The Goblin Emperor: Chapter Four (Excerpt)

Check out Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, available April 1st from Tor Books! Preview the first two chapters, then read chapter three here, and chapter four below. You can also read Liz Bourke’s review of the novel here on Tor.com.

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment. Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody.

 

 

 

4
The Funeral at the Ulimeire

 

The Ulimeire was on the outskirts of Cetho, the city that circled the Untheileneise Court like a crescent setting for a pearl. Descending from the embarrassingly large imperial carriage after Lieutenant Beshelar and Cala Athmaza, Maia thought unhappily that it might as well have been in another world.

The temple and the wall around the graveyard were made alike of crumbling red brick. The pillars of the temple portico were in need of a coat of whitewash, and their capitals were shaggy with abandoned birds’ nests. Weeds thronged the cracks between the paving stones of the walkway from gate to temple, and the grass in the graveyard had grown so tall that the tops of the gravestones appeared like small, barren islands in a tempestuous and brittle sea.

“Serenity,” said Beshelar, “are you sure—?”

“Yes,” Maia said. “Their deaths weigh no lighter on the earth than our father’s.”

As Cala opened the gate, a stout black-robed prelate, as shabby as his temple, appeared in the doorway. He stared, mouth agape beneath his dented moon-mask, and then all but threw himself down the stairs. He prostrated himself, and from the dark interior of the temple, there was a great soft rustling as the congregation did the same wherever they happened to be standing.

Thou must grow accustomed, Maia said to himself as he followed Beshelar and Cala toward the temple. Thou art emperor, as Setheris told thee. And at this juncture, truly, thou canst be emperor or thou canst be dead. Which dost thou prefer?

“His Imperial Serenity, Edrehasivar the Seventh,” Beshelar announced; Maia wished he wouldn’t.

“Please,” Maia said to the prelate, “rise. We wish only to pay our respects to the dead.”

The prelate stood up, rubbing his hands anxiously on the skirts of his robe. “Your Imperial Serenity,” he said. “We had no idea… that is, we weren’t informed…”

And someone should have been sent to inform you, Maia thought wearily. He had imagined somehow that he would be able to slip into the back of the temple and listen to the service without confessing his identity, but that had been a child’s wonder-tale, nothing more.

He said, “We are sorry, truly.”

“Serenity!” Beshelar hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

“We wished only to acknowledge the loss,” Maia continued, raising his voice so that the people inside the temple might hear him clearly, “that all of you have suffered. We did not wish that to be forgotten. We did not wish you to feel that… that we did not care.”

“Thank you, Serenity,” the prelate said after a pause. “We… that is, the temple is very small and not what you are used to. But, if you— and these gentlemen—would like to share in our worship, we—” and he used the plural, meaning both himself and the congregation. “—we would be…” He trailed off, searching for a word. “It would be an honor.”

Maia smiled at him. “Thank you. We also would be honored.” He ignored Beshelar’s appalled expression and followed the prelate up the stairs into the temple.

He considered and discarded the idea of telling the prelate that his Ulimeire was preferable by far to the dank and grimy Othasmeire at Edonomee. It was wiser for him to say as little as possible, and he feared besides that the prelate would take it as some sort of joke. But it was true. The Ulimeire was shabby and run-down, but clean, and the whitewash that had not been applied to the pillars had clearly been put to better use on the walls. The shy people, elves and goblins, in their much-mended and ill-fitting blacks—very like the clothes that Maia himself had been wearing when he had left Edonomee centuries ago that morning—were the family and friends and lovers of the crew of the Wisdom of Choharo, of the servants whose lives had been lost with their imperial masters. Many of the mourners wore livery; one or two of them were people he thought he had seen in the Alcethmeret earlier in the day. He saw grief and pain on their faces and wished he felt anything of the sort in his heart. He wished he had had a father worthy of mourning.

It took some time to find a place to put an emperor and his nohecharei in the Ulimeire that did not cause great discomfort and embarrassment for all concerned, but between the goodwill of the congregation, the prelate, the emperor, and his maza—and the remarkable and pointed forbearance of his guard—the matter was managed, and the prelate, taking his place before the altar of Ulis, as clean and shabby as the rest of the temple, began the service for the dead.

