Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 3: The Thousandfold Thought
by R. Scott Bakker
The Final March
Welcome to Chapter Two of my reread. Click here if you missed the Chapter One!
I tell you, guilt dwells nowhere but in the eyes of the accuser. This men know even as they deny it, which is why they so often make murder their absolution. The truth of crimes lies not with the victim but with the witness.
—DRUSAS ACHAMIAN, THE COMPENDIUM OF THE FIRST HOLY WAR
An interesting statement. Guilt is a major theme in the novels, from Cnaiür’s guilt he feels seeing the accusation in his kinsmen’s eyes, a constant reminder to his crime, to what Esmenet will start to feel through this novel starting in this chapter. It’s easy for you to pretend you haven’t done something wrong when the proof isn’t being paraded before you. And if you can’t handle that, murder is the final step you can take to undo it.
Unless you want to suck it up and make it right. But taking responsibility is hard for humans. We prefer to blame others and become the victim. But that is a self-destructive act. It warps you, twists you, and eventually leads you to lash out against the world to keep perpetuating your lie.
Late Spring 4112 Year-of-the-Tusk, Enathpaneah
Cnaiür barrels through Kellhus’s palace, servants fleeing before him as alarms are raised. This angers Cnaiür because he’d saved their prophet. “Didn’t that make him divine as well?” He’s searching for something, asking for directions from a slave woman. Scared, she points at a door.
Her neck felt good in his hand, like that of a cat or a feeble dog. It reminded him of the days of pilgrimage in his other life, when he had strangled those he raped. Even still, he hand no need of her, so he released his grip, watched her stumble backward then topple, skirts askew, across the black floor.
Shouts rang out from the galleries behind them.
He sprinted to the door she’d indicated, kicked it open.
He finds a nursery with a cradle in the center. Everything grows quiet as he approaches with care, parting the hanging gauze to peer down at Moënghus, his son with Serwë. He sees the “penetrating white-blue of the Steppe” in the boy’s eyes and knows it is his son.
Cnaiür reached out two fingers, saw the scars banding the length of his forearm. The babe waved his hand, and as though by accident caught Cnaiür’s fingertip, his grip firm like that of a father or a friend in miniature. Without warning, his face flushed, became wizened with anguished wrinkles. He sputtered, began wailing.
Why, Cnaiür wondered, would the Dûnyain keep this child? What did he see when he looked upon it? What use was there in a child.
There was no interval between the world and an infant soul. NO deception. No Language. An infant’s wail simply was its hunger. And it occurred to Cnaiür that if he abandoned this child, it would become an Inrithi, but if he took it, stole away, and rode hard for the Steppe, it would become a Scylvendi. And his hair prickled across his scalp, for there was magic in that—even doom.
Cnaiür reflects that as the child ages, it’s hungers would grow, branch, in unfathomable ways. “It would become what circumstances demanded.” Cnaiür realizes this is how the Dûnyain see men. As infants that Kellhus understood and could track all the way their hungers would grow. This is what the elder Moënghus did to Cnaiür. He realizes that he was one of the possibilities his son could be molded into it. A memory of intrudes of him burning a Nansur village on a raid and catching a thrown babe on his sword. He jerks back his finger and says the child is not of the land.
Esmenet, “the sorcerer’s whore,” burst into the room. With shrill fury, she advances on him, saying he can’t have the baby. It’s all that’s left of Serwë. She becomes more conciliatory as she explains its the only proof of her life and asks if he would take that away from her.
Cnaiür stared at Esmenet in horror, then glanced at the child, pink and writhing in blue silk sheets.
“But its name!” he heard someone cry. Surly that voice was too womanish, too weak, to be his.
Something’s wrong with me… Something’s wrong…
Guards burst in and she orders them to sheathe their weapons, claiming Cnaiür only came to pay homage to Kellhus’s son. Cnaiür is shocked to find himself kneeling before the crib. “It seemed he had never stood.”
Xinemus asks Achamian what he’s doing as Achamian is packing up his room. Achamian ignores the warning tone in Xinemus’s voice and reminds the blind man he’s moving into the Fama Palace. While doing that, he remembers how Esmenet always teased him when he packed his things. He then thinks she’s a whore and that explains why she’s with Kellhus.
