The highly anticipated finale to R. Scott Bakker’s acclaimed Aspect-Emperor series
The Western Three Seas
There’s a rumour they say,
that lures our husbands away,
from field and pillow,
and babe and willow,
to the Ark, to the Ark, to the Ark,
to the dark, to the dark, to the dark,
to the Idol more fearsome than its God.
—ancient Kûniüric Harvest Song
Mid-Autumn, 20 New Imperial Year (4132, Year-of-the-Tusk), Momemn.
His father sang into the tumbling world—a Metagnostic Cant of Translocation, Kelmomas realized. Sorcery scooped him whole, then cast him as grains across the face of nowhere. Light lanced through the sound of clacking thunder. Crashing, crushing darkness became the miracle of sky.
The Prince Imperial curled about convulsions. His ears roared for misery and cacophony both, but he could still hear his mother keen. Grit scored his cheek. Vomit clotted his hair. His fabled home shrugged and fissured in the distance, collapse dragging down collapse, all the taken-for-granted spaces clamped into ruin, the Andiamine Heights vanishing into mountainous, ashen billow. He spit and heaved, wondered that he had stood within those stone shells but heartbeats before …
Watching Ajokli murder his father.
How? How could this be happening? Theliopa was dead—was that not proof of the Four-Horned Brother’s will? Kelmomas had seen him, concealed in the cracks where no eyes strayed, preparing to strike his father the way he had struck his uncle—to murder the last soul that could sound him, threaten him. Mother would have been his! At long last, truly, utterly his! His!
Not fair. Not fair.
Maithanet dead. Theliopa dead—her bitch skull hammered into a sack! And then when it came to his father—the only one that mattered—the Narindar had crashed from the Unerring Grace—and after glimpsing him no less! That was the mockery, wasn’t it? The Godspit, as the Shigeki slaves called it! Or like dramas written by slaves, where the heroes always perish by their own hand. But why? Why? Why would the Four Horned Brother give such a gift only to take everything away?
Cheat! Deceiver! He had committed everything! Gambled his very—
We’re dead! his inner brother wailed, for he towered above them both, their father, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, the Holy Aspect-Emperor. Abase yourself! Samarmas demanded. Grovel! But all Kelmomas could do was cramp about his nausea, expel the honeyed pork and onion he had last eaten. He glimpsed his mother kneeling on the far side of his father, gagging on her own misery.
They stood upon one of Momemn’s walls, near the Girgallic Gate. The city smoked below, levelled in places, reduced to shattered shells in others. Only ancient Xothei stood untouched, rising through the haze of ruin, a monumental miracle in fields of raked charcoal. Thousands streamed about, over and between the wreckage, crawling like bugs over their losses. Thousands wailed.
“Momas is not finished,” the Holy Aspect-Emperor called over the roar. “The Sea comes.”
The eye balked at the sight, the Meneanor rising such that the city whole seemed to drop down. The River Phayus swelled along its length, drowning first the piers and then the banks, pulsing monstrous through the canals, slipping black and shining into the alleyways and streets, clotting into muck with accumulated wreckage, engulfing bug after racing bug …
His nausea subsided in the wake of his wonder.
The boy glanced to his mother, who looked only to the calamity that was his father, her face raised in anguish, cheeks silver beneath black-smeared eyes. It was an image the little Prince-Imperial had seen many times before, either hewn from panels of wood or stone, or daubed in paint across plaster walls, the desolate mother, the soul who had given only to be ransacked. And there was joy even here, he realized. There was beauty.
Some losses could not be fathomed.
“The-Thel-Thel—” she stuttered, clenching bumbling hands together.
Thousands drowned below them, mother and sons pinned beneath the ruin, gagging, jerking, drowning. The water climbed the stages of the massive city, making a great sty of its lower environs. The Sea even broke across the eastern walls, rendering the heap that had been the Andiamine Heights an island.
“She’s dead!” his mother barked, her eyes pinched in anguish. She shook like something ancient and palsied, even as the violence of her grief made her seem young.
