Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 2: The White-Luck Warrior
by R. Scott Bakker
The Istyuli Plains
more than six months. Didn’t realize it. Been working on this next part off and on during that time. I went to Japan twice, and it always throws me off my habits, but I’m back at it. So hopefully won’t be so long. Sorry.
The Shape of virtue is inked in obscenity.
That is an interesting proverb. My mind is trying to parse it. So it’s like the shape of Virtue is the negative space that is surrounded by obscenity. As if obscenity defines what is virtue. I think that’s what he is saying. It’s the bad acts that let us see what the good is. Without evil, how can we know what is good. That’s a very interesting thing to come from the Ainoni which are seen by the rest of the Three Seas as basically the Vegas of their world. That’s where all the bad things happen. Of course, they happen everywhere, but they like to look down at the Ainoni and think them of a lesser moral character.
Early Summer, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), The High Istyuli
Cleric is giving another sermon, and the Skin-Eaters gather with open mouths to receive the Qirri.
There are only twelve left as they leave behind the Mop to enter they dusty plain, their path through the Sea marked by their dead. Food is scarce even with Xonghis searching for burrowing rodents. When he finds a warren, Achamian uses his sorcery to rip apart the earth, which stuns most and makes them easy killing. They feast on them and keep the leftovers in case they don’t find more. But this comes with a risk since Hilikas dies from food poisoning.
Twelve become eleven.
They have no fire, starlight their only illumination at night. Kosoter only speaks to Cleric now, no one quiet able to make out what they speak about. The others “gather like shipwreck survivors” in small groups. Galian with Pokwas and Xonghis, the three joking and complaining and watching the others with suspicion. Conger and Wonard rarely speak. Sarl is alone, skinny and rarely even aping his role as Sergeant. He often glares at Kosoter, but Mimara isn’t sure if its with love or murder. Koll is the sole surviving Stone Hag. He looks gouged, abandoning everything from his armor to even words, hanging his sword from a string tied to his forehead, the blade draped down his back. He spits blood, his gums bleeding.
She avoids all thoughts of her belly.
Sometimes, while walking in the dusty cool of the morning, or the drought-sun glare of the afternoon, she catches herself squeezing her eyes shut and opening them, like someone warding much needed sleep. The others are always there, trudging through their own dust in a scattered file.
As are the plains, stretching dun and white to the limit of the bleached sky…
Passing like a dream.
Cleric gives another sermon talking about how he loved so much he would pull down mountain. He’s waving his arm in exultation, crying out in laughter. He would embrace damnation. As he preaches, Koll watches from the dark.
Achamian recites poetry and argues history and metaphysics with Mimara. He is wild in his rotten hides and “a Gnostic Mage from days of old.”
But he is a teacher most of all.
One night, he talks to Mimara bout how Qirri makes it seem like “you know everything you know.” She says it makes her happy. He smiles and says sometimes. That makes him frown for a moment before he smiles again.
The plains pass like a dream.
She sits alone in tall grass thinking she’s beautiful. She’s staring at her reflection and gets why beautiful people find pleasure in staring in mirrors. She learned vanity in the brothel where beauty was the only coin her and the other whores had. “Take away enough and people will treasure their afflictions.” She says to the watching Soma that she know his mission. He asks he what that is.
Soma is wearing her face but it’s far filthier than even her which seems impossible. It’s stained in blood from eating raw flesh. It’s even mimicking how emaciated she’s become. She says he’s studying her to replace her, learning how she acts. Adopting her form is the final act before killing and replacing her. He asks if Kellhus told her. She agrees and notices it even is copying the pregnant curve of her belly.
Soma questions that assumption and she asks what else is it doing. She wants to show this “beautiful thing.” Soma says he appears as her to declare “your beauty.” She gets annoyed and says to stop playing game because it has no soul. “You’re not real.”
“But I speak. How could I speak if had no soul?”
“Parrots speak. You are simply a cunning parrot.”
“I fear I am far more.”
“I can even prove it to you.”
“Can you now?”
She realizes she’s playing games, but she has questions she needs answered to survive. She’s rehearsed these reasons, but now they feel absurd. The “kinds of questions fat priests might ask starving children.” She’s reluctant now to ask even her primary question. She needs to know what it meant by Cleric killing them. But she can’t bring herself to ask.
And it has become as proper as proper can be, avoiding things troubling and obvious. To play games with inhuman assassins.
“A man comes to you saying,” she begins with a sly smile, “’Do not believe anything I say, for I am a liar…” She pauses to allow the words to resonate. “Tell me, thing, why is this a paradox?”
“Because it’s strange for a liar to say such things.”
She feels triumph at his answer because it proved that her stepfather was right. She remembers him telling her this trick and how he appeared deific to her. She has just proven this thing has no soul, but now it feels like a joke. She says it proves he has no soul and Soma doesn’t understand. She suddenly feels like she’s pretending things are better than they are.
“Only a soul can hold a paradox,” she explains. “Since the true meaning of paradox escapes you, you can only grasp non-paradoxical approximations. In this case, “strange.’ Only a soul can comprehend contradictory truths.”
Soma asks what it is and she just wanders why this is such a farce. She answers that he’s just an “abacus crafted of skin, flesh, and bone” created by Tekne. Soma thinks that is something special in it sown way. She suddenly feels that this is a mistake. She’s been here too long. Achamian will look for her so she departs.
Cleric is the first to spot the first ruins they’d come across since Meöri weeks ago. They have come across the path of the Great Ordeal as they head toward Golgotterath. He wonders how close the army is to them. Though this is a worry, it’s an ephemeral one like a “scarf floating across parched ground.” Nothing feels real and tethered to Achamian any longer.
