Weekly Free Short Story – Brothers Shadow (A Jewel Machine Universe Story)

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Brother’s Shadow

17th Day of Honesty, 737 EU

Who am I?

A shadow?

He flexed his fingers, studying them in the light from a nearby diamond street lamp. The fingernails were chipped, dirt forming dark stains beneath the beds, the cuticles gouged in spots. They were slender, possessing a certain dexterity about them. His shoulders rolled and he bent his knees. Familiarity grew and grew in him. The clothing fit. The boots were comfortable, laced up tight. They were worn and scuffed, like the rest of his clothing. The trousers had frayed hems and were belted with a length of gray rope. Extra pockets, weighted with tools, were sewn down the thighs. A stained shirt, mended in several places, spilled over his lanky frame.

He nudged the dead man’s naked foot behind the refuse bin resting in the alleyway, hiding it from the main road. He straightened his back and nodded in satisfaction. Everything felt in place. The fight had been swift.

Over.

“Phred!” a voice hissed from the other end of the alley.

That’s who I am. Phred.

Phred turned and smiled to the even skinnier figure, a youth hovering between boyhood and adulthood, standing at the alley’s mouth. The newcomer had the same bulbous nose, readily identifying the pair as brothers. Their builds were the same: tall and lanky, their hair the same dirty-brown, though the younger had a lock of pure gold curling in the middle, a memento of their mother.

“Thought you might have bungled it,” Phred said, sauntering through the alley without a care of the dead person being noticed. “How long does it take to start a fire?”

“Not as long as it took you to give Cerine a tumble behind the Plucked Rooster last night,” said the younger brother. Nayton flashed a toothy grin.

Phred returned it. “Well, she’s a wet thing, ain’t she? Knows how to get a man’s seed flowing right quick.” He ruffled his younger brother’s hair. “One day, you’ll learn that. Have her callin’ out to the Colour of Virtue.”

Nayton scowled and stepped out of reach. “You know I’ve tumbled my share.”

“When you pay, it don’t count, little rooster.” Phred stretched his back. “So, we clear?”

“You shoulda seen those Gas House boys racin’ to save their favorite brothel. We got our opening.” The Gas House Gang worked in the heart of Kash. If they caught a pair of Roosters strutting in their territory, they would split the brothers’ heads open.

Especially considering their business in the prosperous district this night.

Phred nodded. “Then let’s yank out their short hairs.”

Phred sauntered down the dark street with a boldness. The cobblestones of the great city of Kash gleamed from the rain that had swept through an hour before. The air still held that oily tang clinging to it. He whistled as he walked, his younger brother racing to catch up.

They were burglarizing tonight.

It was a scheme Phred had been working on and off again for the better part of a year. Braffan Dacerin’s strongroom bulged with gold and gems. The merchant made his wealth importing the exotic goods of Tethry, Democh, Zal, and Ny’zil. He sold it to the nobles and even the king. He had wealth to spare, his home full of jewelchines.

He paid the Brotherhood for protection, and they used one of their local gangs, the Gas House Gang, to watch their client’s house and keep burglars like Phred from slipping in and taking his picking of a rich man’s nest. Phred didn’t mind angering the Brotherhood. They might control the heart of Kash, but he ran with Braglin’s Roosters.

Their gang didn’t crow to the Brotherhood.

The light of a diamond jewelchine street lamp illuminated the corner of the merchant’s house. It dominated the block. Music drifted from the rear garden where, this night, Master Dacerin showed off his wealth and extravagance to high society of Kash. Rumor held that the king himself might make an appearance.

The perfect time to slip into his strongroom.

Phred’s skilled eyes flicked along the shadows, searching for any sign of the Gas House boys. He didn’t see any eyes lurking in the shadows. Farther down the street, smoke rose. Nayton did good work, thought Phred. His younger brother was coming up. Sixteen and mastering the skills of being a proper burglar. You had to know when to be daring, when to be stealthy, and when to be smart.

They followed the side of the house. It rose three stories above them, built in imitation of a castle. The mortared stones of the wall were large, heavy blocks quarried and dragged to Kash. The windows were narrow, more like arrow slits than anything proper. The weather had pockmarked the stone exterior. Some of the mortar was crumbling. It was at least two hundred years old, built in a martial style that had long gone out of fashion.

“Where should we make our climb?” Phred asked as they reached the far corner. An alley ran here, darker, more cover from the bright diamond that illuminated the front of the house.

“You don’t know?” Nayton asked.

“Course I know. Wanna see if you got a set of helidors, or only obsidian for eyes.”

Nayton’s blue eyes flashed. “Course I got helidors. I can see far and keen.”

Phred nodded as his brother paused before a section of the wall, studying it. Helidors were used in jewelchines involving sight and detection. Phred wasn’t an expert on the science of gems and metals, possessing only the faintest ideas on how they could be fashioned to make devices; he just used them. Some could strengthen, some could heal, some could illuminate, and some performed more sinister tasks.

He was well aware of the obsidian blade tucked in his pocket. In Kash, in the entire Kingdom of Lothon, that was a death sentence to carry, but any burglar who had a polished mind carried one anyway.

“This is it,” Nayton said, his voice hardly heard over the party spilling over the garden wall. The house didn’t occupy the whole block. Two-thirds were taken up by a walled yard blazing with lights. The clear, bright shine of diamond jewelchines, and not cheaper candles, torches, or lanterns, bled from the garden. “Right here’ll be an easy climb.”

“Well, best get to it,” Phred said.

“Wot? You just gonna lounge down here while I go and do all the work?”

Phred shrugged. “Why risk my neck if you’re wrong? Get to climbin’. Burglar that chooses the route goes first.”

Elohm’s Bell tolled from the Temple of Seven Colours. The ringing toll boomed once. Midnight had arrived. Phred flexed his toes as his brother grasped crumbling mortar and began his ascent. His boots’ leather soles squeaked and crunched as he pulled himself up. Phred winced at the noise. The party’s music and revelry helped to mask it, but . . .

He shifted his shoulder, wishing he could see the fire. To know if the Gas House boys were still distracted or not. He ran a hand through his brown hair, smoothing it back. He felt the chill of the night deepening as the exhilaration pumped through him. He breathed in, smelling the sour musk from the alley.

Nayton reached the second floor and used a narrow window’s ledge to pull himself higher. He scrambled past it, working with surety. The route was the one Phred would have chosen. His brother had spotted it with ease.

Helidor eyes, he thought with a smile.

Nayton reached the small fence of wrought iron that ran along the flat roof’s edge, mimicking the barbicans of a real fortress, like those that ran around the Curtain, Kash’s old walls. Nayton rolled over the roof fence then twisted around and peered down.

Phred grinned and followed his brother up. He climbed up with confidence scaling a hundred walls had given him. He gripped the cracks in the mortar. His fingers were slender but strong. They were skilled. He had done this a thousand times. His boots had fresh soles. They gripped the crumbling mortar. Some burglars used expensive grip-gloves, jewelchines with fine emeralds woven into the leather.

Not Phred. He had better things to spend his money on.

He passed the second floor with ease and worked towards the third floor. Nayton watched, a big grin on his face. A slight pang twisted around Phred’s heart as he climbed higher. His fingers felt cold as he gripped the slick stone.

Then he was at the roof. He seized the wrought iron fence, each rod ending in a sharp, arrow-like point. He slipped over it with care not to catch his pants, or his flesh, on those spikes. He settled his boots onto the flat roof. His gaze swept over it. Six chimneys thrust up, five slender pipes of clay, one rectangular and made of brick.

“Now comes the hard part,” Phred said.

“That wasn’t it?” asked Nayton. “I set the Gas House boys’ whorehouse on fire. Almost got my head cracked in doin’ it.”

“Robbin’ a rich man’s strongroom’s like seducin’ a church marm. Can’t make a wrong move, or she smacks you up the back of the head.”

Nayton grinned. “Is that how you got that lump on your noggin last week?”

Phred winked at his brother before continuing, “We gotta take care. Watch your steps. Don’t make a wrong move. There’s a hundred people in the garden. Servants are movin’ through the house. The kitchen ain’t far from his office and the strongroom.”

Nayton nodded. He looked around. “Uh, not to question, but how we gettin’ in? We passed a buncha windows. Coulda kicked one in.”

“Probably wired to alarms.” Phred padded to the one chimney that was made of brick and thrust up from the southwest corner. “So, think you can fit?”

“Are you sellin’ crap as topazes?” Nayton shot a look of incredulity, the lock of gold hair spilling down his forehead.

“You’re skinnier than me. I got some grease if you need it.” Phred patted one of the pockets sewn onto his canvas trousers.

“Not lettin’ you do that to me ‘gain.” Nayton bit his lower lip. “Wot I do once I’m done?”

“Open a window.” Phred reached into his pocket and grasped the hilt of the obsidian blade. He pulled it out, the knife shaped from midnight stone that gleamed like smoky glass. Black iron wire, the forbidden metal, wrapped around the tang, forming a handle. Using obsidian went against Elohm and his Seven Colours teachings. Only Black didn’t come from the Lord.

It was evil, not that Phred much cared about the state of his soul. “Twas born in a hovel in the Breezy Hills up to my neck in muck,” he’d always joke. “Doubt Elohm wants my soiled soul noneways.”

Phred flipped the blade around and handed it to his brother first.

Awe kindled in Nayton’s eyes. His hand trembled as he reached out and grasped it, fingers wrapped tight. A shiver ran through him. His chest rose and fell. He stared up at his brother.

“Just don’t break it, you hear? Or I’ll stuff you in one of them round chimneys.”

“I won’t.” The younger brother said, his voice breathy. He slipped it into his boot on the inside of his calf. “I can do this.”

Phred ruffled his brother’s hair again, spilling bangs across Nayton’s forehead. “No, you won’t botch this. Now get to it.”

Nayton hopped onto the chimney. It was narrow, but so was the lad. Phred’s chest tightened as his brother’s legs disappeared into the hole. Then Nayton thrust his right arm in and wiggled his body. His left held the lip of the chimney. His chest then his head vanished, only the hand remaining. Then he let go of it and was swallowed by the chimney. This was the most dangerous part. Phred would do it himself if he could.

Let your Colours shine over him, thought the thief. It couldn’t hurt.

Fog drifted from the Ustern River, spilling over the streets while Phred waited, his heart almost in his throat. His fingers flexed. He stroked them, massaging away the growing chill of the night as he listened to his brother working deeper, grunting, groaning, sliding against the brick.

The sound stopped.

“I did it,” echoed up the chimney.

Phred moved back to the wall. He threw his leg over the railing and climbed down the side of the building to a window on the third floor. He braced for the clatter of alarm jewelchines bursting through the night. If his brother missed any wires . . .

Phred didn’t understand more than the basics of jewelchines. You wrapped the right jewel cut in the right way with the right type of metal wire, and it did things. It illuminated streets, locked doors, rang like windchimes, made automaton toys, or could create water. There were so many uses for them. Men made fortunes if they could find a new effect while others squandered inheritances in the vain search of the next revolutionary jewelchine.

Phred would rather just buy what he needed and steal the rest. All that work sounded far harder than clinging to the side of a merchant’s house with the tendrils of fog creeping over his fingers, the cold numbing the tips.

The window creaked open. Nayton’s head popped out, a boyish grin spilling across his lips, ash smeared across his cheeks and dusting his hair, staining that lock of gold with streaks of soot. He arched his eyebrows as he leaned back in. Phred shuffled over, grabbed the window frame, and slipped inside. He landed in a crouch into a room. A light shone from a diamond lamp set in the wall and encased in glass.

“That just turned on when I came in,” muttered Nayton. “Didn’t do it or nothin’.”

“They’re wired to that. Got them a helidor sensor, detects currents in the room or somethin’.”

A shiver ran through Nayton. “How do you deal with that if it’s attached to an alarm?”

Phred ruffled his little brother’s hair. “Come on, no dawdlin’.”

He closed the window and moved through the smoking room. There were several chairs covered in a cream brocade with darkly polished wooden frames. They sat around a marble table that had a wooden cigar case, probably fresh from the plantations of far Ny’zil, in the center. If there hadn’t been greater riches ahead, he would have been tempted to grab one.

He passed a shelf holding bottles of Onderian brandy, the amber liquid making his mouth water. At the door, he paused, listening. Distant sounds drifted through the house. He pushed the door open then strolled inside. He didn’t go at a hurried pace as he headed down the hallway, feet tramping on the roll of carpet running down the middle of the polished wooden floor. It was worked with scroll designs, the weave soft and muffling his step.

“Shouldn’t we hurry?” Nayton said, his voice low but cracking.

“Runnin’ footsteps will draw the servants’ attention,” he answered. “We need to blend in, not draw attention to ourselves.”

“Right, right, like seducin’ a church marm out of her knickers.”

Phred nodded.

They reached the dumbwaiter by the merchant’s bedchamber. Phred smiled and opened it, peering down the shaft. It went all the way to the first floor. He saw no issue in using it. He worked the rope, making sure the dumbwaiter was lowered all the way, then slipped his scrawny leg through the opening. It was wider than the chimney by a good handsbreadth. His lanky frame could squeeze down it.

Nayton would have no problems.

He slid down, the rope burning his hands. He passed the second floor and slowed as he reached the dumbwaiter. He rested on the box, its pulley creaking as it swayed. He listened and, hearing nothing, slid open the door and slipped out. He was by the downstairs kitchen. A hallway ran to his right. It led right to the study and the vault.

His heart quickened its beat. His fingers flexed against the exhilaration surging cold through his veins. His brother slipped out after him and the pair padded down the hallway. Phred could hear servants bustling in the kitchen. They prepared food and carried it out to the revelers. Phred felt the cooks and waiters moving behind them. If they came out the wrong door . . .

No helping that, he thought.

He examined the office door when they reached it. Nayton pulled out the obsidian blade. He touched the lock, an amethyst bound to the knob. A jolt of dark lightning rushed into the gem, animating the mechanism. The lock clicked. With a grin, he grabbed the brass knob, twisted, and—

Phred grabbed his brother’s wrist and pulled him back. Phred had noticed, just beneath the door, a faint shadow. Instincts screaming, he slipped down onto his belly, the hardwood floor cold against his cheek, and peered through the gap. A shiver ran down his spine.

A wire ran along the bottom of the door. There was another jewelchine tied to it.

“Elohm’s blessed Colours,” muttered Nayton after Phred whispered what he’d found. “Wots it leading to?”

Phred followed it to where it vanished into the frame of the door. He felt up the wood molding covering the frame, his instincts honed by many capers. His fingers slipped over the beveled molding until he felt . . . a section that was different. There was a gap. It was clever, matching the grain of the wood and covered by a bit of wax sealing it shut to make it look solid. He took his dagger from his brother and worked the delicate blade into it, popping off the small cover.

A helidor gem, wrapped in delicate aluminum wire, nestled inside.

“So just cut the wire?” asked his brother.

“Not the bit running off the bottom and down beneath the door. That’ll trip it off. Got to be the wire wrapped about the gem itself.” It was in a curious pattern, following some of the jewel’s facets and ignoring others. The shape of it all is what ensured it worked as intended.

Phred plucked one of the tools he carried out of his many pants pockets. This was a small pair of wire snips made of iron. He’d stolen them from a jewelchine mechanic. He exhaled all the air in his lungs to steady his hand. If he triggered the other wire, it would start ringing. He brushed a wire on the surface.

Nayton trembled beside him. His breath spilled over the back of Phred’s neck.

He caught a bit of the wire and snipped, severing it. The tension sprang back one end from the gem.

“There,” he said.

He rose, his legs stiff, and opened the door into Braffan Dacerin’s office. A diamond lantern burst to life in the ceiling. Just as the fired servant had described to Phred after an evening of buying cheap ale, it was an opulent room. Shelves lined the walls with a window draped in dark curtains. On the opposite wall, an iron statue of Boan Sword-Arm stood beside a small fireplace, his left arm ending in the famed blade that had slain the Darkling King and driven their ilk from the Stoytin Isles five thousand years before.

A wide desk of exotic hardwood from the Shattered Isles dominated the room. Several neat piles of papers and a ledger lay on it along with a silver quill and an inkpot. To protect the wood, a leather writing blotter was spread across the surface, a silver-plated letter opener lying on it. The chair pulled up against it was carved with the spreading antlers of the Stag of Lothon. They would frame Braffan’s head as he sat there. Behind him was the heavy iron door of the vault.

Trembling, he pulled out his absorber. Where an alarm made noise, an absorber did the opposite. It had aluminum wire wrapped around the helidor. It was the same gem used in an alarm, but the wires were bound around it in a different manner, forming a different effect. He placed it right on the desk and a deep silence descended.

He couldn’t hear his own heart beating blood through his veins, let alone the sounds of his brother moving. It was like his ears were stuffed with wool. It was a terrible feeling. It made his skin crawl every time he did it. He shouted at the top of his voice.

Heard nothing.

Nayton appeared before him, lips moving fast, his eyes wide. He smiled and then grabbed the ledger off the desk and slammed it down. Silent laughter peeled from his lips. Phred smiled at his brother’s amusement.

Then he faced the vault.

It was a new design using tumbler locks. There was a large dial in the center numbered from one to a hundred, each inscribed into the metal wheel. A knob thrust from the center. These types of safes would have alarms built into the very metal of the door. He could do nothing about those from this side, so he’d killed all the sound. However, that denied him one of the easiest methods to deal with a tumbler lock.

Listening to the pins clicking into place.

He would have to do this by touch. He pulled out his final tool from his pocket, a glove of fine leather with small amethysts in the fingertips. They were able to detect the faintest of motions. They had been invented for the inspection of foundations, feeling if there were any minute weaknesses that could lead to an old structure collapsing.

The man who’d invented it had been given a minor barony and owned a fine house by Lake Ophavin.

Phred knelt before the vault and flexed his fingers in the touch-glove. He grasped the dial and felt quivering through it. He felt the tiny vibrations caused by his brother’s movement. He turned around and glared at his brother capering around the room like a child.

He arched an eyebrow.

A sheepish look crossed Nayton’s face. He mouthed, “Sorry.”

Phred turned back to the vault’s lock. He turned it, feeling the tumblers moving as it clicked to 1.

2. 3. 4.

They felt the same.

5. 6.

He didn’t detect any shift in the pins.

7. 8.

He paused there. Eight felt a little different. A trap? He turned the dial again.

9. 10. 11.

He drew in slow breaths, feeling each click almost shake his fingertips.

13. 14. 15.

Sweat trickled down his brow.

21. 22. 23.

His head cocked to the side. He’d felt an audible pop on twenty-three. Something had definitely moved, not a trap but a pin sliding out of the way. He smiled. Twenty-three. He turned it the other way.

22. 21. 20.

He waited for that feeling, his shoulders shifting. A new vibration rippled through the floor.

Irritation flared. He threw his head around to glare at his brother and—

A metal sword flashed at his head.

With a soundless scream, Phred ducked low. The blade struck the vault’s surface, marring the finish. Sparks flared and popped without a hiss. He looked up to see the statue moving, flashes of emerald light bleeding through gaps in the metal plating, white glowing from its eyes.

A clockwork automaton? thought Phred in disbelief. The statue of Boan Sword-Arm was more than mere decoration. It moved, the heavy steps muffled by the absorber. The click of the gears inside animating its limbs were swallowed up by Phred’s own device. Powered by emerald gems, it followed basic instructions encoded into its diamond heart.

This one’s instructions were clear as it drew back its arm, the chisel-sharp point of the sword aimed right at Phred’s heart.

The burglar rolled backward as the arm lanced down. The weapon struck the hardwood floor, splinters flying. Phred felt the impact vibrating through his right hand planted behind him, almost hurting his fingers. The clockwork wrenched its sword free in a flare of green light.

Nayton shouted, mouth moving energetically, but no sound reached Phred’s ears. He felt the weight of silence around him. He could feel his heart pounding and his chest rising but didn’t hear that rush of blood through his ears or the ragged edge to his breaths.

The automaton swung again, driving Phred back. He didn’t know what to do. His only weapon was the obsidian blade, and that was a delicate object. Obsidian, the forbidden gem, could be shaped in ways the other seven couldn’t, but it lacked their strength. It could betray its owner at any time.

Another soundless swipe.

A wordless scream of fright bubbled from Phred. He leaped back and slammed into the wall. He felt cold stone behind him. He trembled, seeing his own reflection in the polished surface of the automaton’s sheet metal chest, sculpted to appear muscular, abs rippling, pectorals defined. Phred’s own face, twisted with fear, arrested him for a moment.

Bulbous nose centered on a round face. Blue eyes wide. Dirty-brown bangs falling over his pale forehead. Lips thick. A shadow of stubble around his cheeks.

Who am I? flashed through Phred’s mind.

The automaton drew back its sword.

Before death could flash, movement flowed behind the automaton. Something struck it. The clockwork stumbled a step forward, emerald light bursting through its joints as it turned around to face Nayton holding a wrought iron poker. A dent marred the back panel of the automaton, a long crease.

Phred cried out his brother’s name. The absorber swallowed the sound.

The automaton advanced in heavy silence. The green light bled through the room, splashing across items. Its sword swung, catching the fireplace poker and throwing it from Nayton’s scrawny hand. Fear burst across the youth’s face.

Terror surged through Phred. Flashes of a life burned through his mind. A young boy beaming to an older brother over a tin soldier purloined from a toy store. Racing through the slums, two front teeth missing, cheeks smudged with soil. Life burned in those eyes. In his laughter.

Phred grabbed the nearest object at hand, the heavy chair behind the desk. He screamed out his silent fury as he charged across the room. Nayton tumbled back. The sword crashed into a shelf, cutting through books and scattering them to the floor.

Phred slammed the chair into the clockwork’s back. Wood exploded into fragments. Stuffing from the cushion burst like fluffy snow. It danced around him as the automaton turned on silent hinges. The sword stabbed through the wreckage.

Instincts beyond Phred’s own animated him. He flowed back like water, feet sliding across the floor, the sword slicing past his chest. He stepped on a book. The shifting cover, the spine bending, caught Phred off-balance.

Even with enhanced reflexes, he fell as the automaton pivoted, landing hard on his side. An armored foot kicked out. Metal slammed into Phred’s floating rib. Air exploded from his lungs as he tumbled across the room. His ears begged for sensory input as he crashed into the desk. He let out a silent groan, feeling his heart pounding as he yearned for the sound of rushing blood.

The sword stabbed down at him as books, hurtled by Nayton, pelted the clockwork. Pages burst from spines and danced through the air. Phred saw death come from him. He was against the desk. Nowhere to dodge. All he could do was grab one of the heavy books which had landed by him.

He thrust it up before him; an improvised shield.

The shock of impact jarred his arm. The blade sank into the book. The chiseled tip burst out of the leather cover, poking only a fingerwidth or two from the book, blunted by hundreds of layers of parchment. Phred shuddered, relief darting through him as the automaton pulled back its blade.

He had his chance.

He darted to the right. The next blow slammed down, cutting through a throw rug and gouging the hardwood floor. The tip of the sword bent from the impact. Green light gleamed off its edge as Phred darted towards the vault and pressed against it.

He had to think of something.

Nayton threw himself at the clockwork with the bravado of youth. He landed on its back, arms going around the neck. He tried to wrench the head off, pulling at it. Green light bled through the gaps in the joints, bleeding from the inner works of it where the jewelchines that powered the gears and widgets controlled the clockwork.

Jewelchines that have delicate wires . . .

He drew his obsidian blade and rushed at the clockwork as it thrashed. His brother flew from the heaving automaton in a soundless howl and crashed into a fresh bookshelf. He rebounded, landing on his stomach. An avalanche of knowledge crashed down on him.

The automaton turned and thrust its blade at Phred.

Those instincts he couldn’t have learned animated Phred again. He flowed faster than possible. Power burst through him, a flare of resonating energy that molded his flesh. The sword flashed past his head as he thrust his obsidian blade up and into the armpit joint. He churned it around, feeling it striking internal workings. The arm moved to strike him.

The obsidian cut something. He felt a wire snap.

The sword arm went limp.

The statue’s right hand barreled at Phred in a punch. He raised his arm to block, jerking the obsidian blade out of the joint. The fragile end snapped a moment before the fist slammed into his forearm. Pain flared up his body. He staggered back.

The clockwork’s sword arm sagged by its side, the tip dragging on the ground. It stomped forward, drawing back its right fist again. Phred threw down the ruined dagger. He needed something else. Long. Sharp. Something that could reach in deep.

Movement caught his attention.

His brother, waving a frantic arm, held the silver letter opener from the desk. Phred nodded. He ducked a punch and rolled to the side of the clockwork, coming up behind it. His brother tossed the knife, an underhand throw. Its arced point towards the ceiling, handle coming closer to Phred.

He focused on it.

Caught it.

He whirled around—

The fist cracked into his chest. Ribs broke. The letter opener flew from his hand. The blow threw him off his feet. He landed hard. Those resonating, topaz energies pulsed through him as stars danced across his vision. He coughed, gasped, making no sound as the automaton loomed over him. A foot raised.

Nayton appeared, letter opener in hand. He stabbed it into the hip joint, working it around. The leg went still. The automaton shifted, off-balance. With a soundless crash, it hit the floor, good arm and leg thrashing as it struggled to right itself. But Nayton was on it, digging the sharp blade of the letter opener into the clockwork’s neck joint.

A flare of white light burst out of gaps around the chest plate. The entire thing went still.

Nayton panted, his face flushed. He rose and stumbled to Phred, lips moving. Blinking, Phred focused, trying to read them, to understand what they said. The boy reached Phred, dropping the letter opener.

Then Phred understood the gist of Nayton’s lips. He nodded and sat up. The broken ribs were mending fast. “I’m fine!” Phred said soundlessly to his brother. “Not that bad.”

Nayton nodded, offering a hand. Phred took it. He had a safe to crack.

He snagged the letter opener. With his obsidian blade snapped, he needed a replacement to finish the job. He shoved the silver knife into his back pocket before stumbling to the vault door, wincing against his sore chest. He flexed his fingers, glad the touch-glove felt intact so he could complete his mission.

He set to work. In all, the tumbler lock had five pins he had to find. He focused on turning the wheel, not paying attention to anything else but the feel of pins. He teased out each one bit by bit until he felt that shuddering click of the lock springing open.

He spun the wheel beside the tumbler, retracting the locking bars that thrust out on all sides of the vault door to hold it closed. Then he yanked the heavy door open. He imagined the groaning creak it must make. On the back of the door, alarm jewelchines flashed yellow. They would have made a racket.

I’ll have to leave behind the absorber, Phred thought, surprised by how much he regretted that.

Nayton darted through first. He stopped in the middle of the strongroom, his eyes dashing around, staring at the sight of all the gold beams, the highest denomination of coins, stacked on top of each other. There was more than coins. Books with information, stacks of bonds and promissory notes worth even more money than any of the coins, deeds to properties, boxes holding rare and exotic goods such as narshark ambergris and Darkling silk.

From a pocket in his pants, Nayton produced a canvas sack and began piling the coins into them, joy on his face. He smiled like he had the day Phred had given him the tin soldier. The sight stabbed guilt into the older brother.

He had his mission. No matter how much he loved Nayton, the mission came first.

He drew the letter opener and struck.

The knowledge on where to precisely stab wasn’t something Phred knew. Like with the extra speed and the mending ribs, it came from beyond the young burglar. The letter opener’s sharp point passed between the fifth and sixth ribs to strike right into Nayton’s heart, stopping it, killing the flow of blood.

The youth went limp.

The bag of coins fell from his grip in a soundless clatter, spilling dancing discs across the stone floor. Nayton’s eyes widened in betrayal as Phred caught his dying brother, holding him. Nayton struggled to move his mouth.

Compassion stirred Phred. This was his brother he held dying. Nayton didn’t deserve to leave this life thinking his brother hated him. His soul deserved to be as free from as many burdens in his life as possible. Maybe he would rise up to the embrace of Elohm’s Colours instead of dragged down into the blackness.

Phred stopped being Phred.

The lank, brown hair melted from Phred’s head. It spilled off around him, shed. The flesh of his face softened even as the hue of his skin faded from the light-beige of a Lothonian to a pasty, milky white, almost the color of an albino. Lips became thick and waxy. The nose shrank to just the impression of one with tiny slits for nostrils. No distinct cheekbones or chin. Just the suggestion of a human face, the gender impossible to tell. Clothing grew loose as the frame grew slender, almost delicate.

Nayton’s lips moved. A question asked.

“No One,” answered the thing who had masqueraded as Phred.

Nayton died.

With care, affection lingering in No One’s mind as the memories he’d stolen from the real Phred bled out of it, the thing lowered Nayton’s body to the vault’s floor. Blood pooled out of the wound, soaking the youth’s shirt. The hem had ridden up, exposing a hint of his stomach and the rooster tattooed there in crude reds and blacks.

A sign that the Brotherhood couldn’t protect Braffan Dacerin’s vault from the outer gangs.

No One rose, the loose clothing rustling about its body. It would have shed a tear if it could, but Phred was fading faster and faster. All those memories were fleeing its mind like shadows retreating from the dawning sun.

No One grabbed the two ledgers bound in leather from the vault’s shelf. No One didn’t care why it had been sent on this mission.

