The Empty Throne
This month’s stories — by authors Nibedita Sen, Yoon Ha Lee, Marie Brennan, and Benjamin C. Kinney — are free to read, but it’s our paying subscribers who allow us to keep publishing great stories week after week. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up
For the final free-to-read story of January, Benjamin C. Kinney takes us to 19th century Budapest, where a young woman wrestles with her father’s angels. Note: Should you be inclined towards tremendous footnotes, the author has linked one at the end of the story for you to peruse. ~ Julian and Fran, January 28, 2024
The Empty Throne
by Benjamin C. Kinney
Four sages entered Paradise. The first died. The second went mad. Acher became an apostate. Only Rabbi Akiva departed in peace. —Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14B, circa 200 CE
Lea would never lower her head like the other refugees. She hadn’t bowed before her father’s summonings despite all the threats and promises of Heaven, and she wasn’t about to start for earthly tyrants.
She lingered at the back of the ever-shrinking queue, though only a dozen other Hebrews remained between her and the tomb of Budapest’s gates. At the front of the line, a refugee surrendered their name to one white-coated Austrian soldier, their taxes to another. The soldiers wrote a name in their book, swept coins into their box, and did not look up.
Six more soldiers flanked the table, rifles in their arms. One of them watched the money change hands and spat into the dirt.
Lea twisted her fists in the straps of her pack and imagined the seventh plague: hail and thunder, crushing and burning and freezing all at once. A start to what the Austrians deserved for killing her father, her village, and her nation.
Alongside the half-rebuilt city walls, a heavy-jowled laborer leaned on his shovel. He watched the Hebrews and Austrians, his expression blank, the air around him thick with an invisible emanation.
Lea groaned. Another wretched angel.
So much for her one sliver of freedom. Had her father tasked his angels with watching over her for a year, a decade, a lifetime? It would have been just like him: more concerned with keeping an eye on his daughter than saving his own life.
Lea broke from the line and stomped toward the man. “Sir. Sir!” She lowered her voice. “You’re the angel Samriel, aren’t you?”
A smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Why do you ask?”
Lea scoffed. Celestial princes didn’t lie, but couldn’t he at least put some effort into dodging her question?
“Because you have a shovel. I’m right, aren’t I? Tell me straight.”
The man laughed, a sound like jewels poured from a bag. “That’s not what I asked. How could you see what I am?”
“The same way I— Wait.” The angel’s question only made sense if she’d assumed wrongly. “My father didn’t set you to watch over me? Rabbi Peneth, student of the Chatam Sofer?”
“You must be Lea. But no, I never met Rabbi Peneth in person. May his memory be a blessing.”
She shifted her footing. She’d never seen an angel on their own business. “What do you want?”
“I’m here because the gates of Gehenna are wherever they need to be.” He beckoned at Budapest and the line of refugees working their way through wrought-iron gates. “Nations, too, know the Angel of Death.”
Lea glared, but she couldn’t deny the truth. Free Hungary was dead in its cradle, its corpse teeming with wicked souls. But no soul stayed forever in Gehenna’s purifying flames. Punishment was a stepping stone on the paths toward Heaven or rebirth.
She said, “What comes after, for Hungary?”
“I cannot say. I only keep Gehenna’s gates.” Samriel swung his shovel across his back, and the blade hung behind his shoulder like a single forlorn wing. “It will be a trial for all who pass through here, living or dead. May I offer you my protection?”
“I don’t need your blessing.” Lea turned her back on the angel. She knew too well the protection of the holy: binding and worthless.
She returned to the queue behind her aunt. When she faced the soldiers, she imagined herself as one of Gehenna’s avenging angels, ready to herd Hungary through fire and pain to liberation.
The new Jewish girls’ school was a place of wonder and frustration. The black-vested teacher led the lessons in Yiddish, but under the conquerors’ mandate, he spent half the day teaching Hungarian and German. He even wrote the date in Christian numbers: not Iyyar 5610, but April 1850.
At the end of Lea’s third day, the flow of students clogged at the exit. She elbowed her way through the throng of refugees’ daughters, then became transfixed like the rest.
On the wall across the street, someone had pasted a broadsheet in Yiddish, calling the Hebrews of Budapest to rebellion anew.
The poster listed Jews executed by the Austrians, two dozen names in Budapest alone since the war’s end. The poster compared the occupation of Hungary to the Babylonian captivity, and exhorted the Jews to refuse the emperor’s new school tax. At the bottom, someone had signed with the pseudonym of the Talmud’s renegade sage: “Acher.” The Other One.