Xinemus presses on why Achamian’s leaving, reminding Achamian that Proyas forgave him. Achamian hasn’t forgiven Proyas. Xinemus asks what of himself. Achamian regards the drunk man, trying to remind himself Xinemus was his only friend. Achamian realizes that Xinemus is accusing Achamian of abandoning him, which angers Achamian. But he finds himself asking Xinemus to come with him and talk to Kellhus. Xinemus doesn’t think Kellhus needs him, but Achamian insists he needs to talk to Kellhus. He turns and finds Xinemus looming over him to his shock.
“You talk to him!” the Marshal roared, seizing and shaking him [Achamian]. Achamian clawed at his arms, but they were as wood. “I begged you! Remember? I begged, and you watched while they gouged out my fucking eyes! My fucking eyes, Akka! My fucking eyes are gone!”
Achamian found himself on the hard floor, scrambling backward, his face covered in warm spittle.
The great-limbed man sagged to his knees. “I can’t seeee!” he at once whispered and wailed. “I-haven’t-the courage-I-haven’t-the-courage…” He shook silently for several more moments, then became very still. When he next spoke, his voice was thick, but eerily disconnected from what had racked him only moments before. It was the old Xinemus, and it terrified Achamian.
Xinemus asks Achamian to speak to Kellhus on his behalf. Achamian feels he has no choice and asks what is Xinemus’s question.
Esmenet wakes up to the dawn light. This moment is the only thing similar to her previous life as a whore: waking up into a new day. Only when her mind fully came awake does she remember she’s not a whore, but a queen, with her own slaves, sleeping on muslin, surrounded by luxuries. Today, like every day, she’s pampered by her slaves. They chat in Kianene while combing her hair, massaging her limbs, bathing her body. Esmenet endures it with wonder and always gives them praise. Like her, they have risen high in the hierarchy of their own world as slaves, and she thinks they are as astonished by it as she is.
When they were finished, Fanashila left for the nursery, while Yel and Burulan, still tittering, ushered Esmenet to her night table, and to an array of cosmetics that, she realized with some dismay, would have made her weep back in Sumna. Even as she marveled at the brushes, paints, and powders, she worried over this new-found jealousy for things. I deserve this, she thought, only to curse herself for blinking tears.
Yel and Burulan fell silent.
It’s just more… more that will be taken away.
When she looks in a mirror, she sees herself as beautiful as Serwë now, appearing as an “exotic stranger” to her own eyes. She almost believed she was wroth what people thought of her. She clutches at her love while Yel says she’s beautiful. And then she thinks this is real.
Fanashila returns with Moënghus and his wet nurse Opsara. She talks to Opsara, a slave that Esmenet finds to toe the line of insubordination but who also clearly loves Moënghus, about the baby. After he nurses, she holds him and loves him like her own child, talking about the brother or sister he’ll soon have. She promises to name her daughter Serwë. After a while, she hands over Moënghus to Opsara.
As Esmenet watched them, her thoughts turned to Achamian for the first time since the garden.
Later, she runs into Werjau “by coincidence” carrying a collection of scrolls and tablets towards her official chambers. Her secretaries are at work as Werjau delivers his reports starting with two Tydonni inscribing Orthodox slogans on the wall, men who couldn’t read so were put u to it (Esmenet suspects the Nansur) and orders them flayed.
The ease with which those words fell form her lips was nothing short of nightmarish. One breath and these men, these piteous fools, would die in torment. A breath that could have been used for anything: a moan of pleasure, a gasp of surprise, a word of mercy…
This, she understood, was power: the translation of word into fact. She need only speak and the world would be rewritten. Before, her voice could only conjure custom, ragged breaths, and quickened seed. Before, her cries could only forestall affliction and wheedle what small mercies might come. But now her voice had become that mercy, that affliction.
Such thoughts made her head swim.