It didn’t question. It didn’t think. It only mimicked.

No One scooped up a bag of coins then gave a final, sad glance to the boy caught up in grand events before slipping out of the vault. The office window was easy to open from the inside. It didn’t care about triggering the alarms. The absorber was still active. It thrust a slender leg, almost bony, through the window, a milky ankle flashing between pants and shoe. In moments, sound assaulted its ears again.

It felt strange to hear now. Who are you? echoed in its mind, spoken in Nayton’s voice.

No One hurried through the dark streets. The Gas House boys were still busy putting out the brothel fire, their dereliction another blow to the Brotherhood’s support. No One didn’t know what that meant. Didn’t care.

It returned to the alley where the real Phred lay dead. As instructed, it dropped a few coins around the burglar. As it stared at the corpse, No One cocked its head. It needed to become someone else.

Who am I? wondered No One. The shadow of a brother?

A final memory burst in its mind. Phred handed a tin soldier to a smiling child.

Flinching, No One shook its head and settled on a safe identity. One with no bad memories. Color returned to its flesh, arms growing thicker, stronger. The jewelchines implanted through its body molded it, shaped it, transformed it into a brawny young man named Carstin.

Who am I?

No One.

Carstin whistled as he walked through the night, the ledgers tucked beneath his arms, the sack of gold rattling from his other hand. He headed to the docks and the rendezvous with his employer. He felt good about succeeding at another mission.

Only a shadow deep inside of him grieved for two brothers.

The END

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Brother’s Shadow takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe! No One will appear in my upcoming The Secret of the Jewels series!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Four

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Four

Hûnoreal

Welcome to Chapter Four of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Three!

For He sees gold in the wretched and excrement in the exalted. Nay, the world is not equal in the eyes of the God

—SCHOLARS, 7:16, THE TRACTATE

My Thoughts

This is about the subject view on who is and isn’t saved. It echoes the sentiment from Christianity that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven. To Christians, this is a statement that material possessions are a path into sin because you focus on them and not putting God first. Bakker’s scripture is saying that it is better to suffer than to be praised. That pain in this life brings reward in the next while those who take glory in this world are in for a surprise. It echoes another Christian teaching about salvation in that doing good deeds to earn salvation is offensive to God like soiled menstrual rags, I believe, is how the translations often go.

In Bakker’s universe, damnation is something seen and judged. This is our first allusion to the title of the book and Mimara’s ability. Fittingly, it is her POV that starts off the chapter and her first unveiling of this power.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

Mimara has no choice but to camp by Achamian’s tower. Where will she go? The brothel? Her mother’s palace (which is like a brothel)? She doesn’t tether her mule, Foolhardy, hoping he will wander free and escape then fearing that he’ll be eaten by wolves at night because of her carelessness. So far, he’s still there when she wakes up. As the days past, she tends her fire, thinking its “singularity of purpose” is divine.

Flare. Wax. Consume.

Like a human. Only with grace.

The children, learning she’s a witch, spy on her and gives fake screams of fright when she spots them. She is a witch because she can see the Wards that Achamian has put around his tower as well as the bruises to the world his violent defense of the valley against the Sranc had left. “The eyes of the Few were with her always, prodding her onto this path she has chosen, fortifying her resolve.”

But more and more the different eye seems to open, one that has perplexed her for many years—that frightens her like an unwanted yen for perversion. Its lid is drowsy, and indeed it slumbers so deep she often forgets its presence. But when it stirs, the very world is transformed.

For moments at a time, she can see them… Good and evil.

Not buried, not hidden, but writ like another colour or texture across the hide of everything. The way good men shine brighter than good women. Or how serpents glow holy, while pigs seem to wallow in polluting shadow. The world is unequal in the eyes of the God—she understands this with intimate profundity. Master over slaves, men over women, lions over crows: At every turn, the scriptures enumerate the rank of things. But for terrifying moments, the merest of heartbeats, it is unequal in her eyes as well.

She believes this “judging eye” is a madness brought on by what happened to her. “It has to be madness.” She wonders what Achamian will look like. She stares at his tower in the morning sun and thinks it’s not so tall. It’s height an illusion.

The world hates you…

This thought afflicts her when she least expects it. She knows this truth and didn’t need her little brother to remind her: “It hurts Momma to even look at you! She wishes she would have drowned you instead of sold you…” As she starves outside Achamian’s tower, she believes this more and more. She traveled all this way to be a witch and is denied.

There is no other place. So why not cast her life across the Whore’s table? Why not press Fate to the very brink? At least she will die knowing.”

She cries though she feels empty. She sees “the Wizard” pacing in his window. She can’t remember when she had cried and felt the emotion. She thinks maybe as a child. She stays because she has nowhere to go. All her choices are the same. Despair lies in all directions.

A broken tree, as her brothel-master once told her, can never yield.

Two days became three. Three become four. Hunger makes her dizzy, while the rain makes her clay-cold. The world hates you, she thinks, staring at the broken tower. Even here.

The last place.

One night, he appears, haggard like he hadn’t slept because of guilt. He has food and wine. She devours it like a “thankless animal.” He watches her and mentions Dreams like they are an old enemy he’s long fought. As she eats and stares at him, he speaks of his Dreams and what it’s like. She finds herself asking the lame question if they’re bad. In the firelight, she can see that though he’s suffered much, he still remembers how “to be tender and honest.” He answers her with a wink then fills a pipe and lights it. He tells her the dreams used to be. That confuses her. He then asks her why Mandate Schoolmen have the dreams.

She knows the answer. Her mother always resorted to talk of Achamian to salve the abrasions between her and her embittered daughter. Because he was her real father, Mimara had always thought. “To assure the School of Mandate never forgets, to never lose sight of its mission.”

“That’s what they say,” Achamian replies, savoring the smoke. “That the Dreams are the goad to action, a call to arms. That by suffering the First Apocalypse over and over, we had no choice but to war against the possibility of the Second.”

Achamian disagrees and says that her adopted father, Kellhus, is right that every life is a riddle that can be solved. He knows this to be a truth before telling her about the First Holy War and his “forbidden love” for Esmenet. He’d been willing to risk the World to have her. He is open and vulnerable with her, making it compelling. She’s heard this story before, but listens with “childish attentiveness,” letting herself feel his emotions. During it, she realizes that he doesn’t know that his love for Esmenet is a story told around the empire.

The only secret is that he still lives.

With these thoughts her wonder quickly evaporates into embarrassment. He seems over-matched, tragically so, wrestling with words so much larger than himself. It becomes cruel to listen as she does, pretending not to know what she knows so well.

“She was your morning,” she ventures.

This interrupts him, and he gets angry, glaring at her. He asks her to repeat it. And she does, explaining how Esmenet told her about what she meant to him. He then says he no longer fears the night because he doesn’t have the same Dreams as other Mandate Schoolman.

“I no longer pray for the morning.”

She leans back to pluck another log for the fire. It lands with rasping thump, sends a train of sparks twirling up through the smoke. Watching their winking ascent to avoid his gaze, she hugs her shoulders against the chill. Somewhere neither near nor far, wolves howl into the bowl of the night. As though alarmed, he glanced away into the wood, into the wells of blackness between the variant trunks and limbs. He stares with an intensity that makes her think that he listens as much as he hears, to the wolves and to whatever else—that he knows the myriad languages of the deep night.

It is then that he tells his tale in earnest…

As though he has secured permission.

Achamian thinks about how Esmenet, after his capture by the Scarlet Spire, had waited for him like Mimara had. He hadn’t come to see the girl out of anger, not wanting to reward her. He did it out of ear not wanting to be caught with missing Princess-Imperial. That he was doing her a favor because she was too old to learn the Nonman tongue to use magic. He used every excuse to hid from his pain.

Her mother, Esmenet, had waited for him on the banks of the River Semis over twenty years previous. Not even word of his death could turn her from her vigil, so obstinate, so mulish was her love. Not even sense could sway her.

Only Kellhus and the appearance of honesty.

Achamian recognizes Esmenet’s stubbornness in Mimara. How else could the girl have traveled so far alone? He finally realized he had to tell her the truth because she would die and he’d be destroyed by guilt. So he came with compassion and food and told her everything, including how his dreams had started changing. It had been twenty years since he spoke without issue. He explains how while the Mandate dream about Seswatha, they don’t witness the normal, day to day stuff. “‘Seswatha’ the old Mandate joke goes, ‘does not shit,’”

All the things that were forgotten, he realized.

The dreams took on new a character, subtle at first. Achamian merely thought it was his change in perspective. Achamian dreamed of Seswatha stubbing his toe to fetch a scroll. Mimara, as he speaks, stars at him the way Esmenet had. “Another abject listener.” He can’t read her, but she’s letting him speak. He explains how he was flabbergasted upon awakening. It wasn’t anything profound. He brings up how the Mandate have cataloged the variation of all the dreams. They could misfire, playing things out of order or corrupted. More than a few Mandate had become obsessed with them, thinking they found some greater truth. But they never could convince anyone else. So Achamian writes off the dream as his own. For two months, he dreamed the usual things, then he has one of Seswatha reading a scroll.

He trailed, though whether to let the significance settle in or to savour the memory, he did not know. Sometimes words interrupted themselves. He pinched the hem of his cloak, rolled the rough-sewn seam between thumb and forefinger.

Achamian notices how Mimara finishes off her gruel like a slave would before she asks what the scroll was. He says it’s a lost scroll by Gotagga. Parapolis. It’s famous. Mimara asks if Achamian invented it. He doesn’t think so. He wrote down what he remembered and it was far better than he could write. It proved they were real. He remembers that morning and the heady feel or realizing “he had begun dreaming Seswatha’s mundane life.” No other Mandate Schoolman had.

How strange it had been, to find his life’s revelation in the small things; he who had wrestled with dying worlds. But then the greater turned upon the small. He often thought of the men he’d known—the warlike ones, or just the plain obstinate—of their enviable ability to overlook and to ignore. It was like a kind of willful illiteracy, as if all the moments of unmanly passion and doubt, all the frail details that gave substance to their lives, were simply written in a tongue they couldn’t understand and so needed to condemn and belittle. It never occurred to them that to despise the small things was to despise themselves—not to mention the truth.

But then that was the tragedy of all posturing.

She asks why this happened. Why him. He has no idea, maybe Fate is fucking with him or maybe he’s gone mad, “for one cannot endure what I’ve [Achamian has] day and night without going mad.” Maybe since he’s abandoned his life, a new one filled it or Seswatha is reaching out to him. He comports himself and says there is a bigger question. He stares at her, watching her even while knowing he must appear as a bitter, old man.

But if there were judgment in her eyes, he could detect nothing of it.

“My stepfather,” she said. “Kellhus is the question.”

This makes him realize that she’s not ignorant of much of what he’s been talking to. She knew Kellhus personally. She’s his stepdaughter. It hadn’t clicked in his mind and he feels like an idiot for how obvious it was. Then he wonders why she came here. Did Kellhus send her even if she doesn’t know it? Is she a spy? Kellhus had seduced the Holy war. Mimara stood no chance.

How much of her soul was hers, and how much had been replaced?

Achamian asks if Kellhus sent her. She looks confused and bewildered. She says he’d drag her home in chains and return her to her mother. Achamian persists. She’s crying as she protests she’s not lying.

“This is the way it works,” Achamian heard himself rasp in an utterly ruthless voice. “This is the way he rules—from the darkness in our own souls! If you were to feel it, know it, that would simply mean there was some deeper deception.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! He-he’s always been kind—”

“Did he ever tell you to forgive your mother?”

She’s confused by that. He asks if he ever knew her heart better than she did. She says he had, not sure why it matters. He asks her if she felt awe in him. Saw him as more than a man. Did his attention make her feel gratified? Achamian is manic, shaking, frightening her. She calls him Akka, sounding to him like her “whore-mother.”

“When you stood before him!” he roared. “When you knelt in his presence, did you feel it? Hollow and immovable, as if you were at once smoke and yet possessed the bones of the world? Truth. Did you feel Truth?”

“Yes!” she cried. “Everyone does! Everyone! He’s the Aspect-Emperor! He’s the Saviour. He’s come to save us! Come to save the Sons of Men!”

Achamian stared at her aghast, his own vehemence ringing in his ears. Of course she was a believer.

“He sent you.”

Her presence returns him to the mindset of being in the First Holy War. In her eyes, he sees hope dying, like it had to him. When he approached her, she’d weakened, dared to believe finally something good would happen to her, and he’d snatched it from her. He believes she’s not a willing slave now and is reminded of Cnaiür who had “a soul at once strong and yet battered beyond recognition.” He sees Esmenet in her.

She was precisely the kind of slave Kellhus would send him [Achamian]. Part cipher. Part opiate.

Someone Drusas Achamian could come to love.

Achamian talks about the day Kellhus arrived at the Holy War. How Achamian was there. Kellhus had been a beggar claiming to be a prince with a Scylvendi. “It was my back he broke climbing to absolute power,” Achamian tells her. He goes on how Kellhus was his friend, his student, and how Kellhus stole his wife anyways. His morning. He dares her to speak now and she stays silent.

“The only thing,” he continued, his voice wrung ragged with conflicting passions. “The only thing I took with me from my previous life was a simple question: Who is Anasûrimbor Kellhus? Who?”

Achamian stared at the bed of coals pulsing beneath the blackened wood, paused to allow Mimara fair opportunity to respond, or so he told himself. The truth was that the thought of her voice made him wince. The truth was that his story had turned into a confession.

Mimara gives the obvious answer to his question: Kellhus is the Aspect-Emperor. Achamian isn’t surprised. Anyone, let alone Kellhus’s adopted daughter, would give this answer. People wanted things to be simple. They would mock questions “for fear it would make their ignorance plain.” Then they would claim to be open.

This was the iron habit of Men. This was what shackled them to the Aspect-Emperor.

He shook his head in slow deliberation. “The most important question you can ask any man, child, is the question of his origin. Only by knowing what a man has been can you hope to say what he will be.” He paused, brought up short by an old habit of hesitation. How easy it was to hid in his old pedantic ruts, to recite rather than talk. But no matter how woolly his abstractions always became snarled in the very needling particularities he so unwittingly tried to avoid. He had always been a man who wanted to digress, only to find himself bleeding on the nub

She gives the official answer, that Kellhus is “the Son of Heaven” as if it were the only one that could be. Achamian points out he’s a real person with parents born like anyone else. Where did that happen? She brings up Atrithau, but he cuts her off and says that Cnaiür, a dead man, told him. A memory of Cnaiür’s conversation, his warning on how Dûnyain “war against circumstances” and see men as dogs to be tamed. How they use love to control. The Dûnyain are Kellhus’s people.

She asks about his bloodline, and Achamian says he is an Anasûrimbor, the only clue to where he’s from. Where had that kingly family survived? She asks where else besides Atrithau since the North is ruined. The Sranc rule it. He says the Kûniüric High Kings must have created a refugee, something Cnaiür had mentioned in their conversation. Hidden in the mountains. Isolated for a thousand years so they could breed themselves into something better than world-born humans.

As he talks about the sanctuary, Achamian knows he sounds desperate to be believed even as he struggled to control how fast he gives Mimara the information. However, when calling the Aspect-Emperor a liar, their words never could come out slow enough. Mimara has gone blank, hiding her offended beliefs. Achamian thinks she sees him as a bitter cuckold railing against the better man who’d taken his wife and now paints a story with himself as the hero.

He breathed deeply, leaned back from the fire, which suddenly seemed to nip him with its heat. He resolved to refill his pipe, but he could only clench his fists against the tremors.

My hands shake.

Mimara watches Achamian as his voice grows shriller, his gestures wilder. At first, she was excited, but then she realizes he’s not free at all, but bound by the past. He’s not speaking to her, either, but to her mother. The irony that he mistakes her for her mother after she mistook him for her father hurts her. She realizes he’s more her brother, another person hurt and betrayed by Esmenet.

Mimara realizes she’s been wrong about him. Her imagination the opposite of reality. He lives only for vengeance against Kellhus. He’s ranting about how keeping Cnaiür alive was Kellhus’s mistake. The Scylvendi knew too much about Kellhus’s past. So now Achamian is using his mutated Dreams to get his vengeance. He’s spent twenty years sifting through Seswatha’s life to find what he needed.

It’s more than a fool’s errand; it is a madman’s obsession, on par with those ascetics who beat themselves with strings and flint, or who eat nothing but ox-hides covered in religious writings. Twenty years! Anything that could consume so much life simply has to be deranged. The hubris alone…

His hatred of Kellhus she finds understandable, though she herself bears no grudge against her stepfather. She barely knows the Aspect-Emperor, and those fare times she found herself alone with him on the Andiamine Heights—twice—he seemed at once radiant and tragic, perhaps the most immediate and obvious soul she had ever encountered.

You think you hate her,” he once said—referencing her mother, of course.

I know I do.”

There is no knowledge,” he had replied, “in the shadow of hate.”

She ponders those words and sees how Achamian has focused everything in his life towards unmasking Kellhus. His Dreams and his Hatred. If you can’t get your revenge, it devours you which only feeds your outrage at the source. She sees Achamian as the same as her.

She asks if he’s found what he’s been searching for in the dreams. He’s found a name, sounding embarrassed because it sounds so paltry compared to his boasts about his work. She nearly laughs, earning a bitter glare.

She reminds herself to take care. Her instinct, given all that she has endured, is to be impatient with the conceits of others. But she needs this man.

He says the name: Ishuäl. It’s almost a whisper. He explains it means ‘Exalted Grotto’ or ‘High Hidden Place’ in a Nonman dialect. She asks if that’s where Kellhus is from and sees it disturbs him when she speaks Kellhus name with familiarity. He is certain, however. She asks how he can find it. He says he’ll know soon. More and more of Seswatha’s life is opening to him. He’s getting the secrets.

A life spent mining the life of another, pondering glimpses of tedium through the lenses of holy and apocalyptic portent. Twenty years! How can he hope to balance the proportions? Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stones.

“Like he’s yielded,” she forces herself to say.

Achamian says that’s just what it likes. He speaks as if Seswatha knows it and is helping him. She can’t imagine what sort of drive it would take to spend twenty years researching this. She doesn’t think any sane person could have such conviction and perseverance.

Faces. All conduct is a matter of wearing the appropriate faces. The brothel taught her that, and the Andiamine Heights simply confirmed the lesson. It’s as though expressions occupy various positions, a warning here, a greeting there, with the distance between measured by the difficulty of forcing one face from the other. At this moment nothing seems so difficult as squeezing pity into the semblance of avid interest.

She asks him again if no other Mandate’s had this happen. He says no and asks her what it means. She’s shocked and offended that he’s showing weakness. At that point, the Judging Eye opens, though she doesn’t know what this is. She sees more than the Mark on him. She sees the “hue of judgment, as though blessing and condemnation have become a wash visible only in certain kinds of light.” He bleeds evil. Damnation.

He is damned. Somehow she knows this with the certainty with which children know their hands. Thoughtless. Complete.

He is damned.

The Judging Eye closes and he’s just Achamian again. She feels great sorrow for this once strong man who is now a wreck. She knows, thanks to the brothel, that a madman needs to be believed. She tells him he’s a prophet from the past and leans in to kiss. “Her whole life she has punished herself with men.”

The memory of his power is like perfume.

After they have sex, they both regret it. She feels lonely as he sleeps beside her, wondering why that should be. She crawls to the fires, wrapped up in blankets, and tries to forget what they did. When he touches her shoulder, giving her kindness, she starts to cry.

“We have made our first mistake together,” he says, as though it were something significant. “We will not make it again.”

The forest is silent and suddenly she can’t stand it and sobs out, asking if she’s broken. If that’s why she runs. He says everyone carries silent burdens that bend them. She throws that back in his face, even as she hates herself for calling him broken. His hands stay on her in a comforting manner, though. He tells her he needs to find the truth more than for his hatred. She asks what difference does it make, and he’s shocked to learn the Great Ordeal has marched for Golgotterath. In a year, the Consult will be destroyed. Already, Sakarpus has already fallen.

Silence. Remorse comes crashing in.

Can’t you see? Something shrikes in her. Can’t you see the poison I bring? Strike me! Strangle me! Pare me to the core with your questions!

But she laughs instead. “You have shut yourself away for too long. You have found your revelation too late.”

My Thoughts

Why is the palace like a brothel? It’s a place where people are seen as objects. As things to be used and manipulated. As the Empress’s daughter, she would be seen as a valuable piece to be claimed as a wife. As an ear to her mother. As a wedge against a political rival. The brothel is, at least, honest.

Flare. Wax. Consume. Be energetic, get tired, and then eat food before you do it all over again. Life reduced to its most basic and honest form.

Unlike the Judging Eye, seeing sorcery’s mark on the world never goes away.

We get our first description of the Judging Eye and what our opening epigram is about: in this world, things are not equal. Men are seen as better than women. Why? I think it’s belief. The Outside exists so long as enough souls on this planet believe in it. That’s why the Inchoroi and the Consult want to depopulate it. To destroy this extra-dimensional realm that is being fed upon by the psyche of intelligent beings. Nonmen are evil because the majority species on this planet believe it. Whatever effect the Nonmen had on the Outside is gone. They’ve been depopulated. It’s all human now. Men think they’re better than women, which is a common thing we’re shown as a great evil in this series.

Bakker is accused of misogyny, but the whale room is his greatest condemnation of women being used as objects. The Dûnyain, who prized intellect above all others, who wanted to breed themselves into perfect beings, realized that the sex differences between women and men made it necessary to turn their women into better breeders. They destroyed their women because they had no emotions.

They did it through logic.

Then you have the other end. The Inchoroi. They are all about sex but don’t care about its biological purpose. Just the pleasure. They are all just men looking to rut with whatever holes they can find. They have a thousand words for ejaculate. Tells you a lot of their priorities.

Esmenet is the perfect person to show the flaws of these beliefs. An intelligent woman denied any chance to use it, forced to sell her body, even her own child, to survive. Achamian came close to treating her as an equal. Considering their culture, he went far beyond what’s normal. Kellhus used this to seduce her by respecting her and feeding her knowledge. However, his logic still led to the same position: she became a breeder for him.

How can Mimara ever heal and find resolution with her relationship with Esmenet when she has Kelmomas poisoning the well, polluting her thoughts with lies? We’ve seen Esmenet’s POV. We know the greatest mistake she’s ever made was selling her daughter.

A broken tree can never yield. A tree yields to the wind that blows past it, bending and swaying. To the forces of nature until those forces are too much and it breaks. The trunk collapses. Then it just lies there, unable to do anything. Unable to yield because it has collapsed. Is this what Bakker means? Maybe.

Reading this section of Mimara is something I can relate to. That feeling of helplessness. That nothing matters so why do anything. Just like you’re in a pit and will die because no one cares about you to come look for you. No one will miss you. Why even bother trying to escape? It takes too much effort. Just lie there and let it end.

Poisonous thoughts. The loss of hope is crippling.

Achamian says he no longer prays for the morning, and yet he just spent all this time talking about what Esmenet meant to him. What he was willing to give up for her. He would have condemned the world if it meant having the woman he loved. He isn’t over her at all. He is, after all, still trying to prove that Kellhus is not what he says. To find proof that he’s lying about salvation for sorcerers and even for Esmenet. That the Great Ordeal isn’t what he claims.

I don’t know about you, but I have dreamed of invented books before. I once heard you can’t read in dreams, but that’s not true. I have. Usually, it’s on the eve of a book I’m looking forward to reading coming out. The Wheel of Time books caused me to have them a few times. I’d be so excited to read them, but I could never find the same place in the books and sometimes would frantically be flipping through pages to find it.

The small things of life are where your true self comes out. Not the mask you wear around others, the various roles we all shift through like chameleons. The good employee. The patient friend. The polite cashier. Spouse. Confidant. Adviser. We never fully act our real selves around anyone but modify our behavior because it’s expected or to avoid friction.

And a brutal critic on those who pretend it doesn’t happen. Who project themselves as something more than the truth: they’re no better than any other human being.

Dûnyain influence on people is almost like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Only it’s still the person you love who betrays you because of Kellhus. Like what happened with Conphas and Martemus in the last series. Martemus was loyal until Kellhus began whispering. Then he nearly killed Conphas. And Conphas never betrayed Martemus. Conphas never did anything to Martemus that would have prompted a sense of betrayal. It was all Kellhus rewriting his soul.

Making Martemus into a new person.

It’s insidious if you’re trying to war against Kellhus. There’s no test like with the skin-spy. No mark left on the person physically. Not even the Mark.

Mimara, of course, was sent by a Dûnyain. Just not Kellhus. So Achamian is right, but, lucky for him, Kelmomas cares nothing about Achamian. He just needed Mimara to go away. She’s lucky not to be dead.

My theory is that Kellhus expected Achamian to try and find Ishuäl and use the Holy War as cover. I believe that’s why he arranged for the nonman king to be with the Ironsoul and his men. He cut a deal with the nonman erratic to let him relive his past through Seswatha (aka Achamian) in exchange for knowledge. He used that knowledge to send Serwa on an attack on Ishterebinth and secure his flank for the march on Golgotterath. Was Achamian supposed to be killed by the erratic? Was he supposed to find the truth about Kellhus?

I don’t know.

Once Kellhus had achieved his goal of defeating the No-God, he didn’t need to rule everything. Perhaps he was readying for some form of enlightened atheism. To have Achamian began to destroy his own myth after Kellhus achieved his plan. I think Kellhus wanted to close the Outside but not the way the Consult wanted to. Not through genocide. I could be just talking out of my ass here because Kellhus died without giving us any closure on Achamian’s storyline. In the end, Achamian’s journey didn’t change what happened at Golgotterath one bit. It was anticlimactic. Perhaps the point, but it seems like a waste of literary potential.

We’ll have to see how the next series handles it.

Achamian is unburdening himself now. He felt guilty for snatching away Mimara’s hope with his accusation. So even though he fears she is exactly what he dreads, a leash from Kellhus, he can’t help but explain himself. To fall into the Dûnyain trap.

People do not like their beliefs challenged. It causes turmoil. Why go through all that mental effort when you can just get on with your life? Like confronting contradictory information to what is in your core identity. Is it any wonder people hate philosophers. No one likes the status quo being challenged when you’re benefiting from it.

Beyond that, our minds take a lot of energy to operate. Humans burn a lot of calories to have our brains process so much, so our minds focus on important things and don’t like us to waste energy on things that cause it to have to burn more resources.

To understand something, you need to know how it came about. Whether it’s an astronomer studying a new cosmic phenomenon or a farmer trying to eradicate a new weed in his crops. The truth of origin can allow you to both understand something better and then categorize it. Handle it.

To war against it.

“There is no knowledge in the shadow of hate.” Mimara doesn’t hate her mother, she loves her. That is why she’s so hurt. Why she wants to punish her back. She doesn’t want to destroy her mother. Doesn’t despise her. She wants to make her mother bleed so she can find closure on the pain she received from Esmenet. You hate what you don’t know. One of the most successful men in defusing racial hatred is a black man named Daryl Davis. He sat down with members of the KKK, became their friends, and more than two hundred of them gave up their robes. He let them get to know what they hated and find understanding.

Achamian hates Kellhus. Mimara resents her mother.

One of those secrets of Seswatha, like how he’d cuckolded the king and is probably the father of Nau-Cayûti.

“Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stone.” Value is subjective, after all. What looks like something as common as stone to one person is the material to build something great and vast to another.

Despite her upbringing, Mimara is having trouble hiding her pity for Achamian let alone feeling it. He’s touched her. Reached through her hard, bitter, cynical exterior that she drew around herself to protect her heart from the suffering she received as a child-slave in a brothel.

Interesting that the Judging Eye triggered as she’s judging him for being weak. I’m going to pay attention to its other appearance and see if there’s anything that triggers it, or if it happens at “random.” I put that in quotes because no book has random things in it. An intelligent mind creates a book and while their reasoning may not make sense, an author chooses when to put information in and for a reason.

Mimara has really only learned one way to deal with men. She hates it, but she doesn’t know other ways to get them to give her things. So she once again goes down that path, sensing Achamian’s vulnerability. This is her moment. She could have continued doing this with him, but he does the one thing she can’t take.

He’s kind to her.

Sex is a punishment for her. To willingly do what she’d been forced to do. What she hates. To be the thing she can never escape. He shouldn’t be kind to her, and yet he is.

She feels lonely beside him because she didn’t have sex out of love, out of a desire to truly be with him. She just wanted to get something from him. They had the veneer of intimacy but in fact, it’s not there. So she can’t take any satisfaction from his presence.

Ultimately, Mimara’s problem is that she hates herself. For how she has grown to become exactly what the brothel masters intended: a woman who uses sex to get things from men. And because of that, she wants the world to hate her, too. Her mother. Achamian. She lashes out at them even as she wants to stop. Even as she wants to receive their love. Until she can stop hating herself, she’ll never be able to accept the love of others.

And what Achamian offers her as he holds her face is love. Not sexual love, but that paternal love she came here seeking. He will become her father in truth over their journey, and since we’re in the world of grimdark fantasy, it comes after they had sex and she becomes pregnant with his child.

