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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Five

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Five

Momemn

Welcome to Chapter Five of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Four!

Where luck is the twist of events relative to mortal hope, White-Luck is the Twist of events relative to divine desire. To worship it is to simply will what happens as it happens.

—ARS SIBBUL, SIX ONTONOMIES

My Thoughts

This is a primer on one of the important concepts about how the Hundred Gods perceive the mortal world. They see time in its entirety. Because of that, they can see how all events will happen. If you know which number will come up in roulette, you can always make sure you win big. The White-Luck is how the gods enact their will to shape fate, making sure that all the advantages are exploited.

If you read the first series, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Hundred Gods were a myth. But they are quite real. What are their origins? Are they souls who have devoured so many others they are so powerful none in the Outside can defy them? Hard to say, but there is a principal in economics and even stellar evolution: the more you have, the more you get. Have more money, you can make more money. Have more mass, you attract more matter.

In our galaxy, the really big stars, like Betelgeuse, are rare. These are the stars that will go supernova. Most of the stars are smaller than our own sun. Despite the rarity of less than 1% of stars being supergiants, they still hold 90% or more of the visible mass in our universe. It’s a law that can’t be denied.

The Gods maybe that. They just became the super-massive souls of the outside and gained enough power to influence the world through priests and priestess who prayed to them. Maybe this leads to the first shamans, the Sorcerers who were also priests before the Tusk came along and condemned sorcery as a sin.

I think the Gods were just souls who grew so massive they had vast influence on the Outside. Fane called them Ciphrangs. Demons. They reward their worshipers by eating their souls. Even those who are “saved” are merely those claimed by a god and consumed. This is what Kellhus appears to want to destroy, but not through the Consult’s way, which is through annihilation.

Kellhus wants to preserve mankind. But now he’s dead, but his soul escaped Ajokli. We’ll see if this matters in the next series or not.

Also, Ajokli… His name is A Joke. Is that intentional? It just came to me as I was checking the spelling of his name after writing this entire reread. He’s the god of assassins. A beetle god that has his proxy or symbol killed by Kelmomas in the prologue only for Ajokli’s next avatar, Kellhus, to be similarly killed because of Kelmomas’s unseen presence appearing in the climax. Then Kellhus’s soul even appears to escape him.

Poor Ajokli…

Anyways, back to the rest of the reread.

It is fitting, however, to introduce the Gods and their powers as we see that Yatwer has power. That the Gods are able to affect this world. They are not superstition. They can see the Second Apocalypse coming, but they are blind to its cause.

It really, really shouldn’t have been a shock to us readers when we read who activates the No-God. The clues are there. The Gods could see Kellhus, so he COULD NEVER have done it.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Iothiah

Psatama Nannaferi is begging, knowing not to those who give her coin in the eyes so as not to influence them in their decision to give her coin. The words of Sinyatwa echo in her mind: “From seed to womb, from seed to furrow. The right hand cannot give to the left…”

To give was to lose. It was an arithmetic with only one direction.

This was the miracle of the Ur-Mother, Yatwer, the Goddess of Fertility and Servitude, who moved through the world in the form of more and more and more. Unasked for bounty. Undeserved plenitude. She was the pure Gift, the breaking of tit for tat, the very principle of the birthing world. It was She who made time flesh.

Nannaferi realizes that people have figured out she’s the “Priestess-Mother” of the faith and not a simple beggar. Even in a city as big as Iothiah, people have uncovered her from among the teeming masses of beggars. And even though they know coming to her was a violation of the Beggar’s Sermon, they can’t help but assume that their offering will count. If she accused them of trying to bribe Yatwer, they would lie and say they were just wanting to give.

Such a strange thing, giving, as if the arms of beggars could be the balance of the world.

She has to move because she saves no souls now. Ignorance is the path to redemption in Yatwer’s cult. As she gathers to leave, three fat, silver coins fall before her, proving she’s exposed. “Excess generosity was ever the sign of greed.” She leaves them behind even as she knows other priestesses would take them. But she’s Psatama Nannaferi. She’s not like other ones. Her ecstasy falls upon her a step later.

It began as it always did, with a curious buzzing in the ears, as though dragonflies swarmed about her head. Then the ground bucked and flopped like cloth thrown over fish, and watercolour haloes swung about every living form. And she saw her, though she could not turn to look, a shadow woman, spoked in sun-silver, walking where everything and everyone exploded like clay urns, a silhouette so sharp it cut eyes sideways. A hand reached out and pressed the side of her hooded head, irresistibly gentle, forcing her cheek down to the pungent earth.

She gasps out “Mother” and is called child. She is told that her brother has arrived. “The White-Luck Warrior has come.” Psatama is shocked that it’s already happening. She’s told that it will happen on the “anointed day.”

Her body was but a string tied about an infinite iron nail, woolen tailings that trembled in an otherworldly wind.

And the D-D-Demon?”

“Will be driven to his doom.”

Then the roar vanished, sucked up like smoke from the opium bowl. The blasted streets became a wall of onlookers, peopled by vendors, teamsters, harlots, and soldiers. And the shadow became a man, a Nansur caste-noble by the look of him, with concerned yet gentle eyes. And the hand was his hand, rubbing her poxed cheek the way you might massage a sleeping limb.

He does not fear to touch—

He asks her if she’s okay and how long she’s had the Falling Sickness. She ignores him and everyone else, thinking what did any of them know of giving.

Iothiah is an ancient city, far older than the Thousand Temples. Just like the Cult of Yatwer. Now a new temple to Yatwer has been built in Iothiah, the Chatafet Temple. It is reputed to be one of the most popular in the Three Seas. It teems with new converts from the Fanim. “But for those initiated in the greater mysteries of the Cult, it was little more than a point of administrative pride.” Iothiah’s true significance to Yatwer’s followers is the Ilchara Catacombs. The great Womb-of-the-Dead. Though the temple that stood over it, the famous Temple of Ilchara, had been destroyed by the Fanim, the catacombs survived. Now it’s just a small opening hidden amid tenement buildings. Only the flags with Yatwer’s sacred symbol mark it as important

Nannaferi leads her fellow priestesses into the catacombs, fighting against her aged back to keep her head held high. She feels her vision cloaking her and believes the others can tell she’s been blessed, giving her covetous glances. Though she’s short of stature and scared by pox, she imposes herself among them. As an acolyte, older sisters had her punished to uphold their own superiority, sensing the strength of her personality. They would call her the “Shigeki pox-girl” with disdain to ignore and diminish her. But they couldn’t.

Gravitas, the ancient Ceneians would have called it.

They never could hate her, for that would have been admitting she was better. So they were forced to respect her, which was the only way she would not suffocate them with her presence. It took her twenty years to become the Matriarch, the official leader of the Cult, answerable only to Shriah. Six years later, they declared her Mother-Supreme, the outlawed title of the true leader. The Thousand Temples sought to break the Cult by declaring it heresy, but they held the title in secret.

The priestesses descended single-file into the catacombs, murmuring a ritual invocation. The catacombs had been looted of the treasure, but the Fanim hadn’t done more after than seal it, calling the place the Pit of the She-Demon. Even the Fanim knew to fear Yatwer. The Elder Scriptures, the Hirgarata and The Chronicle of the Tusk didn’t write much on Yatwer because the authors were drunk on masculine virtue. Yatwer is feared because she is the one who aids the poor. The downtrodden. The farmers and slaves. The “toiling multitudes who carried the caste-nobility like a foul slime upon their backs.” Yatwer both celebrates and avenges the poor.

Even her brother War, it was said, feared her. Even Gilgaöl from Yatwer’s bloody gaze.

And well he should.

Planting her cane before her, Psatama Nannaferi strode into the shadows of the ancient sandstone lintels. She entered the worldly womb of the Ur-Mother, descended into the company of her long-dead sisters.

The catacombs wind deep into the earth, the recessed walls packed with urns, some so ancient they couldn’t read the script. Here, Yatwer’s priestesses were brought to “slumber in holy community” in the Womb-of-the-Dead. The other high-priestesses with her feel the awe of this place safe Vethenestra, who “posed” as the Chalfantic Oracle, pretended to be unaffected.

Take-take-take. It was a wickedness, a pollution, that knew no bounds.

It was the very essence of the Demon.

She clutches to her anger as she leads the group to the Charnel Hall. She thought of it as her middle anger, just strong enough o singe. “Everything was sinful, everything was accountable; this was simply the truth of an unruly and disordered world.” The Goddess will cultivate the world, using Nannaferi as her hoe and plow. Her fellow priests would be the remade into the soil for the White-Luck Warrior.

There was no vanity in her task. The Goddess had made her into the rule with which the world would be measured—no more, no less. Who was Nannaferi to take heart or pride in this, let alone question the why and wherefore? The knife, as the Galeoth saying went, was no greater for the skinning.

Only more doused in blood.

They sit around the Struck Table where Yatwer had once chastised her wayward daughters. Nannaferi takes Yatwer’s spot, the cracks in the table running from where she sits to each of the other seats. She lets the others have their banter and conversation since many haven’t seen each other in some time. Friendship is one of Yatwer’s gifts, so Nannaferi tolerates this, especially since these women are rarely among equals. Instead, they are surrounded by subordinates. Soon, the enormity of their meeting silences them. They adopt Nannaferi’s rigid pose. Even the oracle does. All save for Sharacinth who is the Matriarch, the “Official” leader.

This is the second time the Struck Table has been called since the heathens took Iothiah. The last was when the Holy War first started. They were celebrating it, not realizing that a Demon would take it over and become the Aspect-Emperor. Nanneferi smacks her cane in emphasis, startling everyone. Then she pulls out a Chorae, a Holy Tear of God, from beneath her robes. This is different. She is not following the normal rituals and prayers, but going straight to the matter at hand. Comprehension dawns in them.

Their Goddess girded for war.

She says they have to deal with a witch, implying one of them could use Sorcery. They all protest in shock save Vethenestra, who pretends she knew all along. “What kind of Oracle would she be otherwise.” Maharta, the youngest member and a political appointee, asks how Nannaferi could know this. Nannaferi says the Goddess let her know.

Eleva reveals herself to be the witch and begins calling on her sorcerery. Sharhild attacks her with a knife but is thrown against the wall. The other priestesses scramble and ran while “shadows twisted about the hinges of things.”

The thwack of iron on wood. A blinking incandescence. A sucking roar.

The witch is salted, killed by the Chorae hitting her. The others are stunned that Eleva could have been a witch. Nannaferi says Eleva was killed and replaced days ago. The witch’s true form is that of a young and buxom girl. She declares that this is proof Kellhus and his followers are depraved. He unleashed his witches, the School of Sawayal, to hunt them. “Yet another of the Aspect-Emperor’s many blasphemies.”

Sharhild, an old Thunyeri shield-maiden, has survived and is helped to her feet, praised for her courage. Maharta cries in snuffling silence, and Vethenestra looks stunned. Questions and comments explode through the room. Vethenestra claims she dreamed of this while others ask if the Shriah is after them, or if it’s the Empress. Phoracia says Eleva touched a Chorae only three months ago. Which means she was replaced after receiving the secret summons. How could that be possible?

“Yes,” Nannaferi said, her tone filled with a recognition of menace that cleared the room of competing voices. “The Shriah knows of me. He has known of me for quite some time.”

The Shriah. The Holy Father of the Thousand Temples.

The Demon’s brother, Maithanet.

She goes on to say her outlawed post is tolerated because the Demon and his ilk prize secret knowledge and think they can control it. Aethiola says they’re doomed like what happened to the Anagkians. A few months ago, five assassins from the Cult of the Goddess of Fate tried to assassinate Kelmomas at his whelming. The Empress reactions had been predictable. The Matriarch had been murdered in one of several rumored, and gruesome, ways while others were arrested by Shrial Knights and never seen again. Nannaferi says they are a different Cult. This isn’t a vain boast. Only Gilgaöl has as many followers as Yatwer. Most Cults didn’t have strong roots. They could be pulled down easily. Yatwer’s Cult flourished wherever there were the poor and slaves.

Phoracia points out that they are up against the Aspect-Emperor. They never speak the “Demon’s” name. Nannaferi points out his most fanatical followers went with him on his Ordeal, and the Orthodox, though numerous, are not in their council chambers. Maharta adds that even Fanayal is growing bold. Phoracia keeps arguing that they don’t understand how powerful Kellhus is. She has met him. Her ranting is cut off as she realized she’s overstepped her bounds and asks Nannaferi’s forgiveness. Nannaferi agrees that they don’t know his power, but though they don’t know, their Goddess does.

Sharhild realizes that Yatwer has given Nannaferi visions. This sparks excitement as the other asks if it’s true. Phoracia continues harping about Kellhus, the others shutting up out of embarrassment for her. She asks what Yatwer says about him.

And there it was, the fact of their blasphemy, exposed in the honesty of an old woman’s muddled soul. Their fear of the Aspect-Emperor had come to eclipse all other terrors, even those reserved for the Goddess.

One could only worship at angles without fear.

Nannaferi struggles to explain how Yatwer sees time non-linearly and calls Vethenestra a fool and a fake when the seer is brought up. That quiets everyone. Vethenestra grows scared, asking if she’s displeased Nannaferi, She regards the seer as if she’s broken and says Yatwer is displeased. Vethenestra is stripped of her title and told to leave and join her dead sisters.

An image of her own sister came to Nannaferi, her childhood twin, the one who didn’t survive the pox. In a heartbeat it all seemed to pass through her, the whooping laughter, the giggling into shoulders, the teary-eyed shushing. And it ached, somehow, to know that her soul had once sounded such notes of joy. It reminded her of what had been given…

And those few things that remained.

Vethenestra at first moves slowly to the exit like she expects to be called back. She pauses at the dark maw. Everyone can fill that something is occupying it. A menstrual-red smoke winds through the opening. Vethenestra, realizing she’s truly banished, steps out of this world and is swallowed. She vanishes in a heartbeat. Silence filled the halls. Everyone but Nannaferi is stunned by the manifestation of the Goddess, the Blood of Fertility, that’s here with them, “lending her fury to the blood dark.” Maharta is the first to kneel. The rest follow. Nannaferi calls out, “Your daughters are clean, Mother.” The women all stare at Nannaferi with frightened reverence. They crawl to her and kiss her knees, knowing she truly is chosen by Yatwer.

“Tell them,” she [Nannaferi] said to her sisters, her voice hoarse with the passion to dominate. “In whispers, let your congregations know. Tell them the White-Luck turns against their glorious Aspect-Emperor.”

They had to take such gifts that were given. Even those beyond their comprehension…

“Tell them the Mother sends her Son.”

Or that would see them dead.

Momemn…

Kelmomas is pretending that the gardens in the center of the Imperial Apartments are the roof of the world. He can see Momemn stretching out to the west, the Meneanor Sea to the east. Every direction spreads out beneath the blue sky. He’s fascinated by the sycamores waving in the wind, their arrhythmic movement entrancing.

He would very much like to be a tree, Kelmomas decided.

His “secret voice” whispers suggestions to relieve his boredom, but instead, he focuses on his mother speaking. He’s lying on his belly and peering through the gaps in a railing to just see her. She is speaking to Maithanet about the Cult of Yatwer, asking if they should move against them. Maithanet says they’re too populous for that while Theliopa says that six out of ten caste menials attend her rites.

The pause in Mother’s reply said it all. It wasn’t so much that she reviled her own daughter—Mother could never hate her own—only that she could find no reflection of herself, nothing obviously human. There was no warmth whatsoever in Theliopa, only facts piled upon facts and an intense aversion to all the intricacies that seal the intervals between people. The sixteen-year-old could scarce look at another’s face, so deep was her horror of chancing upon a gaze.

Thank you, Thel.”

Kelmomas thinks Theliopa is a dead limb unable to feel the world around her. Mother only uses her because Kellhus ordered it. He listens as Esmenet asks Maithanet if he has an idea on what to do. Kelmomas doesn’t care about the subject of the conversation only the fear it breeds in his mother. His “secret voice” thinks she needs them.

The nursemaid, Porsi, brings Samarmas. Kelmomas gets up and skips along the veranda, delighting his idiot twin. As he does, Porsi asks the boys what games they would like to play. As she prattles on, he reads her face. He often pretends to play her games while actually playing one of his own to test her responses. He’s learned how his tone and expression matter as much as the words. He understands how to manipulate her emotions. Every time she compares him to his father, it makes Kelmomas exult that slaves can recognize him.

Using his knowledge of her, he fakes having the Shudders, something he’s done so well it’s fooled the court physician, Hagitatas. He could make himself feverish, control his body temperature. Even Samarmas could do this. So when he tells her it’s starting, she runs off to get his medicine which he’s hidden. He’ll be alone with Samarmas for a while while she frantically searches for his medicine.

Meanwhile, his mother is asking if the Yatwerians are mad because Kellhus is the only chance of salvation. Maithanet points out the Cultists are like all men: “they see only what they know.” They don’t like change.

Kelmomas contemplates his brother at play. “A toy Prince-Imperial poking toys that were smaller still.”

Only the lazy battle of boredom and awe in his [Samarmas] expression made him [seem] real.

Esmenet asks about the White-Luck. Theliopa explains it’s an ancient folk belief from ancient times. It’s “an extreme form of providence, a Gift of the Gods against worldly tuh-tuh-tyranny.”

Samarmas chants White-Luck as he plays. Kelmomas glares at Samarmas to get him to shut up, knowing Maithanet and even Theliopa could hear that.

Maithanet thinks the White-Luck might be more than a “self-serving fraud.”

Samarmas gathers more toys, even one he calls Mommy and kisses it to a dragon, finding wonder in doing that.

Kelmomas had been born staring into the deluge that was his twin’s face. For a time, he knew, his mother’s physicians had feared for him because it seemed he could do little more than gaze at his brother. All he remembered were the squalls of blowing hurt and wheezing gratification, and a hunger so elemental that it swallowed the space between them, soldered their faces into a single soul. The world was shouldered to the periphery. The tutors and the physicians had droned from the edges, not so much ignored as overlooked by a two-bodied creature who stared endlessly into its own inscrutable eyes.

Only in his third summer, when Hagitatas, with doddering yet implacable patience, made a litany of the differences between beast, man, and god, was Kelmomas able to overcome the tumult that was his brother. “Beasts move,” the old physician would rasp. “Men reflect. Gods make real.” Over and over. “Beasts move. Men reflect. Gods make real. Beasts move…” Perhaps it was simply the repetition. Perhaps it was the palsied tone, the way his breath undid the substance of his words, allowing them to soak into the between places, the gem-cutting lines. “Beasts move…” Over and over, until finally Kelmomas simply turned to him and said, “Men reflect.”

A blink, and what was one had become two.

After that, Samarmas’s bestial face disgusted Kelmomas. He sees Samarmas as a foul thing who fooled their mother. He’s kept back his true feelings and grown used to the fact that his brother is nothing more than dog. Mimicking his mother’s smile, Kelmomas shows off a dangerous feat to his brother, extorting him to watch. Samarmas gurgles in pleasure as Kelmomas says you can’t do this. Samarmas agrees.

Meanwhile, Maithanet explains how the Gods can’t see the No-God because “they are blind to any intelligence without soul.” They didn’t see the First Apocalypse coming and therefore can’t see the Second. Esmenet is still confused why Kellhus, a Prophet, would be hunted by the Gods.

As this goes on, Kelmomas mocks his brother, asking if he can do anything.

Inri Sejenus, as Maithanet explains, saw the Gods as fragments of the God. Kellhus is a prophet of the “Voice-Absolute.” This means the Gods war with the desires of the sum total of their existence. Theliopa adds that there are plenty of scriptures that refer to the Gods as similar to men, fearing the darkness and Waring against what they fear.

Kelmomas has an “idea” of what his brother can do. Samarmas is awed that there is something he can do and asks what.

Maithanet explains how humans are full of conflicting desires that war with each other. “We are not is different from the world we live in, Esmi…” She knows this.

Kelmomas asks Samarmas if he can balance. Samarmas proves he can by perching on banister while Kelmomas watches from the playroom.

Maithanet said just the rumors of the White-Luck Warrior are a “dire threat.” Esmenet agrees, but how do they fight one?

Kelmomas could almost see his uncle’s simulated frown.

How else? With more rumours.”

Samarmas is balancing. He’s having fun.

Maithanet suggests inviting the Yatwerian Matriarch to the Andiamine heights.

Samarmas almost falls and is scared as he fights for balance.

Esmenet points out that the Matriarch doesn’t rule the cult. Maithanet says this can work for them since Sharacinth doesn’t like being a figurehead.

Samarmas catches his balance and giggles nervously. Doesn’t stop.

Esmenet realizes Maithanet means to bribe Sharacinth to be Mother-Superior.

The slender body bent about an invisible point, one which seemed to roll from side to side.

The surrounding air deep with the promise of gravity.

Esmenet adds that as Shriah, he has power over her. He believes for this reason Sharacinth is in the dark about the Cult’s plans.

Samarmas has his balance again. Grinning.

Esmenet and Maithanet plan on using Sharacinth to create a schism in the Yatwerian Cult.

Samarmas tottering. A bare foot, ivory bright in the glare, swinging out from behind the heel of the other, around and forward, sole descending, pressing like damp cloth across the stone. A sound like a sip.

A schism…”

The shadow of a boy foreshortened by the high angle of the sun. Outstretched hands yanked into empty-air clutches. Feet and legs flickering out. A silhouette, loose and tight-bundled, falling through the barred shadow of the baulustrade. A gasp flecked with spittle.

Then nothing.

Kelmomas stood blinking at the empty balcony, oblivious to the uproar rising from below.

Kelmomas thinks of himself like his father, able to see more with his “soul’s eye” than others. Ever since he learned Hagitatas’s lesson. This is why that Kelmomas knew that the “love and worship” Samarmas had for him would let him manipulate his brother. Kelmomas knew where the Pillarian Guards would be. Alarms ring out. Soldiers stare in horror at his brother’s body. Kelmomas fakes being stunned and leans out over the railing to stare down at his brother’s broken form. Then he wipes up the olive oil he left on the railing before crying “the way a little boy should.”

Why? the voice asked. The secret voice.

Why didn’t you kill me sooner?

He saw his mother beat her way through the Pillarian Guards, heard her inconsolable scream. He watched his uncle, the Holy Shriah, grasp her shoulders as she fell upon her beloved son. He saw his sister Theliopa, absurd in her black gowns, approach in fey curiosity. He glimpsed one of his own tears falling, a liquid beat, falling, breaking upon his twin’s slack cheek.

A thing so tragic. SO much love would be required to heal.

“Mommy!” he cried! “Mommeeeeeee!”

Gods make real.

Esmenet finds love in preparing Samarmas for burial, staring down at his body in the funerary room. She hums as she cleans his naked flesh. She sometimes cries. When her weeping passes, she resumes her work, memorizing every bit of him.

She absorbed all of it, traced and daubed and rinsed it, with movements that seemed indistinguishable from devotion.

There was such love in the touch of a son.

Kelmomas pretends to weep as Esmenet holds him tight, crying and begging him to never let go. Her grief is special to him. She is his scripture. His paradise isn’t in heaven, it’s right here in her arms as she comforts him.

“Kel,” she sobbed. “Poor baby.”

He keened, squashed the urge to kick his feet in laughter. Yes! he cried in silent glee, the limb-wagging exultation of a child redeemed. Yes!

And it had been so easy.

You are, the secret voice said, her only love remaining.

My Thoughts

Her saying on begging “From seed to womb, from seed to furrow” is a fertility metaphor. It’s meaning is clear, that for a man to reproduce, he has to give something up. It also applies to those giving coins to beggars. And since she is being a symbolic representative of her goddess, and the coins are symbolic seed, she has to make sure they are giving for their own reasons and not to please her. Not to be influenced by her. This is why she has to leave because giving to achieve something greater, like salvation, isn’t truly giving. Because then you are receiving something, too.

The arithmetic for giving only goes one way.

Beggars are a good measure of the world. A judging balance. Think Ma’at’s Feather in Egyptian mythology. Your heart is weighed against it. Lighter, you get to survive. Heavy with sin, you’re thrown to Ammit to be devoured. How you treat those lesser than you is a good measure of who you are.

And who is lesser than a beggar?

We come back to the Christian concept of good deeds for the sake of appearing good is disgusting to God. You can’t bribe your way into heaven by works. You should do the good deeds out of love for your fellow men expecting nothing in return. No reward. A true gift. Yatwer’s cult is similar, but because they know every time they give to a beggar it could be a priestess, especially the priestess, is it every truly a gift? Apparently, it’s good enough it if becomes a habit. Something we do out of rote without thought.

Action performed through IGNORANCE.

Bakker is also drawing us to the contention that religion is born out of ignorance and that rational thought is something that leads away from faith. That the Cult survives because its followers do not question but obey. Yatwer is another Darkness that Comes Before.

Nannaferi is having an “ecstasy.” A religious vision. The description is very much in line with historical records of saints and others. Notice how Bakker then has someone comment she has the Falling Disease. This is an old term for having epilepsy. She’s having a seizure, which causes all manner of neurons to misfire. Bakker is making us question if this woman really is getting a message from Yatwer. At this point in the story, if you’re reading this series for the first time, we don’t realize just how powerful and active the gods are. They didn’t seem to do anything in the last trilogy. But here we have Yatwer truly talking to Nannaferi and telling her of future events.

“Your brother has finally arrived,” and, “On the anointed day,” are how Yatwer speaks of the White-Luck Warrior. She says he has arrived and yet he won’t be here until the future. This is our first clue on how Yatwer sees the world. He’s already arrived for her but not for Nannaferi.

The mysteries of the Cult is a phrase that hearkens us back to Greek and Roman times. This is when the Mystery Religions flourished. Cults of various deities, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and even new gods, dominated. You had to be initiated into secret rites, not unlike the Free Masons of modern times (which are often accused of being successors to the mystery religions). In secret places were performed magic and orgies and sacrificial rites. They were for special people. The chosen enlightened to discover and keep that secret. To hoard the truth from the masses.

The harvest sickle that’s at once a pregnant belly is the symbol of Yatwer. Both the harvesting of the bounty of fertility, the wheat’s death to sustain other life, and the symbol for new life about to be born goes along with the fact that Yatwer is both a fertility cult and a death cult, embracing the full breathy of life. That from death is born new life, for the carbon and other elements that make us up need to be recycled so new life can replace us.

Bakker does a good job introducing us to Psatama Nannaferi and who she is and her past. No deep details, but the board strokes to understand this woman and the iron will. She won’t compromise her morals even when it would be beneficial in the short term.

Taking is the very essence of Kellhus (and the other Dûnyain) and stands at odds with Yatwer. Nannaferi has this assessment correct. Dûnyain do nothing without gain. Any gift they give is like the silvers thrown at Nannaferi’s feet: bribes to get you to do their will. Nothing is free from the Dûnyain. They are the very antithesis to Yatwer and her worshipers. It is no wonder that they are the ones who rise up to oppose him.

“Everything was sinful.” Is it no wonder that later on Nannaferi doesn’t flinch from her goddess being accused of punishing even her followers and devouring them. She’s a fanatic who believed it is necessary. The only way for Yatwer to cultivate the world into order.

We see more of Bakker’s thesis that faith comes out of blind devotion. Something to never be questioned. Something to be followed because the Goddess, in Nannaferi’s case, is something better than her. Something that knows right and wrong. Better to follow her will than to be sinful.

Nannaferi says she has no vanity, but her POV is full of her thinking she’s better than the others. She takes pleasure in cowing them and lording over their sins. When one has a strong personality, how can there not be ego?

The witch scene both show us that Nannaferi’s visions are reliable and refresh us on how Chorae work with sorcery. How it turns a person to salt and undoes their magic. It accomplishes both a recap of lord and world-building along with proving Nannaferi’s bonafide. She’s not a fake seer like Vethenestra.

You can see how Kellhus, from the outside perspective, appears to be the evil tyrant. The false leader that the righteous servants of the beaten-down true gods are seeking to destroy. Another fantasy trope here, only their Goddess operates out of fear and jealousy of losing her followers. Not out of any care of how evil he is. The irony is, Kellhus’s is the world’s best hope to stop the Consult.

Life is a gift. But one that can be taken back. Nannaferi is reminded of those few things left to her as she pronounces judgment on Vethenestra who is about to have her life taken back.

And if you want any proof that Yatwer is real, she just devoured Vethenestra. Bakker wants us to have no doubts about the Gods in this series. They are real entities that have agency and shall be utilizing it in this story.

Trees are equated with Dûnyain time and time again. They war in every direction at once, just the way a Dûnyain should. Kelmomas wants to be a Dûnyain. He yearns for it, but he isn’t a tree. He’s not a true Dûnyain. He knows this at some level.

The tree metaphor continues. Theliopa is a dead branch. She can’t understand social niceties because of her autism. She has the intellect, but not the ability to fake being human. She can never war in every direction at once because she can only be one thing.

Kelmomas is still a child. He plays games throughout the entire series. That’s all this is for him. A way to keep himself amused and to have what he selfishly wants: his mother all to himself. He has no morality, no children do but has to learn it. That’s combined with far, far too much intellect. He doesn’t have the morality to leash his intellect and keep from being utterly dominated by his desires. He’s Inchoroi; he just hasn’t developed physically enough to care about other forms of gratification. Notice how he enjoys being compared to his father.

Gratification.

Reading about Samarmas blissfully at play unaware that his twin brother is plotting his murder is heartbreaking. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent several years working with the handicapped including many with severe autism and other mental handicaps that, though they were adults, they had very children-like personalities. They were often happy, playful, taking joy in life that I sometimes envied.

