So – delivery approaches. Matter of a few weeks now. Final chapters and then some polishing.
Meantime, all you lovely, patient people – li’l Archeth for ya:
His imperial radiance Jhiral Khimran II was executing traitors in the Chamber of Confidences when they got back.
Archeth had Anasharal brought up to the palace anyway. She’d known the Emperor since he was a child, had watched his ascension to the throne – apparently with a few less illusions than the rest of the court, because she seemed to be the only one not shocked when the purges started – and she knew he was going to demand to see the Helmsman as soon as he heard about it.
He might even put the executions on hold.
So she went, unenthusiastically, along the sculpted marble corridors in the Salak wing of the palace. Went deeper and deeper, towards the screaming, while krinzanz need scraped at her nerves like knives. The smooth-walled architecture gleamed and curved and swept, palely voluptuous around her, mostly tones of muted jade and amber, but veined through in places with stark copper or black, and studded at intervals with conquest pieces – artwork and sculpture dragged here from every corner of the Empire and jammed into alcoves or nailed onto walls that didn’t really suit the purpose.
And the shrieks and pleas for mercy echoed off the polished stone, chased each other down the corridors, ambushed her round corners, like the ghosts of the conquered dead, somehow trapped in the marble heart of the imperium that had vanquished them.
The Salak stone-masons and architects who built the Chamber of Confidences – so the story went – committed quiet suicide when they learnt what had been done with their work. Archeth was a child at the time, and would never know for sure. As she grew up she suspected a more pragmatic truth behind the tale; that his imperial radiance Sabal Khimran I had had the craftsmen murdered to ensure they never spilled what they knew about the various architectural tricks and secrets they’d so lovingly created.
Certainly had it in him, the evil-eyed old fuck.
Sabal the Conqueror, first of the Khimrans to really deserve the term Emperor. He’d died before she hit her teens, putting down some rebellion or other out on the fringes of the eastern desert. But she still remembered how he’d lifted her up as a small child, the secret look on his hawkish face, as if she were some incredibly precious vase he entertained notions of smashing apart on the floor, one swift and brutal stroke, while no-one was looking.
She’d asked her father about that, many years later, when grief at her mother’s death trawled the memory to the surface. But Flaradnam was deep in grieving of his own and disinclined to discuss Sabal, or indeed anything much else, beyond bitter monosyllables. He would not have dared, was about all she could extract. He needed us – they all did back then – as they still do now. Whole fucking dynasty leans on us like a crutch. And Sabal knew I would have ripped his mother-fucking mortal heart out if he’d harmed a hair on your head.
Flaradnam lived through his grief and eventually put it aside – or at least learnt to ignore it for extended periods – but they never really discussed Sabal again. The early excesses of Empire seemed to be bound inextricably in his mind with Nantara’s death, and he skirted round them in conversation as soon as they arose. And then, there was that whole fucking dynasty angle to worry about – Archeth was old enough now to be admitted to the Council of Captains, to take on her own role in the subtle steering of Yhelteth affairs that served the Kiriath for a mission, or a means to other ends, or maybe just a hobby. There was, her father told her repeatedly, important work to be done.
So forget Sabal the Conquerer, because his son was on the throne now – Jhiral I, a diffident, gentle boy Archeth had grown up playing tag with through the gardens and corridors of An-Monal and the palace in Yhelteth – and the succession was far from assured. Flaradnam and Grashgal spent quite a lot of the next few decades quashing usurpers, safeguarding borders and laws, hammering and tempering the newly minted Empire into something resembling a permanent tool of policy for the region.
And after Jhiral, there was Sabal II, seemingly a solid reincarnation of his grandfather’s brutality and cunning and military prowess. At An-Monal, they all breathed a collective sigh of relief, and stood back to give him sword-room.
And then Akal the Great, perhaps the best of them so far.
And now Jhiral II. Hers to handle alone, for her sins. She sometimes wondered – she was wondering now – why she fucking bothered.
But old habits die hard.
She cleared a final twist in the milky, veined stone corridor – the shrieking hit her full in the face, she did her best not to flinch – and went under the heavy marble cowl of the entry arch, out onto the Honour promontory.
