distant plains.
"Fear not," Kayutas assured his commanders. "They will attack, and soon."
"How?" King Narnol asked. Bent by the death of his son, he had grown ever more bold in his questioning, ever more insolent. "How could you know?"
"Because as much as we hunger, they starve."
"Ha!" the greybeard Galeoth cried. "So they will come to steal food we don't possess?"
Kayutas said nothing, content to allow Narnol's own harsh intonations condemn him.
"We!" King Vukyelt erupted. " We are the food, fool!"
At some point, each of the Marshals of the Four Armies petitioned the Aspect-Emperor, asking that he address their host and so silence the growing presentiment of doom. He rebuked each of them in turn, saying, "If your nations cannot endure trials so paltry without my intervention, then truly the Great Ordeal is doomed."
And so the Men of the Ordeal roused themselves at the Interval's morning toll. They tightened their belts and war-girdles, shouldered packs that always seemed one stone heavier than the day previous. And they trudged to their assembling formations, wondering at the dust that puffed from their steps. Some continued blinking long into the morning, whether from weariness or airborne grit, like men trapped in nightmares.
– | Sorweel had no brothers, a fact that had caused him no little shame in his childhood. He had no clue as to why he should feel responsible for his mother's failure to bear a second son, or for his father's refusal to take another wife after his mother died. From time to time he would hear his father arguing with some wizened adviser about the frailty of the dynastic line: "But if the boy should die, Harweel!" He would slink away numb and bewildered, oppressed by a curious sense of urgency, as if he should don his toy armour, do everything he could to safeguard his precious pulse. And he would think how much easier it would be if he had a younger brother, someone to protect — someone to share the future's terrible burdens.
And so he grew up searching for brothers, an asking-for-more that dogged his every friendship. He was the Prince. He was the one ordained to ascend the Horn-and-Amber Throne. His was the indispensable soul, and yet it always seemed otherwise. And now, when he needed a brother more than at any time in his life, he was not even sure he possessed a friend.
What Sorweel had feared had come to pass: the Scions had in fact stumbled across a Sranc host shadowing the Great Ordeal. They only glimpsed it a few times, from what rare heights the landscape provided: a column of vast squares marching in perfect formation. Twice Eskeles had cast an air-bending spell that allowed them to scry the host in greater detail. While others busied themselves counting heads, Sorweel watched with breathless wonder: the tiny figures become liquid and large, executing soundless errands utterly oblivious to the Scions and their sorcerous observation.
Nonmen, the first the young King had ever seen, policed the column's flanks, riding black horses and wearing elaborate gowns of chainmail. Erratics, the Mandate Schoolman called them, Nonmen who had gone mad for immortality. Sorweel found the appearance of them disconcerting-their faces especially. Since time immemorial, his people had battled the Sranc. And so, for him, the Sranc were the rule and the Nonmen the perversions. He could not look at them without seeing the heads of Sranc stitched onto the bodies of statuesque Men.
Scarcely a hundred of them accompanied the host. Far more numerous were what Eskeles called Ursranc, a species bred for obedience. "Like dogs to wolves," the Schoolman said. They seemed somewhat taller and broader than their wild cousins, but aside from their freedom, they were really only distinguished by the uniformity of their armour: hauberks of black iron scale. The Scions could only guess at their numbers, since they not only crawled throughout the column whipping and beating their more wolfish kin, but also patrolled the surrounding plains in loose companies of a hundred or so-the way Men would.
No matter what their numbers, they were but a pittance compared with their unruly relatives. At first Sorweel could scarce credit his eyes, gazing at the great square formations through the Schoolman's lens of air. Sranc chained to Sranc chained to Sranc. On and on. Snapping. Soundlessly howling. Shambling through screens of dust. Eskeles counted one hundred heads a side, which meant that each square contained some ten thousand of the creatures. Arguing glimpses through the endless veils of dust, he and Captain Harnilas decided that no less than ten squares composed the column. Which meant that Sorweel witnessed something his people knew only from legend: a horde whipped and shackled into the form of a great army.
A Yoke Legion, Eskeles had said, speaking with a survivor's dread. The Erratics and Ursranc, he explained, would drive their wretched captives until the scent of the Ordeal sang on the clear wind, then simply strike the chains that threaded their shackles. Hunger would do the rest. Hunger and diabolical lust…
The Consult was real. If the unmasking of the skin-spy in the Umbilicus had not entirely convinced Sorweel, this most certainly did. The Aspect-Emperor warred against a real enemy. And unless the Scions could find some way to warn Kayutas, the Army of the Middle-North was doomed.
They had spent a crazed fortnight trying to catch the Army-without dying. They had struck eastward, slowly bending their course to the north, riding day and night in the hope of skirting, then outdistancing, the Consult host. Within three days they found the great track the Army of the Middle-North had beaten into the dusty waste. But the urgency that spurred their flight was easily matched by the dread host. Day after day, no matter how hard they pushed their ponies, the smear of dun haze that marked the Ten-Yoke Legion on the horizon stubbornly refused to fall behind them.
After the first week, the miraculous endurance of their Jiunati ponies began to fail, and Harnilas had no choice but to leave more and more of their company hobbling on foot behind them. The rule he used was simple: those he deemed strong riders went on, while those he deemed weak were left behind, regardless of whose pony failed. Obotegwa was among the first to be so abandoned: Sorweel need only blink to see the old Satyothi smiling in philosophic resignation, trudging through the dust of their trotting departure. Charampa and other Scions who were not bred to horses were quick to follow. Eskeles was the sole exception-even though the others began calling him "Pony-killer." Every other day, it seemed, his paunch broke another pony's strength and so doomed another Scion to trudge alone on foot. He felt the shame keenly, so much so that he began refusing his rations. "I carry my pack on my waist," he would say with a forced laugh.
The remaining Scions began watching him in exasperation-and, in some cases, outright hatred. The fifth pony he lamed, Harnilas chose a tempestuous Girgashi youth named Baribul to yield his mount. "What?" the young man cried to the Mandate Schoolman. "You cannot walk across the sky?"
"There are Quya on the horizon!" the sorcerer exclaimed. "We are all dead if I draw their eye!"
"Yield your shag!" Harnilas bellowed at the youth. "I will not ask again!"
Baribul wheeled about to face the commander. "There will be war for this!" he roared. "My father will sound the High Shi-"
Harnilas hefted his lance, skewered the young man's throat with a blurred throw.
The Kidruhil veteran spurred his pony in a tight circle about the dying youth. "I care not for your fathers!" he called to the others, resolution like acid in his eyes. "I care not for your laws or your customs! And apart from my mission, I care not for you! Only one of us needs to reach the Holy General! One of us! and the Great Ordeal will be saved-as will your fathers and their fool customs!"
The huffing Schoolman clambered onto Baribul's pony, his face dark with the rage that weak men use to overmatch their shame. The remaining Scions had already turned their backs to him, resumed their northward drift. Baribul was dead, and they were too tired to care. He had been insufferably arrogant, anyway.
Sorweel lingered behind, staring at the body in the dust. For the first time, he understood the mortal stakes of their endeavour-the mission his insight had delivered. The Scions could very well be doomed, and unless he set aside his cowardice and pride, he would die not only without brothers but without friends as well.
The Company rode in haphazard echelon across the plain, each pony hauling skirts of spectral dust. Zsoronga rode alone, relieved of his Brace by the steady loss of their mounts. He hung his head, his blinks so sticky as to become heartbeats of sleep. His mouth hung open. They had ridden past exhaustion, into mania and melancholy, into the long stupor of mile stacked upon endless mile.
"I'm next," the Successor-Prince said with offhand disgust as Sorweel approached. "The fat man eyes my Mebbee even now. Eh, Mebbee?" He raked affectionate fingers through his pony's plumed mane. "Imagine. The Satakhan of High Holy Zeum, stumping alone through the dust…"
"I'm sure we'll fi-"
"But this is good," Zsoronga interrupted, raising a hand in a loose but-yes gesture. "Whenever my courtiers air their grievances, I can say, 'Yes, I remember the time I was forced to hobble alone through Sranc-infested wastes…'" He laughed as if seeing their faces blanch in his soul's eye. "Who could whine to such a Satakhan? Who would dare?"
He had turned to Sorweel as he said this, but he spoke in the inward manner of those who think their listeners cannot understand.
"I'm not one of the Believer-Kings!" Sorweel blurted.
Zsoronga blinked as though waking.