“Beasts move. Men reflect. Gods makes real.” Beasts just react, men think, and gods make changes to the world. Create miracles. This feeds back into sorcery. Why it leaves the Mark because what sorcerry does is an imperfect creation. Only the Psûkhe with their emotion-charged magic, drawing on feelings and belief instead of logic or arguments like with the other types of magic.

We see here that the Outside is based on belief in how Bakker’s sorcery works. The magic that draws on logic and mathematics, or on arguments and metaphors, doesn’t capture the world perfectly. No, it’s imagination. Feelings. Emotions. It’s more than “thinking” and more than “doing” that is the providence of Gods. Creation cannot come from logic, from math, from the statistic, from making perfect geometries. Nature isn’t perfect. It also can’t come from making a good comparison. Creation is an internal act, not an external one.

“They [the Gods] are blind to any intelligence without a soul.” We learn later on that the No-God is actually some form of AI. One that was directing the Arc and was badly damaged in the crash. It appears to need some sort of biological component, a mind, to do its processing and, hence, why it needs a host. We know Nau-Cayûti is one such host, and Kelmomas is the other. Because Kelmomas is destined to become the “intelligence without a soul,” he also can’t be seen by the gods.

Maithanet’s explanation on Esmenet’s soul is interesting. We all have those conflicting desires in ourselves, the war to do one thing over another. To surrender to vice. To strive for virtue. If there was some entity that perceived our various inclinations as a separate entity, our desire to be lazy and skip work would be one god while our desire to keep paying our bills and demanding we go to work is another. Those two impulses battling in us would be seen as those two gods warring. In fact, they would be bitter enemies with sloth probably the evil god who usually gets beaten.

This entity couldn’t understand how they could, in fact, be part of the same whole.

This feeds into the Oversoul idea Kellhus has spoken of. That all souls are just points in the real world where one vast soul is thrusting out little fillers to understand it. None of these souls can remember they’re really one vast soul. This seems to be how the cosmology works in Bakker’s story. By killing enough bits of these souls thrust into the real world, the Consult will slay this Oversoul and free themselves from damnation and only find annihilation when they die. They would, in fact, be vestiges of something already dead. It’s as if the brain has died, but the cells in stomach haven’t gotten the message yet and are still happily digesting your last meal.

Rumors fighting rumors. Isn’t that politics in a nutshell?

Maithanet is wrong about Sharacinth being in the dark. She was there at the unveiling of Nannaferi’s connection to the goddess.

The cutting between Samarmas balancing and about to fall with the conversation is great at building tension. We can see that, though stunted mentally, Samarmas has a control over his body a boy that age shouldn’t. This section builds and builds until that promise of gravity in the air is fulfilled.

Such a tragic end. You can feel Kelmomas’s plan building and building as he lures his brother to his death. We also get to see the extant of Kelmomas’s delusion. It’s not just any voice that’s in his head, it’s the “real” Samarmas. Kelmomas wants to be a mighty tree, but he has a flaw. That voice isn’t his brother. That’s his own madness whispering the words he wants to hear. He thinks his soul was split in half. So he kills his brother. Now he gets his mother’s love all to himself.

And she needs his love so much right now.

The scene where Esmenet readies Samarmas… Bakker really caught the emotions. Puts you in her shoes. What a terrible thing to have to do. And then we transition to Kelmomas’s exultation. He’s ecstatic. He has his mother all to himself.

Or so he thinks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Weekly Short Story: Mutilated

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Mutilated

The scrabbling of claws on stone was his only warning.

Kan dropped his jewelchine torch, the red beam dancing through the air as he whirled. The sleeping girl—her head resting on his shoulder, her body held to his chest—gasped awake at the violent turn.

Steel rasped on leather as his right hand drew his resonance sword. He activated the jewel machine in the weapon’s hilt by rote. A hum, barely perceptible over the girl’s surprised shout, reverberated through the air. The emerald in the jewelchine sang with one of the Seven Harmonious Tones, the Earth Tone of Bazim, and channeled the echoes of creation into the sword’s steel.

The pulse of Kan’s blood pumping through his veins remained steady as the mastiff lunged out of the darkness.

Only the glint of diamonds gave Kan any warning and a target to attack. He thrust just below the glimmer of the mastiff’s eyes and rammed the straight, thin resonance blade down the massive hound’s gullet. The black-furred form crashed into Kan, impaled on three feet of steel.

The girl screamed in fright as the big man recoiled under the impact, his sword penetrating deeper into the hound’s innards. His footing lost, Kan didn’t fight to stay upright. He fell backward, cradling the girl to his chest as he sliced his sword upward.

The resonance blade, humming with the power of its emerald machine, had an edge that could cut normal steel like butter. It sliced through the hound’s spine and skull before cutting through the obsidian jewelchine that had replaced the mutilated mastiff’s brain.

Kan’s left side crashed through the scraggly twigs of a saltbush, the girl crying out in shock. He grunted as he landed hard onto the dry, desert ground. The mastiff, bigger than any breed he’d ever seen, fell upon him, its dead weight crushing his legs.

“Harmonious tones,” he cursed, the pulse of his blood as steady as ever, unchanging despite the pain spreading across his back from his fall.

Already, the topaz jewelchines soothed the hurt.

“Kan,” the girl, Alamekia, gasped, her scrawny, ebony face contorted in fear. She was almost all bones, starvation stretching skin taunt across the features of her skull, replacing the normal round features of a Shattered Islander with pitiful sorrow. “What is that?”

“Mutilation,” snarled Kan, kicking the jewelchine automaton off his legs.

He’d seen other beasts mutilated by the University, but hounds were a new depravity. The ancients had long known of the resonance of the Seven Harmonious Tones and the one Dark Discord with natural gemstones, a different stone tuned to a different Tone. But the discovery that they could be manipulated via metallic wiring and harnessed to power machines had transformed society. Gold wires worked best, but even cheap tin could conduct the power. Called jewelchines, these devices tapped into the echoes of the eight spirits who’d created everything. Each year, scholars across the world discovered new and diverse uses.

Some were even beautiful.

“Can you walk?” he asked the girl cradled still in his arm.

The girl nodded her head, her eyes wide. Red light painted half her face. The discarded jewelchine torch, a slender tube of leather with a colored lens at one end and a diamond jewelchine inside radiating light, survived impacting hard ground. She trembled on his arms. He felt the frantic beat of her heart through his heavy shirt. Kan, distantly, could remember that same frantic beat in his chest when the typhoon had ravaged his village as a boy no older than her.

“Good, move behind me and—”

He threw the girl to his left. She crashed into a saltbush with a shriek as the second mastiff bounded out of the darkness. The beast’s eyes betrayed its attack with silver-white flashes. The air in the desert was clear. The stars and moon provided a modicum of light to see by and to glint off the diamond jewelchines embedded in the creature’s eyes.

Kan swung his sword as the hound leaped at him, expecting the mastiff to crash into his chest, teeth savaging his throat. But the beast landed a few feet short of Kan in a dangerous crouch, its body illuminated by the discarded torch’s focused beam. Short, coarse fur covered its twisted frame. Nodules bulged beneath the skin, creating fierce bumps across the beast’s hide. Its mouth opened. Metal glinted in its gullet. A barrel.

Kan smelled the oily scent of refined naphtha.

“The Seven Harmonies!” He rolled to his right as fire burst from the hound’s mouth.

A sheet of orange flame rippled the air. Light blossomed. Heat seared Kan’s face. He grunted, rolling faster. The bush he’d thrown the girl into, though not touched, caught fire. The dry brush blazed into a bonfire.

They put a Tone-deaf firebelcher in the beast’s stomach?

The horrors of the University always shocked Kan, though they shouldn’t have. His depravity knew no depths. Kan’s body was a mutilated display of the bushy-eyebrowed man’s work. Kan’s wide-legged trousers and long-sleeved shirt hid the evidence from view. His broad-shouldered and deep-chested frame resulted from the University’s cruelty. He stood two or more heads taller than any he knew, making him seem a foreigner despite his dusky olive skin.

The end of his alpaca cloak smoldered as he gained his feet. Fiery death chased him. His pulse remained steady. He missed that frantic beating of his heart, the surge of cold danger through the veins, that feeling of life instead of the dull, rhythmic pulsing that circulated blood through his body.

The hound twisted its head, mouth open, fur burning around its muzzle from the firebelcher’s heat. Kan raced at a speed the fastest runner would envy, circling the beast before darting in for his attack. He dashed past the gout of flame, the heat billowing around him. His sword hummed in his hand. He prayed to the Harmonious Seven, but not their Dark Brother.

His cloak burst into flames. Heat soaked through his trousers. His skin cooked, the topaz jewelchines embedded in his flesh soothing away the pain as he closed the distance. The hound twisted, moving its bulk to bring its fire directly upon Kan.

His sword hissed down.

He severed the beast’s head from its body, cutting spine, wires, and the barrel of the firebelcher. The flames snuffed out as the beast’s head fell to the ground. Its body remained upright for five steady beats, blood and oily naphtha bubbling from the severed neck. Then it, too, slumped to the ground; the control signal from the obsidian jewelchine in the automaton’s head severed.

“What is that, Kan?” the girl asked as he ripped off his burning cloak. She moved forward on her hands and feet, crawling almost like a lizard. A scratch bled on her cheek, shiny in the roaring light of the blazing brush. “There are wires sticking out of its neck. And that smell.” Her small nose wrinkled.

“Refined naphtha,” he grunted, turning to face the direction from which the hounds had come.

Irritation stabbed through him. They’d been so close to the draw that led up the cliff. For two days, he’d carried the girl across the desert, moving from supply cache to supply cache. The precious water stored in them had allowed the pair to survive the soaring heat of the day. He’d rescued her from the slave caravan, saved her from the mutilation of his knives.

Flashes of pain, of screaming agony, wracked all of him while the delicate face of the bushy-eyebrowed man peered down at Kan. Those eyebrows were wispy snow, though not from age. His eyes smiled as he brought his knife down and cut.

The memories almost overwhelmed Kan.

“Are you hurt?” he growled to the girl, his eyes scanning the bejeweled night sky. He sheathed his resonance sword and drew his pistol from a leather holster on his hip loaded with a clip of three small darts.

“Fine,” the girl answered, still crouched by the dead mastiff. “Why would anyone make it breathe fire?”

“Because he could do it.”

There.

In the darkness over the desert, a shape occulted starlight as it drifted through the sky. A condor, swelled to immense size, carried the control officer. Jewelchine automatons had no mind, their brains replaced by an obsidian machine which channeled the Dark Discord and were controlled by harmonies broadcast by the officer—the fruits of the University’s work.

The University of Harmonic Research created monstrosities with their knowledge, soldiers for their client. The process was bloody and utilized the forbidden obsidian jewelchines, tapping into foul Nizzig’s discord. Most of the “subjects” did not survive. Caravans of children, on the verge of pubescence, were driven across to the University. To him. Out there, in the heart of the desert, agony lay. Granite buildings, baked by day, rose over the largest concentration of black iron in the world. Only with foul black iron could Nizzig’s discord be channeled into machines, violating nature with grotesqueries.

The Path and its Guides, founded by the Tinker, sought to rescue those poor children from their fates.

Kan and his fellow Guides knew the Depression. They scouted it, lived in it, planned their routes, learned how to avoid the patrols, all so they could rescue what few children they could when the caravans were at their most vulnerable. Kan had saved twenty-seven children. Of the Guides, he was the most successful. None had survived half as many Paths as him.

Trails could be erased from sight while paths walked across hard stone would leave no trace, but these new hounds changed everything. How could you hide from the keen nose of a hound? Ten other Guides were with him on the raid. Did they live?

Kan pushed questions from his mind and raised his pistol. At this distance, the odds of hitting the control officer were low if he were stationary. But if Kan killed the Tone-deaf bastard, any other automatons sweeping towards them would stand idle, lacking the control harmonics.

Then he would have twenty-eight successes.

Kan fired all three shots in rapid succession, his arm steady, his eyes aiming down the metal barrel, lining up the front sight with the two rear. The weapon hissed as the heliodor jewelchine channeled the harmonics of the Tone of Wind. Air propelled the slender, steel darts at high speed. They streaked through the night.

And missed.

Kan yanked the clip from the wooden handle of the pistol and fished the spare from his belt. He had six more shots. He had to eliminate the officer. If there were more automatons out of in the dark, they could see them even without the blazing fire. They would chase Kan and the girl up the draw, firing dartcasters and projectield launchers. The climb was treacherous enough without dodging attacks.

“Did you get him?” the girl asked, peering into the dark as she knelt, her bony face painted with fierce oranges and black shadows.

The hiss cut off his answer. The metal dart buried into Kan’s chest over his heart. A wet crunch and grating crack echoed as the projectile slammed through his ribs. The shock threw him back. He landed on the ground with a grunt, blood welling through his brown shirt.

“Kan!” she gasped, pressing low to the ground. The girl knew how to survive.

“I’m fine.” He grasped the steel dart. It was as thin as a finger bone. He grunted as he yanked it out. More blood flowed, but the topaz jewelchines soothed the wound. Already, it closed.

“That hit you in the heart.” Awe strained the girl’s words. “That kills. I’s seen it.”

“I don’t have a heart.” The words were reflexive. He thrust his pistol into her hands. She would escape. “There is a draw that climbs the cliff. Amo Ponthia will meet you at the top. She’ll take you the rest of the way on the Path.”

The girl didn’t argue. Survivors never did. The children who were new slaves, still holding out hope that they would again see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cried and sniveled. Alamekia darted away at a crouch as Kan rose, his left hand held out before him, fingers splayed in warding. He drew his sword with the right.

If I had a heart, it would be beating in terror and telling me to flee.

The moment he stood, the hisses came. Falling onto his back had dropped him out of the automatons’ line of sight. But now, at least two dartcasters fired at him, shooting larger projectiles and with more accuracy than his pistol.

They struck the curved dome of the amethyst energy projected from his left hand. The jewelchine embedded in his palm, the wires running between his fingers and connecting with the network of gold and black iron threads that wormed beneath his skin like a second set of veins and arteries, activated at a thought. It resonated with the Tone of Protection. The darts crashed into the curved shield’s harmony, and deflected. One hissed over his head, creasing through his blond hair.

Kan’s eyes stared at the dark shape in the sky. What are you thinking up there?

Only one of the University’s mutilations should possess Kan’s embedded shield.

The final dart hissed out of the darkness and crashed into his shield. The ricochet buried it in the dirt by his right foot. His breath quickened as he listened above the hum of his shield and the crackle of the burning brush for the automatons’ approach.

The diamonds in their eyes betrayed them.

Five pairs glinted red in the darkness. Kan took a deep breath, visualizing his enemy. They spread wide, preparing to come at him from five different angles. They would be swift, brutal. Their attacks aimed to kill him as fast as possible. Scenarios whirled through his mind. His hand tightened on the leather wrapped hilt of his resonance blade, the hum reassuring.

He tensed, ready to act.

The ball glinted firelight as it arced out of the darkness. Kan cursed, burying his eyes into the crook of his elbow. It landed at his feet with a dull thud and rolled against his boot. The light’s brilliance warmed his skin as the pulstun’s diamond released its built up energy. It bled through the skin of his arms and his eyelids. For a moment, his radius and ulna appeared as dark shadows amid red-glowing flesh.

He dropped his arm as the automatons attacked, his vision spared from the stunning blast while their jewelchine eyes were unaffected. These ones were humans, though it was difficult to tell if they were male or female after the changes to their bodies. They’d grown as big as Kan, dressed in gray uniforms, their faces a mix of dusky olives, browns, and one ebony; slaves brought from the corners of Democh and its neighbors. Each held their own resonance sword, hums buzzing through the air. Two were newly mutilated. Instead of heads covered by hair or even smooth skin, they had domed cranial plates of obsidian replacing the top halves of their skulls, their skin growing unevenly to cover it.

The sight of his almost future always stirred horror through Kan. He imagined having a heart fluttering as he gazed at them moving in for the kill.

He had to move faster. His only advantage was his intact brain.

With a grunt, Kan darted towards the automaton to his right, his legs enhanced by the network of emerald and helidor jewelchines which strengthened and quickened his limbs. His blade hissed in a quick arc. It took the automaton a moment to react to the blurring charge. Kan’s blade sang, a hard, vicious swipe.

The automaton’s head parted from its body in a spray of blood. Severed wires protruded from the cut. The body stood rigid for a heartbeat longer before collapsing with the head. Kan already moved, using the momentum to turn his body and meet a slashing sword. He parried.

The other four were on him, resonance blades swinging. Sweat broke out on Kan’s forehead as he whipped his blade back and forth. His left hand thrust forward, his purple shield pulsing into life to deflect their weapons. When sword met sword, the air hummed with vibration, emerald jewelchines flaring with verdant light. Violet waves rippled across his shield with every impact.

He retreated, stepping over the slain automaton. The world slowed as he fought, all his focus bent on keeping those four blades from finding his flesh. They would kill him as fast as he’d killed the first. He couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t let them surround him. He had to be liquid, always moving, embracing the Tone of Water. Adaptation was his only chance, changing, flowing with circumstance, surrendering to necessity.

Waiting for his opening.

Only a handful of heartbeats after the clash began, he spotted it. The automatons had funneled too close together as they’d followed his retreat. None of the four had paid much attention to the others, too focused on their orders: kill. Their shoulders bumped together, hindering their swings for a moment.

Kan didn’t think. He acted.

His sword took an older automaton, a dartcaster slung over its shoulder, in the upper thigh. The enhanced blade cut with ease through the thing’s leg and then bit deep into its torso. Despite the flowing blood, Kan knew it didn’t live. How could it when it had no mind? It was a husk. A weapon.

This was mercy.

The automaton folded up and collapsed mid-swing, its blade missing wide. Kan kept moving, stabbing downward at where its heart would be. His resonance sword pierced the thing’s ribcage with ease and then cracked through the ruby jewelchine, carefully shaped to pump blood through its body. The gem burst. Scarlet light flared through the crimson bubbling out of the wound.

The automaton went limp. Damaging the heart jewelchine or the brain jewelchine were the only ways to kill one swiftly. Blood loss wasn’t quick enough. They would feel no pain, and their network of topaz jewelchines would, given time, heal any wounds.

Pain flared in Kan’s left arm as he darted past his enemies. The tip of a resonance sword grazed him. The nick sliced through his thick shirt and two inches of muscle. But it missed any wires. Already, the pain soothed as his flesh healed. He turned, facing the three remaining automatons. They fanned out, ignoring their dead. Their eyes glinted bright.

A new model, crimson flickering on its obsidian cranial plate, lunged fast, the enhanced body moving swifter than a normal human. Kan deflected with his shield, his left hand angled to let its blade stab past him. At the same instant, he lunged a stop-thrust at the heart of the other new automaton charging in.

His attack was too fast for the thing to bring up its own palm to shield. It was standard for the automatons to have amethyst jewelchines buried in both palms. His sword knifed for the thing’s heart jewelchine, hissing through the air.

The purple shield blossoming across the automaton’s chest shocked Kan.

His sword struck the protective energy. The curve of the shield sent his blade sliding up and to the left, thrusting over the automaton’s shoulder. Kan gaped. The thing had an amethyst jewelchine buried in its chest as well as its palms. A new improvement devised by him.

“Harmonious tones,” Kan grunted, his footing ruined by the surprise. He stumbled past the automaton.

As he did, the enemy blade hissed. It sliced deep into Kan’s left side, his flesh providing almost no resistance. The sword reached a foot or more into him, severing the network of wires running on the outside of his skin and damaging organs. Blood streamed down his side, soaking into his shirt and trousers. His leg buckled as he struggled to regain his footing.

No soothing energy flowed to the wound. His left hand felt at his side, brushed the severed gold and black iron wires protruding from his wound, disrupting the left half of his network of jewelchines. He tripped over the severed automaton’s leg and fell on his face to the ground. Dirt stuck to the spreading blood as he rolled onto his back. The third automaton, an older model, pivoted smoothly, drawing back its sword to ram the point into Kan’s chest.

He raised his left hand between him and his attacker and tried to generate his shield. Nothing. Too many control wires were severed on the left side, disconnecting the obsidian jewelchines that gave him direct control over his protection.

At least the girl has a chance.

Knowing it was futile, he acted. He let go of his sword and raised his right arm, fingers splayed wide. Kan would fight against his cruelties to his last breath.

The darts hissed out of the darkness and crashed into the lunging automaton’s head. Sparks flew as the first pierced skin and struck the obsidian cranial plate beneath, leaving a long, bleeding gash across its forehead. The second scored the cheek; a flap of bloody skin fell dangling. The third took it in the eye, driving deep. A flash of white light burst from the cavity, the diamond jewelchine disrupted. The automaton flinched enough at the attack, conflicting instructions jarring through its obsidian jewelchine. Its downward thrust slammed into the desert floor inches from Kan’s side.

His right hand pointed at the automaton’s chest. He triggered the jewelchine buried in his palm.

He didn’t conjure a shield.

The beam of pure sunlight didn’t so much as fire from his hand as appear. A long shaft blazed out over the dark desert, searing through the chest of the automaton. It lasted not even a heartbeat and left behind a burning afterimage across Kan’s vision.

The Tinker had made his own adjustments to Kan.

Molten ruby poured out of the hole bored through the automaton’s chest and ignited its gray uniform. It collapsed into a smoldering heap, limbs twitching.

“How did you do that?” the girl asked, holding his pistol and crouching by the burning bush, eyes owl-wide.

Kan didn’t answer. He’d held the lightbeam back for emergencies. The jewelchine took days to store the Tone of Light, and its accuracy failed outside of a hundred or so feet. It was hard to aim precisely. His arm lacked the proper sights of a pistol or dartcaster. He hadn’t even considered using it on the officer flying on the condor.

The officer was closer now, watching the fight from safety of the air.

Kan put that out of his thoughts. He still had two more automatons to deal with. He grabbed his resonance blade. Despite the blood pouring from his side, he forced himself to stand. He did not have much life left.

“What are you?” the girl asked.

I thought you were a survivor. “Run!”

The girl ignored him.

The automatons came at him fast. His shield now useless, Kan teetered as he drew his resonance dagger with his left hand. Life drained out of him, soaking his trousers to his boots. He was dying, and his damned jewelchine heart pulsed at the same steady rhythm, uncaring. His vision fuzzed.

He parried the first blow with sluggish movements. The impact of swords jarred down his blade. He almost dropped his weapon, his fingers growing weak. The right side of his body was still strong, the jewelchines working, but the left’s network failed. His left leg dragged as he moved back, pressed by the automatons’ attacks.

“You have to run!” he spat.

The girl shook her head. Her scrawny hand picked up a fallen resonance sword. She held it in such a clumsy grip. She had no idea how to stand properly, how to fight with it. But she let out a fierce scream, her face almost demonic in the roaring light. All the years of torment, of fear, of hopelessness burst from her as she swung at the nearest automaton.

And cut through its back.

It staggered, turning and taking a clumsy swipe at the girl. Blood sheeted down the automaton’s back. Her cut had flayed it open, exposing part of the spine, severing dozens of wires. Its swipe caught her sword, knocking it from her hand. It drew back to strike again but lost its balance and fell backward into its partner, tangling their limbs.

Kan acted, swiped. His sword sang. The movement burned his side. He grit his teeth, fighting waves of dizziness that threatened to drown him with insensibility.

The wounded automaton’s head parted from its shoulders.

Kan’s breath exploded from him. He bent over, gasping, heaving. His lungs were natural, and they flagged. The world spun around him as he faced the last automaton, now untangled from the dead one. The girl scurried on hands and knees to grab her fallen blade. The automaton drew back its sword, and swung at Kan.

He parried.

His grip was too loose on his weapon, his fingers numbed by blood loss. The attack slapped his sword from his hand. It spun through the air before knifing into the hard-packed desert clay. Kan gripped his dagger as the automaton drew back one final time, readying the blow that would kill him.

He threw the resonance dagger with a thrusting-like motion, almost an underhanded toss. The weapon soared point first across the few intervening feet. Stone cracked as it punched through the automaton’s obsidian cranial plate and into its jewelchine brain. Dark unlight bled out around the blade as the thing spasmed. Every muscle in its body twitched. Without any direction, it stood rigid. Off-balance, it toppled to the ground.

“You did it,” Alamekia cheered, holding up her sword like a great prize, waving it over her head.

“Not . . . over . . .” he spat, turning, searching the sky. He wanted to collapse, to surrender to the agony. But now he needed to be like the Tone of Earth. To be strong. To resist. To draw on the harmony of foundation, stability.

“But . . . you got them.”

The condor soared closer. The officer would have weapons, and he’d have outfitted the mutilated, giant bird with either greatcasters that could shred Kan’s body with rapid-fire darts or with other exotic weapons from his perverse imagination.

With effort, Kan bent down and snagged the dartcaster slung over the shoulder of a dead automaton. He jerked hard with his right arm, still strengthened by emeralds, and ripped the weapon’s leather strap. He grunted, raised the long-barreled musket, and aimed into the dark.

His pistol had missed. It was a close range weapon. The dartcaster was not.

A flash of yellow light, a weapon fired by the officer, gave Kan his target. Without flinching, without knowing what hurtled out of the darkness at him, he pulled the trigger. Yellow light flashed out the end of the barrel, the dartcaster’s helidor propelling the thin, metal missiles into the starry sky.

A shape fell from the condor as a net crashed to the ground at Kan’s feet. The tangled wires flared with amethyst light, a purple shield engulfing the piled mess. He grunted, staring down at the projectield that had missed him. The weapon was designed to capture and restrain. The projectield’s net would entwine about the target, then its shield would trigger, engulfing the person in a cocoon from which they could not escape.

His grunt turned into a groan as he toppled backward. The condor was harmless without the rider’s control, falling into a circling pattern. It was over. He stared up at the brilliant stars, a sea just out of reach. The light from the burning bushes dwindled. The girl appeared over him, her eyes shiny.

“No,” she whispered. “No!”

He grabbed her wrist with his shaky left hand, pulling her palm to his bleeding side. He should be dead already. “Feel!” He jammed her hand into his wounds, dragging her fingers along the smooth cut. “Wires. Feel?”

She nodded her head.

“Join them. Have to . . . reattach.”

“Reattach?” Her tone sounded dubious, her forehead furrowing.

“Please . . .” His breathing hurt. His entire left side was numbing fire. His topaz jewelchines worked to replenish the blood flowing out of his side, but it wasn’t enough. The chill spread through his body.

“How?”

“Twist.” Every labored word hurt. “They’ll . . . stay together.” Hopefully.

Alamekia grabbed his wires, not caring about the blood. She’d performed dirty work before. Kan grit his teeth, grunting through the pain as she brought the wires closer and closer. There was slack in the wires, allowing his body to move and flex without tearing them. He felt the wires worming beneath his skin. A pair of gold touched. Healing flashed through his left side, twitching his body, and then it stopped. Tongue thrust through shrunken lips, she tugged again.

“Careful,” he groaned. “Gold . . . delicate . . .”

“Trying,” she muttered, almost an accusation. “Stop moving.”

He tried. It was hard.

The wires brushed again. He spasmed as she braided them together. She let it go, felt through his wound, found another wire, and joined the severed ends. Black iron, part of the control network. The forbidden metal hummed as the wires brushed. Power shocked through him. A purple shield flared from his left hand.

The girl squeaked in fright, flinching away as he clenched his hand, gaining control of the jewelchine again. The black iron networked directly into his body’s natural control system. Your nerves, the Tinker had called them. Natural wires spreading throughout your body. How your brain bosses your body about. But that brain’s too smart. Not good at obeying. It’s why you don’t listen and concentrate like I tell you.

His vision fuzzed. The soothing energy from the topaz jewelchines radiated through his left side. Flesh and organs knitted together. The blood flow stemmed as Alamekia worked around the wound, tying more black iron and gold wires together, repairing his mutilated body. Kan closed his eyes, drifting through dreams.

He screamed in agony, thrashing on the table. His bones throbbed and ground together. They ached like growing pains increased hundredfold. Thousandfold. He watched him as he writhed, eyes blurry with agony. He choked on the glass tube shoved down his throat, a white paste dripping through it to his ravenous stomach.

Always hungry. Always in pain.

Very good growth,” the bushy-eyebrowed man said to the Tinker. “Another one that will live.”

Another one,” the Tinker said, slanted eyes soft. A comforting hand on his forehead. “A fighter.”

Already a man’s growth.” There was an almost child-like glee in his voice. “The new technique is showing results.”

Indeed.”

The pain surged. They cut into him. They threaded wires across his body. Bloody wounds healed as he thrashed, skin growing over hard gems. He felt so big, immense, a giant. He was naked, his head moving, staring down his body at the thick, ropy muscles of his limbs, his chest deep, only smooth flesh at his groin.

He drifted through pain for six months. An eternity of agony. He started a child, he ended an adult.

Have to go,” the Tinker said, unbuckling the straps. “They’re doing it tonight, my boy. Tonight. You’ll never come back from that one.”

Sunlight warmed Kan’s face as he opened his eyes. He blinked. The girl stirred, rising. Her cheek was smeared with dry blood coated in bits of dust and debris. She rubbed her eyes then scurried to him, shaking her head.

“You’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said, feeling his side. It was coated in drying blood. Some flaked off while globs stuck to his hand like gunk. He felt no wound, not even a scar. More blood cracked as he moved his legs, flakes of powdery rust falling away.

“What are you?” she asked, touching him. She traced the wires running like a second set of veins beneath his skin, pushing beneath his torn shirt to brush a hard nodule—a topaz jewelchine.

“Mutilated,” he grunted, pushing her hand away. “Let’s go.”

“Go?”

He looked up at the escarpment looming above them, a jutting pillar of black rock thrusting out near the rim. “Up there. Amo Ponthia is waiting for us. She’ll take you farther.”

