Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 3: The Thousandfold Thought
by R. Scott Bakker
The Final March
Welcome to Chapter Eleven of my reread. Click here if you missed the Chapter Ten!
Of all the Cants, none better illustrates the nature of the soul than the Cants of Compulsion. According to Zarathinius, the fact that those compelled unerringly think themselves free shows that Volition is one more thing moved in the soul, and not the mover we take it to be. While few dispute this, the absurdities that follow escape comprehension altogether.
—MEREMNIS, THE ARCANA IMPLICATA
As a miller once told me, when the gears do not meet, they become as teeth. So it is with men and their machinations.
—ONTILLAS, ON THE FOLLY OF MEN
What we see about the cants just reinforces what was discussed in the previous chapter about the soul. Free will is an illusion. It is the Darkness That Comes Before that manipulates us, and the Cants seize the soul and provide it with a new “past” of circumstances that then allow it to behave in a different way. But the soul can’t recognize that it’s been changed. That the circumstances that preceded it have shifted because it cannot stand apart from those circumstances. Everything in Bakker’s works follows the belief that in a materialistic universe, there can be no “self-moving soul.”
Then he adds the supernatural, the Outside, to it and plays with the premise of violating causal with something from behind it. As he does here with Compulsion.
When gears teeth don’t meet the they aren’t working properly. They don’t do what they’re supposed to do. I’m not sure Bakker’s analogy is as good as he thinks or I’m missing something from it (since gears have teeth on them that interlock and allow them to work properly), but he appears to be implying that men and their machinations only cause problems to the world. They disrupt things.
Early Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Xerash
Two years ago, the Shriah had called the Holy War. From across the three seas, the men came. Now they march from Gerotha through a “subdued land.” None in Xerash defy them. The peoples all submit, offering their food stores, and their daughters, willingly to appease the “Lords of the Holy War.” Newcomers join the Holy War from the sea, shocked by the changes to their kinsmen’s “strange garb and implacable stares.” The Holy War takes few casualties and the soldiers “recalled their old humour” as their burdens lessened.
Unlike other places, there were few atrocities committed since Kellhus made it clear that the “Inrithi either kept or betrayed his word with their actions.” He doesn’t need the Xerashi’s love, only their trust.
While the Kianene have abandoned Xerash, Athjeäri is fighting them in Holy Amoteu. He’s discovering that the Kianene are burning all the wood to deny Holy War siege engines. Athjeäri does what he can, but he’s taking causalities with every raid. “Though he possessed daring in excess, he lacked the manpower required to secure his position.” He writes letters asking for help while Kellhus tells him to be patient and urges the Holy War to march faster.
Ten days after Gerotha’s fall, something “peculiar” happenes. Though accounts varied, all agreed Kellhus spoke with an “old blind man” that somehow was missed by the Hundred Pillars who kept away any who might harm Kellhus. Esmenet feared he was a Cishaurim. Proyas wrote his own eyewitness account in a letter to his father, describing Kellhus dismounting to talk with the man, asking who he is. The man answers, “One who has something to whisper into your ear.”
This provokes alarm as Kellhus asks why the man has to whisper only to him. The man says his words are a doom and Kellhus will kill him. People shout that it’s a Cishaurim trick, but Kellhus listens, kneeling to let the old man whisper. When the man finishes, Kellhus beheads the old man and orders the Holy War to make camp nearby. When pressed, Kellhus would not explain what he was told.
What did the old fool whisper? [wrote Proyas.]
The Inchoroi Aurang reflects on when he was spear bearer for Sil, who led the Inchoroi after they crashed on this world, and the other might deeds he’s done, like riding on Wutteät (Father of Dragons), and their great wars with the Nonman culminating in the Womb-Plague. He was young thing before all his grafts had “sapped his monumental frame.” He thinks they would have won, but Sil was impatient. It led them to being scattered and hunted. It was to men that gave the Inchoroi their “second age of glory.” Men figured out how to “resurrect their aborted designs” leading to him being Horde-General to the No-God. He remembers burning the Great Library of Sauglish. He butchered the Norsirai.
So how had it come to this? Bound to a Synthese, like a king to a leper’s robes. Frail and fugitive. Skulking about the fires of a roused enemy. There had been a time when the screams of thousands had heralded his coming.
