You drink of the River and it is clear. You drink of the River and it is foul. You breath of the Sky and it never empties. You weep, and the Sea stings your lips. Rejoice, and mourn, for you belong to this World.
Heaven does not know you.
–Nin’hilarjal, Psalms to Oblivion
The World is a glare when you are helpless.
The Men had bound him, pierced his flesh with nails, but their terror so overmatched their hatred, they were gentle, and so left no memory of their indignity. They shout and laugh. Papa… A walnut tree stands upon the rising pasture beyond them, great with age and solitude, dark with interior shadow. Please, Papa…
A woman who has outlived her teeth scourges him with thistles. Her arms are frantic with hatred and heartbreak, her knobbed knuckles shake, but her eyes remain slack with incredulity… eyes that were once daring and mercurial, grown stagnant at the bottom of crinkled pockets. For the first time he realizes he has never understood Men, the way they toil against the yoke of dwindling years. The way they do not so much fail as are betrayed.
The Horns rear golden, so high as to hook the woolen sky. The Host of the Nine Mansions groans.
They raise him upon a pole, pile sheaves of bracken about his feet. He has wondered whether death would be beautiful. He has wondered how the end of memory would appear at memory’s end. He has wondered what it means to so outrun glory as to become blind to disgrace. It seems proper that these screeching animals show him.
He watches them tip the amphorae, sees the oil pulse white in the sun. They are all there, Tinnirin, Rama, Par’sigiccas, sheeted in the blood of obscenities, their warcries cracked into gasps of effort, grunts of desperation. As the Men stand milling in the sunlight, filthy, bestial for hair, their brows dark so their eyes seem fires in angry caves. Rama’s head tips back like a bust on an unbalanced pedestal, painting witless shoulders in blood, as a plummeting shadow blots him, an Inchoroi monstrosity, decked in the corpse of some luckier brother. And he sorts them with his gaze, his frail captors, glimpsing dog-teeth, gloating for all the faces he will remember, for shame if not for torment. As Quya Chariots soar like polished stones cast against the sky. Rama! Rama! And a torch is brought forth, little more than a smoking blur in the open sunlight; a wave of exclamation peaks in a raw little cheer. As Ciogli makes a bastion of the Father of Dragons, his shouts ringing from his cauldron helm, Bashrag slumping from the arc of his hammer. A sobbing boy-child takes the torch. He and his brothers cry, Lord Mountain! Bullied forward, he turns to him, sobbing, the torch held like a poisonous snake. The Horns rise as golden haze through pitched skies, distant Quya drifting like sparks from the evening fire, dragons like twirling soot, making deep a World crabbed with violence. So like his dead sister in the dove-breasted beauty of his cheek (though she had hated fear more). Great Ciogli teeters, and the hacking floor drops into watery insignificance….
“Papa hates that he is my image,” she says, laughing, squinting as if about to sneeze at the sunlight.
How could… How could…
Great Ciogli teeters, his head turning as if to catch some uncommon sound from a drowse, and they see it: the lone arrow pricking from the slot of his helm. The boy is thrust forward, a push like a blow, so that his stride is caught on a thrown shoulder, and he stumbles, flinches from kissing the unseen flame. “No.” A flicker hooks his gaze, and out of the thousand pockets of tumult, he is cursed with seeing… seeing… The same mouth slung about indecision, the same tipping look (though she hated fear more). Nin’janjin leaps crisp from the tumult, his spear poised high, his shield a burnished coin. The boy grimaces, cries out to the rag-garbed women–
What is your name?
She crinkles her nose. “Are you dying?”