The little boy watched from across his father’s booted stance, possessed of a terror greater than any he had ever known. He watched her eyes pop open, fasten upon him in lunatic fury, pin him as certainly as a shipwright’s nail. The lips thinned into a venomous line.
His father gathered her in the crook of his right arm, then hoisted Kelmomas by the scruff, bundled him under his left. Language summoned light, and reality was passed from tongue to lip—and the little boy was pitched once again, cast headlong into pricking grasses. His gut balled his limbs into a wretched fist. He glimpsed Momemn even farther away, wrecked heights smoking.
His mother wept, shrieked, lamentations that continued leap after wrenching leap.
* * *
That night, he stared at the two of them through skeins of grass, Mother obscuring the firelight, rocking and keening as sorrow after incredulous sorrow kicked through her slight frame, Father sitting as an idol full in the twining flame, his hair and plaited beard striate with pulsing gold, his eyes flashing like blind jewels. Though Kelmomas lay with his ears pricked to their merest breath, he found he could not follow what was said, as if his soul had wandered too far from his ears to hear what had been heard.
“Y-you came back …”
“For your Empire!” she barked.
Why did he still live? Why would they cling to him so, even when they understood the necessity of his destruction? What did it mean, parenthood, bags of meat birthing meat? He was the prodigal Viper the priests prattled about in Temple—Ku’kumammu, from the Tusk! The accursed Babe-with-teeth!
“The Empire has served its purpose. Only the Great Ordeal matters now.”
“No … No!”
“Yes, Esmi. I returned for you.”
Why not murder him! Or drive him away!
“And … and … Kelmomas …”
What source cares for its consequence? What sane soul weighs doom on the scales of love?
“He is the same as Inrilatas.”
“But Maithanet murdered him!”
“Only to save himself from our sons.”
“But Kel … K-Kel … he … he …”
“Even I was fooled, Esmi. No one could have known.”
Her head hunched into the line of her shoulders, which bounced to the rhythm of her sobbing. His father watched, impassive and golden. And it seemed to the youngest Prince-Imperial that he was truly dead, that he had been cast from a cloud or a star to land upon this very spot, where he adhered shattered. A patch of warmth was all that remained of him. Dwindling warmth.
“He murdered all of them,” Father was saying. “Samarmas and Sharacinth by his own hand. Inrilatas through Maithanet, and Maithanet through …”
“Through me? Me?”
“No!” she screeched. “Noooo! Not him! Not him!” She swiped at her husband’s face, fingers drawn into claws. Blood welled across his cheek, spilled into his flaxen beard. “You!” she raged, her eyes wide with horror at what she had done—at what he had permitted her to do. “You’re the monster! The accursed deceiver! Akka saw it! Akka knew all along!”
The Holy Aspect-Emperor closed his eyes then opened them.
“You’re right, Esmi. I am a monster … The monster this World needs. Our son—”
“Shut up! Shut up!”
“Our son is a different kind of abomination.”
And his mother’s wail rose as something high and lilting against the silence of the night. Something beloved. Something true to the honed edge of hope.
The little boy lay broken, watching, breathing.
Willing his mother to break.
* * *
Exhaustion claimed Mother first, leaving only his father sitting upright before the dwindling flame. Anasûrimbor Kellhus, Holy Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas. He had carried them bodily across more than a dozen horizons since Momemn, two sacks, each bearing their portion of terror, fury, and grief. Now he sat cross-legged, his silk gown taut between his knees, bloodstains mapping random islands and continents. The fire made shining hooks of the creases about his shoulders and elbows. One of the Decapitants lay akimbo across the other, so that its black-paper scrutiny repeated the implacable regard of his father, who stared directly at him, knowing full well the boy only pretended to sleep.
“You lay defeated,” his father said, his voice neither tender nor harsh, “not because you are defeated, but because victory consists in appearing so when necessity demands. You feign a paralysis you think commensurate with your age and the disaster you have suffered …”
He’s going to kill us! Flee!
The little boy lay as immobile as he had when spying upon the Narindar. Everything was as eggshells in the callused grip of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, be it cities or souls or lastborn sons. One need not fathom his designs to understand the mortal consequences of obstructing them.
