Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
Reason, Ajencis writes, is the capacity to overcome unprecedented obstacles in the gratification of desire. What distinguishes man from beasts is man’s capacity to overcome infinite obstacles through reason.
But Ajencis has confused the accidental for the essential. Prior to the capacity to overcome infinite obstacles is the capacity to confront them. What defines man is not that he reasons, but that he prays.
—Ekyannus I, 44 Epistles
Spirituality is what separates men from beasts. Intelligent mammals, such as chimpanzees, can use reason to overcome obstacles. Yet you never see chimpanzees build shrines, paint pictures, or sculpt statues. Though Ajencis point that reason is the capacity to overcome obstacle to gratify desires. Humans can use reason to commit any act, especially if that reason is used to self-deluded and find excuses for the acts you are committing.
Late Winter, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Sumna
Prince Nersei Proyas is being rowed ashore in heavy seas to the coast of the Nansurium. Awaiting him is Xinemus. Proyas is excited to finally reach the Holy War and fearing he is the last Great Name to arrive. Though Proyas was the first to kiss Maithanet’s knee, politics in his home land had delayed his arrival.
Politics, he thought sourly. It was not, as the philosopher Ajencis had written, the negotiation of advantage within communities of men; it was more an absurd auction than an exercise in oratory. One bartered principle and piety to accomplish what principle and piety demanded. One sullied himself in order to be cleansed.
The voyage across the Meneanor was plague with storms. Proyas’s fleet was blown off course, almost as far south as Shimeh. Proyas did not appreciate that bit of irony when he learned how close he was. In the end, five hundred of his men were lost to the storms. As Proyas rowboat approached shore, a wave upturns the boat and dumps Proyas and his men into the ocean. Soaking wet, Proyas steps onto the shore and falls onto his knees in and prays for success in the Holy War.
Proyas warmly greets Xinemus and from his marshal’s dower disposition, Proyas knows the Emperor has caused some grief. Proyas asks why Calmemunis isn’t here to greet him and is stunned to learn that Calmemunis is dead as are all those who marched with him. Proyas fears the Holy War is doomed if the heathens could wipe out 100,000 men. Xinemus explains Xerius’s price for his Indenture and apologizes for not being able to stop Calmemunis.
“But still,” Xinemus said, “I cannot help feeling there’s more I could’ve done.”
Proyas shrugged. “Saying ‘I could have done more,’ Zin, is what marks a man as a man and not a God.” He snorted ruefully. “Actually, it was Achamian who told me that.” Xinemus smiled wanly.
“And me as well . . . A most wise fool, that Achamian.”
And wicked . . . a blasphemer. How I wish you’d remember that, Zin.
“A wise fool, indeed.”
Proyas questions Xinemus on everything that has happened as his soldiers begin to unload from the fleet. Soon, an imperial delegate approaches led by Conphas. Proyas tries not to be awed by Conphas’s appearance and reputation. Conphas and Proyas exchange pleasantries and Conphas wants Proyas to understand the Empire is not responsible for Calmemunis foolishness.
Conphas then invites Proyas to meet with Xerius on the Andiamine Heights to speak of the Indenture. Proyas insist on speaking with Gotian, Grandmaster of the Shrial Knights and Maithanet’s representative in Momemn. Proyas and Conphas verbally spar on the subject of the Emperor’s Indenture with Conphas’s taking the position that his ancestors died for that land and Proyas arguing that his men will die taking it back.
Proyas feels he lost his argument with Conphas. Without the Empire, the Holy War may be doomed. Conphas departs, leaving Proyas to oversee the disembarkation of his men. Xinemus then tells Proyas one last news, “Drusas Achamian is here.”
Achamian awaits Xinemus’s return at the camp fire, alone. Since arriving, Achamian had been spying on the Scarlet Spire. He located the Scarlet Spires camp, and hired children to keep on eye on it for him. His attempt to ingratiate himself with merchants who supply the Spire failed.