Can a moment be caught? clapped like fly in the palm of the heart that needed it, a memory, painting deep the illumination of life. Can a moment be caught by a moment? a heart within a heart within a heart, versions receding, a pit that sound the very fathom of oblivion, life drawn into a spear. And he realizes he has never understood Men, not even when he loved them. Cu’jara Cinmoi turns into the nimil point, cramps about the rod of ash, so that he crouches, every bit as crisp, his hands hooked, sinking to his knees on the chest of the Host of Nine Mansions. His chin against his breast, the boy lowers the torch like something that might break of its own weight. The Copper Tree of Siol staggers, then falls. He lets it slip into the heaped bracken, the boy. He runs intent, shield raised against raining pots of fire, sprinting from the roar of barking massacre behind him into dismay. Dead! And the flames take shallow root, spinning outward across the oil-soaked regions, smokeless lines which beget incendiary blooms, until all the fuel heaped about his bound feet is skinned in frantic orange and gold, the fire sinking in, sparking deeper and deeper, unlocking curlicues of smoke, threads that become ribbons that become streaming plumes, hanging like ink, misting like fog, raising a shroud across the hollow sky, smearing the sun into a blinding stain. Our Beloved King is dead! And a cool falls across his scalp and shoulders, the gift of rolling fronds of smoke-shadow, even as the heat begins chewing his feet, biting and biting with dog’s teeth. Fire is the youngest thing, the most ancient. They draw up his youngest, sweet Enpiralas, on an Inchoroi shield, his face flattened where the skull was missing. He rolls his gaze across the world, peers through the hazy screens, to the huddled knots of Men, and sees the demented grins of mortals inflicting their horror of death upon another, hands outstretched in wild gesture, fists beating his image, and the horsemen in gleaming cuirasses beyond, banners tipping as they yank short their galloping rush. And she grows still in his arms, Aisarinqu, at once kindling light, and a stone, such a heavy stone, and he weeps for holding her so punishing is her weight, his life unwinding for her density, the gravity of her stationary heart, her mouth hung about emptiness. He shrieks for the finality, for the relief, the sobbing knowledge that her suffering has ended, that he cradles oblivion in his arms. He begins choking, coughing up the convulsions that wrack his bound flesh, flap him like a blanket, for the fire was upon him, and he could see it, laving the white lines of his feet, the searing, the blistering, the charring–his feet, which had been with him since… since… now writhing and kicking of their own volition, and he throws his eyes skyward and he screams and he laughs, knowing that this… this he would remember, that his burning would not pass through him, would not fall away into the black-of-black, but would dwell forever as another horror, so welding him to who he had been. The boy throws his hands to his eyes, only to have his father wrench them aside, shake him, point at the place that shrieks, writhes, burns. And he stands in the blackness, the eternal dank that rules the guttural foundations of Siol, his hand upon the neck and shoulder of his daughter, Aisralu, who even now clutches her belly, her womb, groaning against her headstrong pride, whispering, Please… Father… Please… You… Must… again and again, searching for his eyes, her face a summit, a beauty he worships, bent into a pageant of strangers by anguish. He screams and he laughs and through smoke and undulating air he sees worry unbalance the beasts that caper about his perimeter. Aisarinqu screams and Aisarinqu screams, again and again, not so much words as a storm of occasions, her delicate face crushed into instants and flayed across an age, for theirs had not been a happy union. And it seems he should be a thing of wax, that the roaring phosphor should melt and consume him, not cook. That is the sole curse of the Ishroi, she hisses. He is sack, a net bound about furious, ice-cold fish, each part of him thrashing, fleeing, and he howls realizing, for the first time in ten thousand years comprehending, that he is a thing of meat, that he is of the self-same flesh, the very thing that nourishes him, boar-squealing, bloody and alive. To only hope they had fathered their sons! His eyes are pinched and pricked by the effluence of the encircling furnace–no longer his own. The blackness falls away from her sagging face, and for an instant he gazes upon her, beloved Aisarinqu. A second, shrieking revelation. The white spark of some faraway light refracts in her tears, so that her contrition seems holy, and his embittered and profane. Fire is a thing that eats. A wondering instant, before the wrath seizes his fists anew.
He slumps into his corporeal anguish; burning seems… proper.
A wind laves him, drawn in from the smoke-wreathed world, the radial distances, and blown upward through glittering rags of flame. He understands he is the base of an invisible pillar, a roiling column of heat, fluted and fanning into the shrouded sky, and he wonders whether a falcon might ride the updraft, the heat of his burning. The fish are warm now–sluggish. He glimpses armoured Men raising scabbarded swords, dropping them like clubs.
