The Judging Eye (Aspect-Emperor Series #1)by R. Scott Bakker
Widely praised by reviewers and a growing body of fans, Bakker has already established his reputation as one of the smartest writers in the fantasy genrea writer in the line stretching from Peake to Tolkein.
Now he returns to The Prince of Nothing universe with the long-awaited The Judging Eye, the first book in an all-new series.
Set twenty years after
Widely praised by reviewers and a growing body of fans, Bakker has already established his reputation as one of the smartest writers in the fantasy genrea writer in the line stretching from Peake to Tolkein.
Now he returns to The Prince of Nothing universe with the long-awaited The Judging Eye, the first book in an all-new series.
Set twenty years after the end of The Thousandfold Thought, Bakker reintroduces us to a world that is at once familiar but also very different than the one readers thought they knew. Delving even further into his richly imagined universe of myth, violence, and sorcery, and fully remolding the fantasy genre to broaden the scope of intricacy and meaning, R. Scott Bakker has once again written a fantasy novel that defies all expectations and rewards the reader with an experience unlike any to be had in the canon of today's literature.
Twenty years after the events of 2007's The Thousandfold Thought, nations unite in a holy war to prevent the No-God's apocalyptic resurrection. Aspect-Emperor Kellhus seems a benevolent messiah, but may be only a power-hungry demagogue. Exiled wizard Drusas Achamian's quest to expose Kellhus as a fraud could be a bitter cuckold's folly or the world's best hope. The Empress Esmenet juggles belief in her husband's godhead with grief for his lack of human attachment. Her bitter, abandoned daughter Mimara-an ex-prostitute, like her mother-begs Achamian to teach her sorcery, though the Judging Eye curse sends her visions of damnation. Bakker's lush language sometimes achieves poetry, but his plotting is less original; minor and nonsexualized female characters are conspicuously absent; and new readers will struggle with the intricate politics and history. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Twenty years after the events described in "The Prince of Nothing Saga" (The Darkness That Comes Before; The Warrior Prophet; The Thousandfold Thought), the Aspect-Emperor rules a New Empire forged of war and prophecy. Yet new turmoil arises as the Emperor's fitness to rule and his divine descent are called into question by some factions and punished as heresy in others. Bakker's attention to detail and his depiction of a society modeled after those of ancient Asia should attract fans of the trilogy. Complex characters and intricate plotting make this a good choice for most libraries.
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Table of Contents
THE JUDGING EYE
CHAPTER ONE - Sakarpus
CHAPTER TWO - Hûnoreal
CHAPTER THREE - Momemn
CHAPTER FOUR - Hûnoreal
CHAPTER FIVE - Momemn
CHAPTER SIX - Marrow
CHAPTER SEVEN - Sakarpus
CHAPTER EIGHT - The River Rohil
CHAPTER NINE - Momemn
CHAPTER TEN - Condia
CHAPTER ELEVEN - The Osthwai Mountains
CHAPTER TWELVE - The Andiamine Heights
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Condia
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Cil-Aujas
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - Condia
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Cil-Aujas
Character and Faction Glossary
What Has Come Before …
Also by R. Scott Bakker
THE JUDGING EYE
R. SCOTT BAKKER is the author of Neuropath and The Prince of Nothing series, which includes The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power.” He spent his childhood exploring the bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore, and his youth studying literature, languages, and philosophy. He now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and their cat, Scully.
Also by R. Scott Bakker
THE PRINCE OF NOTHING SERIES
The Darkness That Comes Before, Book One
The Warrior-Prophet, Book Two
The Thousandfold Thought, Book Three
Neuropath (writing as Scott Bakker)
First published in paperback in the United States in 2010 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
141 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10012
Copyright © 2010 by R. Scott Bakker
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress
To Ricky—friend and brother
But who are you, man, to answer God thus? Will what is made say to him who made it—Why have you made me this way? Does the potter not have power over his clay, to make, from the same mass, one vessel for honour, and another for dishonour?
Exalt-Minister, most glorious, many be your days.
For the sin of apostasy, they were buried up to their necks in the ancient way, and stones were cast into their faces until their breathing was stopped. Three men and two women. The child recanted, even cursed his parents in the name of our glorious Aspect-Emperor. The World has lost five souls, but the Heavens have gained one, praise be the God of Gods.
As for the text, I fear that your prohibition has come too late. It was, as you suspected, an account of the First Holy War as witnessed by the exiled Schoolman, Drusas Achamian. Verily, my hand trembles at the prospect of reproducing his vile and abhorrent claims, but as the original text has already been committed to the flames, I see no other way to satisfy your request. You are quite correct: Heresy is rarely singular in its essence or its effects. As with diseases, deviations must be studied, curatives prepared, lest they erupt in more virulent form.
For the sake of brevity, I will limit my review to those particulars that either directly or indirectly contradict Doctrine and Scripture. In this text, Drusas Achamian claims:
I) To have had sexual congress with our Holy Empress on the eve of the First Holy War’s triumph over the heathen Fanim at Shimeh.
II) To have learned certain secrets regarding our Holy Aspect-Emperor, to whit: That He is not the incarnation of the God of Gods but rather a son of the Dûnyain, a secret sect devoted to the mastery of all things, body and spirit. That He transcends us not as gods transcend men, but as adults transcend children. That His Zaudunyani interpretation of Inrithism is nothing more than a tool, a means for the manipulation of nations. That ignorance has rendered us His slaves.
(I admit to finding this most unnerving, for though I have always known that words and events, no matter how holy, always admit wicked interpretations, I have never before considered the way beliefs command our actions. For as this Achamian asks, if all men lay claim to righteousness, and they do, who is to say which man claims true? The conviction, the belief unto death, of those I send from this world now troubles me, such is the treachery of the idle intellect.)
III) That our Holy Aspect-Emperor’s war to prevent the resurrection of the No-God is false. Granted, this is merely implied, since the text was plainly written before the Great Ordeal. But the fact that Drusus Achamian was once a Mandate Schoolman, and so cursed with dreams of the First Apocalypse, renders his suspicions extraordinary. Should not such a man hail the coming of Anasûrimbor Kellhus and his war to prevent the Second Apocalypse?
This is the sum of what I remember.
Having suffered this blasphemy, I understand the profundity of your concern. To hear that everything we have endured and cherished these past twenty years of war and revelation has been a lie is outrage enough. But to hear such from a man who not only walked with our Master in the beginning, but taught him as well? I have already ordered the execution of my body-slave, though I mourn him, for he only read the text at my behest. As for myself, I await your summary judgment. I neither beg nor expect your pardon: It is our doom to suffer the consequences of our acts, regardless of the piety of our intentions.
Some pollution begs not the cloth, but the knife; this I accept and understand.
Sin is sin.
When a man possesses the innocence of a child, we call him a fool. When a child possesses the cunning of a man, we call him an abomination. As with love, knowledge has its season.
—AJENCIS, THE THIRD ANALYTIC OF MEN
Autumn, 19 New Imperial Year (4131 Year-of-the-Tusk), the “Long Side”
A horn pealed long and lonely beneath the forest canopies. A human horn.