Few men returned the same after months or years of travel—Achamian knew this as well as anyone. Sheer exposure to different sights, different customs, different peoples, was enough to alter a man, sometimes radically. But in Achamian’s estimation, the real impetus, what really changed men, was the simple act of walking and thinking, day after day, week after week, month after month. Innumerable thoughts flitted through the soul of the long traveller. Kith and kin were condemned and pardoned. Hopes and believes were considered and reconsidered. Worries were picked to the point of festering—or healing. For those who could affirm the same thought endlessly, men like the Captain, the trail typically led to fanaticism. For those with not stomach for continuous repetition, men like Galian, the trail led to suspicion and cynicism, the conviction that thought was never to be trusted. For those who found their thoughts quite repeating, who found themselves continually surprised by novel angles and new questions, the trail led to philosophy—to a wisdom that only hermits and prisoners could know.
Achamian thinks he’s a philosopher. In his younger days as a spy, he would actively think about what he believed and chart his own developing beliefs as he moved from place to place. His life had been traveling and that was all his focus, but this journey is different somehow. “Something was happening.”
Something inexplicable. Or something that wanted to be…
His dreams are also changing. He keeps dreaming of the chained captives, the line shrinking as more and more are dragged into the room. It’s horrible as they’re surrounded by Sranc rutting, the air full of the stench of their seed. “Degradations so proud that his soul had kicked free his body, his past, his sanity.”
In his dreams, the person he’s dreaming about has to stare past it. Not see it to keep from going mad. He stares toward the black opening where he’s being dragged. Coming closer and closer to the shiny bulkheads. He came closer and closer to that horrible place.
The Golden Room, he called it. And it was the sum of all horrors.
Inhuman horns sound and the chain is yanked, forcing everyone forward two steps. Always two steps. He listened to the shrieks one after another, begging for it to end. When he awakens, he knows that before the Dream had been refracted through the trees “lethargic wrath.” Now he’s dreaming clearly of the Dread Ark. He is somehow dreaming of a soul that had been a captive of the Consult in Golgotterath.
And yet, despite the mad significance of this latest transformation, despite all the care and scrutiny he had heaped upon his Dreams over the years, he had himself dismissing these ethereal missives with an inexplicable negligence. Even though their horror actually eclipsed his old dreams of the Apocalypse, they simply did not seem to matter… for some reason… for some reason…
The old Wizard laughed sometimes, so little did he care.
Seventeen days into the Istyuli Plains, and the day after Mimara’s encounter with Soma, she abruptly asks Achamian why he fell in love with her mother. She often talks about the “Empress” in mocking ways, intimating how she speaks and making mocking expressions of her face. She tries to act like she doesn’t care, but her brittleness betray her. It often amuses as much as it alarms him Achamian. He defends Esmenet and tells Mimara she’s not being charitable, but he’s held back his true feelings. He is hesitant because he feels motherhood “meant too much to be trusted to something as sordid as truth.”
Normally, he acts like a crabby old wizard to discourage her when her questions come to close to revealing his true feelings. For some reason, he doesn’t when she asks him why did he fall in love with her over all the other women he slept with.
“Because she possessed a sharp wit,” he heard himself reply. “That was why I… why I returned, I think. That and her beauty. But your mother… She was always asking me questions about things, about the world, the past—even my Dreams fascinated her. We would lie in her bed sweating, and I would talk and talk and she would never lose interest. One night she interrogated me until dawn glided the cracks of her shutters. She would listen and…”
He’s shocked by how much he’s confessed stops himself from expressing that last feeling. He’s surprised at how easy it was, confused why that would be. She asks him what he was about to say. “And she… she believed me…” She asks if he meant about the First Apocalypse and the Consult.
“That… But I was more, I think. She believed in me.:
Could it be so simple?
He then opens up to her about the horror of his dreams, how he was so weak and would rather “hatch plots in his soul than take any actions.” And despite being a “cringer and a coward,” she believed in him. He misses those days of needing her. Of living with her even as she continue to take custom. How he would wait in the marketplace picturing her making love with other men. He wonders if this is why she had joined Kellhus in bed after she thought Achamian was dead. “If there was any face from his past that caused Achamian to both flinch and marvel, it was the way he continued to love both of them after their joint betrayal.”
Esmenet. Such a strange name for a whore.
“Fear…” the old Wizard said in resignation. “I was always afraid with your mother.”
“Because she was a whore,” Mimara said with more eagerness than compassion.
She hit it on the head. He had loved a whore, and this was the price. He realizes that those last days of the Holy War were the same as Sumna where he was tied to the same rage and hurt. Still, he lies and says he was afraid because she was beautiful. A “proper lie.”
Mimara gets mad and wants to know why he never blames Esmenet for her part in it. Unlike Mimara who was sold into whoredom, her mother made the choice just like she chose to betray Achamian.
“Did she?” It seemed that he listened to his voice more than he spoke with it.
“Did she what? Choose? Of course she did.”
“Few things are so capricious as choice girl.”
“Seems simple to me. Either she chooses to be faithful or she chooses to betray.”
He asks about her and her time in the brothel. Was she chained to her pillow? No. So does that mean she chose to be there. That she had deserved that suffering. He points out why she didn’t jump into sea. “Why blame your mother for your willful refusal to run away.” He stares at him with hatred, but there’s also hesitation in her. The same hesitation that’s been in all her conversations of late. Like she’s acting hurt because he said something hurtful not because she truly felt pain. “That capacity, it seemed, had been lost in the dark bowels of Cil-Aujas.”
“There are chains,” she said dully, “and there are chains.”
She acts humble after that, but more because she’s tired by the talk than really understanding her mother. Still, he welcomed it. “Arrogance is ever the patron of condemnation.” Everyone at some level understands the “power of hypocrisy” so they lie to themselves that they’re better than they are to have a clean conscience to both sleep or to condemn another.
