Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
Welcome to Chapter Four of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Three!
To be ignorant and to be deceived are two different things. To be ignorant is to be a slave of the world. To be deceived is to be slave of another man. The question will always be: When, when all men are ignorant, and therefore already slaves, does this later slavery sting us so?
—Ajencis, the Epistemologies
But despite stories of Fanim atrocities, the fact of the matter is that the Kianene, heathen or no, were surprisingly tolerant of Inrithi pilgrimages to Shimeh—before the Holy War, that is. Why would a people devoted to the destruction of the Tusk extend this courtesy to “idolaters”? Perhaps they were partially motivated by the prospect of trade, as others have suggested. But the fundamental motive lies in their desert heritage. The Kianene word for a holy place is si’ihkhalis, which means, literally, “great oasis.” On the open desert it is their strict custom to never begrudge travelers water, even if they be enemies.
—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War
The quote from Ajencis ties into what the Dûnyain says in the prologue and is one of the themes of the series. So long as men are ignorant, they are slaves to what came before. When someone lies they can get you to believe things that are wrong, to do things for the wrong reasons, I can see how that could be a type of slavery. And of course it would sting more, because being lied to is a purposeful act. The world doesn’t conspire to enslave with ignorance. It just happens.
The Achamian quote just provides some background on the Kianene and a great way to add world building. Water is a big deal to the Kianene. Their Cishaurim sorcerer-priests are known as the Water-Bearers of Indara.
The Holy War of the Inrithi against the Fanim was declared by Maithanet, the 116th Shriah of the Thousand Temples, on the Morn of Ascension in 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk. The day had been unseasonably hot, as though the God himself had blessed the Holy War with a premonition of summer. Indeed the Three Seas buzzed with rumors of omens and visions, all of which attested to the sanctity of the task that lay before the Inrithi.
Word spreads through the Inrithi nations of the Holy War. The Shrial and Cultic priests preach against the Fanim. In markets and taverns, people gossiped about which lords have declared for the Holy War. Children play at Holy War. The faithful proclaimed their desire to cleans Shimeh and kneel where the Latter Prophet walked.
The lords declared themselves Men of the Tusk and summoned their knights. Trivial wars were forgotten and lands were mortgaged. Great fleets of ships gathered to take the armies to Momemn were the Holy War was to gather.
Maithanet had called, and the entire of the Three Seas had answered. The back of the heathen would be broken. Holy Shimeh would be cleansed.
I always like these sort of omniscient overviews of an area. It lets us see how people are reacting to the Holy War. Loved the veterans in taverns arguing who’s lord was more pious. And this is a rather telling quote about the piety of the average man: “The Thousand Temples issued edicts stating that those who profited from the absence of any great lord who had taken up the Tusk would be tried for heresy in ecclesiastical courts and summarily executed. Thus assured of their birthrights, princes, earls, palatines, and lords of every nation declared themselves Men of the Tusk.”
Their self-interests protected, they do not have a problem joining the holy war. A shrewd move on the part of Maithanet. For someone who is such a holy person, he has a shred understanding of the true nature of humans.
Mid-Spring, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, Sumna
Esmenet watches Achamian sniff a prune before eating it and is reminded of her dead daughter sniffing an apple. The apple’s vendor saw the tattoo an Esmenet’s left hand and she knew he wouldn’t sell to a prostitute. Esmenet told her daughter no. Esmenet’s eyes tear up at this memory as regret for her dead daughter, Mimara, fills her.
Achamian had been staying with Esmenet for a while now. Long enough for them to almost feel married. Esmenet realizes that being a spy is a lot of waiting and Achamian waited here. They had fallen into a routine and would spend the day talking and joking. Eventually, a customer would arrive and Achamian, slightly hurt, would leave to get drunk. When he returned, he would try to appear happy and a pang of sadness would strike Esmenet.
What was it she felt? Many things, it seemed. Pity for him, certainly. In the midst of strangers, Achamian always looked so lonely, so misunderstood. No one, she would often think, know him the way I do. There was also relief that he’d returned—returned to her, even though he had gold enough to buy far younger whores. A selfish sorrow, that one. And shame. Shame because she knew that he loved her, and that every time she took custom it bruised his heart.
But what choice did she have?
Achamian would never enter her room if he thought she had a customer. Once, she was badly beaten and just crawled to bed afterward instead of waiting at the window for Achamian. In the morning, she found Achamian sleeping in front of her door. She knew then that he loved her.