He spoke the words very simply and honestly, unlike the affected intonations and dramatic pauses of the Archprelate of Cetho who had officiated at the funeral service for the Empress Chenelo. Maia was disturbed to discover how clear and sharp his memories of his mother’s funeral were. Ten years might as well have been as many days.

The Empress Chenelo Drazharan had died in the spring of her son’s ninth year. She had been ill for as long as he could remember, his gray, stick-thin, beloved mother. Even to a child, it had become clear that winter that she was dying, as her eyes seemed to take up more and more of her face and she became so thin that even a badly judged touch could bruise her. She spent much of that winter and early spring in tears, dying and homesick and desperately afraid for her son.

She had been married very young—barely sixteen—and the marriage her father’s idea. The Great Avar of Barizhan wanted to see his daughter an empress. The Elflands, hostile to all foreigners though they were, desperately needed cordial relations with Barizhan, their only access to the rich trade of the Chadevan Sea, and so Varenechibel’s Witness for Foreigners had convinced him to agree to the marriage. It had been a bad decision all around, Chenelo told Maia in the days before her death. Her father, bitter in his disappointment that his wife had given him no sons—only two daughters, and one of those ill-favored and half-mad—had cared nothing for Chenelo and everything for the idea of treaties to secure his northern borders against his much larger and more powerful neighbor. The Witness for Foreigners had been an ambitious, greedy man. When Maia had been two years old, the Witness had been caught taking bribes from Pencharneise merchants. Varenechibel had sent Chenelo a gruesomely explicit engraving of the execution.

Varenechibel himself, still mourning for his third wife, the Empress Pazhiro, who had died five years previously, should not have considered marriage at that time, especially not to a girl young enough to be his daughter, a foreigner, a barbarian, a goblin; she had gained the cruel soubriquet “Hobgoblin” among the court before she was even married. Varenechibel found her ugly, boring, unappealing, but his lack of interest in her would not have deepened to hatred had it not been that their wedding night, the necessary legal consummation of their marriage and the only time Varenechibel claimed his marital rights of her, resulted in her pregnancy. Considering the unambiguity of the evidence that she had come a virgin to his bed, he could not even claim the child was not his.

Pazhiro had died in childbirth, and perhaps if Chenelo had done the same, he would have forgiven her. But she survived, and produced a healthy son as dark and ugly as herself; Varenechibel said viciously that if she thought she could replace Pazhiro and Pazhiro’s last, dead child, she was very much mistaken. As soon as Chenelo was able to travel, she and her child were sent to Isvaroë, where she would spend the last eight years of her life.

She had died on a gray, windy day in mid-spring, and since a dead empress was marginally more acceptable to Varenechibel than a living one, preparations were immediately put in train for a high ceremonial state funeral. It was also true that the Great Avar, who made no protest about his daughter’s treatment while she was alive—and saw nothing to criticize in the idea that a man would want no more congress with his wife than was necessary to beget a son—would have been grossly offended if less than full respect were paid to her corpse. The quiet house at Isvaroë was invaded by secretaries, functionaries, clerics. Most of them, when they noticed Maia at all, looked at him and sighed and shook their heads. He hid in his mother’s bedroom as much as he could.

If he could simply have lain down and died of grief, he would have. His mother had been the world to him, and although she had done her best to prepare him, he had been too young to fully understand what death meant—until she was gone, and the great, raw, gaping hole in his heart could not be filled or patched or mended. He looked for her everywhere, even after he had been shown her body—looked and looked and she could not be found.

He wept only in private, not trusting the strange adults who bustled around him, breaking the peace of Isvaroë with their loud voices and continual racket of packing and planning. And then came the day when they told him he had to leave Isvaroë, and took him in an airship to the Untheileneise Court, in which he had never fully believed, being always half-convinced that it was merely part of his mother’s stories.