And with her pronouncement on the Holy War’s march, Achamian is launched into action. He has his quest. His chance to make it to his goal and find the truth. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. They arrive at the Great Ordeal not caring about the results. They don’t confront Kellhus. He’s never even seen with the Judging Eye. Because we, the readers, don’t need to see Kellhus in that eye. In those final moments, we see what Kellhus’s goals are. Whether or not he’s damned, he’s trying to change things his way. A way that doesn’t see humans suffer more than necessary.

Because, ultimately, he fell in love in his stunted way. He forged an emotional bond to Serwë and Esmenet. He let one of them die for his mission. He couldn’t let the other one. The irony is that this led to his fall. If he never went back to save Esmenet, if he hadn’t spared Kelmomas for her sake, what happened at Golgotterath would have played out very differently.

So what is the point of Achamian and Mimara’s journey? I haven’t read this series since the Unholy Consult came out and know how it ends. It sees these two broken figures reunited with Esmenet both transformed by their journey.

Let’s figure this out together and see if we can piece together what Bakker was intending. Is this another fantasy storyline that ends in failure like all the rest? Probably.

Ultimately, all are protagonists fail. Achamian and Mimara never reveal the truth of Kellhus.

Kellhus never defeats the Consult.

Sorweel never stops the evil emperor and live happily ever after with his princess.

Esmenet fails to protect her children.

But scattered through it is lives and passions, events that have meaning. That resonates. Let’s explore those as we march forward through The Aspect-Emperor.

And if you want to help support this blurb, check out my fantasy books on Amazon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Weekly Free Story – Lily’s Kiss

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Lily’s Kiss

Her Royal Highness, Princess Livia Bethany Izzabel Karzinoth, took a deep breath as her new boots crunched on the edge of the crenelation. She did her best not to look down at the plunging drop before her, her rope swaying like a long snake down the side of the tower’s black stone. The knot in her stomach twisted even tighter. Her breath quickened. Frozen air puffed before her, the night’s chill deepening, adding a bite that snapped at her pink cheeks. Already, frost rimed the tower’s edges.

Winter’s chill stole through the structure. On her climb up it, she felt those icy fingers digging through the leather pants and jerkin she wore, rough clothing she’d filched from the laundress and tailored in secret through long nights to fit her shorter, yet curvier, form than the squire who owned them.

Her moleskin gloved hands gripped the rope as she turned around, facing the tower’s center, her back to the vast expanse of air behind her. Her stomach squirmed as the heels of her feet hung off the edge.

I’m going to die,” she whispered to herself.

She could picture it now, her booted foot slipping on the icy stone, the alchemical treatment on the gloves failing, her grip slipping. The rope hissing by her, the tower’s stones streaking past, as she plunged head-first into the outer bailey below.

She stood atop the Raven Donjon, the highest tower of the castle. It was a remnant of the old keep torn down to build the larger, and more impressive, dwelling that housed the royal family. The stonemasons had left behind only the rearing shaft of black, an edifice only a fool would climb.

That’s me, thought the princess. A fool.

But she had no choice. A fortnight ago, she’d discovered love in an unexpected place. Not in the nobles who came from across the known world to court her, the dignitaries from a dozen courts, or the men of power and wealth all looking to forge an alliance with her father’s kingdom. Nor did she find passion in the arms of a rough soldier or a comely servant like many ladies of the court did, reveling in their sordid love behind their lord husbands’ backs.

She’d found love in the face of Lily, her new bedmaid.

It had blossomed so unexpectedly, swelling in her heart until it swallowed her body.

And when discovered abed, the evidence of their sapphic passion found on their flushed bodies and despoiled sheets, Princess Livia lost her Lily. The soldiers had taken the maid away, imprisoning her at the commands of Livia’s horrified parents. Already, the ink upon a betrothal contract dried, signing the princess over to another man who’d carry her away after their affair. Meanwhile, her poor Lily would rot in her cell high up in the Raven Donjon, condemned for loving Livia. Just picturing Lily quivering, freezing in her rags, propelled Princess Livia to step off the battlements and slide down her rope.

I’m going to die, ran over and over through the frightened princess’s thoughts. The rope hissed as it slid through her moleskin gloves. Treated with an alchemical formula she’d filched from the castle apothecary, the gloves gripped the rope in an unnatural way, almost sticking to the gray hemp even as she’d descended down it.

Now, however, she let out a shriek as she slid faster, her heart beating, fearing the treatment’s failure. Flashes of falling shot through her mind again. The darkness rushing up at her, the bone-crunching impact, then nothing. Death. But the idea of her poor Lily wilting away in the cell proved far, far stronger than the terror turning her insides into laundry churned by the fullers’ feet.

Livia was a fool, but her love gave her no choice.

The toes of her boots scraped down the mortared stone of the tower. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look down. Though she had a childhood full of romping through the castle, of climbing trees and smaller towers, never once had she dared the heights of the Raven Donjon. Not even her tomboyish enthusiasm had given the younger her the courage to attempt what she did tonight.

Her toes scraped down the wall until she hit a gap, her feet swinging into nothingness. She let out a squeak of fright as she swung into the opening, fearing a deadly plummet to the courtyard loomed. Then metal rang, her boot striking the barred window of a cell. A heartbeat later, her foot landed on the ledge of the window’s opening. She trembled, realizing she’d reached her destination.

With a sucked in breath, Livia lunged her hand forward and grasped an iron bar. She pulled herself from her rope to perch on the window’s ledge. She had half her feet planted on the stone, the other half hanging off over open air.

Again, she could feel the distance yawning between her and the courtyard’s stones far below.

Lily,” she hissed, peering through the darkness. The chill from the iron bled through her gloves. Her heart thundered in her chest. “Lily, it’s me.”

Nothing answered her.

Did I climb down to the wrong window? Did I misjudge her cell’s location?

A panicked flutter rippled through the princess. She’d carefully planned everything the last fortnight. The moment her parents had stolen Lily from her, she’d launched into her daring rescue. She’d tried to be the model daughter for them when she’d come of age. She’d put away her boys’ clothes. She’d stopped romping through the swampy edges of the moat or playing rough games with the scullion boys. She wore the restraining gowns her mother ordered sewn for her, draped herself in jewels gifted by suitors, wore the unguents and perfumes proffered by servants, allowed the greasy makeup to paint her face, and sat for hours while her hairdresser tamed her dark locks. She would have endured it all if they could have let her have Lily. She would have gladly married any man, done her wifely duty and bore him heirs, so long as she could have her bedmaid with her. To have the woman she loved to keep her company, to share lonely nights, and with whom to enjoy sweet kisses and tender caresses.

But the bitter words her mother spoke to her that night echoed in her head . . .

*

Lady Sun and Father Earth made everything in opposites,” Queen Bethany lectured to the princess.

Livia huddled in the dressing gown stuffed on her after they took Lily from her, hugging her legs as she sat in the middle of her rumpled bed. Candles lit the room, the light dancing upon the stern matron’s face. Tears stained the princess’s cheeks as she ached for her bedmaid’s return.

Day and night,” continued her mother, “white and black, order and chaos, man and woman. They are meant to complement each other. Without opposites, there would only be bland sameness. You were born to be with a man.”

The words struck sparks inside the princess. It offended her that her mother saw only filth in the beauty she made with Lily. Livia bounced onto her knees on the bed, glaring defiance at the queen. “I was born to be with Lily!” the princess raged. “I love her! She loves me! What is so wrong about that? What crime have we committed? It’s not like I bedded a scullion! I just shared something . . . something wonderful with my friend.”

The queen shook her head, lip curling in disgust. “There was nothing wonderful about what we found. It was perversion. We are blessed to rule, Livia. The compliment of those who serve. How can we disrupt the order Mother Sun and Father Sky gave to us? We have to be exemplars!”

Like you and the captain of the guard?” spat the princess. “What part of the natural order is cuckolding my fath—”

The queen’s slap snapped the princess’s head to the side. “You understand nothing about being a woman. I never should have tolerated even a moment of your foolishness as a girl. Look what it has done. Running around like a boy has warped you into thinking you are one.”

I’m a woman,” the princess hissed. “So I do understand just why you bed the captain of the guard. At least I love Lily.”

You are too young to even understand what that word means.” The queen leaned forward, seizing the princess’s chin. “When you’ve brought life into the world through blood and pain, then talk to me about love. Until then, you are my daughter, and you shall never see that little strumpet again! I will find you a husband so you can do your duty to him and to our family.”

The queen whirled, skirts flowing like an angry tide, and marched from the room. Alone, the princess simmered. Thought. Plotted.

*

Memory of that argument gave Princess Livia fire as she peered through the darkened cell. “Lily, are you there?” I’ll crawl across this entire tower. I’ll find you even if I break my neck doing it.

She grabbed her rope and swung out from the alcove, abandoning the empty cell. Anger swelled in her for making such an error. It could ruin everything. She couldn’t afford to die. She had to rescue her sweet Lily. Nothing else mattered.

Swallowing her fear, Livia walked herself along the outer wall of the tower, her feet braced against the stones, the rope creaking as she scurried sideways towards the next window. She spotted it as she walked along the outside of the tower. Above, the rope scraped on stone.

Mother Sun, shine upon me, she prayed, and don’t let my rope fray and break. For Lily. You’ve seen how sweet she is.

The image of her lover swelled in the princess’s mind, that round face framed by cornsilk hair, eyes as blue as the sea, as azure as the sky. Despite her common birth, Lily possessed the natural grace that a princess should embody. Dainty, delicate cheeks paling at the sight of blood, squeamish around mud. Sometimes, Livia imagined a horrible mistake must have happened. That the pair were switched at birth, the universe’s proper order messed up again.

First, you create me to love women, she prayed to Mother Sun, then you give me the personality of a peasant and not a princess. Why would you do that?

She didn’t understand. It confused her why everyone preached the order of creation when she felt so alien from it, so different from what was expected. When she’d met Lily, she finally understood just how flawed she was, how much the Gods had botched the casting of her form into the mold of life.

But she didn’t care about why she was created wrong. It didn’t matter now. Not when she found someone just as flawed, just as alien, just as out of place as her. Someone who understood. As she shuffled across the tower’s rounded exterior, the memory of their first kiss swallowed her thoughts.

*

I’m so sorry,” Lily gasped, jerking her head back from the princess’s. “I didn’t meant to do that. It just . . . You’re just . . . so beautiful.”

Livia blinked in wonder, still feeling the touch of her bedmaid’s lips. Though they’d only known each other for a month—her last bedmaid had married another servant—they’d fast become friends despite the difference in their stations.

As was usual, they shared the princess’s bed tonight so Lily could be on hand to provide for the princess’s any need. As they talked about idle things, they had rolled onto their sides to face each other. The contents of their conversation had utterly evaporated from Livia’s mind by that quick, chaste kiss.

How could she remember anything as she sat their trembling, awakened to her true self? Everything in her mind crystallized who she was. Her eyes widened as she stared at Lily, studying her with new sight, and seeing her as more than her new friend. She saw that opposite she’d searched for to complete her and couldn’t find among the men like she’d expected. All those suitors she’d politely suffered. All those times staring at the guards training and trying to understand why the other courtly girls and servants giggled at their sweaty, shirtless bodies.

It all became clear, Mother Sun’s illumination exposing the truth.

It’s okay,” Livia answered, her words strained by awe. “It wasn’t . . . distasteful. It was . . . rather nice.”

Relief burned across Lily’s face. Her eyes trembled. “Thank Father Earth’s gentle ground. I am truly sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.”

You were afraid I’d be offended?” That hurt Livia. “You never have to be afraid of me.” She took Lily’s hand, scooting a little closer, her nightgown rustling about her skin. “I would never hurt you. Even if you planted a thousand kisses upon my lips.”

Lily squeezed Livia’s hand back. Trembling, the maid asked, “You mean that, Your Highness?”

Livia.” The princess smiled. “Didn’t I tell you to call me that?”

It’s just . . .” Lily scooted closer. “It’s such a dream. Being with you. Every day, I pinch myself.”

Because you’re living in the castle?” frowned Livia.

No. Because of you. That I get to be with you. You make everything so much brighter.”

Me?”

You’re so elegant.”

I’m always tripping over the hem of my skirt.”

You move with such grace.”

So gracefully into a vase or a plinth holding a bust.” The princess grinned. “And then crash.”

Your hair is lustrous.”

If you like horsehair.”

Princess!” Lily said with some heat. “Stop that!”

Livia blinked at the outburst. “What?”

You are so beautiful. You don’t have horsehair. And you’re not so wide that you crash into anything. You walk with wonderful grace. Don’t hate yourself. It’s terrible.”

Livia became even more confused. “Why does it make you so angry?”

Because I don’t like anyone insulting you. Not even yourself. I . . .” She swallowed her words. “I love you, princess. That’s why I kissed you. That’s why I’m so happy and think this is a dream. I know it’s wrong. I shouldn’t say this because it means you’ll hate me, and you’ll send me away from you, but I just had to blurt out what was in my heart. To tell you how I felt even if you—”

Princess Livia kissed her bedmaid. And it wasn’t a quick, chaste kiss.

*

They had two weeks of beautiful nights before that horrid evening when they were caught. Princess Livia wanted them back. So she kept working around the tower, her arms threatening to rip free from her shoulder sockets. She gripped the rope, ignored the cold, and moved with bouncing, swinging steps closer and closer to the next cell window.

She was almost there when her boots slipped on the icy surface as she went to make her next swinging leap. She let out a startled yelp, soles scraping on stone. She found purchase for a heartbeat and made a mad lunge for the window ledge. Her fingers stretched wide. She realized how dumb this was. If she missed . . .

The courtyard was so far below.

With a squeak of relief, she snagged the icy lip of the alcove. Her alchemical gloves gripped. Breath exploded from her lips. Her feet scrabbled against mortared stone. She found purchase and hauled herself into the window’s alcove. She pressed herself against the bars, clutching them, her entire body shaking as she peered inside, praying to see her lover.

That she didn’t risk death for nothing.

Lily!” she hissed, her heart thundering in her chest, threatening to break her ribcage. Her entire body trembled. “Please, are you there, Lily?”

Shadows stirred in the room. “Livia?”

Mother Sun’s blessed light,” gasped Livia, relief flooding through her.

What are you doing?” The shadow rose and darted to the window. Silvery light splashed onto a frail figure, face gaunt and wan, blonde hair lank and swallow, darker than Livia remembered.

She’s so dirty, the princess realized, staring at her lover in the thin nightgown she wore. The same garment that had half-clad her body the night they were caught.

Tears burned Livia’s eyes. “What did they do to you, sweet flower?”

I’m fine,” Lily said, her thin arms reaching through the bars to touch the wool sleeve of the shirt the princess wore beneath her jerkin. “They haven’t done anything to me.”

Did they feed you?”

A crust of bread and a bowl of soup each evening,” she said. “It’s more than enough. But what are you doing? You’ll fall. This is foolish, Your Highness.”

Don’t call me that!” The anger surged through Livia.

Lily flinched.

I’m sorry,” the princess said, grabbing her lover’s thin arm. “I didn’t mean to yell. I had no idea they treated you this poorly.”

She shrugged, looking resigned to her fate. Livia’s heart broke.

They tell me you’re to be married,” the girl continued. “That I’ll be released once you’ve left with your husband.”

Well, I’m releasing you tonight,” the princess said. “You won’t spend another heartbeat in here.”

A sad smile spread on Lily’s face. She leaned forward to the bars, kissing Livia through the gap. “Another sweet dream. I’ll savor it tonight.”

Every night,” Livia insisted. “You’re coming with me.” She shifted around, pulling off the pack slung on her shoulders. From it, she produced a tied bundle of clothing. “Here, for you. Put it on.”

And then what, Liv?” Lily glanced behind her at her cell door. “Am I to break down a stout oak door and overpower my guards? Or am I to shrink and squeeze through the bars?”

The princess winked. “Leave those to me.”

Lily took the bundle from the princess, frowning. “What are you up to?” Then she groaned. “You’re not playing with that alchemical stuff again?”

They cured your pimples,” Livia objected.

And made my skin peel for a week.” But a smile touched Lily’s lips, such radiance in the darkness of the cell.

Livia grinned back, just so happy to see that beauty again on her lover’s face. She could stare at her for eternity, just drinking in that smile, the simple joy in her round face. But you can’t stare at her like a mooncalf all night. They’ll start a search for her come dawn.

Hurry and change,” the princess said, pulling out a glass vial from a pocket. A plug, also glass, stoppered the end, sealed shut by wax. The aqua regal in there could devour through the sternest stone but couldn’t harm fragile glass.

Lily moved deeper into the cells. She turned her back, drawing up the hem of her nightgown, exposing her pale thighs. She paused, throwing a look over her shoulder. “Don’t look, Liv!”

I’ve seen you naked before,” the princess said. “We used to bathe together. And do other things.” A naughty grin spread on her lips.

Just . . . Please.”

Fine, fine,” Livia said. “Just hurry. I’ll focus on getting you out of here. I won’t look. May Mother Sun blind me and Father Earth swallow me if I do.”

As Livia worked the crystal stopper off the vial, breaking the wax seal in the process, she heard the rustle of clothing. She bit her lip, forcing her eyes to stare at the bar. With care, she dribbled the caustic liquid along the bar near the top. It hissed and bubbled, eating into the metal. It ran in hissing lines, etching furrows into the iron. She did the same on the next bar, careful to keep it away from her moleskin gloves.

She shifted on the edge, breathing heavily. Heat washed across her face from the alchemical reaction. A smell, not unlike rust mixed with vinegar, assaulted her nose. She wrinkled it while holding the vial near the bottom of the bar and tipping it over so the contents dribbled out and—

A naked back almost glowed in the dark. Lashes striped it, half-healed, puckered and raw.

Livia froze. Liquid hissed and bubbled, stone groaning as the aqua regal poured out of her vial onto the stone around the bar, forming a caustic puddle. Anger swirled through the princess. Her hand gripped the bar, leather creaking as it rubbed on iron.

Then Lily donned the wool shirt, hiding her injuries.

What did they do to you!” hissed the princess.

I’m fine,” Lily said, her head lowered. “And you promised not to look.”

What did they do? Tell me!”

Lily stiffened. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Her words slapped Livia again. She tried so hard not to be imperious with Lily, to let them be equals, but her upbringing always reared up in her anger. Those barking commands burst from her lips. A lifetime of giving orders to everyone save her parents was not an easy habit to break.

Please, my sweet Lily,” she said, her voice lower. “They hurt you. Why?”

To purify me. A nun came to scourge my sin out of me. But I wouldn’t renounce my love for you.”

Tears fell down Livia’s cheeks. “Why do you love me so much that you would endure such pain for me? I’m not worth it.”

Of course you’re worth it!” Lily whirled around, staring with such shining eyes. “Because it’s you!” She touched above her breast through her wool shirt. “Because you dwell in here. They’d have to cut my heart out to get rid of you.”

You’d die for me?” Livia gasped in awe. How do I ever repay that?

Aren’t you risking death for me?” Lily pulled up the leather britches up her skinny legs. “You’re perched on a window high above the ground. You could slip and fall to your death.”

Don’t remind me.” The princess shuddered, suddenly feeling all that empty air between her and the ground. “If I think about it, I’ll freeze up again and . . .”

The sound of bubbling hisses drew her attention. She gasped, realizing almost all the aqua regal had poured out around the middle bar, eating a smoking depression into the stone. The bar she clutched wobbled in the center of the puddle as she shifted. She looked at her vial and breathed a sigh of relief.

She had enough regal aqua left to eat through the other bar. Or so she hoped. Lily would need two removed for her to squeeze out to freedom despite how slender she’d become. Livia poured the last drops of the hungry liquid onto the other bar. Then she tossed the empty vial over her shoulder. She shuddered, regretting that as it took a dozen heartbeats before it hit the ground with a shattering tinkle.

Just don’t think about how high we are,” she muttered beneath her breath as she jerked on the first bar. She pulled it free with ease, the bottom end popping out of the pool of acid, the top snapping free. Not wanting to make more noise, she thrust it into the cell and reached past the remaining bars to lower it to the floor.

You really are amazing, Liv,” Lily said as she finished lacing up the stout boots. The girl looked almost like a young boy in her men’s clothing. Only her hair was far too long and her face far too feminine for the resemblance to be more than superficial.

If she had my big breasts, she could never pass for a man, thought Livia.

With a twisting jerk, she tried to pull the final bar free. The top came off without any problem, breaking free with a crunching snap. But the bottom only twisted, the metal stretching but staying whole. She took a hard grip on it and tugged hard, heaving with an oxen grunt.

It came free with a clanging pop.

She gasped as she suddenly jerked backward towards the empty air behind her. The soles of her boots slipped on the icy ledge. She felt herself teetering, windmilling her arms to keep from toppling backward. Her heart shot up into her throat as she leaned back.

The ground swam so far below.

Don’t fall,” Lily gasped, rushing to the window. She thrust her arms through the opening and hugged Livia about the waist before hauling her from the precipice.

The princess seized a still-whole bar, arresting her dangerous lean. Her entire body shook. Her blood pounded through her, feeling colder than the air around her. She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in deep breaths. The back of her heels still stuck out over the lip.

Okay,” Livia said, her voice brittle. She struggled to gather her thoughts. “You need to . . . uh . . . The, uh . . .”

The what?” Lily asked.

Livia took a deep breath, struggling to regather her thoughts scattered like a flock of songbirds fleeing the cat which jumped into their midst. “The rope! You have to tie the rope about your waist.” She spoke swiftly now, trying to mask her fear with activity. “Okay?”

Rope?” Lily asked.

Livia pulled a shorter length of rope out of her pouch and handed Lily one end. The other she wrapped about her waist and knotted it. Then she knotted it a second time. Lily’s fingers fumbled at the rope, clumsy in her moleskin gloves. But she managed to cinch the rope about her, squeezing the baggy clothing tight to her narrow waist.

The princess checked the knot just to make sure. It’s not tying off an embroidery or a seem.

Okay, watch that puddle,” Livia said as she took Lily’s hand. The acid had eaten half a foot into the stone, leaving a pockmarked depression. Little crags riddled it where the aqua regal had eaten deeper into the softer veins in the rock. “It’ll melt through your boots and your gloves.”

Lily gave a tight nod.

With a heave, the princess pulled Lily onto the ledge. It grew crowded with both girls clutching at the bars. The princess thrust the longer rope into Lily’s hand. The girl swallowed and looked down. She let out a squeak of fear.

Oh, no, she’s going to freeze up on me and—

But Lily gripped the rope and slid down it, clutching it with her feet with surprising skill. The cord bound between them played out as the princess followed, hugging the hemp and abandoning the relative safety of the ledge.

The rope swung away from it. She gasped as the tower blurred before her. Lily shrieked beneath her as they swung like the bob dangling at the end of a carpenter’s plumb. Her stomach swam as she gripped the rope with her treated gloves.

She choked on her scream.

The exterior of the tower scraped along her arms. Then she gasped, striking one stone which protruded a little more. She spun about. Lily squeaked in fright beneath her. Livia hit back into the tower, bouncing a second time. Her arm ached. She hugged the rope, her dark hair flying out around her face.

And then they dangled beneath the rope’s anchor point, swaying back and forth like a trembling pendulum. Livia let out an explosive breath, her entire body numb from fright. She hugged the rope, her eyes squeezed shut. Sucking in deep breaths, she vowed to never climb anything again.

Liv!” whimpered Lily. “What just happened?”

Part of the plan,” the princess said. I should have realized we’d swing like that! She forced herself to look down. “Mostly. Are you okay?”

Her lover just nodded, lips sealed tight.

Okay, it should be fine. Just slide down. The gloves should keep you on the rope. But you’re tied to me if you do fall.”

Lily smiled at that. “I know you have me.”

I love you,” Livia added. Just in case.

Then the princess and her lover slid down the rope. It rasped against the gloves and the leather of her trousers. She hugged her legs about the cord. The rope was their life. If she slipped, they would both die. She shuddered as they descended faster and faster.

Lily gasped beneath.

Then Livia crashed into Lily. They fell in a tangle of limbs on the paving stones of the courtyard. The princess lay atop her paramour. Lily squirmed beneath while hysterical giggles burst from Livia’s mouth.

We did it!” Her voice echoed through the courtyard. “Oh, Lily, we did it!”

You’re . . . crushing . . . me . . .” choked Lily.

Gasping, Livia rolled onto her back. Lily sucked in grateful breaths. But she still smiled. With Livia’s help, she stood up, gazing at the Raven Donjon, their rope swaying down the side like a narrow braid descending down a giant’s dark back.

Tears fell down Lily’s cheeks. She shook. Then threw herself at Livia. The princess hugged her trembling lover. Hot lips kissed at her neck, wet tears rubbed on her cheek. She rocked Lily in a tight embrace.

You’re free,” the princess cooed. “You won’t have to go back. My parents will never hurt you again!”

Where will we go?”

Will cross the hills and enter the neighboring kingdom. I have plenty of jewels and coins stashed in my saddlebag. It’ll be money to let us live in comfort and safety out of my parent’s reach. They won’t send soldiers past the Menhirs. Father respects them.”

I—”

A shuddering crack snapped from above, cutting off Lily’s words. Then something boomed and crashed down the tower. An avalanche of falling stone slammed into the courtyard nearby. Shards of stone hissed through the air. Livia gasped, her cheek flaring numb. Dust billowed from the rubble. She touched her face, and felt blood.

What was that?” squeaked Lily.

Livia groaned. “The ledge. The acid ate through the stone and some of the wall came down and—”

A horn blared an alarm from the top of the tower. Torches danced in the opening of Lily’s cell, the guards checking the ruckus. Fear struck the princess. Across the castle, she heard other shouts. She seized her lover’s hand and yanked her towards the nearby stables.

Hurry!” shouted the princess, her insides twisting. She’d expected to have hours and hours of night to ride as far from her parents’ castle as possible.

If we’re swift and get out the postern before anyone realizes it, we still might make it.

Hope kept her running, dragging Lily behind her.

They burst into the stables. Horses whinnied and nickered, nervous hooves stamping. Livia threw open the last two stall doors, the horses in them already saddled before she made her climb. Buttercup, her dun-yellow mare, snorted, tail flicking.

It’s okay,” Livia said, grabbing her bridle. “Come on, Buttercup. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Buttercup reared, jerking reins out of Livia’s grasp. The horse’s dark eyes were wild from the trumpeting horns. The princess stroked her horse’s neck, peering into scared eyes. She felt pulse pounding beneath her hide. But her soothing touched calmed the mare.

How’s Dancer?”

As placid as ever,” Lily said, leading out the roan mount she normally rode when the princess took her morning excursions. “I don’t think anything can spook her.”

Good, we need to get to the postern gate and—”

Well, what do we have here?” a voice growled. “Couple of horse thieves?”

Livia whirled to see the hulking Karson, Captain of the Guard, enter the stable wearing a leather jerkin hastily donned, his muscular legs bare beneath. He marched forward on boots laced tight. A sword glittered in his hand, its point long.

We’re not horse thieves,” Livia objected.

“‘Course you are,” he grinned, his bold nose almost quivering, as sharp as the beak of a hawk about to tear into the rabbit. “You probably purloined the queen’s jewels, didn’t you? Sent me out to find them, she did. Wouldn’t even let me get dressed when she saw them missin’. Then that piece of stone came crashin’ down, and I seen you two runnin’ in here. I knew you two was the thieves.”

Anger boiled through the princess. He came from my mother’s bed! Why can she do what she likes, but I have to be proper? Why can’t I have my lover?

Get out of the way, Captain Karson,” she said in a ringing voice. “Or you shall be in so much trouble if you even harm a hair on my head.”

The man snorted. “And why would that be, thief?”

Livia’s eyes widened in realization. He doesn’t recognize me in the dark. In these clothes.

Her gaze darted around the stable, searching for a weapon. She spotted a farrier’s hammer hanging from the wall. She snagged it up, gripping it in both hands. The small, iron head felt so puny compared to the captain’s sword.

Oh, ho, got a brave thief here,” he growled.

Liv, don’t!” Lily gasped.

I won’t let them hurt you!” the princess snarled, her anger too great to care. She lunged in to strike.

The sword hissed.

Though angry, her instincts of preservation surged through her. She skittered back away from the blade. It cut the air before her, flashing silver bright. A blur that left strands of her black hair severed and dancing through the air.

Livia’s heart hammered. Cold pumped through her veins, dousing her anger. The man snarled, recovering from his swing, and thrust the sword at her guts. She dove to the side, rolled across the hay-strewn ground of the stable, and gained her feet only to crash into a stall door with her shoulder.

A horse neighed in fear as she bounced off, stumbling to keep from falling on her face.

Liv! No!”

Lily’s warning gave the princess a heartbeat to act. She ducked low. The sword crashed into the stall door above her. It splintered the wood, caving in several planks, and lodged in the thick, oak frame. The captain of the guard grunted and planted his left boot on the stall. His naked thigh bulged as he struggled to haul his weapon free.

Livia acted.

She slammed the hammer into the guard captain’s right knee with all the force she could muster. Hardened steel crashed into capping patella. A loud, splintering snap echoed through the stables. The shiver of the blow rattled down her arm.

