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The Standing Dead
Ricardo Pinto
excerpt courtesy of Tor Books
The Standing Dead
Ricardo Pinto
Ricardo Pinto was born in Lisbon, Portugal. When he was six, his family moved first to London and then Dundee, Scotland. He received a degree in mathematics at Dundee University, and in 1983 moved to London without a job and bluffed his way into writing computer games for a local firm. Some time later, a friend whose company produced tabletop wargames asked Pinto to design a world. This led to the self-publication of his first book, Kryomek. Further work in gaming, that allowed him to continue writing, finally led to the sale of the three-volume epic The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, the first volume of which, The Chosen, was published in 1999.

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Father, do you remember me telling you I had found a lover? Then I believed he was a divided sybling: at the election I discovered him to be Osidian Nephron. I did not easily forgive him the deception. Can you understand our wish to have one last day together before we are parted for ever by his Apotheosis?
No search will find us. Expect us in the Labyrinth on the thirty-second day of Tuta; the thirty-third at the latest.

your son, Suth Carnelian
(a letter sent by Suth Carnelian to his father, the Ruling Lord Suth Sardian, at the time, He-who-goes-before)

   Beneath the imperious gaze of the funerary colossi of the Chosen, the fires lit by a hundred thousand tributaries formed a trembling field of light on the Plain of Thrones. High above the colossi, on a balcony cut into the cliff enclosing the plain, stood the Ruling Lord of House Suth. He turned his head enough that the eyeslits of his mask shielded his eyes from the dying sun, then surveyed the scene below. Flanked by the immense, towered saurians the barbarians childishly called dragons, the crowd seemed numberless. More than a third were the children brought by tribes from beyond the Commonwealth to pay their flesh tithe. The rest were either their kin or the deputations the cities had sent with their taxes of coined bronze. All had cowered there for days awaiting the ceremony of the Rebirth which would occur as the Rains broke over the crater of Osrakum. This Rebirth would include the Apotheosis of a new God Emperor.
   Suth withdrew into the gloom of his apartments in the cliff so that he might free his white, unpainted hands from his sleeves without danger of them being tainted by the sun. He unfolded a parchment under a lamp and reread the glyphs drawn on its panels. The profiles of the faces in the glyphs were unmistakably in his son's hand. Further, the letter had been sealed with Carnelian's blood-ring. The letter promised that he would return on the last day of the year, but that had dawned and passed and his son had not returned.
   Suth put the letter down, removed his mask and set it on top, then rubbed his eyes. He stretched his hands out and watched their tremor. To cheat the weakness from his unhealed wound, he had had to revert to the drug the Wise had given him. The powder gave him only a febrile strength. It was the Empress Ykoriana's agents who had wounded him, trying to ensure he did not reach Osrakum in time for the election. Foolishly, the election won, he had thought her beaten. Cursing softly, he let his gaze wander through the columns to the far shadows of the hall. If only he had probed Carnelian at the time when he had confessed to finding a lover. Neither the relentless demands of the sacred election nor the brittle mind-state the drug induced should have made him so dangerously uncurious about his son's expedition. Three days had passed since Tain had been scared into yielding up the letter. He had been keeping faith with Carnelian's command that he should only deliver it at nightfall on the day Carnelian disappeared. Though a half-caste, a marumaga, Tain was still Suth's son, but even then, in wrath, he might have condemned the boy to crucifixion had it not been that he knew Carnelian would never have forgiven him.
   Sinking on to a couch, Suth dropped his head into his hands. That Carnelian should choose to disappear at such a delicately balanced time was bad enough, but that he should do so in company with the God Emperor elect, that was a disaster. Suth had not yet recovered from that moment of sickening premonition when he had read the letter for the first time. With terrible threats he had wrung from Carnelian's household everything they knew about his forays before the election. The clothes he had taken, the time away, all suggested a journey of some distance. Since at the time Carnelian had been with the court in the Sky, a descent to the Yden had been the only plausible solution. Suth had recalled rumours that routes existed down from the Pillar of Heaven other than the Rainbow Stair. That morning, when he could bear to wait no longer, he had dared to send a search party of his guardsmen into the Forbidden Garden of the Yden. Fear for his son had made him risk alerting the Great to the situation. Of course, the expedition had returned from the vast water meadows with nothing.
   Time was running out.
   One of his blinded slaves disturbed his misery. 'Master, the Ruling Lord Aurum is at your door craving audience.'
   Regarding the man's stitched-up eyes, Suth mused that even Aurum was a welcome distraction from his imminent meeting with the Wise. Suth sent the slave to let him in, then rising, put on his mask and composed himself. Aurum must have found out about the disappearance of Osidian Nephron. Soon all the Great would know. Suth felt his grip on hope weakening.

