The sun rises over the bronze walls of Sorlost, the Eternal City, the Golden, the decayed heart of the decaying empire that was once the richest and most wondrous place in all the world. The sun rises over the bronze walls and sets them glowing like the fires in which they must once have been forged. Walls of fire. Tongues of fire. They blaze too bright to look upon with human eyes. The sun strikes the gilded dome of the Sumer Palace of the Asekemlene Emperor, sets the gold aflame. Mage light windows glimmer. Look like water shining. Birds fly in the dawn sky and they catch the sunlight and they are like brilliant gems. The world is cast and blinded in liquid gold.
Today is the feast of Year’s Renewal. The death of the old, the birth of the new. Sorrow. Longing. Hope. The barbarians of the north call this day Sun Return, for which they are to be pitied. The sun leaves them cold and desolate, snow falls and the nights are endless, they weep with joy on this day for knowing that the sun will come back to them. But this is Sorlost. There is no change here. Here they call things by their right names.
In the Great Temple the priestesses kneel in prayer, they have knelt all night in the Great Chamber with a thousand candles burning, the heat of the flames raises sweat on their faces, makes them gleam as the bronze walls gleam. As though they too are bathed in gold. In the candle light they kneel, eyes closed, behind their eyes their vision must be gold and red. At the moment the sun rises they know, they feel it, see it. All of them. They throw open their eyes, rise in triumph, throw back their heads, they sing. The great Hymn to the Rising Sun. So beautiful it breaks the heart to hear it, tears run down their faces mingling with their sweat.
Great Tanis! Great Tanis! Rejoice in glory! The day dawns and we live!
They are robed in cloth-of-silver. The High Priestess kneeling before the High Altar is robed in cloth-of-gold. Her skin is like bronze mirrors. Her hair is like black water. Rightly is she called the most beautiful, the most radiant woman in all Irlast.
Many of the people of the city have been gathered at the door of the Temple for hours. The door is always open, has not been sealed since before the world was raised. But on this night they not dared to enter. Time is passing: the death of the old year, the birthing of the new. Life and death, both terrible, both to be feared. At such a time, who would dare to stand in the place of the God? Now, as the song bursts out they crowd in to pray. To bathe themselves in the light and the song. The last day of the old year. A day to be celebrated and feared. A day of life and death.
In the houses of the high lords of the empire, servants are working to exhaustion to prepare all that is needed. Garlands of flowers, mage glass lanterns, rubies and diamonds on silver threads. Cakes and sweetmeats cooking: larks’ tongues from Chathe; cimma fruit from Immish; candied flowers; sea fish, brought a thousand miles through the heat of the desert; honey-scented, spiced roast meat. Wine mixed with fresh snow and crushed pearls. Milk curds mixed with vinegar and salt.
In the House of the East, Lady Emmereth wakes in the arms of her lover her husband’s guardsman. Yawns and stretches, pushed back her marvellous red hair with long white fingers. In the hushed gloom of her bedroom, shutters closed, the lamp turned down, you cannot see the lines of her blackscab scars. A servant girl enters, a little thing of fifteen with dark skin and dark hair, dressed in pale pink silk like the dawn sky. The servant girl does not look at the guardsman. The guardsman does not look at her.
‘Good morning, Nilesh,’ says Lady Emmereth.
‘Good morning, my Lady.’ She helps her mistress from the bed, wraps her in a gown of green satin, escorts her down to the bathing rooms. The guardsman Lady Emmereth’s lover watches them go. Returns to his own bedroom, small and dingy in the furthest corner of the house. Servants brush past him. Stare at him. What he thinks or they think of his relationship with his mistress is never spoken of by anyone.
If you could ask him, he would tell you that he loves her. But you cannot ask him. And he cannot tell.
Lady Emmereth is bathed and dressed in white and blue and silver, swirls of silver leaf painted over her arms and face. She wears diamond bells at her wrists and ankles. Makes music as she walks. On her left wrist, where the skin is most scarred, the bells hang from a bracelet carved of yellowed bone. It is said to be the bone of a dragon. Huge bones dug from the sand in the desert to the east of the city. A great thing like a man’s forearm, claws as long as soldiers’ swords. Cut up to make trinkets. The bracelet could buy a town, in the lands outside the bronze walls of Sorlost. It itches her, rubs on her scars. She shakes it and the bells ring. They sound to her ears like a child’s laugh.