“There is no flight from one such as me,” his Father said. Twin conflagrations glittered from his eyes, reflecting the fury that should have shook his voice.
“Are you going kill me?” Kelmomas finally asked. He could speak anything here, he understood, so long as it was to the point.
He lies! Lies!
“Why?” Kelmomas croaked, a burning about his lips and eyes. “Why spare me?”
“Because it would kill your mother.”
Theliopa’s answer—and mistake.
“Mother wants me dead.”
The Aspect-Emperor shook his head. “I want you dead. Your mother … she wants me dead. I’m the one she blames for what you have done.”
See! See! I told you!
“Because she knows I truly lov—!”
“No,” his father said, swatting aside his son’s voice without any perceptible increase in volume or intensity. “She sees the surface of you, merely, and confuses this for love and innocence.”
Rage flexed the Prince-Imperial bodily, hoisted him upright.
“I do love her! I do! I do!”
His father did not so much as blink at the display.
“Some souls are broken in such a way as to think themselves whole,” he said. “The more they are flawed, the more they presume their own perfection.”
“And I’m so broken?”
Though he had not so much as moved, his father had come to seem something titanic, a leviathan coiled into the limbs and heart of a mortal man.
“You are the most flawed of my children.”
The boy trembled for suppressing his scream.
“So what will you do with me?” he finally managed to ask.
“As your mother wishes.”
The boy’s eyes darted to the Empress curled in the grasses to the left of his father, pathetic for the delicacy of her finery … Why? Why would a man such as his father pin his life to such a feeble soul?
“Should I be afraid?”
The fire sputtered, becoming scarce more than a pile of golden coals. The featureless tracts of the Cepalor gained colourless substance, scarcely more than the corpse of a world beneath the Nail-of-Heaven.
“Fear,” his dread father said, “has never been among the things you control.”
Kelmomas lowered himself back to the prick and weave of prairie grasses, his thoughts a clamour, his accursed brother shrieking within, demanding he slip away in the deep of night, live among more bestial, more trustworthy things, an animal among animals, free from the sublime terror of his father, the idiot tyranny of his mother.
Flee! Run-run-run away!
But the Holy Aspect-Emperor watched over all, a gaze that paced horizons, worlds. The numbness eclipsed any the eight-year-old had ever experienced, until he seemed as inert as the chill earth beneath, little more than another mound of clay.
Afterward he would recognize it as despair.
* * *
Each leap had delivered them to a more tousled world, from skin-smooth plains to gnarled foothills to rutted mountains. Father deposited them beneath a mountain that, from a distance, had appeared bent about a broken arm, bones jutting from voluminous gowns of granite. The extent of the overhang only became visible after the Cant delivered them into its shadow. It no longer resembled anything in the mossy gloom; it merely loomed, vast heights hanging out and over—shelter from the rain gowning the foothills, as well as a source of nagging worry. One could raise a hundred ziggurats from the bulbous stone affixed above, a thousand. Kelmomas could feel the torsions emanating from the concavity, it seemed, the elemental need to slough and plummet, to fall as a million hammers.
No ground could hang such for long.
Father muttered for a time to his mother, explaining the need to secure provisions and clothes as quickly as possible. The boy watched with fascination, then dismay, as he unbound the Decapitants from his waist and set them upon an oyster-shaped stone. He curled the hair of each into a black nest then laid the desiccated things like sentinels surveying different directions. Mother peppered him with demands as he did so, insisting they go to Sumna to take command of the forces she had mustered there. She did not realize they raced for the Great Ordeal far more than they fled from the Empire. Rescuing them had come at a cost, the boy understood, one Father was now keen to recover as quickly as he could …
Was the Holy Host of Hosts nearing Golgotterath?
The Empress aborted her protest at her husband’s first sorcerous word, and stood watching dismayed as lines of brilliance ravelled about him, then cinched him into blinking absence. Kelmomas fairly trembled for the hatred he glimpsed in her eyes.
