Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 1: The Judging Eye
by R. Scott Bakker
…conquered people live and die with the knowledge that survival does not suffer honour. They have chosen shame over the pyre, the slow flame for the quick.
—TRIAMIS 1, JOURNALS AND DIALOGUES
This is very applicable considering were delving back into Sorweel. He has survived. This was something his father couldn’t do. Harweel had chosen honor over suffering the shame of living with the aftermath. Now Sorweel has to. He faces that slow pain, having to live with it every day. It’s so much, he’s suicidal. He wishes he didn’t survive because it has stripped away his self-delusions about his heroic nature.
Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Sakarpus
In the aftermath of Sakarpus’s fall, the soldiers of the Ordeal marvel at the large flocks of storks that cover the hills. None could agree with what they meant since every people viewed storks differently. Kellhus merely forbade them from behind hunted because the Sakarpi considered them holy. They guard them against predators while collecting their droppings to use as fuel since wood was scarce. Several soldiers are executed for hunting the birds before the Men of the Ordeal learn to live with them. They even began to see them as holy.
Meetings are held and preparations made for the march, overseen by the “all-seeing eyes of their Aspect-Emperor.” There is some trepidation. They are on the edge of the Lands of Men. From here, only Sranc rule. King Saubon was heard saying, “Men are more lamb than lion.” They had two-thousand miles of wildness to cross and they know the march will be bloodier than fighting the Consult.
That is why the New Empire has prepared for a decade, gathering resources. Even now, a road is being constructed from Sakarpus to Oswenta to allow the fast transportation of the supplies they would need. They would live on amicut, what the Scylvendi survive on while campaigning. With them would travel herds of sheep and cattle. Still, this wouldn’t be enough food. They would have to hunt as they traveled. Legendary Imperial Trackers had scouted these lands at great cost of life to map the terrain they would cross. They would have until Winter to reach Golgotterath. If they failed to do so, they would die in the northern winter.
Then there are the Sranc. Though they’ve had their numbers decimated by the Bounty, there are still unknown thousands, maybe millions, the Ordeal will face. Forced to divide their forces to forage to survive will weaken them against his threat. They can’t anticipate how the Consult will employ the Sranc, if at all. Their odds of surviving are slim.
For all these reasons, Sakarpus was vital. They didn’t just need her Chorae Hoard. They needed the people here to be cooperative. They didn’t crush them with the rod but offered hands of friendship. If the Sakarpi rebelled, it would disrupt their supply lines and delay their departure.
This was how the fateful decision was made to place the young King of Sakarpus, Sorweel, in the care of the Aspect-Emperor’s two eldest sons, Moënghus and Kayûtas.
“When he becomes a brother to them,” his Arcane Holiness explained to his old friends, “he will be as a son to me.”
Moënghus and Kayûtas enter Sorweel’s room without much fanfare. Kayûtas speaks flawless Sakarpic and tells Sorweel that he’s riding in his command tomorrow. Moënghus merely snags leftovers from Sorweel’s plate and fixes “Murderous blue eyes” on Sorweel. The young King makes a joke bringing a growling laugh from Moënghus who answers in Sheyic. Kayûtas turns this into his own joke that makes Sorweel smile, losing his first battle.
They’re hunters, he [Sorweel] told himself, sent to run down my heart.
The weight of the defeat is crushing Sorweel. He has trouble sleeping thinking, “I am a king of widows and orphans.” He replays the defeat in his mind over and over, knowing he’s a prisoner. Despite his sleepless nights, they’re also his reprieve from everything. He can remember his father clearly at night, especially talking about his dead mother. Sorweel’s days are different. He is the puppet king holding court. It’s a theater. He plays at ruling at Kellhus’s command while knowing it’s a betrayal of his people.
He learned that he lacked the ability to do and to believe contradictory things. Where a nobler soul would have found consistency in his acts, he seemed to find it in his beliefs. He simply believed what he needed to believe in order to act as his conquerors wished him to act. While he muddled through the schedule his foreign secretaries arranged for him, while he sat in their perfumed presence, it seemed that things were as the Aspect-Emperor claimed, that the world turned beneath the shadow of the Second Apocalypse, and that all Men must act of one accord to preserve the future, no matter how much it might offend their pride.