She sighs and laughs, when she thinks of that.
Lord Emmereth is already in his study. A man has come to see him this morning; has travelled for many weeks through the wilds of the desert to speak to him. The great feast of Year’s Renewal, the holiest day of the year: Lord Emmereth has got up early, to meet with him, was roused from his bed before first light. Lord Emmereth stares at the man. Nods. Sighs. You might assume, from the look in his eyes, that the man has brought some terrible, evil news.
A thin, harsh-looking man, not a local man from his clothing, and when he speaks his voice has the accent of Immish. Harsh, ugly voice.
‘Well, then,’ the man says. ‘I’ll give you this, then.’ He takes a sealed letter from his jacket pocket, places it on the desk. Dry yellow paper, sealed with red wax, the stamp a crude image of a sword.
Lord Emmereth looks at it as thought it is diseased.
‘You sign it,’ the man says.
A long pause. Lord Emmereth stares at the paper.
Breaks the seal.
His hand shakes, as he signs it.
He takes a long, long breath.
‘Done,’ the man says. ‘Thank you. This is yours. A copy, for you to keep.’ He gives Lord Emmereth a second letter, also blank and sealed. Lord Emmereth takes it without speaking. Places it very carefully in the draw of his desk.
‘We’ll begin preparations, then,’ the man says. ‘For this, we might need to take on a couple more men.’
Lord Emmereth’s eyes move to the window, look at the light falling into the room. In a beam of light dust motes dance. The famous golden light of Sorlost, he knows, is made by yellow dust. A rational man, Lord Emmereth, Lord of the Rising Sun, Dweller in the House of the East.
‘Whatever you need,’ he says.
He personally escorts the man to the house’s gates
The day passes. Long shadows falling in the haze of a golden afternoon. Lord and Lady Emmereth eat together in a room that opens onto gardens. One wall is made of jasmine plants. The jasmine flowers are not now in bloom. They eat bread and honey and goats cheese, drink water. They do not speak as they eat.
The servant girl watches them from amongst the jasmine leaves. The guardsman Lady Emmereth’s lover hovers in the gardens, he can perhaps see his mistress’s face through the spay of a fountain. Lord Emmereth, you must assume, knows that his guardsman is watching.
‘We should leave soon,’ Lady Emmereth says at last. Her voice sounds loud and grating, after the silence. She breaks off another piece of bread, bites into it.
Lord Emmereth takes a sip of water. Puts his cup down. ‘Yes,’ he says.
This is all the conversation they have exchanged since daybreak.
You might charitably say that Lord Emmereth is distracted.
Why do they bother to eat in the same room?
Lord Emmereth gestures his head slightly. Perhaps towards his wife’s lover his guardsman. Rises, walks from the room. Lady Emmereth rises also. Her servant girl comes forward, dabs her mouth with a silk cloth to clean the last of the honey off. There is a single jasmine leaf caught in the girl’s hair. It is curled and brown at the edges. Lady Emmereth flicks it away with long fingernails painted gold and silver, studded with green gems. The bells on her wrists tinkle as her hand moves.
A litter is waiting before the main doors of the House of the East. Sweetwood poles and yellow lace and yellow silk. Fragrant. Perfumed with roses. A faint brief ghost of a metal scent. Ten bearers in yellow cloaks hold the litter on their shoulders; their knees are bent to lower it. One lets out a hiss of pained breath. Servants help Lady Emmereth inside the litter. She looks like a bird in a golden cage. Lord Emmereth followers her in. Guardsmen march behind the litter as it moves slowly through the house’s gates.
This morning’s visitor is standing beneath a tree outside the house’s walls, waiting for them. Lord Emmereth sees him. The man smiles at Lord Emmereth. Bows his head in mock-respect.
Lord Emmereth shudders. Looks at his wife. Looks away. Pulls the curtains of the litter closed. Looks at his hands, his boots, the hem of his coat, anywhere but at his wife.
