This is the last chapter of The Black Feather, the first novel I wrote. I wrote it when I was still an agnostic, thirsting for the Divine but snared in a reluctant rationalism. I was also a lot more right-wing and ultra-conservative than I am now, seeing history as little more than the decay of tradition, nobility, chivalry, patriotism, hierarchy, etc. etc. I was filled with (excessive) horror at the prospect of globalization, standardization, bureaucracy, rationalism, commercialization, and so forth. I had worked myself into quite a lather about all this.
The Black Feather was a philosophical fantasy novel. Very philosophical, and very talky.
The story more or less grew out of my liking for Dark Lords. Ever since I was a kid, I felt drawn to the Dark Lords of fantasy and science-fiction. I liked Darth Vader and Sauron and (later) Lord Voldemort. I liked them because they wore cool dark capes, because they were mysterious, because they went in for pomp and ceremony, and because they were rather aristocratic and inspired a touching devotion in their minions. When I was old enough to play with ideas, I liked to imagine that the Dark Lords had been libelled by the fantasy writers, in the same way that I knew the losing side of history was often libelled by progressive historians.
The Black Feather was the story of how a Dark Lord came into being. Solerre Ve Tori is the scion of a leading family in a brash young Republic, Aarvla. Aarvla was a mix of Periclean Athens, the early Roman Republic, the Florence of the Medicis, the America of the Founding Fathers, and the French Revolution. It stands for progress, reason, equality, universalism, all that jazz. Its great enemy is the Saardite Empire, ruled by the Spider King, which stands for all the opposite things.
Over the course of the story, Solerre finds himself switching sides and eventually taking on the mantle of the Prince of Crows, the Abysmal One, a mythological Dark Lord-like figure whose cult he assumes. He develops a quasi-hypnotic power over other people through something called The Great Poem, a body of oral literature that, when committed to somebody's memory and skillfully improvized, can give them a degree of mind control over their listeners. (This is completely non-supernatural. I decided there could be nothing supernatural in this story, since I was writing it from a position of agnosticism.)
This is where I was at, mentally and spiritually and politically etc. etc., in February 2008. (Solerre is rather hostile to 'reason'. I suppose now I would say 'rationalism'. Back then I think I thought they were the same thing.)
Reading it now, I'm surprised at how-- well-- nuts it all seems. Not believing in God means (I think) that there is a certain arbitrariness to what we do believe in. We grasp at articles of faith like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood. I'm taken aback at how quasi-fascist this reads now. Did I really think modern life was that bad? How far gone was I in ultra-conservatism to think that liberty itself was a bad thing, as opposed to its abuses?
My protagonist, in this novel, thinks that it's worth sending thousands of men to their deaths in order to preserve a monarchy: "The soul of mankind bleeds when a king is murdered by his subjects", he says. This seems ridiculously over-the-top to me now. I still think a constitutional monarchy is a fine thing, and I would be all in favour of restoring the High Kingship of Ireland (not that I expect that to happen). But it no longer seems nearly so important-- certainly not worth the loss of a single life.
I started writing The Bard's Apprentice immediately after The Black Feather, and the rather fevered tone of The Black Feather is absent from The Bard's Apprentice, even though it takes up many of the same themes. It's hard to remember exactly where your head was at (to use a piquant modern phrase) at any given time in your history. But I hope (and I believe) that The Black Feather represented the brief fever pitch of my ultra-traditionalism, or my anti-modernism, or whatever it might be best termed.
“Wake up, Ve Tori”, Roa was saying, jostling me roughly and pinching my arm. “I’m sick of listening to your moaning”.
I stopped myself from snarling, but Roa had seen my anger anyway, and he was grinning. I could not imagine anything that would stop Roa from grinning. Even during the last desperate stand in Man Square, when it looked like our entire army was about to be slaughtered, there had been a grim exhiliration upon his features. As well as a livid scar, gushing blood. Now, weeks after our escape from Aarvla, it was hard to remember what he had looked like without it. It suited him.
“I wonder if you would be followed with such fanatical devotion”, he said, handing me a bottle of Winter’s Kiss, “if people knew you blubbered like a six-year-old in your sleep. What do you dream about, anyway?”
I took a deep draught from the bottle, and felt the liquid warmth of the Winter’s Kiss filter through my body. The kiss of the actual winter was less invigorating, and all my blankets and furs could not keep it out. It seemed to have fused with my bones. But alcohol could always blunt it a little.
“They’re about my daughter”, I said. “My adoptive daughter. I keep dreaming she’s crawling towards a blade, or a fire, or a hole. I’ve been dreaming about it for years. And I dream about clocks. I dream I’m in the house of a clockmaker I visited when I was young, and it’s full of clocks, reading different times. But, in the background, there’s another clock, one can I only hear—except I feel it more than hear it—and it’s counting down to something. Something that horrifies me.
“All the other clocks speed up, as if they’re being hurried on by that great one. It used to be that I couldn’t see it, in my dreams. But now I do. It’s enormous, and made of fire, except there’s no smoke, and no heat, and no shadows. It’s a ghostly white fire, that doesn’t flicker or crackle. It’s monstrous, all wrong, unnatural.”
“Weird dream”, said Roa, in between bites of an apple. “I suppose it means something? Everything means something, when you’re Solerre Ve Tori. Even a dog scratching his side against a fence has profound political, religious, and cultural implications if you’re that boy”.
I smiled. Not very long ago, I thought I would never smile again. But it was hard not to smile around Roa.
“It does mean something, you soulless block of wood”, I said, and he shook his head with mock marvel. But there was something respectful even his mockery; there was always a substratum of reverence in Roa’s impishness. Those boyish eyes were perpetually lit with laughter, but there was a flicker of wonder in their centre.
“And what does it mean, oh Abysmal One?”, he asked now, making a supplicating gesture towards me. But I would not have explained, if I did not see that he was intrigued.
“Are you ready?”, I asked, rising onto my elbow. Weeks of marching had first exhausted my body, then hardened it. Rising from my bed was no longer agony, but there were always protests from my over-exerted muscles and joints.
“My daughter, Alora—the child in peril— represents innocence, and wonder, and beauty. Everything threatened by the True Republicans. And by the Children of Truth, and by everyone who wants to trample over everything lofty, and noble, and rare in this world.”
