Beloved (lore)

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Boons I grant you, oh bearer mine, but debts must be paid in time.
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Beloved is one series of lore entries that comes in the Lightfall's Collector Edition, alongside Breakdown and Bitter. It is a compendium of Empress Caiatl's that discusses key moments of her life in the empire as Princess Imperial to Emperor Calus to her later years as Empress.

I am three. My father is pregnant again.

The woman standing guard over his brood bower is not my mother. My father invites me to visit him while he nurses her young, but I am afraid to pass her. Her tusks are huge-ah! huge. She greets me kindly and gives me a scraping stick to scratch my father's hide. I do not understand where my mother has gone. In the stories Ahztja tells me, mates stay together their whole lives. But Ahztja is a Psion. Maybe there are things about mates that Psions do not know.

I go into the bower. I ask my father if my mother is dead.

He draws me close. He asks me to sing to my new siblings. His belly is soft and strong, fat with the brood pouches where the babies grow. I watch one climb to find his teat. I know that mother and father mate, that mother gestates the young and delivers them to father's pouches, that father broods them until they are weaned. Ahztja taught me how the mother must stand guard while he is sessile and vulnerable. She must keep the other females away from him, lest he discard her offspring and take on the brood of another female.

I ask my father if that is really true. Can a father choose to forsake his children?

Of course, my father says. "That's how you know that I love you. I could have turned you out of me, and I did not.

He tickles me. I laugh.

I am centuries old.

I am beating an assassin to death. Their helmet splinters in my fists. Their taunt rings in my sinuses: You are a child in a general’s costume. None of the vision of your father. None of the drive or strength of the one they call Dominus... You will not be remembered.

My father put those words in the assassin's mouth. He put the blade in the assassin's hands.

I have been stabbed in the ribcage, but the ribs of the Cabal are a closed vault. We evolved to face our enemy. I have been shot in the arm, but I wear armor, even in private. I have been shot in the hand, but I have another to make a fist.

I break the assassin's skull as I broke my father's heart.

I send the enactine blade back to him, as he will one day send it back to me.

I am three. Something has gone wrong between the woman and my father.

I slide on my greased belly through palace halls, pretending I am a whale-kayak. Guards smile at me and I smile back, but I keep my ear pressed to the floor.

Nearby, the woman bellows in his chambers

She says he has not kept his political promises to the ex-Praetorate families that approved their match. He is so wounded, he says. Doesn't his luscious body delight her? Doesn't the right to fill his pouches with her young bring her joy? She says she is not a sexist. and this is not the Era of Lead. She worries about policy and external security, not his lusciousness. He complains that she does not make him happy. She says there is more to life than happiness. He disagrees. She calls him weak. He calls her a curse and a killer.

She roars and strikes him. I gasp into the floor. It is the first time I have ever heard my father in pain. The guards stand very still.

Then there is a terrible sound. I am too young to understand it as the sound of a father opening his brood pouches.

"I do not want them anymore," my father the emperor says, quite softly. "If you cannot love me, then how could they? You can find another male with open pouches, some barracks beau. But be sure I never know him. I will not have by-blows."

The large-tusked woman screams in rage. She stampedes out, past the guards, past me. Her hands are full of little things.

I am thirty-five years old.

I have just returned to the palace from my first deployment on the cruiser Aedile Tlolol, showing our banner in the Sindû marches. I saw no action. I feel like a fraud. The sheltered Princess-Imperial who never left the rails of her father's brood pouch. He has demanded that the Evocate-General promote me to a staff position back home. She has refused.

In a tantrum, Father throws a tremendous celebration to commemorate my return. The streets of Torobatl run pulpy with trampled fruit. The skies rain cloudfry stunned by fireworks. I escape my attendants and stand in a corner of the palace ballroom, drinking pollened water and pretending I am back in my fighter.

"Your name is a prayer for war," the Evocate-General says.

I snap to attention. She laughs at me and offers a small harpoon of canapes and a cocktail with a middling-sized shrub. I decline, and she tsks. "You should enjoy yourself. It's your party." Although we both know it is his party.

"My father named me for a star," I say. "Nothing to do with war."

