Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior
by R. Scott Bakker
The Istyuli Plains
Welcome to Chapter Two of my reread. Click here if you missed the Intro!
We belittle what we cannot bear. We make figments out of fundamentals, all in the name of preserving our own peculiar fancies. The best way to secure one’s own deception is to accuse others of deceit.
It is not so much wisdom of the wise that saves us from the foolishness of the fools as it is the latter’s inability to agree.
—AJENCIS, THE THIRD ANALYTIC OF MEN
In the first quote, there’s a lot there. That’s how you tear down what you hate. Ridicule. Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals has it as one of the ways to take down institutions. Mock and belittle them.
Then we have projection. You see this a lot of puritans accusing others of the very things they are guilty of. And puritans are out there. They’re on Twitter screeching about every “ism” under the sun no different from a Southern Baptist preacher screaming fire and damnation from the pulpit. The fundamentals and ideologies might have changed, but the people who embrace them have not.
And then we see what happens to those who act this way. How they tear each other apart over purity tests and pettiness. They project their own sins on others then condemn them to hide their own shame. They rip apart what is strong because they are too foolish to understand what they are doing. It’s not wisdom that stops them. The wise are powerless. They can point it out, but will the foolish listen?
History says no.
These are also apt quotes since we see Kellhus beginning to deconstruct himself in Proyas’s eyes. To prepare him for what is to come.
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The High Istyuli
To the Sakarpi, men have two modes: joy and sorrow. It’s as if they have two different puppies in their belly, one that “nuzzles their heart” and the other that bits it. If they feel neither, they are doomed. And it doesn’t matter how many times you felt bliss in the past, one act of shame can end it. Sorweel feels nothing. He’s “Between Dogs.” Empty inside.
His people were conquered for their Chorae Hoard, he’s been conscripted into Kellhus’s Ordeal, and Yatwer wants something from him. He’s fucked.
His prison is the Scions, a cavalry company of young hostages. They’re too valuable to risk, so they’ll be protected from combat while others died around them. All of them are eager for the fight even if they are marching for their fathers’ enemy. After all, “they were boys as much as men, and so their hearts were burdened with the violent longing to prove their mettle.” Sorweel is just like them. He wants the fight then feels guilty afterward for getting sucked in with the enthusiasm of the others.
He is torn. Warring against the Sranc is what his people have done since the First Apocalypse. Fighting them is how boys become men among his people. And now he’s doing it but beneath the banner of the “man who had murdered his father and enslaved his nation.” This is all his boyhood dreams realized in a perverse way.
The night before their departure on a patrol, Sorweel has dinner with Zsoronga. As the others boast about the fight to come on their patrol, Sorweel tries to hold his tongue until losing his temper and shouting they’re hostages. Zsoronga watches with a frown. Though Zsoronga is still friendly, there’s a chill between them since Kellhus declared Sorweel to be a Believer-King. Sorweel needed to explain how Yatwer’s spit, produced by the slave Porsparian, had hidden the truth from Kellhus. Sorweel still hated, but he could never spit out the truth. “Some silences, he was learning, were impossible not to keep.”
There are other hostages in the room like Prince Charampa of Cingulat, Tzing of Jekkhia, and Tinurit of Akkunihor (a Scylvendi). Sorweel demands to know why they “should celebrate fighting our captor’s war?” No one but Obotegwa understands him though they hear the tone. Obotegwa translates for Zsoronga. Sorweel is surprised he understands much of what is translated, picking up more Sheyic than Sorweel had realized. Tzing snaps back that this beast “rotting in our captor’s camp.” Charampa agrees and implores “Sorri” to think of it as a hunting trip. He makes a joke.
Sorweel glances to Zsoronga for support, but the Successor-Prince looks away but not before his eyes accuse Sorweel of being a Believer-King. Sorweel can’t help but note that Zsoronga’s friends from the Scions all come from nations outside of the New Empire. The Successor-Prince is plotting for the day when he rules Zeüm and has a chance to rival Kellhus. The prince is cultivating allies. Sorweel doesn’t understand why he’s still here if Zsoronga thinks him a Believer-King and thus a potential spy. Maybe Zsoronga was still deciding what to do.
The young Sakarpi King found himself brooding more than contributing as the night wore on. Obotegwa continued translating the others for his benefit, but Sorweel could tell that the white-haired Obligate sensed his despondency. Eventually, he could do little more than gave at their small flame, plagued by the sense that something stared back.