She clutches her tattooed hand to her belly, hiding her astonishment, and thinking that only the child in side of her was truth. “A woman knew no greater certainty, even as she feared.” As she holds her belly, she’s convinced she feels divinity in her. That her womb made the trappings of power insignificant. “Her womb, which had been a hospice to innumerable men, was now a temple.” She is holy because of Kellhus.
Werjau then reports that Gothyelk cursed Kellhus three times. She dismisses that, but Werjau objects. But Esmenet points out that Gothyelk curses everyone. If he stops, then it’s something to worry about. She knows, thanks to Kellhus, that Werjau resents her because she’s a woman. Since they both know this, because there are no secrets around Kellhus, it makes their relationship like quarreling siblings instead of enemies. Because Kellhus exposes all their secrets, his inner circle doesn’t fear what others might think about their actions since Kellhus will reveal their motivations. She tells him to continue.
Another Ainoni, Aspa Memkumri, has been murdered. Esmenet asks if the Scarlet Spire is responsible and Werjau says yes. Esmenet wants to meet with the source to find out just what the Scarlet Spire are up to. Then Werjau brings up Earl Hulwarga performing a banned rite, but Esmenet says it’s irrelevant. “A strong faith does not fear for its principles, Werjau.”
The man moved to the next item, this time without looking up. “The Warrior-Prophet’s new Vizier,” he said tonelessly, “was heard screaming in his chambers.”
Esmenet’s breath caught. “What,” she asked carefully, “was he screaming?”
“No one knows.”
Thoughts of Achamian always came as small calamities.
She says she’ll deal with it personally and asks if there is anything else. He answers, only the Lists. The Lists are reports Men of the Tusk give on their associates of any who are acting strange. Those reported are marched, in the hundreds, before Kellhus every day. So far out of thousands one had killed the men sent to arrest him, two had fled, one had been captured, and another was being watched hoping to find more. Esmenet finds it to be a poor solution, but they’d have to risk Kellhus to do better. Over twenty skin-spies Kellhus had identified vanished before they could be taken.
The most they could do, it seemed, was to wait for them to surface behind other faces.
“Have the Shrial Knights gather them as always.”
Afterward, she walks the western terrace while dozens of worshipers watch her. She both enjoys and is made uncomfortable by their adoration. She cast out two crimson veils and laughs as they scramble to grab it. Then she overseas the afternoon Penance. This evolved out of shriving the Orthodox who plotted against Kellhus, but many began returning desiring to be punished for their sins. Now even Zaudunyani attend. She watches the Judges administer the punishment, flogging backs with branches from Umiaki, the eucalyptus tree Kellhus hung from, chanting:
“For wounding that which heals!”
“For seizing what would be given!”
“For condemning that which saves!”
Esmenet finds it unnerving as the punished men watch, seeing sexual ecstasy on many of their faces, expressions she saw many times working as a whore. She spots Proyas in the back. Old anger fills her and she glares at him. He cries after his flogging, and she wonders if he’s sorry for hurting Kellhus or Achamian.
She skips the evening Whelming in favor of a private dinner since Kellhus is busy with preparations for the Holy War’s march on Xerash. She enjoy the company of her body-slaves then checks on Moënghus. Finally, she retires to her private library.
Where Achamian had been recently installed.
Because her and Kellhus’s apartments are at the pinnacle of the Fama Palace, the highest point in Caraskand, they are vulnerable to sorcerous attack because the Art pays “no heed to walls or elevation.” This means Achamian has to reside close to them for protection.
Close enough, she realized, to hear her cries on the wind.
She freezes at the door. She finds his presence perilous, threatening to “strip away all that had happened since the Holy War’s march from Shigek.” She questions her actions then, fearing to lose her nerve, raps on the door. She notices her whore tattoo in the process. She fears she’ll find not Achamian but Sumna on the other side, her old apartment, sitting at the window exposing herself to attract customers.
Then she sees Achamian’s face, grizzled and aged, but so real. They stand in silent awkwardness as she realizes he’s alive. She wants to touch him and feel the truth, but stops herself. She remembers watching him depart for the library and wonders what brought him back to her. Then she feels his eyes on her pregnant stomach and she says she’s come to take The Third Analytic of Men. Achamian finds the tome and tries to smile. Then invites her in.
