Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
The Holy Warrior
The Andiamine Heights
…and that revelation murdered all that I once did know. Where once I asked of the God, “Who are you?” now I ask, “Who am I?”
—ANKHARLUS, LETTER TO THE WHITE TEMPLE
The Emperor, the consensus seems to be, was an excessively suspicious man. Fear has many forms, but it is never so dangers as when it is combined with power and perpetual uncertainty.
—DRUSAS ACHAMIAN, COMPENDIUM OF THE FIRST HOLY WAR
While Bakker doesn’t give us a clue what the revelation Ankharlus received, his reaction is similar to what Achamian experiences in this chapter. Finally, after all these years, he has found the Consult in the wake of discovering the harbinger of the Celmomas Prophecy. Of course he’s reeling.
The second quite about Xerius we have seen borne true time and time again. He is a man always afraid, always suspicious, schooled by his mother in all the ways his ancestors died in the palace he lived, all the ways his rule can end. This chapter exists because of that paranoia
Late Spring, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Momemn
Xerius is shaken after the debacle in the garden and is drinking anpoi, joined by Conphas and Gaenkelti, the Captain of the Eothic Guard. Xerius asks if they have Skeaös and then demands to see him. Gaenkelti thinks that is a mistake. Xerius asks if sorcery is being used, and the Imperial Saik says no. But the man has been trained.
“What do you mean ‘trained’? Spare me your riddles, Gaenkelti! The Empire has been humiliated this day. I’ve been humiliated!”
“He was…hard to take. Three of my men are dead. Four more have broken limbs—”
“Surely you jest!” Conphas cried. “Was he armed?”
“No. I’ve never seen the like. If we hadn’t had extra guards assigned for the audience… As I said, he’s been trained.”
Xerius realized that Skeaös could have killed him at any time and is shaken. Conphas insists it has to be sorcery, which the Saik disagree with. Xerius gets paranoid and asks for another school to confirm, such as the Mysunsai. Gaenkelti has already done this, but agrees with the Saik. He used a Chorae on Skeaös and nothing. Xerius is stunned to learn his most trusted advisor was a spy. He was so sure that Skeaös knew the truth. “The others call me a God, but Skeaös, ah good Skeaös, he knows I’m divine.” in a fit of rage, he begins destroying things while demanding Skeaös is tortured and skinned.
There is silence as he calms down and then Gaenkelti breaches the subject of Kellhus. Xerius orders him to be be watched “Scrutinize him like no other.” Xerius finds satisfaction that even Conphas is disturbed by the events. Xerius dismisses Gaenkelti, after complimenting him, and orders the his chief sorcerer, spy, and augur to attend him. Gaenkelti leaves Xerius alone with Conphas.
Conphas is concerned, wondering just how much Skeaös knows. Xerius will have it tortured out of him and learn who he spies for. Conphas asks after the Holy War and the indenture. Xerius repeats what his mother would have said: “Our own house, Nephew. First, our own house…” Then he tells Conphas to personally summon the Mandate Schoolman in the Holy war.
“Why? Mandate Schoolmen are fools”
“Fools can be trusted precisely because they are fools. Their agendas rarely intersect with your own. These are great matters, Conphas. We must be certain.”
Alone, Xerius looks out from the summit of the Andiamine Heights. He could see far, but never far enough. He will listen to his sorcerer and spymaster squabble then go and see Skeaös himself. He would personally punish Skeaös
Achamian finds walking through Momemn at night, escorted by Conphas and Kidruhil soldiers, a nightmarish journey. At night, the already complex city is a maze. Achamian studies Conphas, self-conscious that he is a portly man when compared to Conphas’s physical perfection, and because the Prince-Imperial is too self-assured because he was “possessed either of a terrible strength or a frightening lack.”
Achamian is shocked Conphas is escorting him, wondering what could have caused the Imperial Nephew to fetch him personally. Conphas won’t say. “I have been sent to fetch not to banter.” The moment he received the summons, Achamian’s has experienced dread. Conphas attitude reminds Achamian just how little people think of his school as nothing more than desperate fools which the powerful avoid.
“Which was why this request was so unsettling. What could an Emperor want with a desperate fool like Drusas Achamian?
As far as he could tell, only one of two things could induce a Great Faction such as the Ikureis to call on him. Either they had encountered something beyond the abilities of their own school, the Imperial Saik, or the mercenary Mysunsai to resolve, or they wished to speak of the Consult. Since no one save the Mandate believed in the Consult any more, it had to be the former. And perhaps this wasn’t as implausible as it seemed. If the Great Factions commonly laughed at their mission, they still respected their skill.