He sat now, in this clean shabby temple to the moon-god, who was also the god of dreams and death and rebirth, and remembered the cold echoing marble of the Othasmeire of the Untheileneise Court, with its separate satellite shrines for each god. But there was not room in the shrine of Ulis for a full state funeral, and so Chenelo’s bier was placed beneath the dome’s oculus, as the biers of the Empress Pazhiro and the Empress Leshan had been. Instead of this single prelate, there had been a flock of clerics and canons surrounding the red-robed Archprelate, a miasma of incense, and crowds of whitehaired, white-faced elves in elaborate black who stood and listened to the service silently and without emotion. Here, they were almost silent, but there were the sounds of sobs choked back; the rustle of cloth against cloth as one mourner comforted another; even, halfway through, the wail of a child realizing loss, and the quick wordless shuffle as people cleared a path for her father to take her out. No one, Maia thought, would have done as much for him.

He remembered standing silent and stony-eyed beside the noblewoman given the thankless task of shepherding him through the funeral. Although the account Chenelo had given him of her marriage had been carefully impartial, carefully judged to what a child could understand, nevertheless his fierce worship of his mother had led him closer to the truth than she had ever wished him to go. It was his father’s fault, he understood, and this his father’s court, and he imagined that it would please them to see him weep. So he had not wept, not then, although he had wept every night for a week in the cold, musty bedroom he was given at Edonomee. Probably, he thought ruefully, he had frightened that noblewoman very much, and he made a mental note to ask Csevet if she could be found.

The prelate of the Ulimeire used the short form, unlike the interminable ceremony that had been used for Chenelo and would be used for Varenechibel and three of his four sons. The longest single part was the list of the names of the dead and the list of those who survived them. Hesitantly, with a shy glance at Maia, the prelate added at the end, “The Emperor Varenechibel the fourth, Nemolis Drazhar, Nazhira Drazhar, Ciris Drazhar, survived by the Emperor Edrehasivar the Seventh.” Blinking back a sudden prickle of tears, Maia bowed to the prelate over his clasped hands as each of the other mourners had done in turn, and cared nothing for the stiff, shocked disapproval of Beshelar at his elbow.

With the service concluded, it was clear to Maia that the prelate and congregation would only be shamed and embarrassed at the spectacle of their emperor picking his way through the tall yellowing grass to the twelve new graves. And there was no difficulty in extricating himself; he simply quit fighting Beshelar for the reins of the situation, and Beshelar with grand pomposity did the rest. Maia smiled at the prelate and the prelate smiled back. Beshelar all but physically strong-armed the emperor into the carriage, crowding Cala and himself in behind. The coachman clucked to the horses and they rattled off.

For ten minutes, no one said anything. Beshelar looked like he was reinventing most of Setheris’s favorite epithets—with “moonwitted hobgoblin” at the top of the list—although of course his sense of propriety was too great to allow him to utter them. Cala stared dreamily out the window, as he had on the way to the Ulimeire, and Maia himself clasped his hands in his lap and contemplated their darkness and ugly, lumpish knuckles.

Then Cala turned and said, “Serenity, why did you wish to attend the service?”

He sounded genuinely curious. Maia said, “I don’t know.” He did know—he knew all too well—but he did not want to discuss his father with his nohecharei, with anyone. Let that truth be buried with him, he thought. It profits no one for Edrehasivar VII to speak of his hatred for Varenechibel IV. And the worst of it was that he did not even hate his father; he could not hate anyone of whom he knew so little. The thought of Beshelar’s shock and disgust was exhausting, like the thought of carrying a massive boulder on his shoulders for the rest of his life.

Then he realized he had forgotten to use the formal first, and Beshelar would be shocked and disgusted anyway. He looked at Cala to avoid looking at Beshelar, and found the vague blue eyes unexpectedly sympathetic. “Nothing can make death easier,” Cala said, “but silence can make it harder.”

“Speaking helps not,” Maia said.

Cala drew back a little, like a cat tapped on the nose, and silence— whether hard or easy—filled the carriage, unbroken, until they reached the Untheileneise Court.

 


The Goblin Emperor © Katherine Addison, 2014

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