Excerpt: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker
It’s here! After a five year hiatus, R. Scott Bakker is storming back onto bookshelves. We’ve been chatting (begging) with Overlook to try and nab an excerpt and without any further ado, I present the prologue and chapter one of the book we’re all salivating over, THE GREAT ORDEAL.
And naught was known or unknown, and there was no hunger.
All was One in silence, and it was as Death.
Then the Word was spoken, and One became Many.
Doing was struck from the hip of Being.
And the Solitary God said, “Let there be Deceit.
Let there be Desire.”
——The Book of Fane
Late Summer, 20 New Imperial Year (4132, Year-of-the-Tusk), Momemn
For all the tumult of the Unification Wars, for all the rigours of motherhood and imperial station, Anasûrimbor Esmenet had never ceased to read. Of all the palaces her divine husband had seized for her comfort, not one had wanted for material. She had marvelled at the bleak beauty of Sirro in the arid shade of Nenciphon, dozed with the labourious precision of Casidas in the swelter of Invishi, scowled at the profundities of Memgowa in the chill of Oswenta. Smoke often plumed the horizon. Her husband’s Holy Circumfix obscured walls, festooned shields, pinched naked throats. His children would watch her with His omnivorous eyes. The slaves would wash and scrub away the blood, paint, and plaster over the soot. And whenever opportunity afforded, she devoured what she could, the great classics of Early Cenei, the polyglot masterpieces of the Late Ceneian Empire. She smiled at the rollicking lays of Galeoth, sighed for the love poetry of Kian, bristled at the race chants of Ce Tydonn.
But for all the wisdom and diversion these forms possessed, they hung in the aether of fancy. Only history, she discovered, possessed a nature that answered her own. To read history was to read about herself in ways both concrete—Near Antique accounts of the Imperial Ceneian Court often pimpled her skin, so uncanny were the resemblances—and abstract. Every history and chronicle she consumed answered to the same compulsions, the same crimes, same hurts, same jealousies and disasters. The names were different, as were the nations, languages, and ages, and yet the same lessons remained, perpetually unlearned. It was almost musical in a sense, variations playing against ruinous refrains, souls and empires plucked like the strings of a lute. The peril of pride. The contradiction of trust. The necessity of cruelty.
And over time, one lesson in particular came to haunt her, a moral that— for her, at least—could only appal and dismay …
Power does not make safe.
History murders the children of weak rulers.
The crow of battlehorns, so different from the long-drawn yaw of prayer horns across the city.
Momemn was in uproar.
Like a bowl of water set upon the floor of a racing chariot, it quivered and spit and swamped its rim. Anasûrimbor Maithanet, the Holy Shriah of the Thousand Temples, was dead. Fanim drums throbbed against gaseous hearts, made menace of the west. The Imperial Apparati and Shrial Knights ran to secure the Imperial Capital—to open the armouries, to rally the bewildered, to man the great curtain walls. The Blessed Empress of the Three Seas, however, ran to secure her heart …
“Kelmomas hides yet in the palace …” Maithanet had said ere her assassin had struck.
The gold-armoured Inchausti—who had paraded her mere watches before as their carnival captive—now escorted her as their imperial sovereign. Given the mobs besieging Xothei, they had elected to leave the temple through a series of mouldering, secret tunnels, what had been sewers during another age. Their Captain, a tall Massentian named Clia Saxillas, led them to an exit somewhere north of the Kamposea Agora, where they discovered the streets overrun with the very masses they had sought to avoid—souls as bent on finding loved ones as she.
For the better part of a watch, her world was confined to roiling gutters of humanity, troughs teeming with frantic thousands. Tenements towered dark and indifferent above the chaos. Her dead brother’s elite guardsmen battled to maintain a square about her, jogging where the streets afforded, otherwise cursing and clubbing their way through the surge and trickle of untold thousands. At every turn, it seemed, she found herself stepping over the fallen, those unfortunates unable or unwilling to make way for their Blessed Empress. Captain Saxillas thought her mad, she knew, running to the Andiamine Heights at such a time. But to serve the Anasûrimbor was to execute madness in the name of miraculous success. If anything, her demands cemented his loyalty, confirmed the divinity he thought he had glimpsed in Xothei’s great gloomy hollows. To serve divinity was to dwell among fractions of what was whole. Only the consistency of creed distinguished the believer from the mad.
Either way, his Shriah was dead and his Aspect-Emperor was away at war: she alone possessed his loyalty. She was the vessel of her husband’s holy seed—the Blessed Empress of the Three Seas! And she would save her son, even if it meant that Momemn burned for want of leadership.
“He isn’t what you think he is, Esmi.”
So it was with a mother’s terror that she rushed down the baffled streets, cursed and cajoled the Inchausti whenever the press slowed their advance. Of all the afflictions she had endured while in hiding, none had gouged so deep as the loss of Kelmomas. How many watches had she spent, her throat cramping, her eyes fluttering, her whole being hung about the fact of his absence? How many prayers had she offered to the inscrutable black? How many promises of whatever? And how many horrific scenarios had come floating back in return? Idles drawn from the murderous histories she had read. Little princes smothered or strangled. Little princes starved, blinded, sold as novelties to catamite slavers …
“Beat them!” she howled at the Shrial Guardsmen. “Bludgeon your way through!”
Our knowledge commands us, though our conceit claims otherwise. It drives our decisions and so harnesses our deeds—as surely as any cane or lash. She knew well the grievous fate of little princes in times of revolt and overthrow. The fact that her husband’s Empire crashed down about her was but one more goad to find her son.