“Take me where?”

Kan shrugged. “Safety.”

“You don’t know?” Eyes widened, shocked.

He shook his head. “Can’t betray what I don’t know.”

He stood. His stomach growled, but his limbs were strong, all the jewelchines working throughout is body. Hands flexed. Powdered blood fell from ruined clothing like dust. He found his cloak; the bottom edge was charred.

“I don’t think you’re mutilated,” she said, staring up at him with such innocence in her eyes.

Did I ever have that look? Phantom pain tightened his chest. His body remembered having a heart. He would never have a child of his own staring up at him like that. All he could do was rescue them.

“You’re not like them.” She spat at the nearest corpse. The automatons lay still, their bodies pale now. Flies buzzed along the shattered eye of the one she’d shot.

“Mostly like them.” He scooped her thin body up into his arms. She was like air, almost weightless. He trudged towards the narrow, hidden draw that wound up to the top of the cliff.

She shook her head. “You’re like a hero.”

He grunted.

“I said like a hero. A hero wouldn’t have needed me to fix his wires. Heroes don’t take wounds.”

“So what am I?”

“I don’t know. Special.” She beamed at him. A sunrise over planted fields. “An almost hero. But you’re too strong to be mutilated. And you’re not ugly.” And then she hugged him, her thin arms entwined about his neck. Her face pressed into his chest. He cradled her, the pain increasing in his phantom heart as he felt hers’ rapid beat.

Climbing the escapement had never been easier for Kan, even carrying the girl, even going slow to avoid snapping his repaired wires. They could break again. He would have to see the Tinker, have them replaced. He hated that he needed them.

It took half the day to climb up the steep path. The rocks were loose. Avalanches cascaded down behind them, stones clattering and clashing as they bounced down to the Depression’s floor. He pondered the hounds as he climbed. They changed things for the Guides. Saving what few children they could would be even harder.

If I was a hero, I would save you all.

He reached the top. Amo Ponthia waited, wrapped in a cloak that almost blended in with the scrub lands of the hills which surrounded the Depression. Only her slanted eyes were visible behind the wool veil that covered her hair and face. Her eyes tightened at the sight of his bloody clothing. But she didn’t say a word.

The girl clung to his neck when he tried to pry her away. She let out a whimper, shaking her head. “No.”

“You’ll be safe with her,” Kan said, his voice gentle. “She will guide you to safety.”

“I want you to guide me!”

“I have to keep protecting you. Make sure they follow a different trail.”

Her eyes were wide. “Really?”

He nodded his head. “I’ll lead them away while Amo Ponthia takes you to your new home.”

“You will be happy, child,” Amo Ponthia said.

Kan hoped that was true. The girl was a survivor. He had no idea what happened to the children after he delivered them to the next leg of the Path, to the next Guide who’d lead them away from the Democh Empire’s cruelty. He’d saved one child today out of hundreds.

Twenty-eight out of thousands.

It wasn’t enough, but what more could he do?

He watched Amo Ponthia and the girl walk off into the hills, heat’s shimmers washing them out until they were dancing, watery blurs. He would hide their trail for two miles, then head off in another direction from the top of the draw, leaving an obvious path. He wondered what she would find. Where she would live. If she would ever smile again.

Alamekia was as safe as he could make her. In two months, there would be another caravan. Another chance to save a child. He set about his work. He would be looking for his lost automatons. Kan could afford no mistakes.

As he worked, he pictured Alamekia in a small farm following her new father through the muddy fields as the seeds were planted, a smile on her face, her limbs full and healthy. A tear fell down his cheek.

Mourning what could never be.

The END

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Four

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Four

Hûnoreal

Welcome to Chapter Four of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Three!

For He sees gold in the wretched and excrement in the exalted. Nay, the world is not equal in the eyes of the God

—SCHOLARS, 7:16, THE TRACTATE

My Thoughts

This is about the subject view on who is and isn’t saved. It echoes the sentiment from Christianity that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven. To Christians, this is a statement that material possessions are a path into sin because you focus on them and not putting God first. Bakker’s scripture is saying that it is better to suffer than to be praised. That pain in this life brings reward in the next while those who take glory in this world are in for a surprise. It echoes another Christian teaching about salvation in that doing good deeds to earn salvation is offensive to God like soiled menstrual rags, I believe, is how the translations often go.

In Bakker’s universe, damnation is something seen and judged. This is our first allusion to the title of the book and Mimara’s ability. Fittingly, it is her POV that starts off the chapter and her first unveiling of this power.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

Mimara has no choice but to camp by Achamian’s tower. Where will she go? The brothel? Her mother’s palace (which is like a brothel)? She doesn’t tether her mule, Foolhardy, hoping he will wander free and escape then fearing that he’ll be eaten by wolves at night because of her carelessness. So far, he’s still there when she wakes up. As the days past, she tends her fire, thinking its “singularity of purpose” is divine.

Flare. Wax. Consume.

Like a human. Only with grace.

The children, learning she’s a witch, spy on her and gives fake screams of fright when she spots them. She is a witch because she can see the Wards that Achamian has put around his tower as well as the bruises to the world his violent defense of the valley against the Sranc had left. “The eyes of the Few were with her always, prodding her onto this path she has chosen, fortifying her resolve.”

But more and more the different eye seems to open, one that has perplexed her for many years—that frightens her like an unwanted yen for perversion. Its lid is drowsy, and indeed it slumbers so deep she often forgets its presence. But when it stirs, the very world is transformed.

For moments at a time, she can see them… Good and evil.

Not buried, not hidden, but writ like another colour or texture across the hide of everything. The way good men shine brighter than good women. Or how serpents glow holy, while pigs seem to wallow in polluting shadow. The world is unequal in the eyes of the God—she understands this with intimate profundity. Master over slaves, men over women, lions over crows: At every turn, the scriptures enumerate the rank of things. But for terrifying moments, the merest of heartbeats, it is unequal in her eyes as well.

She believes this “judging eye” is a madness brought on by what happened to her. “It has to be madness.” She wonders what Achamian will look like. She stares at his tower in the morning sun and thinks it’s not so tall. It’s height an illusion.

The world hates you…

This thought afflicts her when she least expects it. She knows this truth and didn’t need her little brother to remind her: “It hurts Momma to even look at you! She wishes she would have drowned you instead of sold you…” As she starves outside Achamian’s tower, she believes this more and more. She traveled all this way to be a witch and is denied.

There is no other place. So why not cast her life across the Whore’s table? Why not press Fate to the very brink? At least she will die knowing.”

She cries though she feels empty. She sees “the Wizard” pacing in his window. She can’t remember when she had cried and felt the emotion. She thinks maybe as a child. She stays because she has nowhere to go. All her choices are the same. Despair lies in all directions.

A broken tree, as her brothel-master once told her, can never yield.

Two days became three. Three become four. Hunger makes her dizzy, while the rain makes her clay-cold. The world hates you, she thinks, staring at the broken tower. Even here.

The last place.

One night, he appears, haggard like he hadn’t slept because of guilt. He has food and wine. She devours it like a “thankless animal.” He watches her and mentions Dreams like they are an old enemy he’s long fought. As she eats and stares at him, he speaks of his Dreams and what it’s like. She finds herself asking the lame question if they’re bad. In the firelight, she can see that though he’s suffered much, he still remembers how “to be tender and honest.” He answers her with a wink then fills a pipe and lights it. He tells her the dreams used to be. That confuses her. He then asks her why Mandate Schoolmen have the dreams.

She knows the answer. Her mother always resorted to talk of Achamian to salve the abrasions between her and her embittered daughter. Because he was her real father, Mimara had always thought. “To assure the School of Mandate never forgets, to never lose sight of its mission.”

“That’s what they say,” Achamian replies, savoring the smoke. “That the Dreams are the goad to action, a call to arms. That by suffering the First Apocalypse over and over, we had no choice but to war against the possibility of the Second.”

Achamian disagrees and says that her adopted father, Kellhus, is right that every life is a riddle that can be solved. He knows this to be a truth before telling her about the First Holy War and his “forbidden love” for Esmenet. He’d been willing to risk the World to have her. He is open and vulnerable with her, making it compelling. She’s heard this story before, but listens with “childish attentiveness,” letting herself feel his emotions. During it, she realizes that he doesn’t know that his love for Esmenet is a story told around the empire.

The only secret is that he still lives.

With these thoughts her wonder quickly evaporates into embarrassment. He seems over-matched, tragically so, wrestling with words so much larger than himself. It becomes cruel to listen as she does, pretending not to know what she knows so well.

“She was your morning,” she ventures.

This interrupts him, and he gets angry, glaring at her. He asks her to repeat it. And she does, explaining how Esmenet told her about what she meant to him. He then says he no longer fears the night because he doesn’t have the same Dreams as other Mandate Schoolman.

“I no longer pray for the morning.”

She leans back to pluck another log for the fire. It lands with rasping thump, sends a train of sparks twirling up through the smoke. Watching their winking ascent to avoid his gaze, she hugs her shoulders against the chill. Somewhere neither near nor far, wolves howl into the bowl of the night. As though alarmed, he glanced away into the wood, into the wells of blackness between the variant trunks and limbs. He stares with an intensity that makes her think that he listens as much as he hears, to the wolves and to whatever else—that he knows the myriad languages of the deep night.

It is then that he tells his tale in earnest…

As though he has secured permission.

Achamian thinks about how Esmenet, after his capture by the Scarlet Spire, had waited for him like Mimara had. He hadn’t come to see the girl out of anger, not wanting to reward her. He did it out of ear not wanting to be caught with missing Princess-Imperial. That he was doing her a favor because she was too old to learn the Nonman tongue to use magic. He used every excuse to hid from his pain.

Her mother, Esmenet, had waited for him on the banks of the River Semis over twenty years previous. Not even word of his death could turn her from her vigil, so obstinate, so mulish was her love. Not even sense could sway her.

Only Kellhus and the appearance of honesty.

Achamian recognizes Esmenet’s stubbornness in Mimara. How else could the girl have traveled so far alone? He finally realized he had to tell her the truth because she would die and he’d be destroyed by guilt. So he came with compassion and food and told her everything, including how his dreams had started changing. It had been twenty years since he spoke without issue. He explains how while the Mandate dream about Seswatha, they don’t witness the normal, day to day stuff. “‘Seswatha’ the old Mandate joke goes, ‘does not shit,’”

All the things that were forgotten, he realized.

The dreams took on new a character, subtle at first. Achamian merely thought it was his change in perspective. Achamian dreamed of Seswatha stubbing his toe to fetch a scroll. Mimara, as he speaks, stars at him the way Esmenet had. “Another abject listener.” He can’t read her, but she’s letting him speak. He explains how he was flabbergasted upon awakening. It wasn’t anything profound. He brings up how the Mandate have cataloged the variation of all the dreams. They could misfire, playing things out of order or corrupted. More than a few Mandate had become obsessed with them, thinking they found some greater truth. But they never could convince anyone else. So Achamian writes off the dream as his own. For two months, he dreamed the usual things, then he has one of Seswatha reading a scroll.

He trailed, though whether to let the significance settle in or to savour the memory, he did not know. Sometimes words interrupted themselves. He pinched the hem of his cloak, rolled the rough-sewn seam between thumb and forefinger.

Achamian notices how Mimara finishes off her gruel like a slave would before she asks what the scroll was. He says it’s a lost scroll by Gotagga. Parapolis. It’s famous. Mimara asks if Achamian invented it. He doesn’t think so. He wrote down what he remembered and it was far better than he could write. It proved they were real. He remembers that morning and the heady feel or realizing “he had begun dreaming Seswatha’s mundane life.” No other Mandate Schoolman had.

How strange it had been, to find his life’s revelation in the small things; he who had wrestled with dying worlds. But then the greater turned upon the small. He often thought of the men he’d known—the warlike ones, or just the plain obstinate—of their enviable ability to overlook and to ignore. It was like a kind of willful illiteracy, as if all the moments of unmanly passion and doubt, all the frail details that gave substance to their lives, were simply written in a tongue they couldn’t understand and so needed to condemn and belittle. It never occurred to them that to despise the small things was to despise themselves—not to mention the truth.

But then that was the tragedy of all posturing.

She asks why this happened. Why him. He has no idea, maybe Fate is fucking with him or maybe he’s gone mad, “for one cannot endure what I’ve [Achamian has] day and night without going mad.” Maybe since he’s abandoned his life, a new one filled it or Seswatha is reaching out to him. He comports himself and says there is a bigger question. He stares at her, watching her even while knowing he must appear as a bitter, old man.

But if there were judgment in her eyes, he could detect nothing of it.

“My stepfather,” she said. “Kellhus is the question.”

This makes him realize that she’s not ignorant of much of what he’s been talking to. She knew Kellhus personally. She’s his stepdaughter. It hadn’t clicked in his mind and he feels like an idiot for how obvious it was. Then he wonders why she came here. Did Kellhus send her even if she doesn’t know it? Is she a spy? Kellhus had seduced the Holy war. Mimara stood no chance.

How much of her soul was hers, and how much had been replaced?

Achamian asks if Kellhus sent her. She looks confused and bewildered. She says he’d drag her home in chains and return her to her mother. Achamian persists. She’s crying as she protests she’s not lying.

“This is the way it works,” Achamian heard himself rasp in an utterly ruthless voice. “This is the way he rules—from the darkness in our own souls! If you were to feel it, know it, that would simply mean there was some deeper deception.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! He-he’s always been kind—”

“Did he ever tell you to forgive your mother?”

She’s confused by that. He asks if he ever knew her heart better than she did. She says he had, not sure why it matters. He asks her if she felt awe in him. Saw him as more than a man. Did his attention make her feel gratified? Achamian is manic, shaking, frightening her. She calls him Akka, sounding to him like her “whore-mother.”

“When you stood before him!” he roared. “When you knelt in his presence, did you feel it? Hollow and immovable, as if you were at once smoke and yet possessed the bones of the world? Truth. Did you feel Truth?”

“Yes!” she cried. “Everyone does! Everyone! He’s the Aspect-Emperor! He’s the Saviour. He’s come to save us! Come to save the Sons of Men!”

Achamian stared at her aghast, his own vehemence ringing in his ears. Of course she was a believer.

“He sent you.”

Her presence returns him to the mindset of being in the First Holy War. In her eyes, he sees hope dying, like it had to him. When he approached her, she’d weakened, dared to believe finally something good would happen to her, and he’d snatched it from her. He believes she’s not a willing slave now and is reminded of Cnaiür who had “a soul at once strong and yet battered beyond recognition.” He sees Esmenet in her.

She was precisely the kind of slave Kellhus would send him [Achamian]. Part cipher. Part opiate.

Someone Drusas Achamian could come to love.

Achamian talks about the day Kellhus arrived at the Holy War. How Achamian was there. Kellhus had been a beggar claiming to be a prince with a Scylvendi. “It was my back he broke climbing to absolute power,” Achamian tells her. He goes on how Kellhus was his friend, his student, and how Kellhus stole his wife anyways. His morning. He dares her to speak now and she stays silent.

“The only thing,” he continued, his voice wrung ragged with conflicting passions. “The only thing I took with me from my previous life was a simple question: Who is Anasûrimbor Kellhus? Who?”

Achamian stared at the bed of coals pulsing beneath the blackened wood, paused to allow Mimara fair opportunity to respond, or so he told himself. The truth was that the thought of her voice made him wince. The truth was that his story had turned into a confession.

Mimara gives the obvious answer to his question: Kellhus is the Aspect-Emperor. Achamian isn’t surprised. Anyone, let alone Kellhus’s adopted daughter, would give this answer. People wanted things to be simple. They would mock questions “for fear it would make their ignorance plain.” Then they would claim to be open.

This was the iron habit of Men. This was what shackled them to the Aspect-Emperor.

He shook his head in slow deliberation. “The most important question you can ask any man, child, is the question of his origin. Only by knowing what a man has been can you hope to say what he will be.” He paused, brought up short by an old habit of hesitation. How easy it was to hid in his old pedantic ruts, to recite rather than talk. But no matter how woolly his abstractions always became snarled in the very needling particularities he so unwittingly tried to avoid. He had always been a man who wanted to digress, only to find himself bleeding on the nub

She gives the official answer, that Kellhus is “the Son of Heaven” as if it were the only one that could be. Achamian points out he’s a real person with parents born like anyone else. Where did that happen? She brings up Atrithau, but he cuts her off and says that Cnaiür, a dead man, told him. A memory of Cnaiür’s conversation, his warning on how Dûnyain “war against circumstances” and see men as dogs to be tamed. How they use love to control. The Dûnyain are Kellhus’s people.

She asks about his bloodline, and Achamian says he is an Anasûrimbor, the only clue to where he’s from. Where had that kingly family survived? She asks where else besides Atrithau since the North is ruined. The Sranc rule it. He says the Kûniüric High Kings must have created a refugee, something Cnaiür had mentioned in their conversation. Hidden in the mountains. Isolated for a thousand years so they could breed themselves into something better than world-born humans.

As he talks about the sanctuary, Achamian knows he sounds desperate to be believed even as he struggled to control how fast he gives Mimara the information. However, when calling the Aspect-Emperor a liar, their words never could come out slow enough. Mimara has gone blank, hiding her offended beliefs. Achamian thinks she sees him as a bitter cuckold railing against the better man who’d taken his wife and now paints a story with himself as the hero.

He breathed deeply, leaned back from the fire, which suddenly seemed to nip him with its heat. He resolved to refill his pipe, but he could only clench his fists against the tremors.

My hands shake.

Mimara watches Achamian as his voice grows shriller, his gestures wilder. At first, she was excited, but then she realizes he’s not free at all, but bound by the past. He’s not speaking to her, either, but to her mother. The irony that he mistakes her for her mother after she mistook him for her father hurts her. She realizes he’s more her brother, another person hurt and betrayed by Esmenet.

Mimara realizes she’s been wrong about him. Her imagination the opposite of reality. He lives only for vengeance against Kellhus. He’s ranting about how keeping Cnaiür alive was Kellhus’s mistake. The Scylvendi knew too much about Kellhus’s past. So now Achamian is using his mutated Dreams to get his vengeance. He’s spent twenty years sifting through Seswatha’s life to find what he needed.

It’s more than a fool’s errand; it is a madman’s obsession, on par with those ascetics who beat themselves with strings and flint, or who eat nothing but ox-hides covered in religious writings. Twenty years! Anything that could consume so much life simply has to be deranged. The hubris alone…

His hatred of Kellhus she finds understandable, though she herself bears no grudge against her stepfather. She barely knows the Aspect-Emperor, and those fare times she found herself alone with him on the Andiamine Heights—twice—he seemed at once radiant and tragic, perhaps the most immediate and obvious soul she had ever encountered.

You think you hate her,” he once said—referencing her mother, of course.

I know I do.”

There is no knowledge,” he had replied, “in the shadow of hate.”

She ponders those words and sees how Achamian has focused everything in his life towards unmasking Kellhus. His Dreams and his Hatred. If you can’t get your revenge, it devours you which only feeds your outrage at the source. She sees Achamian as the same as her.

She asks if he’s found what he’s been searching for in the dreams. He’s found a name, sounding embarrassed because it sounds so paltry compared to his boasts about his work. She nearly laughs, earning a bitter glare.

She reminds herself to take care. Her instinct, given all that she has endured, is to be impatient with the conceits of others. But she needs this man.

He says the name: Ishuäl. It’s almost a whisper. He explains it means ‘Exalted Grotto’ or ‘High Hidden Place’ in a Nonman dialect. She asks if that’s where Kellhus is from and sees it disturbs him when she speaks Kellhus name with familiarity. He is certain, however. She asks how he can find it. He says he’ll know soon. More and more of Seswatha’s life is opening to him. He’s getting the secrets.

A life spent mining the life of another, pondering glimpses of tedium through the lenses of holy and apocalyptic portent. Twenty years! How can he hope to balance the proportions? Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stones.

“Like he’s yielded,” she forces herself to say.

Achamian says that’s just what it likes. He speaks as if Seswatha knows it and is helping him. She can’t imagine what sort of drive it would take to spend twenty years researching this. She doesn’t think any sane person could have such conviction and perseverance.

Faces. All conduct is a matter of wearing the appropriate faces. The brothel taught her that, and the Andiamine Heights simply confirmed the lesson. It’s as though expressions occupy various positions, a warning here, a greeting there, with the distance between measured by the difficulty of forcing one face from the other. At this moment nothing seems so difficult as squeezing pity into the semblance of avid interest.

She asks him again if no other Mandate’s had this happen. He says no and asks her what it means. She’s shocked and offended that he’s showing weakness. At that point, the Judging Eye opens, though she doesn’t know what this is. She sees more than the Mark on him. She sees the “hue of judgment, as though blessing and condemnation have become a wash visible only in certain kinds of light.” He bleeds evil. Damnation.

He is damned. Somehow she knows this with the certainty with which children know their hands. Thoughtless. Complete.

He is damned.

The Judging Eye closes and he’s just Achamian again. She feels great sorrow for this once strong man who is now a wreck. She knows, thanks to the brothel, that a madman needs to be believed. She tells him he’s a prophet from the past and leans in to kiss. “Her whole life she has punished herself with men.”

The memory of his power is like perfume.

After they have sex, they both regret it. She feels lonely as he sleeps beside her, wondering why that should be. She crawls to the fires, wrapped up in blankets, and tries to forget what they did. When he touches her shoulder, giving her kindness, she starts to cry.

“We have made our first mistake together,” he says, as though it were something significant. “We will not make it again.”

The forest is silent and suddenly she can’t stand it and sobs out, asking if she’s broken. If that’s why she runs. He says everyone carries silent burdens that bend them. She throws that back in his face, even as she hates herself for calling him broken. His hands stay on her in a comforting manner, though. He tells her he needs to find the truth more than for his hatred. She asks what difference does it make, and he’s shocked to learn the Great Ordeal has marched for Golgotterath. In a year, the Consult will be destroyed. Already, Sakarpus has already fallen.

Silence. Remorse comes crashing in.

Can’t you see? Something shrikes in her. Can’t you see the poison I bring? Strike me! Strangle me! Pare me to the core with your questions!

But she laughs instead. “You have shut yourself away for too long. You have found your revelation too late.”

My Thoughts

Why is the palace like a brothel? It’s a place where people are seen as objects. As things to be used and manipulated. As the Empress’s daughter, she would be seen as a valuable piece to be claimed as a wife. As an ear to her mother. As a wedge against a political rival. The brothel is, at least, honest.

Flare. Wax. Consume. Be energetic, get tired, and then eat food before you do it all over again. Life reduced to its most basic and honest form.

Unlike the Judging Eye, seeing sorcery’s mark on the world never goes away.

We get our first description of the Judging Eye and what our opening epigram is about: in this world, things are not equal. Men are seen as better than women. Why? I think it’s belief. The Outside exists so long as enough souls on this planet believe in it. That’s why the Inchoroi and the Consult want to depopulate it. To destroy this extra-dimensional realm that is being fed upon by the psyche of intelligent beings. Nonmen are evil because the majority species on this planet believe it. Whatever effect the Nonmen had on the Outside is gone. They’ve been depopulated. It’s all human now. Men think they’re better than women, which is a common thing we’re shown as a great evil in this series.

Bakker is accused of misogyny, but the whale room is his greatest condemnation of women being used as objects. The Dûnyain, who prized intellect above all others, who wanted to breed themselves into perfect beings, realized that the sex differences between women and men made it necessary to turn their women into better breeders. They destroyed their women because they had no emotions.

They did it through logic.

Then you have the other end. The Inchoroi. They are all about sex but don’t care about its biological purpose. Just the pleasure. They are all just men looking to rut with whatever holes they can find. They have a thousand words for ejaculate. Tells you a lot of their priorities.

Esmenet is the perfect person to show the flaws of these beliefs. An intelligent woman denied any chance to use it, forced to sell her body, even her own child, to survive. Achamian came close to treating her as an equal. Considering their culture, he went far beyond what’s normal. Kellhus used this to seduce her by respecting her and feeding her knowledge. However, his logic still led to the same position: she became a breeder for him.

How can Mimara ever heal and find resolution with her relationship with Esmenet when she has Kelmomas poisoning the well, polluting her thoughts with lies? We’ve seen Esmenet’s POV. We know the greatest mistake she’s ever made was selling her daughter.

A broken tree can never yield. A tree yields to the wind that blows past it, bending and swaying. To the forces of nature until those forces are too much and it breaks. The trunk collapses. Then it just lies there, unable to do anything. Unable to yield because it has collapsed. Is this what Bakker means? Maybe.

Reading this section of Mimara is something I can relate to. That feeling of helplessness. That nothing matters so why do anything. Just like you’re in a pit and will die because no one cares about you to come look for you. No one will miss you. Why even bother trying to escape? It takes too much effort. Just lie there and let it end.

Poisonous thoughts. The loss of hope is crippling.

Achamian says he no longer prays for the morning, and yet he just spent all this time talking about what Esmenet meant to him. What he was willing to give up for her. He would have condemned the world if it meant having the woman he loved. He isn’t over her at all. He is, after all, still trying to prove that Kellhus is not what he says. To find proof that he’s lying about salvation for sorcerers and even for Esmenet. That the Great Ordeal isn’t what he claims.

I don’t know about you, but I have dreamed of invented books before. I once heard you can’t read in dreams, but that’s not true. I have. Usually, it’s on the eve of a book I’m looking forward to reading coming out. The Wheel of Time books caused me to have them a few times. I’d be so excited to read them, but I could never find the same place in the books and sometimes would frantically be flipping through pages to find it.

The small things of life are where your true self comes out. Not the mask you wear around others, the various roles we all shift through like chameleons. The good employee. The patient friend. The polite cashier. Spouse. Confidant. Adviser. We never fully act our real selves around anyone but modify our behavior because it’s expected or to avoid friction.

And a brutal critic on those who pretend it doesn’t happen. Who project themselves as something more than the truth: they’re no better than any other human being.

Dûnyain influence on people is almost like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Only it’s still the person you love who betrays you because of Kellhus. Like what happened with Conphas and Martemus in the last series. Martemus was loyal until Kellhus began whispering. Then he nearly killed Conphas. And Conphas never betrayed Martemus. Conphas never did anything to Martemus that would have prompted a sense of betrayal. It was all Kellhus rewriting his soul.

Making Martemus into a new person.

It’s insidious if you’re trying to war against Kellhus. There’s no test like with the skin-spy. No mark left on the person physically. Not even the Mark.

Mimara, of course, was sent by a Dûnyain. Just not Kellhus. So Achamian is right, but, lucky for him, Kelmomas cares nothing about Achamian. He just needed Mimara to go away. She’s lucky not to be dead.

My theory is that Kellhus expected Achamian to try and find Ishuäl and use the Holy War as cover. I believe that’s why he arranged for the nonman king to be with the Ironsoul and his men. He cut a deal with the nonman erratic to let him relive his past through Seswatha (aka Achamian) in exchange for knowledge. He used that knowledge to send Serwa on an attack on Ishterebinth and secure his flank for the march on Golgotterath. Was Achamian supposed to be killed by the erratic? Was he supposed to find the truth about Kellhus?

I don’t know.

Once Kellhus had achieved his goal of defeating the No-God, he didn’t need to rule everything. Perhaps he was readying for some form of enlightened atheism. To have Achamian began to destroy his own myth after Kellhus achieved his plan. I think Kellhus wanted to close the Outside but not the way the Consult wanted to. Not through genocide. I could be just talking out of my ass here because Kellhus died without giving us any closure on Achamian’s storyline. In the end, Achamian’s journey didn’t change what happened at Golgotterath one bit. It was anticlimactic. Perhaps the point, but it seems like a waste of literary potential.

We’ll have to see how the next series handles it.

Achamian is unburdening himself now. He felt guilty for snatching away Mimara’s hope with his accusation. So even though he fears she is exactly what he dreads, a leash from Kellhus, he can’t help but explain himself. To fall into the Dûnyain trap.

People do not like their beliefs challenged. It causes turmoil. Why go through all that mental effort when you can just get on with your life? Like confronting contradictory information to what is in your core identity. Is it any wonder people hate philosophers. No one likes the status quo being challenged when you’re benefiting from it.

Beyond that, our minds take a lot of energy to operate. Humans burn a lot of calories to have our brains process so much, so our minds focus on important things and don’t like us to waste energy on things that cause it to have to burn more resources.

To understand something, you need to know how it came about. Whether it’s an astronomer studying a new cosmic phenomenon or a farmer trying to eradicate a new weed in his crops. The truth of origin can allow you to both understand something better and then categorize it. Handle it.

To war against it.

“There is no knowledge in the shadow of hate.” Mimara doesn’t hate her mother, she loves her. That is why she’s so hurt. Why she wants to punish her back. She doesn’t want to destroy her mother. Doesn’t despise her. She wants to make her mother bleed so she can find closure on the pain she received from Esmenet. You hate what you don’t know. One of the most successful men in defusing racial hatred is a black man named Daryl Davis. He sat down with members of the KKK, became their friends, and more than two hundred of them gave up their robes. He let them get to know what they hated and find understanding.

Achamian hates Kellhus. Mimara resents her mother.

One of those secrets of Seswatha, like how he’d cuckolded the king and is probably the father of Nau-Cayûti.

“Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stone.” Value is subjective, after all. What looks like something as common as stone to one person is the material to build something great and vast to another.

Despite her upbringing, Mimara is having trouble hiding her pity for Achamian let alone feeling it. He’s touched her. Reached through her hard, bitter, cynical exterior that she drew around herself to protect her heart from the suffering she received as a child-slave in a brothel.

