Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 1: The Judging Eye
by R. Scott Bakker
Look unto others and ponder the sin and folly you find there. For their sin is your sin, and their folly is your folly. Seek ye the true reflecting pool? Look to the stranger you despise, not the friend you love.
—TRIBES 6:42, THE CHRONICLE OF THE TUSK
You are not better than you’re enemy or someone you dislike. You have all the same flaws and issues they have. You’re not as good as you think you are. If you want to understand yourself, the darkness you’re capable of, you have to look at others and realize that you are just as capable of the acts they commit as they are.
This quote fits this chapter because in a complete stranger, Sorweel finds his reflection. He and Zsoronga are both atheists when it comes to Kellhus. They don’t believe in him. They both share the same sin. We see Sorweel getting reprimanded and warned against this by Kayûtas in their meeting.
Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Condia
The Istyuli Plain sprawls across the center of Eärwa. Long ago, it once held the White Norsirai tribes, men who looked down on their western cousins who built the great Norsirai Nations. “The fewer the roads the harsher the codes,” was a proverb of the Kûniüric peoples. The Sakarpi people still remember those tribesmen and call this plain in honor of them: the Cond.
There is no hint of the Cond remaining. They didn’t build cities but destroyed them. In the Three Seas regions, people in antiquity rose and fell and were replaced by other men. Not here. The Cond was replaced by Sranc. The army finds vast heaps of bones and tracts of grown torn up in search of grabs, but their enemy is not to be found. The Great Ordeal starts believing these lands can be reclaimed King Hoga Hogrim (nephew to King Gothyelk from the last series) has a stone Circumfix planted in the Condian earth and builds it into a ring fortress the height of three men.
Afterwards, the Aspect-Emperor himself walked amount the exhausted men, remitting their sins and blessing their distant kith and kin. “Men make such marks,” he said, “as their will affords them. Behold! Let the World see why the Tydonni are called the ‘Sons of Iron.’”
The Great Ordeal has not broken apart like an army of their size should. They’re too large to march effectively together. They need to spread out to forage for food and to feed their study horses on the grasses of the plain, but there’s a sloth that holds them. They want to stay together and stretch out the supply train from Sakarpus as far as possible. A stream of wagons travels behind them, struggling to catch up each day with the host and deliver the food. Going slow, for now, is a benefit. Besides, the Imperial Trackers say the Cond couldn’t support them even if they did break up it on hundreds of smaller forces. They need to reach the richer lands of eastern Kûniüri to forage properly. So they creep forward, making at best fifteen miles a day. Rivers are the worst obstacle, but their fords were mapped and their flooding behavior studied for years. Still, those fords are bottlenecks. Some rivers take three or four days to cross “banks no more than a stone’s throw apart.” But these delays were planned.
In the councils, it is worried that the Consult might poison the rivers. This is a real threat along with the consult massacring all the game. Both King Saubon and King Proyas, the Exalt-Generals, know how terrible running out of food and water will be after the First Holy War. Things could go bad for the army in days. For the regular soldiers, they just wonder about the absence of Sranc. They aren’t worried that this is a trap, because who could trick Kellhus, but are eager to kill them. Gossip is traded about the outriders who have killed Sranc already. Though they complain the way all soldiers do about the conditions, they haven’t forgotten they march to save the world and protect their loved ones.
And the God himself marched with them, speaking through the mouth, glaring through the eyes of Anasûrimbor Kellhus I.
They were plain men—warriors. They understood that doubt was hesitation, and that hesitation was death, not only on the field of war, but on the field of souls as well. Only believers persevered.
Only believers conquered.
Doubts plague Sorweel every time he stares at the Great Ordeal. He feels his people are nothing compared to the purpose. That he’s “the son of another Beggar King.” He stares out at the host as it encompassed the entire plain they crossed. So many people it appears as if the ground moved.
The Great Ordeal. A thing so great that not even the horizon could contain it. And for a boy on the cusp of manhood, a think that humiliated for more than it humbled.
What honour could dwell in a soul so small?