The Fanim would have to wait. It mattered not at all that Maithanet had remained true to her husband, had genuinely thought hers the more treacherous soul. What mattered was that his servants had thought the same, that they still ran amok, and that one of them might find her son! She had seen their cruelty firsthand—watched them murder her beloved Imhailas! She knew as well as any woman could the way Men were prone to scapegoat others for their humiliation. And now that Maithanet was dead, who could say how his followers might avenge him, which innocents they might seize to token their grief and fury?
Now that Maithanet was dead.
She faltered at the thought, raised her hands against the turmoil, saw the grape stain of Shrial blood etching the whorl of her left palm. She closed her eyes against the surrounding commotion, willing the image of her little boy. Instead she saw the Narindar assassin standing almost naked between the golden idols, the Holy Shriah of the Thousand Temples supine at his feet, his blood black as pitch about points of reflected white.
Her husband’s brother. Maithanet.
And now Fanim drums tripped racing hearts …
Momemn was in uproar.
At long last they emerged from the canyon streets onto the relative openness of the Processional, and the Inchausti instinctively began trotting. Not even the mass panic could dilute the Rat Canal’s famous reek. She saw the Andiamine Heights climbing soundless above the Imperial Precincts, her hated home, marmoreal walls clean in the sunlight, copper rooves gleaming …
She looked wildly about, saw no signs of smoke, no mark of invasion. She glimpsed a small girl wailing over a woman prostrate on the hard cobble. Someone had painted Yatwer’s Sickle upon the child’s swollen cheek.
She turned away, forbade herself any pang of compassion.
The Holy Shriah of the Thousand Temples was dead.
She could not think of what she had done. She could not regret.
Forward, to her hated home. That was the direction of her war.
The hush of the Imperial Precincts never failed to amaze her. The Scuäri Campus radiating outward, heating the air. Monuments, mottled black and green. Lintels hanging intricate against the sky. Columns soaring, jailing interiors that promised cool shadow and obscurity.
It made her screams all the more stark, shocking.
Kel! It’s sa-safe, my love! Your mother has returned!
She has prevailed!
Your Uncle is dead …
Your brother is avenged!
She had no idea when she began crying.
The Andiamine Heights climbed before her, a palatial heap of rooves and columns and terraces, the marble bright in the high morning sun, the copper and gold shining.
It seemed haunted for quiet.
She forbade the Inchausti from following her. Any protest they might have nursed went unspoken. She wandered with a kind of stunned, disbelieving gait into the gloomy halls of the Apparatory. She seemed to float more than walk, such was her horror … Hope is ever the greatest luxury of the helpless, the capacity to suppose knowledge that circumstances denied. So long as she remained a captive in Naree’s apartment, Esmenet could always suppose that her little boy had found some way. Like a slave, she could grow fat on faith.
Now only truth lay before her. Truth and desolation.
Silence … the visceral sense of void that attends any once-vibrant place emptied of motion and life. The apartments had been looted. The gilded panels were dull in the shuttered gloom, the censors cold, filled with fragrant ash— even the scenes stitched across the tapestries hung chill and fallow. Dried blood smeared and skinned the polished floors. Boot prints. Hand prints. Even the profile of a face, immortalized in chapped brown. Down every hallway, it seemed, she chased pale gleams that vanished as she drew near.
It was but a shell, she realized—a many-chambered skull. Her home.
Her voice scratched at the vacant depths, too hoarse to echo.
She had started her search in the Apparatory because of the way the palace’s network of secret passages tracked its every room and niche. If there was one place, she had reasoned … One place!
For all his blessed humanity she did not doubt the resourcefulness of her little boy. Out of all of them, he was the most hers—the least Dûnyain.
But he possessed some modicum of his father’s blood still. Divine blood.
Nothing could be so absent—so missing—as a lost child. They dwell so close, more herethan here, ducking fingers that would tickle, convulsing with laughter, gazing with thoughtless adoration, lazing on your knees, on your hip, or in the crook of your arm, their body always there, always waiting to be clasped and hoisted, pressed against the bosom they took as their throne. Let the Inchausti scowl! Let men disapprove! What did they know of motherhood, the mad miracle of finding your interior drawn from you, clinging and bawling and giggling and learning everything there was to learn anew?
She stood motionless in the ransacked gloom, her ears pricked in the wake of her abraded voice. The Fanim drums pulsed on the edge of hearing.
Her breath rasped.
Where are you?
She began sprinting down the marmoreal corridors, a hope where he should be, a horror where he should be, a missing breath, an unbalanced step, a look that could only roll, never focus, for the simple want of him …
She flew through the palace proper, the gilded labyrinth that was her home, more an assemblage than a coherent soul, wracked by sobs, laughing, crying out in the lilting voice of play. This was how the uncouth invaders would find her, a remote fraction of her soul realized. This was how the Fanim would find the Blessed Empress of the Three Seas, alone in her palace, cooing, shrieking, cackling, at last pried apart by a barking world.
She ran until a knife sliced the back of her throat, until spears gored her flanks. She ran until her feet became panicked refugees, each fleeing the other—until her wind seemed a beast that loped beside her, tongue lolling.
She fell hard, not so much tripping as collapsing. The floor swatted her face, skinned her knees—then soothed these hurts with a bottomless cool.
She lay gasping in a slow-spinning heap.
She could hear it all, the mutter of the courtiers and the ministers, the laughter of caste-noble dandies, the swoosh of preposterous gowns, the barefooted patter of slaves. She could see him strolling toward her, though she knew his appearance only from the profile stamped on his coins: Ikurei Xerius, striding oblivious, ludicrous in his gold-silk slippers, gloating more than smiling …
She bolted upright on a sharp intake of breath.
Masculine voices filtered up through the barren halls.
Your Glory! Glory!
She cast her eyes about the gloom, realized she lay in the vestibule of the Upper Palace.
