The Heart of Yptah
He passed under the thirteen guarded arches, six of clay and seven of silver, until he reached the golden doors barring the entrance to the Seat of the Sun. There he paused, facing the spears and shields of two-score of Yptah’s most hardened warriors, their faces inscrutable behind helmets scored with the permanent marks of war. He became intensely aware that the only thing between their blades and his skin was thin a summer robe.
But the swordbearers were expecting this visitor. The golden portal was opened and he entered. Wordlessly they swung the heavy doors shut behind him.
He stood alone in the innermost heart of the palace. It was silent as a cave, and the night air hung hot and heavy in the moonbeams.
He ascended the thirty-three colored steps, their subtle spectrum barely visible in the dark. At the top were several chambers, each lavishly furnished, and each utterly devoid of life. If there had been any manservants here before him, as there often were, they were gone now.
Tonight we’ll be alone, he thought, and I know exactly why.
The only light fell straight from the starry sky, entering through angled slits cut into the domed ceiling. The light laced between the intricate geometries carved across the floor, each filled with gold and lapis lazuli. With each step these patterns slithered and shifted; the impression was of floating across the surface of an ancient ocean. Whenever he paused so did they.
He moved deeper into the summer palace. The hair on his arms and neck prickled, the way it would in the presence of a predator. He could feel her up ahead, standing restless in the shadows, and a heady scent drifted from the royal bedchamber. He breathed it in, easily picking her scent from the mix of incense and the other far more potent substances hanging hot in the night.
His blood began to boil, and he braced himself for what was to come. Then he passed under the golden wings of the guardian statues. Every detail of their fanged faces was known to him, for he had walked this way many times before.
He passed over the threshold of the royal bedchamber. Here in the summer palace the bedchamber was open to the night sky, for no rain would fall for many months. The circular chamber was dark and hazy, all silks and bronze mirrors. A steaming stone basin was set in its center. Stars reflected in hard points across its still surface. He lingered beside this body of water, already under the spell of the smoldering incense.
She slipped from the silks, naked to the moonlight, and pressed herself up against his spine. Her left hand slid around his hips and under his robes. With her other hand she caged his stones. Something burnt icy against his skin; a heavy gold bracelet. The queen breathed on his neck, a lover’s wordless whisper, and he rose like a knife into the night.
For a time all thought was buried in lust.
When she was done with him she fell away; utterly spent, ecstatically alive.
They lay together, faces turned upwards, gazing out into the mystery of the night. It hung above them like a black veil, and the shimmering bands of light were patterns woven into its invisible folds.
Difficult not to lose yourself in it; that infinite darkness, difficult not to dwell on mystical thoughts.
“The sages,” he said, “claim each of those pinpricks is home to another world, set some incredible distance away.”
His face had a boyish cast to it, the flicker of a bygone innocence. “I find a deep comfort in that thought, and I often wonder if those worlds are anything like ours...I dream, sometimes, that our children might visit them.”
The light of the universe was mirrored in the midnight of her pupils when she whispered back, “Not all of them.”
He glimpsed her face then, and it was as the moon; the mask of some ancient enigma framed between dripping ebony sheets.
And in that moment even a man such as he, a man who had led Centaerym to war, who had swayed the Representatives by the force of his logic alone – even a man such as he was enthralled by the primeval power of such a face.
And so he lapsed into silence, waiting for the queen to tell him what weighed so heavily on her mind. It wasn’t just for physical release that he had been summoned here. Now that her body had been satisfied, she could unburden her mind, and speak freely, without the admonitions of her council or the analysis of the public gnostics.
After a while she did.
“A single ray of light from a distant star might fall through the eye of a tyrant and alter the course of his life. Another man may one night look up at the moon and be struck by her beauty, and this impulse once struck within him must then forever ripple outwards, like a wave through the ocean of infinity, and so might change the destiny of nations, might transform the surface of the earth. When a wave beats against a rock it erodes it, when it slides across the shore its energy is not lost, instead it seeps into the sands and then retracts, gathers again, only to pulse out once more. So intricate are the workings of Nature, so intimately interwoven. One part cannot be studied separate from the unity. Not unless one seeks to make fundamental occlusions.
“And yet Nature is ordered according to certain unalterable laws; water flows down a slope, the tides are ordered by the moon, the sun nurtures all life with its energy. This energy, throughout the Infinite, is in perfect balance. It cannot be taken from or added to, merely shifted from one state to another. To truly accept this law of Nature, to truly understand its colossal implications, means to acknowledge that the energy of a single thought may determine the motion of an entire universe.”
She paused, and when the queen spoke again it was with great difficulty, she seemed to be drawing her spirit back from the aether, back into the dark of the physical.