“And everything blue-blooded, and occult, and well-painted, and picturesquely ramshackle”, said Roa, nodding as if in vigorous approval. “Solerre, I’m continually impressed by you. You’ve built an entire philosophy based on your love of dust and absurdity. If it makes any sense, or if it glistens, it’s decadent. That’s the Ve Tori principle. Do you only trust those who mumble magic words whose meaning has been long forgotten?”
“Almost exclusively”, I said. Roa nodded again, saying. “A most wise principle, my liege. What do the bloody clocks mean? They’re the part that baffle me.”
“The clocks?”, I asked, and I could feel the smile fading from my face. “The clocks baffled me for a long time. I used to think the great clock, the clock of ghostly fire, was beating down to the end of the world. But it’s not a death. It’s a birth. The birth of a new world.”
“Ah”, said Roa, smiling with recognition. He had heard me mention this often enough, and seemed to greet it with all the pleasure of a child hailing a favourite tale.
But I went on, too intent now to be waylaid by sarcasm. “The other clocks, the hundreds of different clocks that are displaying different times, represent all the different nations and peoples and tribes of the world. Each of them a world unto themselves, incapable of being measured by the same standard, resisting any attempt to reduce them to a common scale.”
“But the fiery clock is counting down”, said Roa, and suddenly his voice was sad, even troubled. He would often change from playfulness to solemnity witthout seeming to notice the change himself.
“The fiery clock is counting down”, I said, “and the other clocks are speeding up, or slowing, all striving to keep pace with it. All their separate stories, all their unique histories, becoming part of the single tale.”
“And what’s that tale?”, asked Roa, now entirely solemn, though there was a lingering smile upon his lips.
“It’s hardly a tale at all”, I said, hugging the blankets to my body, trying to keep out the chill of the morning. “It’s the tale of a world of private satisfactions, individual pleasures and pains, the dissolution of everything that once bound man to man. All the great causes and beliefs that once animated mankind will be washed away, consigned to whatever history lessons they’ll teach in this new world. Presuming it has any time for history.
“It’s the death of all stories, Roa. The only real theme left to it is the ever-burgeoning power of the trader and the merchant, the bureaucrat and the lawyer. This new world can’t afford any tale more inspiring than that.”
“Unless we can’t help it, eh?”, said Roa, suddenly cheerful again. Dejection could take a grip upon him, but he would slip from it within minutes. “Not while the Black Army is breathing, eh? Not while the Black Standard is flying?”. He picked up his sword and swiped the air two or three times, looking rather ridiculous in the cramped tent we shared.
“Not while the Black Army doesn’t dissolve”, I corrected him, gloomily. After our routing in Man Square, thousands of my followers had disappeared, melting into the crowds of submissive Aarvlans, returning to their home lands, furtively going about the daily round again. Only in my more passionate moments could I feel anger at them. Most men had little stomach for a losing battle, though some—like Roa, and the thousands who still followed me—had an insatiable appetite for them.
“Don’t be like this”, said Roa, crossing to where I was lying, crouching by me, and putting a hand on my shoulder. His voice was almost pleading now. “I don’t understand you. You can persuade thousands of men to leave their lives, and their homes and wives and childrens, and go to their deaths for an idea they hardly understand. An idea that I can hardly understand. When you talk to them, though, it all seems to make such perfect sense, and it all seems worth it. A thousand times worth it!” His hand tightened upon my shoulder, excited at the memory of my speeches.
“And then I see you here, hardly able to summon the energy to get up, brooding like a mother hen.” Now anger edged his words. “So are you lying to them? Are you convincing them of something that you don’t believe yourself?”
“No, Roa”, I said, too exhausted to be indignant. I felt like I could sleep for centuries, and all I had ahead of me was battles and marches. Even the grave had its charms, when I thought of that. “I believe. I believe.”
He watched over me for a few moments, and asked me, hesitantly, “Why don’t you just use your powers over them all, Solerre? I’ve seen you do it. I’ve seen you put a trance on soldiers who were about to attack you. Those words of yours…you could do anything with them. Why don’t you just convert the Soldiers of Truth en masse? Why don’t you just go back to Aarvla and make the True Republicans join us? If you’re willing to do it once, why not all the time?”
“It’s not gentlemanliness, Roa”, I said, lying back on my pillows, and gazing at the roof of the tent. It was a thousand times less decorative than the creations of the Company of the White Door, merely stretched skins. We did not have many; the majority of my soldiers slept by the fires, wrapped in furs and blankets. “I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to. The circumstances have to be right. Not everybody is susceptible. And I can’t sway whole crowds.”
“You can’t?”, asked Roa, his eyebrows arched high. “I’ve seen you do it, Ve Tori. Or is that just your natural charm?” The exuberance had returned to his voice. The scent of the camp’s first breakfasts was wafting into the tent. It was only weak stew—we had been living off weak stew forever, it seemed—but it still heartened me. Less at the prospect at the food itself, which was hardly appetising, than the sensation of life reviving all around me.
“Partly it’s natural charm”, I said, forcing myself to sit up. “Partly it’s the Great Poem. You still don’t understand it, Roa. It goes through your entire being.” How could I explain it? How did you convey an experience that seemed to be yours alone? But I longed to explain. I longed for others to understand what ecstasy filled my soul. “It changes you in every way. It’s like…it’s like a second puberty. I can’t bring everybody under my direct power. Not even most people. But I can influence them like I never did before. Some more than others. I don’t find it difficult to inspire those who were drawn to our cause. I woudn’t have much chance against someone who already hated everything I stand for.”
“But what about the Starborne?”, asked Roa, throwing the core of the apple out of the tent-flap with his customary gusto. “They were able to give orders to the First Born, weren’t they? It seemed pretty infallible there.”
“That wasn’t exactly the Great Poem, though”, I said, pained as always to remember how the Starborne had perverted something so sublime to their own mean ends. “It was something they developed from it. It was more….tractable. But they lost much more than they gained. The Poem wields more power over you than you wield power over the Poem”.
“If you could work out how to use it like the Starborne did…”, Roa began, but I cut him off. “Then I’d become just like the Starborne themselves”, I said, and he grimaced with disappointed understanding.
There was silence, and only the obstinately cheerful sounds of the waking camp filled the tent’s sem-darkness. I had led thousands of people to their deaths, but more followed me. They never seemed to complain; indeed, there seemed to be a kind of jollity amongst them, the more so as our plight grew more desperate.
“Where are we now?”, I asked.