Was he going mad? Was that it? The earth speaking, spitting. And now flames watching…
He had been raised to believe in a living world, an inhabited world, and yet for the brief span of his life dirt had always been dirt, and fire had always been fire, dumb and senseless. Until now.
Charampa, who talks too much, walks Sorweel back to his tent. They make a good match. “The one talking without care of comprehension, the other unable to comprehend.” Sorweel is too lost in thought to even pretend to listen. He struggles to see his father’s face but sees Kellhus’s instead as the Aspect-Emperor rained sorcerery down on Sakarpus. He thinks about how tomorrow, the eighty Scions will be heading out as a hunting party to find game, though they are playing that it’s to fight Sranc. Still, they were riding out on their own. They could find Sranc. He thinks about fighting and killing, which makes him smile.
Charampa mistakes the smile for agreement and is excited as he marches off, leaving Sorweel bemused. Then he feels dread before entering his tent where Porsparian slept. He can see the slave making Yatwer’s face in his mind while he can’t believe that Kellhus named him a Believer-King.
A slave—a slave had done this! More Southron madness, Sorweel found himself thinking. In the story and scripture of Sakarpus, the Gods only treated with the heroic and the highborn—those mortals who resembled them most. But in the Three Seas, he was learning, the Gods touched Men according to the extremity of their station. The abject were as apt to become their vessels as the grand…
Slaves and kings.
Sorweel crept into his cot as silently as he could manage, tossed in what he thought was the beginning of another sleepless night, only to dissolve into a profound slumber.
The Interval wakes up Sorweel. A warm breeze for the dawn blows. In the morning, the slave isn’t scary but just a menial servant getting Sorweel ready. As Sorweel leaves, Porsparian tells him that he will return exalted. Sorweel snorts and says he’ll “do my best.” The old man starts yelling, “She!” over and over and Sorweel is frightened. He breaks free of the old man’s grip and heads to join the other Scions. The day is full of the sound of soldiers readying for the march.
The great host of the Aspect-Emperor… The other dog.
Yes, the young King of Sakarpus decided. Ne needed to kill something.
That or die.
Though the plains are starting to green, it’s not as much as it should be. Those who live on plains realize this is going to be a lean summer for the Great Ordeal. The warm wind blowing is called by the Sakarpi the Gangan-naru, something they fear. It comes once a decade, devastating their herds and turning plains into a desert. Some Kianene swears they smell sand in the air. The veterans of the First Holy War mutter how the righteous path is not an easy one. That “it is trial the separates the weak from the holy.” The drunk ones whisper about crossing the desert and the Trail of Skulls
Undaunted, the Great Ordeal marches on, a sea of humanity surrounded by a “cloud of horsemen” scouting and patrolling, searching for the Sranc and not finding them. In councils, Kellhus is asked about why the Sranc flee before me. He tells them that it will come. The Sranc will scratch their itch to crush them and they will wish that these peaceful days had never ended.
He smiled, and they smiled, finding levity in his wry humour, wisdom in his sober heart. He sighed, and they shook their heads at their juvenile foolishness.
“Fret not about the absence of our foe,” he admonished. “So long as the horizon remains empty, our way is secure.”
The grasslands dry out as no rain comes. Rivers dwindle. Dust shrouds them. Ceremonies are held for rain, but the sere wind howls. The soldiers worry about thirst and rumors of strife in the New Empire.
The horizon remained empty, and yet their way no longer seemed secure.
A halt to rest for a day is called while quartermasters become miserly. They are running out of provisions and have outrun their supply trains. They are draining rivers to fill waterskins. They are no on their own, cut off from civilization.
The time had come for the Great Ordeal to break into foraging columns.
Proyas can only describe Aspect-Emperor bed chamber as stark. He sleeps on the same cot as low-ranking officers, has a table with no cushions to sit on. No ornamentation. No gold. Only the columns that hold the roof have symbols on them. After twenty years of being Kellhus’s Exalt-General, Proyas I still perplexed by the man. It reminds him of his boyhood watching Kellhus and Xinemus play benjuka. He would wonder at their decisions that he can’t understand.
This, he had come to learn, was what it meant to serve the Holy Aspect-Emperor: to be a witness to incomprehensible decisions. The difference was that Anasûrimbor Kellhus took the World as his benjuka plate.