Karson bellowed in pain. Rage twisted his face. He tottered as his left arm swung like a pendulum. Princess Livia, flushed with the triumph of landing a blow on the loathsome man, gasped as the back of his fist slammed into her face.

She reeled. The world spun around her. Her vision went blurry as she crashed into a pile of sacks of millet. She draped over them, staring at the rush-strewn ground. The entire side of her face throbbed. For a moment, everything doubled as she struggled to think. To move. To do anything with her body.

Lily screamed, drawing Livia’s addled attention. Words poured out of the frightened girl’s mouth, her hand pointing wildly, stabbing the air. Livia tried to parse her lover’s meaning, the sounds all blurring together with the bell ringing in the stable. She shook her head, her brain rattling in her skull. A queasy writhe gripped her stomach.

She looked in the direction Lily pointed.

Karson gripped his sword in both hands. He stood, putting his weight on his left leg, his right knee swelling red. With a mighty heave, he wrenched his sword out of the ruined stall door. He staggered around, sliding on his right foot more than picking it up.

Baleful eyes fixed on the princess.

Oh, no,” she said, words slurred. For the first time in her life, Princess Livia witnessed murder in a man’s eyes.

Her body refused to obey her, as if the blow had severed the connection between mind and flesh. She could feel the tendrils reconnecting, her finger twitching first, her head shaking. But she couldn’t stand. Everything still felt so numb, fuzzed by the blow. Her stomach writhed more. Bile burned the back of her throat.

I’m going to die, she realized as Karson raised his sword high into the air, the blade’s edge gleaned razor bright.

And then the stirrup flew through the air, aimed square at Karson’s face. It crashed across his blunt, masculine features. Blood spurted from a twisted nose. The stirrup bounced to the ground as the brute stumbled back.

Putting all his weight on his right leg.

His cry of agony galvanized Princess Livia. Lily’s desperate throw bought her a few more precious heartbeats of life. She had to capitalize on it. She had to rescue them both. If Karson cut her down, his next stroke would end the life of the fearful blonde girl relying on Livia for protection.

She would not let anything worse happen to her Lily.

Poxed whores!” bellowed the guard captain. Snorting like a wild boar, he drew his blade back for the attack to end Livia’s life.

She acted, hugging the sack of millet to her. She stood up and whirled around, millet cradled to her chest. He snarled, his sword flashing down on a curving arc that would end with her cut in half, bleeding on the floor.

She thrust the sack of grain out before her like a shield.

The sword slammed into her makeshift defense. The burlap rasped against her moleskin gloves. If she grasped them with her bare hands, the force of his swing would have ripped the sack out of her hand. Then the end of his sword would still have hurtled down and found her vulnerable skull.

But the alchemical treatment held. Her gloves kept a hold on the sack, withstanding the force of his blow. The sword cut deep into the millet, but the densely packed grain slowed the impact. The sword embedded only halfway through it. Seeds spilled out around it, pouring like a brown waterfall to puddle between their feet.

Sun-blinded bitch!” he spat. He jerked his sword out of the bag. More grains poured out as he drew back for his next attack.

Liv!” screamed Lily in desperate fear. “No!”

Princess Livia thrust the sack of grains before her. Her arms extended. Spilling millet, the burlap tumbled through the air as Karson raised his sword up high. Though not a powerful throw, it still struck him in the bleeding nose, unbalancing the guard captain worse than Lily’s stirrup had.

This time, when Karson put all his weight on his right knee, his turning body torquing the joint, a sickening tear wrenched the air. Bone popped through the skin. Agony exploded from his mouth. He toppled back, hitting the ground hard, sword falling from his hands. He clutched at his ruined knee, grunting through the obvious pain.

Livia darted forward and kicked his sword across the rush strewn ground and away from his hand. It tumbled into the stall he’d hacked open.

Mount up!” the princess shouted.

You earth-cursed bitch!” spat the guard. “I’ll gut you!” He lunged for her leg. “And strangle the whore-life out of you! Poxed slattern!”

She ignored him, dashing for her horse. He struggled to stand, but agony screamed from his mouth again. Livia savored it, triumphing over the defeat of this horrid man. She swung herself up into her horse’s saddle while Lily mounted hers with ease.

Ride!” the princess screamed, exhilaration beating in her heart.

She felt alive as she heeled her horse. Her steed galloped forward. The guard captain cursed, rolling to the side and out of the way of their escaping mounts. They burst out into the night, Livia guiding her horse to the nearby postern gate she’d left open. A narrow opening, just wide enough for a single rider to duck through.

She threw a glance to ensure Lily followed, then plunged through it, leaned low over the neck of Buttercup. Men shouted behind them as she let out a giddy laugh, bursting out of the castle’s outer walls and to sweet freedom. She wheeled her horse to the right, charging for the road that led from the castle and around the town that lay at its feet. Lily spurred her horse abreast with Livia.

The two young women flashed each other smiles. Lily’s blonde hair streamed behind her. The clouds broke above them. Silver shimmered in Lily’s tresses. Livia shuddered, her heart thudding in triumph.

Hooves drummed on hard-packed dirt. Horns sounded behind them. Torches burned on Karzinoth Castle’s parapet. She knew that guards and knights even now rushed to their horses to give chase. The princess and her lover had to ride as swift as the setting moon.

They had to reach the borders of her father’s kingdom. Once past the marking stone, his soldiers could not follow without risking a war.

Livia!” Lily shouted, looking over her shoulder at the castle’s gray walls. It sat up on the hill they rode down, almost glowing in the moonlight against the blackness of the sky. The drawbridge rattled down across the moat that protected the front of the castle.

Just don’t stop riding!” Livia said, leaning low over her mount. “We can reach the border by morning.”

I won’t stop!” Lily said.

Pursuit sounded horns behind them. Metal clattered. Hooves thundered on the road. Livia’s heart drummed as the night raced by them. Stars wheeled above them. The silvery face of the moon descended towards the horizon. She hardly felt the icy kiss of night on her cheeks against the heat burning inside of her.

Her jaw throbbed, her face swollen and puffy. But she didn’t care. It was a small price to pay to save her Lily. To their right, the horizon pinked. Dawn’s promise gave her hope. They just had to keep going. Their horses didn’t carry men in armor now, but light women. They had the advantage.

So long as they didn’t falter.

As the horizon grew brighter and brighter, the land came into resolution. They tore past fields of winter wheat and barley. Already, the peasants were out working. They paused, leaning on fences to watch the two female fugitives fleeing the company of knights.

A ragged cheer rose from some, waving them on.

They’re celebrating our love, a part of Livia thought even as another, more cynical part of her, said, They’re enjoying the spectacle. I bet they’ll cheer just as loud if we’re caught and hung.

Liv!” Lily shouted, pointing ahead with enthusiasm.

The border stones lay ahead. Two great menhirs rose on either side of the road. They were ancient and said to be the bones of Father Earth himself demarcating the boundaries of the hundred kingdoms, dividing the world of men into neat parcels.

They weren’t always respected, but Livia knew this pair was.

Come on!” she urged her mount, putting heels to flank.

Buttercup snorted and neighed, neck lathered with exertion. Livia’s heart twisted with excitement as their freedom came closer and closer. They flew across the plain. The menhirs, dark stones thrusting three times the height of a man and covered in strange runes, loomed closer.

The knights’ thunder dwindled.

She threw a look over her shoulder, seeing them rein up. Defeated.

The two girls raced across the border, passing through the menhirs’ shadows. Their laughter resounded through the air. Huge grins burst across their lips. Tears fell down both their cheeks as they followed the road winding into a new kingdom, escaping from the oppression of the old.

Out of sight of the knights, not wanting to tempt their pursuers into violating the border by taunting them with their love, the two girls reined up. They threw themselves off their horses. They came together, limbs engulfing the other, lips meeting in sweet love. Despite the swollen pain in her face, Livia treasured each and every kiss seasoned with the salt of their tears. Her heart burst for joy in her chest as they held each other. The sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon, falling golden on the lovers.

They shared their joy, their hearts, their lives. Livia clutched Lily tight. No matter what the priests taught or the kings said, she would love her Lily. She would savor every moment with her. They would forge a life together. A life of their own choosing.

I love you, Lily,” the crying princess said when they broke that sweet kiss.

Lily sniffed, pressing her forehead to Livia’s. “Always.”

The END

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Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

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When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Three

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Three

Momemn

Welcome to Chapter Three of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Two!

On my knees, I offer you that which flies in me. My face to earth, I shout your glory to the heavens. In so surrendering do I conquer. In so yielding do I seize.

NEL-SARIPAL, DEDICATION TO MONIUS

My Thoughts

So, as we’re about to see in the first paragraph of the chapter, that this is the dedication to a seditious poem just written. It is a bold statement that is saying that though Nel-Saripal has surrendered to the tyranny of the Anasûrimbor dynasty and their rule over the New Empire, he has found the opposite. He is saying that they have no power over him in truth because he understands just what power is.

It’s not something that can be taken but only given.

No tyrant can rule a nation without being given power. Now, I’m not talking about the subjected people who are held in bondage by physical force. No, it is the instrument of that force that has surrendered to the tyrant. The various functionaries and generals and bureaucrats who have, for one reason or another, given to the tyrant the ability to rule the state.

And what is given, can be taken away.

If one day, all of Hitler’s chief advisers, his Himmlers and Goerings and the like, stopped giving him power, he would have been impotent. This is the dirty secrets of hierarchy. You don’t climb to the top but are lifted there by your peers for a myriad of personal reasons. To believe that you rule by some sort of divine right, as promulgated by the new religion, or because you believe you deserve it, that you’re somehow better than those around you, is a trap.

An easy one to fall in to.

The poet is showing the illusion of it. The contradiction of power and rule. And that’s what we see from Esmenet throughout this chapter.

That she’s a fraud.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

Nel-Saripal had his body slave deliver his newest poem to Empress Anasûrimbor Esmenet the moment it was penned. Within an hour it was on a ship. Seventy-three days later, it’s in her hand. She’s eager to read it as she grasped the scroll “the way a barren woman might grasp a foundling babe.” However, the opening lines strike her “as surely as a husband’s slap.” Already whispers start echoing through the hall at the utterance of first sentence: “Momemn is the first in our breasts, the beating heart.”

She gets mad while the reader, a famed orator named Sarpella, falters at the text. Everyone can tell this is seditious. That it implies Momemn beats its people to maintain power. Her poet was calling the government a thug. As the poem continues, she thinks all “great artists” punish their patrons in some way. She decides Nel-Saripal wasn’t subtle about it. That Nel-Saripal wasn’t as good a poet as Protathis who would have insulted her and gotten away with it. The rest of the poem is moving, so she first decides to forgive him.

But as the days past, that first line stuck with her. Slowly, Momemn became Esmenet. Every day, the poem becomes more and more personal for her. With Kellhus in the field, she was now the government. She was no Momemn. “A tyrant.”

You…” That was how Monius truly began.

You are the fist that beats us.”

Esmenet dreams of Mimara calling to her. She can’t seem to find her but instead finds an apple tree. The apples fall and become shrunken heads that glare at her. She screams as fingers break free of the ground. The dead spill out with their harvest. She’s thinking only of Mimara. She wakes up.

Esmenet wept as though she were her only child. Found, then lost.

The next afternoon finds her sitting bored as she listens to petitions. “The New Empire, she had long since learned, was a kind of enormous mechanism, one that used men as gears, thousands upon thousands of them, their functions determined by the language of the law.” It required upkeep, though she has Ngrau, formerly Ikurei Xerius’s seneschal, who now served hers. She has a comfortable relationship with him, and he knew to only send her the most important decisions. If she suspected any influence peddling or other corruption, she’d send them to the judges. It couldn’t be tolerated.

Mankind was at war.

She has a request for money form Shigek to help deal with Fanayal ab Kascamandri and his renegade army out in the desert. The last Kiani emperor refuses to die and admit defeat. Though her word could destroy any life, she liked to pretend her decisions were trivial.

For twenty years she had been Empress. For almost as long as she could read.

Other times, she’s almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of power she has as the Empress. The horror of what she could do with it. But usually, it’s routine. Even simple, as she just approves the actions of others, leaving them to carry it out. However, crisis would come along that could overwhelm her with confusing details.

Part of her would even laugh, convinced that it was simply too absurd to be real. She, Esmenet, a battered peach from the slums of Sumna, wielding an authority that only Triamis, the greatest of the Ceneian Emperors, had known. Souls in the millions traded coins with her profile. Oh what was that, you say? Thousands are starving in Eumarna. Yes-yes, but I have an insurrection to deal with. Armies, you see, simply must be fed. People? Well, they tend to suffer in silence, sell their children and whatnot. So long as the lies are told well.

At such a remove, so far fro the gutters of living truth, how could she not be a tyrant? Not [No] matter how balanced, thoughtful, or sincerely considered her judgments, how could they not crack like clubs or pierce like spears.

Exactly as Nel-Saripal had implied, the wretch.

Kelmomas bursts in on her latest meeting to shout that her daughter Theliopa had found a skin-spy. As he talks, she feels motherly pride in him. He’s beautiful and perfect. She believes the Gods have spared one of her children the curse of her husband’s blood. Then she stiffens as she realizes what her son had said.

A moment later, Captain Imhailas appears and kneels. She orders the court cleared while demanding how her son could bring her this news. Imhailas has no idea how Kelmomas while Kelmomas begs to see the skin-spy. She says no. He responds that he kneads to know for when he’s older. She asks Imhailas his opinion and he quotes, “Calloused hands suffer no tender eyes, your Glory.” That annoys her because it’s so hackneyed statement. Never ask an idiot for advice. She stares at her son’s innocence. She just wants to protect him, especially after the assassination attempt at his Whelming a few months ago. He keeps begging.

She composed her face and looked back to Imhailas. “I think…” she said with a heavy sigh. “I think you’re quite right, Captain. The time has come. Both my sweet cherries should see Thelli’s latest discovery.”

Another skin-spy in the court. Why now, after so many years?

Both boys, your Glory?”

She ignored this, the way she ignored all the tonal differences that seemed to colour references to Kelmomas’s twin, Samarmas. In this one thing, she would refuse the worlds its inroads.

Kelmomas doesn’t appear nearly as excited since Esmenet mentioned his brother. She drags him along as she searches for Samarmas. Though the galleries weren’t large, they could become labyrinthine. She doesn’t have to look for him herself, but she doesn’t want to delegate too much of her life to others. “Power, she had come to realize, had the insidious habit of inserting others between you and your tasks, rendering your limbs little more than decorative mementos of a more human past.” Sometimes, it was like she was reduced to a devious tongue.

Servants bow as she sweeps through the columns. The palace hasn’t changed much since the Ikurei Dynasty ruled it. Momemn had been smart and surrendered to her husband. It hadn’t needed to be conquered. She remembers the first time she had walked through these walls, seeing the rich.

All it had lacked was power.

She doesn’t immediately pay attention to the screams of her third-youngest child Inrilatas. When she does, she pauses by the door to his room. She touches it, feeling only cold metal. Kelmomas suddenly says that Uncle Maithanet thinks Inrilatas should be sent away. Hearing Maithanet always itched her. It’s almost a worry because he’s so much like Kellhus.

They’re frightened of us, aren’t they, Mommy?”

Them?”

Everybody. They’re all afraid of our family…”

Why would that be?”

Because they think we’re mad. They think father’s seed is too strong.”

Too strong for the vessel. Too strong for me.

She tells Kelmomas the God burns the strongest in Inrilatas which is why he’s mad. She keeps him here because she wouldn’t abandon her children. “Like Mimara?” asks Kelmomas. She’s torn for one moment between listening to Inrilatas madness as he gnawed on the other door to the cherubic face of Kelmomas. She prays he’s not like her other children before admitting she had abandoned Mimara. She hopes Akka will keep her safe.

Inrilatas’s screams turn masturbatory. The animal sounds make her hold tight to Kelmomas, knowing an impressionable child shouldn’t hear these sounds. The jerking noises sound personal, meant only for her. Samarmas crying out “Momma!” frees her from listening to Inrilatas. Samarmas looks like Kelmomas but his face has a slackness to it. His eyes bulge. She scoops him up and realizes he’s getting big while beaming “mother-love into his idiot gaze.”

My broken boy.

The nursemaid, Porsi, had followed in his stomping wake, eyes to the ground. The young Nansur slave knelt, face to floor. Esmenet should have thanked the girl, she knew, but she had wanted to find Sammi herself, perhaps even to spy for a bit, in the way of simpler parents watching through simpler windows.

Inrilatas continued screaming through polished stone—forgotten.

Esmenet heads down endless stairs to reach dungeons, leading her two sons. Samarmas pauses to hug everyone who prostates themselves. “He always was indiscriminate with his loving gestures, particularly when it came to slaves.” Kelmomas keeps reminding Samarmas thy have to be warriors and be strong, like a big brother should. Fears for their futures in this world grows in her.

As they head down the last stairs, Kelmomas starts describing how skin-spies have soft bones like sharks and calls them monsters. This scares Samarmas even though he knows all this. “But it was part of his innocence to respond to everything as though encountering it for the very first time.” He has to be told over and over about things. Esmenet admonishes Kelmomas for scaring him as he protests his brother has to know.

She had to remind herself that his [Kelmomas’s] cleverness was that of a normal child, and not like that of his siblings. Inrilatas, in particular, had possessed his father’s… gifts.

She wished she could these worries to rest. For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.

Not after so many… experiences.

There is a large crowd before the Truth Room. Everyone seems to have found an excuse, even her cook while Biaxi Sankas, a powerful member of the Congregate, shouts at the rabble to move. It disturbs her and reminds her that, while Kellhus is gone, she was the ultimate authority of the Empire. And yet even here, she feels like she doesn’t rule with such completeness. When Kellhus was around they would all line up “moist-eyed with awe and devotion.” But for her, it’s all back-fighting and whispers of plot and innuendo. “The long dance of tongues as knives.” She ignores most of it because it would mean the palace were about to revolt on her every week. Of course, if true foment brewed she would miss it. A monarch’s greatest threat came from those closest.

She cries out her Exalt-Captain’s name, demanding of Imhailas why everyone is here. She orders him to clear them out, and they scurry, hearing her anger before the soldiers can obey her.

They’re more of afraid of Father,” young Kelmomas whispered at her side.

Yes,” Esmenet replied, at a loss as to how to respond otherwise. The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed. “Yes, they are.”

Even a child can see it.

As the various people file out, giving her fawning bows, she feels sickened. She wonders how she can rule when these people carry out her orders. “But she had been too political for too long not to recognize an opportunity when she saw one.” So she asks for Lord Sankas to watch over her boys. He towers over her, reminding her that her short stature marks her caste-menial, to her shame. He agrees, like most, he’s eager to feel important. She finds that unseemly in a man as hold as Sankas. However, when he gives her sons advice on behind men, she smiles knowing it will endear her boys to him. Kellhus often told her to seek advice from men who can benefit her. “Men, he was always saying, liked to see their words proved right.”

Samarmas asks if they are going to see the monster. She’s happy to dote on him. She’d rather be a mother than deal with the politics and finds herself retreating from rule into caring for her twins. She tells him not to fear, “Lord Sankas will protect you.”

The Truth Room, as the torture chamber had been known during the Ikurei Dynasty, had been expanded by Kellhus from a small chamber “every bit as dark and closeted as their peevish souls.” Now it is a sprawling organ of the state. It has cells, places to interrogate prisoners, and a galley for observers to watch. It’s like an upside-down step pyramid. At the highest tier, she meets with Phinersa (Master-of-Spies), Vem-Mithriti (Vizier), Maithanet, and Theliopa. The first two prostrate while the latter two merely bow.

Theliopa, her eldest daughter by Kellhus, bowed in stiff curtsy as they approached. Perhaps she was the strangest of her children, even morose than Inrilatas, but curiously all the more safe for it. Theliopa was a woman with an unearthly hollow where human sentiment should be. Even as an infant she had never cried, never gurgled with laughter, never reached out to finger the image of her mother’s face. Esmenet had once overheard her nursemaids whispering that she would happily starve rather than call out for food, and even now she was thin in the extreme, tall and angular like the God-her-father, but emaciated, to the point where her skin seemed tented over the woodwork of her bones. The clothes she wore were ridiculously elaborate—despite her godlike intellect, the subtleties of style and fashion utterly eluded her—a gold-brocaded gown fairly armoured in black pearls.”

Mother, the sallow blonde girl said in a tone that Esmenet could now recognize for attachment, or the guttering approximation of it. As always the girl flinched at her touch, like a skittish cat or steed, but as always Esmenet refused to draw back, and held Theliopa’s cheeks until she felt the tremors calm.

You’ve done well,” she said, gazing into her pale eyes. “Very well.” It was strange, loving children who could see the movement of her soul through her face. It forced a kind of bitter honesty of her, the resignation of those who know they cannot hide—not ever—from the people they needed to hied from the most.

Theliopa says she lives to please. Esmenet reflects that her children all have bits of Kellhus’s “truth” in him. Except Samarmas. That was obvious to her. Only he could be trusted. She instantly recoils from that thought as Kelmomas squeezes her hand. She greats the others with the customary, “Reap the morrow.” Phinersa stands up with spry ease while Esmenet helps aged Vem-Mithriti, whose not just her vizier but the Grandmaster of the Imperial Saik, to his feet. Phinersa is someone that rarely makes eye contact, but when he does, the Master-of-Spies will have such intensity you feel stripped naked. Vem-Mithriti is more shy, like a scared adolescent. Kellhus chose the man for his weakness. “She often wondered whether old Vem was his [Kellhus’s] Gift to her since Kellhus had no difficulty handling the willful and ambitious.”

Maithanet, her brother-in-law and the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, towered next to the two Exalt-Ministers, dressed in a plain white tunic. The oiled plaits of his beard gleamed like jet in the lantern light. His height and force of presence never failed to remind Esmenet of her husband—the same light, only burning through the sackcloth of a human mother.

Maithanet explains the new skin-spy was found by “Thelli” in a surprise inspection of new slaves. He motions to the skin-spy hung spread eagle on an iron device. It is covered in sweat and has black skin. Its held at all its joints to keep it from flexing. It still is testing out the device by twisting its body. A single pin driven through its skull has forced its face to open. This is Dûnyain Neuropuncture. Its face fingers twitch like crab limbs. It still raises revulsion in Esmenet despite how many times she’d been around them. They violated the natural order of the world. She even keeps a skull of one complete with its face fingers, to remind herself about them. She forced herself to look at it.

It had long since become an argument for suffering her husband.

She asks if this is the first time they’ve made a black-skinned Satyothi before? Maithanet says it’s the first, and Theliopa speculates it’s a test to see if the difference in skin tone and bone structure would make it different enough to slip by. She suspects that making this one is why it’s been 733 days since the last infiltration. Her daughter’s gaze unnerves Esmenet and she doesn’t consider these implications. Instead, she checks on her sons. Kelmomas seems to be judging if the skin-spy lives up to his imagination while Samarmas watches it through his fingers, curious and scared at the same time. When Kelmomas looks at her, it reminds Esmenet that he’s still Kellhus’s son and “it worried her.”

She asks him what he thinks. He says scary. She agrees. Samarmas then throws himself at her and cries into her stomach. She storks him and notices Phinersa and Imhailas watching her. She knows with Theliopa around, she doesn’t have to be afraid of their intent because she sees malice or lust (which are the same) in their eyes. Phinersa asks what she wants to be done with the skin-spy. Only Kellhus can successfully interrogate one. Not even Cants of Compulsion worked on them, they had no souls. Pain just turns them on. She orders a public execution so the people can be reminded. Maithanet calls it wise. Everyone stares at it like they were memorizing it, keeping the threat fresh. Imhailas asks if she’ll be in attendance.

Yes,” she replied absently. “Of course.” The People needed to e reminded of more than what threatened them, they needed to be reminded of the discipline that kept them safe as well. They needed to recall the disciplinarian.

The tyrant.

While holding Samarmas still, she watches Kelmomas staring with fascination at the skin-spy. The mother in her rebels as she does what Kellhus would do. For her sons’ sake, they have to become as ruthless as she’d failed to become because being his children put them in danger. She wants her sons there, too.

After handing over her sons to their nurse, she escorts her brother-in-law Maithanet out of the palace. It had become their custom since Kellhus left for her to do this. It was both political, showing them as equals, and she found him a comfort. He’s more human than Kellhus.

And, of course, his blood made him her closest ally.

He brings up she’s thinking about Nel-Saripal’s poem recited the day before. She asks him what he thinks of the opening line. He says it’s significant, but only a signal “the way birds tell sailors of unseen land.” Maithanet says with Kellhus and his most loyal supporters gone, lingering resentments from the Unification shall flare-up. Nel-Saripal is just the first. She asks if they should prioritize stability over the Consult. Maithanet says they need to increase their efforts. The best way the Consult can demoralize the Great Ordeal is to throw the New Empire into turmoil. “When the hands are strong, attack the feet,” as the Ainoni say. Esmenet asks who would be so foolish to do that after everything Kellhus has done.

The well of fools has no bottom, Esmi. You know that. You can assume for every Fanayal who poses us openly, there are ten who skulk in the shadows.”

She just hopes they aren’t as cunning as Fanayal who has been a thorn in the Empire’s side since the First Holy War. He’d escaped Kian’s fall into Kellhus’s hand and fled into the desert. Folk songs spread his fame no matter how many minstrels are burned. The Bandit Padirajah had made things difficult in Fanim lands.

They walk in silence for a while through the apartments where the functionaries lived. The sounds of normal living affect her, especially a young boy crying. She asks Maithanet what he sees her in her face. He tells her not as much as his brother would see.

Dûnyain. It all came back to this iron ingot of meaning. Maithanet, her children, everyone near to her possessed some measure of Dûnyain blood. Everyone watched with a portion of her husband’s all-seeing eyes. For a heartbeat, she glimpsed Achamian as he stood twenty years earlier, a thousand smoke plumes scoring sky beyond him. “But you’re not thinking! You see only your love for him. You’re not thinking of what he sees when he gazes upon you…”

And with a blink both he and his heretical words were gone

She says that wasn’t her question. And he sees sorrow, confusion, and worry for Mimara. She fears her other children more than she worries about them. She’s afraid she’s not capable of governing in Kellhus’s stead. She asks if the others can see this in her. He says some perhaps will catch glimpses, but he reminds her that Kellhus set things up so their redemption goes through her. He has put people around her to help her. He assures her not to worry. She asks why. Because Kellhus chose her answers Maithanet. It’s why he has no fear.

A Dûnyain. A Dûnyain has chosen you.

She asks why he hesitated, and he says if he saw this fear, then so did Kellhus. So it must be a strength. She blinks back tears and asks if she was chosen for being weak. Maithanet answers, “Is the man who flees to fight anew weak?” He says fear isn’t a good or bad thing but how it’s reacted to.

Then why wouldn’t he tell me as much.[?]”

Because, Esmi[,]” he said, drawing her back down the hall, “sometimes ignorance is the greatest strength of all.”

The next day, Esmenet wakes up thinking of her children as babies and not “instruments of power.” It feels miraculous. She didn’t like thinking about her early years. There was a time when Kellhus was relentless to have children. She’d conceived seven times and six had survived. Plus Mimara and Moënghus, Serwë’s son.

Eight!

The thought never ceased to surprise and to dizzy her, so certain she had been that she would live and die barren.

Kayûtas was born a few months after Moënghus, the pair raised as fraternal twins. Kayûtas had been perfect and it made the Lords of the Holy War weep to see him. “It had been Kayûtas who taught her that love was a kind of imperfection.” Despite his perfection, he felt no love. It broke her heart to hold him. Then she had Theliopa. She’d hoped for this child after Kayûtas, but even before the afterbirth was washed off, knew she had born another child lacking love. Kellhus was gone a lot at war and she grew depressed, even suicidal. Only Moënghus kept her alive. “He at least needed her, even if he was not her own.” That was why she really started looking for Mimara in earnest. She even thought of killing Theliopa and herself if Kellhus didn’t find Mimara.

Fate truly was a whore, to deliver her to such thoughts.

She quickly becomes pregnant with Serwa born in Carythusal right after the conquest. Another perfect child like Kayûtas, but Serwa seemed capable of love. A joy. However, at three, it was discovered she had the Gift and was sent to the Sawayal witches.

There had been a bitterness in that decision, and no few thoughts of heresy and sedition. In lowing Serwa, Esmenet learned that worship could not only survive the loss of love, it possessed room for hatred as well

Her next child was born with “eight arms and no eyes.” It almost killed her. Next was Inrilatas, another son incapable of love. However, she’d know there was something even more wrong, an instinct gained from being a mother so many time. By the time he was two, his nurses were scared, and at three he began “speaking the little treacheries that dwelt in the hearts of those about him.” At five, he unnerved hardened warriors. Once after Esmenet had sung him a lullaby, he said, “Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Only Kellhus could manage him after that. And he didn’t have the time. Not long after, Inrilatas descended into madness.

Esmenet yearned for menopause or “the dry season.” But she kept having periods. She started to find surrogates for Kellhus to breed. “Of the seventeen concubines he impregnated, ten died in childbirth, and the others gave birth to more… nameless ones.”

Esmenet sometimes wondered how many hapless souls had been assassinated to keep this secret. A hundred? A thousand?