Two years ago, goyim and Jews had worked hand in hand to liberate Hungary from the rule of the nobles and the Austrian Empire. Lea had remained trapped in Tiszakécske as the Viennese army tore down their infant nation. Cities were once again allowed to exclude Jews, and Budapest bloated like a corpse downstream from battle. But the poster told her: some true Hungarians had survived.
One of Lea’s classmates stared at the broadsheet, kissed the edge of her scarf, and pressed it against a dead man’s name.
A whistle pierced the air. A girl shouted, “Soldiers!”
Lea pushed at the other girls, but they were already taking flight around her. The soldiers might be coming for the poster, but God alone could save a refugee girl who got caught in their way.
The group scattered, peeling away in ones and twos. Lea took the next turn off the thoroughfare and slowed to a walk. Down an alleyway, away from soldiers’ whistles, until she emerged onto a street she couldn’t name.
In Tiszakécske, angels would meet her at the town’s border and send her home. Getting lost would be a miracle beyond possibility. Here, people and buildings surrounded her instead, blocking all but a gray sliver of sky. The crowd seemed less than mortal, sullen and humiliated.
If prisoners of Gehenna walked among the refugees, Lea had no way to identify them. She knew the signs of angels, not of the wicked dead or the uncannier inmates of God’s prison. If a rebellious star trudged through the Erzsébetváros ghetto in search of work, Lea would never know.
Eventually she found her way to their tenement house. A gray-haired man stared at the door, his mouth working in silent worry.
When Lea tried to slip past him, he said in Yiddish, “Young miss, do you know whether Sára Peneth lives here?”
“She’s my aunt.” She could not make sense of this man, with traditional sidelocks but the beardless chin of an integrationist liberal.
His face brightened. “You must be Rabbi Peneth’s daughter!”
“I’m Lea Peneth. Yes. Are we related?”
“By a cause deeper than mere blood.” He put a hand over his heart. “On behalf of the Revolutionary Committee of Erzsébetváros, I am honored to welcome you to Budapest.”
She leaned closer. “You were looking for me.”
“Ever since I heard your father passed. There’s so much we might do.” He dipped his head. “My name is Elisha ben Abuya. Will you walk with me?”
Perhaps she ought to worry, following some old man she’d never met. But he’d given a Hebrew name, against all the imperial laws demanding German or Hungarian.
In the company of a Jewish revolutionary, she could walk with pride.
In the basement of a printer’s shop, cloud-gray light trickled in from a single window well. One wall was lined with locked cabinets, the height of rifles. A low wooden table carried a stack of familiar broadsheets, not yet signed.
Elisha said, “Shalom and welcome to our home. Not fancy, but more than some of the other committees have.”
“I can help you. My father—may the memory of the righteous be a blessing,” she said, and hated herself for letting slip the honorific of saints and sages. “This ghetto must have thousands of Orthodox people who know the name of Rabbi Peneth of Tiszakécske. Who should hear how the Austrians murdered the Chatam Sofer’s greatest student.”
Elisha raised his eyebrows.
“It’s the truth. He tried to stop them from searching his synagogue, and they killed him.” She bottled up the image and let the river of her anger carry it past.
She could feign a bottomless grief and twist his death into a rallying cry for a cause he never cared about.
It would be an insult to his memory, and the first of her weapons.
“A fine proposal,” Elisha said. “But what if you could do more for the revolution?”
“I can recruit girls at school, too. You should’ve seen them with your broadsheet!”
“All well and good. But I didn’t seek you to help with recruitment.” Elisha leaned forward, as hungry as a child of Exodus with their first glimpse of manna. “What if I said you could help me strike a lasting blow against kings and ghettos and prisons?”
Fire kindled in her chest like the sword of an avenging angel. “I would say yes. I would ask you how.”
“The answer begins with a story.” Elisha pulled out a chair and sat with a grimace of old bones. “Did your father ever teach you the Lamentations Rabbah?”
Tales from the old texts, so much like home. But barely two years ago, she had sat still for Father’s recitations every night.
“I’ve never studied the Lamentations. Go ahead, please.”
Elisha’s eyes grew distant. “Millennia ago, the prophet Jeremiah warned the people of Israel to repent so they would not be driven into exile. But they said, ‘Why should we fear any enemy? By invoking the aid of the celestial princes, we can surround the city with a wall of water, or of fire, or of iron.’ God grew incensed. Who were these people to avail themselves of God’s angelic host? So God changed the roles of the angels. The one who had dominion over water gained dominion over fire, and the one who had dominion over fire gained dominion over iron. So when the names of the angels were invoked, they did not respond, for they had been removed from control of those elements.”
“Go on,” Lea whispered. Father would never have permitted her to hear a story like this.
“In all the centuries since, mankind must have discovered the new names. But such knowledge would come only to the most learned and the most obedient.”