   'My Lord, a rumour led me to seek an audience with the God Emperor elect but I was turned away by ammonites. Why do the Wise seclude Nephron?'
   Unmasking, Suth forced Aurum to follow him; he wished to see the old Lord's eyes. Under their misty blue survey, Suth could see that his weakness was betrayed, his misery. Aurum's eyes narrowed.
   'My Lord . . .?'
   Suth handed him Carnelian's letter. Aurum hesitated before taking it, then opened the panels and read. Suth watched as what little colour there was in Aurum's alabaster face drained away. The blue eyes lifted.
   'Is there still hope they will return?'
   Suth shrugged. 'Soon it will make little difference. The Wise have summoned me to appear before them.'
   The implication was not lost on Aurum. Suth, as He-who-goes-before, could not easily be summoned even by the Wise. Aurum flourished the letter.
   'They know about this?'
   'Some of it.'
   Aurum nodded. 'They will offer Molochite the Masks.'
   'What else can they do? The Commonwealth must have a new God.'
   As Aurum sagged, Suth saw how aged the Lord was. Aurum lifted a pale hand corded blue with veins and began to massage his temples.
   'Without the protection of Nephron as God Emperor, both of us will be exposed to prosecution by the Wise.'
   Suth knew well how many times they had transgressed the Law-that-must-be-obeyed so as to reach Osrakum in time for the election. 'It is Ykoriana and Molochite that you should fear. Neither mother nor son will forgive our opposition.'
   Aurum bared his teeth. 'She must be behind this.'
   'Imago Jaspar as well, no doubt.'
   Aurum's eyes wandered. 'There is still time for the God Emperor elect to be found?'
   Staring blindly, Suth shook his head. 'I do not believe even their bodies shall be found.'
   'She would not dare.'
   'She dared to slay her daughter in these very halls.' Suth felt as if he were made of ice. 'I have lost my son.' Even to voice those words made real the horror he had been denying for days. 'I should never have let you persuade me to return. In my blood I knew that I would lose him. I should have kept him on our island far from this nest of serpents.'
   Suth allowed his gaze to wander over the pillars of jade, the pavement of pearls; to soar up into the vaulted vastnesses where rays of light revealed exquisite carvings. Such splendours were sour without his son to share them.
   Aurum fixed him with a stare. 'Suth Sardian, this is not the time to grieve. We must fight together if we are to save ourselves. The least we face is that, with the compliance of the Wise, she will seek our impeachment before the Clave.' Aurum's eyes lost hold of Suth's face. 'The worst, exile?'
   Suth's laughter echoed through the hall. 'Of all the world, Aurum, you should know that exile holds no terror for me. Let her do her worst. If she has truly murdered my son, what more can she do to me?'
   'Depose you.'
   Suth tossed his head back. 'What pain that? Without my son, my lineage will die with me.' With smouldering rage he contemplated the thought that Spinel and the rest of the disloyal Suth secondary lineage should rule his House.
   'My Lord can get himself another son.'
   'Do you imagine that when she is married to Molochite and once more empress, Ykoriana would allow me to make a high-blood marriage?'
   Aurum regarded the perfect gold face of his mask lying in his hand. 'You may choose to consider deposure or exile with equanimity, my Lord. I will do anything to avoid it.'
   Suth watched him put on the mask, then begin his journey to the door. Suth had no doubt that Aurum intended to throw himself upon the mercy of Molochite. Unless Carnelian returned to him alive, Suth would never pay homage to the new God Emperor nor to his mother and soon-to-be wife.