For a moment all was quiet. Limbs arched across the imperious heights, and great trunks bullied the hollows beneath. Shorn saplings thatched the intervening spaces. A squirrel screeched warning from the gloom of interlocking branches. Starlings burst into the squinting sky.
They came, flickering across bands of sunlight and shadow.
Running with rutting fury, howling with rutting fury, through the lashing undergrowth, into the tabernacle deep. They swarmed over pitched slopes, kicking up leaves and humus. They parted about the trunks, chopping at the bark with rust-pitted blades. They sniffed the sky with slender noses. When they grimaced, their blank and beautiful faces were clenched like crumpled silk, becoming the expressions of ancient and inbred men.
Sranc. Bearing shields of lacquered human leather. Wearing corselets scaled with human fingernails and necklaces of human teeth.
The distant horn sounded again, and they paused, a vicious milling rabble. Words were barked among them. A number melted into the undergrowth, loping with the swiftness of wolves. The others jerked at their groins in anticipation. Blood. They could smell mannish blood.
Seed jetted black across the forest floor. They stamped it into the muck. They exulted in the stink of it.
The scouts returned, and at their jabbering the others shuddered and convulsed. It had been so long since they had last glutted their rapacious hunger. So long since they knelt at the altar of jerking limbs and mewling flesh. They could see the panicked faces. They could see the gushing blood, the knife-made orifices.
They ran, weeping for joy.
Cresting a low ridge, they found their prey hastening along the base of a back-broken cliff, trying to make their way to the far side of a gorge that opened as though by miracle several hundred paces away. The Sranc howled and chattered their teeth, raced in wild files down the slope, skidding across leaves, their legs kicking in long leaps. They hit the ground where it flattened, scrambling, running, burning hard in their rotten breeches, watching the soft Men turning mere paces before them, their faces as enticing as thighs, coming closer and closer, almost within the circle of wild-swinging swords—
But the ground! The ground! Collapsing beneath them, like leaves thrown across sky!
Dozens of them were sucked shrieking into the black. The others clutched and jostled, tried to stop, only to be bumped screeching by their crazed kin. Their screams trailed as they plummeted into the concealed gorge, popped into silence one by one. Suddenly all was uncertain, all was threat. The war-party yammered in fear and frustration. None dared move. Eyes rolling, they stared in lust and apprehension …
A hard-bitten handful, running as though by magic across the false forest floor. They lunged into the Sranc’s midst, their heavy swords high and pitching. Shields cracked. Mouldered iron was bent and broken. Limbs and heads were thrown on arcs of glittering blood.
The Men roared and bellowed, hammered them to earth, hacked them to twitching ruin.
“Scalper!” the lone traveller cried out. His voice possessed the gravel of an old officer’s bawl. It boomed through the gorge, easily audible over the white roar of water. As one, the men upriver stood and stared in his direction.
Just like animals, he thought.
Indifferent to their gaze, he continued picking his way along the treacherous stones, sloshing through water every several steps. He passed a Sranc, white as a drowned fish, floating face down in a pool of translucent red.
The traveller glanced up to where the gorge walls pinched the sky into a wandering slot. Trees had been felled across the opening, forming the rafters for an improvised ceiling of saplings and sticks, covered over with leaves. The sky glared bright through numerous holes. Leaves still twittered down in a steady cascade. If the numbers of inert forms scattered and heaped about the rocks were any indication, it had been a very effective trap. In places, the river’s foam spouted pink and violet.
Most of the men had returned to their work, but three continued to watch him warily. He had no doubt that the one he sought was among them.
The traveller tramped into their midst. The smell of burst entrails soured that of water and scoured stone. Most of the party sorted through the dead Sranc. Bodies were kicked off bodies. Broken heads were pulled from the water. Knives flashed. It was the same each time: pinch, saw, swipe, then on to the next one. Pinch, saw, swipe—again and again. A flap of skin cut from the crown of every one.
Nearby, a young Galeoth swordsman washed a small hoard of scalps. He rinsed them, then laid them out, glistening and fatty white across dry stone. He handled each swatch with ludicrous care, the way a halfwit might handle gold—which scalps had pretty much become in the High Middle-North. Though the Aspect-Emperor had lowered the Hallow Bounty, a scalp still fetched a full silver kellic from honest brokers.
They were all extremely conscious of his arrival, the traveller knew. They simply pretended to be indifferent. Usually, they encountered outsiders only when they trekked south to the brokers, flush with hundreds of tanned scalps, bound and dangling from lengths of leather string. This work, the work of collecting and counting, was the least manly portion of their trade. It was their menial secret.
It was also the point.
Nearly eleven years had passed since the Aspect-Emperor had declared his bounty on Sranc scalps, before the last of the Unification Wars had ended. He placed the bounty on Sranc because of their vast numbers. He placed the bounty on scalps because their hairlessness made them distinctive to Sranc. Men such as these, the traveller supposed, would be far happier poaching something less inclined to kill back—like women and children.
So began the Scalping Years. Over that time, countless thousands had trudged into the northern wilderness, expedition after expedition, come to make their fortune as Scalpoi. Most died in a matter of weeks. But those who learned, who were wily and every bit as ruthless as their foe, prospered.
And some—a few—became legendary.
The man the traveller sought stood upon a rounded stone, watching the others work. He knew him from his dogged devotion to the traditional costume of his caste and race: the pleated war-skirt, stained grey and black and shot through with holes; the corselet with rusty scales stitched into rotting leather; the conical helm, bent back like a single ram’s horn. He looked a wraith from another age. A second man, his face concealed by a black cowl, sat three paces behind him, leaning forward as though straining to hear something in the water’s ambient rush. The traveller peered at him for a moment, as though trying to judge some peculiarity, then returned his gaze to the first man.
“I’m looking for the Ainoni,” he said. “The one they call Ironsoul.”
“That would be me,” the standing man replied. His face had been tattooed with the cosmetics favoured by his countrymen. Black lines about his eyes. Purpled lips. His look neither accused nor questioned but remained mild in the manner of bored assassins. Incurious.
“Veteran,” the traveller said, bowing his head in due respect. Failing to properly acknowledge and venerate a survivor of the First Holy War was no small offence.
“How did you find us?” the man asked in his native tongue. From the cadence of his voice, it was obvious that he despised speaking, that he was as jealous of his voice as he was of his women or his blood.
The traveller did not care. Men prized what they would.
“We find everyone.”
A barely perceptible nod. “What do you want?”
“You, Scalper. We want you.”
The Ainoni glanced back toward his cowled companion. No words were exchanged, only an inscrutable look.
Late Autumn, 19 New Imperial Year (4131 Year-of-the-Tusk), Momemn
Ever do Men seek to hide what is base and mean in their natures. This is why they talked of wolves or lions or even dragons when they likened themselves to animals. But it was the lowly beetle, the young boy decided, whom they most resembled. Belly to the ground. Back hunched against the world. Eyes blind to everything save the small circle before them.