The Great Temple is filled with all the high lords and ladies of the Sekemleth Empire. So much splendour the walls seem to ring. Candlelight on gold, on silver, on jewels and mirrors. Every altar in the Great Chamber is decorated with flowers. White blossom in heavy, clotted drifts. In the heat the petals are beginning to brown and wither, like the leaf caught in the serving girl’s hair. The smell of the flowers is overpowering, stronger than the perfumed, sweating, living bodies of the assembled nobles. Sweet and edible, with behind it the tang of rot.
Lord Emmereth’s nostrils flare. Metal scent again. Rancid. He breaths in the sweat and the rot. Begins to recognise it as the smell of blood.
This whole Temple should stink of blood.
He takes his seat beside Lady Emmereth. Her head moves like a snake, twisting and twisting, trying to see and be seen. They sit very near to the front of the Great Chamber, near to the High Altar, for of course they among the very highest people in Sorlost.
Two men enter, both dark and slender, with a softness about them in their bodies, as though they might soon begin to run to fat. Brothers, you would immediately guess. Lord Emmereth tries not to look at the older of the pair. The older of the pair tries not to look back. Lady Emmereth twists her head away quickly. Like a woman bitten by a snake.
On a throne of bronze, beside the High Altar, the High Priestess sits in silence, staring over the heads of the congregation, up at the windows at the very top of the Great Chamber. Her black hair falls lose around her. Her dress is pure gold and her skin is bronze and she looks like a statue. She sits perfectly still.
Her nostrils twitch. As though she, too, can smell blood. Her hands move. Her right hand touches her left arm. She closes her eyes. Opens them. Moves her hands back to her lap and sits again perfectly still as though made of gilded bronze.
Lord Emmereth shivers. Fear in him, for a moment, sudden, brief and gone. A cold crawling fear on the back of his neck. Lady Emmereth next to him shivers. All of the lords and ladies, the priestesses in their jewelled masks, they shiver, stir in their seats, someone coughs and someone moans aloud and someone draws in a deep long breath.
The candle flames flicker.
Death, Lord Emmereth thinks. He finds himself about to speak the words aloud. Stand up and scream it out.
The High Priestess’s face gleams with light.
A blare of trumpets. A voice cries out, ‘The Emperor! All kneel for the Ever Living Emperor! Avert your eyes and kneel and be thankful! We live and we die! The Emperor comes! The Emperor comes!’
Rustle of people moving, rising, kneeling, glitter of jewels, ripple of silk cloth. The air stinks of sweat and perfume.
The blood smell vanishes.
Lord Emmereth shakes his head.
The Asekemlene Emperor of the Sekemleth Empire of Sorlost the Golden walks down the length of the Great Chamber, sets himself on a golden chair at the very front of the congregation, staring at the High Altar and the High Priestess on her bronze throne.
A puffy man in a black coat and black leggings, a band of yellow cloth around his head. Lifetime upon lifetime upon lifetime, on the feast day of Year’s Renewal, he has sat on his golden chair, stared at the High Priestess and the High Altar, listened to the same hymns and prayers. A day of celebration and fear. But not for him, the Eternal Emperor, the Ever Living, reborn for a thousand lifetimes, who has nothing to fear from change or from death.
Black, you might notice, if you notice such things, is not a colour that suits him.
Hymns are sung, prayers chanted. Women’s voices rising and falling, drawing out long patterns, old dead words that the priestesses themselves do not understand.
The voices fall away. The Great Chamber is silent. The High Priestess gets slowly to her feet. A bell tolls, loud, sorrowful, up somewhere in the Temple’s height.
Twilight. The last day of the year is ending. In the furthest west the sky is fading red.
The High Priestess looks around her. Sees nothing. She is very beautiful, her voice is very beautiful when she sings the hymns, but there is something in her that repels, now. Behind the High Altar a cloth hangs against the wall. Thick, heavy, embroidered cloth. It is very old and dusty, the pattern of the embroidery also is forgotten and lost. The cloth itself can hardly been seen, behind the bulk of the High Altar. Black stone squatting drawing in the light of the candles, casting black shadows; you must blink and close and open your eyes to see beside it, to stop your eyes seeing nothing but the altar stone. Stare and let your mind wander and the cloth is there, in the shadows, and you see that it is a curtain covering a narrow doorway. The High Priestess draws the curtain aside. Slips through the doorway. Her cloth-of-gold dress flickers in the candle light. Then the darkness beyond swallows her up.