He circles a compound surveying the land. He stares to the east where Shimeh, “the very heart of the mannish world” lay. He sees the signs of past countries in the compound, the “furtive mark of their [men’s] generations.” He reflects that he’s older than all of it. He lands in the courtyard where the skin-spies, his children, had left their horses. They come to him and grovel “their groins slick form their victims.”
He reflects how the Consult once thought the strange metaphysics of Psûkhe allowed the Cishaurim to unmask the skin-spies. It Is why they needed the Holy War to succeed. They couldn’t allow half of the Three Seas to be “immune to their poison.” It was why they acted against Xerius, trying to stop his plan to betray it. Now Aurang knows it is the Dûnyain, Anasûrimbor Moënghus, responsible for it all. He sees more in Kellhus’s than a son “hunting for his father.” Even if the Mandate didn’t have their prophecy, Aurang hated the Anasûrimbor bloodline. He fears what Moënghus has done in Shimeh the last thirty years when Kellhus claimed the Holy War in one.
Despite the rank disorder of his soul, the Scylvendi had been right about one thing: these Dûnyain had seized too much already. They could not be allowed the Gnosis as well.
Aurang, his hoary soul wrenching at the seams of the Syntheses that house him, smiled an odd, bird-twitching smile. How long since his last true contest?
The skin-spies gather, unveiling their true faces. He tells them to prepare this place, and one named Ûssirta how he can be certain that Kellhus will stop here. Aurang explains how Kellhus will pause here before entering the plain, learning from Cnaiür that Kellhus won’t be over-eager to march into the plain so close to his goal like a normal man. He will take time to plan.
Men. They had been little more than packs of wild dogs during the First Wars. How had they grown so?
A skin-spy named Maörta asks if “it” approaches. Aurang considers his skin-spies then says that he’s already made a sacrifice to lull Kellhus into thinking he’s uncovered their plot so he won’t be suspicious. They will catch him unaware because “there is treachery in his wife’s heart.”
They would test the limits of this Prophet’s penetration. They would deny him the Gnosis.
The skin-spy gurgles as Eleäzaras says to Esmenet they found him by probing his face with pins. He doesn’t like how clever she is, that she has power over him. He drinks from his wine bowl. Nor is he pleased that she’d learned so fast that the Scarlet Spire had found a skin-spy. He wouldn’t underestimate her again, realizing she’s more than a whore and has true skill at organization.
She was attractive, though. Well worth rutting… To do to her what they had done to that thing’s face. Yes, very attractive
He reflects that they had hardly begun studying the skin-spy when Esmenet had “just walked in” accompanied by Werjau (Eleäzaras thinks, but he was pretty drunk and isn’t sure) and four of the Hundred Pillars, all of them with Chorae. She does it like she has no idea that they’re the Scarlet Spires and they answered to know one especially not a woman. Iyokus says they would have shared once they finished their interrogation.
Whether this was true or false, of course, depended entirely on the information extracted.
Esmenet is doubtful that they would have share, which Eleäzaras isn’t happy she realized and is reminded Shimeh is only days away. He feels the weight of fear at facing the Cishaurim and Shimeh. He’s upset because serving Kellhus wasn’t what he agreed to with Maithanet. That the Mandate being right wasn’t part of the bargain.
How could they have been so deceived? And now to be bent upon murder, to have their knife drawn, only to discover that they had no motive… except self-preservation.
What have I done?
The Scarlet Spire’s privy council has argued over whether they should abandon the war or continue. They are shocked to learn about the Consult and the fact that a skin-spy ruled High Ainon “in their [the Scarlet Spires] name.” They can’t agree and need “decisive leadership—something that their present Grandmaster clearly lacked.” He feels their destruction is coming. Even Iyokus is arguing with him despite the blinded man keeping his position as Master of Spies at Eleäzaras’s insistence. Iyokus doesn’t want to submit to Kellhus, but Eleäzaras doesn’t see how he can treat with Kellhus from a position of strength because “He reads our souls in our faces.” Kellhus can deduce what Iyokus has told Eleäzaras just by asking a question. Iyokus is dismissive of that fact.