The World and the Heavens.
“To act without understanding.” Proyas realizes this is worship. He remembers leading the Sack of Srneveh that had so many dead, including 5000 children, that Proyas is still haunted by it. After, while alone puking and crying, Kellhus had stood over him and said he should grieve but not to think he had sinned. The world is too complicated, that’s why humans make things simple, and Virtue and Sin are the most complicated. Kellhus tells Proyas that every atrocity committed in the Aspect-Emperor’s name has a purpose. “Do you understand why you will never understand?”
“You are our father,” he [Proyas] had sobbed. “And we are your headstrong sons.”
Though it’s only Kellhus and Proyas in the tent, Proyas kneels. He feels shame for having more stuff than Kellhus and vows to live as meagerly as an example. Kellhus invites Proyas to share his fire. Kellhus appears to have been sitting for some time in his simple rob. He looks normal except for his eyes. Those are extraordinary.
Proyas starts to ask if something is wrong and stops. Kellhus smiles and comments about how they have a weird relationship. They have to be formal sometimes and can be friends other than Kellhus makes a joke to break the tension. Proyas sits down but doesn’t laugh. Kellhus remembers when he did. Proyas says he was funnier back then. Kellhus asks when that was
“Before you beat the World to the last laugh.”
The Aspect-Emperor grinned and frowned at once. “That remains to be seen, my friend.
It still astonishes Proyas that Kellhus can shift between roles to be whatever was needed. Right now, he’s Proyas’s old friend. Normally, it’s hard for Proyas not to see Kellhus as a living miracle, but not right now.
Proyas asks if things are going bad. Achamian says it’s going and that things are unfolding according to the “true future” that he’s been allowed to glimpse. But they have dark decisions to make, and Kellhus doesn’t want to make them alone. “I’m not sure I understand,” Proyas answers feels ashamed for hedging his confession, not for ignorance. Despite the last twenty years, his pride sometimes rears up with little falsehood to “manage the impressions of others.”
How hard it was to be an absolutely faithful soul.
Kellhus no longer has to correct these lapses. Just being before Kellhus is enough for Proyas to rebuke himself. Kellhus continues that he doesn’t want to make guesses and that as a leader, Proyas should understand that. He agrees given the immensity of the stakes.
Proyas says he is ready to be commanded. Kellhus tells him to kneel before his hearth and bow his head in the flames. Proyas is surprised that he doesn’t hesitate. He kneels, feeling the heat, and remembers the story from the Tusk when Husyelt, a god, told Angeshraël to bow into his face. Kellhus used this very story in his Sermon of the Zigurrat when he first revealed his divinity. So many madmen had done this. Despite that, he was doing it. He even kept his eyes open. “And a part of him watched and wondered that a devotion, any devotion, could run so deep as to throw a face into the furnace…”
Across the crazed bourne of opposites. Into the lapping glitter. Into the needling agony.
Into the light.
His beard and hair whooshed into tinder. He expected agony. He expected to scream. But something was tugged from him, sloughed like flesh from overboiled bone… something… essential.
And he was looking out from the fire, into a thousand faces—and a thousand more. Enough to wrench the eyes, dazzle and bewilder the soul. And yet somehow he focused, turned from the battering complexity and took refuge in a single clutch of men, four long-bearded Men of the Ordeal, one gazing directly at him with a child’s thoughtless fixity, the other bickering in Thunyeri… Something about rations. Hunger.
Then he was out, on his rump in Kellhus’s gloomy chamber, blinking and sputtering.
Kellhus says that the “absence of space” is hard for people to handle. Proyas rubs at his face but he’s not burned. He’s embarrassed and glances at the hearth. Looks normal. Kellhus asks if it disturbs him that he spies on the army. Proyas is heartened because an army far from home can be capricious. After this meeting, Proyas will realize Kellhus already knew Proyas’s answer, and it makes Proyas question what was the point of the meeting.
Kellhus asks why he was shone this and if there is talk of mutiny. Kellhus says no mutiny, they’re just bitching about home. Proyas asks if this is a problem. Kellhus says it is, revealing that their enemies back in the Three Seas are making their move and the New Empire most likely will collapse. Proyas asks if that will cause desertion here and Kellhus says it will.
“But these men are Zaudunyani… They would die for you! For the truth!”