There is more than strength in accusation, there is the presumption of innocence, which is what makes it the first resort of the brokenhearted.
When Achamian first went into exile, he blamed and accused Esmenet in his mind. But after so long of living with his grievances, he remembers that people don’t they are wrong when making the wrong decision. The cleverer you are the more likely you are to make a fool yourself. “And Esmenet was nothing if not clever.” This allowed him to forgive her. It had been when he was frustrated with his research so he wanted to help his slave Geraus chop wood but instead ended up getting a splinter in his eye. He apologized the way a master would to his slave, feeling bad and yet wronged all at the same time. After all, he did mean to help out, but when his slave “commended him for his supernatural aim” Achamian’s annoyance vanished. He caught a whiff of the desert and suddenly he just forgave Esmenet.
Though he still accuses her for what she did, he has forgiven her and now he manages to explain that to Mimara. Then he tells her how they met with his mother shouting down from her window and making a fat joke while Mimara doesn’t believe. She doesn’t know the old fat Achamian just the skinny hermit. It was the summer after the famine, and the Empire had past an edict to void all sales of Nansur citizens into slavery last summer. They were even making exception for caste-menials who didn’t have citizenship to void sales. Esmenet was desperate for gold to bribe officials to get Mimara back.
Mimara realizes he gave her the gold. He did and explains how Esmenet thought she was saving Mimara from the starvation by selling her to Ainoni to take her far away from the famine. Esmenet didn’t expect to survive. Those were her chains. Mimara realizes the Ainoni won’t respect the edict and free their slaves, so it was pointless for Esmenet to even try to bribe anyone. Achamian agrees. He tried to tell Esmenet, but she wouldn’t give up. She got her Exception from a man Achamian still dreams of killing. Then she went down to the harbor by herself to find Mimara, something she had to do for herself.
It was a strange thing for a man to enter the world of a damaged woman. The apparent disproportion between event and evaluation. The endless sinkholes that punished verbal wandering. The crazed alchemy of compassion and condemnation. It was a place where none of the scales seemed balanced, where the compass bowl never settled and the needle never showed true north.
Achamian thinks this is the moment he fell in love with Esmenet. He can’t remember her leaving only a fat man she vanished behind. He thinks about the perversity of memory and gets why Nonmen go crazy. Then he talks about how it had turned into riots that day as the slavers fought back. A ship was burned. Hundreds killed. He went out to find her.
He idly wondered whether anyone had seen as many smoking cities as he. Many, he decided, if the rumors he had heard regarding the Wars of the Unification were true.
Sarl and the Captain among them.
He talks about how the riots exploded because men lose all their wits in a mob and once one person attacks, they all attack. He had to use the Gnosis to get to the harbor, a risk in a city full of Chorae sorcerers have their tongues “scraped out with oyster shells” if caught using it. After all these years, he remembers that day. It was the first time he had experienced something even close to his Dreams. Mimara asks if he found her. He didn’t which shocks her. He though the had found her dead. He remembers that horrible moment, seeing the dead woman in the same mauve cloak. Though now he thinks fear “has a way of rewriting things to suit its purposes.” he had rolled the woman over and felt joy and relief “unlike anything he would experience until the First Holy War.” He found Esmenet sitting on her still without even a bruise on her. She never spoke of Mimara again.
Not until she succumbed to Kellhus.
Achamian and Mimara are silent for a time as though they both were grappling with the importance of his tale. They just stare at the scalpers. Finally, Achamian says that Esmenet is a survivor like Mimara is. He starts to ponder that a part of Esmenet had died that day in the harbor. She had not come back the same. She had seemed to grow less melancholic and rose from the lethargy she possessed. He adds, “Let the Outside sort her sins.”
He didn’t like to talk about damnation because his sins will one day sort him. He doesn’t need the Judging Eye to know his fate. So he walks, waiting for Mimara to asks questions but she kept looking ahead at the endless, flat plain.
He starts thinking about his time in Carythusal, probably because they had been talking in Ainoni. He thought about an old drunk name Posodemas, a man who claimed to survive seven naval bodies and years of captivity by pirates. All he would talk about where his wives and mistresses and how they had all betrayed him in each humiliating detail. Achamian would just watch and nod encouraging while he would scan the crowd. Posodemas taught Achamian that shame is one of the most precious things to a man.
And that, he realized with no small amount of dismay, was what seemed to be happening here, on the long road to Ishuäl.
Endless intoxication. And with it, the slow strangulation of shame.
What good was honesty when it carried no pain?
Sranc are rushing across the plain. They have caught the scent of human and see dust in the distance. They rush fast and howl insults at the “hated sun.” They are tireless in satiating their desires. They can life off dirt. Violence is for bliss. They are weapons “of an ancient war, ranging a dead world.”
Smelling humans, they’re eager to cut holes in the men and rut in them. It has been generations since they’ve seen men, wanting to murder and rape them is “stamped into their flesh.” The crave to hear them scream watch them slowly die in agony.
They loped like wolves, scuttled like spiders. They ran for truths they did not know, for verities written in their blood. They ran for the promise of violation…
Only to be astonished by a human figure rising from wicks of scrub and grass.
The sight of her causes them to stumble to a halt in an arc around her. They smell her scent and there’s something both “alarming and alluring.” Their Chieftain and advances and asks what she is. “A child of the same father.” That confuses the Chieftain because they don’t have a father except the earth. The woman smiles and says you do and they can’t pass. That angers them. He wants to Kill the woman and “Kill-muder-fuck the others!” But the woman points out that they have no hunger to kill her because they’re children of the same father. He brandishes knife.