Elisha bowed his head, a supplicant before a capricious queen.
“Lea Peneth, daughter of Rabbi Peneth, heir of the Chatam Sofer. Teach me the names of the angels.”
A shiver ran up her arms. She had hoped to break the laws of man, not the laws of God. But every commandment came through the words of people like Father. Perhaps Elisha could ensure that celestial powers would never confine her again.
Still, his audacity took away her breath. It explained the pseudonym on the posters, at least. Of the ancient sages who developed the laws that became Talmud, only one turned his back on God and the Hebrew people. What better namesake for a man trying to subvert Heaven?
“No wonder you chose the name Acher.”
His smile sharpened. “The name wasn’t my choice, not at first. Rabbi Akiva refused to speak my real name after our falling-out.”
“You’re the Acher from the Talmud?” No more incredible than the angels summoned into her father’s study. But she knew the sin that condemned Acher to God’s prison. “I—I’m sorry. I can’t work with an apostate.”
“What do you think this word means, apostate? Here in this basement, I fight every day for the people of Israel. And I did not abandon God. I still believe in the parting of the Red Sea; in the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yes, the Holy One existed. Once.”
His mouth twisted with the taste of old bitterness. “When the other sages and I shared our vision of Paradise, not even Akiva noticed what I saw. Mere angels sitting on the Throne of Glory. Heaven and world abandoned by God.”
Lea swallowed. He must be mistaken; of course God still ruled. But might an absent God explain these centuries of suffering and exile, where a rabbi could be murdered at his synagogue gates?
Nonsense. “If that were true, what are the angels doing, with no Holy One to serve?”
“I believe they overthrew Him. But they rebelled in pursuit of power, not freedom. Look at what they have allowed! The Kingdom of Israel in exile. The world further degraded with every century. Injustice for the dead.” His lips curled into a snarl. “They have left me imprisoned here for one thousand, seven hundred, and twelve years. Every generation the city changes, but it is always Gehenna.”
“I thought this was about freeing Hungary.”
“Why do you think these are different battles?” Elisha leaned closer. “Help me bind the angels to the cause of freedom. Together we can tear down every power that keeps mankind caged and obedient.”
She could free herself forever from her father’s heavenly aegis; she could lead a revolution armed with flaming swords, with rain and hail and thundering wings. They could throw down any king, throw open any gate.
People would die. Towns would burn. But if change had a price, the fault lay with the old world’s stubbornness. She quashed her doubts like a rat, filthy and unkosher.
Let’s burn down these empires, she almost said. But she couldn’t trust a man without fear of God. If she handed over her father’s secrets, Elisha would no longer need her.
And she wanted to hold the match herself.
“I won’t teach you the names. But I’ll speak them for you.”
Lea had never been higher. She and Elisha stood on the wood-shingled roof of a four-story tenement, one of the tallest buildings in the ghetto. The city of Pest spread out before her, faded and dim beneath the gray light of dawn. Across the river, Buda Castle’s ruins stood in profile against the low, ashen blanket of clouds. The Austrians had erased every gain from the revolution, but destruction endured.
Elisha opened a satchel and tugged out a rolled-up carpet, far too large for its container. Lea helped him unroll the white wool, exposing a braid of gold-embroidered circles, every inch limned with Hebrew and Aramaic text that danced and reshaped before her eyes.
He took his place at the braid’s head and directed Lea to its tail. “Are you ready?”
She nodded, her mouth too dry to speak. Elisha began to chant in a swift, harsh language, an older version of Aramaic than any she knew.
A wind rose, and the clouds swirled overhead, darkening like an oncoming storm. Elisha shouted in Hebrew, “Answer us, Prince of Hail!”
A small, still voice pleaded to Lea. Her own voice, in her own head. Don’t do this.
She whispered, “Answer us, Prince of Hail, Right Hand of the Throne, named Mikha’el.”
The wind died. A soldier in an unfamiliar green uniform stood at the braid’s right flank. He studied Lea, and his brow furrowed with recognition.
The angel said, “Daughter of Rabbi Peneth, you should follow your father’s virtues, not his errors. The Holy One changed our roles for the sake of the children of Adam and Israel, not for Himself.”
Lea’s heart stuttered. If Heaven disapproved of Father’s conjurations, were God and the angels blameless for his deeds? Had he secretly disobeyed Heaven for all those years, amidst his life of scholarship and piety?
Pride, bright and unexpected, kicked her heart back into rhythm.
Mikha’el’s voice grew sour. “Acher. Of all the people in creation, did you think we would bend our powers for you?”
“I do not ask tyrants and usurpers for help!” Elisha raised his fist, and it flashed with fire and amber light.