“About fifty miles from Kingsblood, they say”, said Roa. “About a hundred more Saardite warriors joined us last night. Every day we pick up fifty or a hundred new recruits. The first thing they ask is whether we have any food. When we tell them we don’t, the second thing they ask is whether they can join us. I half think they plan to eat the Soldiers of Truth, once they’ve killed them.”
“And the rebellion?”, I asked.
Roa smiled, wistfully. “It can hardly be called a rebellion any more. The Empire has fallen. That’s how empires fall, isn’t it? It’s like night falling. There’s no single moment between darkness and light. But the cause has been lost for weeks now.”
“But the Spider King still sits on his throne”. It was more of a question than an observation.
“For now,”, said Roa, “it seems that he does. But Kingsblood is already under siege. There are armies of loyalists rushing through the countryside, trying to protect their monarch. There’s no question of amnesty or clemency from the rebels. They’re bent on taking his head. Not that the Spider King would treat with them. Even now, the whole Saardite nobility sees the baselings as beneath contempt. I often feel like asking them how these baselings managed to rip down their Empire in three months.”
“It’s the judgement of the Harmony”, I said, remembering an overheard conversation between two Saardites, heard through the wall of my tent. I rarely emerged from it between marches; it was good for a leader to preserve mystery, I had learnt. “That’s what they say”.
“Maybe it is, at that”, said Roa, though he did not seem much struck by the idea. “Solerre”, he said, his tone becoming grave. “I’m just going to say this, to have it said. But you must know that an attack on Kingsblood is likely to be a suicide mission. Not just for you, or for me. For all of these men, who never had much of a life to begin with. Whose children won’t have much of a life without fathers to provide for them. Some of them are little more than children themselves. It’s easy for us to risk our lives. We’ve had lives, young though we are.
“The Children of Truth are all converging on the capital. They have the rest of the Empire won. They’ve wiped out the loyalists; they don’t’ have to guard against anyone. They’re all coming together for this final attack. We’re not going to a battle. We’re going to a last stand. Another one.”
I could hear Roa’s own lack of conviction. He was reminding himself, as much as me, of the cost of our stand.
“Death is not the worst thing there is, Roa,” I said, getting up. “Neither is war”. Now I could hear the authority in my voice, the rocky assurance that drew men to my standard. I believed; in the foundations of my soul, I truly believed. That was a rare thing indeed. “And men don’t live for peace and prosperity and happiness. Not unless they’ve been corrupted and degraded, and even then, those things can never really satisfy them. They live for meaning. They’ll endure any amount of deprivation and suffering and danger for that. They’re happy to do so.”
But, as I spoke, and the morning slowly strengthened in the late winter sky, like the belief rekindling in Roa’s eyes, I remembered how Tiamin had made the same arguments to me before the battle of Man Square, and how nothing I said could win her over.
“We’ve lost, Solerre”, she said. “Most of our friends are dead. Your uncle is dead. The True Republicans have won out. The people supported them. There’s no way of defeating them now, if there ever was.”
“I’m not trying to defeat them, Tiamin”, I had said, looking out the window of the little kichen. We were hiding in a doctor’s house, in the small area of the city still under our control.
“Then what?”, she asked, and there was frustration in every word. “What can justify sending thousands of men to their death?”
“So that the world will remember”, I siad, “that thousands of men—thousands of artisans and soldiers and labourers—chose to die rather than to let the True Republicans take command. So that it will never be said that all of the people were on their side.”
“Besides”, said Roa, with a weak smile. “Maybe it won’t be suicide after all. After all, there are armies of loyalists racing towards Kingsblood, too. Thousands upon thousands of them. Maybe we can escort the Spider King out of the country, and wait for this new regime to tear itself apart.”
I did not reply, because I knew that Roa did not believe it himself. He knew that no Spider King would ever leave Kingsblood if it was under attack. He knew that the Soldiers of Truth would not prove inadequate to the task of governement. They would be more competent adminstrators than the Saardite nobility had ever been. Their one ideal was freedom; beyond that, there were practical men to their fingertips.
“Men only have one life in this world, Solerre”, Tiamin had said. “They don’t think in centuries, like you do. They don’t even think in decades. They look back to their grandfathers, and look forward to their grandchildren. If they even look that far. Can’t you let them have the little happiness their lives afford, rather than sacrificing them to your romantic dreams?”
“You’re wrong, Tiamin”, I said, looking her in the eye. There had been a time when I found it difficult to meet Tiamin’s gaze, when she was angry at me; now she almost wavered from mine. I could almost feel my eyes burning into others’ souls, now the Great Poem was firing my soul. Now, as she had not in the past, she let me speak, though her eyes were sullen.
“When men aren’t corrupted, by selfishness and greed and cupidity, nothing is more precious to them than the thought of their ancestors, and the good of their descendants. Their ancestors, and their descendants, Tiamin. Not the generality of mankind. Nobody ever loved all of mankind, whatever the True Republicans and the Soldiers of Truth say. Love is always for the particular, not for some mere word like mankind.”
The camp was already mobilised when I emerged from my tent. Men bowed to me. I encouraged it; it was good for a man to show deference, to have someone to revere. It felt fitting, too. I was deserving of their obeisances; or rather, the power that animated me was deserving of them.
I watched them, returning their salutes with a smile that was intended to be regal. They must have been the most ragbag collection of soldiers ever assembled. Some still wore the uniform of the Falcon Legions; others were dressed in the costume of the Saardite Warrior; many wore the trade colours of butchers, masons, builders, bakers, fishmongers, blacksmiths, skinners. All of them looked like they had been wearing the same clothes for a year. Hardly any of them possessed anything resembling armour, and few of them had shaved in the past few weeks. Their eyes were bright with gauntness.
They all looked at me as if I was a God.
“We are fifty miles from Kingsblood”, I said. “Every day we tarry, the rebels imperil the Spider King”. Aarvlans who had hated the Spider King more than anything on earth only a few years ago, were now willing to give their lives in his defence. Had my speeches done that? No; my words had only drawn it forth. Drawn forth the instinctive knowledge that the soul of mankind bleeds when a king is murdered by his subjects.
“Why do you always say selfishness?”, said Tiamin. She waved her hands, as if she wanted to shake me for my obstinacy. “What is so bloody selfish about a man wanting to follow his own dreams, even if that dream is just a small farm and a wife and children? That might seem petty to you. It’s far from petty to me.”