   It seemed a bright clearing up ahead, but it was lamps that lit the trunks of the sepulchres. The sight brought hope to the guardsmen who had crept through the stone forest of the Labyrinth after Suth and the ammonite guide.
   Pointing ahead, the ammonite turned its silver face. 'My masters await.'
   Suth gave a nod, dread welling in him at the thought of confronting the Wise. The silver masks of other ammonites showed their cordon around the clearing. Their purple robes were turned black by the brooding night. Suth opened his hand to show them the Pomegranate Ring. It was the only proof he had that he was He-who-goes-before, for the Wise had insisted that he come in secret, without his Ichorians, without his lictors who the Law demanded should be always at his side carrying the standards of his twin legion. They had even demanded that he should not wear the mask with its sun-rayed eye. So it was that he had come shrouded, with his own people and wearing one of his own masks, because he knew that, for his son's sake, he had put himself in the power of the Wise.
   An ammonite came forward, hand raised. 'Only you may pass, Seraph.'
   Suth turned. 'Wait for me here, Tain.'
   His son bowed. Suth had brought the boy to let him know that he had forgiven him.
   Passing through the ammonites, he walked towards the braziers around which stood four of the Wise, each with a childlike creature wearing a dead face of silver. Suth saw by the staves these homunculi were holding that their masters were none other than the Grand Sapients of the Domains Tribute, Rain, Labyrinth and Law. This last made his heart quail.
   'My Lords.'
   At his words they turned, each with his fingers meshed about the throat of his homunculus. Tribute's creature spoke.
   'Where then, My-Lord-who-goes-before, is the God Emperor elect?' Its voice was beautiful but unhuman.
   Crowned with crescent moons, the long, eyeless masks of the Sapients each had moonstone tears dribbling down the left cheek. Suth knew the Sapients were sightless but felt they could see him through the eyes of their homunculi.
   'I know not.'
   The homunculi echoed him so that from the vibration in their throats their masters might be able to feel what Suth was saying.
   'When his disappearance was discovered, you assured us that he would return to us today,' said Rain.
   'I myself had received such assurance.'
   'From whom?' said Law.
   Suth was still reluctant to reveal Carnelian's part in the disaster.
   'We intend to apply to the Clave for access to your House, Seraph,' said Labyrinth.
   'Your household shall be brought before our inquisition,' said Tribute.
   'Your defiance now, Seraph, shall only make our interrogations more intrusive,' said Law.
   Suth knew they had him snared. He began explaining to them the contents of Carnelian's letter.
   'I believe they went together into the Yden.'
   After the homunculi had finished their muttering they began speaking all at once, streaming sounds that made no sense, their shrillness betraying their masters' agitation.
   Silence fell.
   'If you had told us this before, we might have searched for them,' said Labyrinth.
   Suth's fear burned to anger. 'Do not, my Lords, foist the responsibility of your indecision on to me. You chose to accept what I told you because you feared to act in case the Great should discover the disappearance.'
   'Now the Seraphim must be told,' said Rain.
   'When the God Emperor elect disappeared, the Regency should have passed to the Dowager Empress,' said Law. 'You have led the Wise into transgressing the Law-that-must-be-obeyed and so put us in her power. Now we discover that we must overturn the result of Holy Election. Without proof, not only the Seraphim but the House of the Masks will suspect impropriety.'
   Suth could not let that go. 'I do not believe that my Lords can be wholly unaware that there are two in the House of the Masks and several others of the Great who will have no need of suspicion, knowing better than we what they have had done to Osidian Nephron and my son.'
   'Be silent,' the homunculi chanted in unison.
   Suth stared at the Sapients, startled that they should address him thus.
   'Alive or dead, we shall find Osidian Nephron,' said Tribute. 'If you had not delayed us we might have found him in time. Now, it is he that will be sacrificed in place of his brother. The Jade Lord Molochite shall assume the Masks and we will transform him into the Twin Gods when the Rains begin the renewal of the earth in two days' time.'
   'A propitious date mirroring the elevation of his grandfather, Nuhuron, on the same intercalating day at the beginning of the last forty-eight-year cycle,' said Rain.
   Law leaned forward and made his homunculus speak. 'As for you, Seraph Suth, for the part you have played in this both you and your House shall be punished.'
   Suth was chilled by the certainty of that statement. The Wise were speaking as if the Great were directly subject to their will. It was his heart that urged him to speak to them about Carnelian. He considered whether it would serve only to draw down on him their wrath, but in the end, he had to know.
   'And my son?'
   'If he is found, we shall examine his part in this affair so that he may receive punishment according to the Law.'

   Suth commanded that the ammonite guide not take him back to his halls in the wall of the Plain of Thrones, but instead south-west towards the Forbidden Garden. Soon they were lost among the winding ways. Though the faces of the sepulchres were hidden in the darkness of the ceiling, Suth could feel their gaze on him. A paleness far away showed that the world outside was feeling the dawn. As they neared the edge of the Labyrinth, he could see some rays of sun catching on the Sacred Wall. The sky was clotted with angry cloud. The Wise had declared that the downpour would begin in two days' time. The Skymere was still in dusk. The brilliance of the terraces was still subdued, but he could see how they cascaded down the slope towards the sombre lagoons of the Yden. He searched them, hoping for some quick, pale movement that might have been Carnelian. Suth could not remember when his life had not been dominated by his passion to save his son. Now, at the very brink of victory, he had lost him and with him, everything.

Copyright © 2002 Ricardo Pinto

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. This excerpt has been provided by Tor and printed with their permission.

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