The woman is, of course, Soma in Mimara’s form. She dispatches the chieftain with a swift blow. She tells the other Sranc that they are the children of the same father and asks if they “smell the truth-power of this?” They howl and she says the “Black Heaven” will call on them soon.
Mimara asks Achamian about his first meeting with Kellhus. “The old Wizard’s rely is typically long-winded.” He talks about how Ajencis would schooled his students for “confusing assent with intellect.” So when you meet someone profound like Achamian, it’s troubling. He explains how Mimara’s life is her ruler for measuring things even if it is so bent. So when someone else uses their own “ruler” to measure things, it will conflict with Mimara’s own experience and she’ll feel it’s wrong in her guts.
“So true wisdom is invisible? You’re saying we can’t see it when we encounter it.”
“No. Only that we have great difficulty recognizing it.”
She asks how Kellhus is different. He thinks about his answer for a while and says he’s mulled that question over for years. He possess authority as the Aspect-Emperor, so people want to compare their ruler to his so they can correct theirs. But in the start he was a penniless fugitive. He speaks haltingly and explains he was good at implying things. Since “ignorance is invisible” it’s easy for fools to believe they know anything with certainty. Ajencis hated certainty, equating it with destructive stupidity. Achamian disagrees. Not all ignorances are the same. “I think there are truths, profound truths, that we somehow know without knowing…”
Mimara glances about, seeing Pokwas and Galian walking together. They are inseparable these days. Cleric strides with grace while Sarl paces Koll. They look like refugees now. Achamian says that Kellhus could look at you and pluck “half-known truths from you.” That makes you doubt your own ruler and use his. Mimara understands and says, “A deceiver could ask for no greater gift.”
“The wizard’s look is so sharp that at first she fears she has offended him. But he hast hat appreciative gleam in his eyes, the one she has come to prize.
“In all my years,” he continues, “I have never quite understood worship, what happens to souls when they prostate themselves before another—I’ve been a sorcerer for too long. And yet I did worship him… for a time. So much so I even forgave him the theft of your mother…”
He shakes his head as if trying to ward away bees, looks away to the stationary line of the horizon. A cough kicks through him.
“Whatever worship is,” he says, “I think it involves surrendering your cubit… opening yourself to the perpetual correction of another…”
She jokes about, “Having faith in ignorance.” He laughs and quips she must have caused her mother so many headaches. She smiles only to realize she’s become cleverer than she used to be. Which makes her realize it’s the Qirri. “It quickens more than the step.” The pair grow silent as they draw notice from the others. She then imagines Kellhus and her mother making love as her hand rubs at her belly, but she’s afraid of thinking about that. The world is bending.
The World is old and miraculous and is filled with a deep despair that none truly know. The Nonman, Mimara has come to understand, is proof of this.”
Cleric is preaching how his people once ruled the world. He stands shirtless and looks like the epitome of manliness to Mimara. When the Sranc weren’t numberless and men would offer up their children at the capricious commands of the Nonmen. Mimara is captivated by him. A secret that she has to solve to save her and Achamian. She worships him.
The most foolish wiseman is smarter than any human. Even Achamian is but a toddler aping his father. Man’s short, fast-burning life reveals more than they can fathom. Then he talks about how far his people have fallen, destroyed by the “very darkness we sought to illuminate.”
“This is the paradox—is it not? The longer you live, the smaller your become. The past always dwarfs the present, even for races as fleeting as yours. One morning you awaken to find now… this every moment… little more than a spark in a cavern. One morning you awaken to find yourself so much… less…”
Incariol, she thinks. Ishroi…
“Less than what you wanted. Less than what you once were.”
Mimara is in love with the “power and wonder of what [Cleric] was.” He talks about how one day, you realize you’re not strong and mighty and your body is failing you. He wonders how they’ll act. Will they be overshadowed by their sons or hide in their homes like the Nonmen did. Mimara feels like that knowing Cleric has made her more than she used to be. He continues talking about how one day, you’ll be old and lost. He lowers back to the earth at that point and mutters, “Lost like us.” He then reaches for his qirri patch while thunderheads rumble but no rain falls like always.
Mimara decides that the Rules of the Slog broke in Cil-Aujas along with the rest of the. A new Rule has formed throw it’s never been spoken. With the new rules there are no questions. “No doubters on the slog.”
The extraordinary thing about insanity, she has come to realize, is the way it seems so normal. When she thinks of the way the droning days simply drop into their crazed, evening bacchanals, nothing strikes her as strange—nothing visceral, anyway. Things that should make her shudder, like the nip of Cleric’s tail as his finger roams the inside of her cheeks, are naughty but part of a greater elation, as unremarkable as any other foundation stone.
It is only when she steps back and reflects that the madness stares her plain in the eye.
“He’s killing you…” the thing called Soma had said. “The Nonman.”
She finds herself approaching Sarl, figuring someone as crazy as him might understand how the rest are going mad. He’d also known Lord Kosoter since the Unification War. She hopes Sarl can figure out what the skin-spy meant. She lamely starts with, “The Slog of Slogs.” He’s walking alone because the rest have abandoned him to his rambling tirades. She’s hoped Kosoter would shut Sarl up, but it never happened.
Sarl, it seems, is the lone exception to the Rules.
He calls her the second most beautiful thing, narrating with his happening. He doesn’t look at her but to her side like she’s an apparition haunting him. He was the most bedraggled member before Cil-Aujas. Now he’s tattered and ragged. She asks him how long he’s known Captain. He responds that you can’t explain Kosoter. “He’s not of this world.” She flinches at how loud he speaks and finds herself whispering her question, “How so?”