Though the Company of Scions that Sorweel belongs to is officially the elites of the Kidruhil, but in reality, it’s a ceremonial unit. It is made up of sons of foreign kings sent as hostages or as observers. These are not Men of the Ordeal or even soldiers. Belong to them conflicts Sorweel. Part of him is eager to fight, but he feels like he’s betraying his people by riding beneath their conqueror’s banner. He feels pride at times in his uniform which leads to more guilt.
For as long as he could remember, Sorweel had always thought betrayal a king of thing. And as a thing, he assumed, it was what it was, like anything else. Either a man kept faith with his blood and nation, or he didn’t. But betrayal, he was learning, was far too complicated to be a mere thing. It was more like a disease… or a man.
It was too insidious not to have a soul.
He feels it’s like spilled wine seeping through the cracks of his soul. Even a small betrayal leads to more and more while it deceives with reason, urging him to pretend to be a Kidruhil. It seems wise to do, but it’s a trap that leaches resolution from him. Pretending turns into being. He tried to be strong and cling to his guilt, but it’s hard.
Though the Scions are the smallest of the Kidruhil’s companies, barely a hundred, they stand out like silver amid the others. Their lack of faith makes them anathema to the others. They receive contempt from the troopers
But if the Scions were an outcast within the Kidruhil, then Sorweel was even more an outcast within the Scions. Of course everyone knew who he was. How could any Son of Sakarpus not be the talk of the Company, let alone the son of its slain king? Whether it was pity or derision, Sorweel saw in their looks the true measure of his shame. And at night, when he lay desolate in his tent listening to the fireside banter of the others, he was certain he could understand the questions that kept returning to their strange tongues. Who was this boy who rode for those who murdered this father? This Shit-herder, what kind of craven fool was he?”
On the sixth day, a black-skinned man comes into Porsparian’s tent. He is Obotegwa, the Senior Obligate of Zsoronga, who is the Prince-Successor of High Holy Zeüm. The man prostates himself. Sorweel is shocked, both from seeing a dark-skinned Satyothi in person and by how the man acts. Sakarpus never trained him on how to handle foreigners and their customs. Even more bewildering, Obotegwa speaks Sakarpic. “So he [Sorweel] did what all you men did in such circumstances: he blurted.” Sorweel asks what the man wants. Obotegwa is delivering an invitation to visit Zsoronga.
Sorweel agrees. He doesn’t know much about black men other than they come from Zeüm. He had noticed Zsoronga, the man standing out in his retinue of other dark-skinned men. Zsoronga holds himself with the power of his position, but he didn’t need to shout it out. He has a natural nobility that others respond to.
Porsparian seems agitated by the invitation, but Sorweel is too nervous to ask why. He has another unfamiliar circumstance to navigate. He doesn’t know what to expect or even how he will react. He feels like a coward, wondering how his amazing father could have given birth to “a boy who would weep in the arms of his murderer!”
“I am no conqueror.”
Worry piled on recrimination. And then, miraculously, he found himself stepping through the canvas flaps into the bustle of the camp. He stood blinking at the streaming files of passers-by.
Obotegwa turned to him with a look of faint surprise. After leaning back to appraise the cut of his padded Sakarpic tunic, he beamed reassurance. “Sometimes it is not so easy,” he said in his remarkable accent, “to be a son.”
The pair moved through the bustling camp. It’s overwhelming. Prayer calls echo around them. Banners hang limp in the dead air. Obotegwa comments that it is “a thing of wonder.” Sorweel asks if it is real. Obotegwa laughs and says Zsoronga will like him. As they walk, Sorweel glances south to Sakarpus. They have ridden beyond the lands of his people into the Sranc Wilds. He tells Obotegwa his people never would come this far. Obotegwa tells him he has to speak in his Master’s voice. Sorweel points out he spoke as himself earlier.
A gentle smile. “Because I know what it means to be thrown over the edge of the world.”