There was strength in ignorance, Eleäzaras realized. All his life he had thought knowledge a weapon. “The world repeats,” the Shiradic philosopher Umartu had written. “Know these repetitions, and you may intervene.” Eleäzaras had taken this as his mantra, had used it as the hammer with which to pound cunning into his wit. You may intervene, he would tell himself, no matter what the circumstance.
But there was knowledge beyond hope of intervention, knowledge that mocked, degraded… gelded and paralyzed. Knowledge that only ignorance could contradict. Iyokus and Inrûmmi even believe simply did not know what he knew, which was they though him castrate. They didn’t even believe.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the Intricati appear here and now. That the Warrior-Prophet intervene.
Esmenet, the Intricati, demands to know why she wasn’t summoned. Iyokus says it’s a school matter. She questions that, and Eleäzaras says they are the ones who will face “the Snakeheads,” implying the skin-spy is connected to the Cishaurim. She has “the temerity to step closer” and snap that the skin-spies aren’t Cishaurim and implies the Scarlet Spire is being treacherous. He gets mad, demanding why he’s even speaking to a woman. That infuriates her and he feels fear draining away his contempt. He feels hopeless and apologies.
He wonders what has happened to him. “When would this nightmare end.” He hates how a “caste-menial whore” smiles in triumph, outraging Iyokus. He realizes he’s losing his position as Grandmaster if he doesn’t act like one.
What did I do wrong? something churlish cried within.
She orders the skin-spy handed over since it has no soul for Cants to compel. It’s a royal command. He realizes Iyokus won’t obey. To maintain power, he has to act. He thinks how sweet it would be to fuck the warrior prophet’s woman. As she continues speaking in Kellhus’s name, he asks if she used to be Achamian’s woman. He knows the truth, but wants to hear her say it.
The room goes silent, save for the skin-spy’s dripping blood, as she stares in shock. He points out the irony since he ordered Achamian’s kidnapping which lead to Esmenet achieving her high position. She responds with, “More men should take credit for their mistakes.”
Eleäzaras tried to laugh, but she continued, speaking as though he were nothing more than a creaking pole or a barking dog. Noise. She continued tell him—the Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spires!—what he had to do. And why not, when he so obviously had abandoned decisions?
Shimeh was coming, she said. Shimeh.
As though names could have teeth.
Esmenet is caught in a downpour, running to reach the safety of her tent. In the warmth, Kellhus and Achamian await her, though Achamian turns back to the skin-spy she claimed from Eleäzaras. It is chained to the central pole, nude. Signs of torture mars its skin. She shudders, realizing how much damage Iyokus inflicted on the creature and realizing Achamian suffered the same for longer.
It mutters Chigra and other words in its language with Achamian talking about its curling face-fingers a reflex caused by being captive. She faces the skin-spy, trying to look tough while feeling foolish, thinking everyone sees through her act.
Was this how it was for others of high station? Perpetual fear? From everything, every word, every act, the consequences hung so heavy, swung so far and deep. The Consult is real.
Kellhus admonishes Achamian, saying he’s thinking of the skin-spies as men when they’re not. They don’t have a “self to hide.” They steal their personalities, and thus are only shells. “The mockery of souls.” Achamian implies that’s enough o replace a human. Kellhus agrees, his words foreboding. Suddenly, Esmenet goes to Kellhus, making sure he’s between her and Achamian. She’s feeling dizzy.
Kellhus asks who the skin-spy impersonated. She says a Javreh slave soldier, one of their Chorae archers (who are reputed to be the best shots in the world). She reveals the skin-spy was exposed by his lover, another Javreh. The Scarlet Spire used pins to probe the face, which Kellhus says is effective but impractical method to implement on everyone. As Kellhus moves from her, she feels naked beofre Achamian.
Achamian speculates they thwarted an assassination attempt. Esmenet realizes that this fear of making mistakes is never going to leave people like her. She says the Consult knows he’s vulnerable to Chorae now. Achamian adds that it this was a gamble, since the Scarlet Spire will scrutinize their Chorae archers the most. Kellhus says it implies the Consult is desperate.
She’s reminded living back in Sumna when Achamian and Inrau were discussing Maithanet’s alliance with the Scarlet Spire. That was the first time men had listened to her. So she adds to the present conversation, saying the Consult would do anything to keep him from gaining the Gnosis.