They found Mimara after Inrilatas’s madness. It took ten years for the Eothic Guard to find her in a brothel dressed up like the Empress. “They had found her daughter, her only child sired by a man instead of a god.” Mimara hated Esmenet. That sweet child was gone, mad in different ways from her “divine daughters and sons.” She also was the Few, but Kellhus allowed Esmenet to keep Mimara. She had refused, willing to destroy her relationship with Kellhus for her daughter. “She would not sell Mimara a second time—no matter how vicious the young woman’s rantings.” Though Mimara was even too old to go, it didn’t stop her from demanding it. Esmenet assumed this was her final punishment for her sin.

The twins arrived during this time, and with them one final spear throw at Fate

The twins had their own problems. Though they looked perfect, like Kayûtas, if you separated them, they both would not stop crying. Instead, for months they lay side by side staring into each other’s eyes. The physician-priest had warned her of “complications” for having children at her age. The two seemed to share a single sou, which she found poetic. Kellhus had found a famed slave named Hagitatas who specialized in “troubled souls.” He managed to separate the two children and give them their own identity. “Such was her relief that even the subsequent discovery of Samarmas’s idiocy seemed a cause for celebration.”

These sons loved—there could be no question that they loved!

At last the Whore of Fate, treacherous Anagke, who had lifted Esmenet form ignorance and brutality of the Sumni slums to the pitch of more profound torments, had relented. At last Esmenet had found her heart. She was an old mother now, and old mothers knew well the tightfisted ways of the world. They knew how to find largess in its meager capitulations.

How to be greedy with small things.

She feels hope despite her nervousness as she’s dressed. Porsi brings her sons looking like little generals, which delights Esmenet. Then she brings the protesting sons along a passage that ran beneath the Scuäri Campus. The Plate is heard above, summoning the city to witness the skin-spy’s execution. They emerge in the Allosium Forum and are almost deafened by the crowds. They step out atop the height overlooking the campus which is covered in people crying out in adoration to her.

Esmenet was always conscious of her unreality at moments such as this. Everything, even the cosmetics smeared across her skin, possessed the weight of fraud. She was not Esmenet, and nor were her children Kelmomas and Samarmas. They were images, semblances drawn to answer the mob and their anxious fantasies. They were Power. They were Justice. They were mortal flesh draped about the dread intent of God.

Authority in all its myriad incarnations

She pretends to bask in the adoration before being shocked by the sudden silence. She feels hesitant, frozen. Someone coughs. She heads down the stairs, flanked by the Eothic Guard. The lower she gets, she can smell the unwashed masses. As she stares out at the, she wonders how many want to kill her and her children. All eight of them. Theliopa isn’t here, unable to handle so many people, while Moënghus, Kayûtas, and Serwa march in the Great Ordeal. Mimara is with Achamian and Inrilatas in his prison.

Eight. And only these two boys loved.

She leads her sons to their seats, only letting go of their hands to rest them on the golden claws of her throne. She wears various gems and garb to signify different titles and claims to importance. She is facing away from the execution. She can hear the curtains being drawn as the skin-spy is unveiled. The crowd roars, frightening Samarmas. He huddled on his seat. The mother in her wants to order the guards to kill those who scared her child.

But to be sovereign is to be forever, irrevocably, cut into many. To be a matron, simple and uncompromising. To be a spy, probing and hiding. And to be a general, always calculating weakness and advantage.

She fought the mother-clamouring within, ignored his [Samarmas’s] distress. Even Samarmas—who she was certain would be nothing more than a dear fool—even he had to learn the madness that was his Imperial inheritance.

For him, she told herself. I do this for his sake!

The mobs scream at the Consult skin-spy strung up behind her. By tradition, her “eyes were too holy for such a horrific sight.” Lord Sankas, who must have one the lottery among the important nobles, has the honor of bringing her the hand mirror by which she’ll watch the execution behind her. Samarmas leaves his seat to hug her while those in the crowd laughed. She works to get him back to his seat while Sankas looks embarrassed. He holds up the mirror and she’s surprised by how beautiful she looks. She often thinks she’s older and uglier than she looks. Even growing old, it would stay with her.

It also hurts her, so she shifts the mirror to see the skin-spy. Her breath tightens. She watches it thrash against its chains as two of Phinersa’s men are preparing to flay it while another manipulates the Neuropuncture needles controlling it.

Both the twins had climbed into their seats to gaze over the back, Kelmomas pale and expressionless, Samarmas with his shining cheeks pressed to the cushion. She wanted to shout at them to turn away, to look back to the shrieking mob, but her voice failed her. Even though the mirror was meant to protect her, holding it the way she did seemed to make it all the more real, into something that rubbed against the soft-skin of her terror.

Brands burn out its eyes. She watches the torture with a sick, horrific fascination. She wonders how she could have ended up here. She believed in her husband and his mission, she just couldn’t believe it had happened to her. She thinks this is all a dream. Samarmas cries while Kelmomas trembled, not as strong as he usually was. She grabs her sons’ hands to comfort them, unable to stop being a mother. As she does, she feels the comfort it brings. An admission of her weakness.

The masses roared in exultation, becoming in some curious way, the iron that burned, the blade that peeled. And Esmenet sat painted and rigid, gazing out across their furious regions.

Thug. Tyrant. Empress of the Three Seas.

A miracle not quite believed.

My Thoughts

This opening does many things with Esmenet. It instantly reminds us of the thing that had initially seduced her to Kellhus: learning to read. She loves it. I don’t think there is a character in Bakker’s books that loves to read more than she does. It shows how self-conscious she is of her image. She wants to be seen as a loving ruler, but her critic clearly sees her as a thug. Her ego doesn’t like this one bit. It gnaws at her until it becomes more and more personal.

So once a government has power, and has the consent of the majority, it can only impose its will through violence. Every government, even your own, is a thug. Remember this when you lobby a politician to make a law: that law will be enforced by men with guns. At some point in the process, if someone defies it long enough, even in the most civilized country, a law enforcement officer will show up to either force you to comply or arrest you if you don’t. And if you resist, they will use an escalation of force on you.

A government will use force to maintain its order for so long as it can suppress the minority who object. It’s the very nature of government.

It must be terrible to be estranged from your child. I haven’t spoken to my father since June 2003 when my brother graduated from high school. Sometimes I wonder what he thinks about that? Sometimes I think about finding him after waking up from my own surreal dreams.

War. The eternal justification for the expenditure of resources, for marshaling a nation’s engine of economics in a single direction. Sometimes, it’s a necessary exercise to persevere against an aggressor, other times it’s the petty greed of men who want that greener pasture on the other side of the border.

A good discussion on how even someone who can care can be swept up in despotism. She’s reflecting on it thanks to the powers. That’s why his words are gnawing at her. He just stripped away her self-deception about her banality. She oppresses the people because she’s focused on “the big picture” forgetting that it’s made up of individual brush strokes. Or, in modern parlance, all those little dots made by a printer that forms a mosaic so fine it blends into an illusion of a seamless whole to our eyes.

But all those little dots matter when they’re human lives.

I think Theliopa is my favorite of Kellhus’s children. She has this innocence about her and a frailness even as she’s overwhelmed by her intellect and her inability to feel anything.

We get our first clue that Kelmomas knows the palace better than anyone as he beats Imhailas to Esmenet.

Esmenet is in denial that Samarmas isn’t mentally handicapped like he clearly is. She wants both of her youngest children to be perfect. One is faking it. Just like she won’t be able to see what he truly is for a long time.

Why a new skin-spy? We’re seeing an upgrade here. The first hints that the Consult has had another breakthrough and are now probing to see if they infiltrate while Kellhus is gone.

A mark of wealth in ancient times was being able to pay someone to spend their life weaving a carpet. That’s a human being that needs to pay for all of their life needs and are not contributing to the survival of the species. That’s the power that civilization and the diversification of skills gave our species.

Kelmomas is starting to turn her against Maithanet. He senses her worry and he’s going to feed on it through this book. He wants to isolate her. Doesn’t want her to rely on anyone else but him. Notice him then lumping himself and his mother together as one tribe against the rest of the world.

We see Esmenet, despite her intelligence, has a hard time breeding with Kellhus. The first two children came out Dûnyain enough. They’re stable. Able to fake emotions, but the rest of her children, including the stillborn, are not. Theliopa can’t understand fashion and actions. She’s very autistic, but she has a good rationale mind. Inrilatas sees it all for what it is, a joke. He sees the strongest of all of the children, but he doesn’t have the discipline to give a shit. Then we have the twins, one a sociopath and the other mentally handicapped.

We do see that Serwë is probably the most human of them. She does find emotions in the end.

Mimara thinks she’s run, that she escaped, but her mother knows just where she is. Esmenet probably realizes she can’t save her relationship with Mimara by holding tight. Maybe distance, time spent with Achamian, will help her. She has no idea Achamian is about to plan a dangerous journey and her daughter is not going to be safe.

But he does protect her.

It sounds like Samarmas has down syndrome. She had the twins late in life, which increases the risk factor of having a child with down syndrome. I think past the late thirties is when that starts happening. A woman’s eggs form in her in the womb. They’re rather old cells considering the life span for most is only seven years so by time a woman reaches procreation, they’re double if not triple the age of other cells in her body. And over the years, things break down.

Poor Inrilatas. There are limits to every human. He found his mother’s.

I used to work four years driving a paratransit shuttle for Pierce Transit, the local bus agency. A paratransit shuttle picks up those too disabled to ride the regular bus. It’s a requirement of the ADA act. A lot of my passengers were adults with mental handicaps. Down syndrome, extreme autism, other conditions. A lot of them were like Samarmas. Hugging and happy.

I really hate Kelmomas for killing him.

“For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.” And here we have why Samarmas had to die. Kelmomas is a jealous god. He only wants one worshiper, and she needs to bend her full attention to him.

It’s only natural that she’s paranoid. She wants to believe Kelmomas is normal, which probably is why his deception is so successful on her. He has just enough sense to fake emotions, unlike his other siblings. So now she’s convincing herself that he must be, suppressing any doubts she might have because she’s desperate to have a child who loves her.

After all, she ruined things so badly with Mimara and the rest of her children are Dûnyain. All save Samarmas.

Biaxi Sankas, I hope your grateful Conphas is dead. Or else you would be. The last Biaxi in the story was the general Conphas sent after Cnaiür. If he didn’t come back with the barbarian’s head, Conphas vowed to exterminate the Biaxi family.

“The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed.” This sentence is a double negative. Not unwelcomed? Should be not welcomed. It hurt my brain reading that.

Esmenet’s worried about betrayal. Maybe Ikurei had a point to be paranoid. It probably started out as reasonable concern, knowing about history including how his own father was betrayed by his mother so he could take the throne. But if you’re not careful, it becomes pathological. Kelmomas noticed this, and he starts working on her immediately.

The new rich are always embarrassed that they used to be poor around the old rich. They often try to overcompensate. Rarely does it work. Of course, Esmenet has the power of the Empire behind her so the old rich have to suck up to her.

Sometimes, it’s best to tell a white lie to spare hurt feelings especially trivial. I’m a writer, and when my mom tells me she likes my writing, I’m always like, ‘Are you just saying that because you’re my mom?’ At least Esmenet’s children would know if they’re bad or not.

The moment she thinks only Samarmas can be trusted, Kelmomas reminds her of his presence. She is actually on to him more than I realized and deceiving herself. He is doing everything to feed that delusion. “The lies that flatter us are the ones we most readily believe,” is something similar to a Bakker quote. I probably got it wrong, but that’s the essence of it.

“Reap the morrow.” What a curious greeting. Harvest the future. I have a feeling that Kellhus set this up, a reminder to think about what tomorrow is going to bring. You want a good harvest to reap on the morrow. To build towards it.

Esmenet clearly doesn’t love Kellhus at all. She all but hates him, but tolerates him because the world needs to be saving. She believes in his mission. That’s one of the reasons she’s here. It’s one argument, but also her children and seeing them cared for is another. Of course, if she’d know the sort of children she would be having…

733 days. Nearly two years. Who wants to bet that this is when the Mutilated took over the Consult. It can’t have been too many years before that because of the age of the boy. The Mutilated were clearly tortured for a period of time before they used their Dûnyain skills to win over the Consult and then dominate it. They would understand exactly how the skin-spies were detected. Now that Kellhus is gone, perhaps they thought a new type would work or were testing how good the half-Dûnyain are. It might also be a feint to keep Kellhus from suspecting of their existence.

It’s hard to speculate with Dûnyain in the mix.

There is little to no evidence that the Consult is behind any of the happenings that take down the New Empire. Maybe they were doing stuff, but it’s all Kelmomas, Fanayal and his Cishaurim, Zeüm, and Yatwer that cause the problems and draw Kellhus back to the New Empire. Even in the end, it’s Kelmomas becoming the No God not whom the Consult wanted. No one predicted he would be the No God. The Mutilated wanted Kellhus to reach them. They just couldn’t make it easy. They had to try their hardest to destroy him. Now, maybe they were behind Zeüm giving support to Fanayal, but it’s hard to say. Maybe the next book will elucidate it. after all, Zeüm is about to have a bad time.

The Bandit Padirajah. The perfect, romantic symbol of rebellion to inflame the common folk. If the world survives, he’ll be a legendary figure like Robin Hood in our world. Everyone loves to root for an underdog because, unless you’re one of the .0001% at the top of the social hierarchy, you’re an underdog yourself. And you would hope to win if you had the balls to do what Fanayal does.

A sad thing for a mother to fear her children. Normally, the mother or parents would bring that on themselves, but given her children and her inability to relate to them, to even understand them, it makes sense. They are almost aliens to her save for Mimara and poor Samarmas.

Did I mention I hate Kelmomas?

Fear is an important part of humans. As Maithanet says, it’s necessary. Look at Conphas, the man was so narcissistic that he ignored his fear. He pushed doubt aside. Doubt is merely a type of fear, after all. One that makes us question what we’re doing. Be self-reflective. Since most of us aren’t in a life or death struggle like our fear response was designed for, we can use it to help us with more modern issues. It’s healthy, but too much fear is just as bad. Like with everything in life, it’s balance.

Of course, there is the possibility that it doesn’t matter who was in charge. The New Empire was never intended to survive. Kellhus has his mission. Defeat the Consult and stop the No-God from being activated. The New Empire serves no purpose after that. He might even see the eradication of the Dûnyain like himself can only be a positive given where Dûnyain philosophy leads in a world where Damnation is a true thing and morality matters.

Esmenet felt that emptiness inside of her created when she sold Mimara. She’s desperate to replace it with anything. But Kellhus’s children are like him. They just couldn’t fake it yet. How horrifying to have children who might as well be rocks. Mothers need that emotional connection to bond with them, else you get what she descends into postpartum depression. The thoughts of harming herself and the baby are all symptoms of that.

Serwa seems capable of love. She is definitely the most emotional of Kellhus’s children we see (baring Samarmas). Once Sorweel breaks through her barriers. She even saves her mother life when her mission to destroy the Consult should have been all that mattered.

I hope Serwa survives into the next series. She was badly wounded at the end, though.

“Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Inrilatas called his mother a whore to her face. Also, it’s pretty clear that Kellhus pushed the kid into harmless insanity so he would have to be locked up because he did not have time to care for him.

More proof that the Dûnyain are not fully human, they have trouble reproducing. They have strengthened the nonman gene in their bloodlines to a point where they’re verging on a different species from humans. Or so I believe.

Kelmomas certainly loves. He has the jealous love of a child who wants his mother all to himself and the intellect to make it happen combined with not a bit of morality to restrain his actions. We also get another version of this story from Kelmomas about what was going on with him and his brother.

The Plate sounds like a giant symbol used to sound the alarm.

Oh, Esmenet, Mimara loves you. It’s in there. The pain of her hatred wouldn’t be so great otherwise. It might be impossible for them to ever get past that. Mimara was greatly wronged by her mother. If she chooses never to forgive Esmenet, it’s understandable.

She didn’t count Moënghus in her tally of normal children. Yet he’s not Dûnyain, so what happened to him? We’ll see in book 2 and 3.

Notice how many traditions there are around her. Her eyes are too holy to watch an execution. She wears a garnet on her shoulder to signify Kellhus’s blood had passed through her. These are not natural traditions. Not established so fast. They were implemented by Kellhus for he knows the importance of traditions. Most start out as a convenience done by someone who keeps doing it, then others follow until you get a separation between the reason it was done and those who just mimic it because that is how it has always been done.

Esmenet has “impostor syndrome” which is the belief that you don’t deserve where you are. It’s that doubt that can make you question your own skill, your own purpose. It can be a healthy thing, keeping you sharp, or it can destroy you if it becomes a neurosis. She’s not as strong as she thinks she needs to be. Her children are a crutch, an escape, that give her comfort. Hence, why I think she felt it to be an admission that holding their hands soothed her soul.

Our introduction to Esmenet is done. We get her backstory, how she is more a partner to Kellhus than a wife. She believes in him, but she’s long stopped loving him. She hates him now, but she also still trusts him. Worships him.

Click here for Chapter Four of the Reread!

And if you want to help support this blurb, check out my fantasy books on Amazon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

At the end of Book Four, Trull Sengar began to tell the story of how he became chained to the wall in the drowned pocket of Kurald Emurlan.

As the events of Deadhouse Gates and Memory of Ice was happening (sort of, since the Silanah stuff really throws off the timeline) on the other side of the world, the Tiste Edur tribes have been united by the Warlock King. They are facing annexation by the greedy Lether to the south, a nation merchants who want the natural resources in Edur lands. They have destroyed other tribes through shady treaties and deliberate betrayals.

The Warlock King has a new ally. He plans to send the Sengar Brothers (Fear, Trull, Binadas, and young Rulad) on a quest to receive a gift in the arctic wastes north of their lands. Will it prove the salvation of their people or their ruination.

Another set of brothers, Beddicts, have their own goals. Tehol Beddict appears impoverished after his financial collapse, but he had actually discovered the secret to destroying his people’s economy and flinched. However, when those whose people were destroyed by the Lethers want him to try again, will he accept? In the palace, Brice Beddict is the king’s champion. Emroiled in the complex politics of Lether, he vows to protect his king even if the man isn’t worthy of his devotion. Last, Hull Beddict plots his people’s destruction in another way. He wants to save the Edur from the fate of other tribes, weighed down by guilt.

A large cast of characters, both mortal, undead, and immortal, clash and swirl. This is one of Erikson’s best books in the series. Tehol and Bug number among my favorite duo and it was great to read them again. Tragedy and misfortune swirl as no one’s plans quite work out right. The darkest parts of humanity are exposed once more.

This fantasy series continues to be unique and amazing. If you haven’t read any of Malazan Book of the Fallen, you need to. It is worth the journey.

You can buy Midnight Tides from Amazon.

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Interview with Clay Gilbert Author of Pearl

This week, I spoke with Clay again. He’s a prolific indie author writing from SciFi to urban fantasy. Now he’s got a suspense thriller with supernatural overtones coming out called Pearl. We’re going to be getting into this interesting novel today!

Check out Pearl on Amazon!

First, let’s get to know Clay with some fun, quirky questions! Part Duex!

  1. What was your favorite subject in school? English
  2. What is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done? Answering interview questions like that one, haha. 😉
  3. Favorite color? Purple. Royal purple, not that pastel stuff. 😉
  4. Does pineapple belong on pizza? Absolutely. Love me some Hawaiian pizza.
  5. If you could travel back in time, why would you do it? I’d like to attend every Grateful Dead show ever, not just the ones I actually saw between 1988 and 1995. Of course, it’d be fun to see some of the historical periods I missed out on, too.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks!

  1. Where did the idea for Pearl come from? Well, I’ve loved monsters for a long time, particularly the more sympathetic monsters, like King Kong and Frankenstein’s Monster. For years, I’ve thought about writing my own sympathetic monster story, but I wasn’t sure really how to go about it. Eventually I decided that nothing could be more sympathetic than a ‘monster’ who was a child. Many of my novels are written from the perspective of a female protagonist, so, in this case, my little monster was also a little girl.
  2. What sort of research did you do to bring the story of Pearl to life? I did some research on the history, folklore, and language of the Smoky Mountains, including specific legends involving supernatural creatures, and also the abandoned town of Elkmont, which plays a prominent supporting role in the novel.
  3. Writing a novel can, at times, feel like a chore. Did this novel ever make you want to rip your hair out, or did it flow smoothly from imagination to typed words? The initial composition of the book was smooth, but the editing process was unusually rigorous. This book is set more in the here and now than many of my novels, which are often set far in the future or on other worlds. This book has fantasy elements in it, but the elements which are not fantasy were things—and some real places—I knew people would call me out about if I got too off-base with. I wanted to make sure the fantasy elements were as believable, in their way, as the real-world aspects were. It’s also the first book I’ve written from the perspective of a child, and I wanted her to be as believable on the page as she was in my head. Pearl’s mode of speech was also challenging to handle. Anytime you deal with dialect in a book, particularly in the voice of a person of color, you run the risk of offending people or being accused of stereotyping. Since the book is itself so concerned with marginalization, it was important to me that neither Pearl nor any of the other people in the book come across as caricatures. I intend all my books to speak to the universal experience of being human, and both to acknowledge diversity as well as our commonalities as people, no matter what gender, ethnicity, cultural or educational background we spring from. Thankfully, I had an editor working with me on this book who really helped let me know when I was pulling those challenges off, and when I needed to work on some things. It was a lot of work, and I’m proud of how it turned out.
  4. Fans of what sort of books would enjoy Pearl? I think this book will appeal to a wide audience. Pearl’s wit, spirit and humor, and her determination to uncover the mystery of her own strange history will appeal to the Harry Potter audience, I think, and there is certainly magic here, too. Fans of 1980s horror, especially Stephen King’s work, will find elements here that echo the particular ethos of that era in horror history. I hope there are some elements of such Steven Spielberg films as E.T. and Poltergeist here, as well as books such as King’s IT and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life. It’s one-third coming-of-age drama, one-third horror novel, and one-third fantasy epic.
  5. Creative writing is opening your soul and exposing yourself. How much of yourself do you think made it into Pearl? A good bit. Matt Chandler, the writer who becomes a father figure to Pearl over time, is a good bit like me. And Pearl, with her childhood involving being treated like an outsider because of the way she was born and how she looks, reflects some of my childhood as well, even if I never outright got called a ‘monster’ like she does. My Christian religious beliefs and much of my personal outlook on the world found their way, I hope, into the book as well. Also, of course, my love of monsters, something I share with, among others, the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Fans of his work will enjoy this book, I think.
  6. What is a good habit for a writer to adopt? Discipline. Put your backside to the seat for a set number of hours every day, set daily word-count goals, and do not allow yourself to back out of them. Also, read a lot.
  7. Would you like to share a little preview of Pearl with us?

I’m not sure how little this is, but here you go.

* * *

Run, Pearl. When you get the chance, run. And don’t stop until you’re somewhere safe.”

That’s what Dr. Steve told her to do, and when the chance came, that’s what she did.

Sirens in the dark. Rain all around; on my head, soaking through my hood.

Don’t care. Gotta get away.

And she had. She ran until the sirens were gone and the branches of the thick trees in the woods rose between her and the rain. Mostly, anyway.

And then, Pearl was alone.

In five days, that would be a year ago: a year of white squares colored in on a calendar, like a brightly-hued sidewalk between then and now.

Bright squares on a wall, and peaceful woods, all around.

It was quiet, mostly, here in the woods. Quiet meant no people, and no people meant peace.

Pearl knew some people in the world hated silence; always turning on the TV or punching at their cell phones like they were scared to be alone in their own heads.

Pearl had some thoughts in her head she didn’t like, but she didn’t mind being alone, and she could live with the silence.

She’d lived with worse.

The bad place she left behind was worse: the lab, with all its chains, cold cuffs for her wrists, and the cage they kept her in, like she was a prisoner instead of a girl who’d done nothing but open her eyes one day and take a breath. But the cuffs and chains had stayed the same while Pearl grew and changed, and one morning, soon after her ninth birthday, she found the bonds that were so strong when she was little weren’t so strong anymore, and she broke them, and she was free.

In her first year of freedom, the woods were quiet; a place where Pearl could be alone with her thoughts, and with the animals, and once in a while, read one of the books she’d brought from the bad place with her in her backpack, or color in one of the coloring books she’d brought from there, with crayons from a box she’d found in a dumpster near a store, the first night she was on her own.

Not found; scavenged. She liked that word better.

She’d happened upon the cabin on the third night of that first year, and, after making sure no one else was there, she’d taken a bath in the nearby lake, put on some clean clothes, eaten one of the packs of Pop-Tarts from her backpack, and fallen asleep.

Across from the cabin, Pearl saw something that made her curious: a big house, with three levels. Nobody seemed to be home the night she first arrived in the woods. The cabin was enough for her. Besides, that house looked fancy, and she thought it might have some alarms on it, like the bad place had on its doors, so that if she went too close to it, the police would come running.

I sure ’nuff don’t need that, she’d thought.

* * *

Almost a whole year had gone by since the day she moved into the cabin, and all that time, the big house across the way from it stood empty.

Pearl knew, because she kept a watch on it.

She figured as long as the big house stayed empty, it’d be more likely folks would leave her alone.

Five white squares were left on the calendar before the one she’d circled in green (October 6th, she noted, tracing the circle with her finger). That green circle marked a whole year’s worth of white squares since the day she found the cabin; squares she’d filled in with her crayons, one by one, on the last three pages of one calendar and almost the whole first nine of another.

In all that time, she and the world had passed each other by.

This morning was different.

This morning, Pearl had seen something—something that changed everything.

It was the middle of the day, when the sun was high in the sky. Most times, it was a peaceful part of the day, but not now.

Two big trucks were pulling up the driveway of the big house, where none had ever pulled up before.

Both trucks had the same thing written on them: MYSTERY CREEK MOVING COMPANY.

Pearl knew that meant whoever it was the stuff in those trucks belonged to, they weren’t just coming for a visit. They were planning to stay, and that was something she hadn’t figured on.

* * *

Pearl wasn’t scared of sleeping in the woods alone. As long as all she saw were animals, she’d be just fine. Pearl wasn’t scared of any wild animals. They couldn’t do anything to hurt her.

Neither could men with dogs. They’d tried, too.

Men with guns, that was something different. But for a whole year now, they’d stayed away from her, except in her nightmares. For a year, everyone had stayed away from her. That was how she liked it.

Now all that was changing, in just one day.

Clay Gilbert says he’s always liked stories, and that from the time he knew there were people who told them for a living, that’s what he wanted to do. Clay’s work in various genres has been in print since his first short science fiction story, “The Computer Conspiracy,” was published in Scholastic magazine when he was just thirteen. Clay is the author of the science fiction series Children of Evohe, including the novels Annah and the Children of Evohe, Annah and the Exiles, Annah and the Gates of Grace, and Annah and the Arrow. He is also the author of the YA dystopian novel Eternity, the science fiction novel The Conversationalist: Out of the Blue and its sequel, The Conversationalist: Mission to Mercy Prime, as well as the vampire novel Dark Road to Paradise, and its sequel, Cassie’s Song, all published by Dark Moon Press. He lives and works in Knoxville, TN. His author blog can be found at http://portalsandpathways.wordpress.com/, and the official website for his Children of Evohe novels resides at https://childrenofevohe.com/.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Two

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Two

Hûnoreal

Welcome to Chapter Two of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter One!

We burn like over-fat candles, our centres gouged, our edges curling in, our wick forever outrunning our wax. We resemble what we are: Men who never sleep.

—ANONYMOUS MANDATE SCHOOLMAN, THE HEIROMANTIC PRIMER

My Thoughts

It’s a nice reintroduction to the Mandate Schoolman. They used to be men at the edge of their resources. They are working themselves too hard. They are driven to push themselves to their utter limits. Why?

Because of Seswatha’s dreams.

And since this chapter starts out with Achamian, it’s a fitting introduction.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

There would have been nightmares aplenty had Drusas Achamian been able to dream a life that was his own. Nightmares of a long, hard war across deserts and great river deltas. Nightmares of sublimity and savagery held in perfect equipoise, though the cacophony of the latter would make all seem like misery. Nightmares of dead men, feeding like cannibals on their once strong souls, raising the impossible on the back of atrocity.

Nightmares of a city so holy it had become wicked.

And of a man who could peer into souls.

Achamian can’t dream of these things because, even though he renounced being a Mandate Schoolman, he still dreams of Seswatha and the First Apocalypse. He relives the horrors of the past. Tonight, he’s dreaming of a feast that the High King Anasûrimbor Celmomas has thrown. He’s reclining on his Urthrone drunk and almost passed out. His Knight-Chieftains are partying. Toasts are cried out and mead is drunk. Achamian (as Seswatha) is at the end of a table only drinking water. He is watching “the High King—the man he still called his best friend—drink himself into unconsciousness.”

Seswatha slips out. No one notices. He moves through the palace and finds a door open as expected. Candles light the room, illuminating Suriala, a wanton beauty. “He knelt in accordance with the very Laws he was about to break.” He’s overcome with her beauty. He goes to the bed, mounts her.

Made love to his High-King’s wife—

A convulsive gasp.