Sorweel realizes Sakarpus is no longer an island in the wild but an outpost at the edge of the world. They are no longer special. His people have lost so much. These are weighty thoughts for the short walk and soon are at Zsoronga’s pavilion. It’s large and elaborate. He sees what he later learns are the Pillar of Sires, what Zeümi pray to.
Prince Zsoronga is relaxing and Obotegwa introduces Sorweel. He has to communicate through Obotegwa translating. Zsoronga welcomes Sorweel and tells him to appreciate the luxuries. These stand in defiance of Kellhus’s orders for spartan living in the field. Sorweel sits down stiffly and is told to relax. Despite the language barrier, he and Zsoronga start bonding and laughing.
They chat but soon run out of small pleasantries. Zsoronga tries to gossip about the other Scions, but Sorweel doesn’t know anyone. The only thing they share is the Aspect-Emperor. Through Obotegwa, Zsoronga describes the first time emissaries from Kellhus came to his father’s court. Zsoronga was a child and watched in awe. He had heard rumors of Kellhus, and Sorweel comments that was the same at his court. This gives them more to bond over.
Zsoronga says how he grew up on tales of the First Holy war and the Unification Wars. It always felt distant until Nilnameshi fell. That southern country is Zeüm’s gateway to the Three Seas. He talks about how a fortress called Auvangshei was rebuilt. It once guarded the Ceneian Empire against Zeüm a thousand years ago
All Sorweel knew about the Ceneian Empire was that it ruled all the Three Seas for a thousand years and that the Anasûrimbor’s New Empire had been raised about its skeleton. As little as that was, it seemed knowledge enough. Just as his earlier laughter had been his first in weeks, he now felt the true gleam of comprehension. The dimensions of what had upended his life had escaped him—he had foundered in ignorance. The Great Ordeal. The New Empire. The Second Apocalypse. These were little more than empty signs to him, sounds that had somehow wrought the death of his father and the fall of the city. But here at last, in the talk of other places and other times, was a glimmer—as though understanding were naught but the piling on of empty names.
Zeüm, as Zsoronga explains, only worries about Sranc. They have no other enemy since the Ceneian Empire fall. He then talks about how his people worship events and keep detailed ancestor lists, with each person having their own book revered by their descendants, that chronicle their mighty deeds in the afterlife. “Mighty events, such as battles, or even campaigns such as this, are what knot the strings of our descent together, what makes us one people.”
There was wonder here, Sorweel realized, and room for strength. Different lands. Different customs. Different skins. And yet it was all somehow the same.
He was not along. How could he be so foolish as to think he was alone?
Zsoronga then realizes the same thing since Sakarpus has stood unconquered for three thousand years like Zeüm. Like Sorweel, the name ‘Aspect-Emperor’ is carved on Zsoronga’s soul. It’s hard to believe one man can be so powerful. In this moment, Sorweel realizes it was ignorance, not his father’s pride, that had caused their defeat.
Zsoronga resumes his story about how the fortress Auvangshei being rebuilt had affected High Holy Zeüm. Some are eager for the coming war, wanting their own glories, while others are afraid of being conquered. Zsoronga’s father had been the former until the emissaries came. Sorweel asks what happened, feeling a kinship with Zsoronga. Three men came, two Ketyai and a Norsirai. Zsoronga’s father, the Satakhan, glares at them. In unison, they say, “The Aspect-Emperor bears you greetings, Great Satakhan, and asks that you send three emissaries to the Andiamine Heights to respond in kind.” The Satakhan asks what they mean.
The Prince held the moment with his breath, the way a bard might. In his soul’s eye, Sorweel could see it, the feathered pomp and glory of the Great Satakhan’s court, the sun sweating between great pillars, the galleries rapt with black faces.