The congregation stares after her. Every face present is trying to look and trying not to look. Lord Emmereth is trying so very hard not to look.
Do you want to look?Behind the curtain is the Small Chamber. The holiest place in the Sekemleth Empire. The centre of all things. A womb. A burial place. It is dark and very cold here. A black dark like the dark of night.
A man lies face up on a square of white stone. Ropes bind his chest, his arms, his legs. The hair stands up on his body; his lips are pale and a little blue. He is strong, with a powerful muscled torso and thick legs, but his face is marked with jagged scratches, as though he has been clawing at himself. He lies very calmly. Quietly. His eyes staring out into the dark.
As the curtain moves, the man twitches. His eyes blink closed against the brief, sudden brilliance of the light.
Two slaves crouch in the furthest corners. They are naked. Like the man on the stone, they are muscular and strong. All day and all night, all their lives, perhaps, they crouch here, squat here in the darkness. They bound the ropes that hold the man to the white stone. They ushered him in. They will escort him out. They do not blink at the light.
The High Priestess enters. The curtain falls back behind her. She can see in the dark with her mind, as she can see in the light. She does not look at the slaves, or at the man on the white stone. She reaches down and picks up a bundle resting beside the stone. Cloth, black and shimmering, a bundle, concealing something. She unwraps it. A flash of bright metal. A long, thin knife.
She raises the knife. Smiles down at the man. A very beautiful, soft smile. Comforting. And at last the expression on the man’s face changes. Fear comes into his eyes. He breathes in and out, harshly, a very loud sound in the dim quiet of the little room. His muscles flex against the ropes that hold him. His throat moves, to swallow a scream.
He volunteered for this. Ask yourself: what can he do now?
Bid them untie him, stand before all the congregation there assembled, apologise, say that he was wrong?
He flinches. Jerks. Thrashes in his bonds.
The High Priestess brings the knife down carefully into the man’s heart.
Her beautiful face and her shining hair and her golden dress are soaked with blood.
The High Priestess raises her left arm and cuts it, also, with the knife. She clenches her fist and holds her arm high in the air. Her blood runs down her arm and drips onto the floor, mixing with the blood from the man lying dead on the white stone. She places the knife on the body of her victim. The blade rests over the wound. Covers it. Hides it.
She stands over the body. Look closely into her face and you might see … what? Sorrow? Grief? Hate? Joy? Self-loathing? Satisfaction in a duty complete, a job well done? She shivers, her body twitches as the man’s twitched as she killed him.
She was born for this. Has trained all her life for this. Ask yourself: what can she do now?
Say that this was a bad thing to do?
I know, her eyes seem to say. I know.
And for a moment there is a look of fear in her. A shadow in her eyes in the dark.
She moves her head. The wound on her arm must pain her. The shadow is gone, replaced with a grimace of pain. She steps back out through the curtained doorway into the Great Chamber. The golden light of a thousand candles blazes on her bloody hands and bloody clothes. She shines, soaked through with blood; she gleams like precious gemstones, she is alive with light busting from her. Like the light dancing on water. The light dancing on the waves of the sea.
She raises her left arm, showing the wound there. All the old scars and the new jagged line of blood. The congregation, the great high lords and ladies of the Sekemleth Empire, the Emperor, the priestesses – all look in awe at her wound, at the brilliant blood on her.
Lord Emmereth moves in his chair. Now, indeed, the air of the great Temple reeks of blood.
The High Priestess seats herself back on her bronze throne. Her face is blank and empty, drained of everything by what she has done. You might think, if you were feeling particularly cynical, that she is merely trying to ignore the filth she is sitting in, close her mind to the feel of her dress clinging to her, the stink of it, the creeping cold of it, stiff and clotted, itching her body, it will need, perhaps, to be cut off her after this is done.