He says that “souls get mixed up.” He claims he’s a dead spirit bounced back, souls of old men born in babies. Or the souls of wolves. She asks what he’s saying, and he warns her never cross Kosoter. She snarks that he’s so friendly. He laughs, but it seems more like a reflex. He’s mimicking laughter. It was like speaking carefully to avoid saying “words that must never be said.” She reflects who she always lived some kind of life. Trying to avoid the truth of her reality, and her new lie is one of bliss. Even Sarl, she realizes, understands that they are being deceived.
She asks about Cleric and how they met him. Sarl says they found him like “a coin in the dirt.” She gets frustrated, wanting to know where and how. He says that after Carythusal, they were sent north by the Ministrate. They were sent to kill skinnies and to stay on the southeastern marches of Galeoth. She’s confused about that and asks about Cleric. He just repeats they found him.
That draws attention. She feels conspicuous and guilty like she’s a thief having fun joking with a madman. Even Achamian is confused. By speaking to them, she’s revealed that she’s searching for something. Kosoter has noticed.
“The Slog of Slogs,” she says lamely. “They’ll sing songs across the Three Seas, Sergeant—think on it! The Psalm of the Skin Eaters.”
He cries and blesses her, her self-serving words touching him. He starts limping as if his body just broke with his heart. He smiles at her and says he’s been so lonely.
They see dust on the horizon the next day after breaking camp. It’s far away and they can’t see who’s making it. So they only keep traveling and keep a wary eye on it. Galian and Pokwas think it’s Sranc. They hadn’t seen any so far crossing the Istyuli. The plum comes closer. Kosoter gives no orders even as they see figures now. They all hold hands to shade their eyes and peer at them. It’s not Sranc but riders. Fifty or so, enough to kill a single clan of skinnies. They are motley group of warriors whose shields identify them as Nangaels, a clan of Tydonni.
It’s the Great Ordeal. They are no longer in its shadow. Fear washes over her as she realizes this is an extension of Kellhus and she realizes she’s terrified of him. He used to be the only voice that made sense to her.
Galian thinks its a lost patrol but Xonghis says with authority that it’s a supply cohort who abandoned their supplies. The approaching riders are talking about the men they just found and what to do, the Skin Eaters just stay silent. They “no longer need fatuous words to bind them.” Finally, a graybeard Nangael in command motions for Galian to come speak to him. The graybeard notices Cleric and grows nervous.
When the graybeard speaks his tongue, Kosoter say they don’t speak gibberish. Mimara grows afraid as she glances at Achamian. He gives her a subtle warning to do nothing rash. Mimara studies the men and though they are travel worn, they look so different from the ragged Skin Eaters. She’s horrified that they look more like shambling corpses now.
The graybeard can’t believe their scalpers this far out. Galian says they had to flee a mob it drove them this way. The graybeard says that’s unlikely. Kosoter agrees and kills the graybeard. As he dies, Mimara can tell the graybeard was beloved by his men. Weapons are drawn but then Cleric sings. She recognizes the lines of white that reach out from him at the patrol as something close to the Seventh Quyan Theorem. Men are killed and horses fall thrashing.
The battle begins. The nearest charge. The scalpers meet the charge in “eerie silence.” They fight with deadly ferocity. Mimara is shocked to find she’s drawn Squirrel, the blade sharp. She uses it to defend herself from a wounded Nangael. She kills him. The fighting fades, the clouds of dust kicked up fading. The wounded writhe on the ground.
Mimara stares at the dying man she killed. He’s suffering, but she can’t bring herself to put him out of his misery. She looks for Achamian again. He’s standing by Koll who didn’t even move. The last Stone Hag just stands there. Achamian rises from his stupor to protest. Mimara thinks its the murder of the innocent patrol, but it’s the men that have escaped that has him crying out. He unleashes his sorcery and climbs into the sky looking like a rag doll.
He catches up with the fleeing men and kills them. Plumes of dust erupt, hiding the violence. None of the others cared. The others are unharmed but Conger who has a wound to his knee. He stares with dull horror as Kosoter marches up and dispatches him.
“No limpers!” the Captain grates, his eyes at once starved and bright.
And that is the sum of their plunder. It seems sacrilege, for some reason, to don possessions of others—things so clean they can only be filthy. The old Wizard returns on weary foot, framed by seething curtains of smoke. He has set the plains afire.
“I’m damned already,” is all he says in reply to Mimara’s look.
He stares at the ground and says nothing for the next three days.
Achamian’s silence doesn’t bother her a much as how little she cares. She gets why he had to run down the survivors, but his guilt and hand wringing is almost proforma. Just going through the motions, and so she can’t do more than pretend to be compassionate. After all, she feels the weight of her own murder.
After three days, the group running low on water, Achamian finally speaks and asks Mimara if he’s ever seen Kellhus with “it.” She’s confused until she realizes he means her “other eye.” The Judging Eye. He hesitates, afraid, before confirming.
Absolution, she realizes. He killed the Tydonni to prevent any word of their expedition from reaching the Great Ordeal. Now he seeks to absolve himself of their deaths through the righteousness of his cause. Men murder, and men excuse. For most the connection is utterly seamless: those killed simply have to be guilty, otherwise why would they be dead? But Achamian, she knows, is one of those rare men who continually stumble over the seams in their thought. Men for whom nothing was simple.
She says no and begs him to believe her, saying Kellhus hardly had time for his real daughters let alone a step-daughter. Which is true because he was mostly a dread rumor that sent the functionaries scurrying in a panic and realizes it’s the same here. “Was he [Kellhus] not the hidden tyrant of this very expedition?”