The execution party didn’t pick up on her arrival at once – all attention was focused inward on the business of the day, and anyway with the noise the condemned were making, she could probably have ridden in on a warhorse in full armour and still not have been noticed. She counted about twenty men in all – executioners and apprentices in the sombre grey and plum of their guild, a couple of robed judges, there to see sentence carried out, and then a scattering of whichever strong-stomached nobles felt they needed to curry a bit of imperial favour right now.
The Chamber of Confidences.
Under other circumstances, it was a radiant, beautifully-rendered space. The Honour promontory was one of three blunt marble tongues – Honour, Sacrifice, Courage, the old Yhelteth horse tribe trinity – extending at regularly spaced intervals from the otherwise circular walled circumference of a closed ornamental pool fifty yards across. Sunlight fell in through cunningly angled vents in the high dome of the ceiling – the marble blazed and shone where it took the rays directly. Elsewhere, reflection off the water put cool, rippling patterns of light and shade on the walls. A tented raft of rare woods and silks was ordinarily anchored in the centre of the pool, a private retreat for the Emperor you could reach only by poled coracle, because you certainly wouldn’t survive the swim.
But the raft was currently moored tight to the Sacrifice promontory, well out of the way. Well, you wouldn’t want to get blood on that silk. Take forever to get the stains out. And four of the convicted traitors – three men and a woman – were already afloat, shoved out a safe distance from the promontory on their execution boards and drifting further away.
Archeth tried not to look at what was happening to them.
She focused on Jhiral’s back, the sumptuous imperial ochre and black of his cloak amongst the clustering matt palette of the executioners’s garb. She held down a shudder – swore she’d never again try to quit the krin cold.
Hopeless – the shrieking drowned her out. The fifth man was thrashing and flailing as they dragged him to the manacles on the last remaining board. She thought, with a sudden freezing through her veins, that she might know him. Though beneath the marks of lash and heated irons, the distorting terror in the features, it was hard to tell for sure.
She cleared her throat – something seemed to be sticking in it – and tried again, louder.
He turned. Heavy silken sweep of the cloak across the marble flooring, handsome features a little clouded, brow furrowed like a man struggling with accountancy he had no real taste for. His voice carried effortlessly – he was used to this.
“Ah, Archeth – there you are. They said you were on your way. But – as you’ll see – I’m a little busy right now.”
“Yes, sire. I see that.”
The last execution board was an old one, grey wood swollen and split from repeated immersions, manacle screw plates spotted with lichen-orange rust. The board looked, she thought, not for the first time, like a generous wedge cut from some huge mould-coated cheese. Broad at the top end so the victim’s head stayed a good couple of feet above the waterline, tapering to a narrow end at the bottom so tortured and manacled feet would lie submerged, leaking slow tendrils of blood into the water.
The pool dwellers were smart – Mahmal Shanta swore he’d once seen them using lure tactics to entice seal pups off beaches in the Hanliagh Scatter – and they knew well enough the sound of the underwater gongs lowered into the pool when there was to be an execution. They’d have squeezed in through the submarine vents in the base of the chamber that morning, would have been waiting below the surface ever since.
They’d be ravenous by the time the first board hit the water.
And then she could no longer beat the perverse urge, she could not keep her eyes away. Her gaze slid out to the water, to the four boards already floating there with their dreadful, shrieking, red-slippery writhing cargo.
In the wild, a Hanliagh black octopus would have wrapped tentacles around surface prey this large and dragged it deep, where it could be drowned and dealt with at leisure. Defeated by the bobbing wood and the manacles, the creatures settled for swarming the boards, tearing at the chained bodies with frenzied, suckered force, biting awkwardly with their beaks. So skin came off wholesale, gobbets and chunks of flesh came with it, finally down to the bone. Blood vessels tore – in the case of a lucky few, fatally. And occasionally, a victim might smother to death with tentacles or body mass across the face. But for most, it was a long, slow death by haphazard flaying and flensing – none of the creatures was bigger than a court-bred hound, they could not otherwise have squeezed in through the chamber’s vents, and even their combined efforts were rarely enough to make a merciful end of things.
Jhiral was watching her.