Father was right, Samarmas whispered.
The youngest living son of Anasûrimbor Kellhus very nearly wept, such was his relief. Only his hope kept his face blank. He feigned distraction just to be safe, gazing up at the cleft ceilings, peering out across the rainshrouded foothills.
It was just the two of them … finally. Wonder. Joy. Horror.
“How?” his mother said, her gaze dead for losses. She sat upon heaped wrack some five paces below him, huddled in the ceremonial absurdity of her station, attire that made her seem a flower in winter. Tears flowed down her famous cheeks.
It was just the two of them … and the Decapitants.
“Because …” he said, feigning something he could neither express nor fathom. “I love you.”
He had hoped she would flinch; he had imagined that her gaze would flutter and her hands would fist.
She closed her eyes instead. The long blink of horror confirmed.
She believes! Samarmas cried.
Father had said as much: his life hung from a hair strung about her heart. Were it not for Mother, he would already be dead. The Holy Aspect-Emperor would not squander the Strength on cracked bowls. Only the intransigence of motherhood, the impossibility of his mother hating a soul hatched from her womb, vouchsafed his survival. Even now, her flesh angled to redeem him—he could see it in her!—even as her soul balked at the instincts his presence summoned.
She forbade his execution because she wanted him alive, because in some deranged fashion his life was more precious than her own. Mummy!
The only real mystery was why Father would care … or why he would bother returning to Momemn at all. For love?
“Madness!” his mother bawled, her voice so raw as to burn in his own throat.
The Decapitants lay akimbo to her left, the one husk leaning against the other. The mouth of the nearest gaped like a dreaming fish.
Were they watching? Could they see?
“I-I …” he began. He could almost feel the faux pang that broke his voice.
“What?” she nearly screamed. “What?”
“I didn’t want to share,” he said blankly. “I could not abide the portion you had allotted.”
And he wondered why it seemed all the same, lies and confession.
“I am my father’s son.”
* * *
Nothing to see. Nothing to hear or taste or smell or even touch. But he could recollect all these things, enough to ache for their absence.
Malowebi could remember.
The Holy Aspect-Emperor shining before him. A whirlwind roaring about them, a ruinous blur that had been Fanayal’s pavilion. His head tipping from his shoulders. His body still standing, spouting blood, voiding bowel. Anasûrimbor Kellhus singing, eyes like blown-upon coals, smoking with meaning as he chanted the terror of the Daimos …
And though Malowebi had no voice, he screamed, thought crushed into thought, heartbeat fluttering into steam, a thread of anguished heat waving in the embalming cold, bottomless deep. Pursed! He had been pursed in the manner of Zeumi sailors sentenced to execution at sea, and now he drowned, sewn into a sack woven of oblivion, absolute insensitivity.
No limbs to kick.
Void for wind.
Glimpsing shadows of his suffering, merely.
And then, inexplicably, his eyes were open.
There was light in the dark, feeling. Cold pressed his cheek, but his body remained utterly insensate otherwise. He tried to draw breath, to cry out—for elation or for horror he did not know—but he could not feel any tongue, let alone taste any breath …
Something was wrong.
Malowebi saw milky firelight. He could make out heaped and hanging stone, twigs broken into insect-leg tangles … Where were his limbs? For that matter, where was his breathing?
Something disastrous had happened!
Sparks twirled in skirts of smoke climbing to vanish against unfamiliar constellations. He heard voices—a man and a woman arguing some lament. The cherubic face of a young Norsirai boy bobbed into existence from the nocturnal verge …
Bearing a stick.
* * *
To be desolate is to be of a piece with things inanimate, to belong in a manner the joyful can never know. The little boy could feel the sum of the World in his embrace, that endless, rolling ache. His mother and father bickered about firelight several paces distant. He breathed like other little boys he had heard sleeping, the rhythm of rocks cooling in evening shadow. No matter how his thoughts raced, his heart beat slowly, like a thing made of mud.
And even still, his father said, “He is not asleep.”
His mother made a noise.
“I care nothing for what he is.”
“Then let me do what needs to be done.”