A glimpse of water, like a silver coin wobbling beneath the lip of an upraised pail, and it seems the most beautiful thing he has ever seen, a trophy scalped from the very sun. The little human girl, the one who found him where he cannot remember, the girl who was whipped by her father for stealing food out of pity, who sings songs in her queer, manling language, laughing for the way the stream tickles her feet, her face purpling above his grip, kicking and flailing like a woodland beast, as he sobs and explains to her, professing his love, his adoration. I must… I must remember. Even before the coming of the Flesh Angels, the Inchoroi, they live lives long enough for children to become strangers. The torment has been a peculiar, more like a casting of liquid than a form of retribution. He ponders the way life bloats upon the threshold of dying.
Thinks it proper.
What is this hunger? Lights diminish, sputtering before kicked into smoke by shadows. What is this need to strike meaning into the heart of stones? A different kind of nudity, chill and wet and horrifically amphibian. This blindness to surface–what is it? Voices. Something too absurd to be agony. His limbs vague and distant, twitches sensed only at the sockets. Hazy black bubbles clot the sky. Heaven tipping. Something… his body… jerking–shivering. Darkness, a shadow looming out from every corner of his vision, bricking him in. A Man leans over him, elbows out, hands on his thighs, and he sees a face that could belong to a brother, such is its beauty–and eyes that see only a blessed reprieve from boredom. “You smell of lamb…” he says, bent across the spiking corona of the sun. Parasols of smoke float behind his head, drifted…
“My kind cooks like pig.”
And he is not dead.
He lies unbound, sprawled naked beneath the sprawling canopy of a tree. Everything tingles, and he understands he has been stripped of his skin, or a good part of it. He experiences another revelation, that agony is the root, the very truth of sensation, for the blades of the grasses had become knives, and the clicking legs of the spider had become needles, and the wind burns with a perpetual fire. They stand there, at the blackest heart of their dying Mansion, the deepest, the mountain above and about them groaning with the chorus of ten thousand lamentations–all the heart-cracking losses. “I confess, I did not believe it.” There they stand, the famed father and the cherished daughter, their names no longer remembered, their sandalled feet upon the abyssal lip, so that emptiness yawns like a slow waking dragon. A single Man sits beside him, clotted with shining insignia he has never seen before, saying, “They claim you killed a man’s daughter.” And it sickens him, the obscenity of the vision, the faces of his brothers–his race!–nailed like pelts to the abominations that loped across the scourged plains, pale save for the clotting of blood and excrement, screaming like girlish beasts, their members curved across their abdomens, running, shrieking. The Man’s black hair trembles in the breeze, as fine as hummingbird feathers. An old yearning comes upon him–or the memory of one–his Ishroi brothers wading into the mobs of Halaroi, starved mothers clutching starved babes. “No matter…” the Man says. “One must be criminal to commit a crime.” He witnesses the magic that is brutality, the way cries become piteous silence and a jerking mandala of crimson. “One must be something small…” A cold look of satisfaction. “And you, my False friend, smack of immensity.”
His cousin, Pil’kmiras, curls like a dog on the dust, coughing about some unseen catastrophe. Show me! Where?
The Man’s gaze searches the encircling World, squints for the glare. “We are alike in this regard.” He raises a thumb to pick at his teeth. “When I was a child, my grandmother would raise me on her knee and tell me that I was indistinguishable from justice.” He snorts. “‘The Gods,’ she would drawl–Grandmother split her passion between drinking and oblivion, you see. ‘The Gods say that the goodness of our acts, my darling dear, resides in our rank. Do you know what this means, hmm?’ She always liked to lean her forehead against mine. ‘It means you cannot sin against your lessersssss!’” The Man breaks into a winning grin, one that should be remembered for it’s resemblance to vertigo. “Can you believe it? What grandmother says such things to a child?” The Wracu fall like barks of iron upon them. Bodies stick-whipping. Geysers of brilliance crossing like swords. “She’s mad, my grandmother… Mad with cunning.” Yes… This was what they suffered, the ones they dragged clear the fiery vomit, the way shrieking had delivered them to someplace calm, where they could swallow without taste. “Is beauty a sign, do you know?” the Man asks. “A mark of who defines justice? These are the kinds of questions I need to ask you…” Skafra uncoils his shining bulk and reveals Par’sigiccas, half of him white flesh, half of him black charcoal. What grieves thee, Son of Siol? “I used to think my grandmother was wise because she was old. Now I think she is simply… savage, I guess. Savage with fear…” The Man pauses to work his jaw about an involuntary snarl. “But you… You have seen things… times… You have witnessed what Men can scarce dream, let alone imagine!” All great things, the saurian maw croaks, are round, Cinial’jin. “Enough to rot you from the inside, they say… Like a melon.” Par’sigiccas gazes with one eye from a half-husked skull. “You see, I look at you, and I see…” A sly, mortal wink. ”Me.”