She stood, exhaustion hard in her limbs. She walked to the battery of oaken shutters that fenced the opposing colonnade, unlatched and drew a section of them aside, squinted at the broad balcony beyond. Sparrows chirped and squabbled about a marble amenity basin. The pastel sky throbbed with the promise of retribution and war. Beneath its perpetual haze, Momemn riddled the distance with street and structure.
Plumes of smoke ribbed the horizon.
Dark clots of horsemen scoured the surrounding fields and orchards.
Refugees mobbed the gates.
Horns peeled, but whether they summoned or warned or rallied, she did not know … or care.
No … a fraction whispered.
Something ruthless dwells within every mother, a capacity borne of plague and tribulation and children buried. She was impervious; the hard realities of the World merely broke their nails for clawing. She turned away, strode back into the shadowy palace with a kind of weary resignation—as though she played at something that had cracked her patience long before. She had not so much abandoned hope as shouldered it aside.
She found the towering doors to the Imperial Audience Hall ajar. She wandered in, walked small beneath the soaring stonework. She pondered all the loads teetering, and the Sumni harlot within her wondered that such a place could be her house, that she lived beneath ceilings impregnated with Chorae, gilded in silver and gold. The sky framed the monumental dais with stages of pale brilliance. Dead birds bellied the netting that had been strung across the opening, as dry as flies. The upper gallery lay in graven shadow, while the polished expanses gleamed below. The tapestries strung between the columns seemed to sway, one for each of her dread husband’s conquests. The scene tapered into gold instead of black in the corners of her eyes.
She considered duty, the way she would have the Shrial Knights who had murdered Imhailas executed. She thought of Naree and the savagery that awaited her. She smirked—a heartless smile—at the timid cruelties that had once hedged her own submissive nature.
She would speak oil and demand blood. Just like her divine husband.
She walked soundless across the great floor, approached the dais, her eyes fending the brilliance of the sky beyond. The Circumfix Throne was little more than a silhouette …
She did not see him until she was almost upon him.
Her son. Her mighty Prince-Imperial.
Anasûrimbor Kelmomas …
Curled within the arms of her humble, secondary throne. Asleep.
Bestial with filth. Demonic with blood.
Her desperation flung her past her revulsion. She seized him, embraced him, shushed him as he keened and wailed.
She drew her cheek across the cold tangle of grease and hair. “Shush …” she gasped, as much for her sake as for his. “I am the only power remaining.”
The sky beyond the Mantle caught her eye, and with it, a consciousness of her city, great Momemn, capital of the New Empire. Faraway drums counted the tandem racing of their hearts, mother and son.
Let it burn.
For this one moment at least.
The Blessed Empress of the Three Seas heaved at the glorious little shoulders and arms, pulled her weeping boy into her very being.
Where he belonged.
—The Fourth Canto of the Abenjukala
Late Summer, 20 New Imperial Year (4132, Year-of-the-Tusk), the northeast shore of the Neleöst
The living should not haunt the dead.
“The meat …” Mirshoa said to his cousin, Hatturidas. They trudged side-by-side through the sun-spoked dust, Kishyati, vassals of Nurbanu Soter by virtue of their uncle, the ailing Baron of Nemuk, borne here for reasons far more complicated than piety or fervour. Men marched together, as aggregate souls, sons among the sons, fathers among the fathers. They never knew what compelled them, so they fastened on the occasioning words, and so transformed their bondage into artifice, a thing freely chosen.
“What of it?” Hatturidas replied after the jnanic interval indicating disapproval.
He had no desire to think of the meat, let alone discourse upon it.
“My … my soul … It grows more disordered because of it.”
“That, at least, is in order.”
Mirshoa glared at his cousin. “Tell me you don’t feel it!”
Hatturidas continued tramping. Beyond him, thousands of his brother Jaguars toiled, and innumerable others beyond them as well, bent beneath packs and arms and armour. The World seemed to roll as a ball beneath them, so vast was the Great Ordeal.
Mirshoa lapsed back into rumination, which was unfortunate, because the man could not reflect without speaking.
“It’s like my soul is naught but … but smoked glass …”
Wherever words should not go, that was where Mirshoa was sure to follow them. Be it the carnal nature of Inri Sejenus or the most effective purificatory rite for menses, his voice would barge and blunder, his eyes animate, growing wider even as those listening narrowed. Mirshoa was a hapless soul, a man numb to too many edges to avoid being cut. Ever since their childhood, Hatturidas had been his shepherd and his shield, “Taller by a thumb,” his mother would always say, “wiser by a century …”
“It’s like something … simmers, Hatti … Like I’m a pot on coals …”
“Skew the lid, then. Cease this bubbling!”
“Enough with your sarcasms! Tell me you feel it!”
The Shroud always hung on the horizon now, mountainous veils piling to where they became powder, obscuring every distance save the Sea.
“The meat … The meat making you … shrink in proportion to who you were the day before …”
“No …” Hatturidas said, wagging his bearded jaw. He hoisted his testicles in the exaggerated barracks way. “I grow larger, if anything.”
“You’re a fool!” Mirshoa cried. “I’ve marched across Eärwa with a mad wretch!”
Hatturidas could even hear them sometimes, a noxious croon rolling on the wind …
The countless mouths of the Horde, screaming.
He spared his cousin an indulgent glance, the look of one who has always been stronger.
“And so you will march back.”
The Men of the Three Seas did not so much eat as feast on the flesh of their vile and wicked enemy.