The Gnosis had made them rich fools.
They arrive at the palace and Conphas leads him in. Achamian’s dread is not alleviated, especially when Conphas leads him into the “buried heart” of the mountain the palace is built on instead of the Heights. Achamian’s hesitates. Conphas tells Achamian this does lead to the dungeons. Achamian demands an explanation.
“Mandate sorcerers,” Conphas said ruefully. “Like all misers, you assume that everyone is after your hoard. What do you think, sorcerer? That I’m so stupid as to publicly barrel through Proyas’s camp just to abduct you?”
“You belong to House Ikurei. That’s cause for apprehension enough, don’t you think?”
Conphas realizes Achamian won’t go without answers and says they found a spy and need verification if sorcery is involved. The Emperor doesn’t trust the Imperial Saik and fear the Mysunsai’s “limited talents” won’t be enough. Achamian realizes something has scared them and that is why they sent for him. He agrees to enter.
As they walk, Conphas abruptly brings up Kellhus, shocking Achamian and he wonders if Kellhus is involved. Conphas attributes Kellhus’s cunning swaying the results of the meeting, which Achamian counters as Wisdom. Conphas grows angry and demands an answer to his “simple question.” But the question isn’t simple and Achamian reflects on what little he knows. “An Anasûrimbor had returned.” Achamian asks if this has to do with the spy and Conphas hesitates, thinking.
They truly are terrified.
The Exalt-General snorted, as though amazed he could worry about what a Mandate Schoolman might make of the Empire’s secrets. “Nothing whatsoever.” He smirked. “You should comb your beard, sorcerer,” he added as they continued down the passaged. “You’re about to meet the Emperor himself.”
Xerius, attended by his chief sorcerer Cememketri, Gaenkelti, his spymaster Tokush, the torture Kimish, and Skaleteas, the Mysunsai mercenary. The emperor examines Skeaös bound to the wall in the Truth Room. Skeaös has no fear and “blinked the way a child, awakened in the dead of night, might blink.”
Xerius asks his torturers opinion on Skeaös’s lack of fear, and Kimish answers that he has plied Skeaös already. Kimish has never seen a man like Skeaös Xerius grows impatient with Kimish’s need to play storyteller and demands answers.
Kimish shrugged. “Sometimes it’s better to show than to say,” he said, grasping a small set of pliers fro the rack of tools beside the Counsel. “Watch.”
He knelt and grasped one of the Counsel’s feet in his left hand. Slowly, with the boredom of a craftsman, he wrenched out a toenail.
There was nothing. O Shriek. Not even a shudder from the old frame.
“Inhuman,” Xerius gasped, backing away.
The sorcerous all agree that no sorcery is at work. Xerius demands answers. Skeaös replies, but his voice is broken, “like many voices.” Xerius grows dizzy and grabs Cememketri for support. He calls the sorcerer a liar, insisting it must be at use. “This room reeks of it!” He accuse the Imperial Saik of plotting against him but is then caught short by Conphas and Achamian’s entrance. Conphas thinks Xerius’s accusation against the Saik is rash.
Xerius greets Achamian, feeling the need to be gracious when Achamian bowed, touching forehead to the ground. Achamian declares himself “your slave, God-of-Men” and asks what Xerius needs. Xerius brings Achamian forward before Skeaös, showing Achamian off.
The old face remained passionless, but the eyes glittered with a strange intensity.
“A Mandati,” it said.
Xerius looked to Achamian. The man’s expression was blank. And then Xerius felt it, felt the hatred emanating from Skeaös’s pale form, as though the old man recognized the Mandate sorcerer. The splayed body tensed. The chains tightened, link biting against link. The wooden table creaked.
Achamian backs up as Xerius demands to know if it is sorcery. Achamian demands to know who the man is, horror in his voice. Xerius answered and Achamian is in a panic, wanting to know what Skeaös confessed to. Xerius demands his answers. Achamian say there is no sorcery here unless it is invisible to the few. Skaleteas tries to brown-nose, which angers Xerius.
“Meta ka peruptis sun rangashra, Chigra, Mandati—Chigraa,” the old Counsel spat, his voice now utterly inhuman. He writhed against his restraints, the old body rippling with thin, greasy muscles. A bolt snapped from the walls.
Achamian is struck dumb while the chains break. Xerius cries for help. Then Gaenkelti died, his neck broken. Conphas is hit with a chain and Tokush was “broken like a doll.” Sorcery is unleashed, Achamian using his Gnosis while Cememketri curses at him.