His Whelming complete, Anasûrimbor Kelmomas crouched in the granite shadows, leaning between his knees to better watch the insect scuttle across the ancient floor. One of the great iron candle-wheels hung soundless between the pillars above, but its light was little more than a dull gleam across the beetle’s wagging back. Holding his knees, Kelmomas shuffled forward, absorbed by the insect’s tiny terrestrial struggles. Despite the gloomy forest of columns behind him, the choral voices sounded as close as his many shadows, singing hymns to frame the more fulsome reverberations of the Temple Prayer.
Sweet God of Gods
Who walk among us
Innumerable are your holy names …
“Show me,” Kelmomas whispered to the beetle. “Lead …”
Together they wandered into the deeper recesses of the Allosium, to where only the floating pinpricks of the godhouse votives illuminated the gloom. The beetle clambered about a column’s graven base, left tracks that resembled sutures across a swatch of dust—tracks that Kelmomas obliterated with his small sandalled foot. Soon they reached the Forum’s outermost aisle, where the idols of the Hundred Gods resided in their adorned recesses.
“Where are you going?” he murmured, smiling. He glimpsed the gauze of his exhalation on the chill air, puffed two breaths just to consider his breathing—spectral proof of material life. He laid his cheek to the cool tile and stared out across the vast plain of the aisle. The glazing soothed his skin. Quite oblivious to his scrutiny, the beetle continued its trek, tipping in and out of the joints between the cerulean tiles. Kelmomas watched it toil toward the leering mountain that was the idol of Ajokli, the Four-Horned Brother.
Compared to that of his brothers and sisters, the godhouse of Ajokli was as poor as a crippled fuller. The floor tiles stopped at the threshold. The stonework rimming the recess was bare, save for a series of notches scratched into the right post. The idol—a horned little fat man crouching as though over a chamberpot—was not much more than a play of shadow and gleam emerging from the velvet darkness. It was carved of black diorite, but without the jewelled eyes or silver fingernails that even Yatwer boasted. Rigid with the sensibilities of some long-dead artisan, its expression struck Kelmomas as improbable, if not outright inhuman. Grinning like a monkey. Snarling like a dog. Staring like a dew-eyed virgin.
It also watched the beetle as it scurried into its gloomy bower.
The young Prince-Imperial skipped into the cramped recess, ducking even though the decorative vaults reached far above his head. The air smelled of tallow, dusty stone and something coppery. He smiled at the graven God, nodded more than bowed, then assumed much the same posture, crouching over his witless subject. Moved by some unaccountable whim, he pinned the beetle to the gritty floor with his index finger. It writhed like a little automaton beneath his fingertip. He held it for a moment, savouring its impotence, the knowledge that he could, at any moment, crush it like a rotted seed. Then, with his other hand, he pinched off two of its legs.
“Watch,” he whispered to the laughing idol. Its eyes gazed down, blank and bulbous.
He raised his hand, fingers outstretched in a dramatic flourish. The beetle scrambled in shining panic, but the arrow of its course had been bent, so that it chipped around and around, sketching little ovals at the idol’s stump-toed feet. Around and around.
“See?” he exclaimed to Ajokli. They laughed together, child and idol, loud enough to blot out the chorus of chanting voices.
“They’re all like that,” he explained. “All you have to do is pinch.”
“Pinch what, Kelmomas?” a rich, feminine voice asked from behind him. Mother.
Another boy would have been startled, even ashamed, to be surprised by his mother after doing such a thing, but not Kelmomas. Despite the obscuring pillars and voices, he had known where she was all along, following her prim footsteps (though he knew not how) in a corner of his soul.
“Are you done?” he exclaimed, whirling. Her body-slaves had painted her white, so that she looked like statuary beneath the folds of her crimson gown. A girdle etched with Kyranean motifs cinched her waist. A headdress of jade serpents framed her cheeks and pressed order on her luxurious black hair. But even disguised like this she seemed the world’s most beautiful thing.
“Quite done,” the Empress replied. She smiled and secretly rolled her eyes, letting him know that she would much rather dote on her precocious son than languish in the company of priests and ministers. So much of what she did, Kelmomas knew, she did for the sake of appearances.
Just like him—only not nearly so well.
“You prefer my company, don’t you, Mommy?”
He spoke this as a question even though he knew the answer; it troubled her when he read aloud the movements of her soul.
Smiling, she bent and held out her arms. He fell into her myrrhscented embrace, breathed deep her encompassing warmth. Her fingers combed through his unkempt hair, and he looked up into her smiling gaze. Even so far from the candle-wheels she seemed to shine. He pressed his cheek against the golden-plates of her girdle, held her so tight that tears were squeezed from his eyes. Never was there such a beacon, it seemed. Never was there such a sanctuary.
“Come,” she said, drawing him by the hand back through the pillared gallery. He followed, more out of devotion than obedience. He glanced back for one last look at Ajokli, saw with satisfaction that he still laughed at the little beetle scuttling in circles at his feet.
Hand in hand, they walked toward the slots of white light. The singing had trailed into a gaggle of hushed voices, and a deeper, more forbidding resonance had risen to take its place—one that shivered through the very floor. Kelmomas paused, suddenly loath to leave the Allosium’s dust-and-stone quiet. His mother’s arm was drawn out like a rope behind her; their interlocked fingers broke apart.
She turned. “Kel? What’s wrong, sweetling?”
From where he stood a bar of white sky framed her, reaching as high as any tree. She seemed little more than smoke beneath it, something any draft could dissolve and carry away. “Nothing,” he lied.
Kneeling before him, she licked the pads of her fingers, which were palm-pink against the white painted across the backs of her hands, and began fussing with his hair. Light twittered across the filigree of her rings, flashing like some kind of code. Such a mess! her grin said.
“It’s proper that you be anxious,” she said, distracted by her ministrations. She looked him square in the eye, and he stared into the pith of her, past the paint and skin, past the sheath of interlocking muscles, down to the radiant truth of her love.
She would die for you, the secret voice—the voice that had been within him always—whispered.
“Your father,” she continued, “says that we need fear only when we lose our fear.” She ran her hand from his temple to his chin. “When we become too accustomed to power and luxury.”
Father was forever saying things.
He smiled, looked down in embarrassment, in the way that never failed to slow her pulse and quicken her eyes. An adorable little son on the surface, even as he sneered beneath.
Hate him, the secret voice said, but fear him more.
Yes, the Strength. He must never forget that the Strength burned brightest in Father.
“Was ever a mother so blessed?” The Empress beamed, clutching his shoulders. She hugged him once more, then stood with his hands cupped in her own. He allowed her, reluctantly, to tow him out to the towering eaves of the Allosium, then beyond, into the sunless brilliance.
Flanked by scarlet formations of Eöthic Guardsmen, they stood blinking upon the crest of the monumental steps that fanned down to the expanse of the Scuari Campus. The long-weathered temples and tenements of Momemn crowded the horizon, growing indistinct the deeper they plumbed the humid distance. The great domes of the Temple Xothei rose chill and dark, a hazy, hulking presence in the heart of mud-brick warrens. The adjacent Kamposea Agora was little more than a gap in the rotted teeth of interposing streetscapes.
On and on it went, the vast and mottled vista of the Home City, the great capital of all the Three Seas. For his entire life it had encircled him, hedged him with its teeming intricacies. And for his entire life it had frightened him, so much so that he often refused to look when Samarmas, his idiot twin, pointed to something unnoticed in its nebulous weave.