A bell tolls, loud, sorrowful, up somewhere in the Temple’s height. Night has fallen. The day has ended. Seserenthelae aus perhalish. Night comes. We survive. The priestesses’ voices rise in triumph, singing the Hymn to the New Year. The High Priestess clasps her hands in her blood-stained lap.
Bustle of noise, confusion. The great lords and ladies of the milling about together in the Grey Square before the Temple, laughing and gossiping, wishing each other well. Year’s Ending and Year’s Renewal. Change, and time, and reminders of these things. And they have survived the ending of the year, and their world goes on. The pretence that things do not change.
The barbarians of the north, they call this feast Sun Return. Which suggests changes. Loss. Gain. This is Sorlost. Nothing will change here. They embrace, remind themselves of that.
Servants carry up jewelled litters, help their masters to clamber in, rearrange silk robes, reposition headdresses of feathers and gems. The litters move through Grey Square looking like brilliant coloured beetles. They jostle and queue in the exits to the square. All over the city doors are thrown open, feasts are laid waiting. Hurrying back through the streets to enjoy themselves.
Lord Emmereth travels with his wife to the House of Glass in the city’s far west. The Lord of Empty Mirrors is hosting a party, and his parties are infamous. The litter travels slowly, like a beetle. Warm sweet night air filled with voices, music, laughter, shouts and sighs of relief. People flow past the litter, parting before it, sweeping in waves through the streets. Flowers are thrown; women dance in garlands of dried roses, tinkle with silver bells. The steps of the Temple and the square around it are bright with candles like the stars in the sky. The litter moves slowly through the streets to the House of Glass, through a sea of light and flowers and coloured clothes.
Lord Emmereth closes his eyes. He does not like looking at the people around him, at their joy. For a moment, again, his nostrils twitch as though he is smelling blood.
His eyes spring open. For a moment, in his closed eyes, he saw the city washed in blood.
The feasting lasts until sunrise. All night, the revellers in the House of Glass drink to the New Year, eat birds’ hearts in vinegar and candied peaches, chew keleth seeds, dance, kiss. In the Great Temple the High Priestess is stripped of her filthy robes, bathed, redressed in gold and silver; she joins her fellow priestesses and they eat together, sing, tell stories, offer up joyful prayers to the God. Her left hand trembles, sometimes. A look of pain comes across her face. At dawn the priestesses walk out together into the Temple Gardens. All across the city, people stand in the streets, raise their faces to the east, strain to feel the first rays of the sun. The sun rises over the bronze walls and sets them glowing like the fires in which they must once have been forged. The sky is brilliant as diamonds. Birds fly in the sky and they catch the sunlight and they are like brilliant gems. In the west, the last stars are fading. The Fire Star. The great single red star of the Dragon’s Mouth. All the birds of the air rise up together and sing.
The revellers stumble home, drunk and weary. Ragged figures in gaudy costume. Colours smudged and run. The candles in the Grey Square are burned down to nothing. Pools of wax drip down the Temple Steps. The time of change is over. Year’s End, Year’s Renewal. The flowers are dead and wilted. Crushed grey and dead. In the gardens of the Great Temple, a slave is digging a man’s grave.
The High Priestess sits in her bedroom high above the gardens. She could see the grave, if she looked out. She is falling asleep over a book of old stories. On the page open before her, a beautiful girl with silvery hair sits by a stream of clear water waiting for her lover, while around her strange little man things with legs like chickens tumble and dance. The girl, you might think, has something of the look of the High Priestess.
Lord Emmereth makes his way slowly up to his study. His head is aching, he is exhausted, perhaps a little unsteady on his feet. He, too, is falling asleep. But he must … he must do something. He sits in his study and stares at the sealed letter he received yesterday. His mind is very slow. But he has been thinking about this letter all night. He gets pen and paper, stares at the letter, begins to write.
‘I no longer require — Your services will not be necessary — I have changed my mind — I must regretfully —‘
He writes, and crosses out, and writes.
He shakes his head. Puts the letter back in his drawer. Tears the paper he was writing on up.
The sun shines down golden and brilliant. The famous golden light. A new year has dawned on the city of Sorlost.