Mikha’el roared, his voice a fourfold howl: man and eagle, lion and ox. Six wings sliced the air, and Lea threw herself to the rooftop. Thunder boomed over her head and cold gripped her flesh.
Ice battered Elisha’s face, but words of fire melted the frost from his hair. He struck Mikha’el in the chest, and amber light flared. An edgewise glimpse tugged at Lea’s mind, and she squeezed her eyes shut before her soul could flow into Elisha’s light like water poured from a jar.
A fluttering sound, a moment’s silence. Warmth crept back into Lea’s fingers. She reopened her eyes.
Elisha stood alone. His hands shone with amber light and fire, azure light and ice.
Lea’s mind lurched. Did he just slaughter an angel? She had dreamed of their comeuppance, but not this. Her certainty faded beneath the azure light of Elisha’s sacrilege. Did Heaven deserve such punishment, just for letting Father face his end like any other mortal?
“Elisha! What have you done?” She scrambled to her feet. “I thought you were going to compel the angel!”
He laughed, a sound like jewels cracked beneath a hammer. “This is what it takes to unseat kings, my girl. And it worked! Come, let us summon the Angel of Death! With his sword, Austria and all the powers of Heaven and Earth will know the same justice they’ve shown us.”
Elisha began his chant anew. Lea wrapped her arms around her chest and tried to rekindle her anger. White-coated soldiers collecting money at the gates of Budapest, setting fire to towns that harbored fugitives. Striking Father with the butt of a rifle, again and again.
The world was a shattered vessel, ruined and wasted. But no power here could repair it. Judgment and resurrection belonged to God alone, not to the Angel of Death or two avenging souls on a rooftop.
Elisha shouted, “Answer us, Angel of Death!”
Angel of Death, the Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep, named Lamech. Tears stung her eyes, but she wiped them clear. She could speak that name and watch Elisha seize power beyond measure. She could stay silent and face the amber light herself. The hand of the Holy One had saved neither Hungary nor Father, and it would not save her. But she knew one name Elisha might fear.
She whispered, “Answer us, Keeper of Gehenna, Guardian of the Gates, named Samriel.”
A workman stood on the braid’s right shoulder. Elisha shrank back from his jailer and swiveled toward Lea, his eyes wide with anguish. “Traitor! I thought you believed—”
Samriel scooped his shovel in an upward arc, and the clouds parted. A ray of morning sunlight peeked through the gap, bathing the rooftop in warmth.
Amber and azure vanished from Elisha’s hands, washed out like candles beside a lantern. He turned his face upward, entranced by the light from above.
The angel shouldered his shovel and sighed. “For most wicked souls, a single year in Gehenna is enough to purify them. I had hoped Acher would be ready.”
“He’s not wicked,” snapped Lea.
Samriel shrugged. “You chose to stop him.”
“I didn’t do this for you.” She swallowed. She held no power over the angel. “Are you going to punish him? Or me?”
“Never.” He raised his shovel toward the break in the clouds. “You know my work. I keep the gates and clear the path so the light of the world can comfort Gehenna’s inmates.”
Samriel clasped Elisha’s too-calm hands and then pocketed a fleck of ice. “He’ll recover when Gehenna moves on. He always does.”
She was better off without Elisha. The struggle for freedom was a battle for the living. But the traditions of the sages could still empower her and all her generation.
Lea returned to the embroidered carpet and lifted its edge. Samriel watched, neither helping nor impeding. If his gaze carried judgment, she could not read its signs.
She rolled up the carpet and slid it into Elisha’s discarded satchel. It fit, somehow.
The mysteries of Elisha’s magic would make a curriculum worthy of an entire school. She wouldn’t have to manage it alone. She knew where to find dozens of girls with grief and pride and a thirst for knowledge.
Hungary was dead, but its people lived. And no soul stayed forever in Gehenna’s purifying flames.
Samriel said, “Before you go, may I offer you my protection?”
Lea shook her head. But she couldn’t turn her back on the angel, not while questions still burned at her throat.
“Elisha said Heaven has no king. That God no longer rules. Is it true? Tell me straight.”
He tipped his head, slung his shovel across his back, and smiled. “Don’t you think mankind deserves an empty throne?”
Halfway down the stairs, she laughed. At least the angel respected her enough to put in some effort this time.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and former assistant editor of Escape Pod. His short stories have previously appeared in Analog, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis with a family full of humans and cats, but you can find him across the internet via linktr.ee/benckinney. For notes and footnotes on “The Empty Throne,” follow up at benjaminckinney.com/empty-throne.
“The Empty Throne,” © Benjamin C. Kinney, 2024.
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