Interesting that the Judging Eye triggered as she’s judging him for being weak. I’m going to pay attention to its other appearance and see if there’s anything that triggers it, or if it happens at “random.” I put that in quotes because no book has random things in it. An intelligent mind creates a book and while their reasoning may not make sense, an author chooses when to put information in and for a reason.

Mimara has really only learned one way to deal with men. She hates it, but she doesn’t know other ways to get them to give her things. So she once again goes down that path, sensing Achamian’s vulnerability. This is her moment. She could have continued doing this with him, but he does the one thing she can’t take.

He’s kind to her.

Sex is a punishment for her. To willingly do what she’d been forced to do. What she hates. To be the thing she can never escape. He shouldn’t be kind to her, and yet he is.

She feels lonely beside him because she didn’t have sex out of love, out of a desire to truly be with him. She just wanted to get something from him. They had the veneer of intimacy but in fact, it’s not there. So she can’t take any satisfaction from his presence.

Ultimately, Mimara’s problem is that she hates herself. For how she has grown to become exactly what the brothel masters intended: a woman who uses sex to get things from men. And because of that, she wants the world to hate her, too. Her mother. Achamian. She lashes out at them even as she wants to stop. Even as she wants to receive their love. Until she can stop hating herself, she’ll never be able to accept the love of others.

And what Achamian offers her as he holds her face is love. Not sexual love, but that paternal love she came here seeking. He will become her father in truth over their journey, and since we’re in the world of grimdark fantasy, it comes after they had sex and she becomes pregnant with his child.

And with her pronouncement on the Holy War’s march, Achamian is launched into action. He has his quest. His chance to make it to his goal and find the truth. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. They arrive at the Great Ordeal not caring about the results. They don’t confront Kellhus. He’s never even seen with the Judging Eye. Because we, the readers, don’t need to see Kellhus in that eye. In those final moments, we see what Kellhus’s goals are. Whether or not he’s damned, he’s trying to change things his way. A way that doesn’t see humans suffer more than necessary.

Because, ultimately, he fell in love in his stunted way. He forged an emotional bond to Serwë and Esmenet. He let one of them die for his mission. He couldn’t let the other one. The irony is that this led to his fall. If he never went back to save Esmenet, if he hadn’t spared Kelmomas for her sake, what happened at Golgotterath would have played out very differently.

So what is the point of Achamian and Mimara’s journey? I haven’t read this series since the Unholy Consult came out and know how it ends. It sees these two broken figures reunited with Esmenet both transformed by their journey.

Let’s figure this out together and see if we can piece together what Bakker was intending. Is this another fantasy storyline that ends in failure like all the rest? Probably.

Ultimately, all are protagonists fail. Achamian and Mimara never reveal the truth of Kellhus.

Kellhus never defeats the Consult.

Sorweel never stops the evil emperor and live happily ever after with his princess.

Esmenet fails to protect her children.

But scattered through it is lives and passions, events that have meaning. That resonates. Let’s explore those as we march forward through The Aspect-Emperor.

If you enjoyed this, click here for Chapter Five!

And if you want to help support this blurb, check out my fantasy books on Amazon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Weekly Free Story – Lily’s Kiss

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Lily’s Kiss

Her Royal Highness, Princess Livia Bethany Izzabel Karzinoth, took a deep breath as her new boots crunched on the edge of the crenelation. She did her best not to look down at the plunging drop before her, her rope swaying like a long snake down the side of the tower’s black stone. The knot in her stomach twisted even tighter. Her breath quickened. Frozen air puffed before her, the night’s chill deepening, adding a bite that snapped at her pink cheeks. Already, frost rimed the tower’s edges.

Winter’s chill stole through the structure. On her climb up it, she felt those icy fingers digging through the leather pants and jerkin she wore, rough clothing she’d filched from the laundress and tailored in secret through long nights to fit her shorter, yet curvier, form than the squire who owned them.

Her moleskin gloved hands gripped the rope as she turned around, facing the tower’s center, her back to the vast expanse of air behind her. Her stomach squirmed as the heels of her feet hung off the edge.

I’m going to die,” she whispered to herself.

She could picture it now, her booted foot slipping on the icy stone, the alchemical treatment on the gloves failing, her grip slipping. The rope hissing by her, the tower’s stones streaking past, as she plunged head-first into the outer bailey below.

She stood atop the Raven Donjon, the highest tower of the castle. It was a remnant of the old keep torn down to build the larger, and more impressive, dwelling that housed the royal family. The stonemasons had left behind only the rearing shaft of black, an edifice only a fool would climb.

That’s me, thought the princess. A fool.

But she had no choice. A fortnight ago, she’d discovered love in an unexpected place. Not in the nobles who came from across the known world to court her, the dignitaries from a dozen courts, or the men of power and wealth all looking to forge an alliance with her father’s kingdom. Nor did she find passion in the arms of a rough soldier or a comely servant like many ladies of the court did, reveling in their sordid love behind their lord husbands’ backs.

She’d found love in the face of Lily, her new bedmaid.

It had blossomed so unexpectedly, swelling in her heart until it swallowed her body.

And when discovered abed, the evidence of their sapphic passion found on their flushed bodies and despoiled sheets, Princess Livia lost her Lily. The soldiers had taken the maid away, imprisoning her at the commands of Livia’s horrified parents. Already, the ink upon a betrothal contract dried, signing the princess over to another man who’d carry her away after their affair. Meanwhile, her poor Lily would rot in her cell high up in the Raven Donjon, condemned for loving Livia. Just picturing Lily quivering, freezing in her rags, propelled Princess Livia to step off the battlements and slide down her rope.

I’m going to die, ran over and over through the frightened princess’s thoughts. The rope hissed as it slid through her moleskin gloves. Treated with an alchemical formula she’d filched from the castle apothecary, the gloves gripped the rope in an unnatural way, almost sticking to the gray hemp even as she’d descended down it.

Now, however, she let out a shriek as she slid faster, her heart beating, fearing the treatment’s failure. Flashes of falling shot through her mind again. The darkness rushing up at her, the bone-crunching impact, then nothing. Death. But the idea of her poor Lily wilting away in the cell proved far, far stronger than the terror turning her insides into laundry churned by the fullers’ feet.

Livia was a fool, but her love gave her no choice.

The toes of her boots scraped down the mortared stone of the tower. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look down. Though she had a childhood full of romping through the castle, of climbing trees and smaller towers, never once had she dared the heights of the Raven Donjon. Not even her tomboyish enthusiasm had given the younger her the courage to attempt what she did tonight.

Her toes scraped down the wall until she hit a gap, her feet swinging into nothingness. She let out a squeak of fright as she swung into the opening, fearing a deadly plummet to the courtyard loomed. Then metal rang, her boot striking the barred window of a cell. A heartbeat later, her foot landed on the ledge of the window’s opening. She trembled, realizing she’d reached her destination.

With a sucked in breath, Livia lunged her hand forward and grasped an iron bar. She pulled herself from her rope to perch on the window’s ledge. She had half her feet planted on the stone, the other half hanging off over open air.

Again, she could feel the distance yawning between her and the courtyard’s stones far below.

Lily,” she hissed, peering through the darkness. The chill from the iron bled through her gloves. Her heart thundered in her chest. “Lily, it’s me.”

Nothing answered her.

Did I climb down to the wrong window? Did I misjudge her cell’s location?

A panicked flutter rippled through the princess. She’d carefully planned everything the last fortnight. The moment her parents had stolen Lily from her, she’d launched into her daring rescue. She’d tried to be the model daughter for them when she’d come of age. She’d put away her boys’ clothes. She’d stopped romping through the swampy edges of the moat or playing rough games with the scullion boys. She wore the restraining gowns her mother ordered sewn for her, draped herself in jewels gifted by suitors, wore the unguents and perfumes proffered by servants, allowed the greasy makeup to paint her face, and sat for hours while her hairdresser tamed her dark locks. She would have endured it all if they could have let her have Lily. She would have gladly married any man, done her wifely duty and bore him heirs, so long as she could have her bedmaid with her. To have the woman she loved to keep her company, to share lonely nights, and with whom to enjoy sweet kisses and tender caresses.

But the bitter words her mother spoke to her that night echoed in her head . . .

*

Lady Sun and Father Earth made everything in opposites,” Queen Bethany lectured to the princess.

Livia huddled in the dressing gown stuffed on her after they took Lily from her, hugging her legs as she sat in the middle of her rumpled bed. Candles lit the room, the light dancing upon the stern matron’s face. Tears stained the princess’s cheeks as she ached for her bedmaid’s return.

Day and night,” continued her mother, “white and black, order and chaos, man and woman. They are meant to complement each other. Without opposites, there would only be bland sameness. You were born to be with a man.”

The words struck sparks inside the princess. It offended her that her mother saw only filth in the beauty she made with Lily. Livia bounced onto her knees on the bed, glaring defiance at the queen. “I was born to be with Lily!” the princess raged. “I love her! She loves me! What is so wrong about that? What crime have we committed? It’s not like I bedded a scullion! I just shared something . . . something wonderful with my friend.”

The queen shook her head, lip curling in disgust. “There was nothing wonderful about what we found. It was perversion. We are blessed to rule, Livia. The compliment of those who serve. How can we disrupt the order Mother Sun and Father Sky gave to us? We have to be exemplars!”

Like you and the captain of the guard?” spat the princess. “What part of the natural order is cuckolding my fath—”

The queen’s slap snapped the princess’s head to the side. “You understand nothing about being a woman. I never should have tolerated even a moment of your foolishness as a girl. Look what it has done. Running around like a boy has warped you into thinking you are one.”

I’m a woman,” the princess hissed. “So I do understand just why you bed the captain of the guard. At least I love Lily.”

You are too young to even understand what that word means.” The queen leaned forward, seizing the princess’s chin. “When you’ve brought life into the world through blood and pain, then talk to me about love. Until then, you are my daughter, and you shall never see that little strumpet again! I will find you a husband so you can do your duty to him and to our family.”

The queen whirled, skirts flowing like an angry tide, and marched from the room. Alone, the princess simmered. Thought. Plotted.

*

Memory of that argument gave Princess Livia fire as she peered through the darkened cell. “Lily, are you there?” I’ll crawl across this entire tower. I’ll find you even if I break my neck doing it.

She grabbed her rope and swung out from the alcove, abandoning the empty cell. Anger swelled in her for making such an error. It could ruin everything. She couldn’t afford to die. She had to rescue her sweet Lily. Nothing else mattered.

Swallowing her fear, Livia walked herself along the outer wall of the tower, her feet braced against the stones, the rope creaking as she scurried sideways towards the next window. She spotted it as she walked along the outside of the tower. Above, the rope scraped on stone.

Mother Sun, shine upon me, she prayed, and don’t let my rope fray and break. For Lily. You’ve seen how sweet she is.

The image of her lover swelled in the princess’s mind, that round face framed by cornsilk hair, eyes as blue as the sea, as azure as the sky. Despite her common birth, Lily possessed the natural grace that a princess should embody. Dainty, delicate cheeks paling at the sight of blood, squeamish around mud. Sometimes, Livia imagined a horrible mistake must have happened. That the pair were switched at birth, the universe’s proper order messed up again.

First, you create me to love women, she prayed to Mother Sun, then you give me the personality of a peasant and not a princess. Why would you do that?

She didn’t understand. It confused her why everyone preached the order of creation when she felt so alien from it, so different from what was expected. When she’d met Lily, she finally understood just how flawed she was, how much the Gods had botched the casting of her form into the mold of life.

But she didn’t care about why she was created wrong. It didn’t matter now. Not when she found someone just as flawed, just as alien, just as out of place as her. Someone who understood. As she shuffled across the tower’s rounded exterior, the memory of their first kiss swallowed her thoughts.

*

I’m so sorry,” Lily gasped, jerking her head back from the princess’s. “I didn’t meant to do that. It just . . . You’re just . . . so beautiful.”

Livia blinked in wonder, still feeling the touch of her bedmaid’s lips. Though they’d only known each other for a month—her last bedmaid had married another servant—they’d fast become friends despite the difference in their stations.

As was usual, they shared the princess’s bed tonight so Lily could be on hand to provide for the princess’s any need. As they talked about idle things, they had rolled onto their sides to face each other. The contents of their conversation had utterly evaporated from Livia’s mind by that quick, chaste kiss.

How could she remember anything as she sat their trembling, awakened to her true self? Everything in her mind crystallized who she was. Her eyes widened as she stared at Lily, studying her with new sight, and seeing her as more than her new friend. She saw that opposite she’d searched for to complete her and couldn’t find among the men like she’d expected. All those suitors she’d politely suffered. All those times staring at the guards training and trying to understand why the other courtly girls and servants giggled at their sweaty, shirtless bodies.

It all became clear, Mother Sun’s illumination exposing the truth.

It’s okay,” Livia answered, her words strained by awe. “It wasn’t . . . distasteful. It was . . . rather nice.”

Relief burned across Lily’s face. Her eyes trembled. “Thank Father Earth’s gentle ground. I am truly sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.”

You were afraid I’d be offended?” That hurt Livia. “You never have to be afraid of me.” She took Lily’s hand, scooting a little closer, her nightgown rustling about her skin. “I would never hurt you. Even if you planted a thousand kisses upon my lips.”

Lily squeezed Livia’s hand back. Trembling, the maid asked, “You mean that, Your Highness?”

Livia.” The princess smiled. “Didn’t I tell you to call me that?”

It’s just . . .” Lily scooted closer. “It’s such a dream. Being with you. Every day, I pinch myself.”

Because you’re living in the castle?” frowned Livia.

No. Because of you. That I get to be with you. You make everything so much brighter.”

Me?”

You’re so elegant.”

I’m always tripping over the hem of my skirt.”

You move with such grace.”

So gracefully into a vase or a plinth holding a bust.” The princess grinned. “And then crash.”

Your hair is lustrous.”

If you like horsehair.”

Princess!” Lily said with some heat. “Stop that!”

Livia blinked at the outburst. “What?”

You are so beautiful. You don’t have horsehair. And you’re not so wide that you crash into anything. You walk with wonderful grace. Don’t hate yourself. It’s terrible.”

Livia became even more confused. “Why does it make you so angry?”

Because I don’t like anyone insulting you. Not even yourself. I . . .” She swallowed her words. “I love you, princess. That’s why I kissed you. That’s why I’m so happy and think this is a dream. I know it’s wrong. I shouldn’t say this because it means you’ll hate me, and you’ll send me away from you, but I just had to blurt out what was in my heart. To tell you how I felt even if you—”

Princess Livia kissed her bedmaid. And it wasn’t a quick, chaste kiss.

*

They had two weeks of beautiful nights before that horrid evening when they were caught. Princess Livia wanted them back. So she kept working around the tower, her arms threatening to rip free from her shoulder sockets. She gripped the rope, ignored the cold, and moved with bouncing, swinging steps closer and closer to the next cell window.

She was almost there when her boots slipped on the icy surface as she went to make her next swinging leap. She let out a startled yelp, soles scraping on stone. She found purchase for a heartbeat and made a mad lunge for the window ledge. Her fingers stretched wide. She realized how dumb this was. If she missed . . .

The courtyard was so far below.

With a squeak of relief, she snagged the icy lip of the alcove. Her alchemical gloves gripped. Breath exploded from her lips. Her feet scrabbled against mortared stone. She found purchase and hauled herself into the window’s alcove. She pressed herself against the bars, clutching them, her entire body shaking as she peered inside, praying to see her lover.

That she didn’t risk death for nothing.

Lily!” she hissed, her heart thundering in her chest, threatening to break her ribcage. Her entire body trembled. “Please, are you there, Lily?”

Shadows stirred in the room. “Livia?”

Mother Sun’s blessed light,” gasped Livia, relief flooding through her.

What are you doing?” The shadow rose and darted to the window. Silvery light splashed onto a frail figure, face gaunt and wan, blonde hair lank and swallow, darker than Livia remembered.

She’s so dirty, the princess realized, staring at her lover in the thin nightgown she wore. The same garment that had half-clad her body the night they were caught.

Tears burned Livia’s eyes. “What did they do to you, sweet flower?”

I’m fine,” Lily said, her thin arms reaching through the bars to touch the wool sleeve of the shirt the princess wore beneath her jerkin. “They haven’t done anything to me.”

Did they feed you?”

A crust of bread and a bowl of soup each evening,” she said. “It’s more than enough. But what are you doing? You’ll fall. This is foolish, Your Highness.”

Don’t call me that!” The anger surged through Livia.

Lily flinched.

I’m sorry,” the princess said, grabbing her lover’s thin arm. “I didn’t mean to yell. I had no idea they treated you this poorly.”

She shrugged, looking resigned to her fate. Livia’s heart broke.

They tell me you’re to be married,” the girl continued. “That I’ll be released once you’ve left with your husband.”

Well, I’m releasing you tonight,” the princess said. “You won’t spend another heartbeat in here.”

A sad smile spread on Lily’s face. She leaned forward to the bars, kissing Livia through the gap. “Another sweet dream. I’ll savor it tonight.”

Every night,” Livia insisted. “You’re coming with me.” She shifted around, pulling off the pack slung on her shoulders. From it, she produced a tied bundle of clothing. “Here, for you. Put it on.”

And then what, Liv?” Lily glanced behind her at her cell door. “Am I to break down a stout oak door and overpower my guards? Or am I to shrink and squeeze through the bars?”

The princess winked. “Leave those to me.”

Lily took the bundle from the princess, frowning. “What are you up to?” Then she groaned. “You’re not playing with that alchemical stuff again?”

They cured your pimples,” Livia objected.

And made my skin peel for a week.” But a smile touched Lily’s lips, such radiance in the darkness of the cell.

Livia grinned back, just so happy to see that beauty again on her lover’s face. She could stare at her for eternity, just drinking in that smile, the simple joy in her round face. But you can’t stare at her like a mooncalf all night. They’ll start a search for her come dawn.

Hurry and change,” the princess said, pulling out a glass vial from a pocket. A plug, also glass, stoppered the end, sealed shut by wax. The aqua regal in there could devour through the sternest stone but couldn’t harm fragile glass.

Lily moved deeper into the cells. She turned her back, drawing up the hem of her nightgown, exposing her pale thighs. She paused, throwing a look over her shoulder. “Don’t look, Liv!”

I’ve seen you naked before,” the princess said. “We used to bathe together. And do other things.” A naughty grin spread on her lips.

Just . . . Please.”

Fine, fine,” Livia said. “Just hurry. I’ll focus on getting you out of here. I won’t look. May Mother Sun blind me and Father Earth swallow me if I do.”

As Livia worked the crystal stopper off the vial, breaking the wax seal in the process, she heard the rustle of clothing. She bit her lip, forcing her eyes to stare at the bar. With care, she dribbled the caustic liquid along the bar near the top. It hissed and bubbled, eating into the metal. It ran in hissing lines, etching furrows into the iron. She did the same on the next bar, careful to keep it away from her moleskin gloves.

She shifted on the edge, breathing heavily. Heat washed across her face from the alchemical reaction. A smell, not unlike rust mixed with vinegar, assaulted her nose. She wrinkled it while holding the vial near the bottom of the bar and tipping it over so the contents dribbled out and—

A naked back almost glowed in the dark. Lashes striped it, half-healed, puckered and raw.

Livia froze. Liquid hissed and bubbled, stone groaning as the aqua regal poured out of her vial onto the stone around the bar, forming a caustic puddle. Anger swirled through the princess. Her hand gripped the bar, leather creaking as it rubbed on iron.

Then Lily donned the wool shirt, hiding her injuries.

What did they do to you!” hissed the princess.

I’m fine,” Lily said, her head lowered. “And you promised not to look.”

What did they do? Tell me!”

Lily stiffened. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Her words slapped Livia again. She tried so hard not to be imperious with Lily, to let them be equals, but her upbringing always reared up in her anger. Those barking commands burst from her lips. A lifetime of giving orders to everyone save her parents was not an easy habit to break.

Please, my sweet Lily,” she said, her voice lower. “They hurt you. Why?”

To purify me. A nun came to scourge my sin out of me. But I wouldn’t renounce my love for you.”

Tears fell down Livia’s cheeks. “Why do you love me so much that you would endure such pain for me? I’m not worth it.”

Of course you’re worth it!” Lily whirled around, staring with such shining eyes. “Because it’s you!” She touched above her breast through her wool shirt. “Because you dwell in here. They’d have to cut my heart out to get rid of you.”

You’d die for me?” Livia gasped in awe. How do I ever repay that?

Aren’t you risking death for me?” Lily pulled up the leather britches up her skinny legs. “You’re perched on a window high above the ground. You could slip and fall to your death.”

Don’t remind me.” The princess shuddered, suddenly feeling all that empty air between her and the ground. “If I think about it, I’ll freeze up again and . . .”

The sound of bubbling hisses drew her attention. She gasped, realizing almost all the aqua regal had poured out around the middle bar, eating a smoking depression into the stone. The bar she clutched wobbled in the center of the puddle as she shifted. She looked at her vial and breathed a sigh of relief.

She had enough regal aqua left to eat through the other bar. Or so she hoped. Lily would need two removed for her to squeeze out to freedom despite how slender she’d become. Livia poured the last drops of the hungry liquid onto the other bar. Then she tossed the empty vial over her shoulder. She shuddered, regretting that as it took a dozen heartbeats before it hit the ground with a shattering tinkle.

Just don’t think about how high we are,” she muttered beneath her breath as she jerked on the first bar. She pulled it free with ease, the bottom end popping out of the pool of acid, the top snapping free. Not wanting to make more noise, she thrust it into the cell and reached past the remaining bars to lower it to the floor.

You really are amazing, Liv,” Lily said as she finished lacing up the stout boots. The girl looked almost like a young boy in her men’s clothing. Only her hair was far too long and her face far too feminine for the resemblance to be more than superficial.

If she had my big breasts, she could never pass for a man, thought Livia.

With a twisting jerk, she tried to pull the final bar free. The top came off without any problem, breaking free with a crunching snap. But the bottom only twisted, the metal stretching but staying whole. She took a hard grip on it and tugged hard, heaving with an oxen grunt.

It came free with a clanging pop.

She gasped as she suddenly jerked backward towards the empty air behind her. The soles of her boots slipped on the icy ledge. She felt herself teetering, windmilling her arms to keep from toppling backward. Her heart shot up into her throat as she leaned back.

The ground swam so far below.

Don’t fall,” Lily gasped, rushing to the window. She thrust her arms through the opening and hugged Livia about the waist before hauling her from the precipice.

The princess seized a still-whole bar, arresting her dangerous lean. Her entire body shook. Her blood pounded through her, feeling colder than the air around her. She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in deep breaths. The back of her heels still stuck out over the lip.

Okay,” Livia said, her voice brittle. She struggled to gather her thoughts. “You need to . . . uh . . . The, uh . . .”

The what?” Lily asked.

Livia took a deep breath, struggling to regather her thoughts scattered like a flock of songbirds fleeing the cat which jumped into their midst. “The rope! You have to tie the rope about your waist.” She spoke swiftly now, trying to mask her fear with activity. “Okay?”

Rope?” Lily asked.

Livia pulled a shorter length of rope out of her pouch and handed Lily one end. The other she wrapped about her waist and knotted it. Then she knotted it a second time. Lily’s fingers fumbled at the rope, clumsy in her moleskin gloves. But she managed to cinch the rope about her, squeezing the baggy clothing tight to her narrow waist.

The princess checked the knot just to make sure. It’s not tying off an embroidery or a seem.

Okay, watch that puddle,” Livia said as she took Lily’s hand. The acid had eaten half a foot into the stone, leaving a pockmarked depression. Little crags riddled it where the aqua regal had eaten deeper into the softer veins in the rock. “It’ll melt through your boots and your gloves.”

Lily gave a tight nod.

With a heave, the princess pulled Lily onto the ledge. It grew crowded with both girls clutching at the bars. The princess thrust the longer rope into Lily’s hand. The girl swallowed and looked down. She let out a squeak of fear.

Oh, no, she’s going to freeze up on me and—

But Lily gripped the rope and slid down it, clutching it with her feet with surprising skill. The cord bound between them played out as the princess followed, hugging the hemp and abandoning the relative safety of the ledge.

The rope swung away from it. She gasped as the tower blurred before her. Lily shrieked beneath her as they swung like the bob dangling at the end of a carpenter’s plumb. Her stomach swam as she gripped the rope with her treated gloves.

She choked on her scream.

The exterior of the tower scraped along her arms. Then she gasped, striking one stone which protruded a little more. She spun about. Lily squeaked in fright beneath her. Livia hit back into the tower, bouncing a second time. Her arm ached. She hugged the rope, her dark hair flying out around her face.

And then they dangled beneath the rope’s anchor point, swaying back and forth like a trembling pendulum. Livia let out an explosive breath, her entire body numb from fright. She hugged the rope, her eyes squeezed shut. Sucking in deep breaths, she vowed to never climb anything again.

Liv!” whimpered Lily. “What just happened?”

Part of the plan,” the princess said. I should have realized we’d swing like that! She forced herself to look down. “Mostly. Are you okay?”

Her lover just nodded, lips sealed tight.

Okay, it should be fine. Just slide down. The gloves should keep you on the rope. But you’re tied to me if you do fall.”

Lily smiled at that. “I know you have me.”

I love you,” Livia added. Just in case.

Then the princess and her lover slid down the rope. It rasped against the gloves and the leather of her trousers. She hugged her legs about the cord. The rope was their life. If she slipped, they would both die. She shuddered as they descended faster and faster.

Lily gasped beneath.

Then Livia crashed into Lily. They fell in a tangle of limbs on the paving stones of the courtyard. The princess lay atop her paramour. Lily squirmed beneath while hysterical giggles burst from Livia’s mouth.

We did it!” Her voice echoed through the courtyard. “Oh, Lily, we did it!”

You’re . . . crushing . . . me . . .” choked Lily.

Gasping, Livia rolled onto her back. Lily sucked in grateful breaths. But she still smiled. With Livia’s help, she stood up, gazing at the Raven Donjon, their rope swaying down the side like a narrow braid descending down a giant’s dark back.

Tears fell down Lily’s cheeks. She shook. Then threw herself at Livia. The princess hugged her trembling lover. Hot lips kissed at her neck, wet tears rubbed on her cheek. She rocked Lily in a tight embrace.

You’re free,” the princess cooed. “You won’t have to go back. My parents will never hurt you again!”

Where will we go?”

Will cross the hills and enter the neighboring kingdom. I have plenty of jewels and coins stashed in my saddlebag. It’ll be money to let us live in comfort and safety out of my parent’s reach. They won’t send soldiers past the Menhirs. Father respects them.”

I—”

A shuddering crack snapped from above, cutting off Lily’s words. Then something boomed and crashed down the tower. An avalanche of falling stone slammed into the courtyard nearby. Shards of stone hissed through the air. Livia gasped, her cheek flaring numb. Dust billowed from the rubble. She touched her face, and felt blood.

What was that?” squeaked Lily.

Livia groaned. “The ledge. The acid ate through the stone and some of the wall came down and—”

A horn blared an alarm from the top of the tower. Torches danced in the opening of Lily’s cell, the guards checking the ruckus. Fear struck the princess. Across the castle, she heard other shouts. She seized her lover’s hand and yanked her towards the nearby stables.

Hurry!” shouted the princess, her insides twisting. She’d expected to have hours and hours of night to ride as far from her parents’ castle as possible.

If we’re swift and get out the postern before anyone realizes it, we still might make it.

Hope kept her running, dragging Lily behind her.

They burst into the stables. Horses whinnied and nickered, nervous hooves stamping. Livia threw open the last two stall doors, the horses in them already saddled before she made her climb. Buttercup, her dun-yellow mare, snorted, tail flicking.

It’s okay,” Livia said, grabbing her bridle. “Come on, Buttercup. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Buttercup reared, jerking reins out of Livia’s grasp. The horse’s dark eyes were wild from the trumpeting horns. The princess stroked her horse’s neck, peering into scared eyes. She felt pulse pounding beneath her hide. But her soothing touched calmed the mare.

How’s Dancer?”

As placid as ever,” Lily said, leading out the roan mount she normally rode when the princess took her morning excursions. “I don’t think anything can spook her.”

Good, we need to get to the postern gate and—”

Well, what do we have here?” a voice growled. “Couple of horse thieves?”

Livia whirled to see the hulking Karson, Captain of the Guard, enter the stable wearing a leather jerkin hastily donned, his muscular legs bare beneath. He marched forward on boots laced tight. A sword glittered in his hand, its point long.

We’re not horse thieves,” Livia objected.

“‘Course you are,” he grinned, his bold nose almost quivering, as sharp as the beak of a hawk about to tear into the rabbit. “You probably purloined the queen’s jewels, didn’t you? Sent me out to find them, she did. Wouldn’t even let me get dressed when she saw them missin’. Then that piece of stone came crashin’ down, and I seen you two runnin’ in here. I knew you two was the thieves.”

Anger boiled through the princess. He came from my mother’s bed! Why can she do what she likes, but I have to be proper? Why can’t I have my lover?

Get out of the way, Captain Karson,” she said in a ringing voice. “Or you shall be in so much trouble if you even harm a hair on my head.”

The man snorted. “And why would that be, thief?”

Livia’s eyes widened in realization. He doesn’t recognize me in the dark. In these clothes.

Her gaze darted around the stable, searching for a weapon. She spotted a farrier’s hammer hanging from the wall. She snagged it up, gripping it in both hands. The small, iron head felt so puny compared to the captain’s sword.

Oh, ho, got a brave thief here,” he growled.

Liv, don’t!” Lily gasped.

I won’t let them hurt you!” the princess snarled, her anger too great to care. She lunged in to strike.

The sword hissed.