She took four tentative steps past the threshold. The room smelled of him, a faint musk she always associated with sorcery. A ed had been erected where her favorite settee had been—where she had first read The Tractate.
“Translated into Sheyic, even,” he said, pursing his bottom lip in appreciation. “For Kellhus?”
“No… for me.”
She had meant to say this with pride, but it had sounded spiteful instead. “He taught me how to read,” she explained, more carefully. “Through the misery of the desert, no less.”
Achamian had blanched. “Read”
“Yes… Imagine, a woman.”
He scowled in what could only be confusion.
“The old world is dead, Akka. The old rules are dead… Surely you know this.”
He recoils and she realizes it was her tone, not the fact that she’s a woman (something he’s never held against her) that made him scowl. He then touches the book with reverence and asks her to be careful with it. “Ajencis is an old friend of mine,” he says. She takes care not to touch him as she takes it. They lock eyes and she almost murmurs something, a joke or a thanks, like they used to. Instead, she walks away, hugging the book to her breast. She realizes if she’s not careful, their old habits will see them in bed again.
And he knew this, damn him. He used them.
He called out her name, and she paused at the threshold. When she turned, her eyes were forced down by the stricken expression on his face. “I…” he began. “I was your life… I know I was, Esmi.”
She bit her lip, resisted the instinct to deceive.
“Yes,” she said, staring at her blue-painted toes. For some perverse reason she decided she would have Yel change their colour tomorrow.
What does he matter? His heart was broken long before—
“Yes,” she repeated, “you were my life.” When she raised her face, it was with weariness, not the ferocity she had expected. “And he is my world.”
Later, Esmenet rests her head on Kellhus’s chest and says she saw Achamian. Kellhus say it angered her. She protests it wasn’t Achamian who angered her, but Kellhus says it was. She asks why. All he’s done is love her.
“We betrayed him, Esmi. You betrayed him.”
“But you said—”
“There are sins, Esmi, that not even the God can absolve. Only the injured.”
Kellhus tells her this is why she’s angered. She thinks about his words, feeling awakened, as she always does, by his words. She realizes why and says Achamian will not forgive. A frightening indecision feels Kellhus’s look and he agrees with her.
Eleäzaras, Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spire, is surprised to see Iyokus lives. Iyokus looks stunned that Eleäzaras is drunk, his tent full of smashed pottery. Eleäzaras continues that he thought Iyokus dead when Achamian returned. He hoped Iyokus was dead. Eleäzaras then gazes at the Fama Palace.
Iyokus asks what happened. Eleäzaras, in disdain, says the Padirajah is dead and the Holy War prepares to march. They’re almost to Shimeh. But that wasn’t what Iyokus meant. He asks if Eleäzaras believes in the Consult. And he does. “All this time, laughing at the Mandati, and it was we who were the mumming fools,” he answers.
Silence hangs between them like an accusation. Iyokus is stunned, especially in retrospect as he realizes the Psûkhe is too blunt to make skin-spies. Eleäzaras then confirms his belief that Kellhus is a prophet. Eleäzaras had witnessed Kellhus pull out his own heart while begging for it to be a trick. Iyokus objects, but Eli interrupts him and says he’s convinced after speaking to the man himself. He then adds they are damned and finds that another little joke.
“Please,” the man [Iyokus] exclaimed. “How Could you—”
“Oh, I know. He sees things… things only the God could see.” He swung at one of the earthenware decanters, caught it, shook it to the air to listen to the telltale slosh of wine. Empty. “He showed me,” he said, casting it against the wall, where it shattered. He smiled at Iyokus, letting the weight of his bottom lip draw his mouth open. “He showed me who I am. You know all those little thoughts, all those half-glimpsed things that scurry like vermin through your soul? He catches them and holds them squealing in the air. Then he names them, and tells you what they mean.” He turned away once more. “He sees the secrets.”