It is over. Achamian has saved Xerius’s life, leaving Skeaös is charred. Xerius realizes he is alive and safe. Achamian heads to the burned body of Skeaös and demands answers, wanting to know what Skeaös is.
“You are the first, Chigra,” Skeaös wheezed, an ambient, horrifying whisper. And you will be the last…”
What followed would haunt Xerius’s dreams for the rest of his numbered days. As though gasping for some deeper breath, Skeaös’s face unfolded like a spider’s legs clutched tight about a cold torso. Twelve limbs, crowned by small wicked claws, unclenched and opened, revealing lipless teeth and lidless eyes where a face should have been. Like a woman’s long fingers, they embraced the astounded Mandate sorcerer about the head and began to squeeze.
Achamian screams in pain. Xerius is shocked. But Conphas acts, decapitating the creature and saving Achamian’s life. The sorcerer stands, surveys the stunned faces, then goes to leave without a word. Cememketri blocks the way. Bluntly, Achamian says he is leaving. Xerius gives him permission while Conphas gives a look that asks if letting him leave is wise.
“He would have lectured us about myths, Conphas. About the Ancient North and the return of Mog. They always do.”
“After this,” Conphas replied, “perhaps we should listen.”
Xerius is dismissive: “Mad events seldom give credence to madmen.” Exhilaration surges through Xerius. He lives and he knows. He is no longer ignorant about the skin spies. He decides the skin spy must be Cishaurim in origin. Xerius surveys the room, the dead, and counts the cost of purchasing this knowledge. It did not beggar him.
“Perhaps,” Conphas replied, scowling, “but we’re debtors still.”
So like Mother, Xerius thought.
Esmenet hurries through the camp of the Holy War as they celebrate the victory over the Emperor and the impending march. Esmenet waited for Sarcellus to fall asleep before living his camp and heading out into the night. In the heady celebration, men grab her, some just to spin her, others to kiss her or grope her, and one tries to have sex with her, but she punches him in the face, bringing confusion to the man’s face.
She lies, crying and shaken after the encounter, but she regains herself and continues on. She is finally heading to Xinemus’s camp to find Achamian. She hides her tattooed hand, proclaiming her a prostitute, as she moves through the camp.
She finally finds Xinemus’s camp and stares at his banner, imagining Achamian before the fire and how he would burst with joy when he sees her. She imagines hugging him, smelling him, hearing him speak her name, joke about how old-fashioned it is (she was named for the wife of a prophet).
She wiped her eyes. That he would rejoice at seeing her, she had no doubt. But he would not understand the time she’d spent with Sarcellus—especially once she told him of that night in Sumna and what it meant for Inrau. He would be cut, outraged even. He might strike her.
But he would not turn her out. He would wait, as he always did, for the Mandate to call him away.
And he would forgive. As he always did.
She feels pathetic and struggles to gather herself, realizing she was still a mess from her earlier crying. She moves along the canal, spying on the camp, feeling the need to be secretive or “like a misbegotten creature from some nursery tale, one who must hide from lethal light.” She finally spies the fire, but doesn’t see Achamian. She does see Xinemus looking strong and in command, whom she thinks looks like Achamian’s older brother.
So you’re his friend, she thought, both watching and silently thanking him.
She didn’t know anyone else, but spies Cnaiür, hearing about him, and then sees Kellhus and Serwë and realizes he must be the Prince of Atrithau who had the dream. She wonders if Proyas is also with them.
She watched wide-eyed, a sense of awe squeezing the breath from her lungs. She stood, she realized, at the very heart of the Holy War, fiery with passion, promise, and sacred purpose. These men were more than human, they were Kahiht, World Souls, locked in a great wheel of great events. The thought of striding into their midst beckoned hot tears to her eyes. How could she? Awkwardly concealing the back of her hand, instantly branded for what she was by their far-seeing eyes…
What’s this? A whore? Here? You must be joking…
What had she been thinking? Even if Achamian had been her, she would have only shamed him.
Someone, probably Proyas based of the description, gives a sermon about the trials the Holy War shall endure and what the war’s goal is—Shimeh. Then Xinemus intones the High Temple Prayer. Things are sombre when he finishes until the celebration starts up again. She again wants to join them, seeing them as bright and regal, but fears they would vanish. Then Kellhus speaks to Xinemus while looking towards her, then the pair walk at her. She shrinks back and hides behind a tent. The pair urinate into the canal, trading jokes which make even Esmenet smile as she watches. She realizes a friendship has just formed between the two men. As they head back, again Kellhus appears to look at her. But he makes no notice of her and they rejoin the camp.
They seemed good people, Esmenet thought, the kind of people Akka would prize as friends. There was… room between these people, she decided. Room to fail. Room to hurt.