Though angry, her instincts of preservation surged through her. She skittered back away from the blade. It cut the air before her, flashing silver bright. A blur that left strands of her black hair severed and dancing through the air.

Livia’s heart hammered. Cold pumped through her veins, dousing her anger. The man snarled, recovering from his swing, and thrust the sword at her guts. She dove to the side, rolled across the hay-strewn ground of the stable, and gained her feet only to crash into a stall door with her shoulder.

A horse neighed in fear as she bounced off, stumbling to keep from falling on her face.

Liv! No!”

Lily’s warning gave the princess a heartbeat to act. She ducked low. The sword crashed into the stall door above her. It splintered the wood, caving in several planks, and lodged in the thick, oak frame. The captain of the guard grunted and planted his left boot on the stall. His naked thigh bulged as he struggled to haul his weapon free.

Livia acted.

She slammed the hammer into the guard captain’s right knee with all the force she could muster. Hardened steel crashed into capping patella. A loud, splintering snap echoed through the stables. The shiver of the blow rattled down her arm.

Karson bellowed in pain. Rage twisted his face. He tottered as his left arm swung like a pendulum. Princess Livia, flushed with the triumph of landing a blow on the loathsome man, gasped as the back of his fist slammed into her face.

She reeled. The world spun around her. Her vision went blurry as she crashed into a pile of sacks of millet. She draped over them, staring at the rush-strewn ground. The entire side of her face throbbed. For a moment, everything doubled as she struggled to think. To move. To do anything with her body.

Lily screamed, drawing Livia’s addled attention. Words poured out of the frightened girl’s mouth, her hand pointing wildly, stabbing the air. Livia tried to parse her lover’s meaning, the sounds all blurring together with the bell ringing in the stable. She shook her head, her brain rattling in her skull. A queasy writhe gripped her stomach.

She looked in the direction Lily pointed.

Karson gripped his sword in both hands. He stood, putting his weight on his left leg, his right knee swelling red. With a mighty heave, he wrenched his sword out of the ruined stall door. He staggered around, sliding on his right foot more than picking it up.

Baleful eyes fixed on the princess.

Oh, no,” she said, words slurred. For the first time in her life, Princess Livia witnessed murder in a man’s eyes.

Her body refused to obey her, as if the blow had severed the connection between mind and flesh. She could feel the tendrils reconnecting, her finger twitching first, her head shaking. But she couldn’t stand. Everything still felt so numb, fuzzed by the blow. Her stomach writhed more. Bile burned the back of her throat.

I’m going to die, she realized as Karson raised his sword high into the air, the blade’s edge gleaned razor bright.

And then the stirrup flew through the air, aimed square at Karson’s face. It crashed across his blunt, masculine features. Blood spurted from a twisted nose. The stirrup bounced to the ground as the brute stumbled back.

Putting all his weight on his right leg.

His cry of agony galvanized Princess Livia. Lily’s desperate throw bought her a few more precious heartbeats of life. She had to capitalize on it. She had to rescue them both. If Karson cut her down, his next stroke would end the life of the fearful blonde girl relying on Livia for protection.

She would not let anything worse happen to her Lily.

Poxed whores!” bellowed the guard captain. Snorting like a wild boar, he drew his blade back for the attack to end Livia’s life.

She acted, hugging the sack of millet to her. She stood up and whirled around, millet cradled to her chest. He snarled, his sword flashing down on a curving arc that would end with her cut in half, bleeding on the floor.

She thrust the sack of grain out before her like a shield.

The sword slammed into her makeshift defense. The burlap rasped against her moleskin gloves. If she grasped them with her bare hands, the force of his swing would have ripped the sack out of her hand. Then the end of his sword would still have hurtled down and found her vulnerable skull.

But the alchemical treatment held. Her gloves kept a hold on the sack, withstanding the force of his blow. The sword cut deep into the millet, but the densely packed grain slowed the impact. The sword embedded only halfway through it. Seeds spilled out around it, pouring like a brown waterfall to puddle between their feet.

Sun-blinded bitch!” he spat. He jerked his sword out of the bag. More grains poured out as he drew back for his next attack.

Liv!” screamed Lily in desperate fear. “No!”

Princess Livia thrust the sack of grains before her. Her arms extended. Spilling millet, the burlap tumbled through the air as Karson raised his sword up high. Though not a powerful throw, it still struck him in the bleeding nose, unbalancing the guard captain worse than Lily’s stirrup had.

This time, when Karson put all his weight on his right knee, his turning body torquing the joint, a sickening tear wrenched the air. Bone popped through the skin. Agony exploded from his mouth. He toppled back, hitting the ground hard, sword falling from his hands. He clutched at his ruined knee, grunting through the obvious pain.

Livia darted forward and kicked his sword across the rush strewn ground and away from his hand. It tumbled into the stall he’d hacked open.

Mount up!” the princess shouted.

You earth-cursed bitch!” spat the guard. “I’ll gut you!” He lunged for her leg. “And strangle the whore-life out of you! Poxed slattern!”

She ignored him, dashing for her horse. He struggled to stand, but agony screamed from his mouth again. Livia savored it, triumphing over the defeat of this horrid man. She swung herself up into her horse’s saddle while Lily mounted hers with ease.

Ride!” the princess screamed, exhilaration beating in her heart.

She felt alive as she heeled her horse. Her steed galloped forward. The guard captain cursed, rolling to the side and out of the way of their escaping mounts. They burst out into the night, Livia guiding her horse to the nearby postern gate she’d left open. A narrow opening, just wide enough for a single rider to duck through.

She threw a glance to ensure Lily followed, then plunged through it, leaned low over the neck of Buttercup. Men shouted behind them as she let out a giddy laugh, bursting out of the castle’s outer walls and to sweet freedom. She wheeled her horse to the right, charging for the road that led from the castle and around the town that lay at its feet. Lily spurred her horse abreast with Livia.

The two young women flashed each other smiles. Lily’s blonde hair streamed behind her. The clouds broke above them. Silver shimmered in Lily’s tresses. Livia shuddered, her heart thudding in triumph.

Hooves drummed on hard-packed dirt. Horns sounded behind them. Torches burned on Karzinoth Castle’s parapet. She knew that guards and knights even now rushed to their horses to give chase. The princess and her lover had to ride as swift as the setting moon.

They had to reach the borders of her father’s kingdom. Once past the marking stone, his soldiers could not follow without risking a war.

Livia!” Lily shouted, looking over her shoulder at the castle’s gray walls. It sat up on the hill they rode down, almost glowing in the moonlight against the blackness of the sky. The drawbridge rattled down across the moat that protected the front of the castle.

Just don’t stop riding!” Livia said, leaning low over her mount. “We can reach the border by morning.”

I won’t stop!” Lily said.

Pursuit sounded horns behind them. Metal clattered. Hooves thundered on the road. Livia’s heart drummed as the night raced by them. Stars wheeled above them. The silvery face of the moon descended towards the horizon. She hardly felt the icy kiss of night on her cheeks against the heat burning inside of her.

Her jaw throbbed, her face swollen and puffy. But she didn’t care. It was a small price to pay to save her Lily. To their right, the horizon pinked. Dawn’s promise gave her hope. They just had to keep going. Their horses didn’t carry men in armor now, but light women. They had the advantage.

So long as they didn’t falter.

As the horizon grew brighter and brighter, the land came into resolution. They tore past fields of winter wheat and barley. Already, the peasants were out working. They paused, leaning on fences to watch the two female fugitives fleeing the company of knights.

A ragged cheer rose from some, waving them on.

They’re celebrating our love, a part of Livia thought even as another, more cynical part of her, said, They’re enjoying the spectacle. I bet they’ll cheer just as loud if we’re caught and hung.

Liv!” Lily shouted, pointing ahead with enthusiasm.

The border stones lay ahead. Two great menhirs rose on either side of the road. They were ancient and said to be the bones of Father Earth himself demarcating the boundaries of the hundred kingdoms, dividing the world of men into neat parcels.

They weren’t always respected, but Livia knew this pair was.

Come on!” she urged her mount, putting heels to flank.

Buttercup snorted and neighed, neck lathered with exertion. Livia’s heart twisted with excitement as their freedom came closer and closer. They flew across the plain. The menhirs, dark stones thrusting three times the height of a man and covered in strange runes, loomed closer.

The knights’ thunder dwindled.

She threw a look over her shoulder, seeing them rein up. Defeated.

The two girls raced across the border, passing through the menhirs’ shadows. Their laughter resounded through the air. Huge grins burst across their lips. Tears fell down both their cheeks as they followed the road winding into a new kingdom, escaping from the oppression of the old.

Out of sight of the knights, not wanting to tempt their pursuers into violating the border by taunting them with their love, the two girls reined up. They threw themselves off their horses. They came together, limbs engulfing the other, lips meeting in sweet love. Despite the swollen pain in her face, Livia treasured each and every kiss seasoned with the salt of their tears. Her heart burst for joy in her chest as they held each other. The sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon, falling golden on the lovers.

They shared their joy, their hearts, their lives. Livia clutched Lily tight. No matter what the priests taught or the kings said, she would love her Lily. She would savor every moment with her. They would forge a life together. A life of their own choosing.

I love you, Lily,” the crying princess said when they broke that sweet kiss.

Lily sniffed, pressing her forehead to Livia’s. “Always.”

The END

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Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Three

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Three

Momemn

Welcome to Chapter Three of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Two!

On my knees, I offer you that which flies in me. My face to earth, I shout your glory to the heavens. In so surrendering do I conquer. In so yielding do I seize.

NEL-SARIPAL, DEDICATION TO MONIUS

My Thoughts

So, as we’re about to see in the first paragraph of the chapter, that this is the dedication to a seditious poem just written. It is a bold statement that is saying that though Nel-Saripal has surrendered to the tyranny of the Anasûrimbor dynasty and their rule over the New Empire, he has found the opposite. He is saying that they have no power over him in truth because he understands just what power is.

It’s not something that can be taken but only given.

No tyrant can rule a nation without being given power. Now, I’m not talking about the subjected people who are held in bondage by physical force. No, it is the instrument of that force that has surrendered to the tyrant. The various functionaries and generals and bureaucrats who have, for one reason or another, given to the tyrant the ability to rule the state.

And what is given, can be taken away.

If one day, all of Hitler’s chief advisers, his Himmlers and Goerings and the like, stopped giving him power, he would have been impotent. This is the dirty secrets of hierarchy. You don’t climb to the top but are lifted there by your peers for a myriad of personal reasons. To believe that you rule by some sort of divine right, as promulgated by the new religion, or because you believe you deserve it, that you’re somehow better than those around you, is a trap.

An easy one to fall in to.

The poet is showing the illusion of it. The contradiction of power and rule. And that’s what we see from Esmenet throughout this chapter.

That she’s a fraud.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

Nel-Saripal had his body slave deliver his newest poem to Empress Anasûrimbor Esmenet the moment it was penned. Within an hour it was on a ship. Seventy-three days later, it’s in her hand. She’s eager to read it as she grasped the scroll “the way a barren woman might grasp a foundling babe.” However, the opening lines strike her “as surely as a husband’s slap.” Already whispers start echoing through the hall at the utterance of first sentence: “Momemn is the first in our breasts, the beating heart.”

She gets mad while the reader, a famed orator named Sarpella, falters at the text. Everyone can tell this is seditious. That it implies Momemn beats its people to maintain power. Her poet was calling the government a thug. As the poem continues, she thinks all “great artists” punish their patrons in some way. She decides Nel-Saripal wasn’t subtle about it. That Nel-Saripal wasn’t as good a poet as Protathis who would have insulted her and gotten away with it. The rest of the poem is moving, so she first decides to forgive him.

But as the days past, that first line stuck with her. Slowly, Momemn became Esmenet. Every day, the poem becomes more and more personal for her. With Kellhus in the field, she was now the government. She was no Momemn. “A tyrant.”

You…” That was how Monius truly began.

You are the fist that beats us.”

Esmenet dreams of Mimara calling to her. She can’t seem to find her but instead finds an apple tree. The apples fall and become shrunken heads that glare at her. She screams as fingers break free of the ground. The dead spill out with their harvest. She’s thinking only of Mimara. She wakes up.

Esmenet wept as though she were her only child. Found, then lost.

The next afternoon finds her sitting bored as she listens to petitions. “The New Empire, she had long since learned, was a kind of enormous mechanism, one that used men as gears, thousands upon thousands of them, their functions determined by the language of the law.” It required upkeep, though she has Ngrau, formerly Ikurei Xerius’s seneschal, who now served hers. She has a comfortable relationship with him, and he knew to only send her the most important decisions. If she suspected any influence peddling or other corruption, she’d send them to the judges. It couldn’t be tolerated.

Mankind was at war.

She has a request for money form Shigek to help deal with Fanayal ab Kascamandri and his renegade army out in the desert. The last Kiani emperor refuses to die and admit defeat. Though her word could destroy any life, she liked to pretend her decisions were trivial.

For twenty years she had been Empress. For almost as long as she could read.

Other times, she’s almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of power she has as the Empress. The horror of what she could do with it. But usually, it’s routine. Even simple, as she just approves the actions of others, leaving them to carry it out. However, crisis would come along that could overwhelm her with confusing details.

Part of her would even laugh, convinced that it was simply too absurd to be real. She, Esmenet, a battered peach from the slums of Sumna, wielding an authority that only Triamis, the greatest of the Ceneian Emperors, had known. Souls in the millions traded coins with her profile. Oh what was that, you say? Thousands are starving in Eumarna. Yes-yes, but I have an insurrection to deal with. Armies, you see, simply must be fed. People? Well, they tend to suffer in silence, sell their children and whatnot. So long as the lies are told well.

At such a remove, so far fro the gutters of living truth, how could she not be a tyrant? Not [No] matter how balanced, thoughtful, or sincerely considered her judgments, how could they not crack like clubs or pierce like spears.

Exactly as Nel-Saripal had implied, the wretch.

Kelmomas bursts in on her latest meeting to shout that her daughter Theliopa had found a skin-spy. As he talks, she feels motherly pride in him. He’s beautiful and perfect. She believes the Gods have spared one of her children the curse of her husband’s blood. Then she stiffens as she realizes what her son had said.

A moment later, Captain Imhailas appears and kneels. She orders the court cleared while demanding how her son could bring her this news. Imhailas has no idea how Kelmomas while Kelmomas begs to see the skin-spy. She says no. He responds that he kneads to know for when he’s older. She asks Imhailas his opinion and he quotes, “Calloused hands suffer no tender eyes, your Glory.” That annoys her because it’s so hackneyed statement. Never ask an idiot for advice. She stares at her son’s innocence. She just wants to protect him, especially after the assassination attempt at his Whelming a few months ago. He keeps begging.

She composed her face and looked back to Imhailas. “I think…” she said with a heavy sigh. “I think you’re quite right, Captain. The time has come. Both my sweet cherries should see Thelli’s latest discovery.”

Another skin-spy in the court. Why now, after so many years?

Both boys, your Glory?”

She ignored this, the way she ignored all the tonal differences that seemed to colour references to Kelmomas’s twin, Samarmas. In this one thing, she would refuse the worlds its inroads.

Kelmomas doesn’t appear nearly as excited since Esmenet mentioned his brother. She drags him along as she searches for Samarmas. Though the galleries weren’t large, they could become labyrinthine. She doesn’t have to look for him herself, but she doesn’t want to delegate too much of her life to others. “Power, she had come to realize, had the insidious habit of inserting others between you and your tasks, rendering your limbs little more than decorative mementos of a more human past.” Sometimes, it was like she was reduced to a devious tongue.

Servants bow as she sweeps through the columns. The palace hasn’t changed much since the Ikurei Dynasty ruled it. Momemn had been smart and surrendered to her husband. It hadn’t needed to be conquered. She remembers the first time she had walked through these walls, seeing the rich.

All it had lacked was power.

She doesn’t immediately pay attention to the screams of her third-youngest child Inrilatas. When she does, she pauses by the door to his room. She touches it, feeling only cold metal. Kelmomas suddenly says that Uncle Maithanet thinks Inrilatas should be sent away. Hearing Maithanet always itched her. It’s almost a worry because he’s so much like Kellhus.

They’re frightened of us, aren’t they, Mommy?”

Them?”

Everybody. They’re all afraid of our family…”

Why would that be?”

Because they think we’re mad. They think father’s seed is too strong.”

Too strong for the vessel. Too strong for me.

She tells Kelmomas the God burns the strongest in Inrilatas which is why he’s mad. She keeps him here because she wouldn’t abandon her children. “Like Mimara?” asks Kelmomas. She’s torn for one moment between listening to Inrilatas madness as he gnawed on the other door to the cherubic face of Kelmomas. She prays he’s not like her other children before admitting she had abandoned Mimara. She hopes Akka will keep her safe.

Inrilatas’s screams turn masturbatory. The animal sounds make her hold tight to Kelmomas, knowing an impressionable child shouldn’t hear these sounds. The jerking noises sound personal, meant only for her. Samarmas crying out “Momma!” frees her from listening to Inrilatas. Samarmas looks like Kelmomas but his face has a slackness to it. His eyes bulge. She scoops him up and realizes he’s getting big while beaming “mother-love into his idiot gaze.”

My broken boy.

The nursemaid, Porsi, had followed in his stomping wake, eyes to the ground. The young Nansur slave knelt, face to floor. Esmenet should have thanked the girl, she knew, but she had wanted to find Sammi herself, perhaps even to spy for a bit, in the way of simpler parents watching through simpler windows.

Inrilatas continued screaming through polished stone—forgotten.

Esmenet heads down endless stairs to reach dungeons, leading her two sons. Samarmas pauses to hug everyone who prostates themselves. “He always was indiscriminate with his loving gestures, particularly when it came to slaves.” Kelmomas keeps reminding Samarmas thy have to be warriors and be strong, like a big brother should. Fears for their futures in this world grows in her.

As they head down the last stairs, Kelmomas starts describing how skin-spies have soft bones like sharks and calls them monsters. This scares Samarmas even though he knows all this. “But it was part of his innocence to respond to everything as though encountering it for the very first time.” He has to be told over and over about things. Esmenet admonishes Kelmomas for scaring him as he protests his brother has to know.

She had to remind herself that his [Kelmomas’s] cleverness was that of a normal child, and not like that of his siblings. Inrilatas, in particular, had possessed his father’s… gifts.

She wished she could these worries to rest. For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.

Not after so many… experiences.

There is a large crowd before the Truth Room. Everyone seems to have found an excuse, even her cook while Biaxi Sankas, a powerful member of the Congregate, shouts at the rabble to move. It disturbs her and reminds her that, while Kellhus is gone, she was the ultimate authority of the Empire. And yet even here, she feels like she doesn’t rule with such completeness. When Kellhus was around they would all line up “moist-eyed with awe and devotion.” But for her, it’s all back-fighting and whispers of plot and innuendo. “The long dance of tongues as knives.” She ignores most of it because it would mean the palace were about to revolt on her every week. Of course, if true foment brewed she would miss it. A monarch’s greatest threat came from those closest.

She cries out her Exalt-Captain’s name, demanding of Imhailas why everyone is here. She orders him to clear them out, and they scurry, hearing her anger before the soldiers can obey her.

They’re more of afraid of Father,” young Kelmomas whispered at her side.

Yes,” Esmenet replied, at a loss as to how to respond otherwise. The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed. “Yes, they are.”

Even a child can see it.

As the various people file out, giving her fawning bows, she feels sickened. She wonders how she can rule when these people carry out her orders. “But she had been too political for too long not to recognize an opportunity when she saw one.” So she asks for Lord Sankas to watch over her boys. He towers over her, reminding her that her short stature marks her caste-menial, to her shame. He agrees, like most, he’s eager to feel important. She finds that unseemly in a man as hold as Sankas. However, when he gives her sons advice on behind men, she smiles knowing it will endear her boys to him. Kellhus often told her to seek advice from men who can benefit her. “Men, he was always saying, liked to see their words proved right.”

Samarmas asks if they are going to see the monster. She’s happy to dote on him. She’d rather be a mother than deal with the politics and finds herself retreating from rule into caring for her twins. She tells him not to fear, “Lord Sankas will protect you.”

The Truth Room, as the torture chamber had been known during the Ikurei Dynasty, had been expanded by Kellhus from a small chamber “every bit as dark and closeted as their peevish souls.” Now it is a sprawling organ of the state. It has cells, places to interrogate prisoners, and a galley for observers to watch. It’s like an upside-down step pyramid. At the highest tier, she meets with Phinersa (Master-of-Spies), Vem-Mithriti (Vizier), Maithanet, and Theliopa. The first two prostrate while the latter two merely bow.

Theliopa, her eldest daughter by Kellhus, bowed in stiff curtsy as they approached. Perhaps she was the strangest of her children, even morose than Inrilatas, but curiously all the more safe for it. Theliopa was a woman with an unearthly hollow where human sentiment should be. Even as an infant she had never cried, never gurgled with laughter, never reached out to finger the image of her mother’s face. Esmenet had once overheard her nursemaids whispering that she would happily starve rather than call out for food, and even now she was thin in the extreme, tall and angular like the God-her-father, but emaciated, to the point where her skin seemed tented over the woodwork of her bones. The clothes she wore were ridiculously elaborate—despite her godlike intellect, the subtleties of style and fashion utterly eluded her—a gold-brocaded gown fairly armoured in black pearls.”

Mother, the sallow blonde girl said in a tone that Esmenet could now recognize for attachment, or the guttering approximation of it. As always the girl flinched at her touch, like a skittish cat or steed, but as always Esmenet refused to draw back, and held Theliopa’s cheeks until she felt the tremors calm.

You’ve done well,” she said, gazing into her pale eyes. “Very well.” It was strange, loving children who could see the movement of her soul through her face. It forced a kind of bitter honesty of her, the resignation of those who know they cannot hide—not ever—from the people they needed to hied from the most.

Theliopa says she lives to please. Esmenet reflects that her children all have bits of Kellhus’s “truth” in him. Except Samarmas. That was obvious to her. Only he could be trusted. She instantly recoils from that thought as Kelmomas squeezes her hand. She greats the others with the customary, “Reap the morrow.” Phinersa stands up with spry ease while Esmenet helps aged Vem-Mithriti, whose not just her vizier but the Grandmaster of the Imperial Saik, to his feet. Phinersa is someone that rarely makes eye contact, but when he does, the Master-of-Spies will have such intensity you feel stripped naked. Vem-Mithriti is more shy, like a scared adolescent. Kellhus chose the man for his weakness. “She often wondered whether old Vem was his [Kellhus’s] Gift to her since Kellhus had no difficulty handling the willful and ambitious.”

Maithanet, her brother-in-law and the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, towered next to the two Exalt-Ministers, dressed in a plain white tunic. The oiled plaits of his beard gleamed like jet in the lantern light. His height and force of presence never failed to remind Esmenet of her husband—the same light, only burning through the sackcloth of a human mother.

Maithanet explains the new skin-spy was found by “Thelli” in a surprise inspection of new slaves. He motions to the skin-spy hung spread eagle on an iron device. It is covered in sweat and has black skin. Its held at all its joints to keep it from flexing. It still is testing out the device by twisting its body. A single pin driven through its skull has forced its face to open. This is Dûnyain Neuropuncture. Its face fingers twitch like crab limbs. It still raises revulsion in Esmenet despite how many times she’d been around them. They violated the natural order of the world. She even keeps a skull of one complete with its face fingers, to remind herself about them. She forced herself to look at it.

It had long since become an argument for suffering her husband.

She asks if this is the first time they’ve made a black-skinned Satyothi before? Maithanet says it’s the first, and Theliopa speculates it’s a test to see if the difference in skin tone and bone structure would make it different enough to slip by. She suspects that making this one is why it’s been 733 days since the last infiltration. Her daughter’s gaze unnerves Esmenet and she doesn’t consider these implications. Instead, she checks on her sons. Kelmomas seems to be judging if the skin-spy lives up to his imagination while Samarmas watches it through his fingers, curious and scared at the same time. When Kelmomas looks at her, it reminds Esmenet that he’s still Kellhus’s son and “it worried her.”

She asks him what he thinks. He says scary. She agrees. Samarmas then throws himself at her and cries into her stomach. She storks him and notices Phinersa and Imhailas watching her. She knows with Theliopa around, she doesn’t have to be afraid of their intent because she sees malice or lust (which are the same) in their eyes. Phinersa asks what she wants to be done with the skin-spy. Only Kellhus can successfully interrogate one. Not even Cants of Compulsion worked on them, they had no souls. Pain just turns them on. She orders a public execution so the people can be reminded. Maithanet calls it wise. Everyone stares at it like they were memorizing it, keeping the threat fresh. Imhailas asks if she’ll be in attendance.

Yes,” she replied absently. “Of course.” The People needed to e reminded of more than what threatened them, they needed to be reminded of the discipline that kept them safe as well. They needed to recall the disciplinarian.

The tyrant.

While holding Samarmas still, she watches Kelmomas staring with fascination at the skin-spy. The mother in her rebels as she does what Kellhus would do. For her sons’ sake, they have to become as ruthless as she’d failed to become because being his children put them in danger. She wants her sons there, too.

After handing over her sons to their nurse, she escorts her brother-in-law Maithanet out of the palace. It had become their custom since Kellhus left for her to do this. It was both political, showing them as equals, and she found him a comfort. He’s more human than Kellhus.

And, of course, his blood made him her closest ally.

He brings up she’s thinking about Nel-Saripal’s poem recited the day before. She asks him what he thinks of the opening line. He says it’s significant, but only a signal “the way birds tell sailors of unseen land.” Maithanet says with Kellhus and his most loyal supporters gone, lingering resentments from the Unification shall flare-up. Nel-Saripal is just the first. She asks if they should prioritize stability over the Consult. Maithanet says they need to increase their efforts. The best way the Consult can demoralize the Great Ordeal is to throw the New Empire into turmoil. “When the hands are strong, attack the feet,” as the Ainoni say. Esmenet asks who would be so foolish to do that after everything Kellhus has done.

The well of fools has no bottom, Esmi. You know that. You can assume for every Fanayal who poses us openly, there are ten who skulk in the shadows.”

She just hopes they aren’t as cunning as Fanayal who has been a thorn in the Empire’s side since the First Holy War. He’d escaped Kian’s fall into Kellhus’s hand and fled into the desert. Folk songs spread his fame no matter how many minstrels are burned. The Bandit Padirajah had made things difficult in Fanim lands.

They walk in silence for a while through the apartments where the functionaries lived. The sounds of normal living affect her, especially a young boy crying. She asks Maithanet what he sees her in her face. He tells her not as much as his brother would see.

Dûnyain. It all came back to this iron ingot of meaning. Maithanet, her children, everyone near to her possessed some measure of Dûnyain blood. Everyone watched with a portion of her husband’s all-seeing eyes. For a heartbeat, she glimpsed Achamian as he stood twenty years earlier, a thousand smoke plumes scoring sky beyond him. “But you’re not thinking! You see only your love for him. You’re not thinking of what he sees when he gazes upon you…”

And with a blink both he and his heretical words were gone

She says that wasn’t her question. And he sees sorrow, confusion, and worry for Mimara. She fears her other children more than she worries about them. She’s afraid she’s not capable of governing in Kellhus’s stead. She asks if the others can see this in her. He says some perhaps will catch glimpses, but he reminds her that Kellhus set things up so their redemption goes through her. He has put people around her to help her. He assures her not to worry. She asks why. Because Kellhus chose her answers Maithanet. It’s why he has no fear.

A Dûnyain. A Dûnyain has chosen you.

She asks why he hesitated, and he says if he saw this fear, then so did Kellhus. So it must be a strength. She blinks back tears and asks if she was chosen for being weak. Maithanet answers, “Is the man who flees to fight anew weak?” He says fear isn’t a good or bad thing but how it’s reacted to.

Then why wouldn’t he tell me as much.[?]”

Because, Esmi[,]” he said, drawing her back down the hall, “sometimes ignorance is the greatest strength of all.”

The next day, Esmenet wakes up thinking of her children as babies and not “instruments of power.” It feels miraculous. She didn’t like thinking about her early years. There was a time when Kellhus was relentless to have children. She’d conceived seven times and six had survived. Plus Mimara and Moënghus, Serwë’s son.

Eight!

The thought never ceased to surprise and to dizzy her, so certain she had been that she would live and die barren.

Kayûtas was born a few months after Moënghus, the pair raised as fraternal twins. Kayûtas had been perfect and it made the Lords of the Holy War weep to see him. “It had been Kayûtas who taught her that love was a kind of imperfection.” Despite his perfection, he felt no love. It broke her heart to hold him. Then she had Theliopa. She’d hoped for this child after Kayûtas, but even before the afterbirth was washed off, knew she had born another child lacking love. Kellhus was gone a lot at war and she grew depressed, even suicidal. Only Moënghus kept her alive. “He at least needed her, even if he was not her own.” That was why she really started looking for Mimara in earnest. She even thought of killing Theliopa and herself if Kellhus didn’t find Mimara.

Fate truly was a whore, to deliver her to such thoughts.

She quickly becomes pregnant with Serwa born in Carythusal right after the conquest. Another perfect child like Kayûtas, but Serwa seemed capable of love. A joy. However, at three, it was discovered she had the Gift and was sent to the Sawayal witches.

There had been a bitterness in that decision, and no few thoughts of heresy and sedition. In lowing Serwa, Esmenet learned that worship could not only survive the loss of love, it possessed room for hatred as well

Her next child was born with “eight arms and no eyes.” It almost killed her. Next was Inrilatas, another son incapable of love. However, she’d know there was something even more wrong, an instinct gained from being a mother so many time. By the time he was two, his nurses were scared, and at three he began “speaking the little treacheries that dwelt in the hearts of those about him.” At five, he unnerved hardened warriors. Once after Esmenet had sung him a lullaby, he said, “Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Only Kellhus could manage him after that. And he didn’t have the time. Not long after, Inrilatas descended into madness.