Iyokus asks what secrets. Eleäzaras tells Iyokus not to worry about him revealing Iyokus’s sexual predilections (boys and broomsticks) but the secrets people keep from themselves. “He sees what breaks your heart.” Iyokus accuses Eleäzaras of being drunk. He tells Iyokus to see for himself. Iyokus snorts and starts to stomp out in an anger. Eleäzaras just goes back to staring at the Fama Palace. He knows Kellhus is in there somewhere.
“Oh, yes, and Iyokus,” he abruptly called.
“I would beware the Mandate Schoolman if I were you.” He absently pawed the table beside him, looking for more wine—or something. “I think he plans to kill you.”
So in the last chapter we had Achamian’s reintroduction to the story. It shows him as someone that spends a great deal of time thinking and pondering, how he’s wracked with anger and grief for Esmenet, how he’s intellect is struggling against his passions. Bakker now shifts to Cnaiür, reminding us that he is a violent man. A rapist. A barbarian. A man who scares the piss out of people. A man who acts like he doesn’t care what people think about him as he does whatever his passions want even as he prickles about how they cower. “Didn’t that make him divine as well?” He’s offended that they don’t show him reverence as he marches through the palace looking for his son.
Cnaiür debate on the fate of his son is the Tabula Rasa argument, that human beings are blank slates that can be molded in any direction. And this is partly true. We’re both products of our nurture, but we’re also products of our nature. We have instincts coded in our DNA, behaviors that we find replicated across the world in a myriad of societies. We have hormones that influence how we act. But we also have brains smart enough to overcome many of these deficiencies. We can condition ourselves to knew behaviors that can be in conflict with our nature. It’s still hotly debated science to this day.
And then we get into the real heart of the series: free will versus determinism. An infant has no free will. They don’t even have conscious thought. That doesn’t start to develop until between two and four along with the child’s social identity. Right now, an infant is merely its hungers, open and honest about them in the only way it can, but crying out for help. Something most humans, regardless of gender, react to, one of those instinctual things like our fear of snakes that lurks in all of us. (Yes, there is a reason snakes and snake-like beings are found in mythologies as agents of chaos and destruction).
So we had our quote about guilt. Cnaiür finds witness in the eyes of the baby before him for the one he so callously murdered years ago. It jerks him out of his thoughts, has him retreat, declare the child isn’t Scylvendi, washing his hands of the babe.
Bakker describes the baby as pink then contrasting it with the blue sheets. Serwë finally had a pink baby, not a blue one. Esmenet surely is remembering that joy in her dead friend’s eyes.
Esmenet has balls. She cows Cnaiür. Of course, he’s off-balanced by guilt and hatred, by this reminder of not only his crime of killing that baby but how he let the original Moënghus use him.
And now we have more guilt from Achamian as he packs. He is fleeing Xinemus. He can’t make amends to his friend for allowing his eyes to be gouged out and Xinemus can’t give him the absolution because of the guilt he feels. They can only hurt each other now.
Poor Xinemus. Utterly destroyed by the cants of compulsion. Not losing his eyes, those are really just the physical proof of his torture, but what the Scarlet Spires forced him to say, moving his soul. To Xinemus, he said things to Achamian he never meant, never would have said, and he can’t get past them. And there’s nothing anyone can do for him except for Kellhus. The Dûnyain could find the words to save him.
But what use is a blind, broken man?
Esmenet quietly endures being pampered. It’s clear she’s not used to it. Not like the Esmenet we see in the next series, far older, who has utterly become the empress. But now, she’s still bemused by it all. Like with other character introductions, Bakker delves into the heart of the character. For Esmenet it is what life has forced her to be. First a whore and now an empress. She’s thrust into events. Other than setting out to find Achamian in book one, she’s never been more than a passive character, letting others drag her along in their wake, even if they’re her slaves.
We also see that she’s afraid she’ll lose it all. That she doesn’t deserve this because deep down she’s still that whore. Despite what Kellhus did to convince her in the last book, her own doubts are bubbling through, probably because of Achamian reentry into her life. He’s a reminder of what she used to be, the witness to her crimes of being a whore and then being his adulterous wife.