"You speak Sheyic now?"
"I'm not a Believer-King," Sorweel pressed. "I know you think I am."
The Successor-Prince snorted and turned away.
"Think? No, Horse-King. I know. "
"How? How could you know?"
Exhaustion has a way of parting the veils between men, not so much because the effort of censoring their words exceeds them, but because weariness is the foe of volatility. Oft times insults that would pierce the wakeful simply thud against the sleepless and fatigued.
Zsoronga grinned in what could only be called malice. "The Aspect-Emperor. He sees the hearts of Men, Horse-King. He saw yours quite clearly, I think."
" No. I… I don't know what happened at the-the…" He had assumed his tongue would fail him, that his Sheyic would be so rudimentary that it would only humiliate him, but the words were there, cemented by all those dreary watches he had spent cursing Eskeles. "I don't know what happened at the council!"
Zsoronga looked away, sneering as though at a younger sister. " I thought it plain," he said. " Two spies were revealed. Two false faces…"
Sorweel glared. Frustration welled through him and with it an overwhelming urge to simply close his eyes and slump from his saddle. His thoughts sagged, reeled into nonsensical convolutions. The ground looked cushion soft. He would sleep such a sleep! And his pony, Stubborn-Eskeles could have him. He was strong. Zsoronga could keep Mebbee, and so lose the moral high-ground to his whining courtiers…
The young King was quick in blinking away this foolishness.
"Zsoronga. Look at me… Please. I am the enemy of your enemy! He murdered my father! "
The Successor-Prince pawed his face as though trying to wipe away the exhaustion.
"To sow… thrauma… discord between us! To sow discord in my own heart! Or… or…"
A look of flat disgust. "Or?"
"Maybe he was… mistaken."
"What?" Zsoronga crowed, laughing. "Because he found your soul too subtle? A barbarian? Spare me your lies, shit-herder!"
"No… No! Because…"
"Because… Because…" Zsoronga mocked.
For some reason this barb found its way through the numbness, stung enough to bring tears to his eyes. "You would think me mad if I told you," the young King of Sakarpus said, his voice cracking.
Zsoronga gazed at him for a long, expressionless moment-a look of judgment and decision.
"I've seen you in battle," he finally said, speaking with the semblance of cruelty that men sometimes use to make room for a friend's momentary weakness. He smiled as best his heart could manage. "I already think you mad!"
A single teasing accusation, and the rift of suspicion between them was miraculously healed. Often men need only speak around things to come together and so remember what it means to speak through.
Too weary to feel gratified or relieved, Sorweel began telling the Successor-Prince everything that had transpired since the death of his father and the fall of his hallowed city. He told him of the stork who had alighted on the walls the instant before the Great Ordeal attacked his city. He told him how he had wept in the Aspect-Emperor's arms. He confessed everything, no matter how shameful, how weak, knowing that for all the aloofness of Zsoronga's gaze, the man no longer judged him with a simple rule.
And then he told him about the slave, Porsparian…
"He… he… made a face, her face, in the earth. And-I swear to you, Zsoronga! — he gathered… mud… spit, from her lips. He rubbed it across my chee-"
" Before the council?" Zsoronga asked, astonished eyes shining from a dubious scowl. "Before the Anasurimbor named you one of the faithful?"
"Yes! Yes! And ever since… Even Kayutas congratulates me on my… my turning."
"Conversion," Zsoronga corrected, his head slung low in concentration. "Your conversion…"
So far the young King of Sakarpus had spoken through the weariness that hooks lead weights to each and every thought, making the effort of talking akin to that of lifting what would rather sink. Suddenly speaking felt more like trying to submerge air-filled bladders-holding down things that should be drowned.
"Tell me what you think!" Sorweel cried.
"This is bad rushru… The Mother of Birth… For us, she is the slave Goddess. Beneath our petitioni-"
"It does shame me!" Sorweel blurted. "I am one of the warlings! Born of blood both ancient and noble! Trothed to Gilgaol since my fifth summer! She shames me!"
"But not beneath our respect," Zsoronga continued with an air of superstitious concern. Dust had chalked his kinked hair, so that he resembled Obotegwa, older and wiser than his years. "She is among the eldest… the most powerful."
"So what are you saying?"
The Successor-Prince absently stroked his pony's neck rather than answer. Even when hesitating, Zsoronga possessed a directness, a paradoxical absence of hesitation. He was one of those rare men who always moved in accordance with themselves, as though his soul had been cut and stitched from a single cloth-so unlike the patched motley that was Sorweel's soul. Even when the Successor-Prince doubted, his confidence was absolute.
"I think," Zsoronga said, "and by that I mean think… that you are what they call narindari in the Three Seas…" His body seemed to sway about the stationary point of his gaze. "Chosen by the Gods to kill."
"Kill?" Sorweel cried. "Kill?"
"Yes," the Successor-Prince replied, his green eyes drawn down by the frightful weight of his ruminations. When he looked up, he gazed with a certain blankness, as if loathe to dishonour his friend with any outward sign of pity. "To avenge your father."
Sorweel already knew this, but in the manner of men who have caged their fears. He knew this as profoundly as he knew anything, and yet somehow he had managed to convince himself it wasn't true.
He had been chosen to kill the Aspect-Emperor.
"So what am I to do?" he cried, more honest to his panic than he intended. "What does She expect of me?"
Zsoronga snorted with the humour of the perpetually overmatched. "What does the Mother expect? The Gods are children and we are their toys. Look at you sausages! They cherish us one day, break us the next." He held out his arms as if to mime Mankind's age-old exasperation. "We Zeumi pray to our ancestors for a reason."
Sorweel blinked against mutinous eyes. "Then what do you think I should do?"
"Stand in front of me as much as possible!" the handsome Successor-Prince chortled. A better part of Zsoronga's strength, Sorweel had learned, lay in his ability to drag good humour out of any circumstance. It was a trait he would try to emulate.
"Look at these past days, Horse-King," the black man continued when Sorweel's lack of amusement became clear. "With every throw of the number-sticks you win! First, She disguised you. Now She exalts you with glory on the field, raises you in the eyes of men. Can't you see? You were little more than a foundling when you first joined the Scions. Now old Harni can scarce sneeze without begging your advice…" Zsoronga appraised him with a kind of cocked wonder.
"She is positioning you, Sorweel."
More truths he had already known yet refused to acknowledge. Suddenly, the young King of Sakarpus found himself regretting his confession, repenting what was in fact his first true conversation since the death of his father. Suddenly it seemed pathetic and absurd, searching for a brother in a Son of Zeum, a nation the Sakarpi used to refer to things too distant or too strange to be credited.
"What if I don't want to be disguised or positioned?"
Zsoronga shook his head with a kind of bemoaning wonder. You sausages… his eyes said.
"We Zeumi pray to our ancestors for a reason."
Clouds climbed the horizon, and the Men of the Middle-North rejoiced, thinking the Gods had relented at long last. They sailed across the sky with the grace of whales, ever more crowded, ever more bruised about their bellies, but aside from brief showers of spittle, the rain did not come. A windless humidity rose in its stead, the kind that makes sodden cloth of limbs and lead of burdens. The day ended in weariness and indecision, the same as any other, save that the Zaudunyani's exhaustion was total and their unslaked thirst extreme. The absence of dust was their only reprieve.
Night brought near absolute darkness.
The attack came during the first watch. A Sranc war-party some twenty lances strong simply leapt out of the blackness and fell upon the Galeoth flank. Men who muttered among themselves to while away the boredom cried out in sudden horror and were no more. The Sranc swept over the outermost sentries, raced caterwauling toward the ranks of the night defenders proper. Men locked shields against the blackness, lowered their pikes. Some cursed while others prayed. Then the obscenities were upon them, hacking and howling, their limbs wasted, their stomachs pinned to their spines. Heaving and hewing along the length of their shallow line, the Galeoth held their ground. Crying out hymns, they struck the maniacal creatures down.
Horns and alarums rang through the rest of the host. Men raced to their positions, some hopping to pull on their boots, others with their hauberks swinging. Agmundrmen with their war knots, Nangaels with their blue-tattooed cheeks, Numaineiri with their great hanging beards: ironclad men drawn from all the great tribes of Galeoth, Thunyerus, and Ce Tydonn, arrayed across a mile of flats and shallow ravines. They readied themselves with cursing bravado, and then, when every strap was buckled and every shield raised, they peered across the dark plain. Behind their gleaming ranks, the Kidruhil and caste-noble knights loitered in mounted clots, many standing in their stirrups to gaze as well.