But today it seemed the only safe thing.
“Look!” his mother cried through the roar. “Look, Kel!”
There were thousands of them packed throughout the Imperial Precincts: women, children, slaves, the healthy and the infirm, Momemnites and pilgrims from afar—uncounted thousands of them. Churning like floodwaters about the base of the Xatantian Arch. Crushed against the lower compounds of the Andiamine Heights. Perched like crows along the low walls of the Garrison. All of them crying out, two fingers raised to touch his image.
“Think of how far they have come!” his mother cried through the tumult. “From across all the New Empire, Kelmomas, come to witness your divinity!”
Though he nodded with the bewildered gratitude he knew she expected from him, the young Prince-Imperial felt nothing save brittle revulsion. Only fools, he decided, travelled in circles. Part of him wished he could drag the Grinning God out of his shrine to show him …
People were bugs.
They weathered the adulation for what seemed ages, standing side by side in their proscribed places, Esmenet, Empress of the Three Seas, and the youngest of her exalted children. Kelmomas looked up as he was taught, idly followed the course of pinprick pigeons against the smoke rising from the city. He watched sunlight gather distant rooftops in the wake of a retreating cloud. He decided he would ask for a model of the city when his mother was weak and eager to indulge. Something made of wood.
Something that would burn.
Thopsis, their Shigeki Master of Protocol, raised his massive eunuch arms, and the Imperial Apparati arrayed on the steps below turned as one toward them. The gold-ribbed Prayer Horns sounded, resonating through the roaring chorus. They had been fixed at intervals in the shadow of the Allosium’s facade, fashioned of jet and ivory and so long they nearly reached to the second landing.
Kelmomas looked down across his father’s Exalt-Ministers, saw everything from lust and tenderness to hatred and avarice in their blank faces. There was lumbering Ngarau, the Grand Seneschal from the Ikurei days. Phinersa, the Holy Master of Spies, a plain yet devious man of Kianene stock. The blue-tattooed Imhailas, the statuesque Exalt-Captain of the Eöthic Guard, whose beauty sometimes turned his mother’s eye. The ever-cantankerous Werjau, the Prime Nascenti and ruler of the powerful Ministrate, whose far-flung agents ensured none went astray. The emaciated Vem-Mithriti, Grandmaster of Imperial Saik and Vizier-in-Proxy, which made him the temporary master of all things arcane in the Three Seas …
On and on, all sixty-seven of them, arranged in order of precedence along the monumental stair, gathered to witness the Whelming of Anasûrimbor Kelmomas, the youngest son of their Most Holy Aspect-Emperor. Only the face of his Uncle Maithanet, the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, defeated his momentary scrutiny. For an instant, his uncle’s shining look caught his own, and though Kelmomas smiled with a daft candour appropriate to his age, he did not at all like the flat consistency of the Shriah’s gaze.
He suspects, the secret voice whispered.
That you are make-believe.
The last of the cacophony faded, until only the oceanic call of the Horns remained, thrumming so deep that Kelmomas’s tunic seemed to tingle against his skin. Then they too trailed into nothing.
Ear-ringing silence. With a cry from Thopsis, the whole world seemed to kneel, including the Exalt-Ministers. The peoples of the New Empire fell to the ground, fields of them, then slowly lowered their foreheads to the hot marble—every soul crowded into the Imperial Precincts. Only the Shriah, who knelt before no man save the Aspect-Emperor, remained standing. Only Uncle Maithanet. When the sun broke across the stair, his vestments flared with light: A hundred tiny Tusks kindled like fingers of flame. Kelmomas blinked at their brilliance, averted his eyes.
His mother led him down the steps by the hand. He clapped after her with his sandalled feet, giggled at her frown. They passed down the aisle opened between the Exalt-Ministers, and he laughed some more, struck by the absurdity of them, all shapes and ages and sizes, grovelling in the costumes of kings.
“They honour you, Kel,” his mother said. “Why would you laugh at them?”
Had he meant to laugh? Sometimes it was hard to keep count.
“Sorry,” he said with a glum sigh. Sorry. It was one of many words that confused him, but it never failed to spark compassion in his mother’s look.
At the base of the monumental stair, a company of green-and-gold-dressed soldiers awaited them: some twenty men of his father’s hallowed bodyguard, the Hundred Pillars. They fell into formation about the Empress and her child, then, their shields bright and their looks fierce with concentration, they began leading them through the masses and across the Scuari Campus toward the Andiamine Heights.
As a Prince-Imperial, Kelmomas often found himself overshadowed by armed men, but the walk unnerved him for some reason. The smell was comforting at first: the perfumed muslin of their surcoats, the oils they used to quicken their blades and soften the leather straps of their harness. But with every step, the bitter-sweet bitumen of unwashed bodies came more and more to the fore, punctuated by the reek of the truly wretched. Murmurs rose like a haze about them. “Bless-bless-bless,” over and over, in a tone poised between asking and giving. Kelmomas found himself staring past the towering guards, out across the landscape of kneelers. He saw an old beggar, more husked than clothed, weeping, grinding his face against the cobbles as though trying to blot himself out. He saw a girl only slightly younger than himself, her head turned in sacrilege, so that she could stare up at their monstrous passage. On and on the prostrate figures went, out to distant foundations.
He walked across a living ground.
And then he was among them, in them, watching his own steps, little more than a jewelled shadow behind a screen of merciless, chainarmoured men. A name. A rumour and a hope. A god-child, suckled at the breast of Empire, anointed by the palm of Fate. A son of the Aspect-Emperor.
They did not know him, he realized. They saw, they worshipped, they trusted what they could not fathom.
No one knows you, the secret voice said.
No one knows anyone.
He glanced at his mother, saw the blank stare that always accompanied her more painful reveries.
“Are you thinking of her, Mommy?” he asked. Between the two of them, “her” always meant Mimara, her first daughter, the one she loved with the most desperation—and hated.
The one the secret voice had told him to drive away.
The Empress smiled with a kind of sad relief. “I worry for your father and your brothers too.”
This, Kelmomas could plainly see, was a lie. She fretted for Mimara—even still, after all he had done.
Perhaps, the voice said, you should have killed the bitch.
“When will Father return?”
He knew the answer at least as well as she did, but at some level he understood that as much as mothers love their sons, they loved being mothers as well—and being a mother meant answering childish questions. They travelled several yards before she replied, passing through a fog of pleas and whispers. Kelmomas found himself comparing her to the countless cameos he had seen depicting her in her youth—back in the days of the First Holy War. Her hips were wider, perhaps, and her skin not so smooth beneath the veneer of white paint, but her beauty was legendary still. The seven-year-old could scarce imagine anyone more beautiful.
“Not for some time, Kel,” she said. “Not until the Great Ordeal is completed.”
He nearly clutched his breast, such was the ache, the joy.
If he fails, the secret voice said, he will die.
Anasûrimbor Kelmomas smiled what seemed his first true smile of the day.
Kneelers all around, their backs broken by awe. A plain of abject humanity. “Bless-bless-bless,” rising like whispers in a sick-house. Then a single, savage cry: “Curse! Curse!”