For the first time, it seems, she sees things through Drusas Achamian’s eyes: a world bound to the machinations of Anasûrimbor Kellhus. Looking out, she has a sudden sense of loads borne and stresses diffused, as if the world were a wheel spoke with mountains, rimmed with seas, one so vast that the axle lay perpetually over the horizon—perpetually unseen. Armies march. Priests tally contributions. Ships leave and ships arrive. Emissaries howl in protest and wriggle on their bellies…
All at the pleasure of the Holy Aspect-Emperor.
This is the world that the old Wizard sees, the world that frames his every decisions: a singular thing, a living thing, nourished by the arteries of trade, bound by the sinew of fear and faith….
A leviathan with a black cancer for a heart.
He does believe her, he was just curious. Kellhus power reminds her of the Allosium Mandala that had hung in the Andiamine Heights. It was an innovation on the Invishi craftsmen who sought to “capture creation in various symbolic symbols.” It was such an innovation, the creator was stoned to death. She creates her own and sees everyone, from the poor to the powerful, as existing in a “dark world, one battling a war long lost.” Despite how little emotions she’s feeling these days, she is buried beneath a sense of hopeless doom because the Aspect-Emperor is evil.
And then she realized that the opposite could just as easily be true.
She asks how he would react if she saw him wreathed in glory and there was no doubt he was divine. She realizes this is the doubt that gnaws at him day after day. He says she has a talent for asking hard questions. She can see his fear. She might ask the questions, but the dilemma is his. He glares at her with a hint of hatred, but it falls away like everything else. It’s simply “another passion too greased with irrelevance to be clutched in the hands of the present.”
“Strange…” he replies distantly. “I see two sets of footprints behind me.”
Mimara feels like everything is unraveling. She and the others feel like dandelion fluff wanting to drift in the air but caught in spider silk. In Qirri. Holy and pure Qirri. They queue up each night before Cleric to suck it off his finger. He probes their mouth. They can taste the spittle of the others, and that’s right. Qirri is there new Tusk. Their new God. Cleric is its prophet.
By day, the trudge across the monotony of the plains. By night, they listen to Cleric’s “incoherent declarations.” They gain an enlightenment “Devoid of claim or truth or hope.” Days pass like a dream.
Finally, after days, Mimara confesses to Achamian the Qirri frightens her. He doesn’t answer, but she senses his alarm. He has the same thoughts, and now she’s being a fool by throwing “stones at wolves.” She lies to herself everything will be fine. Finally, he asks her why
She talks about her time in the brothel. The girls who resisted were addicted to opium until they would do anything to get their fix. Achamian is silent as she continues, asking if the Nonmen is doing that to them.
Speaking this question is like rolling a great stone from her chest. How could it be so difficult to stand square in the light of day of what was happening.
Achamian asks why then if Cleric has made sexual demands of her. She says no but is worried about it. He stares at his feet then says they don’t need to be afraid because they understand the danger. But he sounds like a frightened boy trying to sound confident. Not sure what to say, but she thinks they can just refuse to take the Qirri at any time. “Just not now.” Achamian reinforces that though saying they need it to keep up the pace. She objects saying they’ve covered enough ground by now. But he counters with how the Stone Hags, men with endurance, are all dead save one. What chance does an old man and a woman have?
She wants to let the others outpace them or sneak away. Go on their won. She even thinks they can just steal the pouch of Qirri. It makes sense to her that she almost laughs aloud until she remembers that you don’t steal anything from a Quya Mage. Achamian says they can’t break their contract with the Skin Eaters. After all of they’ve sacrificed, they would hunt them down.
She thinks he’s coming around, so she suggests confronting Cleric before everyone about what he’s doing. But she realizes this is a mistake as she loses Achamian to doubt and fear. He says Galian only stays for the Qirri. She doesn’t care and says let him leave. Achamian counters that he’ll take Xonghis and Pokwas with him. Especially Xonghis since he finds food.
They smile at each other as the conversation that started real is no nothing more than pantomime of “numbing words and self-serving reasons.” She had hoped this would be the result. So they nine keep walking across the plain while only the last Stone Hag feels the exhaustion. She starts to cry softly so none can hear. She feels so relieved and is eager for the dark.
And of the soot smudged across the tip of Cleric’s white finger.
Mimara creeps out of camp that night, the wind howling. She knows she’d find the skin-spy here. Thanks to the wind, the company marches past night until they find whatever meager depression. She travels in the direction she knows a predator would favor, downwind.
She begs to know how the Nonman is killing them. It mimics her crouch posture, seeming harmless and deadly all at the same time. She feels fear, but it’s remote as she begs to know. He smiles with condensation, infuriating her. He wants her Chorae, and he promises to save her. She grabs the pouch between her breasts and says no more games.
Her anger surprises both. The skin-spy glances at the camp. She listens and can hear the mutter of sorcery as someone climbs up into the air. The skin-spy says to ask what the Qirri actually is. Then it runs off in a way no human could mimic. She turns around behind her to see Achamian climbing into the sky thanks to his sorcery. He starts trying to kill the skin-spy, but the dust conceals it and it escapes.
She stares at Koll, the last Stone Hag, as Achamian yells at her, demanding to know what she was doing so far away. Koll is the only one not watching the father scolding his daughter. Koll used to be a big man, but now he’s skin and bones. He’s thrown away his armor and only carries his sword because Kosoter would kill him if he had lost it.
She lies to Achamian and says it just came to her wearing her face. He’s mad because it could have killed her. He demands to know why she went so far from the others. She keeps staring at Koll and realizes he’s “the last pure thing in their mad company.” The only one who had never tasted Qirri. He shows just how depraved the rest are.
Achamian continues his tirade, saying the thing meat to replace her. As he yells at her, he’s squinting. It’s a cloudy, moonless dark. The Nail of Heaven is hidden. He can’t see her well because, she realizes, he’s not the skin-spy. He’s human. He keeps calling her a fool that it would have killed her and taken her place. She finally looks at him and asks what it is in Ainoni.