Esmenet holds up to the promises of naming her first daughter after Serwë. But Serwa is the opposite of her namesake in every way imaginable except in her love life. But that’s a discussion for The Great Ordeal. (I hope I’ll remember the idea for my comparison between her and her namesake).
Is it coincidence that she ran into Werjau? As we later see, he doesn’t like Esmenet and is plotting against her.
So Kellhus has created a secret police, encouraging his followers to report on each other to the Zaudunyani, and then put Esmenet in charge of it. He is molding her to be a ruler in his absence, knowing she has the intelligence for it, and must see this as something of trivial importance at the same time.
Now Bakker shows us another way she’s grown, how power has given her the agency she’s lacked all throughout her life. And yet despite being mistreated and harmed, she still finds herself doling it out. That to maintain her power, she has to order the suffering of others. Bakker also shows us that her power is a lie. It comes from Kellhus, not herself.
Oh, Esmenet, you are so wrong. Werjau is totally plotting to destroy you. I mean, that plotting goes nowhere. It’s a plot thread that, as I recall, just sort of left dangling and isn’t even addressed in the next series.
This scene with Esmenet giving judgments shows how far she’s come. She’s standing up to her opinions without flinching. She’s handing out pronouncements without flinching even when she knows that she’s condemning some men to death. She’s also guided by Kellhus, so she’s not insecure like other new rulers would be. Werjau is, wanting to punish people for little things that Esmenet knows are inconsequential.
So Kellhus’s new government is already getting its people to report on each other. Dictatorships love this. It makes trusting your neighbors, even your own family members, more difficult. What if they’ll report you? Now Kellhus has a legitimate threat to be reported on, but the system is in place to exploited to give him greater control over the population.
Now we see Kellhus’s religion has evolved into flagellation with sinners coming to be punished for their inequities. Being punished is a way of making penance for sins, for relieving the burden that guilt and stress can cause on us by believing another, more moral force, has removed them from us.
We see the first hint of Esmenet’s guilt when she realizes Achamian can hear her moaning during sex with Kellhus. Her happiness with Kellhus is slowly chipped away by this guilt. Achamian is the witness to her sin.
They’re first exchange is prickly. She’s feeling defensive about what she’s done, and reading is merely what they’re using as a proxy. Achamian doesn’t want to accept it, is confused by it, that she could betray him. And she needs him to understand and forgive her because of her guilt for the betrayal. Hence her: “The old world is dead. The old rules are dead.”
Poor Achamian. He tried, but she realized it. She still cares for him, still can easily fall into that role as his wife despite everything. You can see how she musters derision and scorn for him, trying to rip her heart away from caring for him because of the guilt and the longing she’s feeling. But she can’t do that. He meant to much for her. So she’s truthful about her feelings for him as she rationalizes why she’s with Kellhus now.
So long as Achamian won’t forgive her, she’ll feel guilty. Even though Kellhus forgave her acting as the God, it’s not enough for her. Kellhus is having to do some course correcting here. Achamian’s return is a surprise to him, I think. Not something he planned on. So he moved up his seduction of Esmenet thinking he could use her grief at Achamian’s death. But now it’s proving the wrong method. I firmly believe that Kellhus would have worked on Achamian and Esmenet over time to lead the pair to believe Esmenet needed to be his wife and bear his children. Guilt and anger have complicated his task now and with so many demands on his time, he’s not quite able to do it. Especially not once Cnaiür poisons Achamian against him.
It looks like Eleäzaras is in the bargaining stage of grief. He doesn’t want Kellhus to be a prophet, so he’s begging for what he witnessed with his own eyes to be false. But he saw Kellhus pull out a heart from his chest. All the stress that’s been building in Eleäzaras is breaking him now. He’s drinking. He’s despondent. He’s cracking. And we’ll see just how bad it gets by the end of the novel.
Bakker has shown us how the proud and noble warrior can be destroyed by the world, next he’s showing us the cunning and ambitious sorcerer falling to a similar fate. Eleäzaras could be a villain in another fantasy work, and here he is a broken man, driven to drink because the weight of his ambition is slowly crushing him. He feels guilt for what he’s done to his school.