Achamian’s grief for Inrau drives him to strong drinks and drugs to “deaden his heart.” However, the drugs blur the edges between trances and the Dreams, so he stops that. He spends his days reading the few books Xinemus brought or wandering through the camps or Momemn. Eventually, he would find the whores and tried not to think of Esmi as he lies with them. In the evening, he passed the time with Xinemus and his officers, joking and gossiping.
That morning, Xinemus rode out to meet Proyas, promising to tell the prince that Achamian need to speak to him. As the day drags on, Achamian starts drinking and remembers Proyas as a child. Finally, near dusk, Xinemus returns and sadly informs Achamian that Proyas refuses to ever see Achamian.
A few days later, Achamian is in the Kamposea Agora, a famous market in Momemn shopping for supplies to cook dinner, and thinks he is being followed by, thinking the man is a Scarlet Spire spy or possibly the College of Luthymae. Achamian debates leading his shadow to an alley to confront him and decides he wants some answers.
Achamian leads the shadow through the market, passing animals for sacrifices, and a women in a window who reminds him of Esmenet. Between two mud, bricked building, is a narrow alley. Achamian enters and prepares a Cant to capture the man.
Time dragged, and there was no sign of the man and Achamian gives up his plan and stalks out of the alley, angry. Achamian heads back to the marketplace to continue his shopping.
He had learned nothing of the Scarlet Spires, even less of Maithanet and the Thousand Temples, and Proyas still refused to meet with him. Since he could find no new books to read, and Xinemus had taken to upbraiding him for his drunkenness, Achamian had decided to revisit an old passion of his. He would cook. All sorcerers had studied alchemy to some extent, and all alchemists, at least those worth their salt, knew how to cook.
Xinemus thought that he degraded himself, that cooking was for women and slaves, but Achamian knew different. Xinemus and his officers would scoff until they tasted, and then they would accord him a quiet honour, as they would any other skilled practitioner of an ancient art. Finally Achamian would be more than the blasphemous beggar at their table. Their souls might be imperiled, but at least their appetites would be gratified.
After buying his supplies, he spots the shadow again and drops everything, literally, to follow him. Achamian follows the man through the crowd, preparing Cants of Compulsion. He finally reaches the man, grabs him and turns him around only to see a different face. Achamian is dumbstruck, certain he followed the right man. Achamian doesn’t see the bruise of sorcerery on the man and thinks he made a mistake.
For a nightmarish moment Achamian could only stumble along with the crowd. He cursed himself for dropping his food.
No matter. Cooking was for slaves anyway.
The story jumps to Esmenet sitting at Sarcellus’s fire at his Holy War camp outside Momemn. Sarcellus was second in command of the Shrial Knights after Incheiri Gotian, and as such he had a large pavilion for his camp. Two slave girls now attended Esmenet. They cook, bathe, and dress her in fine clothing.
Esmenet still has trouble believing her good fortune. Sarcellus was showering her with gifts, and it made it hard for her to remember why she really set out for Momemn. Esmenet is falling love with her new lifestyle. She learns he is inquisitive man, more even than Achamian, and seemed to find “her tawdry life as exotic as she found his.”
Without warning, Sarcellus stepped from the darkness. He possessed, Esmenet had decided, a disturbing affinity to the night, as though he walked with rather than through it. And this despite his white Shrial vestments.
He paused, stared at her wordlessly.
“He doesn’t love you, you know. Not really.”
Esmenet ignores the statement, and asks if he found Achamian. Sarcellus tells her where his camp is, near the Ancilline Gate. Sarcellus asks Esmenet why she still wants Achamian. For the first time, Esmenet saw cruelty in the handsome features of Sarcellus. Esmenet says she loves Achamian.
It took Esmenet days to understand Sarcellus. What she finally realized is that he was a caste noble (kjineta) not caste menial (suthenti) like her and Achamian. As a noble, he was never impoverished, never lived in fear of famines, seasons, others, and thus possessed a self-assurance that Achamian lacked. “Where Achamian was ignorant of the answers, Sarcellus was ignorant of the questions.”