“All Kings answer to holy writ,” the godlike man had told him. “And so long as that writ is otherworldly, they willingly acknowledge as much. But when it comes to them as I come to them, wearing the flesh of their fellow man, they confuse the sanctity of obeying the Law with the shame of submitting to a rival.” A warm laugh, like a dear uncle admitting a harmless folly. “All men think themselves closer to the God than others. And so they rebel, raise arms against the very thing they claim to serve…
Whenever Sorweel is before Kellhus, he’s overwhelmed by awe for him, he believes that his father’s pride had interfered with his duty to his people. It was all a mistake. But when Sorweel leaves Kellhus’s presence, the memory of his father’s warning that Kellhus is a demon return. He feels like an idiot for succumbing once more and remembers his father’s last words that Kellhus needs Sakarpus and Sorweel. The young king is confused about his father’s words would mean the Great Ordeal is a sham. All these people have been tricked. “It seemed impossible that so many could be so thoroughly deceived.”
When King Proyas’s tells Sorweel of Kellhus’s miracles, it’s so honest. Sorweel wonders if he’s being stubborn like his father, refusing to see the truth. By day, he sees signs of his father’s mistake everywhere. But at night, he is free of it all and his father’s words, his presence, surrounds him. He even pretends to hold conversations with his father.
At night, the young King could simply close his eyes and refuse. This was the secret comfort of orphans: the ability to believe according to want and not world—whatever it took to numb the ache of things lost.
I miss her too, Da…
Almost as much as I miss you.
A slave fetches him the next morning. He’s relieved that the farce of pretending to be king is over. He’s leaving Sakarpus. He pretends it’s a simple outing but knows he’s abdicating, abandoning his people.
More than walls had been overthrown with the coming of the Aspect-Emperor.
Sorweel looks ahead, afraid to meet the gazes of his countrymen, as the slave leads him out the Herder’s Gate. As he leaves the strong walls that had stopped the No-God, he can’t believe his people’s naivety. How could the Aspect-Emperor be stronger? Then he thinks of his father dying on those walls. They reach the camp and pass through the maze of tents. The Men of the Ordeal are getting ready to leave, hardly giving him a glance. Sorweel sees men from every nation as the silent slave leads him on with confidence.
Before meeting the Aspect-Emperor, Sorweel would have thought it impossible that one man could make an instrument of so many disparate souls. The Sakarpi were a sparse people. But even with their meager number, not to mention common language and traditions, King Harweel had found it difficult to overcome their feuds and grudges. The more Sorweel pondered it, the more miraculous it seemed that all the Men of the Three Seas, with their contradictory tongues and ancient animosities, could find common purpose.
Everywhere he looked, he could see it, hanging slack in the windless morning: the Circumfix.
Wasn’t there proof in miracles? Isn’t that what the priest said?
Sorweel realizes he can get lost in the vast numbers of the Great Ordeal and be anonymous. It’s comforting. That’s shattered when he spots Tasweer, the son of a High Boonsmen, being led in chains. This shocks Sorweel and he remembers seeing Tasweer in the battle. The prisoner glares with sullen anger at everyone and Sorweel looks away. Tasweer sees him. He’s at first shocked. Then he begs Sorweel to fight back. To resist. He’s clubbed down by the escorts.
As had happened so many times since the city’s fall, Sorweel found himself divided, struck into two separate soul, one real, the other ethereal. In his soul’s eye, he slipped from his saddle, his boots slapping into wheezing mud, and shouldered his way past the Conryians. He pulled Tasweer to his knees, held his head behind the ear. Blood pulsed from the captive’s nostrils, clotted the coarse growth rising from his jaw. “Did you see?” Sorweel cried to the broken face. “Tasweer! Did you see what happened to my father?”
But the bodily Sorweel simply continued after his guide, his skin porcelain with chill.
“Noooo!” pealed hoarse into air behind him, followed by raucous laughter.
The young King of Sakarpus resumed his study of the nonexistent weather. The true horror of defeat, a kernel of him realized, lay not in the fact of capitulation, but in the way it kenneled in the heart, the way it loitered and bred and bred and bred.
The way it made fate out of falling.