She forced herself not to look away – the spray of blood, the up-and-down flail of tentacles like thick black whips, the soft, mobbing purple-black shapes hanging off the wood and flesh, crawling across it. Her gaze snagged on a wild, wide-open human eye and a screaming mouth, briefly blocked by a thick crawling tentacle, then uncovered again to shriek to shriek, to shriek……
She turned to meet Jhiral’s gaze. Locked herself to the casual poise it took to do it. Slowly, Archidi, slowly. Held his eyes, held the moment like a knife blade, loose for the throw. Warrior trick – funnel the noises away, to the edges of your attention, like the pain from minor wounds when the battle demands you gather yourself.
Jhiral gestured impatiently.
“We have found a new Helmsman, my lord. It talks of threats to the city, to the Empire.”
“A new Helmsman?” Jhiral’s brows kicked up. “A new one?”
“Just so, my lord.”
Jhiral glanced back at the last condemned man, the frantic scrabblings he made against his captors as, finally, they managed to get him to the board. The Emperor seemed to be pondering something. Then he looked back at her again.
“Archeth – you would not by any chance be trying to avert punishment for your old pal Sanagh here, would you?”
The bloodied, screaming features – the memory popped into place like a brutally relocated shoulder joint. Bentan Sanagh. They’d hacked his hair off in the dungeons, of course, and he was haggard with suffering. And anyway, pal was not really accurate – she knew Sanagh only casually, through Mahmal Shanta and the shipwright’s guild. A loud-mouthed idealist, quite brilliant in his way, which was probably what had kept him alive during Akal’s reign, but he’d always lacked Shanta’s instinct for self-preservation. Archeth had liked him well enough, shared some conversations, a banquet party or two. But she judged him doomed from way back, and kept her distance accordingly.
“Because Prophet knows,” Jhiral went on with a long suffering sigh. “His good lady wife’s been writing to every worthy at court he ever shared a bribe with, trying to get his sentence commuted. We’re all up to our ears in tear-stained parchment. I imagine you’re on the list as well, somewhere.”
She was not. Perhaps her own habitual standoffishness had been noted – doesn’t pay to get attached to humans, her father told her bitterly, drunkenly, one night a few months after her mother died. They only fucking die on you – or perhaps it was her black skin and her eyes and her volcanic origins.
Or maybe you missed the letter, Archidi. Maybe you were fucked up on krinzanz or brooding out at An-Monal or hiding in the desert.
“I was not aware of Bentan Sanagh’s conviction, my lord,” she said evenly.
“No?” Jhiral stared at her, she thought, almost resentfully. “No?”
“No, my lord.”
Shrieking. Shrieking. Abruptly, the Emperor of All Lands rolled his eyes.
“Oh, just cut his fucking throat,” he snapped.
The executioners froze. Exchanged glances. One of Sanagh’s arms flailed almost free.
“My lord…..?” ventured one of the braver men.
“You heard me. Stop wasting my time trying to get him pinned and floated. Just slit his throat, I’ll witness it and we can all go and do something less…….noisy.”
More glances. Helpless shrugs. Sanagh had frozen as well, fallen silent against the backdrop of his fellow convicts’ screams. It was hard to tell what expression his features held.
“Well? Get on with it!”
“Yes, my lord!” The sergeant executioner snapped to attention. He cleared his mercy blade, came forward and knelt at Sanagh’s head while the others held arms and legs down to the board. Archeth caught one last glance of the blood-streaked face, the unreadable eyes, and then the sergeant’s solid arm blocked her view. She never saw the blade slice through Sanagh’s flesh. But a gout of blood leapt out across the grey wood, and it splattered on the copper-veined marble, almost at her feet.
Jhiral looked around at the assembled company and nodded.
“Good. Well done.” Out across the water, the shrieking went on, bouncing crazily off the sculpted marble walls, filling the air, seeking the ears like swarms of stinging insects. Jhiral still had to pitch his voice above it. “That’s it, then – we can all get out of here. Thank you, everybody, you are dismissed. Khernshal, have somebody clean up this mess, would you.”
The named courtier bowed gravely. Jhiral was already turning away. “Well, then, Archeth. Let’s go and have a look at this Helmsman of yours, shall we?”
“Yes, my lord. Thank you.”
“Oh, don’t mention it,” said the Emperor of All Lands sourly. “The pleasure is entirely mine.”
The shrieking followed them out.