Mother hesitated. “No …”
“The boy needs to be destroyed, Esmi.”
“Destroyed. You make him sound like a sick dog. You do tha—”
“I do that because he is not a little boy.”
“No,” she said, her assurance absolute for exhaustion. “You do that to change the words from those belonging to a son to those belonging to an animal.”
Father said nothing. A dead peashrub branch jutted from the intervening ground, forks dividing the orange image of his father not so much into pieces as possibilities. Kelmomas had marvelled at the Narindar, envied him his Unerring Grace, all the while forgetting the Grace belonging to his father, the unconquerable Anasûrimbor Kellhus I. He was the Shortest Path, a wave of inevitability flapped through the fabric of blind fortune. Not even the Gods could touch him! Not Ajokli, the wicked Four-Horned Brother. Not even Earth-cracking Momas!
Father had survived them …
“But why even care what I say?” Mother was saying. “If he’s so dangerous, why not simply grab him and snap his neck?”
His brother could not stop keening, Mummeee! Mummeee!
Father was implacable. “Why come back to save you?”
She held two fingers to her lips and mimed spitting to her side: a gesture she had learned from the dockmen in Sumna, Kelmomas knew.
“You came to save your accursed Empire!”
“And yet, here I am with you … fleeing the Empire.”
Her glare faltered, but only for an instant. “Because you know there’s no holding it, not after Momas has struck down Momemn—his very namesake!—trying to kill you and yours. Empire! Pfah! Do you know how much blood runs in the streets, Kellhus? The Three Seas burns! Your Judges! Your Princes and your Believer-Kings! The mob feasts upon them all!”
“Then mourn them if you must, Esmi. The Empire was but a ladder, a way to reach Golgotterath. It collapses in all incarnations of the Thousandfold Thought.”
The little boy did not need to see his mother’s look, so loud was the silence.
“And that’s … that’s why you … left it with me? Because it was doomed?”
“Sin is real, Esmi. Damnation is real. I know because I have seen it. I bear those two grisly trophies to overawe, certainly, but to serve as a constant reminder as well. Knowledge is responsibility, and ignorance—though you and so many others abhor it—truly is innocence.”
Mother glared in disbelief. “So you deceive me, keep me ignorant, to save me from sin?”
“You … and all mankind.”
The little boy thought of his father bearing the weight of every malicious act committed in his name, shuddered for the thought of damnations piled upon damnations.
Something insane rolled through the Blessed Empress’s look.
“The weight of sin is found in premeditation, Esmi, in the wilful use of others as tools.” His gaze clicked to the flames. “I have made this World my tool.”
“To destroy Golgotterath,” she said, as if naming the solitary point of agreement.
“Yes,” her divine husband replied.
“Then why are you here? Why leave your precious Great Ordeal?”
The little boy gasped for the sheer beauty of it … the effortlessness of his mastery.
“To save you.”
Her ferocity dissolved, only to be reborn as something more violent and shrill. “Lies! Another to add to your pestilent heap—tall enough to shame Ajokli!”
Father looked from the fire to her, his gaze both forthright and yielding, always promising forgiveness, space for the heart to recover. “And this,” he said, “is why you enlisted the Narindar to kill me?”
The little boy watched the Blessed Empress catch her breath at the fact of the question, then choke for the fact of the answer. Her eyes grew oily with grief. Her entire body seemed to wobble. The firelight painted her anguish in filaments, pulsing orange and crimson and rose shadow, beautiful as all things fundamental.
“Why, Kellhus?” she called across the interval between them. “Why … persist …” Her eyes had grown wide as her voice had grown small. “Why … forgive?”
“I know not,” Kellhus said, shifting his position. “You are my only darkness, wife.” He wrapped her within greater arms, pulled her into the warm blanket of his embrace.
“The only place I can hide.”
Kelmomas clung to the cold beneath, the World rolling beneath the Void, willing his flesh to become earth, his bones to become twig and bramble, his eyes wet stones. His brother shrieked and wailed, knowing his mother could deny his father nothing, and his father wanted them dead.