Finally, Sorweel is led to the northern edge of the army where horseman are running drills on horses similar to the small, hearty breeds of Sakarpus. He’s taken to a nearby command tent. Passing soldiers call out in greeting, but Sorweel doesn’t understand their words. Are they insults or greetings? The command tent has the Kidruhil heavy cavalry’s banner. The guard nods and lets Sorweel and the slave enter.
Inside, Anasûrimbor Kayûtas lounges at a table with a secretary writing on papyrus. Kayûtas studies the papers on the table, ignoring Sorweel. The slave kneels and leaves. After a few more moments, Kayûtas says Sorweel is wondering if it was an insult or not to have a slave fetch him. Sorweel says it’s an insult.
A handsome smirk. “I fear no court is so simple.”
Kayûtas drinks water while Sorweel trembles, uncomfortable standing before “the son of a living god.” Kayûtas looks so much like his father down to “the same unnerving manner.” Everything seems deliberate, decided beforehand. However, it’s not quite as over-awing as Kellhus. Kayûtas still feels mortal. He could bleed.
Kayûtas, knowing the Sakarpi hate useless pleasantries, says they’ll dispense with jnan and speak honestly. Sorweel agrees to Kayûtas’s relief. He tells Sorweel that his people’s obedience is needed, so the Great Ordeal needs Sorweel. Kayûtas then speaks Sorweel’s fears that this conversation is just to trick him into betraying his people. He gives a guarded answer.
“Perhaps,” Kayûtas repeated with a snort., “So much for not measuring tongues!”
A dull and resentful glare.
Kayûtas says he’ll keep speaking plain. He says while he’s not a sorcerer, he has Kellhus’s talent at languages and can read people’s souls through their faces. Maybe not as good as Kellhus, but he can see Sorweel’s anguish. Kayûtas thinks Sakarpus’s defiance is idiotic but understands it. He just won’t commiserate, treating Sorweel the way Harweel would. “Men weep to wives and pillows.” That comment makes Sorweel wonder if spies watch him sleep.
Kayûtas then continues he’s not happy having to hold this conversation with Sorweel or has this task, given to him by Kellhus. He hates politics and wishes his and Sorweel’s relationship was an honest one. But Kayûtas will obey his father, who’s a God.
He [Kayûtas] paused as though to leave room for Sorweel to reply, but the young King could scare order his thoughts, let alone speak. Kayûtas had been every bit as direct as he had promised, and yet at the same time his discourse seemed bent to the point of deformity, charged with a too-penetrating intelligence, pleated with an almost obscene self-awareness…
Who were these people?
Kayûtas says he can see sedition and vengeance in Sorweel’s eyes. He also sees that Sorweel struggles with whether Kellhus is a demon or the Savior of Mankind. Kayûtas understands this doubt and asks Sorweel to be open-minded because the proof will come. And, if they survive, their conversations might be different.
Sorweel stood rigid, braced against the sense of futility that whelmed through him. How? was all he could think. How does one war against foes such as this?
Kayûtas then says he has to learn Sheyic, the instructor already chosen, since he’s now a captain of the Kidruhil’s Company of Scions with Kayûtas his general. He asks if Sorweel is okay with this and he asks if he has a choice. Kayûtas says as a son of a warlike people riding into battle will let Sorweel find out what sort of kin he is. Otherwise, he can stay a puppet in Sakarpus.
He scares understood what was happening, so how could he know what he should or shouldn’t do? But there was heart to be found in the sound of resolution. And besides, he was developing a talent for petulant remarks. “As I said,” Sorweel replied, “what choice.”
Anasûrimbor Kayûtas nodded, rather like a field surgeon regarding his handiwork, Sorweel thought.
It is enough that I obey…
Kayûtas says the slave, Porsparian, that brought Sorweel shall be his teacher in Sheyic until a proper instructor can be found. Sorweel is then given the slave’s writ of bondage. This shocks Sorweel while Kayûtas says he knows Sorweel will care for the slave. Sorweel feels numb and retreats, but is stopped.
“Oh, yes, and one final thing,” he [Kayûtas] said to the papyrus. “My elder brother, Moënghus… Beware him.”
The young King tried to reply but came to a stammering halt. He grimaced, breathed past the hammering of his heart, then tried again. “Wh-why is that?”
“Because,” Kayûtas said, his eyes still ranging the inked characters, “he’s quite mad.”