The Aspect-Emperor lowered his face in the yes-but manner Proyas had seen countless times, though not for several years. They had been far closer, he realized, during the Unification Wars…
When they were killing people.
Kellhus says that abstract ideas hold little power over Men save some rare few, like Proyas, who can “throw itself upon the altar of thought.” The army marches as much in their belief in Kellhus as their belief in his word. Proyas argues that they do believe that the No-God is about to return. Kellhus says but will the choice to save the world over saving a son. He then asks Proyas if he’s willing to risk his children for Kellhus’s gamble.
A kind of strange, tingling horror accompanied these words. According to scripture, only Ciphrang, demons, demanded such sacrifices. Proyas could only stare, blinking.
Kellhus assures Proyas he wouldn’t demand that sacrifice. Proyas is confused and Kellhus explains that these men march to save their wives and kids, their people, but not the world. So if they learn their families might die because they’re not there to protect them, desertions would begin. Proyas could see it. The men gossiping about the misfortune back home, building each other’s fears. He’s dismayed to realize that even the Zaudunyani were so weak.
So Kellhus is putting an embargo. No one can use Cants of Far-calling on pain of death. “Henceforth, the Men of the Ordeal shall march with only memories to warm them.” Proyas knows even beggars have a home. Proyas, though, having spent so much time from it, is a faint idea. His home is his wife, Miramis, and their children Xinemus and Thaila, whom hardly knew him. He’s gone so much, they feel more like strangers to him.
No. This was his home. Dwelling in the light of Anasûrimbor Kellhus.
Waging his endless war.
Kellhus gives him a comforting squeeze and implies this is the last war. That comforts Proyas as he asks what will he tell them. He’ll say the Consult can spy on the scrying, though he’s not sure if he can. Other than to say they’ve had two thousand years to prepare, and that should frighten Proyas because Kellhus knows so little of them. Proyas makes a joke about having “not know terror” since meeting Kellhus, even though he makes things as difficult. Kellhus replies that Proyas will find fear once more before the end.
Proyas asks if Kellhus will maintain contact with the New Empire. Kellhus says, “No,” which shocks Proyas. He asks why. Kellhus doesn’t have time to worry about them when he isn’t seeing the whole picture. He can’t look back.
And Proyas understood that at long last the Great Ordeal had begun in earnest. The time had come to set aside burdens, to shed all complicating baggage.
Only death, war, and triumph remained. Only the future.
At the Eleventh Council of Potentates, Kellhus breaks apart the Ordeal. They have to do this to forage. One host is too large for the land to support, so they need to spread out. But with the draught on them, they worry there still won’t be any food to find as the game has chased the rain. Kellhus and his mathematicians explain how they have to keep on course, they can’t chase the herds, or they will not make it to Golgotterath before winter and perish. They are in a bind that the harder they march, the more food they need. The more food they need, the more time they need to spent foraging. The more time spent foraging, the slower they go.
So they must take the Shortest Path. And there is only one of them. They must do this to save the world. And so the Ordeal is broken into the Four Armies. Kayûtas commands the Men of the Middle North. The Sawayal Sisterhood and the Grandmistress Serwa goes with him. They will be the westernmost army and the one most at risk.
Proyas commands the Ketyai of the East with the Scarlet Spires, led by blind Iyokus, and the Mandate. Saubon commands the Ketyai of the West (Nansur and Fanim) and has the Imperial Saik and the “rehabilitated” Mysunsai. These two columns would be the heart of the Great Ordeal and would only be a few days apart and will hold the bulk of their force.
On the east, King Sasal Umrapathur commands the Ketyai of the South (the Nilnameshi). The Vokalti school marches with them. They are rumored to have made many attempts to steal the Gnosis. They would be marching through the least charted lands.
It’s chaotic as they break apart into their new hosts the next day several are killed in a brawl between two units, but it was mostly a peaceful affair. The next morning, the Breaking was finished and the Four Columns broke apart. “Songs in a hundred different tongues scored an indifferent sky.”
Thus began the longest, and most arduous, and most deadly stage of the Great Ordeal’s bid to destroy Golgotterath and so prevent the Second Apocalypse.
This is the folly of humans and their strength. We are passionate. Sorweel is doing the right thing but for the wrong person. It’s destroying him because he can’t let go of the death of his father. That he’s a slave. They might be riding to save the world, but that’s such a huge concept. He is trapped by that anger that he has betrayed his father. He wars to stay faithful against the impulse to surrender, and it’s tearing him apart.