Alone in the darkness, she suddenly felt safe, as she had with Sarcellus. These were Achamian’s friends, and though she did not exist for them, somehow they would keep her safe. A sense of drowsiness embalmed her. The voices lilted and rumbled, shining with honest good cheer. Just a snooze she thought. Then she heard someone mention Akka’s name.
They talk about Conphas summoning Achamian to the Emperor, worried about him. As they talk, she falls asleep and dreams that the stump she leans against is a dead tree holding her emplace. And then someone wakes her up.
Sarcellus. She is scared as he hushes her, not wanting her to make a scene. “This might be hard to explain.” The camp is quiet, almost everyone asleep. She accuse him of following her, but he merely awoke and figured this is where she would be.
She swallowed. Her hands felt light, as though they were preparing of their own volition to shield her face. “I’m not going back with you, Sarcellus.”
Something Esmenet could not decipher flashed in his eyes. Triumph? Then he shrugged. The ease of the gesture terrified her.
“That’s good,” he said absently. “I’ve had my fill of you, Esmi.”
She stared at him. Tears traced hot lines across her cheeks. Why was she crying? She didn’t love him… Did she?
But he had loved her. Of this she was certain… Wasn’t she?
He tells her to go to Achamian because he doesn’t care. She tries to understand his change of mood, wondering of Gotian had commanded Sarcellus to get rid of her. She was the source of much gossip. Her thoughts drift, to the stranger in the market place, to four years ago when the famine came and she grew so skinny and when she almost died. A part of her wants to beg his forgiveness. But she doesn’t. She only stares and he grows impatient and leaves.
Dawn brightens the sky as she heads into the camp and scavenges wine and a crust of bread to eat, feeling like a child awake before her parents or a scavenging animal. She wonders where Akka is. She hears footsteps, turns, and sees Achamian walking towards her, recognizing his portly frame.
As he neared, she glimpsed the five stripes of his beard, then the first contours of his face, cadaverous in the gloom. She stood before him, smiling, crying her wrists held out.
He looked through her, beyond her, and continued walking.
She stands in shock. She had imagined so many different ways their reunion would play out. But not for Achamian to pretend not to see her. Crying, she runs from the camp and trips into the dust. She sobs, demanding why when she came to save him, to tell him about Inrau. Her self-esteem plummets. Why would he want a whore. She pleads to herself that Achamian has to love her while her doubts say no one ever loved you.
“M-m-my d-daughter… Sh-she loved me!”
Would that she hated!… Hated and lived!
She cries on the ground, her thoughts drifting through her memories she sobs, tormented by anguish and guilt. Time passes until she remembers what an old harlot told her many years ago. “That’s why we’re more. More than concubines, more than priestess, more than wives, more than even some queens. We may be oppressed, Esmi, but remember, always remember, sweet girl, we’re never owned.” Esmenet finds comfort in the thought as she realizes Sarcellus and Achamian do not own her. She rises stiffly.
Oh, Esmi, you’re getting old.
Not good for a whore.
She began walking.
Here we see what a skin spy can do. The Eothic guard are Norsirai (think German or Scandinavian) and are on average bigger than the Ketyai like Xerius, which Achamian, through Esmenet’s ruminations at the end of the chapter, attributes to the greater amount of red meat. The thing called Skeaös kills three of them and injured four more. Skin spies are deadly
Xerius takes it badly learning the truth. Skeaös has been his number one advisor. He knows the true scope of their plan for the Holy War. Xerius has new fears to focus on. He has to learn. He can’t trust anyone in the court.
But a Mandate Schoolman Xerius can trust. They are fools, so he thinks, obsessed with the Consult. But they do not play the game, as the Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spire believed until they found the butchered Geshruuni, the Javreh Captain from Chapter 1. A safe bet to confirm even with sending for a Mysunsai Sorcerer. He is so rattled, he sends Conphas personally.
Achamian isn’t sure if Conphas is terribly strong or has a lack in his personality. Conphas is a narcissist. Everything revolves around him and it breeds his arrogance. The fact that he has physical perfection, a tactical mind, and the power as the heir of the Nansur Empire only fosters it. His no doubt sexual relationship with his Grandmother and her shaping of him at a young edge no doubt led to this.
Achamian is not smart enough not to go into the dungeons of Xerius without an answer. Again, the Ikureis’ reputation proceeds them.
Achamian comments that mercenaries are rarely gifted souls from the previous chapter apply to the Mysunsai’s reputation. Of course, Achamian says he himself joins the Holy War for mercenary reasons, but his isn’t for money so maybe that is the difference.