No one saw anything, such was the darkness. During the following watch, news of the Sranc war-party's easy defeat circulated through the ranks. The cynics among them predicted weeks of blaring horns and sleepless, pointless vigils.
General Kayutas sent out several Kidruhil companies to reconnoitre the plain. The cavalrymen loathed few things more than riding pickets at night-for fear of ambush, certainly, but more for fear of being thrown. Since Sakarpus, some eighty souls had perished ranging the dark and hundreds more had been injured or crippled. After the Judges executed a Kidruhil captain for deliberately laming his ponies to feed his men, the companies were even denied the tradition of feasting on the crippled mounts.
The Northmen became complacent, and soon the host boomed with impatient chatter. Several pranksters broke ranks to dance and gesticulate before the pitch-black distances. The thanes could not silence them, no matter how hard they bawled. So when reports of cries heard on the plain reached General Kayutas, he was not immediately inclined to believe them…
He summoned his sister, Serwa, only when the first of the scouting parties failed to return.
As with the other Schools, the Swayali Witches had remained largely cloistered within the host. Apart from chance encounters in the camp, the Zaudunyani saw them only during the Signalling, when one of the Swayali would climb the night sky to flash coded messages to their Saik counterparts in the Army of the East.
The reasons for this discretion were many-fold. The Swayali were witches, for one. Despite the Aspect-Emperor, many held their old prejudices fast-how could they not, when so many of their words for sorcery and its practitioners were also words for wickedness? They were women, for another. Several men had already been whipped, and one even executed, for acting out deranged infatuations. But most importantly, the Aspect-Emperor wished to deny the Consult any easy reckoning of the power he brought against them. For in truth, all the Men of the Ordeal in their countless, shining thousands were little more than a vehicle for the safe conveyance of the Schools.
Prince Anasurimbor Kayutas decided the time for discretion was at an end.
At her brother's command, Serwa deployed her witches behind the common line, holding forty-three of the most senior and accomplished in reserve. A profound hush accompanied their appearance throughout the camp. The "Nuns," the Men called them. With their yellow billows-the immense silken gowns they wore as protection against Chorae-wrapped and bound about them, the Swayali indeed resembled Jokian Nuns.
Sorcerous utterances cracked the gloom, and one by one the witches stepped into the air. They strode out over the deep ranks of the common line. Men in their thousands craned their necks to follow their soundless course. Some murmured, a few even called out, but most held their breath for wonder. Given the youth of the School, the women were young as well, with faces of smooth alabaster and teak, lips full about the lights that flashed from them. Free of the ground, they unbound their billows, spake the small Cant that animated them. The fabric dropped, unfurled in arcs that twined in the glow of the Nuns' arcane voices. One by one the Swayali bloomed, opened like flowers of golden silk, and the Men of Ordeal were dumbstruck.
Swayali, the School of Witches.
They climbed out beyond the common line, a second chevron, like a mathematical apparition of the first, two hundred lights flung into the blackness of the plain. They stopped, hung like wickless candle lights. Arcane chanting, eerie and feminine, shrugged away the cavernous heights of the night and found ears in the form of intimate whispers.
Prompted by some inaudible signal, they lit the world in unison.
Bars of Heaven, lines of blinding white rising from the wasted ground to the shrouded sky, some two hundred of them, like silver spokes across the near horizon.
Their faces slack above the rims of their shields, the Men of the Middle-North squinted across a lightning-illuminated world, one devoid of sound, bleached of colour. At first, many could not credit their eyes. Many stood blinking as if trying to awaken.
Instead of earth, Sranc. Instead of distance, Sranc.
Fields upon fields of them, creeping on their bellies like worms.
They had come as locusts, where the lust of the one sparks the lust of the other, until all is plague. They had come, answering a cunning as old as the age of their obscene manufacture. They had come to feast and they had come to couple, for they knew of no other possibility.
The Nuns' chanting chorus crumbled into an arcane cacophony. One glowing figure sparked with furious light. Then another. Then all was glare and blinking hell.
The air whooshed and cracked, sounds so great that many flinched behind their shields-sounds that blew through the roar of burning Sranc. The Men of the Ordeal stood dazzled. Seven heartbeats Fate would grant them. Seven heartbeats to see their foe thrash in the fire of their burning. Seven heartbeats to wonder at the girls hanging alone in the sky, setting the earth alight with glowing song.
Seven heartbeats, for even though the beasts died in untold thousands before their eyes, all the world beyond the witches was Sranc. And far more creatures heaved and scrambled between the circuits of their sorcerous destruction than within. Arrows chipped at the Nuns' Wards, a few that quickly became an obscuring rain, until the witches were naught but blue-glowing marbles beneath clattering black. Far more missed their mark than otherwise so that the creatures fell in great arcs below.
And the Horde howled, a noise so savage, raised in so many ulcerated throats, that many Men of the Ordeal dropped their weapons to clasp their ears. A cry that pinched the nape of even the bravest man's neck…
And sent the very landscape rushing.
Not a man who had boasted failed to repent his words. The Swayali seemed to move for the fields of Sranc surging beneath them. Many men stumbled for vertigo. Shrieks warbled through the all-encompassing roar. No word that Men traded could be heard. No horn that sounded. No drum.
But the Believer-Kings had no need of communication; they had but one inviolable order…
Yield no ground.
Mouthing soundless shouts, the Men of the Middle-North watched the cyclopean charge. They saw the ground vanish beneath waves of howling faces. They glimpsed silhouettes against cauldrons of destroying light. Notched blades held high. Figures kicking in starved-dog fury.
They watched the Horde descend upon them…
No words, no training could prepare them for the fact of their enemy. Many glanced to the horizon, thinking they would see their Holy Aspect-Emperor striding across the back of a shrouded world-not realizing that the Horde had beset each of the Four Armies, that he battled faraway with Proyas and the Army of the East.
The fleetest among the Sranc struck first, a scattering of mad, individual assaults. They clawed and thrashed like cats thrown from rooftops. But the Men scarcely noticed them, such was the deluge that followed…
The scrambling herd of limbs. The flying line of blades and axes. The crazed white faces, those intent startling for their inhuman beauty, those that shrieked appalling for their infernal deformity. Glimpses rimmed in the light of Swayali destruction… Stick-limbed apparitions.
The Men of the Middle-North raised their shields and spears against them.
So did the Horde crash against the Army of the Middle-North. The dead could scarce fall, so packed, so violent was the melee. Men grimacing in thrusting panic. Nonman faces squealing and snapping. Sranc, crushed by the heave of their countless brothers. Sranc, their every bestial instinct bent to ferocity. Men cringed from their eye-blink speed, gasped against their gut-twisting stink: the rot of fish mongers clothed in fecal rags.
But the Shining Men stood their stubborn ground. Heavily armoured, stout of heart, and mighty of limb, they knew that flight would be their destruction. Torrents of arrows and javelins blackened the deranged vista, falling upon the ranks in a soundless clatter, but only those foolish enough to raise their faces were wounded or killed. Heeding the lessons of the ancients, they fought in deep phalanxes, arrayed so that those forward could brace their backs or shoulders against the shields of those behind, so that the entire formation must be clawed like a burr from world's hair before moving. The Galeoth and Tydonni wielded their thrusting spears and nansuri, short-swords designed for close-quarters fighting, to great effect, stabbing at the abominations pinioned against their shields. The Thunyeri, who were weaned on the blood of Sranc, used the hatchets long favoured by their fathers.
The host's bowmen maintained their positions immediately behind the common line, loosing shaft after shaft on shallow arcs over the heads of their countrymen. All of them, even the famed Agmundrmen, fired blind, knowing their arrows killed and yet despairing the insignificance of their toll.
For the knights and thanes stranded on their ponies behind the common line, it seemed a kind of mad performance, like those staged by the great troupes of dancers who frequented the courts of kings. For weeks they had skirmished with the Sranc, had grinned the pulse-pounding grin of the chase and kill. But now they could only watch in astonished frustration, for the Sranc had swallowed the very ground they would ride. Hundreds abandoned their mounts, hoping to shoulder their way to the fore of their men-at-arms, but the Judges stayed them with threats of doom and damnation, reminded them of the Aspect-Emperor and his Martial Prohibitions. For each phalanx was a kind of abacus, and each man a bead bound by strict rules of substitution.