“It’s not petty”, I said. “It’s the most important thing in life. But if there’s nothing else that a man believes in, nothing more than his own fireside, his own affairs, he doesn’t deserve it. He doesn’t deserve anything. He’s a wretch, an insect.”
“And why wouldn’t he?”, she asked, looking at me in the same way she had scanned the words of the Great Poem, vainly trying to comprehend it. “Why do you presume that men will go to ruin, if you give them mastery over themselves? Do they need to have priests and princes keeping them in their places, to save them from corruption? Who keeps watch over the priests and the princes?”
“I would rather have a hundred thousand men under the yoke of a single tyrant”, I said, no longer caring to soften my words, “than have a hundred thousand men under the tyranny of their own base appetites. One man can have a vision, no matter how twisted and evil it may be. And men are at their noblest when they’re resisting a tyrant.”
Tiamin glared at me. Horror and fury fought on her expression.
I tucked the letter I had written some nights ago into my belt. Perhaps today would be the day to deliver it. Perhaps today would be the last day of my army.
But there were miles to go before we reached Kingsblood, if indeed we reached it unmolested. The boy with red hair was feeding Righteous, who gently accepted the fodder from his hands. Every morning he stood there, waiting for some words from me. Though I approved of the respect my men showed me, the idolatry in Taro’s eyes embarrassed me. But who knew what might come of it? Who knew what Taro might become in years to come? Men needed idols.
“Are you ready for the last march, Taro?”, I asked, “We’re going to reach Kingsblood today or tomorrow.”
“Can I journey on Righteous with you, my lord?”, asked Taro. I did not demand any form of address from my men, but few of them called me by my name. It was almost becoming taboo to use it. That seemed fitting, too; Solerre Ve Tori was still within me, but I was more than him now.
There was pleading on Taro’s face, and it pained me to deny him. But I had no choice.
“Nobody can journey with me, Taro”, I said. “My path is a lonely path. I can only ask others to follow, not to go by my side. But I thank you.”
Taro just looked at me, desolation on his freckled face. The bookmaker’s apprentice had survived the Battle of the Man Square, and many battles since, though he looked like a strong wind might blow him away. He was made of iron, and he would die for me twenty times over.
“There is something I want you to do for me, Taro”, I said, and his eyes lit up. I wondered if any request at all would seem unreasonable to the boy. “If you our army is destroyed, but you survive, I want you to go Jesmer, and work for the good of the Ynarda.”
“Who are the Ynarda?”, asked Taro, hungrily.
“They’re a caste, despised by the rest of the Jesmerians”, I said, remembering the bitterness in General Ayako’s voice, as he described the trials of his youth. I often wondered if the catastrophes of the moment had filtered to his beloved realm of Spee. Somehow, I hoped they had not. I hoped that the games of Baby were continuing, heedless of the tumult in the great places of the world. They would hear about them soon enough.
“I swear to do that, if I survive”, said Taro, bowing his head slightly.
“I know you will, Taro”, I said, as I climbed upon Righteous. I was aware that the entire camp was looking at me now; I knew they were all wondering if they would ever see me again, if this was our last march. I always advanced far ahead of them, borne upon Righteous’s back. A leader should march at the head of his troops. It was folly, but a wise folly.
“You’re a good man, Taro”, I said, in a voice that carried through the camp. “Every single man in this camp is a good man. And there’s no higher honour than that. Give honour to rank and obility, but always know that virtue is immeasurably greater than them all.”
I spurred Righteous, and he took a few brisk steps forward. He knew not to break into a run yet. The bull—he seemed my closest companion, now that my uncle was gone, and my mother had been imprisoned by the True Republicans—knew that I always addressed some words to my men before I set out upon the day’s march.
The men knew, too, of course. They were already gathering, longing for some words to fire them against the cold and the hunger and the terror.
I meditated upon the Great Poem—it was never far from my thoughts, but now I let it take hold of me, opening my soul to its volcanic power. It was like feeding on the sun.
“My men”, I began, and when I looked down upon them, I realised that there were tears in every eye. My own were not dry.
“My men”, I repeated again, feeling the echoes of the Great Poem with which my mind effortlessly ballasted the words. “I will not ill-use you with lies. I will not make you promises that I cannot keep. We march to our final battle. We march to the near certainty of our destruction.”
A few men cheered. Most stayed silent. They knew this already.
“And even when we are destroyed, I will not pretend to you that we shall be celebrated as heroes. We will be castigated as slaves, servile bootlickers, the friends of tyrants and the enemies of the people. The Black Standard will be an insignia of infamy. Your children will be mocked for the shame of their fathers. My name will be abhorred across all these lands, as the creed of the rebels takes hold.
“But the time will come—long after we are all dead, and all of our grandchildren are dead—when our cause will be seen as the righteous one. When liberty has devastated the world, and resentment has ripped away everything that gave life its greatness, and money-lust rules every country, and each man is set against his fellows, and no man dares to pray out loud to God.
“Then the world will dream again of kings, and nobility, and chivalry, and devotion. It will dream again of loyalty, and patriotism, and piety. It will dream of sacrifice, and service, and holiness. And it will remember us as their last defenders, and those who still bear your name will boast that you were there, defending life’s most precious things when all the rest of the world bayed against them.”
Now there was a roar from the men, and hundreds of swords waved in the air. Now they were ready, I thought. Now the cold and the fear and the fatigue had been burnt up by zeal, the same zeal I could feel shooting through my own spirit. I could only risk a few more words, before I left them.
“Our enemies want to destroy”, I said. “We seek to preserve. Remember that, and God help you all!”
And I pushed Righteous forward into the wilderness, not looking back, not acknowledging the cheers of my men, or the waving of the black standards many had improvised. Three black streaks on a white blackground, the stylised image of a crow’s wing.
“What’s happening to you, Solerre?”, asked Tiamin. “Do you really believe you’re possessed by some kind of demon? The Prince of Crows? The Abysmal One? Have you become a…a devil worshipper?”
“Don’t be ridiculous”, I said. “The Abysmal One is a legend, a myth. But what he stood for…what he symbolised…that’s what I’m fighting for, Tiamin.”
“And what would happen if you won, Solerre?”, she asked, and I saw that there was apprehension in her eyes. “What would happen if you destroyed the True Republicans, and the Soldiers of Truth, and everything else that you hate? Would you give up your power? Or would you set about putting the rest of the world to rights?”