Somehow a madman managed to plunge past the shields and blades, to reach out, punctured and failing, with a knife that reflected shining sky. The Pillarian Guardsmen traded shouts. The crowds heaved and screamed. The young boy glimpsed battling shadows.
upon the high wall the husbands slept, while ’round the hearth their women wept, and fugitives murmured tales of woe, of greater cities lost to Mog-Pharau …
—“THE REFUGEE’S SONG,” THE SAGAS
Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), the Kathol Passes
The tracks between whim and brutality are many and inscrutable in Men, and though they often seem to cut across the impassable terrain of reason, in truth, it is reason that paves their way. Ever do Men argue from want to need and from need to fortuitous warrant. Ever do they think their cause the just cause. Like cats chasing sunlight thrown from a mirror, they never tire of their own delusions.
At the behest of their Holy Aspect-Emperor, the priests of the Thousand Temples harangued their congregations, and the Judges of the Ministrate scoured the land, seeking out and destroying all those who would either dispute the Truth or choose avarice over the mortal demands of the darkness to come. Everyone, whether caste-slave or caste-noble, was taught the Great Chain of Missions, how the words and works of each made possible the words and works of the other. They learned how Men, all Men, warred all the time, whether tilling fields or loving their kin. All lives, no matter how humble, were links that either fortified the Great Chain or impaired it, leading to the First Ring, the link from which the world itself hung: the Holy War against the apocalyptic designs of the Consult …
Or as it came to be called, the Great Ordeal.
Never, not even in the days of Far Antiquity, had the world seen the assembly of such a host. Ten years were devoted to its preparation. To prevent the resurrection of the No-God, they had to destroy his foul slaves, the Consult, and to destroy them, they had to march the length of Eärwa, from the northern frontiers of the New Empire, across the Sranc-infested Wilds of the Ancient North, all the way to their stronghold, Golgotterath, which the Nonmen had called Min-Uroikas in days long dead, the Pit of Obscenities.
It was a mad endeavour. Only children and fools, who confused tales of war with war itself, could think the task simple. For them, war was battle, and they always squinted in surprise when veterans spoke of latrines and cannibalism and gangrenous feet and so on. Even the most illustrious knights required food, as did the horses they rode, as did the pack mules that carried the food, as did the slaves who served it. Food was required to transport food—the problem was as simple as this. Without some intensive system of supply—relays, depots, and the like—the amount consumed would quickly exceed the amount carried. This was why the most arduous battle waged by the Great Ordeal would not be against the Consult legions, but against Eärwa’s own wild heart. The host would have to survive the distance to Golgotterath before it could be tested on the field.
For years, the New Empire groaned beneath the demands of their holy sovereign’s prophecy. Tithes of food were exacted from all the provinces. Vast granaries were constructed above the third cataract of the Vindauga River. Herds of sheep and cattle were driven northward, along coastal trails that soon became favourite topics for court minstrels. In the Home City, mathematicians scribbled indentures, summons, requisitions, and Kings and Judges seized what was needed in faraway lands. The records were stored in great mud-brick warehouses and cared for with the fastidiousness of religious ritual. Everything was numbered.
The call to arms did not come till the last.
Across the Three Seas the Zaudunyani took up the Circumfix, the holy symbol of their Aspect-Emperor: the knights of Conriya, masked and long-skirted, the disciplined columnaries of Nansur, the axmen of Thunyerus, wild-haired and ferocious, the peerless horsemen of Kian, and on and on. The sons of a dozen nations converged on Oswenta, the hoary old capital of Galeoth, bearing rough-painted or finely wrought representations of the Tusk and Circumfix. The sorcerous Schools sent their contingents as well: the haughty magi of the Scarlet Spires, borne in their silk-panelled litters, the dour witches of the Swayal Compact, the robed processions of the Imperial Saik, and, of course, the Gnostic sorcerers of the Mandate, who had been raised from fools to priests by the coming of the Warrior-Prophet.
The children of Oswenta marvelled. In streets choked with newcomers, they saw Nilnameshi princes in their palanquins, Ainoni Count-Palatines with their white-painted retinues, religious madmen of every description, and once, even a towering mastodon that sent horses bolting like dogs. They saw all the ornament, all the pomp and demonstration of ancient and faraway customs, thrown together and made a carnival. The bowl of each nation had spilled, and now their distinct and heady flavours swirled together, continually surprising the palette with some unheard-of combination. Long-bearded Tydonni throwing the number-sticks with wire-limbed Khirgwi. Kutnarmi monkeys climbing the gowns of Shigeki witches.
A summer and an autumn passed organizing the host. Though a generation had come and gone, the Aspect-Emperor and his advisers remembered well the lessons of the First Holy War. The Unification Wars, with their setbacks and victories and butchered cities, had produced a corps of shrewd and ruthless Zaudunyani officers, all of whom were made Judges and granted the power of life and death over the faithful. Trespasses were not forgiven—too much hung in the balance for the Shortest Path not to be taken. Mercy required a certain future, and for Men, there was none. Two Consult skin-spies were discovered, thanks to the divine insight of the Aspect-Emperor and his children. They were flayed before booming, riotous masses.
The Great Ordeal wintered at the headwaters of the Vindauga River, in the city of Harwash, which had been an entrepôt for the Twelve-Pelt Road, the famed caravan route connecting Galeoth to the ancient and isolate cities of Sakarpus and Atrithau, but was now little more than a vast barracks and supply depot. The season was hard. Despite all the precautions, dread Akkeägni, Disease, fondled the host with his Many Hands, and some twenty thousand souls were lost to a version of lungplague common to the humid rice plains of Nilnamesh.
It was, the Aspect-Emperor explained, but the first of many tests.
The days began to thaw what the nights yet froze. Preparations intensified. The order to march was a fervent occasion of tears and joyous shouts. There is a taste to these things. The wills of men coalesce, become one, and the air knows. The God did not only create the created, He created the act of creation as well, the souls that dwell within men. Should it be any surprise that the world of things answered the world of intents? The Great Ordeal marched, and the very earth, rising from dreary winter slumber, bent knee and rejoiced. The Men of the Ordeal could feel it: an approving world, a judging world.
The host advanced in two stages. King Saubon of Caraskand, one of the Holy War’s two Exalt-Generals, marched first, taking the quicker elements of the host—the Kianene, the Girgashi, the Khirgwi, and the Shrial Knights—and none of the slower, which included the sorcerous Schools. The Aspect-Emperor’s second eldest son, Anasûrimbor Kayûtas, rode with him, leading the famed Kidruhil, the most celebrated heavy calvary cohort in the Three Seas. The Sakarpic host melted away before them, leaving only several companies of Long-Riders, their fleet and devious skirmishers, to harass their advance. The decisive engagement the Exalt-General hoped for never happened.
King Proyas of Conriya, the Ordeal’s other Exalt-General, followed with the bulk of the host. Jubilant, the Men of the New Empire marched into the Kathol Passes, which formed the armature of two great mountains ranges, the Hethantas to the west and the Osthwai to the east. The column was too long for any real communication between its forward and rear elements—no rider could press through the masses quickly enough. The scarps climbed to either side, stacked to the timberline.