Earl Hirengar of Canute spurned the Judges. He was one of those belligerent souls who could not abide watching while his lessers fought, let alone consider the consequences of his acts. When the Judges tried to seize him, he killed two and grievously injured a third. Then, because no signal could be heard above the clamour, he rode unopposed into the phalanx of his countrymen with his thanes in grim tow. His company managed to hack their way some thirty yards beyond the common line, great-bearded Tydonni, their mouths howling inaudible war-cries, their swords and axes swinging on wild arcs. But the Sranc engulfed them, climbed the backs of their brothers, leapt to tackle the hapless knights. Hirengar himself was dragged from his saddle by the beard. Death came swirling down.
Dismayed and disorganized, his kinsmen faltered. But even as panic leapt like wildfire among them, four Nuns floated above, their billows flaring golden, their sorcerous mutter fluting through the ringing deafness. Hanging as high as treetops, they decimated the Sranc with scythes of crackling light, and so provided the Canutishmen a desperate respite.
Wherever Men faltered, the Swayali witches were there above them, their silk billows cupping the light of their dread dispensations, glowing like jellyfish in the deep. Their mouths flashing lanterns. Their hands working looms of killing incandescence. After the initial shock, the Men of the Middle-North embraced their training, realizing with a kind of wonder that this was what they had prepared for all along. How to yield ten paces whenever the dead piled too high. How to draw their own wounded and dead through their line. Even how to fight the sky, for in their frenzy, the Sranc would claw across the backs and shoulders of their brothers and leap over the forward ranks.
Battle became a kind of dread harvest. Sranc died burning. Sranc died punctured and trampled. Sranc died scratching at shields. Yet they came and they came, surging beneath the witches and their comb of brilliant destruction, a shrieking chorus that wetted ears with blood. Men who faltered for exhaustion rotated with men from the rearward ranks. Soon gored figures could be seen stumbling behind the common lines, crying out for water, for bandages, or simply crashing to the dust. The Judges paced the line, their gilded Circumfixes held high, their mouths working about exhortations no one could hear. Hell itself seemed to churn but a keel away. And they wondered that mere Men could hold such wickedness at bay.
And then, slowly, inexorably, a different sound climbed into the deafening clamour, a more human intonation, tentative at first, but constant in its slow swelling… Singing.
The Shining Men crying out, rank upon rank, nation upon nation, until every soul bellowed in miraculous unison, a shout that climbed high upon the back of the Horde's bedlam roar…
The "Beggar's Lament." I have boils like little titties,
I have feet like stumps of beef,
And the Men of the Middle-North began laughing as they hacked and hewed, weeping for the joy of destruction. Every coin that falls for me, gets snatched by another thief!
The same lyric, hollered out over and over, like a sacred intonation. It became a banner, a scrap of purity hoisted high above a polluted world, and none would relinquish it. A call and a promise. A curse and a prayer. And the Shining Men matched the Sranc and their preternatural fury, roared singing as they stove skulls and spilled entrails. In one mad voice they fumbled for their faith, raised high the shield of their belief…
And became unconquerable.
The Scions fled across the black, the earth little more than liquid shadows sweeping beneath. Sorweel continually found himself sagging to his right, such was his exhaustion. His eyes would roll between pasty blinks, and his head would loll like a tipping weight. The dark world would tilt, and for a heartbeat he would float on the border of unconsciousness… before catching himself with a panicked jerk. At least his pony, Stubborn, remained true to his moniker and showed no sign of faltering.
Periodically he would shout mock encouragement to Zsoronga, who would always reply by wishing him ill. Neither paid attention to what was said: the saying was all that mattered, the reminder that other souls endured the same congealed misery and somehow persevered.
Finally, after days of tacking across the wastes, they had flanked and outdistanced the Ten-Yoke Legion-though they had been reduced to fifteen mounted souls doing so. Now with their last sip of strength, they raced toward the smear of flickering lights on the horizon, what they would have thought a thunderstorm were it not for the tin-distant clamour…
They could hear it over the broken percussion of hooves tumbling across the dust, over the pinched complaints of their ponies. A sound, high and hollow, ringing as if the world were a cistern. It was a sound that grew and grew-impossibly, they realized, guessing the distance of its origin. Crooning like a thousand wolves, hacking like warring geese. An immeasurable sound, or at least one beyond Men and their mortal rule.
A sound so titanic that Harnilas, for all his ruthless determination to reach General Kayutas, called the ragged company to a halt. The Scions sat rigid in their saddles, squinting at their shadowy companions, waiting for their dust to outrun them. Sorweel peered ahead, struggling to make sense of the flash and flicker that now extended across a good swathe of the horizon.
He looked to Zsoronga, but the man hung his head, grimacing and thumbing his eyes.
At the Captain's bidding, Eskeles cast another of his sorcerous lenses. The light of his incantation seemed a jewel, so dark the world had become. Sorweel glimpsed the others, their faces drawn and gaunt, eyes bruised with the sorrow and fury that is manhood. Then soundless images crowded the air before the Schoolman…
The Scions gasped and cried out, even those too exhausted to speak.
A screeching world. Heaving, howling masses, pale and silvery like fish schooling through dark waters. Sranc, raving and thronging, so many as to seem singular, their rushing like the slow curl of scarves warring across the horizon. The Men of the Middle-North could be barely glimpsed, arrayed in bristling, segmented bars, defending barricades of stacked carcasses. Only the Swayali Witches could be clearly seen, hanging like slips of gold foil, drawing skirts of flashing Gnostic destruction… never enough.
With twists of his fingers, Eskeles turned the lens on a shallow arc, revealing more and more of the madness that awaited them. For all its power and the glory, the Army of the Middle-North was but a shallow island in dark-heaving seas. No one need speak the obvious.
The Northmen were doomed.
Real, Sorweel once again found himself thinking in dumb wonder. His war is real…
He turned from the spectacle to the Schoolman, saw the ribs of his ailing pony carved in light and shadow.
"A sight from my Dreams…" Eskeles murmured. And Sorweel worried for the brittle cast of his eyes, the promise of panic.
Without thinking, he reached out to squeeze the man's round shoulder in reassurance-the way King Harweel might. "Remember," he said, speaking words he suddenly wanted to believe. "This time the God marches with us."
"Yes…" the square-bearded sorcerer replied with a throat-clearing harrumph. "Of-of course…"
And then they heard it, like an echo floating through howling winds, human voices, shouting out human sounds: hope, fury, and defiance, defiance most of all.
"The 'Beggar's Lament'!" someone called from behind them. "The crazy bastards!"
And with that, they all could hear it, word for hoarse word, a drinking song bellowed out to the heavens. Suddenly the throat-pricking frailty fell away from the distant Men, and what had seemed a vision of doom became legendary- glorious — more indomitable than overmatched. The gored Northmen, their lines unbroken, reaving…
A massacre of the mad many by the holy few.
That was when they heard another sound, another ear-scratching roar… one that came shivering through the dark and dust and grasses.
A miraculous slaughter, on a scale too demented to be celebrated.
Kayutas and his Believer-Kings knew their flanks would be quickly enveloped, but they also knew, thanks to the ancients, that their encircling would be the product of happenstance, a consequence of the Sranc and their mobbing desperation. Whipped by their lunatic hunger, each simply ran toward Men and their porcine smell, a course continually deflected by the mobbing of their brothers before them. In this way, the Horde spilled ever outward like water chasing gutters. But the process was such that those who reached the ends of the Galeoth flanks would be but trickles compared with the torrents above.
"The Horde will strike the way Ainoni courtesans pile their hair," Kayutas had explained to his laughing commanders. "Locks will spill down our cheeks, make no mistake. But only a few curls will tickle our chin."
And so was the ignominious task of defending the camp and rear delegated to the Lords of the Great Ordeal. So-called "Cornice Phalanxes" occupied the ends of the common-line, formations of courageous souls trained to battle in all directions. Triunes of Swayali hung above, scourging the endless flurries of Sranc that sluiced around them. And with the Kidruhil, the assembled thanes and knights policed the darkling plains between.