Following the reunification of the host at Swaranûl, the Great Ordeal followed the arthritic coastline of the Neleöst, the Misty Sea, advancing on a ponderous, northwestern arc. The Horde withdrew before the Shining Men as always, amorphous miles of howling Sranc, starving for the exhaustion of the earth beneath, keening for the promise of Mannish congress on the wind. But where the outriders had once chased, running down or driving away the more famished clans, and where the Schoolmen had simply massacred, hanging low above fields of screaming turmoil, they now hunted the beasts—worked a grisly harvest.
Cadres of sorcerers strode deep into the billowing clouds, intent not so much on destroying as herding, striking wedges, then driving what numbers they could toward the echelons of horsemen who followed. Some Sranc invariably fled south and east, only to find themselves dashing headlong into waves of galloping lancers. The skirmishes were as brief as they were brutal. Screeching creatures hacked and skewered in a shadowy world of violence and dust. Afterward, the horsemen—be they Imperial Kidruhil, caste-noble knights, or tribal plainsmen—would pile the dead into conical heaps, hundreds of them, until they dotted the blasted hillocks and pastures of the coast. There they would stand, cairns of fish-white carcasses, gathering flies and carrion birds, awaiting the shining tide that approached from the southwestern horizon. The clash of cymbals. The screech and bellow of signalling horns. The rumble of marching thousands.
The Host of the Believer-Kings.
According to scripture and tradition, no flesh was more polluted than that of the Sranc. Not pig. Not even dog or monkey. The Holy Sagas related the tale of Engûs, an ancient Meörnish Prince who saved his tribal household by fleeing into the high Osthwai and bidding them to consume their monstrous foe. The Sranc-Eaters, they were called, and they were damned as no soul could be short of sorcerers, witches, and whores. According to Sakarpi legend, the vale where they took refuge was mortally cursed. Those who sought it thinking they would find gold (for the wont of rumour is to attribute riches to the damned) were never seen again.
Despite this, despite the native revulsion and disgust, nary a word of protest was raised among the Ordeal men. Perhaps it was the measure of their faith. Perhaps it was simply the nature of Men to celebrate one day what they had abominated the day before, so long as their hungers were sated.
Perhaps meat was simply meat. Sustenance. Who questioned the air they breathed?
The flesh was dense, pungent to smell, in some ways sour and in others sweet. The sinews in particular were difficult to gnaw through. Some among the Inrithi took to chewing the gristle throughout the day. The entrails were heaped in odious piles, along with those pieces—feet, viscera, and genitalia, mostly—too difficult or unsavoury to eat. If fuel was plentiful enough, the heads would be burned in oblation.
The rank and file simply portioned the beasts and cooked them over open fires. With the carcasses so divided, it became impossible to distinguish the limbs from those of Men. Everywhere one travelled, whether through the timbered tents of the Galeoth, or the garish parasol cities of the Conriyans and Ainoni, one saw arms and legs sweating over grease-fuelled fires, blackened fingers hanging slack over light. But if the resemblance troubled any, they dared not speak it.
The caste-nobility, as a rule, demanded more in the way of preparation and variety. The carcasses were beheaded and hung from their heels on timber scaffolds to properly drain. These racks could be seen throughout the encamped Ordeal, rows of white and violet bodies hanging from their heels, graphic for their nakedness. Once drained, the beasts were butchered in the manner of cattle and sheep, then served in ways that disguised the troubling humanity of their forms.
Within days, it seemed, the entire host had set aside its scruples and fell to their grisly fare with relish, even celebratory enthusiasm. Tongues and hearts became the preferred delicacies among the Nansur kjineta. The Ainoni prized the cheeks. The Tydonni took to boiling the creatures before searing them over flame. To a man they discovered the peculiar mingling of triumph and transgression that comes upon those who battle against what they would eat. For they could not bite without suffering some glimmer of the affinity between Sranc and Men—the sordid spectre of cannibalism— and they could not chew and swallow without some sense of predatory domination. The immeasurable Horde, which had been the object of so much foreboding and terror, became small with hilarity and devious wit. At the latrines they traded jokes about justice and Fate.
The Men of the Ordeal feasted. They slept with sated bellies, with the assurance that their most primitive needs had been secured. They awoke drowsy, without the dull and alarming hollow of starvation.
And a wild vitality crept through their veins.
There was a grove of oaks that became sacred with the passage of summer in Ishuäl. As green sickened into orange and dun, the Dûnyain made ready, not as yeoman preparing for winter, but as old priests welcoming even older Gods. They sat among the trees according to their station, knees out, their feet pressed sole to sole, the skin of their shaved skulls alive to the merest air, and they gazed into the boughs with a fixity that was not human. They cleared all thought from their soul, laid awareness bare to its myriad engines, and they watched the oak leaves fall …
Each of them possessed gold coins—remnants of a long-forgotten hoard— very nearly worn smooth of image and insignia, but yet possessing the ghosts of long-dead Kings. Sometimes the leaves dropped of their own volition, rocked like paper cradles across motionless air. But usually high-mountain gusts unmoored them, and they battled like bats, danced like flies, as they rode the turbulence to the ground. The Dûnyain, their eyes dead with the absence of focus, let their coins fly—a flurry of sparks traced the raw sun. Without fail, some fraction of the leaves would be caught and pinned to the flagstones, lobed edges curled like fingers about the gold.
They called it the Tracery, the rite that determined who among them would sire children and so sculpt the future of their terrible race.
Anasûrimbor Kellhus breathed as Proyas breathed, tossing coinage of a different sort.
The Exalt-General sat before him, legs crossed, hands clutching knees through the pleats of his war-skirt. He looked at once alert and serene, the General of a host that had yet to be truly tested, but beyond this appearance, gusts raked him as surely as they had raked the Tracery Grove. Blood flushed heat through the man’s veins, steeped his extremities with alarmed life. His lungs drew shallow air.
Horror wafted from his skin.