It snowed the fourth night, when the priests and judges led ceremonies commemorating the Battle of the Pass, where an ancient alliance of refugee Men and the Nonmen of Cil-Aujas had defeated the No-God in the First Apocalypse, so purchasing the World a year of precious respite. Nothing was said of the subsequent betrayal and the extermination of the Nonmen at the hands of those they had saved.
They sang of their devotion, the Men of the Ordeal, heartbreaking hymns composed by the Aspect-Emperor himself. They sang of their own might, of the doom they would deliver to the faraway gates of their enemy. They sang of their wives, their children, about the smaller pockets of the wider world they marched to save. In the evenings, the great bell they called the Interval tolled, and the Singers cried out the calls to prayer, their sweet voices rising across the far-flung fields of tents and pavillions. Hard men shed their gear and gathered beneath Circumfix banners. Noble knelt with slave or menial. The Shrial Priests gave their sermons and benedictions, and the Judges watched.
They spent several days filing through the final stages of the Pass, then descended the sill of the mountains. They crossed the thawing fields of Sagland, where the retreating Sakarpi had burned anything that could be of use to them. Overmatched, the King of Sakarpus had no recourse save the ancient and venerable weapon of hunger.
Few Three Seas Men had ever seen grassland steppes, let alone the vast and broad-backed Istyuli. Beneath grey skies, with tracts still scabbed with snow, it seemed a trackless and desolate place, a precursor to Agongorea, about which they had heard so much in endless recitations of The Sagas. Those raised on the coasts were reminded of the sea, of horizons as flat as a rule, with nothing but limits for the eye to fasten upon. Those bred along desert margins were reminded of home.
It was raining when the multitudes climbed into the broad scuffs of land that lifted the Lonely City above the plain. At last, the two Exalt-Generals clasped arms and set about planning the assault. They scowled and joked and shared reminiscences, from the legendary First Holy War to the final days of the Unification. So many cities. So many campaigns.
So many proud peoples broken.
The Emissary arrived in the pre-dawn cold, demanding to see Varalt Harweel II, the King of Sakarpus.
Unable to sleep for fear of the morrow, Sorweel was already awake when his menial came to rouse him. He regularly attended all important audiences—his father insisted on it as part of his princely education. But until recently, “important” had meant something quite different. Skirmishes with the Sranc. Insults and apologies from Atrithau. Threats from disgruntled nobles. Sorweel could not count the times he had sat at the stone bench in the shadow of his father’s throne swinging his bare feet in what seemed mortal boredom.
Now, only a year shy of his first Elking, he planted his boots and stared at the man who would destroy them all: King Nersei Proyas of Conriya, Exalt-General of the Great Ordeal. Gone were the courtiers, the functionaries, the partisans of this or that petty interest. Vogga Hall stood vacant and dim, though for some reason, the cavernous aisles and galleries failed to make the outlander look small. From across the terra cotta reliefs that sheathed the walls and columns, Sorweel’s ancestors seemed to watch with graven apprehension. The air smelled of cold tallow.
“Thremu dus kapkurum,” the outlander began, “hedi mere’otas cha—” The translator, some mangy herdsman from the Saglands by the look of him, quickly rendered his words into Sakarpic.
“Our captives have told us what you say of him.”
Him. The Aspect-Emperor. Sorweel silently cursed his skin for pimpling.
“Ah, yes,” King Harweel replied, “our blasphemy …” Even though the ornate arms of the Horn-and-Amber Throne concealed his father’s face, Sorweel knew well the wry expression that accompanied this tone.
“Blasphemy …” the Exalt-General said. “He would not say that.”
“And what would he say?”
“That you fear, as all men fear, to lose your power and privilege.”
Sorweel’s father laughed in an offhand manner that made the boy proud. If only he could muster such careless courage.
“So,” Harweel said merrily, “I have placed my people between your Aspect-Emperor and my throne, is that it? Not that I have placed my throne between your Aspect-Emperor and my people …”
The Exalt-General nodded with the same deliberate grace that accompanied his untranslated speech, but whether in affirmation or appreciation, Sorweel could not tell. His hair was silver, as was his plaited beard. His eyes were dark and quick. His finery and regalia made even his father’s royal vestments seem like crude homespun. But it was his bearing and imperturbable gaze that made him so impressive. There was a melancholy to him, a sadness that lent him an unsettling gravity.
“No man,” Proyas said, “can stand between a God and the people.”
Sorweel suppressed a shudder. It was unnerving the way they all referred to him as such, Three Seas Men. And with such thoughtless conviction.
“My priests call him a demon.”
“Hada mem porota—”
“They say what they need to keep their power safe,” the translator said with obvious discomfort. “They are, truly, the only ones who stand to lose from the quarrel between us.”
For Sorweel’s entire life, it seemed, the Aspect-Emperor had been an uneasy rumour from the South. Some of his earliest memories were of his father dandling him on his knee while he questioned Nansur and Galeoth traders from the World-beyond-the-Plains. With looks at once ingratiating and guarded, they would always demur, protest they had ears only for trade and eyes only for profit, when what they really meant was that they had tongues only for gold. In many ways, Sorweel owed his understanding of the world to Twelve-Pelt caravaners and their struggle to render the South into Sakarpic. The Unification Wars. The Thousand Temples. All the innumerable nations of the Three Seas. And the coming of the False Prophet who preached the end of all things.
“He will come for us,” his father would tell him.
“But how can you know, Da?”
“He is a Ciphrang, a Hunger from the Outside, come to this world in the guise of man.”
“Then how can we hope to resist him?”
“With our swords and our shields,” his father had boasted, using the mock voice he always used to make light of terrifying things. “And when those fail us, with spit and curses.”
But the spit and the curses, Sorweel would learn, always came first, accompanied by bold gestures and grand demonstrations. War was an extension of argument, and swords were simply words honed to a bloodletting edge. Only the Sranc began with blood. For Men, it was always the conclusion.
Perhaps this explained the Emissary’s melancholy and his father’s frustration. Perhaps they already knew the outcome of this embassy. All doom required certain poses, the mouthing of certain words—so said the priests.
Sorweel gripped the edge of his bench, sat as still as his quailing body would allow. The Aspect-Emperor had come—even still he could scarce believe it. An itch, a name, a principle, a foreboding, something so far across the horizon that it had to seem both childish and menacing, like the wights Sorweel’s nurse would invoke whenever he had vexed her. Something that could be dismissed until encircled by shadows.
Now, somewhere out in the darkness that surrounded their hearts and their walls, somewhere out there, he waited, a Hunger clothed in glorious manhood, propped by the arms of grovelling nations. A Demon, come to cut their throats, defile their women, enslave their children. A Ciphrang, come to lay waste to all they knew and loved.
“Have you not read The Sagas?” his father was asking the Emissary, his voice incredulous. “The bones of our fathers survived the might of the Great Ruiner—Mog-Pharau! I assure you, they haven’t grown too brittle to survive you!”
The Exalt-General smiled, or at least tried to. “Ah, yes … Virtue does not burn.”
“What do you mean?”