“With that, the three men produced razors from their tongues and opened their own throats!” He made a tight, feline swiping motion with his left hand. “They killed themselves… right there before us. My father’s surgeons tried to save them, to staunch the blood, but there was nothing to be done. The men died right there”—he looked and gestured to a spot several feet away, as though watching their ghosts—“moaning some kind of crazed hymn, to their last breath, singing…”
Three suicides were the Aspect-Emperor’s message, daring the Satakhan to prove he has that same power. Sorweel asks if he did. Zsoronga says he had been hard on his father but understands his choice now. Even if his father could have found three fanatics willing to do that barbaric act, would they have stayed true or would they have balked at the final moments? Then his father would look weak. Even if he didn’t send the men, it would make him appear unfit to rule. Sorweel suggests Zsoronga’s father should have marched to war.
Zsoronga says he thinks it was a trap. That was why Auvangshei was rebuilt to put his father in this bind, pointing out that Kellhus broke Sorweel’s people, who survived the Second Apocalypse, in a morning. It’s not an accusation of weakness, just a statement. Sorweel realizes that Zsoronga, and all other unbelievers, ask the same question.
Who was the Aspect-Emperor?
After that, treaties were signed, his father was seen as weak, and Zsoronga became a hostage “pretending that I ride to war.” Sorweel asks if the prince would prefer his people’s fate. Zsoronga says no, but when he’s angry, he sometimes envies those who died fighting.
For some reason, the hooks of this reference to his overthrown world caught Sorweel where all the others had skipped past. The raw heart, the thick eyes, the leaden thought—all the staples of plundered existence—came rushing back and with such violence he could not speak.
Prince Zsoronga watched him [Sorweel] with an uncharacteristic absence of expression. “Ke nulam zo…”
“I suspect you feel the same.”
He finds friendship with Zsoronga. Company to soothe his loneliness. He can acknowledge this, bunt not the fact he felt such relief just sharing with another. “A true Horselord, a hero such as Niehirren Halfhand or Orsuleese the Faster, viewed speech with the high-handed distaste they reserved for bodily functions, as something men did only out of necessity.” His people found strength in solitude, hence their nickname the Lonely City. Sorweel had emulated it, but it had only led him to depression since his father’s death. He had been so lonely keeping his thoughts to himself. It had almost driven him mad and then speaking with Zsoronga had saved himself. His only fear was that Zsoronga would see him as a crude Norsirai.
That he would be returned to the prison of his backward tongue.
But that didn’t happen. He rides with Zsoronga the next day. They trade banter and he joins the Brace, as Zsoronga’s bondsmen are called. It’s Sorweel’s first good day in weeks. Or would have been if not for their commander, Captain Harnilias (or Old Harni). He delivers a summons to Sorweel to see Kayûtas as the camp is erected. This is the first time Sorweel’s spoken with Kayûtas since their first meeting, though he’d glimpsed him often. He always found himself eager for Kayûtas’s attention instead of acting aloof or sneering. Kayûtas should be like any other man.
Only that he wasn’t. Anasûrimbor Kayûtas was more than powerful—more even than the son of the man who had killed King Harweel. It was as if Sorweel saw him against a greater frame, a background deeper than the endless emerald sweep of the Istyuli Plains.
As if Kayûtas were more an expression than an individual. A particle of fate.
Sorweel realizes Kayûtas can see through his “mask of pride.” How can he fight that if all his secrets are known? Panic swells through him know. He doesn’t want to be noticed now. He is quickly in the command tent. It’s austere, holding only what is necessary. Kayûtas sits at his table, his sister sitting beside him. Moënghus lurks behind them. Serwa studies him with a look of amusement. She says something to Moënghus behind her, a comment about Sorweel. Moënghus glares while Kayûtas snorts in laughter. Sorweel grows embarrassed. He feels like a boy and wonders if they make everyone feel this way.
Kayûtas asks how Porsparian is working out. Sorweel says it’s fine, feeling like they know he’s holding back. Porsparian’s praying over the mouths in dirt unnerves him. Kayûtas says that’s good and explains that a Mandate named Eskeles will be his tutor in Sheyic, teaching Sorweel as they ride. He agrees and asks if there’s anything else. Serwa and Moënghus are studying him, making him feel so self-conscious.
He was a king! A king! What would his father say, seeing him like this?