Esmenet yearned for menopause or “the dry season.” But she kept having periods. She started to find surrogates for Kellhus to breed. “Of the seventeen concubines he impregnated, ten died in childbirth, and the others gave birth to more… nameless ones.”

Esmenet sometimes wondered how many hapless souls had been assassinated to keep this secret. A hundred? A thousand?

They found Mimara after Inrilatas’s madness. It took ten years for the Eothic Guard to find her in a brothel dressed up like the Empress. “They had found her daughter, her only child sired by a man instead of a god.” Mimara hated Esmenet. That sweet child was gone, mad in different ways from her “divine daughters and sons.” She also was the Few, but Kellhus allowed Esmenet to keep Mimara. She had refused, willing to destroy her relationship with Kellhus for her daughter. “She would not sell Mimara a second time—no matter how vicious the young woman’s rantings.” Though Mimara was even too old to go, it didn’t stop her from demanding it. Esmenet assumed this was her final punishment for her sin.

The twins arrived during this time, and with them one final spear throw at Fate

The twins had their own problems. Though they looked perfect, like Kayûtas, if you separated them, they both would not stop crying. Instead, for months they lay side by side staring into each other’s eyes. The physician-priest had warned her of “complications” for having children at her age. The two seemed to share a single sou, which she found poetic. Kellhus had found a famed slave named Hagitatas who specialized in “troubled souls.” He managed to separate the two children and give them their own identity. “Such was her relief that even the subsequent discovery of Samarmas’s idiocy seemed a cause for celebration.”

These sons loved—there could be no question that they loved!

At last the Whore of Fate, treacherous Anagke, who had lifted Esmenet form ignorance and brutality of the Sumni slums to the pitch of more profound torments, had relented. At last Esmenet had found her heart. She was an old mother now, and old mothers knew well the tightfisted ways of the world. They knew how to find largess in its meager capitulations.

How to be greedy with small things.

She feels hope despite her nervousness as she’s dressed. Porsi brings her sons looking like little generals, which delights Esmenet. Then she brings the protesting sons along a passage that ran beneath the Scuäri Campus. The Plate is heard above, summoning the city to witness the skin-spy’s execution. They emerge in the Allosium Forum and are almost deafened by the crowds. They step out atop the height overlooking the campus which is covered in people crying out in adoration to her.

Esmenet was always conscious of her unreality at moments such as this. Everything, even the cosmetics smeared across her skin, possessed the weight of fraud. She was not Esmenet, and nor were her children Kelmomas and Samarmas. They were images, semblances drawn to answer the mob and their anxious fantasies. They were Power. They were Justice. They were mortal flesh draped about the dread intent of God.

Authority in all its myriad incarnations

She pretends to bask in the adoration before being shocked by the sudden silence. She feels hesitant, frozen. Someone coughs. She heads down the stairs, flanked by the Eothic Guard. The lower she gets, she can smell the unwashed masses. As she stares out at the, she wonders how many want to kill her and her children. All eight of them. Theliopa isn’t here, unable to handle so many people, while Moënghus, Kayûtas, and Serwa march in the Great Ordeal. Mimara is with Achamian and Inrilatas in his prison.

Eight. And only these two boys loved.

She leads her sons to their seats, only letting go of their hands to rest them on the golden claws of her throne. She wears various gems and garb to signify different titles and claims to importance. She is facing away from the execution. She can hear the curtains being drawn as the skin-spy is unveiled. The crowd roars, frightening Samarmas. He huddled on his seat. The mother in her wants to order the guards to kill those who scared her child.

But to be sovereign is to be forever, irrevocably, cut into many. To be a matron, simple and uncompromising. To be a spy, probing and hiding. And to be a general, always calculating weakness and advantage.

She fought the mother-clamouring within, ignored his [Samarmas’s] distress. Even Samarmas—who she was certain would be nothing more than a dear fool—even he had to learn the madness that was his Imperial inheritance.

For him, she told herself. I do this for his sake!

The mobs scream at the Consult skin-spy strung up behind her. By tradition, her “eyes were too holy for such a horrific sight.” Lord Sankas, who must have one the lottery among the important nobles, has the honor of bringing her the hand mirror by which she’ll watch the execution behind her. Samarmas leaves his seat to hug her while those in the crowd laughed. She works to get him back to his seat while Sankas looks embarrassed. He holds up the mirror and she’s surprised by how beautiful she looks. She often thinks she’s older and uglier than she looks. Even growing old, it would stay with her.

It also hurts her, so she shifts the mirror to see the skin-spy. Her breath tightens. She watches it thrash against its chains as two of Phinersa’s men are preparing to flay it while another manipulates the Neuropuncture needles controlling it.

Both the twins had climbed into their seats to gaze over the back, Kelmomas pale and expressionless, Samarmas with his shining cheeks pressed to the cushion. She wanted to shout at them to turn away, to look back to the shrieking mob, but her voice failed her. Even though the mirror was meant to protect her, holding it the way she did seemed to make it all the more real, into something that rubbed against the soft-skin of her terror.

Brands burn out its eyes. She watches the torture with a sick, horrific fascination. She wonders how she could have ended up here. She believed in her husband and his mission, she just couldn’t believe it had happened to her. She thinks this is all a dream. Samarmas cries while Kelmomas trembled, not as strong as he usually was. She grabs her sons’ hands to comfort them, unable to stop being a mother. As she does, she feels the comfort it brings. An admission of her weakness.

The masses roared in exultation, becoming in some curious way, the iron that burned, the blade that peeled. And Esmenet sat painted and rigid, gazing out across their furious regions.

Thug. Tyrant. Empress of the Three Seas.

A miracle not quite believed.

My Thoughts

This opening does many things with Esmenet. It instantly reminds us of the thing that had initially seduced her to Kellhus: learning to read. She loves it. I don’t think there is a character in Bakker’s books that loves to read more than she does. It shows how self-conscious she is of her image. She wants to be seen as a loving ruler, but her critic clearly sees her as a thug. Her ego doesn’t like this one bit. It gnaws at her until it becomes more and more personal.

So once a government has power, and has the consent of the majority, it can only impose its will through violence. Every government, even your own, is a thug. Remember this when you lobby a politician to make a law: that law will be enforced by men with guns. At some point in the process, if someone defies it long enough, even in the most civilized country, a law enforcement officer will show up to either force you to comply or arrest you if you don’t. And if you resist, they will use an escalation of force on you.

A government will use force to maintain its order for so long as it can suppress the minority who object. It’s the very nature of government.

It must be terrible to be estranged from your child. I haven’t spoken to my father since June 2003 when my brother graduated from high school. Sometimes I wonder what he thinks about that? Sometimes I think about finding him after waking up from my own surreal dreams.

War. The eternal justification for the expenditure of resources, for marshaling a nation’s engine of economics in a single direction. Sometimes, it’s a necessary exercise to persevere against an aggressor, other times it’s the petty greed of men who want that greener pasture on the other side of the border.

A good discussion on how even someone who can care can be swept up in despotism. She’s reflecting on it thanks to the powers. That’s why his words are gnawing at her. He just stripped away her self-deception about her banality. She oppresses the people because she’s focused on “the big picture” forgetting that it’s made up of individual brush strokes. Or, in modern parlance, all those little dots made by a printer that forms a mosaic so fine it blends into an illusion of a seamless whole to our eyes.

But all those little dots matter when they’re human lives.

I think Theliopa is my favorite of Kellhus’s children. She has this innocence about her and a frailness even as she’s overwhelmed by her intellect and her inability to feel anything.

We get our first clue that Kelmomas knows the palace better than anyone as he beats Imhailas to Esmenet.

Esmenet is in denial that Samarmas isn’t mentally handicapped like he clearly is. She wants both of her youngest children to be perfect. One is faking it. Just like she won’t be able to see what he truly is for a long time.

Why a new skin-spy? We’re seeing an upgrade here. The first hints that the Consult has had another breakthrough and are now probing to see if they infiltrate while Kellhus is gone.

A mark of wealth in ancient times was being able to pay someone to spend their life weaving a carpet. That’s a human being that needs to pay for all of their life needs and are not contributing to the survival of the species. That’s the power that civilization and the diversification of skills gave our species.

Kelmomas is starting to turn her against Maithanet. He senses her worry and he’s going to feed on it through this book. He wants to isolate her. Doesn’t want her to rely on anyone else but him. Notice him then lumping himself and his mother together as one tribe against the rest of the world.

We see Esmenet, despite her intelligence, has a hard time breeding with Kellhus. The first two children came out Dûnyain enough. They’re stable. Able to fake emotions, but the rest of her children, including the stillborn, are not. Theliopa can’t understand fashion and actions. She’s very autistic, but she has a good rationale mind. Inrilatas sees it all for what it is, a joke. He sees the strongest of all of the children, but he doesn’t have the discipline to give a shit. Then we have the twins, one a sociopath and the other mentally handicapped.

We do see that Serwë is probably the most human of them. She does find emotions in the end.

Mimara thinks she’s run, that she escaped, but her mother knows just where she is. Esmenet probably realizes she can’t save her relationship with Mimara by holding tight. Maybe distance, time spent with Achamian, will help her. She has no idea Achamian is about to plan a dangerous journey and her daughter is not going to be safe.

But he does protect her.

It sounds like Samarmas has down syndrome. She had the twins late in life, which increases the risk factor of having a child with down syndrome. I think past the late thirties is when that starts happening. A woman’s eggs form in her in the womb. They’re rather old cells considering the life span for most is only seven years so by time a woman reaches procreation, they’re double if not triple the age of other cells in her body. And over the years, things break down.

Poor Inrilatas. There are limits to every human. He found his mother’s.

I used to work four years driving a paratransit shuttle for Pierce Transit, the local bus agency. A paratransit shuttle picks up those too disabled to ride the regular bus. It’s a requirement of the ADA act. A lot of my passengers were adults with mental handicaps. Down syndrome, extreme autism, other conditions. A lot of them were like Samarmas. Hugging and happy.

I really hate Kelmomas for killing him.

“For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.” And here we have why Samarmas had to die. Kelmomas is a jealous god. He only wants one worshiper, and she needs to bend her full attention to him.

It’s only natural that she’s paranoid. She wants to believe Kelmomas is normal, which probably is why his deception is so successful on her. He has just enough sense to fake emotions, unlike his other siblings. So now she’s convincing herself that he must be, suppressing any doubts she might have because she’s desperate to have a child who loves her.

After all, she ruined things so badly with Mimara and the rest of her children are Dûnyain. All save Samarmas.

Biaxi Sankas, I hope your grateful Conphas is dead. Or else you would be. The last Biaxi in the story was the general Conphas sent after Cnaiür. If he didn’t come back with the barbarian’s head, Conphas vowed to exterminate the Biaxi family.

“The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed.” This sentence is a double negative. Not unwelcomed? Should be not welcomed. It hurt my brain reading that.

Esmenet’s worried about betrayal. Maybe Ikurei had a point to be paranoid. It probably started out as reasonable concern, knowing about history including how his own father was betrayed by his mother so he could take the throne. But if you’re not careful, it becomes pathological. Kelmomas noticed this, and he starts working on her immediately.

The new rich are always embarrassed that they used to be poor around the old rich. They often try to overcompensate. Rarely does it work. Of course, Esmenet has the power of the Empire behind her so the old rich have to suck up to her.

Sometimes, it’s best to tell a white lie to spare hurt feelings especially trivial. I’m a writer, and when my mom tells me she likes my writing, I’m always like, ‘Are you just saying that because you’re my mom?’ At least Esmenet’s children would know if they’re bad or not.

The moment she thinks only Samarmas can be trusted, Kelmomas reminds her of his presence. She is actually on to him more than I realized and deceiving herself. He is doing everything to feed that delusion. “The lies that flatter us are the ones we most readily believe,” is something similar to a Bakker quote. I probably got it wrong, but that’s the essence of it.

“Reap the morrow.” What a curious greeting. Harvest the future. I have a feeling that Kellhus set this up, a reminder to think about what tomorrow is going to bring. You want a good harvest to reap on the morrow. To build towards it.

Esmenet clearly doesn’t love Kellhus at all. She all but hates him, but tolerates him because the world needs to be saving. She believes in his mission. That’s one of the reasons she’s here. It’s one argument, but also her children and seeing them cared for is another. Of course, if she’d know the sort of children she would be having…

733 days. Nearly two years. Who wants to bet that this is when the Mutilated took over the Consult. It can’t have been too many years before that because of the age of the boy. The Mutilated were clearly tortured for a period of time before they used their Dûnyain skills to win over the Consult and then dominate it. They would understand exactly how the skin-spies were detected. Now that Kellhus is gone, perhaps they thought a new type would work or were testing how good the half-Dûnyain are. It might also be a feint to keep Kellhus from suspecting of their existence.

It’s hard to speculate with Dûnyain in the mix.

There is little to no evidence that the Consult is behind any of the happenings that take down the New Empire. Maybe they were doing stuff, but it’s all Kelmomas, Fanayal and his Cishaurim, Zeüm, and Yatwer that cause the problems and draw Kellhus back to the New Empire. Even in the end, it’s Kelmomas becoming the No God not whom the Consult wanted. No one predicted he would be the No God. The Mutilated wanted Kellhus to reach them. They just couldn’t make it easy. They had to try their hardest to destroy him. Now, maybe they were behind Zeüm giving support to Fanayal, but it’s hard to say. Maybe the next book will elucidate it. after all, Zeüm is about to have a bad time.

The Bandit Padirajah. The perfect, romantic symbol of rebellion to inflame the common folk. If the world survives, he’ll be a legendary figure like Robin Hood in our world. Everyone loves to root for an underdog because, unless you’re one of the .0001% at the top of the social hierarchy, you’re an underdog yourself. And you would hope to win if you had the balls to do what Fanayal does.

A sad thing for a mother to fear her children. Normally, the mother or parents would bring that on themselves, but given her children and her inability to relate to them, to even understand them, it makes sense. They are almost aliens to her save for Mimara and poor Samarmas.

Did I mention I hate Kelmomas?

Fear is an important part of humans. As Maithanet says, it’s necessary. Look at Conphas, the man was so narcissistic that he ignored his fear. He pushed doubt aside. Doubt is merely a type of fear, after all. One that makes us question what we’re doing. Be self-reflective. Since most of us aren’t in a life or death struggle like our fear response was designed for, we can use it to help us with more modern issues. It’s healthy, but too much fear is just as bad. Like with everything in life, it’s balance.

Of course, there is the possibility that it doesn’t matter who was in charge. The New Empire was never intended to survive. Kellhus has his mission. Defeat the Consult and stop the No-God from being activated. The New Empire serves no purpose after that. He might even see the eradication of the Dûnyain like himself can only be a positive given where Dûnyain philosophy leads in a world where Damnation is a true thing and morality matters.

Esmenet felt that emptiness inside of her created when she sold Mimara. She’s desperate to replace it with anything. But Kellhus’s children are like him. They just couldn’t fake it yet. How horrifying to have children who might as well be rocks. Mothers need that emotional connection to bond with them, else you get what she descends into postpartum depression. The thoughts of harming herself and the baby are all symptoms of that.

Serwa seems capable of love. She is definitely the most emotional of Kellhus’s children we see (baring Samarmas). Once Sorweel breaks through her barriers. She even saves her mother life when her mission to destroy the Consult should have been all that mattered.

I hope Serwa survives into the next series. She was badly wounded at the end, though.

“Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Inrilatas called his mother a whore to her face. Also, it’s pretty clear that Kellhus pushed the kid into harmless insanity so he would have to be locked up because he did not have time to care for him.

More proof that the Dûnyain are not fully human, they have trouble reproducing. They have strengthened the nonman gene in their bloodlines to a point where they’re verging on a different species from humans. Or so I believe.

Kelmomas certainly loves. He has the jealous love of a child who wants his mother all to himself and the intellect to make it happen combined with not a bit of morality to restrain his actions. We also get another version of this story from Kelmomas about what was going on with him and his brother.

The Plate sounds like a giant symbol used to sound the alarm.

Oh, Esmenet, Mimara loves you. It’s in there. The pain of her hatred wouldn’t be so great otherwise. It might be impossible for them to ever get past that. Mimara was greatly wronged by her mother. If she chooses never to forgive Esmenet, it’s understandable.

She didn’t count Moënghus in her tally of normal children. Yet he’s not Dûnyain, so what happened to him? We’ll see in book 2 and 3.

Notice how many traditions there are around her. Her eyes are too holy to watch an execution. She wears a garnet on her shoulder to signify Kellhus’s blood had passed through her. These are not natural traditions. Not established so fast. They were implemented by Kellhus for he knows the importance of traditions. Most start out as a convenience done by someone who keeps doing it, then others follow until you get a separation between the reason it was done and those who just mimic it because that is how it has always been done.

Esmenet has “impostor syndrome” which is the belief that you don’t deserve where you are. It’s that doubt that can make you question your own skill, your own purpose. It can be a healthy thing, keeping you sharp, or it can destroy you if it becomes a neurosis. She’s not as strong as she thinks she needs to be. Her children are a crutch, an escape, that give her comfort. Hence, why I think she felt it to be an admission that holding their hands soothed her soul.

Our introduction to Esmenet is done. We get her backstory, how she is more a partner to Kellhus than a wife. She believes in him, but she’s long stopped loving him. She hates him now, but she also still trusts him. Worships him.

Click here for Chapter Four of the Reread!

And if you want to help support this blurb, check out my fantasy books on Amazon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

At the end of Book Four, Trull Sengar began to tell the story of how he became chained to the wall in the drowned pocket of Kurald Emurlan.

As the events of Deadhouse Gates and Memory of Ice was happening (sort of, since the Silanah stuff really throws off the timeline) on the other side of the world, the Tiste Edur tribes have been united by the Warlock King. They are facing annexation by the greedy Lether to the south, a nation merchants who want the natural resources in Edur lands. They have destroyed other tribes through shady treaties and deliberate betrayals.

The Warlock King has a new ally. He plans to send the Sengar Brothers (Fear, Trull, Binadas, and young Rulad) on a quest to receive a gift in the arctic wastes north of their lands. Will it prove the salvation of their people or their ruination.

Another set of brothers, Beddicts, have their own goals. Tehol Beddict appears impoverished after his financial collapse, but he had actually discovered the secret to destroying his people’s economy and flinched. However, when those whose people were destroyed by the Lethers want him to try again, will he accept? In the palace, Brice Beddict is the king’s champion. Emroiled in the complex politics of Lether, he vows to protect his king even if the man isn’t worthy of his devotion. Last, Hull Beddict plots his people’s destruction in another way. He wants to save the Edur from the fate of other tribes, weighed down by guilt.

A large cast of characters, both mortal, undead, and immortal, clash and swirl. This is one of Erikson’s best books in the series. Tehol and Bug number among my favorite duo and it was great to read them again. Tragedy and misfortune swirl as no one’s plans quite work out right. The darkest parts of humanity are exposed once more.

This fantasy series continues to be unique and amazing. If you haven’t read any of Malazan Book of the Fallen, you need to. It is worth the journey.

You can buy Midnight Tides from Amazon.

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Interview with Clay Gilbert Author of Pearl

This week, I spoke with Clay again. He’s a prolific indie author writing from SciFi to urban fantasy. Now he’s got a suspense thriller with supernatural overtones coming out called Pearl. We’re going to be getting into this interesting novel today!

Check out Pearl on Amazon!

First, let’s get to know Clay with some fun, quirky questions! Part Duex!

  1. What was your favorite subject in school? English
  2. What is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done? Answering interview questions like that one, haha. 😉
  3. Favorite color? Purple. Royal purple, not that pastel stuff. 😉
  4. Does pineapple belong on pizza? Absolutely. Love me some Hawaiian pizza.
  5. If you could travel back in time, why would you do it? I’d like to attend every Grateful Dead show ever, not just the ones I actually saw between 1988 and 1995. Of course, it’d be fun to see some of the historical periods I missed out on, too.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks!

  1. Where did the idea for Pearl come from? Well, I’ve loved monsters for a long time, particularly the more sympathetic monsters, like King Kong and Frankenstein’s Monster. For years, I’ve thought about writing my own sympathetic monster story, but I wasn’t sure really how to go about it. Eventually I decided that nothing could be more sympathetic than a ‘monster’ who was a child. Many of my novels are written from the perspective of a female protagonist, so, in this case, my little monster was also a little girl.
  2. What sort of research did you do to bring the story of Pearl to life? I did some research on the history, folklore, and language of the Smoky Mountains, including specific legends involving supernatural creatures, and also the abandoned town of Elkmont, which plays a prominent supporting role in the novel.
  3. Writing a novel can, at times, feel like a chore. Did this novel ever make you want to rip your hair out, or did it flow smoothly from imagination to typed words? The initial composition of the book was smooth, but the editing process was unusually rigorous. This book is set more in the here and now than many of my novels, which are often set far in the future or on other worlds. This book has fantasy elements in it, but the elements which are not fantasy were things—and some real places—I knew people would call me out about if I got too off-base with. I wanted to make sure the fantasy elements were as believable, in their way, as the real-world aspects were. It’s also the first book I’ve written from the perspective of a child, and I wanted her to be as believable on the page as she was in my head. Pearl’s mode of speech was also challenging to handle. Anytime you deal with dialect in a book, particularly in the voice of a person of color, you run the risk of offending people or being accused of stereotyping. Since the book is itself so concerned with marginalization, it was important to me that neither Pearl nor any of the other people in the book come across as caricatures. I intend all my books to speak to the universal experience of being human, and both to acknowledge diversity as well as our commonalities as people, no matter what gender, ethnicity, cultural or educational background we spring from. Thankfully, I had an editor working with me on this book who really helped let me know when I was pulling those challenges off, and when I needed to work on some things. It was a lot of work, and I’m proud of how it turned out.
  4. Fans of what sort of books would enjoy Pearl? I think this book will appeal to a wide audience. Pearl’s wit, spirit and humor, and her determination to uncover the mystery of her own strange history will appeal to the Harry Potter audience, I think, and there is certainly magic here, too. Fans of 1980s horror, especially Stephen King’s work, will find elements here that echo the particular ethos of that era in horror history. I hope there are some elements of such Steven Spielberg films as E.T. and Poltergeist here, as well as books such as King’s IT and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life. It’s one-third coming-of-age drama, one-third horror novel, and one-third fantasy epic.
  5. Creative writing is opening your soul and exposing yourself. How much of yourself do you think made it into Pearl? A good bit. Matt Chandler, the writer who becomes a father figure to Pearl over time, is a good bit like me. And Pearl, with her childhood involving being treated like an outsider because of the way she was born and how she looks, reflects some of my childhood as well, even if I never outright got called a ‘monster’ like she does. My Christian religious beliefs and much of my personal outlook on the world found their way, I hope, into the book as well. Also, of course, my love of monsters, something I share with, among others, the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Fans of his work will enjoy this book, I think.
  6. What is a good habit for a writer to adopt? Discipline. Put your backside to the seat for a set number of hours every day, set daily word-count goals, and do not allow yourself to back out of them. Also, read a lot.
  7. Would you like to share a little preview of Pearl with us?

I’m not sure how little this is, but here you go.

* * *

Run, Pearl. When you get the chance, run. And don’t stop until you’re somewhere safe.”

That’s what Dr. Steve told her to do, and when the chance came, that’s what she did.

Sirens in the dark. Rain all around; on my head, soaking through my hood.

Don’t care. Gotta get away.

And she had. She ran until the sirens were gone and the branches of the thick trees in the woods rose between her and the rain. Mostly, anyway.

And then, Pearl was alone.

In five days, that would be a year ago: a year of white squares colored in on a calendar, like a brightly-hued sidewalk between then and now.

Bright squares on a wall, and peaceful woods, all around.

It was quiet, mostly, here in the woods. Quiet meant no people, and no people meant peace.

Pearl knew some people in the world hated silence; always turning on the TV or punching at their cell phones like they were scared to be alone in their own heads.

Pearl had some thoughts in her head she didn’t like, but she didn’t mind being alone, and she could live with the silence.

She’d lived with worse.

The bad place she left behind was worse: the lab, with all its chains, cold cuffs for her wrists, and the cage they kept her in, like she was a prisoner instead of a girl who’d done nothing but open her eyes one day and take a breath. But the cuffs and chains had stayed the same while Pearl grew and changed, and one morning, soon after her ninth birthday, she found the bonds that were so strong when she was little weren’t so strong anymore, and she broke them, and she was free.

In her first year of freedom, the woods were quiet; a place where Pearl could be alone with her thoughts, and with the animals, and once in a while, read one of the books she’d brought from the bad place with her in her backpack, or color in one of the coloring books she’d brought from there, with crayons from a box she’d found in a dumpster near a store, the first night she was on her own.

Not found; scavenged. She liked that word better.

She’d happened upon the cabin on the third night of that first year, and, after making sure no one else was there, she’d taken a bath in the nearby lake, put on some clean clothes, eaten one of the packs of Pop-Tarts from her backpack, and fallen asleep.

Across from the cabin, Pearl saw something that made her curious: a big house, with three levels. Nobody seemed to be home the night she first arrived in the woods. The cabin was enough for her. Besides, that house looked fancy, and she thought it might have some alarms on it, like the bad place had on its doors, so that if she went too close to it, the police would come running.

I sure ’nuff don’t need that, she’d thought.

* * *

Almost a whole year had gone by since the day she moved into the cabin, and all that time, the big house across the way from it stood empty.

Pearl knew, because she kept a watch on it.

She figured as long as the big house stayed empty, it’d be more likely folks would leave her alone.

Five white squares were left on the calendar before the one she’d circled in green (October 6th, she noted, tracing the circle with her finger). That green circle marked a whole year’s worth of white squares since the day she found the cabin; squares she’d filled in with her crayons, one by one, on the last three pages of one calendar and almost the whole first nine of another.

In all that time, she and the world had passed each other by.

This morning was different.

This morning, Pearl had seen something—something that changed everything.

It was the middle of the day, when the sun was high in the sky. Most times, it was a peaceful part of the day, but not now.

Two big trucks were pulling up the driveway of the big house, where none had ever pulled up before.

Both trucks had the same thing written on them: MYSTERY CREEK MOVING COMPANY.

Pearl knew that meant whoever it was the stuff in those trucks belonged to, they weren’t just coming for a visit. They were planning to stay, and that was something she hadn’t figured on.

* * *

Pearl wasn’t scared of sleeping in the woods alone. As long as all she saw were animals, she’d be just fine. Pearl wasn’t scared of any wild animals. They couldn’t do anything to hurt her.

Neither could men with dogs. They’d tried, too.

Men with guns, that was something different. But for a whole year now, they’d stayed away from her, except in her nightmares. For a year, everyone had stayed away from her. That was how she liked it.

Now all that was changing, in just one day.

Clay Gilbert says he’s always liked stories, and that from the time he knew there were people who told them for a living, that’s what he wanted to do. Clay’s work in various genres has been in print since his first short science fiction story, “The Computer Conspiracy,” was published in Scholastic magazine when he was just thirteen. Clay is the author of the science fiction series Children of Evohe, including the novels Annah and the Children of Evohe, Annah and the Exiles, Annah and the Gates of Grace, and Annah and the Arrow. He is also the author of the YA dystopian novel Eternity, the science fiction novel The Conversationalist: Out of the Blue and its sequel, The Conversationalist: Mission to Mercy Prime, as well as the vampire novel Dark Road to Paradise, and its sequel, Cassie’s Song, all published by Dark Moon Press. He lives and works in Knoxville, TN. His author blog can be found at http://portalsandpathways.wordpress.com/, and the official website for his Children of Evohe novels resides at https://childrenofevohe.com/.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Two

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Two

Hûnoreal

Welcome to Chapter Two of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter One!

We burn like over-fat candles, our centres gouged, our edges curling in, our wick forever outrunning our wax. We resemble what we are: Men who never sleep.

—ANONYMOUS MANDATE SCHOOLMAN, THE HEIROMANTIC PRIMER

My Thoughts

It’s a nice reintroduction to the Mandate Schoolman. They used to be men at the edge of their resources. They are working themselves too hard. They are driven to push themselves to their utter limits. Why?

Because of Seswatha’s dreams.

And since this chapter starts out with Achamian, it’s a fitting introduction.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

There would have been nightmares aplenty had Drusas Achamian been able to dream a life that was his own. Nightmares of a long, hard war across deserts and great river deltas. Nightmares of sublimity and savagery held in perfect equipoise, though the cacophony of the latter would make all seem like misery. Nightmares of dead men, feeding like cannibals on their once strong souls, raising the impossible on the back of atrocity.

Nightmares of a city so holy it had become wicked.

And of a man who could peer into souls.

Achamian can’t dream of these things because, even though he renounced being a Mandate Schoolman, he still dreams of Seswatha and the First Apocalypse. He relives the horrors of the past. Tonight, he’s dreaming of a feast that the High King Anasûrimbor Celmomas has thrown. He’s reclining on his Urthrone drunk and almost passed out. His Knight-Chieftains are partying. Toasts are cried out and mead is drunk. Achamian (as Seswatha) is at the end of a table only drinking water. He is watching “the High King—the man he still called his best friend—drink himself into unconsciousness.”

Seswatha slips out. No one notices. He moves through the palace and finds a door open as expected. Candles light the room, illuminating Suriala, a wanton beauty. “He knelt in accordance with the very Laws he was about to break.” He’s overcome with her beauty. He goes to the bed, mounts her.

Made love to his High-King’s wife—

A convulsive gasp.