Sorweel leaves confused at what he should do. He feels the full weight of the Great Ordeal and knows Sakarpus is nothing compared to the New Empire’s might. These men saw Sorweel’s people as shit-herders. He feels a blankness reach through him and is beset by loneliness. Porsparian comes up to him. Sorweel starts to speak, but tears cut him off.
The old man gawked in voiceless alarm. He grasped Sorweel’s forearms and gently pressed the writ against the padded fabric of his tunic. And Sorweel could only think, Wool, her stands the King dressed in woolen rags.
“I failed him!” he sobbed to the uncomprehending slave. “Don’t you see? I failed!”
The old Shigeki gripped him [Sorweel] by the shoulders, stared long and hard into his anguished eyes. The man’s face, it seemed, was not so different from the writ Sorweel held against his breast: smooth save where scored with lines of unknown script, across the forehead, about the eyes and snout, as dark as any ink, as if god who had carved him had struck too deep with the knife.
Sorweel asks what he’s to do. The man just nods, his eyes fixed on Sorweel. This calms him and “the roaring in his ears fell away.” Porsparian leads Sorweel to his tent. It holds a cot and a mat for the slave. He spends sits in a daze for hours at Porsparian, hardly noticing when his belongings are brought. Then he clutches his father’s torc, a relic of Sorweel’s family.
Near dusk, King Proyas arrives and says some encouraging words in Sheyic that fail to rouse Sorweel. Proyas gazes at Sorweel like he recognizes his past in the young king. The slave stays bowed the entire time. When he leaves, Sorweel sits with his slave in silence, thinking. He can hear the evening bustle outside. The sound of someone pissing outside their tent causes Sorweel to smile at his slave. They share a moment of absurd laughter.
Porsparian lights a lantern and fetches Sorweel dinner after that. While waiting, he just stares at the burning lamp wick, thinking the flame is pure and almost believes that “burning was the most blissful of death of all.” Sorweel has no appetite and gives it to his slave after some convincing.
He thought it strange the way Men did not need to share a language to speak about food.
After accepting, the slave digs at the floor and forms a ritual mouth in the earth in the middle of the tent. He exposes the black soil and places the bread in it. Sorweel thinks it’s a trick of the light when the mouth closed. The slave is satisfied and then eats the meal with the “crude honesty of a Saglander.” It makes Sorweel feel sad. He then realizes how different he is from this slave and yet they share in this, neither talking since they don’t speak the same language.
Nothing needed to be spoken because all could be seen.
A fit of generosity seizes Sorweel, and he pulls out Porsparian’s slave papers. “What did it matter, he thought, when he was already dead?” Sorweel finds freedom in loss, but Sorweel grows nervous. When Sorweel goes to burn it, Porsparian snatches, cursing at Sorweel. For a moment, Sorweel thinks the slave will hit him, but Porsparian just puts out the flames burning the paper. They face each other, the king confused and the slave defiant.
“We are free people,” Sorweel said, warring against a renewed sense of dread and futility. “We don’t trade Men like cattle.”
The yellow-eyed Shigeki shook his head in a slow and deliberate manner. As though relinquishing a knife, he set the writ onto the mussed blankets of Sorweel’s cot.
Then he did something inexplicable.
Covering his finger in soot, he traces sickle over his heart and says “Yatwer” over and over. Sorweel is confused. Porsparian grabs Sorweel’s arm and turns his hand over, forming the king’s hand into a cup. The slave kisses his palm and a tear falls on Sorweel.
It seemed to burn and cut all at once, like something molten falling through snow.
Then the slave uttered a single word in Sakarpic, so sudden and so clear that Sorweel nearly jumped.
Sorweel is awed that even slaves in the Ordeal have powers. As Porsparian sleeps, Sorweel stares at his blistered palm through the night. The slave snores. As night deepens, the silence outside makes him feel like his tent is all there is. In a moment of absolute silence, he asks death to take him, the closest he’s come to prayer since his father’s death. A sound after that disturbs him. It grows, loud and rippling around him. For a moment, he thinks it’s the Ordeal butchering his people before he realizes its the storks all crying out like they always do every year. His people believe they each sing to a different star, praying for their hatching goslings. This makes him think of his mother and he falls asleep. He thinks about his mother taking him to the Viturnal Nesting. He was awed to see all those storks.