He laughs and says something in Sheyic. Then tells Sorweel that’s it. He also adds that there are those people who watch for those who take insolence into sacrilege. This jerks Sorweel’s faze up from his feet to stare at Kayûtas. Serwa studies him. Kayûtas admonishes him, saying that while Sorweel is a king, in the army, he’s a soldier and he’ll follow the rules. He says you’ll kneel before him and his siblings, though as a king, he can look them in the eye. But with his father, he has to bow his forehead to the ground. “All men are slaves before my brother.” Though the words are gentle, it’s a reprimand. Sorweel says he understands.
“Then show me.”
Before he can stop himself. He kneels while begging his father for forgiveness. Kayûtas is pleased, adding he knows it’s difficult. Then he lets Sorweel stand. He does but keeps looking down. Kayûtas then, off-handily, mentions he’s made a friend with Zsoronga.
The young King’s shock was such that he paid no heed to his expression. Spies! Of course they were watching him… Porsparian?
“I have no need of spies, Sorweel,” the Prince-Imperial said, snatching the thought from his face. He leaned back and with a gentle laugh added, “My father is a god.”
Men have to leave their mark where they go. On the pioneer trails, like the Oregon Trail, that settlers used to travel to the Western United States over a hundred years ago, you’ll find places where they carved their names into rocks, graffiti to mark that they passed here. That they lived. Why wouldn’t the Great Ordeal do the same?
In the last series, Bakker talked about how war is about belief. So long as your soldiers believe they’re winning, they will suffer horrendous casualties. When that changes, they break and there is nothing you can do about it. So only believers conquer. And these men believe in Kellhus. They believe in their mission.
Life is never simple, Sorweel. We all do things that we feel terrible about but can’t help ourselves. We know we should be better, but it’s so easier to just go with the flow. It’s hard to be the rock thrusting out of the warrior.
So two chapters ago, Achamian meets his new companions. They are men that have friendship only on a skin level. Sorweel is about to meet two true friends in Obotegwa and Zsoronga. Especially Zsoronga.
Sons are always measuring up to their father. Most of the time, you feel like you can never measure up. It’s escaping the shadow of your father that is stepping into adulthood. But sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes fathers cast an exceptionally long shadow. Sorweel lost his before he had made that transition and under circumstances that are outside of his control.
Obotegwa comes off as genuine. I like the character. RIP.
Having your own idols at odds with the rest of the Great Ordeal is a big statement that Zsoronga is no believer. We’ve had comments that believers persevere. They conquer. Sorweel is not a believer. He’s cast adrift. Zsoronga isn’t a believer in the Great Ordeal’s task. It makes me wish I could remember Zsoronga’s fate in the Unholy Consult. Either way, it’s foreshadowing that Sorweel is not going to succeed.
Zsoronga’s people revere history itself, which is what binds a people together. This probably explains a lot why they have existed as one country, mostly. The Chinese have always revered philosophy more than religion. Sorweel recognizes this truth. His people have had their shared history of being survivors of the Second Apocalypse, outlasting everyone else.
That history has now been shattered. What does that mean for Sakarpus?
Sorweel’s realization that strangers are just like him is how in-group/out-group preference is shattered. Humans are humans. Our customs might differ, but at our core, we’re all the same. It’s a powerful moment to realize it. The foundation of two friends who can’t even speak the same language.
Who is the Aspect-Emperor? That’s the central question of Achamian’s storyline. And here we are with Sorweel asking the same questions.
Yes, Sorweel, the Dûnyain makes everyone feel his way.
We see ample evidence of Kayûtas ability to read Sorweel in this chapter. The admonishment about him crossing the line because he’s a king comes right after he gets mad at himself for acting so submissive. Then the ending with the spy. The whole point of this conversation is to put fear in him. The tutor is merely the excuse to dress him down.
He also meets Serwa. He’s noticed her, but he hasn’t started his infatuation with her yet. He sees her as an aunt, an older woman instead of someone his own age.
To save the skies, Ary must die!
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