If the Prince-Imperial's descriptions had led them to expectations of easy slaughter, they were quickly disabused. Many were lost to the mundane treachery of burrows and ant mounds. Earl Arcastor of Gesindal, a man renowned for his ferocity in battle, broke his neck before he and his Galeoth knights encountered a single Sranc. Otherwise all was darkness and racing madness, conditions that favoured the lust-maddened Sranc clans. Companies would ride down one cohort in effortless slaughter, only to be surprised by the shrieking assault of another. Company after company limped back to the precincts of the camp, their numbers decimated, their eyes vacant with vicious horrors. Lord Siklar of Agansanor, cousin of King Hogrim, would be felled by a stray arrow out of nowhere. Lord Hingeath of Gaenri would fall in pitched battle with his entire household, as would Lord Ganrikka, Veteran of the First Holy War-a name that would be mourned by many.
And so death came swirling ever down.
Despite the toll, not one of the obscenities lived to trod the alleys of the darkened camp.
Fleeing into a world illumined by faraway sorcery.
Riding as if chased by the world's own crumbling edge.
Gouged hollow, a stack of tin about a papyrus fire. Light enough to be blown by terror. Dull and heavy enough to die, to tumble dirt against dirt.
The intellect overthrown. The eyes rolling, seeking nonexistent lines, as if trying to peer around the doom encircling them.
Stubborn coursed beneath him, galloping like a dog across invisible earth, scoring the thirsty turf. Zsoronga glanced at him, sobs kicking through the monkey-terror of his grin. The others were less than shadows…
The world flew in shreds beneath them. And the whole was delivered to Sranc.
The Ten-Yoke Legion.
A shriek, a sound heard only for its humanity, and the Scions were fourteen.
"They would drive them the way we drive slaves in the Three Seas," the Schoolman had said, "starve them until their hungers reached a fever pitch. Then, when they reached a position where the Sranc could smell Mannish blood on the wind, they would strike the chains, and let them run…"
Sorweel tossed a panicked glance over his shoulder, toward the inscrutable black that gnashed and grunted behind them…
Saw Eskeles yanked to earth on the back of his tumbling pony, slapped like a fish onto the gutting-table.
And he was reining, crying out to Zsoronga, leaping to the turf, sprinting to the motionless Schoolman. The Scions were nothing but streamers of fading dust. He gasped shrieking air, skidded to a halt. He heaved the sorcerer onto his back, cried out something he could not hear. He looked up, felt more than saw the rush, raving and inhuman…
And for a heartbeat he smiled. A King of the Horselords, dying for a leuneraal…
One last humiliation.
The beasts surfaced, as if looking back had become looking down. Faces of pale silk, crushed into expressions both crazed and licentious. Slicked weapons. Glimpses piled upon glimpses, terror upon terror.
Sorweel looked to them, smiling even as his body tensed against hacking iron. He watched the nearest leap…
Only to crash into a film of incandescent blue- sorcery — wrapped into a hemisphere about them.
The booming roar swept into them, over them, and Sorweel found himself in a mad bubble, a miraculous grotto where sweat could be wiped from sodden brows.
Sand and dust shivered and danced between leather threads of grass. Beyond, howling faces, horned weapons, and knobbed fists crowded his every glimpse. He watched with a kind of disembowelled wonder: the white-rope limbs, the teeth like broken cochri shells, the covetous glitter of innumerable black eyes…
Breathing required will.
Eskeles thrashed his way back to blubbering consciousness. Moaning, he threw his gaze this way and that, flailed with his fists. Sorweel hugged his shoulders, tried to wrestle the panic from him. He thrust the portly man back, pinned him, crying, "Look at me! Look at me!"
"Noooo!" the man howled from his dust-white beard. Urine blackened the man's trousers.
"Something!" Sorweel cried through the scratching, pounding racket. The heave of crazed wretches encompassed everything. The first luminous cracks scrawled across the Ward, wandering like the flight of flies. "You have to do something!"
"It's happening! Sweet Seju! Sweet-swe-!"
Sorweel cuffed him full on the mouth.
" Eskeles! You have to do something! Something with light!"
The Mandate Schoolmen squinted in confusion.
"The Ordeal, you fat fool! The Great Ordeal needs to be warned!"
Somehow, somewhere in Sorweel's cry, the sorcerer seemed to encounter himself, the stranger who had sacrificed all in the name of his Aspect-Emperor. The Zaudunyani. The Believer. His eyes found their focus. He reached out to squeeze the young King's shoulder in assurance.
"L-light," he gasped. "Light- yes! "
He pressed Sorweel to the side, tottered to his feet even as his incipient Ward began to crumble. The glow of his chanting gleamed across swatches of madness. Screeching faces, jerking, trembling like strings in the wind. Bleeding gums. Diseased skin, weeping slime and algae. Notched edges flying on arcs both cramped and vicious. Eyes of glittering black, hundreds of them fixing him, weeping and raging for hunger. Lips shining for slaver…
Like a nightmare. Like a mad fresco depicting the living gut of Hell, bleached ever whiter for the brilliance of the Schoolman's unholy song. Words too greased to be caught and subdued by the Legion's vicious roar, echoing through invisible canyons.
And there it was… striking as straight as a geometer's line from the ground at the fat sorcerer's feet, dazzling the eyes, stilling the inhuman onlookers with salt-white astonishment…
Reaching high to illuminate the belly of the overcast night.
A Bar of Heaven.
General Kayutas was the first to glimpse it out across the tumult, the Northmen but rafts of discipline in a tossed sea of Sranc, the Swayali like columns of sunlight breaking through tempest clouds, burning the inexhaustible waters. He saw it, between pelting arcs of arrows, a needle of glittering white on the southern horizon…
Where nothing but dead earth should be.
He turned to his sister, who had followed his gaze out to the distant and inexplicable beacon. Others in his cortege noticed also, but their shouts of alarm were soundless in the thrumming roar.
Serwa need only glimpse her brother's lips to understand-they were children of the Dunyain.
She stepped into the sky, summoned the nearest of her sisters to rise with her.
– | The world smelled of burning snakes.
Sorweel saw clouds knotted into woollen plates, flickering in and out of edgeless illumination. His head lolled and he saw the earth reeling, pricked with infinite detail, a thousand thousand mortal struggles. Ironclad men hacking and hollering. Sranc and more Sranc-twitching and innumerable. He saw women hanging in the air with him, far-gowned Swayali, singing impossible, incandescent songs.
And he jerked his lurching gaze to the hook that had lifted him so high…
A Goddess held him, carried him like a child across the surfaces of Hell.
"Mother?" he gasped, thinking not of the woman who had borne him but of the divinity. Yatwer… the Mother of Wombs, who had cursed him with murdering the most deadly man to ever walk her parched earth.
"No," the glorious lips replied. It seemed a miracle that she could hear him, such was the guttural clamour. A roar so knotted with violence, that the very air seemed to bleed. "Worse."
"You…" he gasped, recognizing the woman through the fiery veil of her beauty.
"Me," Anasurimbor Serwa replied, smiling with the cruelty of the peerless. "How many hundreds will die," she asked, "for saving you?"
"Drop me then," he croaked.
She recoiled from the floating fury of his gaze, looked out across the threshing darkness, frowning as if finally understanding she bore a king in her arcane embrace. Through acrid veils of smoke, he breathed deep the scent of her: the myrrh of glory and privilege, the salt of exertion.
Let me fall.
The Western Three Seas
Late Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Nansurium, Somewhere South of Momemn
In Gielgath, two thieves assailed him, and the White-Luck Warrior watched them scuffle, drunk and desperate, with the man who was their doom. They lurched out of alleyway shadows, their cries choked to murmurs for fear of being heard. They sprawled dead and dying across cobble and filth, the one inert, the other twitching. He wiped his Seleukaran blade clean across the dead one, even as he raised the sword to counter their manic rush. He stepped clear of the one who stumbled, raised his blade to parry the panicked swing of the other… the swing that would notch the scimitar's honed edge-as thin as an eyelid.
The notch that would shatter his sword, so allowing the broken blade to plunge into the Aspect-Emperor's heart. He could even feel the blood slick his thumb and fingers, as he followed himself into the gloomy peril of the alley.
Unholy blood. Wicked beyond compare.
No one noticed him in the subsequent hue and cry. He watched himself slip unnoticed through gathering crowds of onlookers-for even in these lawless times, the murder of two men was no small thing. He followed himself through an ancient and impoverished maze that was Gielgath. One of the priestess beggars called, "You! You!" as he passed a fullery. He saw her sob for joy a million times.
The slave plantations were more severe in their discipline, more grand in extent, in the lands he subsequently crossed, following his following. He watched himself lean so that he might draw his bloody hands across the crowns of surging millet and wheat. Across the span of ages, the Goddess watched and was pleased, and it was Good.