“The dream of the Pax is ended. Yptah hovers on the brink of the war which already ravages much of the Meditar...all those regions once covered by Aegonus’s peaceful legacy have fallen victim to the greed of Principaea and its broken Senate.
“My son, even with the power of the Emperor, is unable to stop those mechanisms set in motion so long ago. Principaea is a war machine, its society decadent and corrupt. The Guild of Merchants have stuck their venomed fangs so deep into the Senate’s immoral heart; its unshielded Representatives, the Consul...Naer has done what he felt was right, he’s acted where his father was too afraid to, at great cost to himself and his morals. My son believes in the greater good. He believes one man with power can make a difference, that the path to ultimate freedom must be hacked straight through the mountain of serpents obscuring the way.
“And so he has fallen into their trap. He has made the Red Army into an unstoppable force. He has failed to see that he can’t oversee every one of its deployments, or count on all his generals. Naer can’t micro-manage every legion of Centaerym, no man can control another’s conduct in battle, or during occupation. Warlike men are ruled by their stones, and by the exercise of violence. An army of thinkers is never effective; he has learned this from history, from the fall of Prussae. No, for an army to become truly unstoppable it must act unconsciously, immediately reacting to the chain of command. This is the occult wisdom of his army’s Red Eye: blinkered and blinded, enraged; ancient and potent symbol of the Blood God, who feeds only on the energy spilled in red rivers.
“All this should have been obvious to me. When I began to quarrel with Aegonus, when I allowed him to take our son and raise him in Principaea...these were the warning signs, these were the circumstances I turned my back on in bitter emotion.
“Naer...I sought to mold him, to grow him into the seat of the Emperor. To shape him after my own image. I assumed he would choose to shoulder the legacy of his father, but I ended up making that choice for him. I forced Principaea upon him. Aegonus insisted he be left to find his own path. This difference was irreconcilable, and it tore us apart.
“My intentions were noble, as were his. Yet I was misguided, blind to my insistence on control, obsessed with the calling of the Arbiters – utter folly. No mother should be severed from her son. No queen should ignore her neighbors, and no alliance be ended over matters of the heart alone.”
She paused here, still gazing up into the night. He knew to remain silent.
“Tomorrow I must stand before my people and offer them guidance. We are at a pivotal moment, gripped in the talons of an external power, the grip of my lost son’s Empire. Yptah seeks the wisdom of its leader. Yet my thoughts remain focused within; fixated on the state of my soul, and can focus on little else.”
He waited for her to continue, but the queen had revealed all she was going to reveal. He calculated how best to respond, words which would afford her insight. He drew on their past.
“Once, Nykara, many seasons ago, you told me how you suspected the inner and the outer realms are far more intertwined than we could ever imagine.”
The queen blinked. She turned her head to look at her lover.
“That was a good day, during a simpler time. I have not forgotten it.”
He slid his hand along her spine.
“Nor have I. In fact, I often dream of recreating it…”
She closed her eyes, thrumming.
“Perhaps, Tiber, we might indulge ourselves again before the trials of tomorrow.”
“I would welcome that.”
He engaged his other hand. She did nothing to resist.
“But first,” she said, “I would hear your thoughts on a field we have seldom explored.”
Curious, he slowed down his operations. They’d dissected just about every subject of inquiry during their many years together.
“What is this untapped subject?” he asked.
She smiled wide-eyed as she whispered it: “Death.”
He wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
“What do you mean?”
“I would hear your thoughts on the Afterlife. On the journey of our souls after they depart from our bodies.”
His hands ceased their explorations. A predicament. What to tell her? Do I offer her my true belief, or tell what I think she needs to hear, what will soothe her questing soul?
“Tell me, Tiber,” she crooned, “what will happen to me after I die? But be brief, for we are not yet dead, and right now my body feels very much alive.”
Her fingers began their own movements. He dare not hesitate.
“In Principaea we believe the gods of the pantheon to be nothing more than metaphors, stories to describe the many facets of the minds of men. We believe that the Afterlife is merely another story, a story to ease the minds of those who dare not face the reality that when we die we become food for the worms.”
“Is this truly what you believe?”
Her eyes bored into him; half in challenge, half in need.
“This life is all that we have. Every moment is our last, making our mortality both intensely sweet and unbearably bitter, and the gods envy us the intensity of our existence.”
He looked her straight in the eyes, believing his words, while thinking:
No, Nykara...the truth is I do not not know what to believe. This is but the story I was raised with, and it is the common belief of my nation, so I have adopted it, because...well, I have adopted it to fit in, and to avoid thinking about the alternatives. The truth is I am scared. I’m scared there is an Afterlife, scared that it does indeed resemble what is described in the ancient stories, and that my soul will not meet the standards of the Infinite…
And so he offered her the lie of his nation, hoping it would ease this troubled mind. Noble intention; illusory action.
The heart of Yptah hung in the balance.