Achamian bolted forward from his blankets. The darkness buzzed with exertion, moaned and panted with feminine lust—but only for a moment. Within heartbeats the chorus call of morning birdsong ruled his ears. Throwing aside his blankets, he leaned into his knees, rubbed at the ache across his jaw and cheek. He had taken to sleeping on wood as part of the discipline he had adopted since leaving the School of Mandate, and to quicken the transition between his nightmares and wakefulness. Mattress, he had found, made waking a form of suffocation.

It takes him some time to banish his arousal from the dream. If he was still a Mandate, this would have been momentous to dream. He wasn’t one, and he had many such revelations in his dreams to be overawed. He glances at the sun shining through curtains thinking exposing truth to the light is “never a bad thing.”

He can hear the children of his two slaves playing outside. He savors the sound because today it felt like a “profound miracle.” He wished to just stay in this moment, a good way to spend the rest of his life.

He looks at his room in a Galeoth military tower. It’s simple and barbaric compared to his life spent in the “fleshpots of the South.” But it had been his home for twenty years. The place where he studied.

He walked different roads. Deeper roads.

How long had he travelled?

All his life, it seemed, though he had been a Wizard for only twenty.

Breathing deep, drawing fingers from his balding scalp to his shaggy white beard, he walked to the main worktable, braced himself for the concentrated recital to come…

The meticulous labour of mapping Seswatha’s labyrinthine life.

Thanks to writing down Seswatha’s dreams for years, he’d learned the best way to do it. Before his memory could taint the recollection, he had to write it down fresh. The first thing he did upon awakening. However, he could only write: “NAU-CAYÛTI?” He stares at the name of Celmomas’s son who helped steal the Heron Spear. That weapon slew the No-God. Achamian has read dozens of books devoted to him. His military exploits. His heroic deeds. How he was slain by his wife, Iëva. Some have noted how many of Seswatha’s dreams had involved Nau-Cayûti. Achamian is realizing Seswatha had bedded his lover, which is in itself a significant revelation. As much as Achamian wants to jump to the conclusion that Seswatha is Nau-Cayûti’s father, he thinks to the dream, wanting to date it to see if was possible. He’s interrupted by one of the slave children asking a question only for a strange woman to reply.

He’s shocked by the accent of the newcomer. She spoke like a Nansur or Ainoni. Someone from the south, not someone from Hûnoreal, a province in northern Galeoth. He looks out the window across the grounds and doesn’t see where the voices are coming from. He scans past a few outbuildings and spots a mule while the voices “continued to chirp and gaggle somewhere to the left.” The boy cries out for their mother and Achamian spots him moving through the trees on the slope. His mother, Tisthana, comes out to meet the children. There are children talking to the stranger, a woman, asking about her sword and the name of her mule. She’s wearing a fine cloak marking her noble caste, but he can’t see her face. He wonders how long it had been since a visitor had come. Maybe five or six years ago.

He remembers how it had been just him and Geraus in the beginning. He often had to use the Gnosis to kill packs of Sranc, leaving marks of the battle all over the place. Geraus still has nightmares about it. Later, Scalpoi came to win the bounty on Sranc scalps. They often brought their own problems, but his Gnosis took care of that.

No matter, the rule had been simple over the years: Visitors meant grief, the Gods and their laws of hospitality be damned.

The woman appears friendly as she greets Tisthana, and Achamian thinks the woman acts like caste-menial despite her fine clothing. He relaxes when he hears Tisthana laugh, knowing she’s a trustworthy judge of character. The two women now walking side by side to the tower, chatting in the friendly way of women. Tisthana points out Achamian. He tries to put on a dignified pose but the mortar of the windowsill crumbles and he almost falls out the window. The children laugh in delight as he rights himself.

The stranger looked up, her delicate face bemused and open and curious…

And something in Achamian suffered a greater fall.

No matter how surprising an event is, there is a reason for it. Cause and effect rule the world. The newcomer calls him the Great Wizard in a tone “balanced between many things, hope and sarcasm among them.” She reminds him of a child with poor manners. He demands to know what she’s doing here after sending Tisthana and the children away. Despite how short she is, she’s standing on the highest fold of the ground to loom over him out of instinctive. He recognizes her. She’s beautiful, her face that of his wife. This is Mimara, Esmenet’s daughter who she’d sold into slavery during a famine. Achamian wonders if finding Mimara is why Esmenet stayed with Kellhus, choosing the Dûnyain emperor over “a broken-hearted fool.”

Not because of the child she carried, but because of the child she had lost?

The questions were as inevitable as the pain, the questions that had pursued him beyond civilization’s perfumed rim. He could have continued asking them, he could have yielded to madness and made them his life’s refrain. Instead he had packed a new life about them, like clay around a wax figurine, then he had burned them out, growing ever more decrepit, even more old, about their absence—more mould than man. He had lived like some mad trapper, accumulating skins that were furred in ink instead of hair, the lines of every snare anchored to this silent hollow within him, to these questions he dared not ask.

And now here she stood… Mimara.

The answer?

Mimara is glad he recognized her. Memories of Esmenet ripple through Achamian at the sight of her, and he says she looks a lot like her. She doesn’t seem pleased about that. He repeats his question, asking why she is here. She gives a flippant, obvious answer that forces him to ask a third time. Anger glazes through her, startling Achamian. The world that had slowly faded away from his valley now has returned. He’d found peace here and realizes he’s about to lose it as he shouts at her to know why she’s here.

She flinched, looked down to the childish scribble at her feet: a gaping mouth scrawled in black across mineral white, with eyes, nose, and ears spaced across its lipless perimeter.

“B-because I wanted…” Something caught her throat. Her eyes shot up, as though requiring an antagonist to remain focused. “Because I wanted to know if…” Her tongue traced the seam of her lips.

“If you were my father.”

His laughter felt cruel, but if was such, she showed no sign of injury—no outward sign.

He explains he met Esmenet after Mimara was sold into slavery. He should have realized Esmenet would have used all her new power to find the “girl whose name she would never speak.” He tries to explain how Esmenet sold Mimara to save her from starving to death and how it broke her. As he says them, he realizes this is just the “same hollow justifications” she’s heard again and again. It’s clear that though Esmenet found her years ago, it was too late to fix her. She then starts pressing that she remembers that he bought her apples. He claims it wasn’t him and he’s not her father because the daughter of whores “have no fathers.” He tried to say it gently, but it comes out too hard. It hurts her. “You said that I was clever,” she accuses.

He ran a slow hand across his face, exhaled, suddenly feeling ancient with guilt and frustration. Why must everything be too big to wrestle, too muddy to grasp

“I feel sorry for you, child—I truly do. I have some notion of what you must have endured…” A deep breath, warm against the bright cool. “GO home, Mimara. Go back t your mother. We have no connection.”

He turned back towards the tower. The Sun instantly warmed his shoulders.

“But we do,” her voice chimed from behind him—so like her mother’s that chills skittered across his skin.

He reiterates that he’s not her father, but she says it’s something else that brought her. Her tone makes him turn back to face her. She says she’s one of the few. A witch. She continues that she isn’t looking for her father, but for a teacher. She wants to learn the Gnosis.

There is a progression to all things. Lives, encounters, histories, each trailing their own nameless residue, each burrowing into a black, black future, groping for the facts that conjure purpose out of the cruelties of mere coincidence.

And Achamian had his fill of it.

Mimara realizes that her mother “the old whore” is right: Achamian likes to teach. It’s been three months since she’s run away from the Andiamine Heights in search of Achamian. She had to dodge the Judges and survive the hard winter. She can’t believe she made it. She’s dreamed of this place, imagined it so much, it actually fits her fantasy. Everything but Achamian.

He’s the Apostate. The man who cursed the Aspect-Emperor out of love for Esmenet. She’s heard many versions of him. Even her mother talks about him in different ways. It’s the contradictions about this man that left the impression. “In the cycle of historical and scriptural characters that populated her education, he alone seemed real.

Only he isn’t. The man before her seems to mock her soft-bellied imaginings: a wild-haired hermit with limbs like barked branches and eyes that perpetually sort grievances. Bitter. Severe. He bears the Mark, as deep as any sorcerers she has seen glimpse through the halls of the Andiamine Heights, but where they drape silks and perfume about their stain, he wears wool patched with rancid fur.

How could anyone sing songs about such a man?

He asks if it’s true that witches aren’t burned. She says there’s even a School, the Sawayal Compact. That shocks Achamian who then asks why she needs him. Her mother won’t let her and the Sawayali won’t anger Esmenet by taking her. “Socerery, she [Esmenet] says, leaves only scars.” Achamian agrees with that.

“But what if scars are all you have?”

Achamian is taken back by Mimara’s statement then asks if she wants power to “feel the world crumble beneath the weight of your voice.” She sees this as a game and asks isn’t that why he did it and strikes a nerve, but she finds no satisfaction in winning. He tells her he’d rather be her father than teacher.

There is a set manner to the way he turns his back this time, one that tells her that no words can retrieve him. The sun pulls his shadow long and profound. He walks with a stoop that says he has long outlived the age of bargaining. But she hears it all the same, the peculiar pause of legend becoming actuality, the sound of the crazed and disjoint seams of the world falling flush.

He is the Great Teacher, the one who raised the Aspect-Emperor to the heights of godhead.

He is Drusas Achamian.

She builds a bonfire that night wanting to burn down his tower. She pretends the fire is living, a fantasy she often indulges in to put magic into the world. “That she is a witch.” It starts to rain. Lightning flashes. She crouches in the downpour, soaked. It slowly smothers her fire. Her misery grows. She finds herself before the tower hollering for him to teach her.

He simply has to hear, doesn’t he? Her voice cracking the way all voices crack about the soul’s turbulent essentials. He needs only to look down to see her leaning against the slope, wet and pathetic and defiant, the image of the woman he once loved, framed by steam and fire. Pleading. Pleading.

Teeeeeach!”

Meeee!”

Only wolves answer, howling with her. It mocks her, but she’s used to people “who celebrate her pain.” She throws her hurt back at the world, declaring he will teach her. Then she sees him watching her from a doorway. He steps out into the rain, hobbling towards her. She can see the unseen sorcery shielding him from the rain. She trembles when he looks down at her from the stairs while the storm rages around them. She feels embarrassed under his scrutiny and demands he teach her.

Without a word, which she could now see is made not of wood, but of bone. Quite unprepared, she watches him swing it like a mace—

An explosion against the side of her skull. Then sliding palms, knuckles scraped and skinned, arms and legs tangled rolling. She slams to a stop against a molar-shaped rock. Gasps for air.

Stunned, she watches him pick his way back up the shining slope. She tastes blood, bends her face back to let the endless rain rinse her clean. The drops seem to fall out of nowhere.

She begins laughing.

Teeeach meeee!”

My Thoughts

A great way to introduced Achamian and remind us of the Holy War and what happened. We cut right to the most important part of his motivation in this series: finding out the truth of Kellhus. He has to know the truth of who he is, and those keys lie in his dream of Seswatha. A dream about a sorcerer cuckolding a king.

So is Seswatha the father of Nau-Cayûti? This certainly seems to imply it. Why else would Achamian dream this moment.? Or more specifically, why else would Bakker write this passage? My theory on why both Nau-Cayûti and Kelmomas are both able to activate the No-God when no one else can is their bloodline. The Anasûrimbor bloodline. It is implied that the only successful mating between human and Nonman happened when an Anasûrimbor daughter was raped by a Nonman. However, if Nau-Cayûti isn’t Celmomas’s bloodline, how does my theory survive?

Well, as we can see from the appendix of Thousandfold Thought, the Anasûrimbor dynasty was large. It ruled several different kingdoms. The Anasûrimbor that Kellhus is a descendant of is a cousin to Kelmomas. If you know anything about royalty, they like to marry important people. There is often quite a number of close kin marrying amid royal families. It is possible that Suriala is also an Anasûrimbor by blood even if her maiden name was another.

In fact, estimates of human history show that most marriages in the history of our race (hardly dented by the small fraction of the modern era) have been between first and second cousins. So the Anasûrimbor bloodline was spread out wide, it was preserved in the Dûnyain as one of their various lines of descent because of its innate gifts. I also think this is why Kellhus has trouble with children. The Dûnyain have bred the Nonman part of the Anasûrimbor genetics to its limits through their program. The reason for their greater intelligence and reflex might be, partly, accounted by this strengthening of the Nonman genes. I think the Mutilated figured this out, but by then they were the last Dûnyain left alive and none of them wanted to do the activation.

They were trying to save their souls, not sacrifice them, so they needed a replacement. And one was coming. Their enemy. They were certain Kellhus would work. They had to have figured out the Anasûrimbor bloodline was the key. They could take out the greatest threat to their power and turn on the No-God in one step. Leave Kellhus alive, and he’d probably figure out how to destroy the No-God again even if one of them activated it.

There is precedent for it happening. Hope they find that missing Heron Spear.

The sound of children laughing and playing, a simple joy, is what Achamian yearns for. He wants to keep hearing it because it means the Second Apocalypse hasn’t come. That there is still innocence in the world.

We noticed near the end of the last book, that Achamian’s dreams with Seswatha were focused on Nau-Cayûti. Now, he’s dreaming things no other Mandate has. The things that the Seswatha-in-his-Soul didn’t think was relevant to their mission. What’s changed for Achamian. What makes him different.

Kellhus.

I believe when Kellhus hypnotized Achamian in the Thousandfold Thoughts, something changed. Perhaps Kellhus talking with the Seswatha caused him to react and start feeding Achamian more information, or whatever Kellhus did to free Achamian to teach the Gnosis loosened the other restraints on the Seswatha in him, and now he’s dreaming all sorts of things.

On another note, Mandate who get obsessed with dreams invariably fall into the conspiracy theory traps and get lost in them. Achamian, at least, is studying new things. But obsession can do a lot of damage if it consumes him.

Poor Achamian, having to dream about an adulterous wife while missing Esmenet. Twenty years, and it still hurts. He’s like Leweth from the first book. The man who went into the wilderness to preserve memories of his wife. Achamian is obsessed with his quest to unmask Kellhus and prove himself right. Esmenet went back to him without telling him why. She probably thought he was dead, she was pregnant, and she had a chance to find Mimara.

Achamian is always the teacher, even if his only pupils are slave children who’d normally never learn to write. The Turtle Shell rock is a nice and subtle reminder of one of Achamian’s core characteristics.

Why did Esmenet stay? I’ve always said it was for her children: Mimara and Kayûtas, the one she was pregnant with. She had to be a mother before a woman, choosing them over her heart.

I think I’ve mentioned this, but altruism is hard to maintain when you’re starving. The hungrier you get, the more you retreat into instinct. And instinct is selfish. We know from Esmenet’s point of view she sold Mimara to feed herself. In a fit of selfishness, she did it and only regretted it later. Once she’d eaten and could think properly, she wanted to take it back. Ironically, it did save Mimara’s life, but the girl suffered greatly anyways. A wound that being told her suffering was for her own good won’t work to heal.

I’m interested in the next series. Will becoming a mother herself bring Mimara and Esmenet together?

Achamian is lying about never meeting Mimara. He’s not her father, but he did know her as a child. He helped Esmenet to try and get her back after the famine but failed, and that was when Esmenet stopped talking about her. I imagined he’s denying he’s Mimara father out of guilt for that. She would have been sold off when he was away. When he couldn’t help Esmenet. Now he can’t be her father. He’s too old. He wants her to leave, not to bond with him.

Mimara being one of the Few is not a surprising plot twist if you were paying attention to the last series. Esmenet mentioned that her mother could do things that she refused to teach her daughter. She was a witch, but Esmenet didn’t have the ability. It’s a recessive gene or something and skipped her generation. So Mimara being one of the Few is not a clue she’s Achamian’s daughter.

She sees his face slacken, despite the matted wire of his beard. She sees his complexion blanch, despite the sun’s morning glare. And she knows that what her mother once told her is in fact true: Drusas Achamian possesses the soul of a teacher.

This is Mimara’s first POV paragraph. Notice the verbs. They are not in past tense like EVERYTHING else in the series. They’re present tense. It’s a subtle thing Bakker does with her POVs. Whenever we’re in her head, it’s not like the past is being retold to us, but that we’re living in the present with Mimara.

We’re seeing what her Judging Eye sees as the world unfolds before her.

I have to confess, I had read The Judging Eye maybe three or four times before I began seriously pursuing my own writing. The next time I read it after I did, in preparation for The Great Ordeal’s release, this leaped out at me at once and it made me ask, “Why did Bakker do this?”

Remember this lesson: if an author has even a modicum of talent, they write things for a reason. Now, don’t get lost in why they made so-and-so’s dress blue, or why such-and-such person has a wart on their nose. Most of the time, those are just there to paint the world, not for any special reason. But pay attention to which details an author shares and how they convey information. Bakker so far has used 3rd Person Omniscient Past Tense for the historical sections and 3rd Person Limited Past Tense for the character POVs. Now we have a shift to 3rd Person Limited Present Tense for Mimara and only Mimara. Why?

The Judging Eye.

When it opens, we see the world as she does. We experience it as she does. She’s the conduit for the God, the Oversoul, to peer out at the world and witness it the way IT sees the world. Damnation and Salvation. It makes her POVs have an immediacy that other sections can lack.

Like many abused as children, she has a great deal of anger inside of her. She’s lost. Looking for the family she should have had while rejecting the one who sold her into that horror. As we later see when she seduces Achamian, she’s been taught by her abuse that her body only holds value in pleasing a man.

Achamian sees too much of himself in her. He wants to hurt Kellhus and the world that has taken everything away. Mimara cuts too close. To protect himself, he has to drive her away. But she’s determined. She’s come too far to give up. Hitting her on the head won’t work. She thinks she has nothing else but this. She has a driving need to be here, manipulated to come here by her darling little brother Kelmomas.

He wants mommy all to himself.

If you want to read the next part, click here for Chapter 3!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Born to Darkness

Born to Darkness

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Raiann is the twin sister of the heir to the Black Throne. And that’s a problem. Rumors persist that she is the firstborn not her brother. Realizing that her father will do something drastic to ensure his son inherits the throne, she has no choice but to flee.

Her flight doesn’t go as plan. She finds herself in trouble. But a wandering mercenary named Orxy comes to her rescue. He’s a satyr, one of the light blood races while she’s a djinn, dark blood. He promises to teach her to fight and to use the magic brimming in her blood. Djinn have passion pumping through their veins, and he’s going to prove it.

Raiann finds a new life that excites her blood. A mercenary.

Born to Darkness was a great read. It’s fast and flows. It has some great twists and turns and goes into some dark places. Raiann has an interesting path that’s powerful to read. Brit has outdone herself with this one. I’m a fan of her previous fantasy series, and this one showed her growing strength as an author.

I want to read more of this interesting world and the character of Raiann. While I wished she’d made a different decision at the end of the novel, she’s not a perfect character. She’s flawed and struggling to find peace in a world that’s cruel and unfair.

If you’re a fan of powerful and character-driven fantasy, you need to check out Born to Darkness!

You can buy Born to Darkness from Amazon!

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Weekly Free Story: The Assassin’s Remorse

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

The Assassin’s Remorse

G’nite, Cerena,” Beshie said. “You be careful, you hear? All sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells lurkin’ in them streets when the fog be rollin’ in from the Redmud.”

I’ll be fine, Beshie,” Cerena replied, slipping on her heavy, woolen cloak. It was plain, a deep maroon, and not the greatest quality, but it was the best she and her husband could afford.

I can have one of me boys walk you home,” Beshie offered her.

Cerena sighed, a little irritated at Beshie’s over-mothering. The matronly woman meant well, but Cerena had walked these streets at night for years and never ran into these “ne’er-do-wells” that Beshie always complained about.

The fog lay thick on the streets of Kash-on-Redmud. The town was called Kash-on-Redmud to differentiate it from the larger city of Kash, as well as Little Kash, Kash-on-Tumblewaters, and Upper Kash. She often pondered her ancestors’ lack of imagination. Surely, there were other names besides Kash.

Cerena shrugged the cloak tightly around her, trying to ward off the creeping chill of the mist as she trudged down the cobblestone street to her home. Exhaustion weighed on Cerena, her feet sore from standing for hours serving the homeless of the town their bowl of watery soup and heel of day-old bread. Every Whiteday evening, since she was a child, Cerena had come to the soup kitchen. She found the work rewarding; it fulfilled her Act of Compassion for the week.

She was a devout follower of the Seven Colours of Elohm, and strove with diligence to follow the Seven Tenets: Compassion, Patience, Forgiveness, Virtue, Honesty, Temperance, and Modesty. Each Tenant was represented by one of Elohm’s Colours: Compassion by Orange and Patience by Yellow. Green for Forgiveness and Red for Virtue. Honesty, White; Temperance, Blue; and Modesty, Purple. Only when all seven Colours are balanced in your life, can true freedom be found, the catechism went. Cerena liked to think she had a good balance. She wasn’t perfect, of course, no one was, but she tried her hardest and had been rewarded with a loving husband, a comfortable home, and fast friends like Beshie.

Her boots’ heels clicked on the pavement with each step. One click as her heel touched the cobblestone, then a second click as the ball of her foot came down.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It echoed through the empty streets, half-muffled by the thick fog that rolled in from the river. If it weren’t for the jewelchine streetlamps shining their soft, white light, she’d have been hopelessly lost. She knew her way home—six lamps to Ostler Way, take a right, then twelve lamps to Fishmonger’s Row, turn to the left, and four more lamps would see her to her tenement building.

Jewelchine lights were a marvel. Cerena could remember how dark the streets were as a child before they were discovered. The streetlamps were made using a diamond wrapped with a gold wire. Elohm, in his great mercy, had taught the secret of harnessing the powers of Gems and Metals. Just like there were seven Colours, there were seven Jewels and seven Metals. Each Gem had a certain property: Amethyst for security, Topaz for healing, Ruby for warmth, and Diamonds for light, for truth. Light is the purest form of Truth, banishing the darkness of Dishonesty, the catechism went. The wire provided the power. The purer the metal—with Gold the purest, Zinc the basest, and five others falling in between—the longer the jewelchine would last before the wire burned itself out and had to be replaced. For such an important task as lighting the streets, the Archons had decided to use the more expensive gold wire on the streetlamps, trading a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

There was the rumor of an eighth Jewel: Obsidian. Black as night, and used for only the most vile purposes. It had to be wrapped in the eighth Metal: Black Iron. The Metal found only in the hearts of dead stars that had fallen to the earth. Cerena shuddered at the thought. Only a man so deprived of Elohm’s Colours would dare to use such a thing.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Her contemplation of the jewelchine streetlamps slowly drifted to other thoughts as she confidently walked the foggy streets. She wondered how her husband’s trip to sell his leathers downriver to Ustervin progressed. A nervous pang entered her stomach; she always worried while Asht was gone. He was a tanner, and once a month he would make the day’s journey by pole-boat to do business with the leather merchants of Ustervin. It would take a day or three to sell his work, and then the two-day journey upriver. She missed him desperately when he was gone; their bed felt so lonely without him. But they needed the money his monthly trips brought.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

She frowned, stopped, and peered back into the mist. Was there someone else in the fog? It was so thick a fool all in motley could stand not three paces in front of her and she’d not even see him.

Hello?” she asked, her voice tight. Beshie’s warnings lit a small fire of panic in her belly. She clutched at her cloak, pulling it tight around her, and listened. She strained, trying to ignore the blood rushing in her head as her heart pounded to the rhythm of fear.

Nothing. Only the echo of her own words parroting back at her.

Slowly, she relaxed.

Get a grip, woman, she told herself. She suppressed a momentary stab of irritation at Beshie for planting the sparks of fear inside her. Cerena smoothed her cloak, reminding herself that Beshie was just concerned for her safety. Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours, she repeated the catechism to herself. Weighing down your heart like an anchor. Let go of hate, of all black emotions, and allow your heart to freely soar up into Elohm’s light.

With a deep breath, she kept striding through the fog.

Click-click.

Click-click.

It’s just my imagination playing games with me, she decided as she made the right turn onto Ostler Way. No one is following me.

She tried to gather her thoughts and focus on what needed to be taken care of at home before she could retire and seek the lonely solace of her bed. Asht should return tomorrow unless his business in Ustervin ran that extra day. She reminded herself to lay out her prettiest dress for tomorrow. Her cheeks flushed, thinking on the purple dress that showed just a hint of her bosom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, within the guidelines of Modesty, but you could be a little immodest with your husband alone in your house; Asht was a passionate man after all, and she enjoyed it when was aflame with desire.

Click-click.

Click-click.

Clack.

Just my imagination, she kept telling herself. She quickened her steps. Only three jewelchine streetlamps before Fishmonger Row.

Click-click.

Clack.

Click-click.

Clack.

She peered over her shoulder. She saw nothing through the white haze except the fuzzy light of the last streetlamp. There were only two lamps to go. Her heart thudded in her chest.

Click-click.

Clack.

Was it getting closer? Another worried glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. Her stalker could be just paces behind her, cloaked in the fog’s white blanket.

Click-click.

Clack.

Her breath came in quick, ragged gasps as panic nibbled away at her thoughts. She reached the twelfth lamp and went left onto her street. Only four more lamps and she’d be home.

Click-click.

Clack.

She started to trot. Whoever followed her was closer.

Three lamps to go.

Click-click.

Clack.

Panic overtook her in a flash, like fire consuming dried tinder. She broke into a run, hiking up her skirt. She was beyond caring that a man might see her ankles and calves, beyond caring about Modesty; she just had to get away from that clack.

Two lamps to go.

She ran faster, her boots slipping on the damp cobblestone. She gasped, struggling to her balance, feet floundering beneath her. She gained sure footing, and raced forward. The last lamp was just ahead. She reached into the pocket of her skirt and grasped the amethyst bound in copper wire—the jewelchine key to the tenement’s building’s front door—tightly in her sweaty fist.

The last lamp flew by, a white blur in the thick mist. Her building loomed out of the fog, welcoming her with promised safety. She took the steps two at a time to reach the porch. She brought the amethyst key to the gemstone lock. A little arc of purple joined the two followed by a mechanical click. She threw open the door, darted in, and slammed it behind her. As she sucked in relieved breaths, she leaned back against the door.

Safe.

It took her a few minutes to regain her composure. She shook; tears ran down her face, mixing with the sweat. Twice, Cerena dropped her key—the crystal thunking on the old, wooden boards of the floor—before her shaking hands managed to put it back into her pocket. She was safe. Whoever had followed her in the mist wouldn’t have the key to the tenement building. The shaking stopped, her breathing slowed, and she wiped her face clean with a frilly handkerchief she produced from her skirt pocket.

It probably was just my own footsteps echoing back at me, Cerena told herself, feeling silly about the entire ordeal now that she was safely inside. She pushed off from the door and mounted the stairs; they creaked and groaned as she climbed, one hand grasping the banner. As she neared the second floor landing, she stepped over the loose runner near the top—the one the landlord refused to fix. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, Missus Ibsin,” he’d grunt to her whenever Cerena would bring it up. “So what if it wobbles some?” She hated talking with him. His breath always reeked of stale beer and his cheeks ruddy with proof of his less-than-obedient following of Temperance.

The floors creaked in front of Cerena. A plain-faced man stood on the second floor landing. Watery, toad-like eyes stared at her and lank hair fell about his forehead. He wore the slightly shabby clothes of a workman: dark trousers and a red waistcoat missing a button beneath a heavy, dark green coat that fell down to his knees.

Oh, hello, sir,” Cerena said, her voice neutral. She searched her mind, struggling to remember which one of her neighbors he was. “Um . . . I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to remember your name.”

Quite all right,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s Missus Ibsin, right? Asht’s wife?”

Yes,” she answered.

His shove caught her completely by surprise. His hand pushed hard square on her right shoulder. Her feet left the steps. For a moment, Cerena was floating through the air. She seemed motionless, staring at the toad-eyed man in disbelief. Her hand reached slowly for the banister like she’d thrust it into thick molasses. Her fingers strained, desperate to grasp the railing and arrest her fall.

Why would he shove me?

Her fingers missed the banister, digits closing on empty air.

Then her back crashed into the middle of the staircase. Pain exploded through her. She grunted, the wind whooshing out of her lungs; her legs flipped over her head as she tumbled down the second half of the stairs. The hard, wooden steps bruised her flesh. She came to a rest sprawled on her back. Her left foot still rested on the stairs, the other lay twisted at a horrible angle.

What in the Black is going on? She was too confused to care about the vile curse. Her head rang too much to feel the pain of her broken leg. She blinked, her body struggling to move and her mind struggling with the stranger’s actions. The stairs creaked. The toad-eyed man descended, his face devoid of emotion.

Help!” she rasped, struggling to yell.

Surely, one of her neighbors had heard her crashing tumble. She balled a fist and pounded on the wall. His shadow fell on her, blocking out the soft, white light from the jewelchine crystal glowing from the ceiling. His knee came down between her breasts, crushing her lungs. She tried to breathe, desperate to suck in a lungful of sweet air. The entire weight of his body pressed down on her; ribs cracked like twigs. She clawed at his knee, struggling to push him off. She needed to breathe, her lungs burning and her head swimming.

He’s killing me, Cerena realized in utter disbelief. No! I can’t die! I don’t want to lose my husband! She kept pushing at his knee, using every bit of strength she could muster; her face burned as the blood pumped furiously through her veins while her body screamed for air. No, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please! Her husband’s friendly face swam up in her mind—sweet smile, loving eyes. Please, Elohm! I’ve followed the Tenets all my life! Please, give me this one thing! Let me live!