"Yes. But the star Caiatl was named for a myth. Not an old homeworld myth, either. A myth from the Age of Sails, when we conquered the stars. Surely you know it, assuming that you've been briefed on the OXA?"

"The Odyle Xenotaph Anarchive. Sometimes OXTA, depending on how you construct the acronym. The alien oracle that led us to the graves of Aark." Must be wary, now. OXA is a Psion myth, and the Psions are a sensitive topic. My father wants to free them from bondage. "It claimed to record the story of the galaxy, and to prophesize what may yet come."

"A black box for galactic civilizations, if you prefer it in pilot's terms." The Evocate-General nods to the pin on my right pauldron. I am conscious of my shaved-down tusks, of the sores left by the fighter's interface. "The doomed and the damned left the record of their downfall in the OXA. Your star got its name from the oldest myths in that archive. And when your mother told your father that story... the star became your name. A prayer that all will go as it must... and the way it must go is struggle."

"Aiat." Not a word in Ulurant or any other Cabal tongue. "But Caiatl means something else."

"Yes. 'It may not always go as it needs to go.’ A good name for a soldier."

"A strange name for a daughter." I say. "Your father chose it for your mother's sake. Out of love." I remain at attention. I do not look at her. "So she's dead."

The Evocate-General looks sharply at me; I can tell by the motion of her cocktail shrub in the edge of my vision. "He never told you?"


"Well." She sounds genuinely shocked. "Then. It's not my place."

"Evocate-General." A junior pilot should not address her senior officer so directly, but we are in the palace, and I am the Princess-Imperial. "What does your name mean?"

She grins. Her tusks are huge. "My parents were soldiers. Soldiers know mythology too."

I am seven years old.

We are at the Brunth Bloodbath, watching the games. Gladiators strive atop live whales drowning in a sea of wine. The defending champion, Ulurunth, pilots the whale named Denouncer from a cage of iron. Afterwards, we will see the whales rendered down, their blubber turned to candles, their hearts and sweetbreads auctioned off.

My father explains to me how the Rite of Proving predates all written Cabal history, how it was illustrated in the deep caves, where ancient females scraped the rocks with their tusks to make the first art.

The challenging gladiator's name is Ghau'ul. He is an outcast, as low as a slave, but he is mighty, My father admires him. "I was a slave, once." he tells me. He only speaks so openly when we are alone together. As if he's talking to himself. "I was utterly under the control of the Praetorate. I was Prince-Designate, and it was my job to promise a brighter future while they made their miserable progress. The empress before me was so old that her whole body was turning to bone. That's what happens to us, you know, if we live too long. In ancient days, those who ossified would be honored as statues, and carried about the herdlands to share their final wisdom.

"Her ruling days were coming to a close. But the Praetorate, those canny slavemongers, they wanted her to remain on the throne so they could avoid the chaos of a succession. They put her on a ship modeled after a landwhale. Its mouth was a scoop, so it would never have to stop to refuel. They accelerated it to the edge of light and flew it in an endless procession around our worlds. So that the empress, fossilized in slow time, would never die. So that I would never assume the throne."

"What happened to the old empress?" I ask.

"Oh, she took her own life, I think. Who could go on living that way?"

"Is that what happened to my mother?"

Patient Ghau'ul makes his move: leaps between whales, hurls Ulurunth off the top of her whale's control cage. She plunges sixteen meters and vanishes into the Denouncer's navel. The crowd roars. "By Acrius," the announcer screams, "she is in to the haft! She is stuck in the whale's belly button! He has killed her, he has won the bell!"

My jubilant father leaves me in his box and goes down to meet this Ghau'ul. I envy the gladiator who consumes my father's attention. I resolve to meet him myself.

Much later in my life, I will learn that the females who carved the first art in those caves were scraping lithium from the rock. It was a folk remedy for dark moods.

I am thirty-eight years old. I drown in the cockpit of my ship.

Pressure gel surrounds and fills me. Tiny, implanted pumps circulate the gel through my lungs and sinuses, through all the empty spaces of my body, so that I am one contiguous, equally dense mass without difference inside me, so that there are no weak places which can break and crush. For the first time, I truly understand the Evocate-General, and the reason she fears my father's reforms. They create differences. Differences can be points of failure.