He came across a cow calving, and he knelt into his kneeling so that he might witness his Mother made manifest. He watched himself draw his fingers through the afterbirth, then redden the lobes of his ears.
He found a fugitive child hiding in an overgrown ditch, watched himself give all that remained of his food. "There is no greater Gift," he overheard himself say to the wide brown eyes, "than to give unto death." And he caressed the dark-tanned cheek that was also a skull decaying between grass and milkweed.
He saw a stork riding invisible gusts across the sky.
He walked, forever trailing the man who walked before him and forever leading the one who walked behind. He watched his form, dark for the brilliance of the sun, sink over cultivated summits, even as he turned to see his form, dark within its own shadow, rising from the crest behind.
And so he stepped into his stepping, walked into his walking, travelled into his journey, a quest that had already ended in the death of the False Prophet.
Until at last he paused upon a hill and for the first time gazed across the walls and streets he had seen innumerable times.
Momemn. The Home City. Great Capital of the New Empire.
He saw all the lanes he had never travelled. He saw the Temple Xothei with its famed domes, heard the riotous cries that would shiver its stone. He saw the Imperial Precincts along the seaward walls, the campuses hazy and deserted. He saw the piling of structure and marble beauty that was the Andiamine Heights, his eyes roaming until they found the famed veranda behind the Aspect-Emperor's throne-room…
Where the Gift-of-Yatwer glimpsed himself peering back, the Holy Empress beside him.
– | Momemn
"Why should it trouble a mother to see her child love himself so?" Inrilatas said from his shadow. He exhaled a breath pent in hungry pleasure. "Fondle himself?"
Sunlight streamed through the cell's one small window, drawing a fan of illuminated surfaces from the smoky gloom. A stretch of her son's hair, the outer lines of his left shoulder and arm. Thankfully, she could not so much see him masturbate as infer it.
She fixed him with a mother's flat gaze. Perhaps it was her old life as a whore, or perhaps he had simply exhausted her with his antics; either way she was unimpressed. There was very little Inrilatas could do that would shock or dismay her anymore.
A small carpet had been laid across the floor, with an oak chair, cushioned and elaborately carved, set upon it for her comfort. White-clad body-slaves stood ready to either side with wicker screens-shields, really-ready to shelter her if her son decided to begin pelting her with feces or any other fluid that caught his fancy. It had happened before. After they were done, she knew, the chains would be drawn to fix her son across the wall, and the Attendants would scour the floor looking for anything dropped or forgotten. The boy-young man, now-was simply too ingenious not to devise tools for some kind of mischief. Once he managed to make a shiv, which he used to kill one of his attendants, using only the fabric of his tunic and his seed.
"I want Maithanet brought here… to you."
She could feel him peering into her face, the strange tickle of being known. She experienced some sense of exposure with almost all her children by Kellhus, but it differed with each one. With Kayutas, it simply seemed to render her irrelevant, a problem easily dismissed or solved. With Serwa, it raised her ire because she knew the girl could see the pain she had caused her mother and yet chose to ignore it. With Theliopa, it was simply a fact of the time they spent together, and a convenience as well, since it allowed the girl to more completely subordinate herself to her mother's wishes.
But with Inrilatas it always seemed more profound, more intrusive, somehow…
Like the way she felt in her husband's eyes, only without the sense of… resignation.
"Uncle Holy," he said.
"They smell it on you, you know," he interrupted. "Fear."
"Yes," she replied on a long breath. "I know."
Kellhus once told her that Inrilatas's soul had been almost perfectly divided between the two of them, his intellect and her heart. "The Dunyain have not so much mastered passion," he had explained, "as snuffed it out. My intellect is simply not robust enough to leash your heart. Imagine bridling a lion with string."
"You are blackened by Father's light," the adolescent said, his voice straying across resonances only her husband used. "Rendered pathetic and absurd. How could a mere whore presume to rule Men, let alone the Three Seas?"
"Yes… I know, Inrilatas."
What was the power that a mother wielded over her son? She had watched Inrilatas reduce her flint-hearted generals to tears and fury, yet for all the cutting things he had said to her, for all the truths, he managed only to increase her pity for him. And this, it seemed to her, kindled a desperation in him while rendering her a kind of challenge, a summit he must conquer. For all the labyrinthine twists of his madness, he was just an anguished little boy in the end.
It was hard to play God in the eyes of a heartbroken mother.
Inrilatas grunted and huffed air. She tried to ignore the strings of semen that looped across the oblong of sunlit floor several paces from her feet.
He was always doing this, marking the spaces about him with his excretions. Always staining. Always defacing. Always desecrating. Always expressing bodily what he sought to do with his mastery of word and expression. All men gloried in transgression, Kellhus had told her, because all men gloried in power, and no power was more basic than the violation of another's body or desire. "Innumerable rules bind the intercourse of Men, rules they can scarce see, even if they devote their lives to the study of jnan. Our son lives in a world far different than yours, Esmi-a visible world. One knotted and stifled and choked with the thoughtless customs we use to pass judgment one upon another."
"Aren't you curious?" she asked.
Her son raised a finger to his mouth. "You think Father left the Empire to you because he feared the ambition of his brother. So you suspect Uncle Holy of treachery. You want me to interrogate him. Read his face."
"Yes," she said.
"No… This is simply the rationale you use. The truth is, Mother, you know you will fail. Even now, you can feel the New Empire slip from your grasp, topple over the edge. And because you know you fail, you know Maithanet will be forced to wrest the Empire from you, not for his own gratification, but for the sake of his brother…"
And so the game began in earnest. "You must be forever wary in his presence," Kellhus had warned her. "For truth will be his sharpest goad. He will answer questions that you have never asked yet lay aching in your heart nonetheless. He will use enlightenment to enslave you, Esmi. Every insight you have, every revelation you think you have discovered, will be his."
Thus had her husband, in the course of arming her against their mad son, also warned her against himself. As well as confirmed what Achamian had said so very long ago.
She leaned forward, braced her elbows against her knees to watch him the way she had when he was but a babe. "I will not fail, Inrilatas. If Maithanet assumes my eventual failure, then he's mistaken. If he acts on this assumption, then he has broken the Aspect-Emperor's divine law."
Inrilatas's chuckle was soft, forgiving, and so very sane.
"But you will fail," he asserted with a slaver's nonchalance. "So why should I do this for you, Mother? Perhaps I should side with Uncle, for in truth, only he can save Father's Empire."
How could she trust him? Inrilatas, her and her husband's monstrous prodigy…
"Because my heart beats in your breast," she said out of rash maternal reflex. "Because half of your madness is mine…" But she trailed, troubled by the way Inrilatas could, merely by listening, reveal the falsehood of sentiments that seemed so simple and true otherwise.
A jerk and rattle of iron chains. "Things heave in me, Mother. Be. Quick."
"Because I know that you want the Empire to fail."
His laughter was curious, as though crazed forces sheered the humour underpinning it.
"And you will trust… what I tell you?" he said, his voice cracked by inexplicable exertions. "The words… of a madman?"
"Yes. If only because I know that Truth is your madness."
A kind of jubilation accompanied these words-one that she immediately repented, knowing her son had already seen it, and fearing he would deny her for simple perversity's sake. Even as a young child, he had always sought to quash whatever was bright within her.
"Inspired words, Mother." His tone was thin and blank, almost as if he mocked his older sister, Theliopa. "The very kind Father has warned you not to trust. You cannot see the darkness that precedes your thoughts, but unlike most souls you know it exists. You appreciate how rarely you are the author of what you say and do…" He raised his shackled hands for a clap that never came. "I'm impressed, Mother. You understand this trick the world calls a soul."
"A trick that can be saved… or damned."
"What if redemption were simply another form of damnation? What if the only true salvation lay in seeing through the trick and embracing oblivion?"
"And what if," Esmenet replied with more than a little annoyance, "these questions could be debated endlessly without hope of resolution?"
In a wink, Theliopa's manner vanished, replaced by a hunched ape, leering and laughing. "Father has been rubbing off on you!"
Perhaps she should have been amused. Perhaps she would have been, despite the utter absence of trust. But her heart had been bludgeoned, her hope battered beyond the possibility of amusement.
"I tire of your games, Inrilatas," she said, speaking a fury that seemed to gather strength in the sound of her voice. "I understand that you can see my thoughts through my voice and face. I understand your abilities as well as anyone without Dunyain blood can. I even understand the predicaments I face in merely speaking to you!"