“Yes”, I said defiantly. “That’s what I’d do. I would set about destroying the Republic itself.”
I remembered the hilly land around Kingsblood, from the last time I had passed this way. The irony was glaring; we had one to assassinate the Spider King that time, and today we went to save him. I remembered my uncle marching at the head of his troops, as I did now. He had led dozens, while I led almost five thousand. But I yearned to be marching with him again, even if I had to live through all my troubles a second time.
The thought of my uncle pained me, but it no longer agonised me. I felt sure he had foreseen his own demise, that he knew the True Republicans had schemed to murder him. Now pride had overpowered all my other feelings; pride, and the determination to follow his example. Even if he would never have understood everything I believed in; even if much of it would have shocked him, as it shocked Tiamin.
What would my uncle have said, if I’d told him that I burned to destroy the Republic forever?
There were little copses around Kingsblood, none of the trees rising higher than man-size in the poor soil. The city had been founded on the sight where an ancient Spider King had been visited by the angel Darara; before that, it had been a wilderness. Even now, it was little more. It was hard to believe that a third of a million were living two score miles from here. It was even harder to believe that a brutal civil war was being waged around me. This country was not even peaceful; it was downright dull. But its very dullness brought balm to my spirit.
“So you’re set on destroying every thing that you were brought up to serve?”, asked Tiamin, her tones soft, almost wounded, with disbelief. “Everything you’ve ever believed in?”
“I was brought up to serve a Republic that never existed, Tiamin. A Republic that could never could exist”, I said. “My uncle gave his life for it. It’s become a demon, but it never could have become anything else. A republic is not a living thing. It has no soul. All it can do is destroy, to infect the world with its poisonous gospel of reason and liberty”.
“And what about Aarvla?”, she asked. “Are you going to destroy that, too?”
“I love Aarvla, Tiamin”, I said. “I love it for all its faults, for all the things that the True Republicans and the Restorers want to cauterise from it. For all its impurities, for all its deviations from the Scroll of Liberty. I love it because it’s me. But I know that I can never go back there. My name will be anethama in Aarvla forever.”
“Not just in Aarvla, Solerre”, said Tiamin, and now she reached her hand out and clasped my wrist. She did it gingerly, almost shyly. It was as if her old friend had disappeared, and another being inhabited his body, one she did not entirely understand or trust. “Already they’re saying terrible things about you. The’yre saying that—“
“What?”, I asked, wondering at how little I cared for the slanders of the world.
“They’re saying you long to enslave whole lands, that you use black magic, that you set yourself up as a tyrant. They do call you the Absymal One, and the Prince of Crows, and the Dark Lord.”
“The Dark Lord?”, I repeated, amused. “Well, I’ve always liked darkness. It could be worse.”
Tiamin did not reply. She just looked at me, mourning in her eyes.
Kingsblood had no city walls. It had not been attacked in hundred of years. The first thing you saw was the sillhouette of hundreds upon hundreds of little huts, where the baselings lived out their lives, scrabbling for the basics of life. I remembered the horrror I had felt when we had set flames coursing through those wooden huts, diverting the Saardites from our escape. How many baselings had perished that day? How many more than would have perished anyway, from hunger and disease?
The tall spires of Saardite temples jutted out here and there, indistinct in the thick winter air. Kingsblood, the Saardite believed, was the most blessed place in the world, the place where a man could be closest to the Harmony.
I passed a few outlying huts, with their raggedy thatched roofs, and noticed that nobody was abroad. Doubtless they were all hiding within the slender protection of their homes, hoping to remain unnoticed during the coming batle. How many of them sympathised with the rebels? What wonder if they did? I had heard that, while some of the nobles in the rural areas of the Saar treated their peasants with respect, the commoners in the city were regarded as vermin.
I found myself wondering if God had called the thunder of the Soldiers of Truth down upon the Spider King, and all his loyal subjects. Perhaps God could use his avowed enemies to serve his purpose. But what had the middling classes who led the rebels done to alleviate the plight of the poor? What would they do, when they came into power?
Nothing, I knew. For all their words, they cared less for the beggars on the streets than the nobles ever had. It was power that they craved, power and the elimination of their superiors.
No, I thought, as Righteous carried me into the first streets of the capital, from which the hum of life was issuing, from whose chimneys smoke was rising as ever. Nothing justified the slaying of the sovereign. Nothing justified the severing of a centuries-long history. What was there left to save, when that was gone? How could a new nation be born from nothing? How could a people manufacture a second soul?
“Don’t tell me you believe them, Tiamin”, I said, wondering at the distrust in her eyes.
“Oh, Solerre”, she said, and she squeezed my wrist, as if she was trying to hold onto the Solerre Ve Tori she remembered. “I know you’re a noble man. I know that you believe you’re doing the noble thing. But—“
“But you remind me of Jawyll sometimes”, she said, quickly, as if she did not want to linger over the words. “You have the same effect on people. They adore you like they adored him. And you have the same…” she did not finish the thought, as if she did not quite know what word applied.
“The same what?”, I asked, perturbed at the idea I resembled Jawyll, remembering his decaying corpse in the tunnels underneath Reconstruction House. And how its vileness seemed a perfect mirror of his soul.
“The same hardness”, she said, almost in a whisper. “I know that you do what you do out of love, Solerre. But…it’s such a cold love. Almost inhuman”.
There were people in the streets now, and they stood and stared at me. They were nearly all dressed in rags, and looked as if they had never had a square meal in their lives. They looked defeated in a way that even the beggars in Aarvla did not. And where the poor of Aarvla were constantly moving through the streets, arguing, begging, hawking, they just stood in the narrow streets, in the shadow of the tapering temple spires, whose stone had been blackened by centuries of soot.
They watched me fearfully. I doubted they had ever seen a bull before, never mind a man upon the back of one.
One old man stood his ground while the others fell back, gazing at me blankly. He looked like he had gone beyond all fear, all hope, long before the rebellion had begun. Years before.
“Have the rebels come yet?”, I asked him in Saardite.
“Come?”, he asked, in the twang of the Kingsblood commoner, the accent I had heard only once before. “They’ve come and gone. They must have heard about the armies”. He was obviously not surprised at my foreign accent, my outlandish appearance. The heartlands of the Empire had become the battleground for warriors from many lands.