“A saying in my country. When a man dies, the pyre takes everything save what his children can use to adorn their ancestor scrolls. All men flatter themselves through their forebears.”
Harweel snorted not so much at the wisdom, it seemed, as the relevance. “And yet the North is waste and Sakarpus still stands!”
Proyas’s smile was pained, his look one of dull pity. “You forget,” he said with the air of disclosing a prickly truth, “my Lord has been here before. He broke bread with the men who raised these very halls, back when this was but a province of a greater empire, a backwater frontier. Fortune saved these walls, not fortitude. And Fortune, as you so well know, is a whore.”
Even though his father often paused to order his thoughts, something about the ensuing silence chilled Sorweel to the bowel. He knew his father, knew that the past weeks had taken their toll. His rallying words were the same, and his booming laugh was nothing if not more frequent. But something had changed nonetheless. A slouch in his shoulders. A shadow in his gaze.
“The Great Ordeal stands at your gate,” the Exalt-General pressed. “The Schools are assembled. The hosts of a hundred tribes and nations beat sword against shield. Doom encircles you, brother. You know you cannot prevail, even with the Chorae Hoard. I know this because your knuckles are as scarred as my own, because your eyes are as bruised by war’s horror.”
Another ashen silence. Sorweel found himself leaning forward, trying to peer around the Horn-and-Amber Throne. What was his father doing?
“Come …” the Exalt-General said, his voice one of genuine entreaty. “Harweel, I beg of you, take my hand. Men can no longer afford to shed the blood of Men.”
Sorweel stood, stared aghast at his father’s blank visage. King Harweel was not an old man, but his face seemed slack and rutted about his hanging blond moustaches, his neck bent by the weight of his gold-andiron crown. Sorweel could feel the impulse, errant and unbidden, the overwhelming urge to cover for his father’s shameful indecision, to lash out, to … to …
But Harweel had recovered both his wits and his voice.
“Then decamp,” he said in dead tones. “March to your death in Golgotterath or return to your hot-blooded wives. Sakarpus will not yield.”
As though deferring to some unknown rule of discourse, Proyas lowered his face. He glanced at the bewildered Prince before returning his gaze to the King of Sakarpus. “There is the surrender that leads to slavery,” he said. “And there is the surrender that sets one free. Soon, very soon, your people shall know that difference.”
“So says the slave!” Harweel cried.
The Emissary did not require the translator’s sputtering interpretation—the tone transcended languages. Something in his look dismayed Sorweel even more than the forced bluster of his father’s response. I am weary of blood, his eyes seemed to say. Too long have I haggled with the doomed.
He stood, nodding to his entourage to indicate that more than enough breath had been spent.
Sorweel had expected his father to draw him aside afterwards, to explain not only the situation, but the peculiarities of his demeanour. Though he knew well enough what had happened—the King and the Exalt-General had exchanged one final round of fatuous words to sanctify the inevitable conclusion—his sense of shame forced a kind of confusion upon him. Not only had his father been frightened, he had been openly so—and before the most dire enemy his people had ever faced. There had to be some kind of explanation. Harweel II wasn’t simply King, he was also his father, the wisest, bravest man Sorweel had ever known. There was a reason his Boonsmen looked upon him with such reverence, why the Horselords were so loath to invite his displeasure. How could he of all Men be afraid? His father … His father! Was there something he wasn’t telling him?
But no answer was forthcoming. Soldered to the bench, Sorweel could only stare at him, his dismay scarcely concealed, as Harweel barked orders to be relayed to his various officers—his tone brusque in the way of men trying to speak their way past tears. Not long afterwards, just as dawn broke behind impenetrable woollen clouds, Sorweel found himself tramping through mud and across cobble, hustled forward by his father’s hardeyed companions, his High Boonsmen. The narrow streets were swollen with supplies gathered from the surrounding country as well as refugees from the Saglands and elsewhere. He saw men butchering cattle, scraping viscera with honed shoulder blades. He saw mothers walking dumbfounded, their arms too short to herd their rag-bundled children. Feeling useless and depressed, Sorweel wondered about his own Boonsmen, though they would not be called such until his first Elking next spring. He had pleaded with his father the previous week that they be allowed to fight together, but to no avail.
The watches lurched one into the next. The rain, which had fallen lightly and sporadically enough to be taken for water blown from the trees, began in earnest, swallowing the distances in sheets of relentless grey. It slipped through his mail, soaking him first to the leathers, then to the felt. He began shivering uncontrollably—until his rage at the thought of others seeing him shake burned him to the quick. Though his iron helm kept his scalp dry, his face became more and more numb. His fingers seemed to ache and sting in equal measure. Just when he thought he couldn’t be more miserable, his father finally called for him, leading him into an emptied barracks so they might warm their hands side by side before the last remnants of a hearth fire.
The barracks was one of the ancient ones, with the heavy lintels and low chapped ceilings, and the stables built in, so that the men could sleep with their horses—a relic of the days when Sakarpi warriors worshipped their steeds. The candles had guttered so that only the dying hearth provided illumination, the kind of orange light that seemed to pick out details at whim. The battered curve of an iron pot. The cracked back of a chair. The face of a troubled king. Sorweel did not know what to say, so he simply stood, gazing at the luminous detail of coals burning into snowy ash.
“Moments of weakness come upon all Men,” Harweel said without looking at his son.
The young Prince stared harder into the glowing cracks.
“You must see this,” his father continued, “so that when your time comes you will not despair.”
Sorweel was speaking before he even realized he had opened his mouth. “But I do, Father! I do desp—!”
The tenderness in his father’s eyes was enough to make him choke. It knocked his gaze down as surely as a slap.
“There are many fools, Sorwa, men who conceive hearts in simple terms, absolute terms. They are insensible to the war within, so they scoff at it, they puff out their chests and they pretend. When fear and despair overcome them, as they must overcome us all, they have not the wind to think … and so they break.”
The heat enclosed the young Prince, thinning the moisture that slicked his skin. Already his palms and knuckles were dry. He dared look up at his father, whose bravery, he realized, burned not like a bonfire, but like a hearth, warming all who stood near its wisdom.
“Are you such a fool, Sorwa?”
The fact that the question was searching, genuine, and not meant as a reprimand cut Sorweel to the quick.
There was so much he wanted to say, to confess. So much fear, so much doubt, and remorse above all. How could he have doubted his father? Instead of lending his shoulder, he had become one more burden—and on this day of days! He had recoiled, stricken by thoughts of bitter condemnation, when he should have reached out—when he should have said, “The Aspect-Emperor. He comes. Hold tight my hand, Father.”
“Please …” he said, staring into that beloved face, but before he could utter another word the door flew open, and three of the greater Horselords called out.
Forgive me …
Even upon the walls, the famed and hallowed walls of Sakarpus, the heat of the barracks stayed with him, as though he had somehow carried away a coal in his heart.
Standing with his father’s High Boonsmen upon the northern tower of the Herder’s Gate, Sorweel stared out across the miserable distances. The rain continued to spiral down, falling from fog skies. Though the plains ringed the horizon with lines as flat as any sea, the land about the city was pitched and folded, like a cloak cast upon a vast floor, forming a great stone pedestal for Sakarpus and her wandering walls. Several times, Sorweel leaned forward to peer between the embrasures, only to push himself back, dizzied by the sheer drop: a plane of pocked brick that dropped to sloping foundations that hung over grass-and-thistle-choked cliffs. It seemed impossible that any might assail them. Who could overcome such towers? Such walls?