The Wracu seems skinned in flame. Someday thou shalt tip over the edge of thine world.
“This is why I saved you… You are my map. My chart.” Cu’jara Cinmoi leaps upon the altar, gloating, displaying the mad extent of his arrogance, openly, outrageously, knowing that his own would celebrate his impiety as strength, and that his enemies would cry out for heartbreak and fury. “I’m curious…” He smiles in the sad way of mothers seeing mediocrity in their children. “Do you feel it? Or is it a thoughtless assumption, the fact that Men shrink in your presence?” There is a breath that belongs to the first glimpse of madness in some beloved soul, a hook and a pang, a consciousness of the tunnels that branch into caverns within you–a place where breath should be. What Siöl requests Siöl compels! The C n is a code of tyrants. When I stretch forth my hand, you shall be its shadow. “What is the sensation of immortality? I’m sure I… know it… But without any to-to compare…” The Man leans over him, his knife unnatural for its gleaming proximity to his face, something monolithic tapering to a shining prick, the point where earthly edges intersect, then cross over into death.
The humour was peeled from his eyes, revealing the dead dark look beneath. “I fear that I require that you speak.”
Cu’jara Cinmoi’s glare somehow slips the uproar and picks him from the confusion. Yes. You know.
Is he shaking?
He dandles the knife with the mock clumsiness of an elder brother teasing a younger. “You must have something to tell me. Surely the Whore delivered you for a reason.” And they approach the northern entrance, the Way of Upright Kings, where the peach trees forever bloom out of season, finding naught but a great black rope of smoke hanging heavenward from the Mansion’s shattered maw, inking the clouds. “Shh… Shh… Just tell me…” The knife pricks across his cheek. “Tell me…” And Lord Mountain turns as if from between worries, and they see it, the black shaft jutting from their hearts. And he watches, his spirit cringing, flinching, warding, even though he cannot move; the point’s lazy swing, the hanging heartbeat above his pupil, then the drop, as though everything seen were the skin of a grape. Someone grimaces and screams. How does one love in such times? Aisarinqu whispers, cupping his head against her, so that his tears make a cheek of her breast. A laugh with the reed timbre of mortality. His face clenched as if about some splintered outrage. A mouth hung about emptiness. Something. Something in the meat. And it dawns that he does not comprehend these beasts.
A man reclines in the grasses that wreath his head, stares down at him with uncommon familiarity. And he just… pushes… her… Aisralu… A motion too banal to be anything but murderous and insane, opening a door, perhaps, or closing one, and he feels it, the kiss of skin forming to skin, the hand of the father across the nape of the daughter, the cherished daughter; a push and nothing more, an effort slight enough to slip the nets of awareness, to be no effort at all, and still, miraculously, impossibly, violent with excess, savage, a crime unlike any other; the bare palm against the nape of her neck, her shoulders hunched about a ravaged womb, his arm extending, the gentle insistence of nudging a younger brother toward a maid, and an entire life tipping, a cherished life, an engulfing presence, tipping, how? how? the push floating into slipping, plummet… The wind barges through the walnut tree, a groaning susurrus. Tipping, the beloved voice crimped high, a kicking intake of breath, a sound that should strike sparks. No… And a life slips into the abyss, dropping like water, lines sprawling across the plummet, shrinking into something small enough to swallowed… Shrieking. No…
“You make me… curious…”
A man dangles from the glare of blood and sun. There is even envy in his gaze.
A final revelation. Sunlight cracking through spanning limbs. The whole mountain wheezes for the weeping of thousands, the wreckage of… The breeze burning, eating. The world tipping.
A bare palm against a cherished back–