He is surprised but still angry and, she realizes, there’s a part of him that no longer cares what it is. He’s like the others, eager to get his fix. He asks what she’s talking about and is troubled because she switched to Ainoni, “The tongue of their conspiracy.”
Kosoter watches from the periphery, his knife sheathed. She tells Achamian it’s nothing because he doesn’t know what it is.
Qirri is Qirri…
The desire that forever slips the leash of your knowing. The hunger that laves no trace in your trammeled soul.
Xonghis tells them water is more important than food. There water-skins are empty. It should be simple to walk across the flatlands, but her soul is in turmoil. She feels like a chrysalis is in her soul unable to mature, trapping her in confusion. It makes the world feel like a dream. The world feels ephemeral, like foam. She doesn’t know what is happening to her.
Sarl says, “You have the look.” He cackles as she doesn’t disagree with him that she looks like a muddied path. He asks if he’s wrong then asks how many men she’s lain with. She should hate him for saying it, but she doesn’t have the strength to speak. “When has feeling become an effort?” She responds a lot of fools but few men. He is thrilled she admits it and she ask what did she admit while smiling at his. His smile drops from him.
“She burned a city for you—didn’t she?”
“Who?” she replies numbly.
“Your mother. The Holy Empress.”
“No,” she laughs in faux astonishment. “But I appreciate the compliment!”
Sarl laughs and nods in turn, his eyes once again squeezed into invisibility. Laughs and nods, trailing ever farther behind her…
What was happening?
Mimara feels like two women divorced from each other. One that remembers the past and old hurts, and the one that no longer cares. But she knows she’s really three because her stomach is starting to swell. The others laugh at her as she eats ravenously, and scolds Achamian when he doesn’t cook their dinner right away or Xonghis when he doesn’t find enough food. Then they wait for Cleric to start his sermon. When he does, they gather, some even crawl.
He talks about coming down from high to negotiate with kings of men and how he seduced their wives and healed their baby princes. He laughed at the superstition of their priests. He frightened and astonished them with his questions and insights. How he killed their warriors with ease. They used to give him tribute even babies.
“I remember the love your bore… The hatred and the envy.”
He raises his head, blinking as if yanked from a dream inhumanly cruel for its bliss. Veins of silver fork across his cheeks… Tears.
“You die so easily?” he cries, howls, as if human frailty were the one true outrage.
He sobs, bows his head once more. His voice rises as if from a pit.
“And I never forget…”
One of the scalpers moans in carnal frustration… Galian.
“I never forget the dead.”
He stands, about to start the Holy Dispensation. The men yelp like dogs, hungering for the Qirri. They rock. Eager for it. She doesn’t know when that pouch had come to represent carnal pleasure. She sits rigid, feeling estranged from herself. She does want it, wondering how much longer it can even last. Then he’s over her, holding out the black dust on his wet finger.
She cannot move.
He asks her by name, calling to both of her selves. To “the one who knows but does not care and to the one who cares but does not know.” However, it’s the third one that snarls no. Cleric stares at her as the others realize what she’s doing. Achamian looks horrified. Cleric asks her again and she says no.
Desire, she has come to understand, is not a bottomless thing…
There is motherhood.
She dreams of something missing in her. Something precious. She gasps awake and finds Cleric over her. She doesn’t panic because it seems reasonable. She asks what he’s doing. He’s watching her. But why? Then she realizes that some sort of subtle sorcery has allowed Cleric to bend Achamian’s wards around his body like pressing fingers into a half-filled bladder. He says she reminds him of someone. The answer is that of a doddering old man. Frail. She asks what that is, but he doesn’t remember.
She asks him what Qirri is as Achamian stirs. He tells her they don’t bury all their dead. The greatest are burned. She realizes the right question is whose ash is it made from. He tells her to taste and she’ll see. He lowers his finger to her lips. She opens her mouth and closes her eyes, feeling his breath on her face. She seals her mouth about his finger and tastes the Qirri.
In the corner of her eyes she glimpses the Captain through overlapping lattices of dead grass—a wraith watching.
She feels the rush and the pleasure. He pulls his back his finger, but she bites down to stop him, her tongue stroking the tip to make sure she got every spec. He strokes her face before he rises. She cannot look away or smother her longing.
Her mouth tastes of ash and soot and glory…
As Achamian walks, he remembers other travels. The time he saw a child break his neck falling from a tree. A woman stoned to death for witchcraft. Seeing the dawn rising over the First Holy War.
Adversity lay in all direction, the Nilnameshi were fond of saying. A man need only walk.
Mimara comes up to him and says she knows what Qirri is. The sun frames her face, a solar angel delivering “tidings of woe.” He asks what it is. She tells him its the ashes from a funeral pyre. He wants to know whose. She thinks it’s Cû’jara Cinmoi.
A name drawn from the root of history.
There was nothing to say, so he turned to the trackless world before them. Great flocks of tern rose like steam from the far-ranging folds of dust and grasses.
They passed like a dream.
Hey, another month has passed. It’s Summer now! If you didn’t know, months are tracked like this Early Spring, Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer, Summer, Late Summer, etc. Twelve months you can track that way.
The one about take away enough and people will treasure their afflictions. They will revel in the pain, dwelling in victimhood to lash out at the world. To punish others for the pain they’ve endured.
The talk about how different people handle doing activities that don’t require them to use their minds but are very physical and repetitive leads to different results. He uses walking, because that’s definitely it. Walking day after day especially now that they’re not talking but are almost all alone on the trail, are leading to these divergences. Fanatics, Cynics, and Philosopher.