Theirs was a strange marriage, if it could be called that. A marriage of outcasts sanctified by inarticulate vows. A sorcerer and a whore. Perhaps a certain desperation was to be expected of such unions, as though that strange word, “love,” became profound in proportion to the degree on was scorned by others.
Achamian tried to find the man that hurt her, and though she protested that this was part of business, she was secretly thrilled. Esmenet suspects he still searches for the man. Esmenet thinks Achamian wants to murder all her customs. Achamian wants Esmenet to himself, but Esmenet has to continue seeing her clients because Achamian will eventually leave her and her regulars will have found new prostitutes.
There is a knock at the door and Inrau enters the hovel. Inrau has important news and is afraid he may have been followed. Achamian tells Inrau not to worry, even priests visit prostitutes and no one will think it unusual. Inrau, uncomfortable with this subject, asks Esmenet for confirmation.
“They’re much like sorcerers that way,” she said wryly.
Achamian shot her a lock of mock indignation, and Inrau laughed nervously.
Esmenet sees the childlike qualities of Inrau and understands why Achamian fears for the young man. Inrau’s news is the Scarlet Spire has joined the Holy War. Inrau heard this from an Orate of the College of Luthymae. Maithanet offered six Chorae as a gesture of good will and the College controls the Temple’s Chorae and had to be told the reason.
Achamian is excited by this news and starts to explain the Scarlet Spire to Esmenet. Achamian likes to explain things, even if his audience knows the information. His explanation is interrupted by his realization that the Temples gave six Trinkets to a School of blasphemers. Esmenet ponders why she loves Achamian and thinks when she is with Achamian, her small, sordid world becomes so much larger.
Trinkets. This reminded Esmenet that despite the wonder, Achamian’s world was exceedingly deadly. Ecclesiastical law dictated that prostitutes, like adulteresses, be punished by stoning. The same, she reflected, was true of sorcerers, except there was just one kind of stone that could afflict them, and it need touch them only once. Thankfully, there were few Trinkets. The world, on the other hand, was filled with stones for harlots.
Inrau asks why Maithanet would pollute the Holy War with the Scarlet Spire. Achamian explains that a School would be needed to fight the Cishaurim. The forces of Kian would protect the Cishaurim from Chorae troop. The Scarlet Spire is the best school for the task. Inrau hates the Scarlet Spire, and Esmenet knows the Mandate hate the Spire for their envy of the Gnosis. Ikurei Xerius III, the Emperor, has been trying to co-opt the Holy War using his control of the Imperial Saik. Maithanet has blocked this attempt by allying with the Scarlet Spire.
Then a question occurred to her.
“Shouldn’t—“ Esmenet began, but she paused when the two men looked at her strangely. “Shouldn’t the question be, Why have the Scarlet Spires accepted Maithanet’s offer? What could induce a School to join a Holy War? They make for odd bedfellows, don’t you think? Not so long ago, Akka, you feared that the Holy War would be declared against the Schools.”
There was a moment of silence. Inrau smiled as though amused by his own stupidity. From this moment on, Esmenet realized, Inrau would look upon her as an equal in these matters. Achamian, however, would remain aloof, the judge of all questions. As was proper, perhaps, given his calling.
Achamian explains about what he learned about the Scarlet Spires secret war against the Cishaurim. This is their chance to conclude the war. Another reason is none of the schools understand the Psûkhe, the metaphysics of the Cishaurim. All the schools, Mandate included, are terrified by not being able to see Cishaurim sorcerery. Esmenet asks why that is so terrifying. Achamian criticizes her question and, annoyed, Esmenet asks Inrau if this is what Achamian is like when he teaches.
“You mean fault the question rather than the answer” Inrau said darkly. “All the time.”
But Achamian’s expression darkened. “Listen. Listen to me carefully. This isn’t a game we play. Any of us—but especially you, Inrau—could end up with out heads boiled in salt, tarred, and posted before the Vault-of-the-Tusk. And there’s more at stake than even our lives. Far more.”
Esmenet is shocked by the reprimand. She had forgotten the depths of Achamian. She remembers holding him in the night as he dreams, crying out in strange languages. Achamian tries to confront Inrau on the possibility that Maithanet has connections to the Consult. Inrau flares up with anger, saying Maithanet is worthy of devotion and this is just a fool’s errand.
Esmenet realizes something important as they argue. Achamian sees the expression on her face and realizes she has an insight and asks her what it is. Esmenet points out the Scarlet Spire hid their war from the Mandate for ten years, how did Maithanet find out? Achamian agrees with Esmenet, Maithanet would never approach the Scarlet Spire unless he knew they would agree. Inrau argues the Thousand Temple could have learned the same way Achamian had. Achamian concedes Inrau’s point as a small possibility, but thinks Maithanet needs to be closely watched.