“Armies?”, I asked. “What armies?”
“There’s three different armies, coming from the West and North”, he said. “We’ve seen them from the steeples. Tens of thousands. But it’s too late”.
“What do you mean?”, I asked, feeling hope expiring within me.
“They reached the palace”, said the old man, and he shook his head with disgust. “They tore it apart. I’ve never seen anything so godless.”
“What about the King?”, I asked. “Is he alive?”
The old man looked at the ground ,and remained silent. The death of the Spider King was not a subject for words, it seemed.
I spurred Righteous on again, hurrying through the all-but-empty words—nobody wanted to be outside when the approaching armies reached the capital, it seemed. I did not have to ask anybody the route. I could see the enormous spires of the palace of the Spider King, black against the cold sunlight. And at its very pinaccle, the eight-legged scuplture of the Harmony, the spider-shaped deity of the Saardites.
“What are you going to do?”, I had asked her. “If you’re not going to come with me.” I was partly relieved that Tiamin had refused. Enough of my friends had died. I was even relieved that my mother was safe inside the Hollow. The True Republicans may have murdered my uncle, but that was a measure of their fear of him. They were not savages. She was more secure there than she would be outside, where she would defy them until they had to kill her.
What would she think, if she knew I had turned against the Republic itself?
“I’m going to Perixia”, she said. “I can’t stay in Aarvla. I can’t bear to look at it anymore.”
We looked at each other. I was not the Solerre she had once known. But she was not the Tiamin I remembered, either.
Suddenly, she hugged me tightly, and whispered in my ear: “Don’t get yourself killed, Sol. You’re still my only friend in the world.”
Now the evidence of the rebellion was more tangible. I came across dead soldiers and dead rebels, a few bodies here and there at first, but eventually entire streets were clogged with dozens of corpses. Some were dying, rather than dead. And the rats were already swarming upon them. I had already seen rats scurrying across my paths in the outer streets. Kingsblood was a filthy city, running with open sewers and every conceivable type of refuse. The human waste upon the dirt streets blended in all too well with the other rubbish. Some were lying upon middens, like ready-made graves. The houses were much better constructed, of course, as I moved towards the palace, but the rich seemed as heedless of sanitation as the poor.
For every Saardite warrior, dressed in brown leather and chain metal, there was four or five rebels, dressed in the same filthy rags as the commoners I had already met, or a little bettter. Even the deadly soldiers of Kingsblood, fighting desperately, could not resist the overwhelming numbers of the Soldiers of Truth. Most of the loyalists, I could see, had been stabbed in the back, doubtless while they were fighting someone else.
Here and there stood the grey stone statues of Saardite heroes, but some of them had their heads knocked off by the insurgents, and others had obscenities scrawled across them.
I was already in the shadow of the palace of the Spider King. It rose above the surrounding buildings. There was an enormous crowd ringed around it, staring mutely at the devastation—many of the huge stained glass windows, I could see, had been knocked in. The stench of death filled the chilly air.
Women, children and men—both well-dressed and ragged—were pulling dead men from the carnage, some weeping and wailing, some eerily silent. I saw two little girls, who could not have been ten years old, trying their hardest to pull a large man dressed in the armour of a Saardite warrior. Neither were crying; they seemed entirely intent upon the job.
But all of them moved back for me and Righteous.
The palace of the Spider King was perhaps the most remarkable building in the world. The central spire reached more than two hundred feet into the heavens, and every inch of the exterior was filled with carvings and statues. Enormous rectagular stained glass windows, showing scenes from the Empire’s infancy, stretched for eighty feet Eight wings radiated from the central hall, but the huge circular front entrance—eighty man standing side by side could have walked through it, and no door had ever obstructed it. Under normal circumstances, nobody walked into the palace of the Spider King unless they were invited there.
Even now, when the sanctum had been violated in the most spectacular way imaginable, the peasants hung back, none of them willing to pass the threshold into what had once been the centre of all power, all authority. They even seemed scared to look at it, Scared, and compelled at once.
I lowered myself from Righteous—it was hard to believe I had once found the action, now as easy and fluid as climbing a low stile, impossibly awkward—and entered the palace for the second time.
“Oh Solerre”, said Tiamin, releasing me from her embrace and looking into my eyes, as if she was trying to impart some urgent message by sight alone. “Please think of what you’re doing.”
“I think of little else”, I replied, not sardonically.
“You know what I mean”, she said, for a moment seeming like the impatient Tiamin of old. “Please stop and wonder if you…if you haven’t been led into a terrible territory. If you haven’t been seduced by rousing ideas and visionary notions, and forgotten how poisonous they can be. How destructive.”
“What do you want, then?”, I asked her. “A world full of mice, nibbling in their corners, thinking that suffering is the only evil?”
“No, Solerre”, she said, her eyes downcast, as if losing faith in my ability to hear her. “But you’ve always been so blinded by beauty. I never said this before, but—“
“Kasharra?”, I asked, knowing what was coming.
“Yes”, she said, looking back up at me, defiance in her eyes. “Kasharra .I can’t understand how you can continue to speak of her like she was the epitome of all beauty, all goodness. The woman tried to murder her daughter. Her daughter, and the child that you love like your own.” The anger, the incomprehension in Tiamin’s voice was all the greater for having been restrained for so long. Even her caustic tongue hesitated to criticise Kasharra to my face.
“You’ll never understand—”, I began, bewitched as ever by the mere mention of Kasharra, the memory of her dark beauty, that seemed like all the marvels in the deepest caverns of the soul.
“I don’t want to understand”, interrupted Tiamin, calmly. “That sort of sacrifice is nothing but cruelty, no matter what grandiose claims are made for it. All of these noble purposes, all of these absolutes that tramp down every decent and humane and…and sane consideration. Just think about it, Solerre. Just think about how the woman you worship wanted to murder an innocent baby, for the sake of belief and tradition. And think of what means for your philosophy”.
“I do think about it, Tiamin”, I said, softly. “I think about it every day”.
The mavels of the palace’s exterior were more than matched within. In the exact centre of the enormous round hall sat the throne itself, set beneath the black heavenstone sculpture of the Harmony, the Saardite’s spider-like image of God. I did not look at it, and I did not look at the throne, as I made my way through the body-littered hall. How recently had screams and the clash of metal resounded through this hallowed air? Now all was silence, except my footfalls as I picked my way over the hundreds of corpses. In some places, they were two or three deep.