More laughter. "No, Mother. You most certainly do not understand. If you did, you would have drowned me years ago."
She fairly leapt to her feet, such was the sudden violence of her anger. But she caught herself. "Remember, Esmi," Kellhus had warned her, "never let your passions rule you. Passions make you simple, easy to master. Only by twisting, reflecting upon your reflections, will you be able to slip his grasp…"
Inrilatas had leaned forward from his hunch, his face avid with a shifting melange of contradictory passions, a face like a pick, sorting through tumblers of her soul.
"You lean heavily on Father's advice…" he said, his voice reaching for intonations that almost matched Kellhus's. "But you should know that I am your husband as he really is. Even Uncle, when he speaks, parses and pitches his words to mimic the way others sound-to conceal the inhumanity I so love to flaunt. We Dunyain… we are not human, Mother. And you… You are children to us. Ridiculous and adorable. And so insufferably stupid."
The Blessed Empress of the Three Seas could only stare in horror.
"But you know this…" Inrilatas continued, his gaze fixed upon her. "Someone else has told you this… And in almost precisely the same words! Who? The Wizard? The legendary Drusas Achamian-yes! He told you this in a final effort to rescue your heart, didn't he? Ah… Mother! I see you so much more clearly now! All the years of regret and recrimination, torn between terror and love, stranded with children-such wicked, gifted children! — ones you can never hope to fathom, never hope to love."
"But I do love you!"
"There is no love without trust, Mother. Only need… hunger. I am a reflex, nothing more, nothing less."
Her throat cramped. The tears welled to her eyes, spilled in hot threads across her cheeks.
He had succeeded. At last he had succeeded…
"Damn you!" she whispered, swatting at her eyes. Battered and exhausted-that was how she felt after mere moments with her son. And the words! What he had said would torment her for nights to come-longer. "This was a mistake," she murmured, refusing to glance at his lurid figure.
But just as she turned to signal the slaves to leave, he said, "Father has cut off all communication."
She slumped in her seat, breathing, staring without focus at the floor.
"Yes," she said.
"You are alone, lost in a wilderness of subtleties you cannot fathom."
At last she raised her gaze to meet his. "Will you do this for me, Inrilatas?"
"Trust. Trust is the one thing you seek."
"Yes… I…" A kind of resignation overwhelmed her. "I need you."
Invisible things boiled through the heartbeats that followed. Portents. Ruminations. Lusts.
"There can only be three of us…" Inrilatas finally said. Once again, unnameable passions creaked through the seams of his voice.
The Blessed Empress blinked more tears, this time for relief. "Of course. Just your uncle and myself."
"No. Not you. My brothers…" A heaving breath swallowed his voice.
"Brothers?" she asked, more alarmed than curious.
"Kel…" he said with a bestial grunt, "and Sammi…"
The Holy Empress stiffened. If Inrilatas had been seeking a fatal chink, he had discovered it. "I don't understand," she replied, swallowing. "Sammi is… Sammi, he…"
But the figure she spoke to was scarce human anymore. Anasurimbor Inrilatas rose with a dancer's slow deliberation, then threw himself forward, his arms and legs outstretched, straining against the limits of his chains. He stood there, all spittle and squint-eyed passion, his naked limbs heaving, trembling with veins and striations. Her shield-bearers, Esmenet could not help but notice, had shrunk behind the wicker screens meant for her.
"Mother!" her son shrieked, his eyes shining with murder. "Mother! Come! Closer!"
Something of her original imperviousness returned. This… This was her son as she knew him best.
"Let me see your mouth, Mother!"
The woman called Psatma Nannaferi was brought before the Padirajah and his loutish court the same as all the other notable captives, stripped naked and shackled in iron. But where other attractive women had been greeted with lascivious hoots and calls-humiliation, Malowebi had realized, was as much as part of the proceedings as the Padirajah's judgment-a peculiar silence accompanied Psatma Nannaferi's short march to the floor below Fanayal. Rumours of this woman, the Mbimayu sorcerer decided, had spread quickly among the desert men. The fact that he had not heard these rumours simply served to whet his curiosity, as well as to remind him that he remained an outsider.
Fanayal had seized one of the few temples not burned, a great domed affair that abutted the Agnotum Market-the ironic point of origin for many luxury goods that found their way to Zeum. The altar had been broken down with sledges and hauled away. The tapestries with panels drawn from the Tractate and the Chronicle of the Tusk had been burned. Those representing the First Holy War, Malowebi was told, had been carted out of Iothiah to line the horse stalls seized by Fanayal's growing army. The frescoes had been defaced, and graven images everywhere had been smashed. Several green-and-crimson banners bearing the Twin Scimitars of Fanimry had been roped and tacked across the walls. But the Tusks and Circumfixes were simply too ubiquitous to be completely blotted. No matter where his eye strayed, along the columns, over the cornices and vaults of the flanking architraves, Malowebi glimpsed unscathed evidence of the Aspect-Emperor and his faith.
Nowhere more so than the dome itself-whose height and breadth alone were a kind of miracle to Malowebi, hailing as he did from a nation without arches. A great wheel of frescoes hung in the high gloom above the unbelievers, five panels representing Inri Sejenus in some different pose, his face gentle, his hands haloed in painted gold, his silvered eyes glaring endlessly down.
Fanayal's desert Grandees betrayed no discomfort that the Second Negotiant could see. But then Malowebi always found himself surprised by men's general blindness to irony and contradiction. If the Kianene had looked vicious and impoverished before, they looked positively absurd now, decked in the eclectic spoils of a great imperial city. The desert mob seethed with jarring mixtures of clothing and armour: the high conical helms from Ainon, black Thunyeri hauberks, a couple of silk gowns that Malowebi suspected belonged to a woman's wardrobe, and in one case, the baggy crimson pantaloons typically worn by caste-slave eunuchs. One man even sported a Nilnameshi feather-shield. Most of them, Malowebi knew, had spent the bulk of their lives hunted like animals across the desert wastes. Until now, they had counted sips of water and shelter from sun and wind as luxury, so it made sense they would feast in all ways possible, given the crazed rewards Fate had heaped upon them.
Even still, they looked more a carnival of dangerous fools than a possible ally of High Holy Zeum.
Once again Fanayal alone embodied the elegance and reserve that had once so distinguished his people. A wooden chair had been set behind the forward ridge of the altar's shattered base, where the Padirajah sat, agleam even in temple gloom, wearing a coat of golden mail over a white silk tunic: the armour and uniform of the Coyauri, the famed heavy cavalry he had commanded as a young man during the First Holy War.
Meppa stood at his right hand, his cowl drawn back, his eyes hidden as always behind the silver band about his head. The Cishaurim's serpent rose like a black iron hook from his neck, tasting the air with its tongue, wagging from voice to voice.
Malowebi had been assigned the shadows behind and to the left of the Padirajah, where he had watched perhaps a hundred naked women and men dragged beneath Fanayal and his vengeful whims, a piteous train of them, some proud and defiant, but most abject and broken, wheezing and weeping for a mercy that was never shown. The captive men, no matter what their station, where asked whether they would curse their Aspect-Emperor and embrace the truth of the Prophet Fane. Those who refused were dragged off for immediate execution. Those who agreed were taken away to be auctioned as slaves. As far as the Mbimayu sorcerer could tell, the women-the bereaved wives and orphaned daughters of the caste-nobility-were simply brought out to be divided as spoils.
On and on the proceedings continued, becoming more sordid and more farcical, it seemed, with the passing of every doomed soul, dull enough for an old scholar to ponder the perversities of faith, long enough for an old man's feet to ache and itch.
Something about Psatma Nannaferi, however, instantly dispelled his boredom and discomfort.
The guardsmen threw her to the prayer tiles beneath the Padirajah. But where they had delighted in wicked little flourishes with the others, they did so this time with mechanical reluctance-as if trying to hide behind their function.
Fanayal leaned forward, petted his braided goatee as he studied the captive. This too was unprecedented.
"My Inquisitor has told me a most interesting tale…"
The woman slowly pulled herself upright, graceful despite her iron shackles. She betrayed neither fear for her future nor shame for her captive nudity. She was not without a certain, diminutive beauty, Malowebi thought, but there was a hardness to her that belied the soft brown curves of her skin. And there was something about her posture and her squint that suggested the habits of someone older-far older-than her apparent thirty years.