Achamian bolted forward from his blankets. The darkness buzzed with exertion, moaned and panted with feminine lust—but only for a moment. Within heartbeats the chorus call of morning birdsong ruled his ears. Throwing aside his blankets, he leaned into his knees, rubbed at the ache across his jaw and cheek. He had taken to sleeping on wood as part of the discipline he had adopted since leaving the School of Mandate, and to quicken the transition between his nightmares and wakefulness. Mattress, he had found, made waking a form of suffocation.

It takes him some time to banish his arousal from the dream. If he was still a Mandate, this would have been momentous to dream. He wasn’t one, and he had many such revelations in his dreams to be overawed. He glances at the sun shining through curtains thinking exposing truth to the light is “never a bad thing.”

He can hear the children of his two slaves playing outside. He savors the sound because today it felt like a “profound miracle.” He wished to just stay in this moment, a good way to spend the rest of his life.

He looks at his room in a Galeoth military tower. It’s simple and barbaric compared to his life spent in the “fleshpots of the South.” But it had been his home for twenty years. The place where he studied.

He walked different roads. Deeper roads.

How long had he travelled?

All his life, it seemed, though he had been a Wizard for only twenty.

Breathing deep, drawing fingers from his balding scalp to his shaggy white beard, he walked to the main worktable, braced himself for the concentrated recital to come…

The meticulous labour of mapping Seswatha’s labyrinthine life.

Thanks to writing down Seswatha’s dreams for years, he’d learned the best way to do it. Before his memory could taint the recollection, he had to write it down fresh. The first thing he did upon awakening. However, he could only write: “NAU-CAYÛTI?” He stares at the name of Celmomas’s son who helped steal the Heron Spear. That weapon slew the No-God. Achamian has read dozens of books devoted to him. His military exploits. His heroic deeds. How he was slain by his wife, Iëva. Some have noted how many of Seswatha’s dreams had involved Nau-Cayûti. Achamian is realizing Seswatha had bedded his lover, which is in itself a significant revelation. As much as Achamian wants to jump to the conclusion that Seswatha is Nau-Cayûti’s father, he thinks to the dream, wanting to date it to see if was possible. He’s interrupted by one of the slave children asking a question only for a strange woman to reply.

He’s shocked by the accent of the newcomer. She spoke like a Nansur or Ainoni. Someone from the south, not someone from Hûnoreal, a province in northern Galeoth. He looks out the window across the grounds and doesn’t see where the voices are coming from. He scans past a few outbuildings and spots a mule while the voices “continued to chirp and gaggle somewhere to the left.” The boy cries out for their mother and Achamian spots him moving through the trees on the slope. His mother, Tisthana, comes out to meet the children. There are children talking to the stranger, a woman, asking about her sword and the name of her mule. She’s wearing a fine cloak marking her noble caste, but he can’t see her face. He wonders how long it had been since a visitor had come. Maybe five or six years ago.

He remembers how it had been just him and Geraus in the beginning. He often had to use the Gnosis to kill packs of Sranc, leaving marks of the battle all over the place. Geraus still has nightmares about it. Later, Scalpoi came to win the bounty on Sranc scalps. They often brought their own problems, but his Gnosis took care of that.

No matter, the rule had been simple over the years: Visitors meant grief, the Gods and their laws of hospitality be damned.

The woman appears friendly as she greets Tisthana, and Achamian thinks the woman acts like caste-menial despite her fine clothing. He relaxes when he hears Tisthana laugh, knowing she’s a trustworthy judge of character. The two women now walking side by side to the tower, chatting in the friendly way of women. Tisthana points out Achamian. He tries to put on a dignified pose but the mortar of the windowsill crumbles and he almost falls out the window. The children laugh in delight as he rights himself.

The stranger looked up, her delicate face bemused and open and curious…

And something in Achamian suffered a greater fall.

No matter how surprising an event is, there is a reason for it. Cause and effect rule the world. The newcomer calls him the Great Wizard in a tone “balanced between many things, hope and sarcasm among them.” She reminds him of a child with poor manners. He demands to know what she’s doing here after sending Tisthana and the children away. Despite how short she is, she’s standing on the highest fold of the ground to loom over him out of instinctive. He recognizes her. She’s beautiful, her face that of his wife. This is Mimara, Esmenet’s daughter who she’d sold into slavery during a famine. Achamian wonders if finding Mimara is why Esmenet stayed with Kellhus, choosing the Dûnyain emperor over “a broken-hearted fool.”

Not because of the child she carried, but because of the child she had lost?

The questions were as inevitable as the pain, the questions that had pursued him beyond civilization’s perfumed rim. He could have continued asking them, he could have yielded to madness and made them his life’s refrain. Instead he had packed a new life about them, like clay around a wax figurine, then he had burned them out, growing ever more decrepit, even more old, about their absence—more mould than man. He had lived like some mad trapper, accumulating skins that were furred in ink instead of hair, the lines of every snare anchored to this silent hollow within him, to these questions he dared not ask.

And now here she stood… Mimara.

The answer?

Mimara is glad he recognized her. Memories of Esmenet ripple through Achamian at the sight of her, and he says she looks a lot like her. She doesn’t seem pleased about that. He repeats his question, asking why she is here. She gives a flippant, obvious answer that forces him to ask a third time. Anger glazes through her, startling Achamian. The world that had slowly faded away from his valley now has returned. He’d found peace here and realizes he’s about to lose it as he shouts at her to know why she’s here.

She flinched, looked down to the childish scribble at her feet: a gaping mouth scrawled in black across mineral white, with eyes, nose, and ears spaced across its lipless perimeter.

“B-because I wanted…” Something caught her throat. Her eyes shot up, as though requiring an antagonist to remain focused. “Because I wanted to know if…” Her tongue traced the seam of her lips.

“If you were my father.”

His laughter felt cruel, but if was such, she showed no sign of injury—no outward sign.

He explains he met Esmenet after Mimara was sold into slavery. He should have realized Esmenet would have used all her new power to find the “girl whose name she would never speak.” He tries to explain how Esmenet sold Mimara to save her from starving to death and how it broke her. As he says them, he realizes this is just the “same hollow justifications” she’s heard again and again. It’s clear that though Esmenet found her years ago, it was too late to fix her. She then starts pressing that she remembers that he bought her apples. He claims it wasn’t him and he’s not her father because the daughter of whores “have no fathers.” He tried to say it gently, but it comes out too hard. It hurts her. “You said that I was clever,” she accuses.

He ran a slow hand across his face, exhaled, suddenly feeling ancient with guilt and frustration. Why must everything be too big to wrestle, too muddy to grasp

“I feel sorry for you, child—I truly do. I have some notion of what you must have endured…” A deep breath, warm against the bright cool. “GO home, Mimara. Go back t your mother. We have no connection.”

He turned back towards the tower. The Sun instantly warmed his shoulders.

“But we do,” her voice chimed from behind him—so like her mother’s that chills skittered across his skin.

He reiterates that he’s not her father, but she says it’s something else that brought her. Her tone makes him turn back to face her. She says she’s one of the few. A witch. She continues that she isn’t looking for her father, but for a teacher. She wants to learn the Gnosis.

There is a progression to all things. Lives, encounters, histories, each trailing their own nameless residue, each burrowing into a black, black future, groping for the facts that conjure purpose out of the cruelties of mere coincidence.

And Achamian had his fill of it.

Mimara realizes that her mother “the old whore” is right: Achamian likes to teach. It’s been three months since she’s run away from the Andiamine Heights in search of Achamian. She had to dodge the Judges and survive the hard winter. She can’t believe she made it. She’s dreamed of this place, imagined it so much, it actually fits her fantasy. Everything but Achamian.

He’s the Apostate. The man who cursed the Aspect-Emperor out of love for Esmenet. She’s heard many versions of him. Even her mother talks about him in different ways. It’s the contradictions about this man that left the impression. “In the cycle of historical and scriptural characters that populated her education, he alone seemed real.

Only he isn’t. The man before her seems to mock her soft-bellied imaginings: a wild-haired hermit with limbs like barked branches and eyes that perpetually sort grievances. Bitter. Severe. He bears the Mark, as deep as any sorcerers she has seen glimpse through the halls of the Andiamine Heights, but where they drape silks and perfume about their stain, he wears wool patched with rancid fur.

How could anyone sing songs about such a man?

He asks if it’s true that witches aren’t burned. She says there’s even a School, the Sawayal Compact. That shocks Achamian who then asks why she needs him. Her mother won’t let her and the Sawayali won’t anger Esmenet by taking her. “Socerery, she [Esmenet] says, leaves only scars.” Achamian agrees with that.

“But what if scars are all you have?”

Achamian is taken back by Mimara’s statement then asks if she wants power to “feel the world crumble beneath the weight of your voice.” She sees this as a game and asks isn’t that why he did it and strikes a nerve, but she finds no satisfaction in winning. He tells her he’d rather be her father than teacher.

There is a set manner to the way he turns his back this time, one that tells her that no words can retrieve him. The sun pulls his shadow long and profound. He walks with a stoop that says he has long outlived the age of bargaining. But she hears it all the same, the peculiar pause of legend becoming actuality, the sound of the crazed and disjoint seams of the world falling flush.

He is the Great Teacher, the one who raised the Aspect-Emperor to the heights of godhead.

He is Drusas Achamian.

She builds a bonfire that night wanting to burn down his tower. She pretends the fire is living, a fantasy she often indulges in to put magic into the world. “That she is a witch.” It starts to rain. Lightning flashes. She crouches in the downpour, soaked. It slowly smothers her fire. Her misery grows. She finds herself before the tower hollering for him to teach her.

He simply has to hear, doesn’t he? Her voice cracking the way all voices crack about the soul’s turbulent essentials. He needs only to look down to see her leaning against the slope, wet and pathetic and defiant, the image of the woman he once loved, framed by steam and fire. Pleading. Pleading.

Teeeeeach!”

Meeee!”

Only wolves answer, howling with her. It mocks her, but she’s used to people “who celebrate her pain.” She throws her hurt back at the world, declaring he will teach her. Then she sees him watching her from a doorway. He steps out into the rain, hobbling towards her. She can see the unseen sorcery shielding him from the rain. She trembles when he looks down at her from the stairs while the storm rages around them. She feels embarrassed under his scrutiny and demands he teach her.

Without a word, which she could now see is made not of wood, but of bone. Quite unprepared, she watches him swing it like a mace—

An explosion against the side of her skull. Then sliding palms, knuckles scraped and skinned, arms and legs tangled rolling. She slams to a stop against a molar-shaped rock. Gasps for air.

Stunned, she watches him pick his way back up the shining slope. She tastes blood, bends her face back to let the endless rain rinse her clean. The drops seem to fall out of nowhere.

She begins laughing.

Teeeach meeee!”

My Thoughts

A great way to introduced Achamian and remind us of the Holy War and what happened. We cut right to the most important part of his motivation in this series: finding out the truth of Kellhus. He has to know the truth of who he is, and those keys lie in his dream of Seswatha. A dream about a sorcerer cuckolding a king.

So is Seswatha the father of Nau-Cayûti? This certainly seems to imply it. Why else would Achamian dream this moment.? Or more specifically, why else would Bakker write this passage? My theory on why both Nau-Cayûti and Kelmomas are both able to activate the No-God when no one else can is their bloodline. The Anasûrimbor bloodline. It is implied that the only successful mating between human and Nonman happened when an Anasûrimbor daughter was raped by a Nonman. However, if Nau-Cayûti isn’t Celmomas’s bloodline, how does my theory survive?

Well, as we can see from the appendix of Thousandfold Thought, the Anasûrimbor dynasty was large. It ruled several different kingdoms. The Anasûrimbor that Kellhus is a descendant of is a cousin to Kelmomas. If you know anything about royalty, they like to marry important people. There is often quite a number of close kin marrying amid royal families. It is possible that Suriala is also an Anasûrimbor by blood even if her maiden name was another.

In fact, estimates of human history show that most marriages in the history of our race (hardly dented by the small fraction of the modern era) have been between first and second cousins. So the Anasûrimbor bloodline was spread out wide, it was preserved in the Dûnyain as one of their various lines of descent because of its innate gifts. I also think this is why Kellhus has trouble with children. The Dûnyain have bred the Nonman part of the Anasûrimbor genetics to its limits through their program. The reason for their greater intelligence and reflex might be, partly, accounted by this strengthening of the Nonman genes. I think the Mutilated figured this out, but by then they were the last Dûnyain left alive and none of them wanted to do the activation.

They were trying to save their souls, not sacrifice them, so they needed a replacement. And one was coming. Their enemy. They were certain Kellhus would work. They had to have figured out the Anasûrimbor bloodline was the key. They could take out the greatest threat to their power and turn on the No-God in one step. Leave Kellhus alive, and he’d probably figure out how to destroy the No-God again even if one of them activated it.

There is precedent for it happening. Hope they find that missing Heron Spear.

The sound of children laughing and playing, a simple joy, is what Achamian yearns for. He wants to keep hearing it because it means the Second Apocalypse hasn’t come. That there is still innocence in the world.

We noticed near the end of the last book, that Achamian’s dreams with Seswatha were focused on Nau-Cayûti. Now, he’s dreaming things no other Mandate has. The things that the Seswatha-in-his-Soul didn’t think was relevant to their mission. What’s changed for Achamian. What makes him different.

Kellhus.

I believe when Kellhus hypnotized Achamian in the Thousandfold Thoughts, something changed. Perhaps Kellhus talking with the Seswatha caused him to react and start feeding Achamian more information, or whatever Kellhus did to free Achamian to teach the Gnosis loosened the other restraints on the Seswatha in him, and now he’s dreaming all sorts of things.

On another note, Mandate who get obsessed with dreams invariably fall into the conspiracy theory traps and get lost in them. Achamian, at least, is studying new things. But obsession can do a lot of damage if it consumes him.

Poor Achamian, having to dream about an adulterous wife while missing Esmenet. Twenty years, and it still hurts. He’s like Leweth from the first book. The man who went into the wilderness to preserve memories of his wife. Achamian is obsessed with his quest to unmask Kellhus and prove himself right. Esmenet went back to him without telling him why. She probably thought he was dead, she was pregnant, and she had a chance to find Mimara.

Achamian is always the teacher, even if his only pupils are slave children who’d normally never learn to write. The Turtle Shell rock is a nice and subtle reminder of one of Achamian’s core characteristics.

Why did Esmenet stay? I’ve always said it was for her children: Mimara and Kayûtas, the one she was pregnant with. She had to be a mother before a woman, choosing them over her heart.

I think I’ve mentioned this, but altruism is hard to maintain when you’re starving. The hungrier you get, the more you retreat into instinct. And instinct is selfish. We know from Esmenet’s point of view she sold Mimara to feed herself. In a fit of selfishness, she did it and only regretted it later. Once she’d eaten and could think properly, she wanted to take it back. Ironically, it did save Mimara’s life, but the girl suffered greatly anyways. A wound that being told her suffering was for her own good won’t work to heal.

I’m interested in the next series. Will becoming a mother herself bring Mimara and Esmenet together?

Achamian is lying about never meeting Mimara. He’s not her father, but he did know her as a child. He helped Esmenet to try and get her back after the famine but failed, and that was when Esmenet stopped talking about her. I imagined he’s denying he’s Mimara father out of guilt for that. She would have been sold off when he was away. When he couldn’t help Esmenet. Now he can’t be her father. He’s too old. He wants her to leave, not to bond with him.

Mimara being one of the Few is not a surprising plot twist if you were paying attention to the last series. Esmenet mentioned that her mother could do things that she refused to teach her daughter. She was a witch, but Esmenet didn’t have the ability. It’s a recessive gene or something and skipped her generation. So Mimara being one of the Few is not a clue she’s Achamian’s daughter.

She sees his face slacken, despite the matted wire of his beard. She sees his complexion blanch, despite the sun’s morning glare. And she knows that what her mother once told her is in fact true: Drusas Achamian possesses the soul of a teacher.

This is Mimara’s first POV paragraph. Notice the verbs. They are not in past tense like EVERYTHING else in the series. They’re present tense. It’s a subtle thing Bakker does with her POVs. Whenever we’re in her head, it’s not like the past is being retold to us, but that we’re living in the present with Mimara.

We’re seeing what her Judging Eye sees as the world unfolds before her.

I have to confess, I had read The Judging Eye maybe three or four times before I began seriously pursuing my own writing. The next time I read it after I did, in preparation for The Great Ordeal’s release, this leaped out at me at once and it made me ask, “Why did Bakker do this?”

Remember this lesson: if an author has even a modicum of talent, they write things for a reason. Now, don’t get lost in why they made so-and-so’s dress blue, or why such-and-such person has a wart on their nose. Most of the time, those are just there to paint the world, not for any special reason. But pay attention to which details an author shares and how they convey information. Bakker so far has used 3rd Person Omniscient Past Tense for the historical sections and 3rd Person Limited Past Tense for the character POVs. Now we have a shift to 3rd Person Limited Present Tense for Mimara and only Mimara. Why?

The Judging Eye.

When it opens, we see the world as she does. We experience it as she does. She’s the conduit for the God, the Oversoul, to peer out at the world and witness it the way IT sees the world. Damnation and Salvation. It makes her POVs have an immediacy that other sections can lack.

Like many abused as children, she has a great deal of anger inside of her. She’s lost. Looking for the family she should have had while rejecting the one who sold her into that horror. As we later see when she seduces Achamian, she’s been taught by her abuse that her body only holds value in pleasing a man.

Achamian sees too much of himself in her. He wants to hurt Kellhus and the world that has taken everything away. Mimara cuts too close. To protect himself, he has to drive her away. But she’s determined. She’s come too far to give up. Hitting her on the head won’t work. She thinks she has nothing else but this. She has a driving need to be here, manipulated to come here by her darling little brother Kelmomas.

He wants mommy all to himself.

If you want to read the next part, click here for Chapter 3!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Born to Darkness

Born to Darkness

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Raiann is the twin sister of the heir to the Black Throne. And that’s a problem. Rumors persist that she is the firstborn not her brother. Realizing that her father will do something drastic to ensure his son inherits the throne, she has no choice but to flee.

Her flight doesn’t go as plan. She finds herself in trouble. But a wandering mercenary named Orxy comes to her rescue. He’s a satyr, one of the light blood races while she’s a djinn, dark blood. He promises to teach her to fight and to use the magic brimming in her blood. Djinn have passion pumping through their veins, and he’s going to prove it.

Raiann finds a new life that excites her blood. A mercenary.

Born to Darkness was a great read. It’s fast and flows. It has some great twists and turns and goes into some dark places. Raiann has an interesting path that’s powerful to read. Brit has outdone herself with this one. I’m a fan of her previous fantasy series, and this one showed her growing strength as an author.

I want to read more of this interesting world and the character of Raiann. While I wished she’d made a different decision at the end of the novel, she’s not a perfect character. She’s flawed and struggling to find peace in a world that’s cruel and unfair.

If you’re a fan of powerful and character-driven fantasy, you need to check out Born to Darkness!

You can buy Born to Darkness from Amazon!

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Weekly Free Story: The Assassin’s Remorse

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

The Assassin’s Remorse

G’nite, Cerena,” Beshie said. “You be careful, you hear? All sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells lurkin’ in them streets when the fog be rollin’ in from the Redmud.”

I’ll be fine, Beshie,” Cerena replied, slipping on her heavy, woolen cloak. It was plain, a deep maroon, and not the greatest quality, but it was the best she and her husband could afford.

I can have one of me boys walk you home,” Beshie offered her.

Cerena sighed, a little irritated at Beshie’s over-mothering. The matronly woman meant well, but Cerena had walked these streets at night for years and never ran into these “ne’er-do-wells” that Beshie always complained about.

The fog lay thick on the streets of Kash-on-Redmud. The town was called Kash-on-Redmud to differentiate it from the larger city of Kash, as well as Little Kash, Kash-on-Tumblewaters, and Upper Kash. She often pondered her ancestors’ lack of imagination. Surely, there were other names besides Kash.

Cerena shrugged the cloak tightly around her, trying to ward off the creeping chill of the mist as she trudged down the cobblestone street to her home. Exhaustion weighed on Cerena, her feet sore from standing for hours serving the homeless of the town their bowl of watery soup and heel of day-old bread. Every Whiteday evening, since she was a child, Cerena had come to the soup kitchen. She found the work rewarding; it fulfilled her Act of Compassion for the week.

She was a devout follower of the Seven Colours of Elohm, and strove with diligence to follow the Seven Tenets: Compassion, Patience, Forgiveness, Virtue, Honesty, Temperance, and Modesty. Each Tenant was represented by one of Elohm’s Colours: Compassion by Orange and Patience by Yellow. Green for Forgiveness and Red for Virtue. Honesty, White; Temperance, Blue; and Modesty, Purple. Only when all seven Colours are balanced in your life, can true freedom be found, the catechism went. Cerena liked to think she had a good balance. She wasn’t perfect, of course, no one was, but she tried her hardest and had been rewarded with a loving husband, a comfortable home, and fast friends like Beshie.

Her boots’ heels clicked on the pavement with each step. One click as her heel touched the cobblestone, then a second click as the ball of her foot came down.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It echoed through the empty streets, half-muffled by the thick fog that rolled in from the river. If it weren’t for the jewelchine streetlamps shining their soft, white light, she’d have been hopelessly lost. She knew her way home—six lamps to Ostler Way, take a right, then twelve lamps to Fishmonger’s Row, turn to the left, and four more lamps would see her to her tenement building.

Jewelchine lights were a marvel. Cerena could remember how dark the streets were as a child before they were discovered. The streetlamps were made using a diamond wrapped with a gold wire. Elohm, in his great mercy, had taught the secret of harnessing the powers of Gems and Metals. Just like there were seven Colours, there were seven Jewels and seven Metals. Each Gem had a certain property: Amethyst for security, Topaz for healing, Ruby for warmth, and Diamonds for light, for truth. Light is the purest form of Truth, banishing the darkness of Dishonesty, the catechism went. The wire provided the power. The purer the metal—with Gold the purest, Zinc the basest, and five others falling in between—the longer the jewelchine would last before the wire burned itself out and had to be replaced. For such an important task as lighting the streets, the Archons had decided to use the more expensive gold wire on the streetlamps, trading a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

There was the rumor of an eighth Jewel: Obsidian. Black as night, and used for only the most vile purposes. It had to be wrapped in the eighth Metal: Black Iron. The Metal found only in the hearts of dead stars that had fallen to the earth. Cerena shuddered at the thought. Only a man so deprived of Elohm’s Colours would dare to use such a thing.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Her contemplation of the jewelchine streetlamps slowly drifted to other thoughts as she confidently walked the foggy streets. She wondered how her husband’s trip to sell his leathers downriver to Ustervin progressed. A nervous pang entered her stomach; she always worried while Asht was gone. He was a tanner, and once a month he would make the day’s journey by pole-boat to do business with the leather merchants of Ustervin. It would take a day or three to sell his work, and then the two-day journey upriver. She missed him desperately when he was gone; their bed felt so lonely without him. But they needed the money his monthly trips brought.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

She frowned, stopped, and peered back into the mist. Was there someone else in the fog? It was so thick a fool all in motley could stand not three paces in front of her and she’d not even see him.

Hello?” she asked, her voice tight. Beshie’s warnings lit a small fire of panic in her belly. She clutched at her cloak, pulling it tight around her, and listened. She strained, trying to ignore the blood rushing in her head as her heart pounded to the rhythm of fear.

Nothing. Only the echo of her own words parroting back at her.

Slowly, she relaxed.

Get a grip, woman, she told herself. She suppressed a momentary stab of irritation at Beshie for planting the sparks of fear inside her. Cerena smoothed her cloak, reminding herself that Beshie was just concerned for her safety. Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours, she repeated the catechism to herself. Weighing down your heart like an anchor. Let go of hate, of all black emotions, and allow your heart to freely soar up into Elohm’s light.

With a deep breath, she kept striding through the fog.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It’s just my imagination playing games with me, she decided as she made the right turn onto Ostler Way. No one is following me.

She tried to gather her thoughts and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home before she could retire and seek the lonely solace of her bed. Asht should return tomorrow unless his business in Ustervin ran that extra day. She reminded herself to lay out her prettiest dress for tomorrow. Her cheeks flushed, thinking on the purple dress that showed just a hint of her bosom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, within the guidelines of Modesty, but you could be a little immodest with your husband alone in your house; Asht was a passionate man after all, and she enjoyed it when was aflame with desire.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

Just my imagination, she kept telling herself. She quickened her steps. Only three jewelchine streetlamps before Fishmonger Row.

Click-click.

Clack.

Click-click.

Clack.

She peered over her shoulder. She saw nothing through the white haze except the fuzzy light of the last streetlamp. There were only two lamps to go. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Click-click.

Clack.

Was it getting closer? Another worried glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. Her stalker could be just paces behind her, cloaked in the fog’s white blanket.

Click-click.

Clack.

Her breath came in quick, ragged gasps as panic nibbled away at her thoughts. She reached the twelfth lamp and went left onto her street. Only four more lamps and she’d be home.

Click-click.

Clack.

She started to trot. Whoever followed her was closer.

Three lamps to go.

Click-click.

Clack.

Panic overtook her in a flash, like fire consuming dried tinder. She broke into a run, hiking up her skirt. She was beyond caring that a man might see her ankles and calves, beyond caring about Modesty; she just had to get away from that clack.

Two lamps to go.

She ran faster, her boots slipping on the damp cobblestone. She gasped, struggling to her balance, feet floundering beneath her. She gained sure footing, and raced forward. The last lamp was just ahead. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and grasped the amethyst bound in copper wire—the jewelchine key to the tenement’s building’s front door—tightly in her sweaty fist.

The last lamp flew by, a white blur in the thick mist. Her building loomed out of the fog, welcoming her with promised safety. She took the steps two at a time to reach the porch. She brought the amethyst key to the gemstone lock. A little arc of purple joined the two followed by a mechanical click. She threw open the door, darted in, and slammed it behind her. As she sucked in relieved breaths, she leaned back against the door.

Safe.

It took her a few minutes to regain her composure. She shook; tears ran down her face, mixing with the sweat. Twice, Cerena dropped her key—the crystal thunking on the old, wooden boards of the floor—before her shaking hands managed to put it back into her pocket. She was safe. Whoever had followed her in the mist wouldn’t have the key to the tenement building. The shaking stopped, her breathing slowed, and she wiped her face clean with a frilly handkerchief she produced from her skirt pocket.

It probably was just my own footsteps echoing back at me, Cerena told herself, feeling silly about the entire ordeal now that she was safely inside. She pushed off from the door and mounted the stairs; they creaked and groaned as she climbed, one hand grasping the banner. As she neared the second floor landing, she stepped over the loose runner near the top—the one the landlord refused to fix. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, Missus Ibsin,” he’d grunt to her whenever Cerena would bring it up. “So what if it wobbles some?” She hated talking with him. His breath always reeked of stale beer and his cheeks ruddy with proof of his less-than-obedient following of Temperance.

The floors creaked in front of Cerena. A plain-faced man stood on the second floor landing. Watery, toad-like eyes stared at her and lank hair fell about his forehead. He wore the slightly shabby clothes of a workman: dark trousers and a red waistcoat missing a button beneath a heavy, dark green coat that fell down to his knees.

Oh, hello, sir,” Cerena said, her voice neutral. She searched her mind, struggling to remember which one of her neighbors he was. “Um . . . I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

Quite all right,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s Missus Ibsin, right? Asht’s wife?”

Yes,” she answered.

His shove caught her completely by surprise. His hand pushed hard square on her right shoulder. Her feet left the steps. For a moment, Cerena was floating through the air. She seemed motionless, staring at the toad-eyed man in disbelief. Her hand reached slowly for the banister like she’d thrust it into thick molasses. Her fingers strained, desperate to grasp the railing and arrest her fall.

Why would he shove me?

Her fingers missed the banister, digits closing on empty air.

Then her back crashed into the middle of the staircase. Pain exploded through her. She grunted, the wind whooshing out of her lungs; her legs flipped over her head as she tumbled down the second half of the stairs. The hard, wooden steps bruised her flesh. She came to a rest sprawled on her back. Her left foot still rested on the stairs, the other lay twisted at a horrible angle.

What in the Black is going on? She was too confused to care about the vile curse. Her head rang too much to feel the pain of her broken leg. She blinked, her body struggling to move and her mind struggling with the stranger’s actions. The stairs creaked. The toad-eyed man descended, his face devoid of emotion.

Help!” she rasped, struggling to yell.

Surely, one of her neighbors had heard her crashing tumble. She balled a fist and pounded on the wall. His shadow fell on her, blocking out the soft, white light from the jewelchine crystal glowing from the ceiling. His knee came down between her breasts, crushing her lungs. She tried to breathe, desperate to suck in a lungful of sweet air. The entire weight of his body pressed down on her; ribs cracked like twigs. She clawed at his knee, struggling to push him off. She needed to breathe, her lungs burning and her head swimming.

He’s killing me, Cerena realized in utter disbelief. No! I can’t die! I don’t want to lose my husband! She kept pushing at his knee, using every bit of strength she could muster; her face burned as the blood pumped furiously through her veins while her body screamed for air. No, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please! Her husband’s friendly face swam up in her mind—sweet smile, loving eyes. Please, Elohm! I’ve followed the Tenets all my life! Please, give me this one thing! Let me live!