As they walk into the mountain the Andiamine Heights is built upon, Achamian feels its weight above him. That is a creepy feeling if you’ve ever been underground. Of course, we walk into skyscrapers, man-made mountains, and don’t have that same reaction. It is purely psychological and speaks to the deepest fears in all of us—being trapped.
It appears that Conphas wasn’t expecting Achamian to be so perceptive, but a fool easily manipulated. Bringing up Kellhus, out of nowhere, is extremely clumsy, alerting Achamian immediately to the connection. By thinking less of of the Mandate, Conphas underestimates Achamian and gives away too much information.
Skeaös’s strange, many-voiced tone isn’t shocking. He is a mimic. He would be capable of producing the entire range of human speech. He can shape his body so he probably has control over his vocal cords.
Xerius does enjoy it when people give him the respect he needs. He might not understand why he was moved to graciousness, but he wants answers and Achamian is here to deliver. He is showing to the other sorcerers “This is how you treat me, as a god. And then I am benevolent in return.”
The Consult definitely hates the Mandate. Looks like they passed that on to their skin spies. Remember the pleasure Sarcellus took in striking Achamian the day he met Inrau at the tavern. At the time, it’s played off as Sarcellus enjoying beating an arrogant low-caste, but it wasn’t. He enjoyed striking his enemy.
Skeaös had the strength to free himself from the chains. He just didn’t care to until Achamian was there and he saw his enemy. These skin spies are so dangers and powerful. Far stronger than any normal human.
We see the skin spies unveiled now. Like Kellhus speculated, fingers simulating a face. And it is horrifying. Note how Xerius will remember this till the day he dies. I’m sure he will.
Also, the Consult use a from of the Gnosis. They Synthese had the Mark deep on him when Inrau so him. And yet the skin spies are not created by sorcery. They are the first hint we get of the Consult’s other skills.
Xerius is very dismissive of the No God, calling him Mog instead of Mog-Pharau. There you are, dismissing and belittling. No wonder Xerius never discovers the second skin spy in his court until it’s too late.
Conphas is clearly shaken by the events.
Xerius deduction of the Cishaurim is fair. There has been no sign of the Consult for 300 years. Even Mandate sorcerers like Achamian had lost faith in their mandate.
Poor Xerius. He can never have that moment where he feels like a genius. Some one, usually his mother, is there to let the hot air out of his swollen head.
Interesting that the eyes of the dead bull’s head reminds Esmenet of Sarcellus. She knows something is off in the man, smart enough to detect the wrongness but doesn’t have Kellhus trained perception to identify it.
Esmenet has a preference for tall, muscular Norsirai men “muscle trees” as clients. We’ll see this again in the second series.
Esmenet needs secrecy because she’s scared. As much as she wants to see Achamian, she spent that time with Sarcellus and she feels guilty. She knows he won’t understand, will be angry, and she’s delaying the confrontation.
Interesting how she thinks of the World Souls as locked into a great wheel of great events. They are chained to fate. Slaves to the Darkness that Comes Before.
Esmenet’s low self-esteem rears its head again as she gazes at the fire. We’ve all had those moments, outsiders looking at the warm fire, wishing we were included while too afraid to march up for fear of rejection. It is easier to skulk in the shadows and hide.
It is interesting how Kellhus puts her at ease simply by going off with Xinemus and urinating. I wonder what he made of the woman watching them. He felt it was important enough to ease her fright. Was he curious at her purpose in hiding and watching or did he recognize her from Achamian’s talk about Esmenet?
Easement may not love Sarcellus, but she liked that he loved her and to realize how little he cares for her stings her and shakes her up. As a whore, she prides herself on reading men. And she has read him badly. She clings to the idea he was ordered to discard her because of the rumors, it flatters her ego more than the truth that he doesn’t care. But he’s not human, so she wouldn’t be able to.
Esmenet has a lot of guilt over her daughter Mimara’s death. “Would that she hated!… Hated and lived.” We’ll learn more about Mimara’s fate, but it has to do with the famine and Esmenet nearly staving to death.
Poor Esmenet. She picked the wrong time to run into Achamian. He’s in shock from what happened with the Emperor. He does love you, Esmenet.
Esmenet’s realization that she is her own woman, unlike all those others the old whore named. Her profession has given her freedom. She doesn’t have to rely on one man to take care of her, slave to his whim. She can go out and make her fortune, using the men as they use her. She walks off into the camp back to the life she left in Sumna.
What a sad place to leave off Esmenet’s story until book 2, at her lowest point, rejected by both the men she thought loved her.