I found myself wondering—even then—if man had ever created as anything as beautiful as the Spider King’s palace. Enormous columns, in eight rows, ran from the throne to the walls of the great hall. The ceiling was a wonder; above the throne rose the central spire, and as it radiated from that central point, it declined in curves that suggested the festoons of some vast cobweb. The silver-grey stone was cut so finely, it curved so smoothly, it was easy to forget that it was solid, almost hard to believe that it was in fact man-made, that it was not the petrification of something that some ancient and gargantuan spider had woven.
There was no gold or silver in the grand chamber, no metal at all beside the weapons that lay beside the warrior they had failed to save. Everything in the Spider King’s palace was hewn of stone, apart from the huge banners that hung from the ceiling and the slender but tall stained glass windows, through which the white sunlight of winter was transformed to a purple and red and rose glow. Blood from the sun, I found myself thinking. All nature is bleeding. Everything is blood.
The floor was made of octagonal paving stones, with smaller diamond-shaped slabs between them. But thick carpets covered most of the surface, though now they were sodden with gore.
Even now, amidst such carnage and destruction, the beauty of the Great Hall was almost frightening. My mind, whose aesthetic sensivity had been so heightened under the influence of the Great Poem, convulsed with almost painful joy. Every measurement, every angle, every detail had been chosen with perfect, almost supernatural, judgement. How could the spirit that had created this sublimity—the spirit of mankind—have also created the horror which now filled it?
I continued to walk, stepping reverently over body after body. The closer I came to the throne, the thicker they were thronged. The king’s defenders had ringed themselves around, probably hoping to keep the rebels out by sheer weight of numbers, until the salvation of the approaching armies arrived. Did they keep hoping, right until the very end?
Here, closer to the heart of the palace (and the city, and the Empire, and—for a Saardite loyalist—the universe), the corpses of the defenders were hideously disfigured. How desperately had they defended their monarch, their bodies refusing to submit to death until the very last moment? Thousands of Saardites poems proclaimed a warrior’s sacred duty to his lord; the loyalty of parent to child was almost weak in comparison.
It was evidently more than a literary convention, I thought, continuing to walk towards the throne, as if impelled. Now I could not even step between the bodies; there was not room. I had no choice but to tread on the sickening softness of the newly dead.
Dozens of marble steps led to the throne, but the Spider King himself was not seated upon it. He was lying hafl-way down the steps, sprawled at an ungainly angle, his red ceremonial robes—donned for to face his attackers in his full majesty, no doubt—spread around him like an aura.
He had impaled through his heart—he wore no armour—with the sceptre of the Spider King, the same sceptre that had once, incredibly, found its way into Reconstruction House. Almost its entire length had been rammed through his breast, so viciously that it emerged through his back. Only a few inches protruded from his chest.
I wondered why the rebels had not taken it. Its money value was incalculable, and its symbolic value was infinitely greater. To destroy it—difficult as that would have been—would have been a serious blow against any hopes of an Imperial revival.
I reverently reached towards the thing—in this mansion of beauties, it was perhaps the most beautiful thing of all—and tried to hoist it from its macabre setting. It did not budge. It had been thrust in to violently. Doubtless the rebels were all too aware of the advancing loyalist armies to delay even a moment. Or perhaps they had felt some deeply-lodged horror when they committed the murder; regicide was the supreme sin in the Saardite Empire, A few decades of radical agitation had a hard time contending with such a centuries-old taboo, even in the hardened hearts of the rebels.
I could imagine them fleeing in terror when they realised what they had done; when they realised the fury that would be unleashed upon them. The heat of the battle must have dropped from them in a moment. Had the surviving loyalists pursued them, as they made their escape?
I glanced down at the Spider King. He was, after all—as had so often been repeated by his enemies—just an ordinary man. If anything, he was rather dull-looking, though his current situation hardly presented him at his best. He was somewhat podgy, and had a porcine look about his features. He had been greying these past few years, it seemed.
And yet thousands of other men had given their lives for him. He was more than just a symbol. Between the man and the office lay something else, a mysterious marriage of idea and actuality. If he had been a symbol, he had been a symbol of flesh and blood; a living symbol, a symbol that could not be reduced to an abstraction. A symbol that could be loved.
Finally, I raised my eyes to what I had been avoiding.
There it hung, on a pillar above the throne, the ancient statue of the Harmony—God— built from a glistening black stone that had—according to legend—dropped from the heavens. Certainly, the stone itself had no equivalent anywhere else. It was as smooth as glass, and sparkled like a vast black diamond.
Red gemstones represented the tiny eyes of the huge spider, glowing with relflected light. Its legs were extended in all directions, as if to encompass the entire universe. It seemed to look directly at me, and I could not help the feeling that it had summoned me here, that all my adventures had been a path to this private audience, this silent encounter. This last revelation, perhaps.
I realised that those red eyes had gazed at me through all my dreams since the last time I stood here. Where the house of clocks had been recalled, those piercing orbs had been forgotten in the light of day. Forgotten, or suppressed by my vigliant mind. But now I remembered how they haunted my nights, and shivered to be standing beneath them again.
How long had I spent, avoiding the thought of God? Even in my childhood, as I lingered in the temples and pored over of holy books, I had concentrated upon the intricacies of Karpon theology or the beauty of Salamandran hymns, hardly contemplating the vast question at the heart of it all, the ineffable weight at the centre of the web. It hardly even seemed a question, back then; God was a fascinating fiction, and the world was what I could see, what I could touch and comprehend. I knew it with the grim certainty of children.
But all I had seen of the world, all I had learnt of mankind and of history had given me an awful doubt and an awful hope. Wherever I had discovered beauty, or greatness, or serenity, I had most often found it rooted in the idea of some divine being, some transcendental realm where the noblest dreams of mankind were more than a dream, where they were imperishable reality.
And wherever I had met with decadence and degeneration, I had also found the arrogance of reason, the hatred of all that could not be measured and demonstrated, the rage against any claim to a wisdom higher than knowledge. Here most of all, amongst the butchered bodies of those who had died for a cause which logic could never understand, I felt the destructive rage of the rationalist, of the leveller who would rather kill than endure the existence of anything lofty or distinct or unique. It hung in the air, thin and potent, exulting in its triumph.