“Chigraaaaaaaa,” the thing wheezed. “Put hara ki zurot…”
Achamian glanced at Kellhus before turning to her with uncommon boldness. “I think she’s right,” he said, gazing with open admiration. “Maybe we can breathe easy, or maybe not. Either way, we should probably keep you cloistered as much as possible.” Though the patronage of his look should have offended her, there was apology in it as well, a heartbreaking admission.
She could not bear it.
The skin-spy, chained up in the tent, knows it was a pawn sacrificed for the “Old Father’s” plan. Despite this, it also knows it won’t be abandoned, that it would be saved despite the air-tight security Kellhus has implement. These two contradictions it could “mull in what passed for its soul without any offense to consistency.”
There was but one measure, one Truth, and it was warm and wet and bloody. The mere thought of it sent spasms through its member. How it yearned! How it ached!
At the right moment, it cries out in its language at a pitch higher than any “mannish ear” could hear. A signal that lets his brothers know that the plan is succeeding.
The Holy War leaves Gim and enter Holy Amoteu. They walk in a land whose names and peoples they grew up reading about in the scriptures. They felt like they’d “come home.” At the Anothrite Shrine, seven drown in the mad press to bathe in the holy waters. Every day’s march brought them closer and closer to their goal.
Shimeh, it seemed, lay impossibly near. Shimeh!
Like a shout on the horizon. A whisper become voice in their hearts.
A few days to the east, Fanayal leads his men to hunt Athjeäri, knowing his numbers dwindle. He plots an ambush with a full group of Cishaurim, which disgusts the High Heresiarch Seökti. They attack and though outnumbered, Athjeäri fights head on. “Despite the ferocity of the Inrithi, the situation was hopeless.” Athjeäri is killed by a youth. The Galeoth manage to retrieve Athjeäri’s body from the Fanim at a large cost of life and flee. They find reinforcements only a few hours away led by Lord Soter. Only twenty survived.
The nobles are somber. Kellhus declares Athjeäri Battle-Celebrant and speaks the rite without practice. He then gives a sermon how Inri Sejenus came after the Apocalypse to heal the world while he came before the catastrophe to prepare the world for it. They burn Athjeäri’s body with full ceremony.
The dirges of the Galeoth echoed long into the night.
Finally, the Holy War has crossed the Jarta Highlands but their mood is somber. But they are soon heartened to walk through the lands of Inri Sejenus’s birth. Only Shimeh lies before them. They arrive at an abandoned Nansur villa. Though there is daylight left, Kellhus calls a halt while the others are eager to march on to Shimeh.
Denying them, he took up residence behind the fortified walls.
Esmenet and Kellhus are making love, her on top, “welded to him in singular bliss.” She’s happy for this and thanks him after they climax since she doesn’t get to touch him much anymore. She watches him pant but knows he is not winded. “He was never winded.” She admires his body as she savors the memory of their passion.
As she lies in this room, she thinks back to when the Nansur ruled here, thinking that a long dead Patridomos had coupled here, too. She wonders what he would think of the Kianene, “an obscure desert people,” ruling so much of the world. “Not just individuals but entire ages, she realized, could be innocent or dreadful.”
She thought of Serwë. The perpetual anxiousness returned.
How had the joy of her new circumstances become so elusive? In her old life, she had often quizzed the priests who came to her, and in her darker moods she had even presumed to school them in what she saw as their hypocrisy. With some, those unlikely to return, she had asked what could be missing from their faith for them to find solace in whores. “Strength,” they sometimes answered; several had even wept. But more often than not they denied missing anything at all.
After all, how could they be miserable, when Inri Sejenus had claimed their hearts?
“Many make that mistake,” Kellhus said, standing at the side of the bed.
As he stands over her, she wants him to take her again. But he continues saying that they think you can’t be miserable if you have faith, so they fake that they aren’t, thinking that the others look happy, but they’re the only ones who are weak. “In the company of the joyous they become desolate” then blame themselves. She protest saying she has him, his child. He says he’s the answer not the cure. She starts crying, confused. She clutches him begging for him to take her again.