Kellhus watched, cold and impervious behind indulgent, smiling eyes. He sat cross-legged also, his arms hanging loose from his shoulders, his hands open across his thighs. The Seeing Hearth lay between them, flames rushing into a luminous braid. Despite his manifest repose, he leaned forward imperceptibly, held his chin at the angle appropriate to expectation, as if awaiting some pleasant diversion …
Nersei Proyas was but a rind in his eyes, a depth as thin as a heartbeat was long. Kellhus could have reached out and behind him, manipulated the dark places of his soul. He could have summoned any sentiment, any sacrifice …
But he hung motionless instead, a spider with its legs pinched close. Few things were so mercurial, so erratic, as Thought filtering through a human soul. The twist and skitter, the tug and chatter, sketching forms across inner oblivion. Too many variables remained unexamined.
He began as he always began, with a shocking question.
“Why do you think the God comes to Men?”
Proyas swallowed. Panic momentarily frosted his eyes, his manner. The bandages on his right arm betrayed archipelagos of crimson.
“I-I don’t understand.”
The anticipated response. Questions that begged explanation opened the soul.
The Exalt-General had changed in the weeks following his first visit to Anasûrimbor Kellhus’ spare quarters. His gaze had become equine with uncertainty. Fear now twitched through his every gesture. The tribulation of these sessions, Kellhus knew, had eclipsed any trial the Great Ordeal could offer. Gone was the pious resolve, the air of overtaxed compassion. Gone was the weary stalwart, the truest of all his Believer-Kings.
All Men possess their share of suffering, and those bearing the most are bent as with any great load. But it had been words, not wounds, that had robbed the Exalt-General of his old, upright demeanour, possibilities, as opposed to any atrocity of the real.
“The God is Infinite,” Kellhus said, pausing before the crucial substitution. “Is It not?”
Apprehension crimped the clarity of Proyas’s gaze.
“Of-of course …”
He is beginning to dread his own affirmations.
The Greater Proyas, at least, understood where they must lead.
“Then how could you hope to conceive Him?”
Instruction could be a joint undertaking, a pursuit, not just of thoughts and claims, but of the insights that motivated them; or it could be a forced concession, like those cruel tutors exacted beneath raised canes. Kellhus had been forced to rely on the latter more and more as the years had passed, for the accumulation of power was at once the accumulation of complexity. Only now, relieved of the burdens of his Empire, could he resume the former.
Only now could he witness a faithful soul, an adoring soul, thrash in mortal crisis.
“I-I suppose I cannot … But …”
Soon, he would lift his coin from Proyas … Very soon, only the wind could take him where he needed to go.
“I can conceive you!”
Kellhus reached into his beard to scratch a false itch, reclined so that he sat propped on his elbow. These simple gestures of discomfort, openly displayed, immediately summoned a corresponding ease in the Exalt-General, one that utterly eluded the man’s awareness. Bodies spoke to bodies, and short of flinching from raised fists, the worldborn were utterly deaf to what was said.
“And I, the Most Holy Aspect-Emperor, can conceive God. Is that it?”
The man leaned according to the angle of his desperation. “How else could it be? This is why Men lavish such attention on idols, is it not? Why they pray to their ancestors! They make … make tokens of what lies near … Use what they know to grasp what they cannot.”
Kellhus sipped his bowl of anpoi, watching the man.
“So this is how you conceive me?”
“This is how all Zaudunyani conceive you! You are our Prophet!”
Behave like one.
“So you think that I conceive what you cannot.”
“Not think, know. We’re but squabbling children absent you and your word. I was there! I partook in the conceit that ruled the Holy War before your revelation! The ruinous folly!”
“And what was my revelation?”
“That the God of Gods spoke to you!”
Eyes losing focus. Imagery boiling up out of oblivion. Probabilities like crabs scuttling on the shores of what was unknown.
“And what did It tell me?”
And again it dimpled his depths the way a chill stone might the surface of a warm pool, saying It rather than He.
“The God of Gods?”
Such preposterous care was required. Action and belief turned each upon the other in ways so intimate as to be inextricable. Proyas did not simply believe, he had killed thousands for his Faith. To concede, to recant, was to transform all those executions into murders—to become not simply a fool, but a monster. To believe fiercely is to do fierce things, and nothing fierce happens without suffering. Nersei Proyas, for all his regal demeanour, was the most ferocious of his countless believers.
No one had so much to lose as him.
“Yes. What did It tell me?”
Thrumming heart. Wide, bewildered eyes. And the Aspect-Emperor could see comprehension brimming in the darkness that came before the man. Soon, the dread realization would come, and the coin would be lifted …
New children would be sired.
“I-I … I don’t understand …”
“What was my revelation? What secret could It whisper into an ear so small as mine?”
There is a head on a pole behind you.
Brutalities spin and scrape, like leaves blasted in the wind.
He is here … with you … not so much inside me as speaking with your voice.
There is a head on a pole behind you.
And he walks, though there is no ground. And he sees, though his eyes have rolled into his brow. Through and over, around and within, he flees and he assails … For he is here.
They seize him from time to time, the Sons of this place, and he feels the seams tear, hears his scream. But he cannot come apart—for unlike the Countless Dead his heart beats still.
His heart beats still.
There is a head on a pole behind you.
He comes to the shore that is here, always here, gazes without sight across waters that are fire, and sees the Sons swimming, lolling and bloated and bestial, raising babes as wineskins, and drinking deep their shrieks.
There is a head on a pole behind you.
And he sees that these things are meat, here. Love is meat. Hope is meat. Courage. Outrage. Anguish. All these things are meat—seared over fire, sucked clean of grease.
There is a head on a pole.
Taste, one of the Sons says to him. Drink.