My fighter accelerates at thirty felt gravities, down through the shrieking ionosphere of a gas giant, across the face of the storms below.

The Sindû escadrille flees from Aedile Tlolol, and I pursue. It is the cruiser's job to run the marathon, and the fighter's job to make the final sprint to interception. Our Harrowers are not the nimble Sindû fighters: ours are heavy missile sleds, built for our tough anatomies and roaring engines, booming ahead of the cruisers to release their payloads. It is risky: chase your prey too far before weapons release and you will be stranded on an unavoidable intercept vector. Damned by kinematics to plunge through the Sindu formation, clawing out with guns and CIWS, trying to survive your suicidal plummet through foes bloodied by your missile strike.

Under the strain, my wingman's aorta shears off his heart. I am stronger. I wait, crushed by the acceleration of my own ship's haste, until my missiles signal they are in the 90% bracket. I fire. The Sindû answer with jamming, with decoys, with interceptors, with the final close-in fire of their guns. They answer well.

Six little pinpricks of white light. Six kills. Another three survive. Three against one, and no delta-V left to maneuver. I am doomed.

I go in grim and laughing

The Aedile Tlolol recovers me two days later. I spill exhausted from the drained-out cockpit into the arms of waiting medics. They try to hustle me to the emergency baths. I bat them away; I rise to my feet; I roar to the gathered deck crew: "All nine! ALL MINE!"

And they roar with me—not adulation for the Princess-Imperial, but love for their new ace.

I am thirty-five. It is later the same night of my homecoming.

Moli Imoli says my father has just finished his fifth tub of pulque and unbuttoned his Imperial raiment. In the days of the Praetorate, public intoxication carried the death penalty.

Now my father dances among the miniature fleets, overturning two-meter models of doomsday weapons the Legions wish to build. He plays invisible drums with his hands, stomps his feet, and does the horns with his mouth. "BA BUHHH BUHHH," he roars, "BAAA BUHHH BUHHHH, come on, come on, damn you, will you not join in? Make a wonderful noise! BAAAA BUHHH BUHHHHHH! Stomp with me!"

"Your Imperial Majesty," Moli Imoli says, laughing brightly, looking furtively between my father and the icy Evocate-General, "Umun'arath has requested that we take a quiet moment to honor those soldiers far from the homeworld."

"Well, damn you, Umun," my father says, cheerfully. "I know what you're about. You want to drag your dour dolorous diligence into my house of joy. You want us to remember it's you who makes it all happen. Your legions and your fleets. The Praetorate may be gone, but the Cabal is still a fighting empire, grim with the knowledge that all who came before us were swept away by the dark flood. And everyone who's not fighting on your front is a scavenger. Dead weight. Is that right?"

"Your Imperial Majesty," the Evocate-General says, neutrally, "I thought only of tradition,"

"Oh, tradition, is it? Praetorate tradition? Like your blood etching and your Provings? Damn tradition! Tradition is how the old force the young to reenact their miseries!"

My father picks up a gigantic forked warship and looks through its central aperture at Umun'arath. "Damn you, can't you feel anything? Can't you live, Umun? I see how you prey on my daughter, you know"

He snaps his jaws shut so suddenly there is a little thunder.

"Your daughter seems to me a fine pilot," Umun'arath says.

"Oh, she seems fine to you, does she?" My father's face bulges through the sun-devouring maw of the wooden prototype. The actual warship will dampen gravity with a lambda-smoothing effect, so that its target star cannot hold itself together against the blast of its own heart. "She meets with your approval? Then why, Umun, do you haunt her? Why do you steal her from me and send her away to die in some crushing chasm of a gas giant, shattered by Sindû missiles, compressed by the depths, by the deep where the worms lurk! Isn't that what you say, Umun? In the heart of every gas giant, there is an abomination waiting to hatch? So why have you convinced my own daughter, my own flesh—"

Everyone is absolutely silent. Absolutely still.

"—to go play in the grave-womb of the worms? Instead of being happy here, on the homeworld, in Torobatl, where she could share my joy?"