Her strength gave out. The world grew black on the edges, narrowing her vision. Her body ached for air, but it was useless. She could fight no longer. All she could do was stare up at her killer. Never in her life had Cerena hated someone more—a black, corrosive, heavy rage. How dare this man steal my life! It isn’t fair, Elohm!

His eyes were green.

As her heart began to flag, that one thing filled her mind. Green. The Colour of Forgiveness. She was about to die. How could she face the Rainbow of Elohm with hatred in her heart? With a weight dragging her down into the blackness? I can’t! I don’t want to be dragged into the black depths! She gathered every last bit of will she possessed, focused on her killer’s green eyes, and whispered three words.

And then she let go and was swept up by the beautiful, scintillating light.

* * *

Cerena’s lips moved, struggling to speak; her eyes focused intently on the assassin.

Liquid blue pools became black as the life fled her body.

The assassin kept pressing his knee into her chest. He counted calm heartbeats; when he reached one thousand, he was satisfied that she’d died. He studied her round face, the color fading from scarlet cheeks, leaving peaceful beauty staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

What had she tried to say to me at the end? His memory focused on her dull lips—no reddening rouge to brighten them, a modest woman—as they formed soundless letters. It wasn’t a damnation or a curse. The anger had melted out of her face and her eyes had softened right before she’d struggled to speak. A calm acceptance transformed her final moments.

Confused, the assassin walked back up the stairs, found his absorber—a yellow jewelchine that trapped sound in its influence, covering most of the stairwell—and slipped the Heliodor wrapped in Nickel into his pocket. She’d tried to raise a racket, but thanks to this handy jewelchine he’d invented, none of her neighbors had heard a peep.

He descended the stairs, taking care to step over the loose step that would be blamed for Cerena’s death. He paused at the bottom, studying her face—dead, beautiful, framed by golden hair—one last time, trying to puzzle out what she’d tried to say.

It doesn’t matter, the assassin told himself, pulling his gaze away.

On his walk to the tenement building’s front door, he slipped out his Obsidian blade bound in a Black Iron wire. The blade had a lot of nicknames: black tooth, shadowed death, the assassin’s wife. Death by focused light was the sentence for being found with an Obsidian jewelchine, particularly this one.

He touched the lock with the blade, tricking the amethyst jewelchine. It clicked mechanically, and he slipped out into the fog, carefully sheathing the blade. Despite being able to easily slip between a man’s ribs and find his heart, the blade was fragile and easily chipped. That would destroy it. The Obsidian had to be shaped just so, and the assassin did not have the skill to make a new one. The cost of a replacement blade would beggar him. It had taken years, and many deaths, to pay off this one.

With a staggering walk, he stumbled off into the fog, just another drunk coming home from the tavern. The mist wreathed him in a thick, white blanket smothering sight and sound. The assassin’s thoughts drifted—dull lips moved soundlessly; the plump kind that were nice to kiss.

What did she try to say?

He went two blocks too far before he realized he’d missed his turn. A momentary panic shot through him as he struggled to get his bearings in the thick fog.

Pay attention, Eljin, the assassin admonished himself. Plan, think, succeed. His mantra: plan carefully, think everything through, and you will succeed. Thanks to his meticulous care, he didn’t make mistakes, and thus commanded high rates for his work. So stop rainbow watching!

The lapse of situational awareness puzzled the assassin, his mental discipline weakening beneath the question of her final words. What could she have possibly been trying to say with such a calm, almost forgiving, look on her face? It annoyed him when he missed the second turn, and he grew angry at himself for walking past the third.

Plan, think, succeed.

His house was a narrow, tall building, built cheek-to-jowl with the other houses on the street. The assassin had inherited it from his mother when she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d lived in the house alone ever since. Inside it was neat, orderly. He took off his heavy jacket, hanging it carefully on the coat hook, his shoes placed precisely beside the door, and pulled on his felt slippers.

A trapdoor lay in his sitting room beneath a gray, oval rug decorated with seven lines woven in many intricate knots. Each line was a different color, giving the appearance of piety. The assassin gave little thought to the Colours and the uptight God, Elohm.

Descending the narrow, wooden ladder, he entered his dark, dry cellar made of smooth dirt walls. Wooden slats, resting on the hard-packed soil, creaked beneath his feet. By memory, his hand found the jewelchine light; the black was banished by white light. He hung his tools—his wife, the obsidian blade; the absorber; two emerald stunners, each wrapped in black iron wires; a pair of grip-gloves, and his pocket-torch—on a board of cork studded with nails, providing a spot for each tool to rest.

The assassin surveyed the cellar, searching for any minute thing that lay out of place. Plan, think, succeed. A spider formed a cobweb in the corner—wispy, spindly, untidy. He found a rag, killed the spider, and wiped up the clinging silk. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed the ladder, closed the trapdoor, and repositioned the prismatic rug.

He washed the cobwebbed cloth in his sink and left it to dry before he climbed the stairs and found his bedroom. He readied himself for sleep precisely. He dropped each article of clothing into his hamper before pulling on a clean nightgown. Then he drew back the quilted duvet and crawled beneath. Sleep came the moment his head rested on his pillow.

* * *

I forgive you.

The assassin jumped awake, nightgown drenched in sweat, heart pounding, lungs heaving. The dream lingered in his mind—dull lips struggled to speak; blue eyes widened black. Soundless words echoed in his mind.

I forgive you.

He stumbled downstairs into his kitchen and his hands trembled as he filled up a clay cup with water from his jewelchine kitchen sink. The assassin downed the liquid in a single gulp before filling another cup. His paroxysms spilled water as cold as ice, as death, across his hand. He concentrated, forcing his hand to stop shaking. He drained another cup, carefully placed it back into his cabinet, then climbed the stairs, and returned to his bed.

* * *

The assassin woke as the first rays of morning peeked into his room. No more dreams had plagued him after he’d returned to bed. Last night was just an aberration, he told himself as he dressed in his sober clothes before making his bed. To break his fast, he picked a tomato out of his garden, sliced it thinly, and fried it with two eggs. After eating, he cleaned his dishes, wiped down the counter, and took the leftover food to his mulch pile.

He had a short walk to his jewelchine shop. On the way, the assassin passed the same, familiar faces. He nodded to Master Tosner and Master Isthen as they sold their fruit and meat pies on the street corner, gave Ostin a polite nod while giving his nightsoil cart a wide berth, and shook hands with Master Hron as he smoked a cigar before his business, Property and Life Insurance. It lay next door to the assassin’s jewelchine business.

Often, it amused the assassin that none of these men knew the real person who lurked behind his mild-mannered mask. To them, he was just a jewelchine smith—boring, unremarkable, trustworthy—a paragon of Elohm’s Colours. He was honest with his customers, dressed modestly despite his apparently successful business, was temperate in his behavior, compassionate enough to give to soup kitchens, forgave other’s their trespasses, was virtuous in his habits, and only patience could allow a man to craft delicate jewelchines. He played the farce, mouthed their catechisms while thinking his own: Think, plan, succeed. A sloppy assassin was a dead one. Whether by treacherous associates, vigilant targets, or sorrowful executioner, the end was the same.

He unlocked his shop’s door and threw wide the drapes covering his storefront. He examined the shelves, making sure every jewelchine was in its proper place and in working order. Satisfied, he entered his back room and, with great care, set out his jeweler’s tools. First, he set about repairing a broken aquifer, carefully bending gold wires around a deep-blue sapphire. The wires had been damaged, stopping the gem from condensing water out of the air. It should only take the assassin’s practiced fingers half the morning to replace the delicate wire.

I forgive you.

Hands shook; gold wire snapped, ruining the morning’s work. Suppressing his annoyance, the assassin set his pliers down. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He dropped the two broken halves of gold wire into a jar to be melted down later for new wiring, and snipped a new length from a spool. He took a breath then returned to the delicate work of bending the wire in the specific pattern to channel the gem’s power. The way the gem was cut and the way the wire was wrapped and bent instructed the jewelchine on how to manifest the inherent energy of the gem, channeling the power into useful tasks. It was an art form—figuring out the angle of the facets, the degree at which the wire had to be bent, and just where the wire would lay upon the jewel. The assassin had found moderate success at inventing a few devices to aid his nocturnal work.

By midday, though his back ached from bending over, his mistake had been repaired. He stretched protesting muscles while his stomach rumbled. He put his tools in their proper spots, locked up his shop, and walked to a small, open-aired cafe at the street corner. He bought his usual ham sandwich on rich, black bread along with the midday paper. Unfurling it, he scanned the headlines as he took a large bite—salty ham, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard warred in his mouth.

Woman found dead in tenement,” the headline read. He moved down to the article. “Late last night, Cerena Ibsin was found dead of an accidental fall in her tenement. Neighbors blame a loose step that her landlord had long refused to repair. Friends spoke of Cerena’s generous heart. ‘Every Whiteday evening she was helping out at my soup kitchen,’ a tearful Beshie Corvan reported. Cerena was survived by her husband, Asht, who . . .”

Pale lips, blue eyes. I forgive you.

Bile rose in his throat. Pushing back from the table violently, the assassin bolted for the gutter. In a trickle of dirty water, he emptied his stomach with three heaves. He watched the green-yellow chunks washed away in the filthy current with the other effluence.

You a’ight, Eljin?” the cafe owner asked, picking up the assassin’s chair that he’d knocked over in his haste.

Yes, yes, Kefin,” the assassin muttered. “I was out in the fog last night.”

The owner shook his head, red jowls swaying beneath his chin. “Gotta watch out for them bad vapors. I always wear a cheesecloth ‘round my mouth. Strains out the bad vapors, it does.”

I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kefin handed the assassin a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth and spat the bile into the gutter.

What is wrong with me? After so many years, so many deaths, the assassin was at a loss as to why Cerena Ibsin would affect him even a little. He’d killed his heart years ago. What was so special about one housewife? She is hardly the first wife I’ve killed for a husband.

Blue eyes softening with forgiveness. Forgiving eyes widening into death.

A creak drew his attention, a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, a faded tankard painted on the splintered wood. Just one drink, he thought. What is the harm? The bar was nearly empty at midday, the proprietor snoring in a chair, his face ruddy with drink. Barley whiskey, cheap, burned the assassin’s throat after he’d roused the barkeep. The fire in his guts drove away those black-damned eyes. Slapping three brass glimmers on the counter, the assassin felt his composure restored.

Work went a little slower that afternoon. This wasn’t like him; he rarely drank and never in the afternoon. Maybe a touch of sherry to drive out bad vapors on a particular foul night, or a glass of port when his cousin visited.

I forgive you.

Why? he asked the blue eyes.

Pain flared; half-a-finger of tin wire stuck into the meat of his thumb. Blood welled dark-red around the metal then trickled down his digit. A bloody tear shed.

The bell tinkled, announcing a customer entering his shop. The assassin grunted as he pulled the wire out, his thumb throbbing harder. He wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and walked through the beaded partition to the counter.

Good day,” the assassin said to the man and a woman in the shop.

The man had a friendly smile as he sauntered up to the counter while a bored look filled the woman’s dusky face, her plush lips pursed as her dark eyes scanned the shelves of jewelchines. The pair couldn’t have been more opposite: the man dressed in the rough clothes of a tradesman, hands calloused from heavy work, his skin pale, a local. Her dusky skin named her a Terysian from across the sea, her clothes rich-red brocade, low-cut to display a magnificent bosom. Not even the whores in Ustervin revealed so much flesh. The assassin could not stop his eyes from admiring her lushness. Terysians didn’t follow Elohm and his Rainbow of Morality.

Hello, Master Ibsin,” the assassin greeted the man, his client. “How’s your day been?”

Sad,” he answered, though not a hit of grief afflicted his friendly face. “My, uh, friend and I returned from Ustervin this morning to find that my wife had a tragic accident.”

The assassin glanced at the woman, evaluating her: beautiful, expensive clothes, jewelry—costly to stay “friends” with.

May the Rainbow of Elohm carry your wife’s soul to the heavens.” The platitude sounded wrong when the assassin spoke them; a mockery of Cerena’s life.

Blue, forgiving, dead eyes stared at him.

Are you all right?” Ibsin asked the assassin; he sounded concerned.

A skilled liar, the assassin guessed. A heart as dead as mine beats in his chest.

Yes, yes,” the assassin answered, gathering his thoughts. “You’re here to pick up your pocket-torch, right?”

Ibsin nodded. “I believe we settled on two gold beams?”

The assassin glanced sharply at the woman, who was still browsing his shelves. Two gold beams, more than a month’s salary for a laborer, was far too much coin for a simple pocket-torch jewelchine.

Don’t worry about Jasymina, Master Eljin,” Ibsin said with a dismissive wave. He produced two large, golden coins and slapped them counter.

The assassin’s hand darted out, scooped them up and pocketed them. From beneath the counter, he produced a diamond gem wrapped in zinc, the cheapest of metals, and handed it to Asht. The “grieving husband” nodded then motioned to Jasymina.

She swayed to him as he marched to the door. “I bet you could sue your landlord for neglecting to repair the step, Asht,” she purred, taking his arm. “That must be worth as much as her life insurance.”

Ibsin laughed; it was rich, full of life. “You might be right. I know a barrister . . .”

The door closed behind them. Disgust filled the assassin, clinging like muck to his soul. Killed so her husband could support his mistress. The assassin froze. Why do I care about why he wanted her dead? He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the two gold beams.

* * *

Cerena stared up at him, her blue eyes shining with forgiveness as his knee pressed on her chest. Her face was turning red as she struggled to live. She was beautiful in a natural way, lacking any enhancement by immodest cosmetics. Her face was round, nose dainty, lips plump, and hair golden silk.

As pretty as Jasymina.

The assassin pressed harder. Reminding himself, you were hired to kill her. Don’t go getting soft now, Eljin. Ribs snapped like dry twigs. Her dull-pink lips struggled, soundlessly speaking.

Only this time, sound issued from those pale, wriggling lips: “I forgive you.”

Why?” he asked her, pressing harder with his knee.

Coins clinked behind him.

Fear rushed through him, cold as a winter’s gale. His hand darted by instinct to draw his wife. He spun with the Obsidian dagger held low. Cerena stood behind him, a nimbus of rainbowed light surrounding her, two gold coins held in her hand.

Is this what my life was worth?” she asked, blue eyes glistening. “You stole my happiness, my future, for two little bits of metal?”

I . . .” The words died in his throat.

You stole me from my husband, my friends, my family. You stole me from everyone that cared about me, loved me. All for these coins?”

The assassin floundered as her blue eyes held his gaze, pleading for answers. “It’s what I do.” The answer sounded lame—unsatisfactory, insulting, cheapening—the moment it left his lips.

I see,” she sadly whispered. “I was simply a nail to be hammered? A fish to be gutted? A cowhide to be tanned?”

His mouth opened, but he found no words to speak, no excuse worth the cost. He never thought about why he killed. He was good at it, and the rewards supported his jewelchine tinkering.

Was my life so worthless you can’t even answer me?” The pain in her words tore at the assassin’s soul. Guilt—crushing, suffocating guilt—filled his heart, squeezing it with an iron grip, trying to arrest its beat.

It was your husband that wanted you dead,” the assassin gasped, clutching his chest as his heart warred to stay alive. “Not me. I didn’t kill you! It was your husband! I was just his tool—the hammer wielded by his hand. It wasn’t my fault!”

Was it my husband that pushed me down the stairs? Did he crush my lungs with his knee and stare me in the eyes while I died?”

The assassin bolted awake, his nightgown stuck to him with sweat. He raced downstairs into his orderly kitchen and tore open cabinets. He threw plates and crockery to the side to find his cooking sherry. He grasped the green bottle and didn’t bother with a cup. He took a long swig of the wine. Then a second deep swallow, the drink burning his insides, warring with the guilt crushing his heart.

It was your husband!” he sobbed at the blue eyes. “He killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

Then leave me alone! Haunt your black-damned husband! He killed you!”

I forgive you.

I didn’t kill you! I don’t need your forgiveness!” He threw the bottle at the blue eyes, striking a crock of honey. Both smashed into unsightly, untidy shards. The assassin didn’t care. He only shrieked incoherently at those eyes.

* * *

The assassin dressed in dirty clothes; none were clean in his house. Unsteady with drink, he grabbed the first pair of trousers he found on the floor and pulled them up his leg. He tottered on one foot, the room spinning around him, and fell back onto his bed. He grunted and continued dressing. He found a stained shirt and a greasy waistcoat and did the buttons up crooked. He stumbled down the stairs, catching himself twice before he tumbled head-first. He snagged a half-empty bottle of whiskey left on a shelf in the sitting room, took a swig, then kicked the rug aside that hid his cellar. Bottle in hand, he descended into the black hole, the drink weighing him down into the darkness.

As he stared at the cork board from which hung his assassin’s tools, he struggled through the fog of his drink to remember what items he would need for the night’s work. His wife, of course. He slammed the obsidian dagger into its sheath. Then he snagged his diamond pocket-torch, the absorber, and his pair of leather grip-gloves made with tiny Emeralds bound with Aluminum wire that adorned the glove’s palm and fingertips.

I invented these, right? The assassin asked himself, staring bemused as the light glinted in the emeralds’ facets. Pretty sure I did.

He made it halfway down his street when he realized he’d forgotten the igniter. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He struggled to focus through the fog of drink. Part of him knew he shouldn’t imbibe the alcohol, but it shrouded him from those forgiving blue eyes.

No more mistakes, he berated himself. You need this job, Eljin. It had been the first nocturnal job he’d taken in the weeks since the Ibsin job—the assassin didn’t like to think about that one; the blue eyes always appeared when he thought of her. Desperation drove him to accept this one. I could make some money again if those damned, forgiving eyes would go haunt Ibsin instead.

He felt ill while he’d talked to Missus Kithan—the same roiling, nauseating inferno that consumed his stomach every time he talked with a potential client—but he needed the money. Creditors were pounding on his door: rent was due for his store, vendors needed payment for materials, and his customers demanded refunds for shoddy work. The two gold coins burned in his pocket, weighing him down with every step.

He should just part with them, couldn’t. Her eyes castigated him every time he tried.

He got lost on the way to Salmon Row. The helpful proprietor of a bar gave him directions, as well as selling him a bottle of cheap whiskey. Off lurched the assassin down the streets, stumbling from one side to the other.

An hour later than he’d planned, the assassin found the house. It was large, constructed of river stones fitted together with mortar. A tall garden wall encircled the house. Green tendrils crept over the top of the wall and hung down the bricks, reaching for the street.

The assassin pulled on his grip-gloves. With ease, he climbed up the wall. The problem came when he tried to hook his right leg over the lip. He balanced precariously atop the narrow wall, struggling to get his legs to cooperate. His foot kept catching on the stone lip. He gave a jerk and his leg lurched over too hard. For a moment, he flailed his arms in a useless attempt to maintain his balance before he fell heavily into a rhododendron bush.

Stems scraped his face as he struggled to escape the bush, lavender petals clinging to his clothing. He stumbled out, tripped forward, and fell onto soft grass. He patted himself as he stood and realized he’d dropped something important. With a grunt, he strode back into the bush with drunken determination to find the bottle of whiskey he’d dropped.

He found the bottle just in time, feeling the blue eyes nearing. He took a drink to ward them off. Then a second for good measure. The assassin tried to remember why he hated whiskey; it was such a marvelous drink. He whistled as he staggered to his target’s back door.

He found it locked.

He stared stupidly at the knob then twisted it again. It refused to turn, as stubborn as he was. He grunted, the metal rattling. He grunted. Now what? he asked his foggy mind. There were windows he could break. He frowned. That didn’t feel right to the assassin. Don’t I have a tool that can open doors for me? He patted his pockets, and felt something hard. Igniter? I could burn the door down. Absorber? It would keep anyone from hearing me break open the window. He touched the dagger.

Feeling like a motley fool, he drew his wife and casually touched the black tip to the door’s jewelchine lock. Purple light arced; the lock clicked. With a triumphant shout, he entered the house. A cat yowled and hissed.

The bottle fell out of the startled assassin’s hand and clattered as it rolled across the wooden floor.

He almost fell over trying to grab the whiskey. Once it was securely in hand—well, once he’d taken another deep, fortifying drink of the wonderful liquid—he peered around, trying to get his bearings.

Have to find the stairs, he remembered as the cat hissed from beneath a couch.

He tried to walk lightly, but his feet kept crashing onto the wooden floors no matter how much he concentrated on gentle steps. He was thrilled to have only tripped once while ascending to the top of the stairs.

His target, Missus Kithan’s husband, slept soundly in a large bed next to his young mistress. Both snored. Several wine bottles littered the room and a half-smoked cigar lay on the floor. The bed was rumpled, the occupants naked.

The assassin struggled to remember Missus Kithan’s instructions. “I want them to burn. Him and his hussy,” she’d cackled. “He’s always fallin’ asleep smokin’ his darkness cigars! Just set the bed aflame.”

That’s why I brought the igniter.

Pulling it out of his pocket, he concentrated. The gem glowed with an inner fire, reddening the copper wire that bound it. He bent down to touch the gem to the tangled blankets when the mistress rolled over, golden hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Round face, framed with gold hair, blue eyes staring up with forgiveness.

He froze. She found me. The assassin’s hand shook. Just touch the cloth, he ordered his hand. Do it!

The blue eyes held out her hands; a pair of gold coins gleamed around pale, dead fingers. Is this what my life was worth?

Why are you hesitating, Eljin? thought the assassin. Just do it! Touch the cloth. The hand refused to move. It’s not your fault. You’re not killing them, not really. It’s Missus Kithan and Mister Ibsin and all the others who hired you over the years. You’re the hammer. They’re the hammerer. If you didn’t do it, they’d just find another tool.

Was it my husband who pushed me down the stairs? the blue eyes asked.

No.”

The assassin fled, racing down the stairs. The cat yowled, scared out of its fur and whiskers as he barreled through the parlor. He burst out of the house, scrambled over the fence with drunken desperation, and pounded down cobblestone streets. Terror and guilt whipped at his heels, spurring him to race faster and faster. He ran until his sides ached to bursting and the whiskey in his belly rebelled, vomiting out of his mouth into the gutter.

I didn’t kill you!” he sobbed over and over, bile bittering his tongue, his soul whipped raw by the tempest of his guilt. “Your husband killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

The tempest dissipated. Those three words banished the storm inside him. A placid calm, the lull in a titanic storm, descended on the assassin. She forgave me. The assassin looked up at the sky, dark clouds parting. The green moon, Elohm’s Forgiveness, shone down on the assassin.

How could her husband have wanted to kill her? the assassin wondered. She was such a loving woman. She found the strength to forgive me. Why did he deserve to have happiness and love? Why did he deserve to live and not her?

Why did he deserve to live?

* * *

For days, the assassin stalked Cerena’s husband, her real killer. I didn’t kill her, he would tell himself, fixing his green eyes with mad fervor on the friendly face of Asht Ibsin—the mask hiding the callous monster from the world. The assassin didn’t need the drink any longer; he didn’t need to hide from her blue eyes in a haze of alcoholic fumes. He knew what the eyes needed: vengeance, justice.

Ibsin would die. Then Cerena’s soul would be able to rest.

It disgusted him watching Ibsin cavort with his hussy, Jasymina. They spent their days shopping, buying the disgusting slattern more clothing, more makeup, and more sweet unguents. Their nights were spent carousing in expensive wine shops, the ones the wealthy merchants or itinerant noblemen patronized. Ibsin had not a care in the world, his happiness bought by his wife’s murder.

For a week, the assassin waited for his opportunity, becoming more and more delighted with the slattern’s behavior. Ibsin had begun to bore Jasymina, her lustful gaze roaming to new conquests. He watched from the back of the wineshop as Ibsin walked in, looking for his mistress. He found her draped on a wealthy merchant’s arm. The assassin smiled; she’d found someone with deeper pockets. For the last few nights, drink’s fog had kept Ibsin from realizing his Jasymina was seducing her next lover.

The assassin padded after the dejected Ibsin, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his dagger. Swollen bruises marred Ibsin’s face from the chastisement he’d received at the hands of the merchant’s guard when he’d objected too vociferously about Jasymina’s abandonment.

The assassin wondered if the guilt gnawed at the tanner now. You killed your wife for that slattern and she tossed you aside like a torn petticoat. He wanted to laugh, to revel in Ibsin’s humiliation, but that might give him away.

Plan, think, succeed.

The assassin thought it was fitting to kill Ibsin in the very tenement stairwell where Cerena had died. Where Ibsin—through the assassin—had murdered his wife.

Ibsin reached the door, pulled out his key, and touched the amethyst to the lock. The soft, white glow of the jewelchine streetlights revealed no witnesses. Like a haunting ghost, the assassin drifted to the tenement. Ibsin pushed the door open. The assassin slammed into him, throwing the tanner into the tenement. Ibsin cried out in alarm, his foot tripping on the stoop, and fell into a heavy heap on the wooden floors.

The assassin drew his wife, sleek, black, gleaming deadly in the white light of the stairwell.

You?” Ibsin blinked drink-bleared eyes in confusion. He froze as the assassin fixed hard, green eyes on him. “W-wait! I can pay you more!”

He scrambled back before the assassin’s slow advance. The tanner pulled a thick, steel knife from his boot, a heavy blade used to cut hides. A single kick, aimed with care, connected the tip of the assassin’s booted foot to Ibsin’s wrist and sent the knife clanging to the floor.

I’ll pay double your rate,” Ibsin blubbered. An acrid-sour odor filled the air—nightsoil. The assassin’s eyes flickered down, the breach of the tanner’s pants mud-brown. Yellow piss puddled on the floor.

The assassin hovered over the murderer, his obsidian wife raised. Ibsin’s eyes fixed on the black blade. All he had to do was thrust his dagger, slip it between the man’s ribs, and find the monster’s treacherous heart. Then she shall be avenged! Then she shall stop haunting me.

You killed her,” the assassin hissed.

Who?” squealed Ibsin.

Your wife!”

N-no, you did!” Tears ran from his gray-blue eyes. “I didn’t kill her.”

Yes you did! You sought me out! Walked into my shop! You hired me!” Words paused for a ragged inhalation. “You used me like a tool! A hammer!” Spittle rained down on Ibsin’s face. “A hammer to pound the nail into your wife’s heart!”

B-but you killed her! I just gave you the money. I never would have hurt her myself! She was just in the way of my happiness! But I didn’t kill her. That was all you! Please! There’s still some of the insurance money left! And I have a settlement coming. My barrister tells me I have a huge negligence case against my landlord!”

I don’t want your money!” roared the assassin. “Cerena doesn’t want your money! She wants vengeance on the man who killed her!”

That was you! Not me! Please! Elohm save me! I didn’t kill her. I’ve never even harmed a freckle on her body!”

The words struck the assassin—the sound of ribs cracking filled his mind, hands frantically trying to pry his knee off her chest, a beautiful face turning red, Cerena fighting desperately to live.

It crystallized in an instant for the assassin. He never harmed a freckle on her face . . . But I did.

No, we killed her,” the assassin admitted. He felt something fall from his heart—a great weight. I killed so many, the Colours help me. There is so much blood on my hands. “You were the mind, the thought that swung the hammer, Ibsin. You wielded me, but I’m not a mindless tool. I’m not a hammer swinging with no control over where I land, which nail I pound into the wood. I could have said no. I could have stopped you or warned her. I could have done any of a hundred things. Together, we murdered her.” The tear welled in his green eye, rolling down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cerena.”

Blue eyes whispered back: I forgive you.

Eljin dropped the black blade. It tumbled, light glinting bright on its irregular surface. With a tinkling crash, it splintered into three large shards on the faded floor.

She forgave us,” Eljin told Ibsin. “I don’t know why. Elohm knows we deserve her curse, her anger.”

She was a kind woman,” Ibsin blubbered.

Fishing into his pocket, Eljin pulled out two gold beams, each stamped with Elohm’s rainbow, and dropped them next to his broken blade. Then he turned, and walked towards the door.

Cerena was a better person than me. All I ever did was take. Eljin knew it was time to find something else to do with his life, find some way to repay Cerena for what he’d stolen from her. Maybe this is why she forgave me, he mused, to teach me to be a better man.

Ibsin’s dagger slid easily into Eljin’s back, slipping through the ribs and piercing his lung.

You killed her, not me!” Ibsin howled as Eljin pitched to the floor. “I would never harm a freckle on her! Never!”

Cold stole over Eljin as he rolled over onto his back. Ibsin loomed above him. Gripped in his white-knuckled hand was his tanner’s blade decorated with Eljin’s blood. The chill swelled through him as Ibsin raved, wild-eyed. The words didn’t matter; Eljin was beyond them. Anger clenched his heart. I spared this man, and this is how he repays me?

Cerena appeared, riding down from the heavens on a rainbow of light, and stood above him—light opposing her husband’s darkness. A sad smile graced her lips as she stared down at Eljin with soft eyes. Her murderer.

How?” Eljin croaked to her. “How could you forgive me?”

How what?” Ibsin cackled. “What are you saying!”

Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours. It weighs down your heart like an anchor,” she answered. “Let go of hate, of all the black emotions, and allow your heart to soar up into Elohm’s light.”

That’s . . . it?” The words were growing harder to bring forth, his mouth coppery with blood.

That’s what?” demanded Ibsin; Eljin ignored the monster’s mad face, fixing instead on the plain beauty of Cerena’s.

That’s it, Eljin.” Her blue eyes were soft, forgiving, compassionate.

I robbed the world of an angel.

Eljin looked at Ibsin and spoke three words. The chain snapped. The anger plummeted into the darkness. Eljin’s soul rose up into the light.

The END

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter One

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter One

Sakarpus

Welcome to Chapter One of my reread. Click here if you missed the Prologue!

Upon the high wall the husbands slept, while ‘round the hearth their women wept, and fugitives murmured tales of woe, of greater cities lost to Mog-Pharau

—“THE REFUGEE’S SONG,” THE SAGAS

My Thoughts

Pretty straight forward, a reminder of the devastation caused by the First Apocalypse. The men are sleeping at their posts, unable to leave the defenses in case of attack while their women weep because all their children are stillborn. They hear the rumors. They know what is coming.

It is fitting to open Chapter One which also starts out with the Great Ordeal and its mission to stop the Second Apocalypse and the re-awakening of the No-God. Here are the stakes that are being gambled upon. Kellhus has to surpass the original Ordeal that Anasûrimbor Celmomas led two thousand years. He only had to cross the final leg of the Great Ordeal’s march. Kellhus’s army has to survive the ruins of the north just to reach Celmomas’s starting point.

Also, it’s good to know how to pronounce Mog-Pharau. It rhymes with woe. Though the selection is written out as prose, it’s lyrical poetry.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The Kathol Passes

The tracks between whim and brutality are many and inscrutable in Men, and though they often seem to cut across the impassable terrain of reason, in truth, it is reason that paves their way. Ever do Men argue from want to need and from fortuitous warrant. Ever do they think their cause the just cause. Like cats chasing sunlight thrown from a mirror, they never tire of their own delusions.

Across the lands, priests of the Thousand Temples and Judges of the Ministrate preached the Truth and hunted for those who disputed it or ignored it for greed. Caste-slave and caste-noble alike are taught “the Great Chain of Missions.” This is how each person’s job helps other people’s job allowing the Empire and the Great Ordeal to succeed against “the apocalyptic designs of the Consult.” The Great Ordeal is the greatest host in the history of mankind. It took ten years to prepare. They have gathered for their march across the “Sranc-infested Wilds of the Ancient North” to reach Golgotterath.

“It was a mad endeavor.” It was no simple task. It required a massive movement of food and supplies. A knight, his mount, the pack mules that carried the supplies, and the slaves who prepare his supper all needed food. “This was why the most arduous battle waged by the Great Ordeal would not be against the Consult legions, but against Eärwa’s own wild heart.” They had to survive to make it to Golgotterath. So for years, the New Empire produced food and stored them in granaries while herds of livestock were driven north. The records to track this required their own warehouses to store them.

The call to arms did not come till the last.

The Zaudunyani come across the Three Seas to take up the Circumfix from Conryia to Kian. The Schools send their sorcerers including the new Saway Compact of Gnostic witches. Preeminent among them is the Mandate who are no longer seen as fools. They gather in Oswenta in Galeoth, swelling the city with foreign lords and soldiers. “The bowl of each nation had spilled, and now their distinct and heady flavors swirled together, continually surprising the palette with some unheard-of-combination.”

Summer and autumn passed. The lessons of the Holy War are remembered. The officer core is made of Zaudunyani veterans who won’t allow any trespasses. Punishments are swift and lethal because too much was at stake. This is the Shortest Path. “Mercy required a certain future, and for men, there was none.” Two skin-spies are uncovered by Kellhus and publicly executed. The Great Ordeal passes winter at the city of Harwash where the caravans that travel to Sakarpus and Atrithau depart from. Twenty thousand die to lungplague.

It was, the Aspect-Emperor explained, but the first of many tests.

As spring approached, preparations to march were underway. Men weep when the order to march is given. As they march, the men feel like the entire world is kneeling before them, approving their actions. King Saubon of Caraskand, who’s one of the two Exalt-Generals, leads the first host with the faster units. Kellhus’s eldest sun, Kayûtas, leads the Kidruhil with Conphas. They are the most famed heavy cavalry in the Three Seas. Sakarpus’s retreats before them, leaving only their skirmisher to harass the Great Ordeal. Behind them, King Proyas of Conryia leads the rest of the host, including the sorcerers. The column is so long, communication between the front and the back is too great for any rider to travel it quickly.

It snowed the fourth night, when the priests and judges led ceremonies commemorating the Battle of the Pass, where an ancient alliance of refugee Men and the Nonmen of Cil-Aujas had defeated the No-God in the First Apocalypse, so purchasing the World a year of precious respite. Nothing was said of the subsequent betrayal and the extermination of the Nonmen at the hands of those they had saved.

As they march, they sing to Kellhus, to their own might, to their wives and families, and about the world they would save. At evening, they shed armor to pray and listen to sermons. It took days for them all to file through the pass onto the “thawing fields of the Sagland.” The Sakarpi have left scorched earth behind, the King of Sakarpus hoping hunger would save his city.

Few Three Seas Men had ever seen grassland steppes, let alone the vast and broad-back Istyuli. Beneath grey skies, with tracts still scabbed with snow, it seemed a trackless and desolate place, a precursor to the Agongorea, about which they had heard so much in endless recitations of The Sagas. Those raised on the coasts were reminded of the sea, of horizons as flat as a rule with nothing but limits for the eye to fasten upon. Those bred along desert margins were reminded of home.

It was raining when the multitudes climbed into the broad scruffs of land that lifted the Lonely City above the plain. At last, the two Exalt-Generals clasped arms and set about planning the assault. They scowled and joked and shared reminiscences, from the legendary First Holy War to the final days of the Unification. So many cities. So many campaigns.

So many proud peoples broken.

Sorweel finds sleep eluding him so is already awaken when the emissary from the Great Ordeal comes to speak with his father, King Varalt Harweel II. Sorweel attends as the crown prince of Sakarpus, as he has attended all such important meetings. “But until recently, ‘important’ had meant something quite different.” Fights with Srancs, diplomatic issues with Atrithau, disgruntled nobles. He’s usually bored. Now he’s scared. He’s a year from his “first Elking,” on the cusp of full manhood, and is staring at King Nersei Proyas standing before his father. Through translators, Proyas broaches what King Harweel says about Kellhus. Harweel sneers about his “blasphemy,” showing his disdain for Kellhus’s godhood.

“Blasphemy…” the Exalt-General said. “He would not say that.”

“And what would he say?”

“That you fear, as all man fear, to lose your power and privilege.”

Sorweel’s father laughed in an offhand manner that made the boy proud. If only he could muster such careless courage.

Harweel, sounding merry, asks if Proyas actually sees him as using his people as pawns to protect them as opposed to standing up to Kellhus to protect his people. Proyas does see it that way by saying no man can “stand between a God and the people.” It unnerves Sorweel how Three Seas Men speak of Kellhus as a living god. Harweel says his priest call Kellhus a demon.

“They say what they need to keep their power safe,” the translator said with obvious discomfort. “They are, truly, the only ones who stand to lose from the quarrel between us.”

To Sorweel, the Aspect-Emperor had been an “uneasy rumour.” His earliest memories are sitting on his father’s knee as traders spoke about Kellhus. From them, Sorweel had heard about everything in the south. His father would always warn that one day, Kellhus would come for them.

“But how can you know, Da?”

“He is a Ciphrang, a Hunger from the Outside, come to this world in the guise of a man.”

“Then how can we hope to resist him?”

“With our swords and sour shields,” his father had boasted, using the mock voice he always used to make light of terrifying things. “And when those fail us, with spit and curses.”

But the spit and the curses, Sorweel would learn, always came first, accompanied by bold gestures and grand demonstrations. War was an extension of argument, and swords were simply words honed to bloodletting edge. Only the Sranc began with blood. For Men, it was always the conclusion.

Perhaps this explained the Emissary’s melancholy and his father’s frustration. Perhaps they already knew the outcome of this embassy. All doom requires certain poses, the mouthing of certain words—so said the priests.

Sorweel can feel Kellhus lurking outside the walls. “An itch, a name, a principle, a foreboding…” Sorweel knows they have come to kill the man, rape the women, and enslave the children. His father is boasting how Sakarpus survived the No-God and will survive Kellhus.

The Exalt-General smiled, or at least tried to. “Ay, yes… Virtue does not burn.”

Harweel asks what that means and Proyas explains all that is left after death is the good things your children record about you. “All men flatter themselves through their forebears.” Harweel snorts and says Sakarpus is still around, proving his strength. But Proyas says Kellhus has been here when Sakarpus was merely the frontier of a great empire. Its lack of importance is why Sakarpus survived. Chance is ever as fickle as a whore. The silence from his father unnerves Sorweel. The stakes were crushing his father. He was pretending everything was fine, but Sorweel could see the lie.

Proyas continues that the entire Three Seas and all the schools are here. Proyas pleads with Harweel to see that he can’t win, appealing to him as a fellow warrior who has fought and seen the terrors of war.

Another ashen silence. Sorweel found himself leaning forward, trying to peer around the Horn-and-Amber Throne. What was his father doing?

“Come…” the Exalt-General said, his voice one of genuine entreaty. “Harweel, I beg of you, take my hand. Men can no longer afford to shed the blood of men.”

Sorweel can’t believe how aged his father appears. He’s not old, but looks it, his crown heavy. For a moment, Sorweel wants to speak to cover his father’s weakness, but Harweel finds his strength. He tells Proyas if he doesn’t want to fight, then leaves and march to die at Golgotterath or return to “hot-blooded wives.”

As though deferring to some unknown rule of discourse, Proyas lowered his face. He glanced at the bewildered Prince before returning his gaze to the King Sakarpus. “There is the surrender that leads to slavery,” he said. “And there is the surrender that sets one free. Soon, very soon, your people shall know the difference.”

“So says the slave!” Harweel cried.

The Emissary did not require the translator’s sputtering interpretation—the tone transcended languages. Something in his look dismayed Sorweel even more than the forced bluster of his father’s response. I am weary of blood, his eyes seemed to say. Too long have I haggled with the doomed.

He stood, nodding to his entourage to indicate that more than enough breath had been spent.

Sorweel was hoping his father would take him aside and explain why he appeared so fearful. To Sorweel, his father is the bravest man. He’d earned it through is room, revered by his Boonsmen and feared by the Horselords. “How could he of all Men be afraid?” Sorweel fears his father is holding back something important. Sorweel can only watch in the wake of Proyas’s departure as his father gives orders. At dawn, he is marched through the streets with his father’s High Boonsmen, seeing the refugees from the Saglands who’d entered the city, mothers looking dazed as herding their children. Sorweel wants to fight, but he hasn’t had his Elking, so he’s not allowed.

It begins raining as the hours past. It soaks through his armor. He feels useless and miserable. Finally, his father calls for him after a while. He’s brought to an empty barrack and warms his hands at a fire with Harweel. His father is troubled. Sorweel has no idea what to say.

“Moments of weakness come upon all Men,” Harweel said without looking at his son.

The young Prince stared harder into the glowing cracks.

“You must see this,” his father continued, “so that when your time comes you will not despair.”

Sorweel was speaking before he even realized he had opened his mouth. “But I do, Father! I do desp—!”

The tenderness in his father’s eyes was enough to make him choke. It knocked his gaze down as surely as a slap.

His father explains that men who see things in absolute terms can’t handle fear or despair. It breaks them because they have not struggled with doubt before then. His father asks Sorweel if he’s a fool like that. Sorweel is hurt because the question is genuine. He answers no. He has so much fear and doubt in him. He can’t speak it as he feels ashamed for doubting his father. He realized he’d been a burden to his father instead of supporting him on this day. Before he can explain his thoughts, three Horselords enter, calling for them.

Forgive me…

Standing on the walls of Sakarpus, he still feels warm after his talk with his father. He’s in the northern tower It’s raining. He stares at the thick walls and can’t imagine them being destroyed. It’s lined with soldiers in the “ancient armour of their fathers.” Archers wait to fire arrows. He’s proud of his people’s courage and determination. He knows that beyond the rain-choked gray, the Great Ordeal lurks.

He says the war prayers to Gilgaöl like he was trained and to Anagke, the Whore of Fate, to keep him from bad luck. The High Boonsmen pray around him for deliverance from “the Aspect-Emperor’s grasping hand.” Sorweel tries to convince himself that Kellhus is a demon and will lose.

A horn rings out. After a pause, more sound. “Suddenly the whole world seemed to shiver, its innards awakened by the cold cacophony.” More prayers and curses are muttered by unnerved men. The horns die while a father tells his son to “Take heart,” and speaks of an omen that means they’ll have good fortune, but the man’s confidence sounds forced.

Peering after the voices, Sorweel recognized the Ostaroots, a family whom he had always thought hangers-on in his father’s Royal Company. Sorweel had always shunned the son, Tasweer, not out of arrogance or spite, but in accordance with what seemed the general court attitude. He had never thought of it, not really, save to make gentle sport of the boy now and again with his friends. For some reason, it shamed Sorweel to hear him confessing his fears to his father. It seemed criminal that he, a prince born to the greatest of privileges, had so effortlessly judged Tasweer’s family, that with the ease of exhalation, he had assessed lives as deep and confusing as his own. And found them wanting.

His remorse is swallowed up by warning shouts. Out of the rainy mist, siege towers appear. Their size surprises him. They are massive and had to be carried across the wilderness in pieces to reach here. They crawl forward in a V formation, covered in tin armor. They have the Circumfix painted across their fronts. Sorweel had seen that symbol tattooed on missionaries his father had ordered burned. Everyone on the wall grows breathless as they approach. The battle has finally begun. The previous months of stress are over. Behind the towers marches the vast Great Ordeal.

Once again the horns unnerved the sky.

Sorweel sees ten times the number of the defenders (who themselves number ten thousand) approaching. So many strangers who came from lands he’d never heard of. These people didn’t care about Sakarpus. “The Southron Kings, come to save the world.” Sorweel had imagined those lands, wanting to run away as a child to a place where “Men yet warred against Men.” He’d learned, however, to hide his fascination. The South is viewed with contempt. “It was a place where subtlety had become a disease and where luxury had washed away the bourne between what was womanish and what was manly.”

But they were wrong—so heartbreakingly wrong. If the defeats of the previous weeks had not taught them such, then surely they understood now.

The South had come to teach them.

King Harweel appears at his son side and tells them not to fear the Schoolman. They won’t attack because of all the Chorae Sakarpus possesses. The king is inspiring his son and the others. Harweel gives a rousing speech about how they stood unbroken against the Sranc and—

His speech is cut off by a stork swooping down before him, startling everyone. Sorweel presses on his belly, feeling the Chorae tied against his bellybutton. The stork shouldn’t be flying in the rain. The stork stares at them without fear, unnerving the men. Harweel pushes himself forward to stand over the stork. A bright light in the sky, like a star, draws Sorweel’s attention. When he looks back, the stork is gone.

Activity explodes across the battlement, men shouting as the siege towers move forward as the star winked out. It reappeared closer over the front of the marching army. Sorweel realizes that there is a man or a god surrounded by blue light

Sorweel fond himself clutching the pitted stone of the battlements.

The Aspect-Emperor.

The rumor. The lifelong itch…

Sorweel cries a warning to his father as heavy winds blow rains over the walls. Ballistae fire Choraetipped bolts, but the sudden wind cuts their range. They miss him. At the same time, Sorweel hears words of sorcery. Silver lines race out from Kellhus, forming “incandescent geometries, a sun-bright filigree.” Sorweel realizes Kellhus is making mist to blind them. The Southron armies are singing hymns as they advanced.

Harweel grabs his son and tells him to go to the Citadel. That it was a mistake to bring him here. Sorweel is horrified, protesting that his father would treat him like a child. He cries out, “My bones are your bones!”

Harweel raised his hand to Sorweel’s cheek. “Which is why you must go. Please, Sorwa. Sakarpus stands at the ends of the world. We are the last outpost of Men! He needs this city! He needs our people! That means he needs you, Sorwa! You!”

Sorweel protest that he won’t leave, crying hot tears hidden by the cold rain. His father punches him and knocks him to the ground and orders Narsheidel to carry him to the Citadel. Narsheidel obeys and drags Sorweel away. He cries out in protest, seeing his father one last time before the fog hides him.

“Nooooooo!”

The clamour of arms descended upon the world.”

Sorweel continues his struggle against Narsheidel, but the man won’t relent. He sees his father’s eyes watching him, full of love and concern and even regret. He sees a father’s pride and hope that “he might live with greater grace through the fact of a son.” Soon, they’re in the city streets, soldiers rushing to the fight.

And a solitary figure in the midst of the confusion, crouched like a beggar, only clothed in too much shadow…

And with eyes that blinked light.

The Herder’s gate is destroyed with sorcerery. The enemy flood into the streets. Men die, killed by sorcery. A siege tower reaches the wall supported by Angogic sorceries. Harwell is dragged farther and farther from the battle while his father’s blue, beseeching eyes fill his mind. He reaches the Citadel where he once again sees Kellhus as “bright as the Nail of Heaven—only beneath the clouds.” Narsheidel is overcome with fear while retainers and guards ask where the king is. In his panic, Narsheidel is screaming that the Citadel must hold secrets that will save them because it is old. He’s dragged to an antechamber where he finally shouts at Narsheidel to stop. He asks where his father is and is told that Harweel is dead.

The words winded him. Even still, Sorweel heard his own voice say, “That means I am King. That I’m your master!”

The High Boonsman looked down to his palms, then out and upward, as though trying to divine the direction of the outer roar—for it had not stopped.

“Not so long as your father’s words still ring in my ears.”

Sorweel looked into the older man’s face, with its strong-jawed proportions and water-tangled frame of hair. Only then, it seemed, did he realize that Narsheidel too had loved ones, wives and children, sequestered somewhere in the city. That he was a true Boonsman, loyal unto death.

Sorweel starts to shout that his father is dead when the wall explodes. He is thrown to the ground while the commander of the Citadel, Lord Denthuel, has his head crushed by debris. Sorweel lies stunned as he stares at a gaping hole. He doesn’t remember if he spoke. Through the hole, he sees the Aspect-Emperor striding through the air. The rain doesn’t touch him.

The shining demon crossed the threshold, framed by gloom and deluge.

A nameless guard flees when Kellhus steps through the breach. Narsheidel charges. Kellhus smoothly doges and whips out his sword, beheading the Boonsman. “The demon” stares at Sorweel the entire time, but Kellhus’s eyes seem far too human.

“On his knees, Sorweel could do naught but stare.”

Kellhus feels unreal, like he’s both physically here and in a spiritual place. He stands taller than Sorweel’s father and wearing a mail of nimil (Nonman steel). He wears the severed heads of two demons on his belt, and he has scabs of salt on his skin. The “vision” announces his identity and Sorweel pisses himself and collapses onto his belly.

“Come,” the man [Kellhus] said, crouching to place a hand on his [Sorweel’s] shoulder. “Come. Get up. Remember yourself…”

Remember?

“You are a King, are you not?”

Sorweel could only stare in horror and wonder.

“I-I d-d-d-on’t understand…”

A friendly scowl, followed by a gentle laugh. “I’m rarely what my enemies expect, I know.” Somehow, he was already helping him to his feet.

Kellhus explains that this fight was a mistake, he’s not a conqueror, but here to save mankind. Sorweel calls him a liar. Kellhus tells him to grieve because it’s natural. “But take heart in the fact of your forgiveness.” Sorweel asks how Kellhus can forgive anything. Kellhus says Sorweel misunderstands what he meant.

“Misunderstand what?” Sorweel spat. “That you think yourse—!”

“Your father loved you!” the man interrupted, his voice thick with a nigh-irresistible paternal reprimand. “And that love, Sorwa, is forgiveness… His forgiveness, not mine.”

The young King of Sakarpus stood dumbstruck, staring with a face as slack as rainwater. Then perfumed sleeves enclosed him, and he wept in the burning arms of his enemy, for his city, for his father, for a world that could wring redemption out of betrayal.

Years. Months. Days. For so long the Aspect-Emperor had been an uneasy rumor to the South, a name heaped in atrocity as it was miracle…

No more.

My Thoughts

Bakker starts right off with a discussion on men and how they are controlled by Cause and Effect. Humans do not like being the villains so we always rationalize our actions and find excuses for them. Some are better than others, but most do it. We come up with why we lie, we cheat, we steal. Why we are selfish.

We spin out our delusions to justify our crimes.

“Men, all Men, warred all the time.” Pure Bakker there. Men are in competition, and war is the ultimate competition. Whether they are competing (warring) with the field they till or competing for the affection of their lover.

It’s clear Bakker thought a lot about how the host would survive the march. It’s great to see that level of detail.

Hello, skin-spies. Slipping them in early. Need to remember that they exist because there’s another one out there.

Men and their delusions are illustrated with: “The Men of the Ordeal could feel it: an approving world, a judging world.” Also, we see judging again. The Judging Eye does exactly what these men believe is happening as does the Inverse Fire.

We have our first reference to Cil-Aujas, the Nonman ruin which dominates the finale in this book. We get the first glimpse of its history, how the humans and Nonmen fought off the No-God and then how the humans later butchered them. It’s a whitewashing of history as well as planting the first seeds for a big story hook to come.

Bakker starts off the Great Ordeal by mirroring how it will end. The army crosses a plain that has been depleted of food, just like they’ll find when crossing the Agongorea, the Field Appalling. There, hunger will reduce them to cannibalism to survive. Like with Sakarpus, the Consult tries that same tactic of starvation to defeat the Great Ordeal. Only we see the armies here at the start, strong and proud and confident, eager to break another proud people.

They don’t realize they’re a proud people.

Bakker’s irony is on full display with the Great Ordeal fighting to save mankind by starting his campaign with conquering a city that has stood up against the Consult and the Sranc since the Second Apocalypse ended. In other fantasy, Sakarpus would welcome and aid the Great Ordeal.

Sorweel is our primary POV for the events of the Great Ordeal. He’s a young man who has to grow up and see the world for what it is. He still idealizes his father like any boy would. It’s easy to see someone as being brave when you don’t know the fear inside of them. It’s as Bakker described in an earlier book, that humans are a two-sided coin. There’s the face the world sees of us and the face we see of ourselves. You can never see how the world sees you, and the world can never see how you view yourself.

Proyas is trying diplomacy here. It is admirable. Harweel is as Proyas describes. He wants to keep his power. He seems like a good man, so he probably has his reasons like protecting his people and defying a demon. The rationalization to justify his desires. After all, Sakarpus survived the No-God. How could Kellhus threaten them?

Kellhus is a Ciphrang… An interesting comment to have in the prose given the deal he’s made Ajokli between the two series.

Bakker brings us some good insight on fighting and why it happens. Some say war is the failure of diplomacy, others say it’s the only way to accomplish it. Force is required to bring people to the peace tables. The threat of it or its actual unleashing. The outcome can often be seen ahead of time, which only makes the tragedy to come pointless. But people are stubborn. They have hope. They don’t want to see reality. They are consumed with pride or fear. A hundred reasons that can lead to men dying on the battlefield. They’re rarely good ones.

Well, Chapter One and fortune is compared to a whore!

Sakarpus says they are here because of the strength of their wall, the might of their ancestors, and the Chorae Horde (which why the Holy War is here). Kellhus says they were on the periphery of events and lucked out that the consult didn’t come. I imagine it’s more in the middle. They did weather attacks but they never felt the full brunt of the No-God.

Sakarpus reminds me of Game of Thrones. The North talked a good talk about how they were strong than their southern men, worth ten of them, and then Arya finds them slaughtered when Ned Stark is captured. She’s confused that their bravado didn’t match reality. Sorweel is starting to see through his father’s bravado before the face of the might before them.

The end is writ in stone. Everyone knows it, but Harweel cannot break free of the expectations that lie on him and the fear of losing all he has. He is grasping at straws to stay free and Proyas knows it. We see that after twenty years, Proyas has grown with more compassion. This isn’t the zealot we first met, but the man who witnessed Shimeh burn.

How many cities has he seen burned since?

I make no bones about how much I dislike Kellhus. What he does to Proyas in this series is brutal. The shortest path as no room for compassion or love.

Great father and son stuff between Sorweel and his father. His father is getting him ready for what’s to come. The fact that they’re going to lose. Harweel can’t bring himself from surrendering without a fight. He must feel trapped by duty and expectation. Sorweel can start clean as the subject ruler. He recognizes how Kellhus operates. He prefers to leave those in place who will be followed if they bend the knee. Sorweel is that person. Someone he can use as both a hostage and a ruler to keep Sakarpus in line after the defeat. Harweel needs his son to be strong enough to survive what is coming.

Sorweel is maturing fast now, feeling empathy to a boy he disliked out of habit. Humans fall into a social hierarchy, and you act in your place to maintain it or risk falling from your place and losing the ability to climb higher.

It’s interesting the relief that can come when the dreaded thing happens. You can finally deal with it and not worry about it, even if it goes bad. Stress is not good for humans in our current modern world. Its designed for life-and-death situations, not worrying for days or weeks on whether you’re going to lose your job. It’s not great having that building pressure with no release for too long.

Warrior cultures always think they are superior in military might to more civilized nations. They can often be surprised then to lose. Those countries might not have the culture on the surface, but that doesn’t mean they’re not humans who, when need to, can be just as aggressive to survive. Barbarians might win when they sweep unprepared against a “soft” enemy, but if the enemy can regroup, they can fight back. The Japanese saw the Americans as weak and easily swept aside. They were followers of Bushido. During the Battle of Midway, in one of the opening skirmishes, a US dive bomber almost crashed into the bridge of an aircraft carrier, nearly killing the admiral in command of the Japanese forces. This shook them badly seeing an American willing to go that far. On that day, they saw inexperience American forces, but not cowards. Not men who wouldn’t fight.

Sakarpus is seeing the same. The “weak” south has marched with the same martial fervor that any human can muster.

Harweel might be the best father in this series. He’s trying to keep his son alive, even if that means punching him in the face to get him to leave. Everything we’ve seen about him through Sorweel is positive. It’s a shame Harweel couldn’t bend his knee, but then giving up power is one of the hardest things to do. The darkness that comes before had its hand around Harweel. He couldn’t break free.

This shadowed beggar is something I’ve never noticed before. Eyes that blinked light. A follower of Yatwer? At some point, Sorweel drew the Goddess’s notice. She makes him her Narindar. I thought it was with the slave he later meets, but it might have been as early as right now.

Sorweel is trying to be an active main character here. His father is dead, and he knows he has to take charge, but Narsheidel is panicked. He’s obeying his last order no matter what. He’s placed Sorweel above protecting his own family because he finds comfort in following his oath. It’s something familiar.

Then Kellhus steps in and removes that agency from Sorweel that he almost had. Sorweel’s story is one of lacking agency. He wants it, but he’s continually forced into different roles, and in the end, becomes nothing more than a pawn for Yatwer.

“On his knees, Sorweel could do naught but stare.” Sorweel meets Kellhus as a kneeler king. Just as he thinks of all those others who serve in disdain, that’s how he meets our Dûnyain.

Kellhus’s Mark is probably at the point where even a near miss from a Chorae can cause him issues.

Come on, Bakker, you can’t use pronouns like this: “Somehow, he was already helping him to his feet.” That’s two different men being referenced by the pronouns. Kellhus is helping Sorweel stand but it sounds like one person is helping himself stand. And that one person would be Kellhus, who is standing! I love Bakker’s writing, but his pronouns sometimes drive me nuts.

If you hadn’t known anything about Kellhus, if this was your first introduction to him, you would buy his act. Hugging the enemy of his son after reluctantly fighting his people in the greater goal of saving the world is something you’d see in fantasy. The savior of mankind with his inhuman power.

We know every word he spoke to Sorweel is an act to win his support and through him the resources of Sakarpus.

Sorweel is fantasy trope of the captured enemy who is out to avenge his father and in the process seduces the daughter of his enemy to his side. He only manages to seduce the daughter, and that only happened because he became a pawn of a Goddess using him in an act of mad defiance to kill Kellhus. It ends in failure. In his death, having no agency. Never taking his own power. He is perpetually pulled from event to event (quite literally when he’s dragged into the bowels of Ishterebinth in The Great Ordeal). Like with Kellhus in the first series, he is a subversion of this trope. In some ways, he’s a mirror of Kellhus. They both start out as the young man stepping out into the world, each their own fantasy trope, and each radically different. One seizes agency, the other is seized. However, they both end up being possessed by the gods.

Sorweel is a pawn. A slave to the darkness that comes before. Only it’s the darkness of Yatwer who can’t see the No-God and his actions. She doesn’t understand the context of the future and can only seek to stop it the way a blind man can: by blundering. Sorweel is one of those who are in her path.

Let’s follow him on his journey and study his character. His part in The Unholy Consult is something I’m eager to dig in when we (eventually) get there.

Click here for Chapter Two!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

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