There was a time on the journey to Sarcellus that she feared she was falling in love. But she realized she loved feeling safe. She couldn’t tell Sarcellus this, he wouldn’t understand. Sarcellus presses her, explaining that Achamian could never love her, he’s a Mandate Schoolman. She protests, saying Sarcellus doesn’t understand. Sarcellus asks her what role she plays in his delusions.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re his tether, Esmi. He’s fastened on you because you bind him to what’s real. But if you go to him, cast away your life and go to him, you’ll simply be one of two ships at sea. Soon, very soon, you’ll lose sight of shore. His madness will engulf you. You’ll awaken to find his fingers about your throat, the name of someone long, long dead ringing in your—”
“I said enough, Sarcellus!”
Sarcellus accuses her of believing Mandate nonsense about the Consult and the Second Apocalypse. When he realizes she does, he calms a down and asks her what her plans are. Mandate Schoolmen are forbidden wives and mistresses. Esmenet knows that she could only ever be his whore. Sarcellus points out that eventually he will be called away, forced to leave her.
She looked to the fire. Tears traced burning lines across her cheeks.
The POV shifts to the thing mascaraing as Sarcellus. His mind is full of disturbing images of sex and violence, and he fakes a tender apology to Esmenet for making her cry. He desire nothing more than to have sex with her, the same place the “Architect” had been. Sarcellus starts to drag her into the pavilion, but she protests, saying she needs to think. He relents, enters alone, and fantasizes about what he would do to her.
“Ah, yes,” a small voice said. “The promise of release.” A breath, as though drawn through a reed. “I stand among your makers, and yet the genius of your manufacture still moves me to incredulity.”
The Synthese is in the pavilion and Sarcellus calls it both father and architect, asking if the time has come. The Synthese says soon, calling Sarcellus, Maëngi. The Synthese wing caresses Maëngi’s chest and he shudders in pleasure. The Synthese asks if Esmenet revealed anything about her night with the Synthese. Maëngi says no and this confirms to the Synthese that she’s a “student of the game.”
The Synthese orders Maëngi to continue to watch her and not to kill her as long as she doesn’t run to Achamian. Maëngi then tells the Synthese what another skin-spy, Gaörtha, told him. That Achamian spotted Gaörtha tailing him in the market and almost caught him, but Gaörtha was “able to shift skins.”
The Synthese hopped to the mahogany lip of the table. Though it seemed as light as hollow bones and bundled papyrus, it bore the intimation of something immense, as if a leviathan rolled through waters at right angles to everywhere. Light bled from its eyes.
Roared through what passed for Maëngi’s soul.
Shattering whatever thoughts, whatever passions he might call his own.
Crushing even the unquenchable hunger, the all-encompassing ache . . . Eyes like twin Nails of Heaven. Laughter, wild with a thousand years of madness.
SHOW ME, MAËNGI . . .
Wings fanned before him, blotting the lanterns, leaving only a small white face against black, a frail mouthpiece for something terrible, mountainous.
SHOW ME YOUR TRUE FACE.
The thing called Sarcellus sensed the fist of his expression slacken then part…
Like Esmenet’s legs.
Spring arrived, and all the talk in the Holy War camps is on the Emperor’s Indenture and the fate of the Vulgar Holy War. The longer it drags out the more Men of the Tusk speak of the Indenture as it was nothing but a piece of paper, of no consequence if signed. It would gain them provisions and the great Ikurei Conphas to lead them. Why, then, did Maithanet hesitate unless he feared the heathens?
Meneanor’s heavy seas have robbed Proyas of his dramatic arrival to the Holy War, standing upright at the prow of his boat, like Washington crossing the Potomac. In the end, the Meneanor had different ideas. Poor Proyas, not a good start to your Holy War. And then he discovers the fate of the Vulgar Holy War. Things are not starting off good. This is a very post-modern scene, turning a traditional, heroic poise on its head, showing how nature has no concern with pomp and theatrics. It also shows us, as we see in Proyas’s thoughts, that the holy war is anything to aspire to.