I like the stuff about Zsoronga building up his allies for the day he’ll challenge the New Empire. Don’t think it’ll ever matter since I doubt any of them survive, but it’s showing that Zsoronga is a character with his own motivations and goals that are not aligned with Sorweel’s. Got his own thing going on. His story is just in the background of Sorweel’s story.
Sorweel raised believing in the Supernatural, but there’s knowing something and witnessing something. Things really don’t matter to us when they’re abstract, but when you get it in your face, when your emotions are responding, well, things get real.
Meeting the Gods is like meeting your heroes, it seems. In the story, they hang out with only the cool guys, but in reality, they are slumming with Porsparian the slave. Life isn’t what you think it is, and it’s painful when those illusions are shattered.
So, Sorweel is going to return exalted because he’ll spot the Yoke and make it back to bring word. This is Yatwer at work. She is positioning him to kill Kellhus. He’s the real White Luck Warrior. We have the one that is working through the Three Seas, but we also have a second. Sorweel. He’s the subtle one. He’s not possessed by the Goddess, but things are going to turn out just fine for him.
Up until he fails.
He’s rather suicidal, too. In a very vulnerable and emotional state. Very easy to manipulate by Yatwer.
Ah, miss you Xinemus.
And we have the beginning of Proyas’s lessons. Kellhus has a job for both his generals. And it’s for them both to die. Proyas and Saubon are the closest two men to Kellhus in the Great Ordeal, and he is going to lead them both to their deaths because it is the Shortest Way. But before that can happen, he has to mold them. Ready them. Particularly Proyas.
“Before you beat the World to the last laugh.” Kellhus’s response to this joke is quite telling. He’s not sure if he will. I think this has to do with his agreement with Ajokli and his plan to evade being the god’s bitch in the Outside. This is the hint that Kellhus has something against the WORLD in the works, but will it succeed? Well, the third series will hopefully answer this question.
“Usually Proyas found it difficult—given all the miracles of might and intellect he had witnessed—to think of Kellhus as a creature of flesh and blood, as a man. No so now.” This is the point of the lessons. Kellhus is deconstructing himself with Proyas. He’s unmaking himself as a god. Kellhus mentions “dark decisions” and this is all to prepare Proyas for the final march on Golgotterath that will end with Proyas being condemned. The scapegoat for the sins the Great Ordeal will commit to survive the Appalling Fields.
When Proyas is in the fire, one of the men with the “child’s thoughtless fixity” seemed to have noticed Proyas. Perhaps the man has some mental handicap or maybe he was just bored and staring at the fire. But the point is the effect it has on Proyas. A spiritual experience to mold him.
And we see that, afterward, Proyas is wondering what the point of the meeting was. This is starting him on his path to be conditioned for Kellhus’s purpose. Proyas thinks they’re friends when he’s really just a tool. Esmenet is the only person Kellhus cares for, and he barely can care for her.
Bakker draws our attention to how close Proyas thinks he is to Kellhus and the fact that such intimacy was brought about by violence. They were committing dark deeds together, giving them shared pain. Or, to Proyas, the illusion of shared pain.
And Proyas starts to think Kellhus is a Ciphrang for asking Proyas to wager his children’s life. More deconstruction at work. This conversation, looking in the fire, has all been to lead Proyas to these doubts.
One of the things that Kellhus needs to know is if the Dûnyain has taken over the Consult. He suspects it, and is planned for it, but he doesn’t know yet. And Dûnyain being in charge of the Consult should terrify everyone.
Kellhus is trying to ignore his love for Esmenet here. That’s why he can’t worry about her plight. But as we’ll see in the next book. He fails. He goes back for her and it leads to the No God reactivating. He knows he should abandon her, but as he just described, men don’t fight to save the world. They fight to save their loved ones. And, in his own vestigial way, he loves Esmenet. Without that, Kellhus would have embraced his father’s plan. He already sacrificed one person he cared for, Serwë, and it broke him. Drove him mad. It seems he can’t do it again.
It’s a short chapter. It gets us caught up on the players here and sets up the story arc for the Great Ordeal going forward until they get to Asgilioch.
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At 19, Ary has spent ten years mourning his father’s death. The aftermath of the attack still haunts him. Now, on the eve of the draft he faces his greatest fear, being sent to become a marine.
He knows the cost of war.
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