Her strength gave out. The world grew black on the edges, narrowing her vision. Her body ached for air, but it was useless. She could fight no longer. All she could do was stare up at her killer. Never in her life had Cerena hated someone more—a black, corrosive, heavy rage. How dare this man steal my life! It isn’t fair, Elohm!

His eyes were green.

As her heart began to flag, that one thing filled her mind. Green. The Colour of Forgiveness. She was about to die. How could she face the Rainbow of Elohm with hatred in her heart? With a weight dragging her down into the blackness? I can’t! I don’t want to be dragged into the black depths! She gathered every last bit of will she possessed, focused on her killer’s green eyes, and whispered three words.

And then she let go and was swept up by the beautiful, scintillating light.

* * *

Cerena’s lips moved, struggling to speak; her eyes focused intently on the assassin.

Liquid blue pools became black as the life fled her body.

The assassin kept pressing his knee into her chest. He counted calm heartbeats; when he reached one thousand, he was satisfied that she’d died. He studied her round face, the color fading from scarlet cheeks, leaving peaceful beauty staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

What had she tried to say to me at the end? His memory focused on her dull lips—no reddening rouge to brighten them, a modest woman—as they formed soundless letters. It wasn’t a damnation or a curse. The anger had melted out of her face and her eyes had softened right before she’d struggled to speak. A calm acceptance transformed her final moments.

Confused, the assassin walked back up the stairs, found his absorber—a yellow jewelchine that trapped sound in its influence, covering most of the stairwell—and slipped the Heliodor wrapped in Nickel into his pocket. She’d tried to raise a racket, but thanks to this handy jewelchine he’d invented, none of her neighbors had heard a peep.

He descended the stairs, taking care to step over the loose step that would be blamed for Cerena’s death. He paused at the bottom, studying her face—dead, beautiful, framed by golden hair—one last time, trying to puzzle out what she’d tried to say.

It doesn’t matter, the assassin told himself, pulling his gaze away.

On his walk to the tenement building’s front door, he slipped out his Obsidian blade bound in a Black Iron wire. The blade had a lot of nicknames: black tooth, shadowed death, the assassin’s wife. Death by focused light was the sentence for being found with an Obsidian jewelchine, particularly this one.

He touched the lock with the blade, tricking the amethyst jewelchine. It clicked mechanically, and he slipped out into the fog, carefully sheathing the blade. Despite being able to easily slip between a man’s ribs and find his heart, the blade was fragile and easily chipped. That would destroy it. The Obsidian had to be shaped just so, and the assassin did not have the skill to make a new one. The cost of a replacement blade would beggar him. It had taken years, and many deaths, to pay off this one.

With a staggering walk, he stumbled off into the fog, just another drunk coming home from the tavern. The mist wreathed him in a thick, white blanket smothering sight and sound. The assassin’s thoughts drifted—dull lips moved soundlessly; the plump kind that were nice to kiss.

What did she try to say?

He went two blocks too far before he realized he’d missed his turn. A momentary panic shot through him as he struggled to get his bearings in the thick fog.

Pay attention, Eljin, the assassin admonished himself. Plan, think, succeed. His mantra: plan carefully, think everything through, and you will succeed. Thanks to his meticulous care, he didn’t make mistakes, and thus commanded high rates for his work. So stop rainbow watching!

The lapse of situational awareness puzzled the assassin, his mental discipline weakening beneath the question of her final words. What could she have possibly been trying to say with such a calm, almost forgiving, look on her face? It annoyed him when he missed the second turn, and he grew angry at himself for walking past the third.

Plan, think, succeed.

His house was a narrow, tall building, built cheek-to-jowl with the other houses on the street. The assassin had inherited it from his mother when she’d passed away ten years ago. He’d lived in the house alone ever since. Inside it was neat, orderly. He took off his heavy jacket, hanging it carefully on the coat hook, his shoes placed precisely beside the door, and pulled on his felt slippers.

A trapdoor lay in his sitting room beneath a gray, oval rug decorated with seven lines woven in many intricate knots. Each line was a different color, giving the appearance of piety. The assassin gave little thought to the Colours and the uptight God, Elohm.

Descending the narrow, wooden ladder, he entered his dark, dry cellar made of smooth dirt walls. Wooden slats, resting on the hard-packed soil, creaked beneath his feet. By memory, his hand found the jewelchine light; the black was banished by white light. He hung his tools—his wife, the obsidian blade; the absorber; two emerald stunners, each wrapped in black iron wires; a pair of grip-gloves, and his pocket-torch—on a board of cork studded with nails, providing a spot for each tool to rest.

The assassin surveyed the cellar, searching for any minute thing that lay out of place. Plan, think, succeed. A spider formed a cobweb in the corner—wispy, spindly, untidy. He found a rag, killed the spider, and wiped up the clinging silk. Satisfied that everything was in order, he climbed the ladder, closed the trapdoor, and repositioned the prismatic rug.

He washed the cobwebbed cloth in his sink and left it to dry before he climbed the stairs and found his bedroom. He readied himself for sleep precisely. He dropped each article of clothing into his hamper before pulling on a clean nightgown. Then he drew back the quilted duvet and crawled beneath. Sleep came the moment his head rested on his pillow.

* * *

I forgive you.

The assassin jumped awake, nightgown drenched in sweat, heart pounding, lungs heaving. The dream lingered in his mind—dull lips struggled to speak; blue eyes widened black. Soundless words echoed in his mind.

I forgive you.

He stumbled downstairs into his kitchen and his hands trembled as he filled up a clay cup with water from his jewelchine kitchen sink. The assassin downed the liquid in a single gulp before filling another cup. His paroxysms spilled water as cold as ice, as death, across his hand. He concentrated, forcing his hand to stop shaking. He drained another cup, carefully placed it back into his cabinet, then climbed the stairs, and returned to his bed.

* * *

The assassin woke as the first rays of morning peeked into his room. No more dreams had plagued him after he’d returned to bed. Last night was just an aberration, he told himself as he dressed in his sober clothes before making his bed. To break his fast, he picked a tomato out of his garden, sliced it thinly, and fried it with two eggs. After eating, he cleaned his dishes, wiped down the counter, and took the leftover food to his mulch pile.

He had a short walk to his jewelchine shop. On the way, the assassin passed the same, familiar faces. He nodded to Master Tosner and Master Isthen as they sold their fruit and meat pies on the street corner, gave Ostin a polite nod while giving his nightsoil cart a wide berth, and shook hands with Master Hron as he smoked a cigar before his business, Property and Life Insurance. It lay next door to the assassin’s jewelchine business.

Often, it amused the assassin that none of these men knew the real person who lurked behind his mild-mannered mask. To them, he was just a jewelchine smith—boring, unremarkable, trustworthy—a paragon of Elohm’s Colours. He was honest with his customers, dressed modestly despite his apparently successful business, was temperate in his behavior, compassionate enough to give to soup kitchens, forgave other’s their trespasses, was virtuous in his habits, and only patience could allow a man to craft delicate jewelchines. He played the farce, mouthed their catechisms while thinking his own: Think, plan, succeed. A sloppy assassin was a dead one. Whether by treacherous associates, vigilant targets, or sorrowful executioner, the end was the same.

He unlocked his shop’s door and threw wide the drapes covering his storefront. He examined the shelves, making sure every jewelchine was in its proper place and in working order. Satisfied, he entered his back room and, with great care, set out his jeweler’s tools. First, he set about repairing a broken aquifer, carefully bending gold wires around a deep-blue sapphire. The wires had been damaged, stopping the gem from condensing water out of the air. It should only take the assassin’s practiced fingers half the morning to replace the delicate wire.

I forgive you.

Hands shook; gold wire snapped, ruining the morning’s work. Suppressing his annoyance, the assassin set his pliers down. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He dropped the two broken halves of gold wire into a jar to be melted down later for new wiring, and snipped a new length from a spool. He took a breath then returned to the delicate work of bending the wire in the specific pattern to channel the gem’s power. The way the gem was cut and the way the wire was wrapped and bent instructed the jewelchine on how to manifest the inherent energy of the gem, channeling the power into useful tasks. It was an art form—figuring out the angle of the facets, the degree at which the wire had to be bent, and just where the wire would lay upon the jewel. The assassin had found moderate success at inventing a few devices to aid his nocturnal work.

By midday, though his back ached from bending over, his mistake had been repaired. He stretched protesting muscles while his stomach rumbled. He put his tools in their proper spots, locked up his shop, and walked to a small, open-aired cafe at the street corner. He bought his usual ham sandwich on rich, black bread along with the midday paper. Unfurling it, he scanned the headlines as he took a large bite—salty ham, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard warred in his mouth.

Woman found dead in tenement,” the headline read. He moved down to the article. “Late last night, Cerena Ibsin was found dead of an accidental fall in her tenement. Neighbors blame a loose step that her landlord had long refused to repair. Friends spoke of Cerena’s generous heart. ‘Every Whiteday evening she was helping out at my soup kitchen,’ a tearful Beshie Corvan reported. Cerena was survived by her husband, Asht, who . . .”

Pale lips, blue eyes. I forgive you.

Bile rose in his throat. Pushing back from the table violently, the assassin bolted for the gutter. In a trickle of dirty water, he emptied his stomach with three heaves. He watched the green-yellow chunks washed away in the filthy current with the other effluence.

You a’ight, Eljin?” the cafe owner asked, picking up the assassin’s chair that he’d knocked over in his haste.

Yes, yes, Kefin,” the assassin muttered. “I was out in the fog last night.”

The owner shook his head, red jowls swaying beneath his chin. “Gotta watch out for them bad vapors. I always wear a cheesecloth ‘round my mouth. Strains out the bad vapors, it does.”

I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kefin handed the assassin a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth and spat the bile into the gutter.

What is wrong with me? After so many years, so many deaths, the assassin was at a loss as to why Cerena Ibsin would affect him even a little. He’d killed his heart years ago. What was so special about one housewife? She is hardly the first wife I’ve killed for a husband.

Blue eyes softening with forgiveness. Forgiving eyes widening into death.

A creak drew his attention, a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, a faded tankard painted on the splintered wood. Just one drink, he thought. What is the harm? The bar was nearly empty at midday, the proprietor snoring in a chair, his face ruddy with drink. Barley whiskey, cheap, burned the assassin’s throat after he’d roused the barkeep. The fire in his guts drove away those black-damned eyes. Slapping three brass glimmers on the counter, the assassin felt his composure restored.

Work went a little slower that afternoon. This wasn’t like him; he rarely drank and never in the afternoon. Maybe a touch of sherry to drive out bad vapors on a particular foul night, or a glass of port when his cousin visited.

I forgive you.

Why? he asked the blue eyes.

Pain flared; half-a-finger of tin wire stuck into the meat of his thumb. Blood welled dark-red around the metal then trickled down his digit. A bloody tear shed.

The bell tinkled, announcing a customer entering his shop. The assassin grunted as he pulled the wire out, his thumb throbbing harder. He wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and walked through the beaded partition to the counter.

Good day,” the assassin said to the man and a woman in the shop.

The man had a friendly smile as he sauntered up to the counter while a bored look filled the woman’s dusky face, her plush lips pursed as her dark eyes scanned the shelves of jewelchines. The pair couldn’t have been more opposite: the man dressed in the rough clothes of a tradesman, hands calloused from heavy work, his skin pale, a local. Her dusky skin named her a Terysian from across the sea, her clothes rich-red brocade, low-cut to display a magnificent bosom. Not even the whores in Ustervin revealed so much flesh. The assassin could not stop his eyes from admiring her lushness. Terysians didn’t follow Elohm and his Rainbow of Morality.

Hello, Master Ibsin,” the assassin greeted the man, his client. “How’s your day been?”

Sad,” he answered, though not a hit of grief afflicted his friendly face. “My, uh, friend and I returned from Ustervin this morning to find that my wife had a tragic accident.”

The assassin glanced at the woman, evaluating her: beautiful, expensive clothes, jewelry—costly to stay “friends” with.

May the Rainbow of Elohm carry your wife’s soul to the heavens.” The platitude sounded wrong when the assassin spoke them; a mockery of Cerena’s life.

Blue, forgiving, dead eyes stared at him.

Are you all right?” Ibsin asked the assassin; he sounded concerned.

A skilled liar, the assassin guessed. A heart as dead as mine beats in his chest.

Yes, yes,” the assassin answered, gathering his thoughts. “You’re here to pick up your pocket-torch, right?”

Ibsin nodded. “I believe we settled on two gold beams?”

The assassin glanced sharply at the woman, who was still browsing his shelves. Two gold beams, more than a month’s salary for a laborer, was far too much coin for a simple pocket-torch jewelchine.

Don’t worry about Jasymina, Master Eljin,” Ibsin said with a dismissive wave. He produced two large, golden coins and slapped them counter.

The assassin’s hand darted out, scooped them up and pocketed them. From beneath the counter, he produced a diamond gem wrapped in zinc, the cheapest of metals, and handed it to Asht. The “grieving husband” nodded then motioned to Jasymina.

She swayed to him as he marched to the door. “I bet you could sue your landlord for neglecting to repair the step, Asht,” she purred, taking his arm. “That must be worth as much as her life insurance.”

Ibsin laughed; it was rich, full of life. “You might be right. I know a barrister . . .”

The door closed behind them. Disgust filled the assassin, clinging like muck to his soul. Killed so her husband could support his mistress. The assassin froze. Why do I care about why he wanted her dead? He patted his pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the two gold beams.

* * *

Cerena stared up at him, her blue eyes shining with forgiveness as his knee pressed on her chest. Her face was turning red as she struggled to live. She was beautiful in a natural way, lacking any enhancement by immodest cosmetics. Her face was round, nose dainty, lips plump, and hair golden silk.

As pretty as Jasymina.

The assassin pressed harder. Reminding himself, you were hired to kill her. Don’t go getting soft now, Eljin. Ribs snapped like dry twigs. Her dull-pink lips struggled, soundlessly speaking.

Only this time, sound issued from those pale, wriggling lips: “I forgive you.”

Why?” he asked her, pressing harder with his knee.

Coins clinked behind him.

Fear rushed through him, cold as a winter’s gale. His hand darted by instinct to draw his wife. He spun with the Obsidian dagger held low. Cerena stood behind him, a nimbus of rainbowed light surrounding her, two gold coins held in her hand.

Is this what my life was worth?” she asked, blue eyes glistening. “You stole my happiness, my future, for two little bits of metal?”

I . . .” The words died in his throat.

You stole me from my husband, my friends, my family. You stole me from everyone that cared about me, loved me. All for these coins?”

The assassin floundered as her blue eyes held his gaze, pleading for answers. “It’s what I do.” The answer sounded lame—unsatisfactory, insulting, cheapening—the moment it left his lips.

I see,” she sadly whispered. “I was simply a nail to be hammered? A fish to be gutted? A cowhide to be tanned?”

His mouth opened, but he found no words to speak, no excuse worth the cost. He never thought about why he killed. He was good at it, and the rewards supported his jewelchine tinkering.

Was my life so worthless you can’t even answer me?” The pain in her words tore at the assassin’s soul. Guilt—crushing, suffocating guilt—filled his heart, squeezing it with an iron grip, trying to arrest its beat.

It was your husband that wanted you dead,” the assassin gasped, clutching his chest as his heart warred to stay alive. “Not me. I didn’t kill you! It was your husband! I was just his tool—the hammer wielded by his hand. It wasn’t my fault!”

Was it my husband that pushed me down the stairs? Did he crush my lungs with his knee and stare me in the eyes while I died?”

The assassin bolted awake, his nightgown stuck to him with sweat. He raced downstairs into his orderly kitchen and tore open cabinets. He threw plates and crockery to the side to find his cooking sherry. He grasped the green bottle and didn’t bother with a cup. He took a long swig of the wine. Then a second deep swallow, the drink burning his insides, warring with the guilt crushing his heart.

It was your husband!” he sobbed at the blue eyes. “He killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

Then leave me alone! Haunt your black-damned husband! He killed you!”

I forgive you.

I didn’t kill you! I don’t need your forgiveness!” He threw the bottle at the blue eyes, striking a crock of honey. Both smashed into unsightly, untidy shards. The assassin didn’t care. He only shrieked incoherently at those eyes.

* * *

The assassin dressed in dirty clothes; none were clean in his house. Unsteady with drink, he grabbed the first pair of trousers he found on the floor and pulled them up his leg. He tottered on one foot, the room spinning around him, and fell back onto his bed. He grunted and continued dressing. He found a stained shirt and a greasy waistcoat and did the buttons up crooked. He stumbled down the stairs, catching himself twice before he tumbled head-first. He snagged a half-empty bottle of whiskey left on a shelf in the sitting room, took a swig, then kicked the rug aside that hid his cellar. Bottle in hand, he descended into the black hole, the drink weighing him down into the darkness.

As he stared at the cork board from which hung his assassin’s tools, he struggled through the fog of his drink to remember what items he would need for the night’s work. His wife, of course. He slammed the obsidian dagger into its sheath. Then he snagged his diamond pocket-torch, the absorber, and his pair of leather grip-gloves made with tiny Emeralds bound with Aluminum wire that adorned the glove’s palm and fingertips.

I invented these, right? The assassin asked himself, staring bemused as the light glinted in the emeralds’ facets. Pretty sure I did.

He made it halfway down his street when he realized he’d forgotten the igniter. Plan, think, succeed, he berated himself. He struggled to focus through the fog of drink. Part of him knew he shouldn’t imbibe the alcohol, but it shrouded him from those forgiving blue eyes.

No more mistakes, he berated himself. You need this job, Eljin. It had been the first nocturnal job he’d taken in the weeks since the Ibsin job—the assassin didn’t like to think about that one; the blue eyes always appeared when he thought of her. Desperation drove him to accept this one. I could make some money again if those damned, forgiving eyes would go haunt Ibsin instead.

He felt ill while he’d talked to Missus Kithan—the same roiling, nauseating inferno that consumed his stomach every time he talked with a potential client—but he needed the money. Creditors were pounding on his door: rent was due for his store, vendors needed payment for materials, and his customers demanded refunds for shoddy work. The two gold coins burned in his pocket, weighing him down with every step.

He should just part with them, couldn’t. Her eyes castigated him every time he tried.

He got lost on the way to Salmon Row. The helpful proprietor of a bar gave him directions, as well as selling him a bottle of cheap whiskey. Off lurched the assassin down the streets, stumbling from one side to the other.

An hour later than he’d planned, the assassin found the house. It was large, constructed of river stones fitted together with mortar. A tall garden wall encircled the house. Green tendrils crept over the top of the wall and hung down the bricks, reaching for the street.

The assassin pulled on his grip-gloves. With ease, he climbed up the wall. The problem came when he tried to hook his right leg over the lip. He balanced precariously atop the narrow wall, struggling to get his legs to cooperate. His foot kept catching on the stone lip. He gave a jerk and his leg lurched over too hard. For a moment, he flailed his arms in a useless attempt to maintain his balance before he fell heavily into a rhododendron bush.

Stems scraped his face as he struggled to escape the bush, lavender petals clinging to his clothing. He stumbled out, tripped forward, and fell onto soft grass. He patted himself as he stood and realized he’d dropped something important. With a grunt, he strode back into the bush with drunken determination to find the bottle of whiskey he’d dropped.

He found the bottle just in time, feeling the blue eyes nearing. He took a drink to ward them off. Then a second for good measure. The assassin tried to remember why he hated whiskey; it was such a marvelous drink. He whistled as he staggered to his target’s back door.

He found it locked.

He stared stupidly at the knob then twisted it again. It refused to turn, as stubborn as he was. He grunted, the metal rattling. He grunted. Now what? he asked his foggy mind. There were windows he could break. He frowned. That didn’t feel right to the assassin. Don’t I have a tool that can open doors for me? He patted his pockets, and felt something hard. Igniter? I could burn the door down. Absorber? It would keep anyone from hearing me break open the window. He touched the dagger.

Feeling like a motley fool, he drew his wife and casually touched the black tip to the door’s jewelchine lock. Purple light arced; the lock clicked. With a triumphant shout, he entered the house. A cat yowled and hissed.

The bottle fell out of the startled assassin’s hand and clattered as it rolled across the wooden floor.

He almost fell over trying to grab the whiskey. Once it was securely in hand—well, once he’d taken another deep, fortifying drink of the wonderful liquid—he peered around, trying to get his bearings.

Have to find the stairs, he remembered as the cat hissed from beneath a couch.

He tried to walk lightly, but his feet kept crashing onto the wooden floors no matter how much he concentrated on gentle steps. He was thrilled to have only tripped once while ascending to the top of the stairs.

His target, Missus Kithan’s husband, slept soundly in a large bed next to his young mistress. Both snored. Several wine bottles littered the room and a half-smoked cigar lay on the floor. The bed was rumpled, the occupants naked.

The assassin struggled to remember Missus Kithan’s instructions. “I want them to burn. Him and his hussy,” she’d cackled. “He’s always fallin’ asleep smokin’ his darkness cigars! Just set the bed aflame.”

That’s why I brought the igniter.

Pulling it out of his pocket, he concentrated. The gem glowed with an inner fire, reddening the copper wire that bound it. He bent down to touch the gem to the tangled blankets when the mistress rolled over, golden hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Round face, framed with gold hair, blue eyes staring up with forgiveness.

He froze. She found me. The assassin’s hand shook. Just touch the cloth, he ordered his hand. Do it!

The blue eyes held out her hands; a pair of gold coins gleamed around pale, dead fingers. Is this what my life was worth?

Why are you hesitating, Eljin? thought the assassin. Just do it! Touch the cloth. The hand refused to move. It’s not your fault. You’re not killing them, not really. It’s Missus Kithan and Mister Ibsin and all the others who hired you over the years. You’re the hammer. They’re the hammerer. If you didn’t do it, they’d just find another tool.

Was it my husband who pushed me down the stairs? the blue eyes asked.

No.”

The assassin fled, racing down the stairs. The cat yowled, scared out of its fur and whiskers as he barreled through the parlor. He burst out of the house, scrambled over the fence with drunken desperation, and pounded down cobblestone streets. Terror and guilt whipped at his heels, spurring him to race faster and faster. He ran until his sides ached to bursting and the whiskey in his belly rebelled, vomiting out of his mouth into the gutter.

I didn’t kill you!” he sobbed over and over, bile bittering his tongue, his soul whipped raw by the tempest of his guilt. “Your husband killed you! Not me!”

I forgive you.

The tempest dissipated. Those three words banished the storm inside him. A placid calm, the lull in a titanic storm, descended on the assassin. She forgave me. The assassin looked up at the sky, dark clouds parting. The green moon, Elohm’s Forgiveness, shone down on the assassin.

How could her husband have wanted to kill her? the assassin wondered. She was such a loving woman. She found the strength to forgive me. Why did he deserve to have happiness and love? Why did he deserve to live and not her?

Why did he deserve to live?

* * *

For days, the assassin stalked Cerena’s husband, her real killer. I didn’t kill her, he would tell himself, fixing his green eyes with mad fervor on the friendly face of Asht Ibsin—the mask hiding the callous monster from the world. The assassin didn’t need the drink any longer; he didn’t need to hide from her blue eyes in a haze of alcoholic fumes. He knew what the eyes needed: vengeance, justice.

Ibsin would die. Then Cerena’s soul would be able to rest.

It disgusted him watching Ibsin cavort with his hussy, Jasymina. They spent their days shopping, buying the disgusting slattern more clothing, more makeup, and more sweet unguents. Their nights were spent carousing in expensive wine shops, the ones the wealthy merchants or itinerant noblemen patronized. Ibsin had not a care in the world, his happiness bought by his wife’s murder.

For a week, the assassin waited for his opportunity, becoming more and more delighted with the slattern’s behavior. Ibsin had begun to bore Jasymina, her lustful gaze roaming to new conquests. He watched from the back of the wineshop as Ibsin walked in, looking for his mistress. He found her draped on a wealthy merchant’s arm. The assassin smiled; she’d found someone with deeper pockets. For the last few nights, drink’s fog had kept Ibsin from realizing his Jasymina was seducing her next lover.

The assassin padded after the dejected Ibsin, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his dagger. Swollen bruises marred Ibsin’s face from the chastisement he’d received at the hands of the merchant’s guard when he’d objected too vociferously about Jasymina’s abandonment.

The assassin wondered if the guilt gnawed at the tanner now. You killed your wife for that slattern and she tossed you aside like a torn petticoat. He wanted to laugh, to revel in Ibsin’s humiliation, but that might give him away.

Plan, think, succeed.

The assassin thought it was fitting to kill Ibsin in the very tenement stairwell where Cerena had died. Where Ibsin—through the assassin—had murdered his wife.

Ibsin reached the door, pulled out his key, and touched the amethyst to the lock. The soft, white glow of the jewelchine streetlights revealed no witnesses. Like a haunting ghost, the assassin drifted to the tenement. Ibsin pushed the door open. The assassin slammed into him, throwing the tanner into the tenement. Ibsin cried out in alarm, his foot tripping on the stoop, and fell into a heavy heap on the wooden floors.

The assassin drew his wife, sleek, black, gleaming deadly in the white light of the stairwell.

You?” Ibsin blinked drink-bleared eyes in confusion. He froze as the assassin fixed hard, green eyes on him. “W-wait! I can pay you more!”

He scrambled back before the assassin’s slow advance. The tanner pulled a thick, steel knife from his boot, a heavy blade used to cut hides. A single kick, aimed with care, connected the tip of the assassin’s booted foot to Ibsin’s wrist and sent the knife clanging to the floor.

I’ll pay double your rate,” Ibsin blubbered. An acrid-sour odor filled the air—nightsoil. The assassin’s eyes flickered down, the breach of the tanner’s pants mud-brown. Yellow piss puddled on the floor.

The assassin hovered over the murderer, his obsidian wife raised. Ibsin’s eyes fixed on the black blade. All he had to do was thrust his dagger, slip it between the man’s ribs, and find the monster’s treacherous heart. Then she shall be avenged! Then she shall stop haunting me.

You killed her,” the assassin hissed.

Who?” squealed Ibsin.

Your wife!”

N-no, you did!” Tears ran from his gray-blue eyes. “I didn’t kill her.”

Yes you did! You sought me out! Walked into my shop! You hired me!” Words paused for a ragged inhalation. “You used me like a tool! A hammer!” Spittle rained down on Ibsin’s face. “A hammer to pound the nail into your wife’s heart!”

B-but you killed her! I just gave you the money. I never would have hurt her myself! She was just in the way of my happiness! But I didn’t kill her. That was all you! Please! There’s still some of the insurance money left! And I have a settlement coming. My barrister tells me I have a huge negligence case against my landlord!”

I don’t want your money!” roared the assassin. “Cerena doesn’t want your money! She wants vengeance on the man who killed her!”

That was you! Not me! Please! Elohm save me! I didn’t kill her. I’ve never even harmed a freckle on her body!”

The words struck the assassin—the sound of ribs cracking filled his mind, hands frantically trying to pry his knee off her chest, a beautiful face turning red, Cerena fighting desperately to live.

It crystallized in an instant for the assassin. He never harmed a freckle on her face . . . But I did.

No, we killed her,” the assassin admitted. He felt something fall from his heart—a great weight. I killed so many, the Colours help me. There is so much blood on my hands. “You were the mind, the thought that swung the hammer, Ibsin. You wielded me, but I’m not a mindless tool. I’m not a hammer swinging with no control over where I land, which nail I pound into the wood. I could have said no. I could have stopped you or warned her. I could have done any of a hundred things. Together, we murdered her.” The tear welled in his green eye, rolling down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Cerena.”

Blue eyes whispered back: I forgive you.

Eljin dropped the black blade. It tumbled, light glinting bright on its irregular surface. With a tinkling crash, it splintered into three large shards on the faded floor.

She forgave us,” Eljin told Ibsin. “I don’t know why. Elohm knows we deserve her curse, her anger.”

She was a kind woman,” Ibsin blubbered.

Fishing into his pocket, Eljin pulled out two gold beams, each stamped with Elohm’s rainbow, and dropped them next to his broken blade. Then he turned, and walked towards the door.

Cerena was a better person than me. All I ever did was take. Eljin knew it was time to find something else to do with his life, find some way to repay Cerena for what he’d stolen from her. Maybe this is why she forgave me, he mused, to teach me to be a better man.

Ibsin’s dagger slid easily into Eljin’s back, slipping through the ribs and piercing his lung.

You killed her, not me!” Ibsin howled as Eljin pitched to the floor. “I would never harm a freckle on her! Never!”

Cold stole over Eljin as he rolled over onto his back. Ibsin loomed above him. Gripped in his white-knuckled hand was his tanner’s blade decorated with Eljin’s blood. The chill swelled through him as Ibsin raved, wild-eyed. The words didn’t matter; Eljin was beyond them. Anger clenched his heart. I spared this man, and this is how he repays me?

Cerena appeared, riding down from the heavens on a rainbow of light, and stood above him—light opposing her husband’s darkness. A sad smile graced her lips as she stared down at Eljin with soft eyes. Her murderer.

How?” Eljin croaked to her. “How could you forgive me?”

How what?” Ibsin cackled. “What are you saying!”

Anger is black, is darkness, the very absence of Elohm’s Colours. It weighs down your heart like an anchor,” she answered. “Let go of hate, of all the black emotions, and allow your heart to soar up into Elohm’s light.”

That’s . . . it?” The words were growing harder to bring forth, his mouth coppery with blood.

That’s what?” demanded Ibsin; Eljin ignored the monster’s mad face, fixing instead on the plain beauty of Cerena’s.

That’s it, Eljin.” Her blue eyes were soft, forgiving, compassionate.

I robbed the world of an angel.

Eljin looked at Ibsin and spoke three words. The chain snapped. The anger plummeted into the darkness. Eljin’s soul rose up into the light.

The END

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

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