This one thing I can give…
“There’s more,” he said, drawing back the sheets and placing a shadowy hand upon her belly. “So much more.”
His look was long and sad. Then he left her for Achamian and the secrets of the Gnosis.
Esmenet can’t sleep after Kellhus leaves, catching “fragments of arcane voice that surfaced from the stonework around her.” She drowses, thinking about her pains, like Achamian’s “death” and Mimara’s “death.”
Nothing stayed dead in her life. Her past least of all.
“Walking between Wards is easy,” a voice hummed, “when their author practices other arcana.”
She bolts awake and sees a tall, handsome man over her. She feels a stirring of lust then notices that his shadow “had hooked wings.” She bolts from the bed and presses to the wall as he says he thought paying twelve talents was an outrage, referencing their last encounter in Sumna. Before she can scream, he presses his naked body against her naked back while covering her mouth.
He wanders why some “peaches” are better than others, asking if “the bruises can be swayed away?” He wonders if it’s the peach or the “vendor,” implying his skill is what makes her more enjoyable. She feels a surge of lust, wants him to be in her even as she knew his form is an illusion.
“My children,” he said, “only imitate what they see…”
She whimpered into his suffocating hand—tried to cry out even as her legs slackened to the touch of his probing fingers.
“But me,” he murmured in a voice that ran tickling over hers skin, “I take.”
Kellhus’s actions at Gerotha, though brutal, have achieved the results he wanted so long as the Holy War doesn’t commit atrocities. A ruler above all must be trusted. Whether love or hated, a ruler who can’t be trusted is one to be feared. A capricious man like Xerius, whose mercurial whim dictated his actions, engendered much terror in his people. They couldn’t trust him to do more than brutalize them. A hard ruler, like Kellhus, can be trusted to keep his word. If he says you won’t be harmed, you won’t. If you break his rules, you can trust him to punish you just as he said. In the end, people prefer predictability over justice.
Doesn’t sound good for Athjeäri. His boldness is catching up to him. He penetrated too deep too many times. His luck is running out.
Interesting to have this quote from Proyas’s letter. These broad, 3rd person omniscient scenes always feel like you’re reading the historical account of the events years later, and having Proyas’s letter quoted in it only reinforces that. It’s an interesting choice on Bakker’s part.
Aurang has grafted his real body so many times he can’t move. Interesting. It’s an insight into the Inchoroi and how they work. They can modify their bodies through grafts. It’s how they gained sorcerery and how they can even talk. They didn’t have mouths before meeting the Nonmen. We get some names dropped here that we’ll see in The White-Luck Warrior, too.
All his great deeds, and he’s stuck as a tiny bird, a glorified messenger serving men who had figured out all their old tech and activated it. Resurrected the No-God once, created the skin-spies. Done things with Tekne Aurang never knew how to do.
Good to see Aurang is finally listening to Cnaiür. He’s using Kellhus’s own logic against him. The problem with doing the shortest, most efficient action is if your opponent can figure that out, he can use it against you. Will it be enough.
Aurang, of course, knows Esmenet is “treacherous.” She gave up Achamian to him without any hesitation back in book 1. Of course, Aurang didn’t know that Achamian told Esmenet to cooperate with any who came asking. He did that to protect her, knowing if she played the whore, they wouldn’t bother hurting her. It worked.
What will Aurang do to her this time? Nice bit of tension here.
Eleäzaras is drinking again even as he wants to hate-fuck Esmenet. He clearly doesn’t like a woman this clever. He’s never encountered it before, and it’s one more thing pressing in on his crumbling world. Nothing is at all as he planned. He’s led his school on a path that may destroy them and he doesn’t have the fortitude to withstand the pressures. It’s an interesting story line. The master manipulator and schemer, so powerful and confident at the start. Another archetype, like Xinemus, broken by the events of the Holy War.
Nothing like showing Esmenet’s power to have her walk into the heart of the Scarlet Spire with only four guys with her. All Eleäzaras can do is fume in humiliation at how low his school has fallen with the advent of Kellhus.
Eleäzaras unraveling is continuing. He is drowning in despair. He sees no way out but to press on and hope they don’t die. He knows he can’t challenge Kellhus. Iyokus doesn’t understand, like anyone else who hasn’t been before Kellhus and been stripped bare. It’s an interesting character arc to explore, the pressure of leadership and how it can destroy a person.