Okay, Achamian is dreaming of Nau-Cayûti’s final moments before he becomes the No-God, and he doesn’t care about these changes. I believe this is caused by the Qirri. It’s causing him to access the memories of Seswatha’s son and simultaneously it has sapped away his curiosity.
“Motherhood, it seemed, meant too much to be trusted to something as sordid as truth.” What a profound sentiment. None of us really want to know everything about our mothers and the things she’s did while younger. Especially sexually. It’s not details you want to learn about your parents, especially your mother, even when those things must have happened.
It seems as if Achamian has forgiven Esmenet. Maybe because he understands the chains that bound her. The choice she had to make. He had returned too late to save her from Kellhus. If she had never gotten pregnant, she would have gone with im. He had broken the hold Kellhus had on her, just like the same hold had been shattered on Achamian. But there was another chain biding Esmenet. My mom divorced my dead when I was nineteen. She told me she had only stayed with him for so long because of my brother and me. She thought it was best to stay in the marriage for us. So I can get Esmenet’s choice.
“The fact that everyone thought themselves more blameless than blameworthy, Ajencis once, was at once the most ridiculous and the most tragic of human infirmities Ridiculous because it was so obvious and yet utterly invisible. Tragic because it doomed them to unending war and strife.” Such truth in that quote. It’s the reason we have “Karens.” Men and women who think they’re so virtuous and better that they can condemn anyone who offends them. There is no self-reflection in a “Karen.”
I think the opening up we’re getting from both Achamian and Mimara might be an effect of qirri. He mentions how he feels this open intoxication. That can lower self-control and a person is more likely to reveal secrets.
We have a great difficulty in recognizing wisdom. I like that. We all have our biases that we use to measure the world, and have a hard time going against them without a great deal of reflection and self-discovery.
I like that talk about how the world is old and miraculous and despair. Just look at the grand feats of architecture our ancestors built: the Pyramid of Giza, Angkor Wat, Easter Island, the Nazca Lines, and more.
Interesting how we have Achamian talk about worshiping something makes you compare your ruler to theirs and here we have Mimara seeing Cleric as a totem. And she already sees him as “the very image of manly grace and strength.”
Nonmen, I’m realizing, are a metaphor for growing old. I mean, really, really old. Where your body fails you. Your mind abandons you. The young ignore you, not realizing that you know so much but they don’t care. You fought too keep civilization burning bright only to see the next generation failing you.
So Sarl gives confirmation that Kosoter and Sarl were sent here by Kellhus’s government. The are here to watch for Kellhus and help him on his mission. Kellhus wants Achamian to get to Ishuäl. This is part of my theory that Kellhus wants to destroy his own image as a god. I think this goes back to whatever Kellhus did to Achamian during the hypnotism scene in The Thousandfold Thought. Achamian talked to Seswatha and changed how the dreams work for Achamian in the process. That scene might be one of the most important ones we never got to see.
I have to say the scene where Sarl cries because someone acted to him like they used to his heartbreaking. He’s clearly dealing with intense PTSD, and he has no support. He doesn’t know how to get back to himself. He’s lost, and she found him. He doesn’t get that she wasn’t caring about him. We’re seeing a theme of the series how we only see the outside of the person and never the inside.
Mimara used to see Kellhus so greatly, but then she heard the other side. This is the weakness of the Dûnyain. Once people get away from them, they can unlearn the programming. They only have the time for so many people. It’s why he cut off communication with the Empire so he wouldn’t have competition. He has this army, and they are his captive audience now.
“Was he [Kellhus] not the hidden tyrant of this very expedition?” Mimara is seeing it. She’s getting the little peaces. This is all because of Kellhus. A Dûnyain doesn’t do something that only accomplishes one goal. He’s not just trying to defeat the Consult; he’s trying to defeat the Outside.
Mimara wants to break free of the Qirri, but she is relieved when her attempts to convince Achamian fail. She is addicted. It’s clear that she knows she needs to stop, but she craves that next fix so much, she’s happy she failed.
Koll, worn down to skin and bones, is pure because he’s not being changed by Qirri. He’s not being stained by it. They are being changed by it. She calls it depravity. She senses that this is something wrong they’re doing. And since Qirri is the ash of a dead nonman, they’re consuming the dead. It’s cannibalism, and it is changing them.
This is the problem with Nonmen. They never forget those who die. They only remember the pain and agony. That’s why he’s become an erratic and is here. Why Kellhus has made this deal with the Nonmen. It’s a complicated one. It’s to neutralize the Consult’s leadership of Ishterebinth while at the same time, making Achamian into a weapon that will help to destroy his myth.
Now we know that Qirri is the ash of Nonmen King ruling when the Ark crashed to this world. No wonder it’s so potent. And we see Mimara as the drug addict knowing she needs to quit and how all those using drugs with her don’t want her to quit. They want her to stay addicted like them. This is something that happens. They don’t want to change, and you trying to change is an attack on them. So they try to keep you in the same destructive behavior.
Now it’s been turned into an Audiobook!
…Ary’s people have little chance.
Can he find a way to defeat them?
At 19, Ary has spent ten years mourning his father’s death. The aftermath of the attack still haunts him. Now, on the eve of the draft he faces his greatest fear, being sent to become a marine.
He knows the cost of war.
All he wants is to marry Charlene, who he has loved since they were kids. Building a farm and starting a family sounds perfect. There’s just one problem, his best friend Vel adores her, too. He’d give anything for peace.
But wanting the Stormriders to stop attacking…
…isn’t going to make it happen.
For love, for his people, and especially for the life he wants, Ary makes a decision that will change everything.
The adventure begins.
You’ll love this beautifully creative dark fantasy, because James Reid knows how to create characters and worlds you’ll grow to adore.
Get it now.
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