I should not speak. But I do. "Father, I had a duty to the people to serve—"

"Duty! Duty!" He hurls the model like an accusation. Moli Imoli ducks; Shayotet moves as if he will leap on it and cover it with his body, like a bomb. "What you had was a voice whispering in your ear! A poison in your tea, a pox in your blanket, the lie that EVERYTHING IS GIVEN VALUE BY ITS SUFFERING AND ITS STRIFE!"

Everyone cowers before his shout. Except Umun, and me. I am shocked to find that I do not fear my father. I have listened to him cast off my own siblings. I have known him to murder beasts I loved too well. But I am not afraid of him.


Even the drums have stopped.

"CAN'T ANY OF YOU HAVE ANY FUN?" he bellows. I have heard quieter alarms in the simulator, when I fell into the dark hydrogen depths.


He flings his arms out to embrace us all. "WHAT'S THE POINT IF WE CAN'T HAVE FUN? WHAT OTHER POINT COULD THERE BE?"

He stares straight at me. He says, as if for my ears alone, "I would have had a thousand more young, if only I could have made you happy."

I am centuries old.

The Psion metaconcert bridges my mind to the other conspirators. Otzot conducts us from her OXA Machine replica, but it is Ghaul whose basso thoughts resound in me. He is the clean break we need, the clean break I need, from the Praetorate and my father alike. The Ghost Primus who will resurrect our empire.

All I have to do is play my part.

But on that day, unbidden, a memory comes to me. It is not mine. It is not Umun'arath's, because she never lets a stray thought slip. It is Ghaul's. His fierce, acquisitive psyche wanders from its place.

I see my father weeping.

I hear my father confessing.

"And then, Ghau'ul, I felt nothing! Nothing at all! It was as if all the gray stillness of my old ennui had flocked home from the days of the Praetorate, and gathered in a murder above me, so that all the world's tastes and terrors were shut out by their wings. I was thronged by well-wishers, but I was alone, like grit at the center of a pearl."

"My consort tried with all her art and patience to rouse me. But I would not be roused. I was alone again, save for that one precious life now brooding in me. One, one out of all the lives we had tried to make. This one survivor. And I felt... I felt that if this daughter left me, if she went out of me and into the world, I would be nothing. Nothing. Utterly without sense or reason. When I gave birth to my daughter, my beautiful star, I felt the immovable pearl shatter around me. But ever since, I have feared that it will close again. And this time, I will have no way to break it."

What I sense in Ghaul's memory of this moment is contempt. Contempt for a man who had everything and threw it all away in pursuit of mere sensation.

But what I feel, for the first time in my life, is understanding.

I understand my father. All at once, I understand him.

I am a few days older.

I am on my knees before my father, and I mean to confess it all.

I will betray all the conspirators. I will reveal their motives. Otzot's warnings against the chalice-worshippers within. The Evocate- General's wary eye on the enemy without. The Consul's longing for his blossom days, when the people knew their place and he still had his manhood. Ghost Primus Ghaul's brave new world of martial discipline and full-spectrum dominance. The Aedile's fear for his own survival, the Lictor's personal disgust, and my-

"My star," my father says. He is a round silk splendor on the throne. A world unto himself. His nipples are like dark poison fruit, bejeweled. I remember nothing of their taste. "I don't suppose you've come home for good?"

"Father," I say. "I want to ask you something."

He sips from a goblet. An overturned bell better than five thousand years old. "Of course, of course."

"What did you want, when you took the throne?"

"Want. Want." He beams at me. "Now you're asking the right questions! Not duty, but want. What I wanted, my star, was to make the world better... for you."

A piece of my heart wails to believe him. "But I was not yet conceived. What did you want for yourself?"

"Other than the chance to conceive you, my star? Well." He fishes around the edge of his throne, holds up something knobby and worn down. "Very few Cabal will ever see this. It is the Imperial Trinket. An ancient bone retrieved from the debris around a once-radiant black hole. Scholars tell me, Caiatl, that eons ago, a species lived around this deepness, and built an engine to tap its polar jets. But something came upon them from the dark and killed them all."