Inrau looked momentarily at Esmenet before turning his plaintive eyes to his mentor. “I can’t do what you ask … I can’t.”
“You just get close to Maithanet, Inrau. Your Shriah is altogether to canny.”
“What?” the young priest said with half-heated sarcasm. “To canny to be a man of faith?”
Not at all, my friend. Too canny to be what he seems.”
They way women are treated in the three seas is appalling. The fact that Esmenet thinks getting beaten by a customer is just part of business and that she has absolutely no legal recourse is terrible. And the fact that her remembering of scripture says that adulteress get stoned to death, which it makes it sound like the man committing adultery with her gets off with either no or a less sever punishment. We also are given the comparison with whores and sorcerers. They are both outcasts in society, but useful outcasts. Even in Sumna, the center of this worlds equivalent to the Catholic church, Esmenet makes a living selling her body to priests, pilgrims, and soldiers.
In the last chapter we got Achamian’s view on their relationship. He suspects that her affection is just an act, that she pretends to care for him because that’s what she does for a living. Here we learn that she does love Achamian, but she knows that he will leave her eventually. His mission is more important than their relationship. She has to keep seeing her customers to be able to survive. It’s sad.
Esmenet’s banter with Achamian’s morning bowel movements is hilarious.
Esmenet’s life is so dreary that she loves it when Achamian visits, and may be what she loves about the man. When he is around, he tells her of far off places, of intrigue of lords. She gets to vicariously live through his stories.
Inrau’s blushing realization that priest visit prostitutes is funny. Particularly when Esmenet compares them to sorcerer’s.
Achamian must trust Esmenet. He has no problems discussing Mandate business in front of her with Inrau. He also respects her opinion. He knows she is intelligent. It is a terrible shame that Esmenet never was able to receive an education. She has a keen mind and is the first to realize the implications of Inrau’s news.
Esmenet’s insight on Maithanet and the Scarlet Spire is troubling. How does Maithanet know? There’s a lot of suspicious things going on with him. He’s one of the Few, but without the Mark of ever practicing sorcery, he came from Kian, and he knows of the very secret Scarlet Spire-Cishaurim war.
Late Spring, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, Sumna
Inrau is in the Hagerna, reeling from a secret he has learned about the Shriah. Inrau is conflicted by his faith and the debt he owes Achamian for saving his life when he left the Mandate. How can he repay Achamian by risking his own life? It seem wrong to Inrau. He feels he should give another gift, but obligation compels him
Conflicted, Inrau heads to the Irreüma, where small shrines to the Cultic gods resided. Inrau goes to shrine of Onkis, the Singer-in-the-Dark, a goddess of knowledge. Inrau cries before her. Inrau wonders if Onkis would forgive him for returning to the Mandate.
The idol was worked in white marble, eyes closed with the sunken look of the dead. At first glance she appeared to be the severed head of a woman, beautiful yet vaguely common, mounted on a pole. Anything more than a glance, however, revealed the pole to be a miniature tree, like those cultivated by the ancient Norsirai, only worked in bronze. Branches poked through her parted lips and swept across her face—nature reborn through human lips. Other branches reached behind to break through her frozen hair. Her image never failed to stir something within him, and this is why he always returned to her: she was this stirring, the dark place where the flurries of his thought arose. She came before him.
Inrau leaves on offering of food. Everything cast a shadow on the Outside, where the Gods moved, including his offering. He pulls out his list of ancestors and prays to them for intercession. Inrau cries out for the goddess to answer him and is met with only silence. Inrau thinks he should run.
The silence is broken by the sound of flapping wings up in the clerestory. Thinking it is a sign from Onkis, he heads up stairs to investigate. He wonders onto a balcony, exited that Onkis was communicating with him.
“Where are you?” he whispered.
Then he saw it, and horror throttled him.
It stood a short distance away, perched on the railing, watching him with shiny blue eyes. It had the body of a crow, but its head was small, bald, and human—about the size of a child’s fist. Stretching thin lips over tiny, perfect teeth, it smiled.
A parody of surprise flashed across the miniature face. “You know what I am,” it said in a papery voice. “How?” can’t-be-cannot-be-Consult-here-no-no-no
Cutias Sarcellus, the Knight-Commander from the last chapter, steps out of the shadows with another Shrial Knight and explains Inrau is Achamian’s student. Inrau is stunned that Sarcellus is consorting with a Consult Synthese. Inrau whirls to flee and is cut off by a second Shrial Knight: Mujonish. Inrau sees the signs of sorcery on the bird, the Synthese, binding a soul to the vessel.