“Do you know they come here, Sorwa?”
“Because our city is the Refuge, the hinge of the Worldly Wheel. They come here as our forefathers once came, Darling…”
Her smile. It had always seemed the world’s most obvious thing.
“They come so that their children might be safe.”
He wakes up to his father weeping for Sorweel’s mother. Sorweel tells his dad that she still watches over them. This straightens his father. He turns to face him and Sorweel recoils from the sight.
The ghost of Harweel turned its burned head, revealing a face devoid of hope and eyes. Beetles dropped from the joints of his blasted armour, clicked and scuttled in the dark.
The dead, it grated without sound, cannot see.
At dawn, the Ordeal breaks camp. A large team of ox drags a huge wagon to the top of a hill. It’s a massive construct, reinforced with iron plates. Slaves unfurl the felt covering the frame and reveal a cylinder of iron with the script of the Tusk copied on it. This is the Prayer Hammer. A eunuch strikes it once at the command of the High-Priest, ringing the Interval. Everyone turns to the North. The Thunyeri break the silence with curses to the Sranc and Consult. Then the entire Ordeal is hurtling their defiance at Golgotterath, repeating Thunyeri curses. They all picture the destruction of the dread fortress. They believe their victory is assured.
Hur rutwas matal skee!
Hur rutwas matal skee!
The Interval rings again. Then Kellhus appears walking across the sky shining like the sun. He looks messianic. Cries of adoration rise from the host to him, people raising hands to touch him. He begins speaking to them, telling them to take hold of his light as they head into the shadows. The sun rises as he speaks. Everyone falls to their knees in adoration, crying “for the light had come to them…”
And the sun had followed.
“AMONG ALL PEOPLES, ONLY YOU HAVE TAKEN UP THE YOKE OF APOCALYPSE. AMONG ALL PEOPLES, ONLY YOU…”
The Sakarpi are shocked, realizing that the Great Ordeal really was marching for Golgotterath. That their conquest wasn’t part of Unification Wars. They witnessed the Aspect-Emperor’s majesty. None mocked him. Instead, they listened to him even though he speaks a foreign tongue. They realize they’re witnessing history like something from The Sagas.
The day the Great Ordeal marched beyond the frontiers of Men.
The proudest Sakarpi think the Ordeal are fools and will die, but after watching the massive army march north, many are listening to the sermons of the Judges left behind. Many of them have embraced the Circumfix, full of awe and disdain for those who refuse to believe. “Pride, the Judges had told them, was ever the sin of fools.”
That night they knelt for what seemed the first time, gave voice to the great unanswered ache in their hearts. They held their Circumfixes hot between moist palms, and they prayed. And the chill that pimpled their skin seemed holy.
They knew what they had seemed, what they had felt.
For who could be such a fool as to mistake Truth?
Denied hunting the birds, the Men of the Ordeal (and I keep wanting to type Men of the Tusk FYI), rationalize their decision not to kill these annoying birds because they must be holy. Their reasons have given shape to their illogical actions so it harmonizes with their sense of self.
Bakker sets out the problems facing the Great Ordeal (NOT the Holy War, which I also want to type), letting us know what dangers and trials they’ll face on the march. Nothing that comes will be surprising save in the level of its brutality.
Kayûtas can speak flawless Sakarpic. I think he’s the closest Dûnyain of all the children, he just didn’t get the magic genes. But he can pull off the charisma, has a gift for language. Serwa is probably the next closets, and she does have some emotions but Kellhus made sure they didn’t develop properly.
We see that Sorweel’s depressing surrender to the events and how he just allows himself to slip into the role of a puppet king. It is a precursor to becoming Yatwer’s Narindar. Her puppet. He’s someone that goes with the flow. Malleable. No wonder Kellhus sees his seduction as something easy to accomplish.
Since we can only know ourselves, it’s easy for us humans to think we’re better than everyone. We know why we’re doing the things we are. Why they are right because they must be right to us. That is the danger for those who don’t have any introspection. They will do so much harm thinking it’s the right thing to do without even realizing they’re pursuing their own selfish greed. Satiating their lusts for power or domination or control.