"I know the tale." One of the Evocate-General's proofs that we must become mightier yet to survive.

"Of course you do. Now, this bone is a predator, it feeds on the gap between what you have and what you want."

"Did you use it against the Praetorate?"

"Yes. And do you know what I found?"

"That you could not. Because you wanted nothing." "I was lost, Caiatl. Adrift in fog. Utterly unable to desire or need. All I could do was be. The bone has nothing to feed on if the wielder wants nothing. Yet ever since your birth reawakened me, Caiatl, I have prized above all else the ability to want, the hunger to exist as more than mere existence. That is what I want now. To feel. To be more than just a be-ing"

"What of my mother? Didn't you want her back?"

"Oh, child." He looks into his wine, into his bone, and he begins to salivate with tears. This is how Cabal cry: passing the anguish from the brain to the bowel, for digestion and expiation. "She had to care for me when I was but a husk of a man. I was selfish. I was cold. I broke too much between us. And..."

I cannot bear to hear him stumble any closer to grief. "And she left. And then you found someone else," I quickly finish.

"Yes. I tried to find someone more appropriate to my station. It didn't work. But at least I still had my daughter."

He folds the bone away. He smiles tenderly at me. "And what is a daughter except the wish to have something to love?"

I am exactly that old when I realize that my father, the Emperor Calus, is full of shit

The selfishness of it. The sheer calumny. To pretend that he did it all out of love for me. To insist that at the core of his festering psyche, there is one foundational trauma which explains him. I could not feel, so now I must feel everything! I could not want, so now I am a creature of unbridled appetites! I could not love, so oh, my daughter, love me! I did it all because I was afraid to be sad!

The notion that all this man's conquests and excesses could be explained by his deep fear of anhedonia is nothing but whaleshit. It is bait he sets out for my heart.

There will never be a moment when I understand my father. I already understand him. There will never be a final reconciliation. I am already reconciled. He is that he is. He was made by the Praetorate, and he made of it his empire. He made me, and now I must make something of myself.

I already know my father. I know him because he has spent his whole life showing me who he is.

The universe is not explained by the psychic terrain of a knowable few. The cosmos is not subject to the trite interior struggle to heal or self-actualize or escape some old wound. The Praetorate did not fall because it depressed my father but because he undermined their political control of the Legions. Ghaul did not rise because of his burning will to conquer but because he was the perfect plow for a revanchist Consul and a militarist Evocate-General to throw their might behind. The Sindû do not rebel because of their soaring need for freedom but because we exploit their worlds for fusion fuel and antimatter. Otzot does not fear Psion emancipation because she loves slavery but because her class's power depends on their moderating position between Cabal rulers and subject masses.

And my father does not deserve to be overthrown because I am nothing to him except his wish for someone to love him more and more and more.

He deserves to be overthrown because he is a bad emperor.

So I am exactly that old when I close my mouth and say nothing at all of the coup to come.

The weak wish for something to love them. They wish with the hunger of a whale to be loved, and their need grows in proportion to that hunger. The strong work to be worthy of love.

I will not be weak

I am as old as I have ever been when I record these memories

Torobatl is lost. Fallen not to the frontier threats Umun'arath obsessed over, but to the dark gate of her own obsession. Ghaul is gone, consumed by the god he sought to usurp. Aedile Imoli and Lictor Shayoter are dead, claimed by the same assassins Calus now sends for me. He even had his favorite tea seller murdered.

Calus is no longer my father.

As I write this, I am playing a little game that my troops love. We draw up imaginary legions from rosters of real maniples and centuries. The performances of those units in reality determines the success of the imaginary legion.

I play this game under a private name. I play it very well, despite fierce competition. The Legionaries joke that losing the homeworld was worth it just to shake up the game. Morale is high.

Calus could not have played this game because he values nothing except himself. In the end, this selfishness will destroy him.

He preaches of a contracting universe with himself at the center. A glorious tide of night that will reveal his grandeur as the final fixed axis of it all.

But the moment will come when he sees that he is not at that pole. That he is off on the edge, and the dark is rushing over him. And then he will be undone.

Whether or not I am there to see it makes no difference. I have a people to lead.