“He knows this form is but a shell,” the Synthese said to Sarcellus, “but I don’t see Chigra within him.” The pea-sized eyes—little beads of sky blue glass—turned to Inrau. “Hmm, boy? You don’t dream the Dream like the others, do you? If you did, you would recognize me. Chigra never failed to recognize me.
Inrau realizes prayers are useless and struggles to remember his Mandate training. He asks what the Synthese wants to buy time. The Synthese answers the same thing Inrau was doing in Maithanet’s apartment; overseeing our affairs. The two Shrial Knights and the Synthese close upon Inrau. Inrau remembers his training.
Inrau sense Mujonish looming behind him. Prayer seized his tongue. Blasphemy tumbled from his lips.
Turning with sorcerous speed, he punched two fingers through Mujonish’s chain mail, cracked his breastbone, then seized his heart. He yanked his hand free, drawing a cord of glittering blood into the air. More impossible words. The blood burst into incandescent flame, followed his sweeping hand toward the Synthese. Shrieking, the creature dove from the railing into emptiness. Blinding beads of blood cracked bare stone.
He would have turned to Sarcellus, but the sight of Mujonish stilled him. The Shrial Knight had stumbled to his knees, wiping his bloody hands on his surcoat. Then, as though spilling from a bladder, his face simply fell apart, dropping outward, unclutching…
No mark. Not the faintest whisper of sorcery.
Distracted, Inrau is struck by Sarcellus. Inrau tries to use ghostly wards but they are useless. Sarcellus has a Chorae. Sarcellus grabs Inrau and touches the Chorae to his cheek. Part of Inrau’s cheek turns to salt. Inrau focus on the Synthese and prepares to unleash another attack on it. The Synthese conjures light that breaks through Inrau’s wards and pierces Inrau’s chest.
Inrau is drowning in his own blood. The Synthese watches him die. Inrau thinks of Achamian and of Onkis, struggling to breath. Inrau collapses and is hauled up to his knees by Sarcellus and brought face to face with the Synthese. The Synthese taunts him, saying he is an old name and could show him the Agonies. Inrau asks, “Why?”
Again the thin, tiny smile. “You worship suffering. Why do you think?”
Monumental rage filled him. It didn’t understand! It didn’t understand. With a coughing roar, he lurched forward, yanking his hair from his scalp. The Synthese seemed to flicker out of his path, but it wasn’t its death he sought. Any price, old teacher. The stone rail slammed against his hips, broke like cake. Again he was floating, but it was so different—air whipping across his face, bathing his body. With a single outstretched hand, Paro Inrau followed a pillar to the earth.
Goodbye, Inrau. You did not deserve to die.
Whatever Inrau learned in searching Maithanet’s quarters had nothing to do with the Consult. My first read through that’s what I actually thought. But, Inrau is surprised to see the Synthese. If he learned Maithanet was connected to the Consult, this would not be surprising. Inrau killed himself to avoid torture, but also because he realized the Synthese did not know what he knew about Maithanet and thought it was important to prevent the Consult from learning and to protect Achamian.
Inrau makes a good point on debt repayment. If you saved someone life and they owe you, how can they repay that back with their own death. It defeats the purpose of saving the person in the first place.
Inrau revealed more of these abominations hiding in the Shrial Knights. Sarcellus referred to the Synthese as Old Father, implying the Synthese created him. We have our confirmation that the abominations are skin spies and why Sarcellus took such delight in hitting Achamian—the Mandate are his enemy.
Poor Inrau. You went out swinging though. And ripping out a monsters heart and turning his blood into liquid flames, that was pretty badass. Not bad for a guy who never actually used sorcery before. Shame Sarcellus had his Chorae.
Careful readers will note that Inrau did not die from being touched by a Chorae. A Chorae turns a sorcerer into salt, but the speed at which it does depends on how much sorcery they have performed. Inrau had only just now used Sorcery for the first time. He had been trained right to the point of using sorcery, but never crossed the line. Achamian would be killed almost instantly, and nonman sorcerers, like the one we meet in the prologue, could have his skin turned to salt just coming near a Chorae.
Achamian feared this would happen. He hadn’t been told of the spy in Atyersus. An Old Name is in the Synthese. It is a construct, like the abominations, and the Old Name’s soul is projected onto it. It does limit the creature’s sorcery, which is why it points out it still has the power to hurt Inrau.