It draws down its bladed fingers, and combs the babe apart, plucking him into his infinite strings, laying bare his every inside, so that it might lick his wrack and wretchedness like honey from hair. Consume … And he sees them descending as locusts, the Sons, drawn by the lure of his meat.
There is a head … and it cannot be moved.
So he seizes the lake and the thousand babes and the void and the massing-descending Sons and the lamentations-that-are-honey, and he rips them about the pole, transforms here into here, this-place-inside-where-you-sit now, where he has always hidden, always watched, where Other Sons, recline, drinking from bowls that are skies, savouring the moaning broth of the Countless, bloating for the sake of bloat, slaking hungers like chasms, pits that eternity had rendered Holy …
We pondered you, says the most crocodilian of the Sons.
“But I have never been here.”
You said this very thing, it grates, seizing the line of the horizon, wrapping him like a fly. Legs click like machines of war. Yesss …
And you refuse to succumb to their sucking mouths, ringed with one million pins of silver. You refuse to drip fear like honey—because you have no fear.
Because you fear not damnation.
Because there is a head on a pole behind you.
“And what was your reply?”
The living shall not haunt the dead.
“What was your revelation?” Proyas cried, anger twisted into incredulity. “That the No-God would return! That the end of all things was nigh!”
He was immovable in the eyes of his Exalt-General, Kellhus knew, the stake from which all strings were bound and all things were measured. Nothing could be so gratifying as his approval. Nothing could be so profound as his discourse. Nothing could be so dense, so real, as his image. Ever since Caraskand and the Circumfixion, Kellhus had ruled Proyas’s heart, become the author of his every belief, the count of his every kindness, his every cruelty. There was no judgment, no decision the Believer-King of Conriya could make without somehow consulting the impression Kellhus had left in his soul.
In so many ways, Proyas was the most reliable of all those he had yoked to his will—the perfect instrument. And he was a cripple for it.
“And you are certain of this?”
To make him believe the first time had been labour enough. Now he must make him believe anew, cast him into a different shape, one that served a far different—and far more troubling—purpose.
Revelation was never a simple matter of authority because Men were never so simple as sodden clay—something that could be rolled blank and imprinted anew. There was fire in deeds, and the world was nothing if not a kiln. To act upon a belief was to cook its contours into the very matter of the soul. The more extreme the act, the hotter the fire, the harder the brick of belief. How many thousands had Proyas condemned to die in his name?
How many massacres had fired the beliefs Kellhus had pressed into his soul?
“I’m certain of what you’ve told me!”
It did not matter, so long as those tablets were smashed … irretrievably broken.
Kellhus gazed not at a man so much as a heap of warring signals: distress and conviction; accusation and self-loathing. He smiled the smile that Proyas unwittingly begged him not to smile, shrugged as if they discussed nothing more than mildew and beans. The spider flicked open its legs.
“Then you are certain of too much.”
The very words that had caused the Greater Proyas to barricade the soul of the Lesser.
Tears lacquered the man’s gaze. Bewildered incredulity slackened his face.
“I … I-I … don’t …” He bit the words against his lower lip.
Kellhus looked down into his bowl, spoke as though rehearsing an old meditation.
“Think, Proyas. Men will so they can become one with the Future. Men want so they can become one with the World. Men love so they can become one with the Other …” A fractional pause. “Men are forever famished, Proyas, famished for what they are not …”
The Holy Aspect-Emperor had leaned back so the fire rising white and scintillant between them would frame his aspect.
“What …” Proyas asked on emptied lungs, “what are you saying?”
Kellhus grimaced in a rueful, it-could-not-be-otherwise manner.
“We are the antithesis of the God, not the reflection.”
Confusion. Confusion was ever the herald of genuine insight. As the Greater Proyas churned, a chorus of discordant voices, the Lesser Proyas found himself that song, a clamour that he could only conceive as one. When those voices at last embraced one another—he would find himself remade. Rapid breath. Fluttering pulse. Hands clenched, fingernails scoring sweated palms.
So close …
“And this—” Proyas blurted, only to catch himself, as much for his terror as for the burning hook in his throat.
A single, treacherous tear fell into the folds of the Believer King’s luxurious beard.
“This is why you c-call the God-of-Gods …”
He sees …
“Call Him … ‘It’?”
Admission was all that remained.
The name of all things inhuman.
When applied to the inanimate world, it meant nothing. No whinge of significance accompanied its utterance. But when applied to animate things, it became ever more peculiar, ever more fraught with moral intimation. And when used to single out apparently human things, it roared with a life all its own.
Call a man “it” and you were saying that crime can no more be committed against him as against a stone. Ajencis had called Man “onraxia”, the being that judged beings. The Law, the Great Kyranean claimed, belonged to his very essence. To call a man “it” was to kill him with words, and so to oil the actions that would murder him in fact.
And the God? What did it mean for the God of Gods to be called an “it”?
The Holy Aspect-Emperor watched his most trusted disciple flounder in the wrack of these considerations. Few tasks were so onerous as to make a man believe the new, to think thoughts without precedent. It was an irony so mad as to be an absurdity, that so many would forfeit their lives sooner than their beliefs. It was ardour, of course. It was loyalty and the simple hunger for the security of the Same. But more than anything, it was ignorance that delivered conviction beyond the pale of disputation. Ignorance of questions. Ignorance of alternatives.
No tyranny was so complete as blindness. So with each of these sessions Kellhus merely raised more questions and posed more contradictory answers, and watched the once solitary track he had cut into Proyas vanish into the trampled earth of possibility …
He raised a hand into the dim air, gazed upon the nimbus of gold shining about them.
Such a remarkable thing.
So hard to explain.