And what if its triumph was ultimate? What if the universe was ruled by reason alone? What if truth was not marvellous, mystical, infinite, but as a pale and shallow as the cold eyes of the Starborne? What if all the pinnacles of the human spirit had their foundations in an illusion?
I looked back up at the stone God of the Saardites, and I felt conviction blaze up within me. No, that was insanity. Who could truly believe that all the beauty, all the high purpose, all the meaning of human existence was the fruit of happenstance? What impelled the spirit of mankind upwards, what drew his spirit to all that was fine and elevated, except for that great magnet of sublime truth? What had implanted the thirst for transcendance in every human soul, the presentiment that an eternal mystery regulated all the world and all the heavens?
Faces and scenes passed through my mind, a phantasmagoria of all that I had witnessed, all that I had experienced. The sad, mocking, yearning face of General Ayako, with his pained nobility, his cynic’s dream of innocence, the humble paradise he had found upon a Baby board. I saw the gentle brown eyes of my uncle, lit with passion for a Republic that did not deserve his service. The regret-heavy eyes of the Red Leaf of Addra, lamenting the passing of all that had given life to his nation.
I saw Gerent, burning with fervour for a justice as cold and relentless as the laws of nature. I saw Tiamin, with all her love for mankind, and her indifference towards so much of what mankind loved. I saw the bard in the Mist of Madorr, more regal than any of the kings I had seen, assuring me that all the deeds of men were incidents in some tale or another. Was there a larger tale, too, a cosmic epic where all the manifold stories of men found their meaning? Were the first men who had walked under the stars actors in the same drama that was unfolding here, around me?
And always I saw Kasharra, with a beauty as awesome and terrifying as a flash of lightning.
I yearned for all of them to be the soldiers of truth; the rebels who had slain the king, and the loyalists who had died defending him; the general who had fled the Republic, and the general who had given his life to it; the woman who had been about to take her baby’s life, and the boy who had put a knife through her heart.
I longed for truth to be as many-coloured as the light pouring through the stained glass windows of the palace, as giddily various as the peoples who filled the surface with the world, each with their own vision of man and God. As endlessly diverse as the trees and flowers and beasts that roamed the land and the creatures that swam the deep.
But even as my eyes filled with tears, and the glory of the palace fused with the glory of the Great Poem in my heart, in a crescendo of ecstasy, I recalled the words of the Starborne: You want to believe so urgently, you will probably convince yourself in the end.
But what would reason understand of these things?
Suddenly, I was aware that somebody was approaching. My hand moved to my sword, but when he emerged from behind a pillar, I could see that he meant no harm. It was a young Saardite merchant, with the colourful quartered cape of his class wrapped around him, looking around at the devastation as if it was too horrific to be true. He might have been glancing at flowers on a summer’s stroll, except for a trance-like expression on his face.
He climbed the steps, only sparing a glance for the slain Spider King, and nodded to me so casually I might have laughed. He was beyond fear, I saw. He had been drawn in by his very terror. When he spoke, his voice was almost casual.
“Is anything worth all this?”, he asked me, looking at me as if I knew the answer.
“Yes”, I said. “It has to be. If nothing is worth dying for, then nothing is worth living for”.
He nodded, as if acknowledging the truth of this, and I knew he was susceptible to the power of the Great Poem. This was the man I needed.
“I want to give you two things”, I said, and his hand was already reaching out to accept them. I drew the letter I had written from my belt, and said, “An army of Aarvlans, and some others, will arrive here in a few hours. Wait till they do, and then give this to somebody in authority over them.”
“What does it say?”, he asked, childish in his entranced curiosity, scanning the twine-fastened roll of parchment as if its obverse might give some clue of its contents.
There was no need to frustrate his inquisitiveness, I thought. “Not much. It says: My men, I thank you from my soul for all your service. You are the paragons of your generation, but I will not lead you to further slaughter. I am going to the far reaches of the world, where reverence and love endure. The forces of dissolution and destruction threaten all mankind. I go to alert them of the danger, to enlist the aid of all who cherish their ancestors and their ways of life, all who do not wish to live in a world ruled by commerce and resentment.
The struggle continues, but you have played your parts. God bless you all”.
The merchant smiled approvingly, almost gratefully. “I like that”, he said. “What was the other thing?”
From a pouch on my belt I drew out the weathered copy of The Word of Armanua, the book I had carried everywhere since I was ten years old. I had not looked at it in weeks. I handed it to the young Saardite, who almost snatched it from me, and turned it over in his hands.
“What sort of a book is this?”, he asked, flicking through the pages, fascinated.
“A book of wisdom”, he said. “ But I’ve learnt as much as it can teach me. It must teach others now.”
“The darkness between the stars is more beautiful than the stars themselves”, said the merchant, reading the first line of the work. “What does that mean?” he asked, looking up at me, almost ravenous to know.
I could not help laughing. Even here, even now. He asked for its meaning as naively as a child might ask for the translation of a foreign word. How could I not oblige?
“It means”, I said, “that the soul is like a star, a pure white light in the heart of all men, all women, every human being who ever breathed upon the earth. But what would become of the glory of the stars, without the darkness of the sky between them? Where would be the beauty in a sky of blinding, colourless light, a heavens where every star’s singularity was drowned out in the universal glare?”
The merchant merely looked at me, expectantly. I wondered if he would remember my words and make sense of them later. But I was not really speaking to him, after all.
“And how could you love others, if the veil between soul and soul was rent? What would become of love, without the gulf between mind and mind? If all souls were one, what would be left to love? What would become of discovery, if all was known? What would become of flourishing, if all things were perfect?”
“What will be left of the dignity of each race, when every people has been subsumed into a single ocean of humanity? What will time and place mean, when all history has become a monotonous mantra, when no land can afford a story of it own?”
“Nothing”, he said, and I realised that my words had not been meaningless to him. There was a dismal light of comprehension in his brown Saardite eyes, and horror in his voice. “Nothing remains of any of it. But what is there to be done? Can you stop it?”. He looked at me, like a boy offering his snapped bow to his tutor, begging him to repair it. To be able to to repair it.
“I’ll do what I can”, I said, and he smiled. Then—with one last look at the black stone god, that the Soldiers of Truth would doubtless have destroyed by the time I returned here—I walked back towards the open gate, back towards the devastation of Kingsblood, back to the world of men and struggle, the world of hope and horror, the world of stories.
Still feeling the gaze of God upon me, I set out upon my devil’s work.