That bitterness pervades Eleäzaras. He doesn’t want to face the consequences of his actions, not even bending before Esmenet’s authority, let alone the greater consequence of dragging his school into this war.
Now he’s lashing out, asking about Achamian. He doesn’t have any power over her other than wounding her soul. So that’s what he does. He’s too weak to submit, his pride too great. His fear too strong. So he hurts her the way his own pride is wounded.
Nice come back from Esmenet, and an interesting one. Since she sees it a mistake that landed her there. Is she wondering what her life would have been like if it didn’t happen?
Well, Eleäzaras, you tried to have balls, but you’ve lost all your confidence. You are so shaken by events, by the fear of catastrophe that you might have lead your school to, you’re crushed.
A nice note of pity from Esmenet for Achamian and what he’s suffered while he was captured. Her walls holding back her true feelings are crumbling more and more.
Esmenet realizing that people posture, even when they have power, while inwardly they wonder if their frauds. If people see through them. Worse, if she appears weak, there could be real consequences. She has to force herself to act like something she’s not. And if you force yourself to do something, soon your brain adopts to it and it’s no longer an act. You can grow accustomed to anything.
Esmenet smiled when Kellhus chided Achamian. For a moment, I believe, she was feeling those days at camp when they sat around the fire. When she was still Achamian’s wife. Now she’s feeling that attraction to Achamian and is afraid, fleeing to Kellhus to shield her.
Weeper is a nice pejorative for Chorae bowmen. We’re seeing the start of Aurang’s plan here. This skin-spy was supposed to be caught. It was supposed to make Kellhus aware of this vector of assassination, skin-spies using Chorae. Note how the skin-spy was exposed by his lover. It wasn’t a good enough mimic.
That was a good moment for Esmenet, back in book one when men listened to her. And it’s so heartbreaking. She’s an intelligent woman. Maybe that comes to why she loves Achamian. He listened to her. And so does Kellhus.
And then we get confirmation from the skin-spy that this was a ruse. While it’s nice to get a skin-spy POV, and we learn about their ability to hear ultrasonic sounds and use that as communication, it might not be a needed seen. A careful reader would have guessed he was supposed to be captured from Aurang’s POV. Either way, it’s well written.
Damn, Athjeäri finally goes down. His exploits have been fun to read. He’s bold and wild and reckless, and it finally caught up with him. Killed by a youth, but then he himself wasn’t that old to begin with. A young man, Saubon’s nephew, eager for conquest and glory. He found glory, the sort of immortalization only youth can give through death.
Just like Aurang predicted, Kellhus waits at the villa to survey the plains instead of rushing headlong into the plains. The problem with always doing the most logical thing, following the shortest way, is its predictability.
Kellhus doesn’t have much time for Esmenet. He has impregnated her. Though he does love her in his own stunted way, he doesn’t need the physical intimacy she does. He just needs her on his side and be willing to be his breeder. I doubt he cares if she takes lovers (which she does) so long as she doesn’t have children. I doubt he’s even jealous that she loves Achamian.
Esmenet is not getting attention and she has Achamian back in her life. She’s starting to feel the difference between the two men. She’s aching to find what she’s missing. Kellhus, of course, reads her like an open book, telling her what he has to.
The hand on the belly. What he wants her for. What the Dûnyain use women for: breeding. He could soothe her tears, but that won’t help him with his mission. He loves her, but he can’t keep her happy. Trying to do that, ultimately, leads to Kellhus’s failure.
Nothing stays dead in her life then… Hey, it’s Aurang, the syntheses, back again. Her life as a prostitute back from the dead.
As we seen in the other times the Inchoroi interact, they give such pleasure with their touch it overwhelms the mind. We also learn that this body is an illusion, but one with substance. Esmenet has been told about this, how else did she know that this was an illusion. She can’t fight it though. No human can.
One of the best cliffhangers in the entire series. Bakker often doesn’t end chapters on such powerful hooks. His chapters are almost like short stories, telling complete arcs that then flow into another instead of cutting so swiftly in mid-scene like this.
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