“It comes to me, Proyas. In my sleep … It comes ….”
A statement pregnant with both meaning and horror. Kellhus often did this, answered his disciples’ questions with observations that seemed relevant only because of their ornamental import and the odour of profundity.
Most failed to even notice his evasion, and those few who glimpsed it assumed they were being misdirected for some divine reason, in accordance with some greater design.
Nersei Proyas simply forgot how to breathe.
A glance toward his trembling fingertips.
Two more balled fists.
“The God …” was the most the Exalt-General could say.
The Holy Aspect-Emperor smiled in the manner of those more bereaved than undone by tragic ironies.
“Is nothing human.”
An empire of his soul …
This was what his father’s Thousandfold Thought had made.
“So the God—?”
“Wants nothing … Loves nothing.”
A pattern conquering patterns, reproducing on the scales of both insects and heavens; heartbeats and ages. All bound upon him, Anasûrimbor Kellhus.
“The God doesn’t care!”
“The God is beyond care.”
He was as much a creature of the Thought as it was a creature of him.
For it whispered as it danced, threading the stacked labyrinths of contingency, filing through the gates of his daylight apprehension, becoming him. He declared, and the patterns went forth, making wombs of souls, reproducing, taking on the cumbersome complexities of living life, transforming the dancing of the dance, begetting heresies and fanaticisms and mad delusions…
Forcing more declarations.
“So then why does He demand so much of us?” Proyas blurted. “Why entangle us with judgments? Why damn us!”
Kellhus drew up his manner and expression to answer the bodily cacophony of his warlike disciple, becoming the perfect counterpoint: ease to rebuke his disorder, repose to shame his agitation, all the while reading, counting the cubits of his disciple’s pain.
“Why is wheat sewn and harvested?”
“Wheat?” He squinted as though ancient. “Wha-what are you saying?”
“That our damnation is the Gods’ harvest.”
For twenty years now, he had dwelt in the circuit of his father’s Thought, scrutinizing, refining, enacting and being enacted. He had known it would crash into ruin after his departure …
Known that his wife and children would die.
“Men and all their generations—”
“—all their aspirations—”
The Exalt-General bolted to his feet, flung his bowl across the chamber. “Enough!”
No flesh could be sundered from its heart and survive. All of his empire was doomed—was disposable. Kellhus had known this and he had prepared. No …
It was the hazard of the converse that had eluded him …
“The World is a granary, Proyas …
The fact that his heart would also crash into ruin.
“And we are the bread.”
Proyas fled his beloved Prophet, flew from the mad, glaring presence. The Umbilicus had become a labyrinth, turns and leather portals, each more disorienting than the last. Out—he needed out! But like a beetle in the husk of a beehive, he could only throw himself this direction and that, chasing forks squeezed into extinction. He reeled like a drunk, dimly aware of the tears stinging his cheeks, the ridiculous need to feel shame. He barged between startled servants and functionaries, bowled over a slave. If he had paused to think, he could have found his way with ease. But the desperation to move ruled all because it blotted all.
Proyas fairly toppled clear the entrance. He shrugged away the hands of the Pillarian who rushed to assist him, fled into the greater labyrinth that was the Ordeal.
We are the bread …
He needed time. Away from the tasks of his station, all the insufferable details of command and administration. Away from the stacked carcasses of Sranc. Away from the hymns, the embroidered walls, the faces, the shieldpounding ranks …
He needed to ride out alone, to find some lifeless place where he could ponder without interruption …
He needed to—
Hands seized his shoulders. He found himself standing face-to-face with Coithus Saubon … The “Desert Lion” in the flesh, blinking at him as he had when they stood in the glare of the Carathay so very long ago.
His counterpart …
Even his nemesis in certain respects.
The man regarded him—and his state—with the amused incredulity of someone finding evidence that confirmed low opinions. He still possessed the broad-shouldered vigour of his youth, still cropped his hair short, though it was now white and silver. He still wore the Red Lion of his father’s House on his surcoat, though a Circumfix now framed its fiery contours. He still lived in his hauberk, though the chain was now fashioned of nimil.
For a moment, Proyas could almost believe that nothing of the past twenty years had actually happened, that the First Holy War still besieged Caraskand on the Carathay’s cruel limit. Or perhaps that was what he wanted to believe—a kinder, more naive reality.
Proyas drew a hand across his face, winced for the wet of his tears. “What … what are you doing here?”
A narrow look. “The same as you, I suspect.”
The Believer-King of Conriya nodded, found no words to speak.
Saubon frowned in an affable, grinning way. “The same as you … Yes.”
A chill air swept across them, and Proyas’s nostrils flared for the taint of meat, both cooking and rotting.
“He summons me for private counsel as well …” Saubon explained. “He has for months now.”
Proyas swallowed, understanding full well, but not comprehending at all.
The World is a granary …
“More rarely when the Ordeal was still broken, of course.”
Proyas stood blinking. Astonishment had furrowed his brow and forehead as a gardener’s claw.
“You have been speaking with-with … Him?”
The Norsirai King stiffened in obvious affront. “I am Exalt-General, same as you. I raise my voice in relentless honesty, as do you. I have sacrificed as much of my life! More! Why should he set you apart?”
Proyas stared like an idiot. He shook his head with more violence than he intended, the way a madman might, or a sane man plagued by hornets or bees. “No … No … You are right, Saubon …”
The Believer-King of Caraskand laughed, though a bitterness sharpened his humour into a scowl.
“I apologize,” Proyas said inclining his chin. Their animosity had always imposed a formality between them.
“And yet it dismays you to see me here.”
“No … I—”
“Would you declare as much to our Lord-and-Prophet? Pfah! You have always been too quick to flatter yourself with the fact of his attention.”