As Proyas has come to realize, to do something “holy” requires doing a lot of unholy things to get people to cooperate. Politics ever dirties those that participate, even reluctantly like Proyas. We also see a different side of Conphas. Not trying, outwardly, to dominate. He treats Proyas as an equal.
Achamian is drowning in his guilt, still. Without anything really to occupy him, he turns to self-destructive vices. It is sad reading this. The irony is that Inrau wasn’t killed for being a mandate spy, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As we later learn, the Consult would have wanted to know what Inrau had discovered about Maithanet. We are led to believe that Maithanet is a Consult ally, but is that the case?
Apparently, Proyas likes to draw phallus when he was a boy. I still know guys that draw dicks on everything. I like what Bakker does with that paragraph, it starts with Achamian telling Proyas that he should read more and ends with him finding Proyas in the library drawing phallus in boredom.
Achamian cooking plan sound like the plot to romantic comedy. He’s going to win their love with cooking but then an obstacle happens and then his chasing the wrong man through a crowd like a crazy person, forgetting his food, and ruining his chance. Achamian’s boast about cooking also calls back to something Conphas observed on the march back from his victory over the Scylvendi that sorcerers always fancy themselves better mathematicians than the mathematicians and better geographers than the geographers.
Achamian was using a brass plate as a mirror to watch the spy. Clever technique. Being followed is very routine thing for Achamian. Shame Achamian doesn’t know about skin-spies because he almost caught one.
Achamian sees Xerius new obelisk from Chapter 7 being installed at the temple-complex of Cmiral and notes its smaller than the older obelisks. Come on, Xerius. How are you going to pull of your plan if your phallic symbol isn’t the biggest. I’m very disappointed.
Esmenet is also in a very traditional story that is twisted by Bakker. “She had journeyed to find a sorcerer, only to be rescued by a knight.” Of course, this knight isn’t the virtuous and heroic knight of tales, but a creature of lusts and murders. When we switch to his POV he’s thinking about killing then raping Esmenet.
Esmenet catches the slave girls giving her fearful glances and she both loves and hates that they do that. Who doesn’t love power over others or are hurt by being excluded. This sounds like the Three Seas equivalent of white people problems.
I do love this observation she makes of Sarcellus: “Where Achamian was ignorant of the answers, Sarcellus was ignorant of the questions. No certitude, she [Esmenet] thought, could be greater.” Asking questions is never a sign of folly.
Esmenet’s exchange with Sarcellus is heartbreaking. She knows if she ever finds Achamian, he will just leave her for the Mandate. She’s growing older and knows her beauty will fade and no one will want to pay for old whore. It’s terrible. No wonder she stays with Sarcellus. There is apparent safety with him.
Just apparent safety, though, as Sarcellus–Maëngi POV shows him thinking of raping her decapitated head. That is dark. The Consult really out did themselves in the Serial Killer skin-spy program. Some creepy and disturbing stuff.
Pleasure is a very strong motivation, just look at drug addicts. The Consult has harnessed this technique to make their skin-spies tractable. Just look how Sarcellus acts around the Synthese. He’s in ecstasy when the Synthese speaks directly to his soul.
Again, more reference to the Nails of Heaven. What is it? A star? The moon?
The last section is just a sort of day-to-day vignette of what the Holy War is like for the average joe. Lot of going to crazy religions ceremonies and then sitting around and gossiping about who’s wife is uglier, or why Nansur soldiers march in such tight formation (they like buggery is the consensus). Sentiments are turning towards the signing the Emperor’s Indenture. Time is Xerius’s great ally. The longer they sit around doing nothing, the more boredom will drive them to sign. And with that we come to the end of Part 3.by