Read a sample from THE GREAT ORDEAL by R. Scott Bakker
The highly anticipated new novel in R. Scott Bakker's acclaimed Aspect-Emperor series
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 inthe 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, perpet-ually unlearned. It was almost musical in a sense, variations playing againstruinous 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. Fanimdrums 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 assassinhad struck.
The gold-armoured Inchausti—who had paraded her mere watches beforeas 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 hadread. 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 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 here than 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 bare-footed 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.
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 didnot 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.