Proyas felt like a child for the red-rimmed sting of his glare.
“I … I don’t understand.”
How does one sum their impression of complicated others? Proyas had always thought Saubon headstrong, mercurial, even curiously fragile, given to bouts of near-criminal recklessness. Saubon was a man who could never quite outrun his need to prove, even in the all-seeing gaze of Anasûrimbor Kellhus …
And yet here the man stood, so obviously the stronger of the two. The tall Norsirai raised his chin in the boasting, Galeoth way. “You have always been weak. Why else would he draw you under his wing?”
A faint smile. “You were tutored by a sorcerer, were you not?”
“What are you saying?”
Saubon began backing toward the mountainous silhouette of the Umbilicus.
“Perhaps he doesn’t instruct you …” he called before turning to stride away.
“Perhaps he draws the poison from your soul.”
He and Saubon had clashed innumerable times over the years, disputed points both inane and catastrophically consequential. The breaches in jnan were beyond counting: the bellicose Galeoth had even called him coward in the Imperial Synod once, shamed him in the eyes of all those assembled. And the same could be said of the field, where his counterpart seemed to make sport of violating the terms he negotiated in their Lord-and-Prophet’s name. In a pique of rage, Proyas had gone so far as to draw on the fool after he seized Aparvishi in Nilnamesh. There had been a similar incident in Ainon afterSaubon sacked the estates of dozens of caste-nobles Proyas had already sworn to the Zaudunyani! He had gone to Kellhus after this last, thinking that surely the “Mad Galeoth” had gone too far. But he found only rebuke.
“You think I overlook your frustration?” Kellhus had said. “That I fail to see? If I do not speak of it, Proyas, it is because I have no need. All the ways Saubon falls short on your string are the ways he mobilizes those he leads.
What most irks you most, best serves me.”
Proyas had trembled for hearing this, physically shook! “But my Lor—!”
“I’m not shaping warlords to rule my Holy Empire,” Kellhus had snapped. “I’m fashioning generals to conquer Golgotterath … to overthrow wicked heights, not treat honourably with heretics.”
Proyas had laboured to foster a greater spirit of generosity between Saubon and himself after this incident. They had even become comrades in some respects. But if the weeds of grievance had been torn up, the roots still remained. A wariness. A skepticism. An inclination to begin shaking his head in negation.
Saubon, after all, remained Saubon.
Now Proyas watched the man recede and vanish into the blackness of the Imperial Pavilion and found that he could not move. So he stood in the mazed ways just beyond the precincts of the Umbilicus, at first staring, then at last hiding, sitting crouched between stained canvas panels, sitting anchored. Reflecting upon it afterward, Proyas would realize the purity of his vigil, one that belied the carnival of thoughts and apprehensions that tormented his soul. Afterward, he would realize the man called Proyas had not waited at all …
The Greater Proyas had.
For the space of two watches he sat in the dust, gazing, his every blink pricking his eyes.
The Umbilicus formed the radial hub of the Great Ordeal, the point of intersection for all the avenues that twined and forked like arteries across the desolate plains. He watched the files of Men dwindle into broken threads, then ambling particles, warriors who seemed to have no errand, only a vagabond restlessness. Very many glimpsed him in the shadows, and no matter what their reaction, be it a glance or a leering grin, a curious viciousness seemed to haunt their manner. So Proyas watched the light shed by the Nail of Heaven glow across the worn and weathered tent-tops instead, averting his gaze so that the passersby seemed little more than shades—rumours of Men.
He recognized Saubon before properly seeing him, so distinct was his leaning, broad-shouldered gait. Starlight dusted the summits of his hair and beard, moonlight complicated the chain-mail draped about his far shoulder. Torchlight painted the substance of him orange and brown. Proyas made as though to call out, but his breath became as a stone, something too heavy to move. All he could do was watch, sitting like a child or dog in the dust.
The Believer-King of Caraskand walked with blank purpose, like a man reviewing some bland yet loathsome chore standing between him and his slumber. Proyas could feel himself shrink with the man’s every step—what kind of shameful madness was this? Cringing like a beggar, fearful of a thrashing when starvation threatened him more. What had delivered him to such a low place?
Saubon walked obliviously until the obtuse angle between them became square. Then, as though his senses were canine, he turned to Proyas.
“You waited all this time … here … for me?”
Proyas peered into his face, searching for some sign of his own wax-kneed uncertainty. He saw none.
“There’s discord between us,” Proyas called out, dismayed by the weakness of his voice. “We must speak.”
The Norsirai studied him. “There’s discord, yes … but not between you and I.” He took two steps and crouched before him, close enough to touch with outstretched fingers.
“What ails you, Brother?”
Proyas fought the anguish scaling his face. He ran a hand across his cheek and jaw, as if to catch any treacherous ticks. “Ails me?” He had the impression of profound misunderstanding, of running afoul assumptions so mistaken as to be comic. Saubon regarded him with a kind of gloating pity.
“The things he tells you,” Proyas finally said, his voice conspiratorial. “Does it not … trouble … what you once believed?”
Saubon pursed his lower lip, nodded. A torch staked nearby flared in a spasm of wind. Curlicues of gold swam and flickered across the BelieverKing of Caraskand.
“I am troubled, aye. But not so much as you.”
“So he has told you!” Proyas hissed, finally grasping the reason behind his mad vigil.
A grave nod. “Yes.”
“He told you about the God of Gods!”
King Coithus Saubon scowled; bird-footed shadows rutted his temples.
“He told me you would be waiting here … for me.”
Proyas blinked. “What? You mean he … he …”
The Norsirai Exalt-General reached out a bare hand, clenched him firmly on the shoulder.
“He told me to be kind.”
End of Excerpt
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