"He says," Fanayal continued, "that you are Psatma Nannaferi, the Mother-Supreme of the Yatwerian Cult."
A grim and condescending smile. "I am."
"He also says you are the reason we found these lands afire when we arrived."
She nodded. "I am but a vessel. I pour only what has been poured."
Even after so few words, Malowebi knew her for a formidable woman. Here she stood, naked and manacled, yet her gaze and bearing communicated a confidence too profound to be named pride, a majesty that somehow upended the stakes between her and the famed Bandit Padirajah.
"And now that your Goddess has betrayed you?"
"Betrayed?" she snorted. "This is not a sum. This is not a wager of advantages over loss. This is a gift! Our Mother Goddess's will."
"So the Goddess wills the destruction of her temples? The torment and execution of her slaves?"
The longer Malowebi gazed at the woman, the more a weight seemed to press against his brow. Her eyes seemed bright with moist vulnerability, her body fetching in the lean way of peasant virgins. And yet watching her, an impression of something hoary, hard, and old continued to plague him. Even the downy curve of her sex… She seemed a kind of visible contradiction, as if the look and promise of virgin youth had eclipsed the sight of a hag but not the corona of meaning that hung like a haze about it.
So even now, as she glared at Fanayal, it seemed something reptilian peered through her peering, the look of something vicious and remorseless with age, flashing from the gaze of a woman, flushed and breathless and so very inviting.
"We take such gifts that come," she crooned. "We suffer this worldly trifle, and She will save us! From oblivion! From those demons our iniquities have awakened! This is but the arena where souls settle eternity. Our suffering is dross compared to the glory to come!"
Fanayal laughed, genuinely amused. But his humour cut against the obvious unease of his court.
"So even your captivity… You think this a gift?"
"And if I were to deliver you to the lust of my men?"
"You will not."
"And why is that?"
In a twinkling, she became coy and whorish. She even glanced down at her breasts, which were firm with improbable youth. "Because I have been reborn as black earth, as rain and sweating sun," she said. "The Goddess has cast me in Her image, as sweet, sweet Fertility. You will not allow other men to trade me, so long as your loins bur-"
" My loins?" Fanayal cried out with forced incredulity.
Malowebi gazed and blinked. She literally tingled with nubile promise, yet still she carried the air of old stone. Something… Something was wrong…
"Even now," she said, "your seed rises to the promise of soft earth deeply ploughed."
Masculine laughter rumbled through the chamber, only to falter for want of breath. Even old Malowebi could feel a tightness in his chest and a matching thickness crawling across his thighs…
With no little horror the Mbimayu sorcerer realized the Goddess was among them. There was peril, here-great peril. This woman walked with one foot on the Outside…
He opened his mouth to call out in warning but caught himself on the very hinge of his voice.
He was no friend to these savage people. He was an observer, interpreter. The question was whether Zeum's interests would be served if Fanayal were alerted. Ally or not, the fact remained that the man was a fanatic of the worst kind, a believer in a creed, Fanimry, that made devils out of the Gods and hells out of the Heavens. To strike an alliance that earned the enmity of the Mother of Birth would be a fool's exchange. The Zeumi might not pray to the Hundred, given their intercessory faith, but they certainly revered and respected them.
"'Soft earth deeply ploughed,'" Fanayal repeated, gazing upon her form with frank hunger. He turned to the lean and warlike men of his court. "Such are the temptations of evil, my friends!" he called, shaking his head. "Such are the temptations!"
More laughter greeted these words.
"Your sisters are dead," the Padirajah continued as if immune to her wiles. "Your temples are pulled down. If these are gifts, as you say, then I am in a most generous mood." He paused to make room for a few frail guffaws from his assembled men. "I could give you a noose, say, or a thousand lashes. Perhaps I will have Meppa show you what kind of prison your body can be."
Malowebi found himself wondering whether the woman had even blinked, so relentless was her gaze. The fact that Fanayal weathered it with such thoughtless ease actually troubled the Mbimayu sorcerer. Was the man simply oblivious or did he possess a heart every bit as hard as her own?
Either possibility would not bode an alliance well.
"My soul has already left and returned to this body," she said, her girlish voice scratched with the harsh intonations of a crone. "There is no torment you could inflict upon me."
"So hard!" Fanayal cried laughing. "Stubborn! Devil-worshipping witch!"
Again the desert court rumbled with laughter.
"I would not ply your body," Meppa said without warning. So far he had stood silent and motionless at his sovereign's side, his face directed forward as always. Only the asp, which curved like an onyx bow across his left cheek, faced the lone woman.
Psatma Nannaferi regarded the Cishaurim with a sneer. "My soul is beyond your devilry, Snakehead. I worship the Dread Mother."
Never had Malowebi witnessed an exchange more uncanny, the blinded man speaking as if to a void, the shackled woman as if she were a mad queen among hereditary slaves.
"You worship a demon."
The Mother-Supreme laughed with the bitter hilarity. The cackle rang across distant walls, echoed through the high crypt hollows, gelding all the humour that had come before it. Suddenly the assembled men were nothing but ridiculous boys, their pride swatted from them by the palm of a shrewd and exacting mother.
"Call her what you will!" Psatma Nannaferi exclaimed. "Demon? Yes! I worship a demon! — if it pleases you to call her such! You think we worship the Hundred because they are good? Madness governs the Outside, Snakehead, not gods or demons-or even the God! Fool! We worship them because they have power over us. And we-we Yatwerians-worship the one with the most power of all!"
Malowebi squelched another urge to call out, to urge the Fanim to spare her, to set her free, then to burn a hundred bulls in Yatwer's honour. The Mother was here! Here!
"Gods are naught but greater demons," the Cishaurim said, "hungers across the surface of eternity, wanting only to taste the clarity of our souls. Can you not see this?"
The woman's laughter trailed into a cunning smile. "Hungers indeed! The fat will be eaten, of course. But the high holy? The faithful? They shall be celebrated!"
Meppa's voice was no mean one, yet its timbre paled in the wake of the Mother-Supreme's clawing rasp. Even still he pressed, a tone of urgent sincerity the only finger he had to balance the scales. "We are a narcotic to them. They eat our smoke. They make jewellery of our thoughts and passions. They are beguiled by our torment, our ecstasy, so they collect us, pluck us like strings, make chords of nations, play the music of our anguish over endless ages. We have seen this, woman. We have seen this with our missing eyes!"
Malowebi scowled. Fanim madness… It had to be.
"Then you know," Psatma Nannaferi said in a growl that crawled across Malowebi's skin. "There will be no end to your eating, when She takes you. Your blood, your flesh-they are inexhaustible in death. Taste what little air you can breathe, Snakehead. You presume your Solitary God resembles you. You make your image the form of the One. You think you can trace lines, borders, through the Outside, like that fool, Sejenus, say what belongs to the God of Gods and what does not-errant abstractions! Hubris! The Goddess waits, Snakehead, and you are but a mote before her patience! Birth and War alone can seize-and seize She does!"
The Mbimayu sorcerer glanced out over the festooned court, his attention drawn by gasps and murmurs of outrage. The desert men watched, their faces caught between fury and horror. Several of them even signed small folk charms with their fingers. The oddities had been piled too high for them not to realize something profound was amiss.
"Stay your curses!" Fanayal cried, his humour finally beaten into fury.
She cackled in a manner far too savage for lips as young as hers. Dust plumed through a rare shaft of sunlight, star-scapes rolling on temple drafts. "Yes, Mother!" she shouted to the air the way Meppa might. "Seizing him would be a delight! Yes!"
"Demoness!" the Last Cishaurim bellowed. He descended the steps toward her, his face held forward as stiff as a doll's. "I know the true compass of your power. You are written across ages and yet you need tools — Men. And all Men can fail. It is the foundation of what we are! You will be broken with your tools! And you will starve in your pit!"
"Yes!" Psatma Nannaferi cackled once again. "All Men save one!"
Meppa lowered his face, as if only now seeing her through the etched silver of his band. "The White-Luck," he said.
"White-Luck?" Fanayal asked.
Malowebi stood breathless in the wake of the question. These Fanim barbarians could not fathom the disaster they courted. The Hundred. The Hundred rode to war!
"There are infinite paths through the tumble of events," Meppa explained to his sovereign. "The White-Luck, the idolaters believe, is that perfect line of action and happenstance that can see any outcome come to pass. The White-Luck Warrior is the man who walks that line. Everything that he needs, happen