We see the pressure on Sorweel. The demands to conform. To want to accept the consensus. He thinks that if everyone else believes something is true then it is, but that’s a logical fallacy. The Appeal to Consensus. But it’s a powerful one. It works on you. When you see yourself as the only one plagued with doubts, it’s easy to forget that all those confident people are like you. Their inner turmoil is hidden away. They, too, want to conform. It’s an insidious social pressure that molds humans to act like the in-group.
Sorweel is facing the reality of being a rebel. In defying conquerors. We all believe we would resist, but most of us would adapt. Try to continue our lives without conflict and survive. We might fantasize about it, but when actions are required, we would keep on walking like Sorweel. His imagination is the way the “conquered prince” trope would play out in other fantasies.
We see Kayûtas doing classic Dûnyain tactics. Making Sorweel uncomfortable, asking direct questions to make the king reveal his biases and perceptions, then Kayûtas remarking that he doesn’t like things the way they are. All arranged so perfectly.
Sorweel claims he honest conversation and, of course, almost immediately reveals he doesn’t want that at all by giving a guarded response. He’s nervous here, cagey. He is suspicious of being trapped into betraying his people while Kayûtas is doing the Dûnyain thing of being open and honest, giving real truths to win trust.
Kayûtas laments that the two can’t be friends because of politics, wishing it wasn’t in the way. Words designed to lower Sorweel’s guard. To work to make their friendship a “reality.” Kayûtas even admits to his own weakness, an offering of trust designed to reciprocate an equal action from Sorweel.
I think we are seeing the start of Sorweel’s steps into becoming Narindar here. He’s realizing Kayûtas is acting. It’s a level of sophistication that should be beyond a naïve, young man like Sorweel. He’s being visited by his father weeping about his dead mother, and the slave who is about to introduce Sorweel to the Dread Mother has lead him to this room. In fact, Porsparian guided Sorweel “unerringly” through the camp.
Right before Sorweel breaks down and cries with Porsparian, he feels something reach through him. Then he cries before the follower of Yatwer who guides him on his first steps of the Dread Mother’s plans. As he calms down, the roaring in his ears dwindles. Nannaferi heard roaring in her ears when Yatwer spoke to her.
Fire is such a simple thing. It burns. Sorweel’s life used to be simple, now it’s so complicated. He seems to wish he died with his father on the wall. It would be easier than surviving, which ties in with the epigram for this chapter.
Sharing food with his slave. Something so simple, no language is needed. Sorweel finds comfort in it. Then we see the first overt sign of Yatwer in this storyline with the offering of food. That was no trick of the light, though Bakker is playing with us still, creating the doubt.
“Nothing needed to be spoken because all could be seen.” In other words, language is the source of lies.
We have a contrast between the Dûnyain using words and seeming honesty (though we know you can’t trust Kayûtas’s motivations and reasons for his manipulation). Then we have the slave, not able to speak a word Sorweel can understand, and forges an actual connection between the pair. Open and honest.
Sorweel feels dead. He wishes he was dead. And now he’s going to symbolical sacrifice the writ of bondage to set Porsparian free through the same sort of “loss” that Sorweel is feeling.
I never realized just how suicidal Sorweel is in the beginning. He wants to burn. He begs for death to take him. Surviving and realizing he’s not the strong, heroic man who can defy the evil empire that has conquered his people is too much for him. It’s shattered his illusions of himself and the strength o his people while the actions of Kellhus makes him doubt his father’s courage, seeing it stained with pride and arrogance.
He yearns to be that child with his mother again. He’s having the painful transition into adulthood realizing his parents, or his father, is just as flawed as he is.
Not sure if this is really his father’s ghost or not. I don’t think it is. I think it’s just a nightmare. His fear that his father isn’t what he thought and he’s even being robbed of the comfort of his mother. Perhaps this is Yatwer preparing him for what she needs since he’s now been claimed by her.
“For who could be such a fool as to mistake Truth?” I love the last line of this chapter. Those who believe Kellhus is a god think he must be. That it’s Truth. They think they can recognize it, but humans are terrible at it. The new converts in Sakarpus think those who don’t believe are full of pride even as they take pride in their new religion and use it to elevate their own sense of self-superiority over their neighbors.
To save the skies, Ary must die!
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