When he stared down their length, with the iron-horned crenelations and lines of bovine skulls set into the masonry, a mixture of pride and awe swelled through him. The Lords of the Plains, draped in the ancient armour of their fathers, crowded by the longshields of their clans. The batteries of archers hunched over their bows, struggling to keep the strings dry. Everywhere he looked, he saw his father’s people—his people—manning the heights, their faces grim with determination and expectant fury.
And out there, across the grass slopes, only void, the grey of distances lost through sheet after sheet of gossamer rain. The Aspect-Emperor and his Great Ordeal.
Sorweel rehearsed the prayers his father had taught to him, the Demanding, meant to loosen the sword of Gilgaöl’s favour, the Plea to Fate, meant to soften the hard look of the Whore. It seemed he could hear others among the High Boonsmen whispering prayers of their own, summoning the favour they would need to wrest their doom from the Aspect-Emperor’s grasping hand.
He’s a demon, Sorweel thought, drawing strength from the remembered tenor of his father’s voice. A Hunger from the Outside. He will not prevail …
Just then, a single horn pealed from the rain-shrouded horizon, long drawn and low, of a tone with the call of bull mastodons. For several heartbeats, it seemed to hang suspended over the city, solitary, foreboding. It trailed into silence, one heartbeat, two, until it seemed its signification had ended. Then it was joined by a chorus of others, some shrill and piercing, some as deep as the previous night’s thunder. Suddenly the whole world seemed to shiver, its innards awakened by the cold cacophony. Sorweel could see men trade apprehensive looks. Mumbled curses and prayers formed a kind of counterpoint, like bracken about a monument. Blare and rumble, a sound that made a ceiling of the sky—that made water sharp. Then the horns were gone, leaving only the hoarse cries of the lords and officers along the wall, shouting out encouragement to their men.
“Take heart,” Sorweel heard an old voice mutter to someone unseen.
“Are you sure?” a panicked boy-voice whispered in reply. “How can you be sure?”
A laugh, so obviously forced that Sorweel could not but wince. “A fortnight ago, the Hunter’s priests found a nest of warblers in the temple eaves. Crimson warblers—do you understand? The Gods are with us, my son. They watch over us!”
Peering after the voices, Sorweel recognized the Ostaroots, a family whom he had always thought hangers-on in his father’s Royal Company. Sorweel had always shunned the son, Tasweer, not out of arrogance or spite, but in accordance with what seemed the general court attitude. He had never thought of it, not really, save to make gentle sport of the boy now and again with his friends. For some reason, it shamed Sorweel to hear him confessing his fears to his father. It seemed criminal that he, a prince born to the greatest of privileges, had so effortlessly judged Tasweer’s family, that with the ease of an exhalation, he had assessed lives as deep and confusing as his own. And found them wanting.
But his remorse was short-lived. Shouts of warning drew his eyes back in the direction of the pelting rain, toward the first shadows of movement across the plain. The siege towers appeared first, each within toppling distance of the others, little more than blue columns at the misty limits of his vision, like the ghosts of ancient monoliths. There was no surprise at the number of them—fourteen—since Sorweel and countless others had watched their faraway assembly over the preceding days. The surprise, rather, was reserved for their scale, and for the fact that the Southerners had borne them disassembled across so many trackless leagues.
They moved in echelon, crawling as though perched on tortoises. Slowly, the finer details of their appearance resolved from the mist, as did the rhythmic shouts of the thousands that pressed them forward. They were sheathed in what appeared to be scales of tin, and almost absurdly tall, to the point of tottering, rising to a slender peak from bases as broad as any Sakarpic bastion—unlike any of the engines Sorweel had seen sketched in the Tomes of War. Each bore the Circumfix, the mark of the Aspect-Emperor and his sham divinity, painted in white and red across their middens: a circle containing the outstretched figure of an upside-down man—Anasûrimbor Kellhus himself, the rumours said. The sign tattooed into the flesh of the missionaries Sorweel’s father had ordered burned.
There was a breathlessness to their approach, which Sorweel attributed to the fact that it was at last beginning, that all the worrying and bickering and preparing and skirmishing of the previous months was finally coming to a head. In the towers’ wake, the immaculate ranks of the Great Ordeal resolved into gleaming solidity, row after marching row of them, reaching out across field and pasture, their far flanks lost in the rainy haze.
Once again the horns unnerved the sky.
Sorweel stood numb, one of ten thousand faces, concentrated with rancour, dread, disbelief, even ardour, watching as ten times that number—more!—marched through the dreary downpour, bearing the exotic arms of distant peoples, following the devices of a dozen different nations. Strangers come from sweaty shores, from lands unheard of, who knew not their language, cared nothing for their ways or their riches …
The Southron Kings, come to save the world.
How many times had Sorweel dreamed of them? How many times had he imagined them reclining half-nude in their grand marble galleries, listening bored to polyglot petitioners? Or riding divans through spicedusted streets, heavy-lidded eyes scanning the mercantile bustle, searching for girls to add to their dark-skinned harems? How many times, his heart balled in child anger, had he told his father he was running away to the Three Seas?
To the land where Men yet warred against Men.
He had learned quickly to conceal his fascination, however. Among the officials of his father’s court, the South was the object of contempt and derision—typically. It was a fallen place, where vigour had succumbed to complexity, to the turmoil of a thousand thousand vyings. It was a place where subtlety had become a disease and where luxury had washed away the bourne between what was womanish and what was manly.
But they were wrong—so heartbreakingly wrong. If the defeats of the previous weeks had not taught them such, then surely they understood now.
The South had come to teach them.
Sorweel cast about looking for his father. But like a miracle, King Harweel was already beside him, standing tall in his long skirts of mail. He gripped his son’s shoulder, leaned reassuringly. When he grinned, jewels of water fell from his moustaches.
The tapping drone of rain. The peal of outland horns.
“Fear not,” he said. “Neither he nor his Schoolmen will dare our Chorae. We will fight as Men fight.” He looked to his High Boonsmen, who had all turned to watch their King give heart to his son.
“Do you hear me?” he cried out to them. “For two thousand years, our walls have stood unbroken. For two thousand years, the line of our fathers has reached unbroken! We are their culmination. We are the Men of Sakarpus, the Lonely City. We are survivors of the Worldfall, Keepers of the Chorae Hoard, a solitary light against the pitch of Sranc and endl—!”
The sound of swooping wings interrupted him. Eyes darted heavenward. Several men even cried out. Sorweel instinctively raised a hand to his mail-armoured stomach, pressed the sorcery-killing Chorae about his waist so that it pinched cold into his navel.
Meet the Author
R. Scott Bakkeris a student of literature, history, philosophy, and ancient languages. Hisprevious books include the Prince of Nothing trilogy: The Darkness that Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought. The Aspect-Emperor series is a sequel series that began with The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior. He lives in London, Ontario.
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