Reread of the Darkness that Comes Before: Chapter Ten

Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy

Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before

by R. Scott Bakker

Part 3
The Harlot
Chapter 10
Sumna

Welcome to Chapter Ten of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Nine!

 How should one describe the terrible majesty of the Holy War? Even then, still unblooded, it was both frightening and wondrous to behold, a great beast whose limbs were composed of entire nations—Galeoth, Thunyerus, Ce Tydonn, Conriya, High Ainon, and the Nansurium—and with the Scarlet Spires as the dragon’s maw, no less. Not since the days of the Ceneian Empire or the Ancient North has the world witnessed such an assembly. Even diseased by politics, it was a thing of awe.

—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War

My Thoughts

“Even diseased by politics, it was a thing of awe,” is a great line. A nice passage to set up the Holy war and I do love the “dragon’s maw” line since one of the greatest Angogic Sorceries practiced by the Scarlet Spires is the Dragon’s Maw.

Midwinter, 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, Sumna

It is night now since Esmenet left Sumna on her journey to Momemn. At times she is intoxicated by the journey, running through grass and twirling “beneath the Nail of Heaven.” Other times she remembers the nauseating horror of the stranger and his black seed. Shame filled her, not the shame of betraying Achamian (who would understand), but the shame of enjoying her violation.

But not that night. The pleasure had been more intense than any she’d ever experienced. She had felt it. Gasped it. Shuddered it. But she had not owned it. Her body had been notched that night. And it shamed her to fury.

She often grew wet at the thought of his abdomen against her belly. Sometimes she flushed and tensed at the memory of her climaxes. Whoever he was, whatever he was, he had taken her body captive, had seized what was hers and remade it not in his own image, but in the image of what he needed her to be. Infinitely receptive. Infinitely docile. Infinitely gratified.

Esmenet realized that the stranger knew about Inrau and concluded that Inrau did not kill himself. Achamian almost broke thinking Inrau killed himself and this is the most important thing Esmenet needs to tell him. The Consult has appeared and murdered Inrau.

In the morning, she joins a group setting out from a hostel. A short time latter, the band on her sandal snapped and slowed her down. She’s forced to take off the sandal and walk with just a sock on. Soon, her sock is worn ragged and her foot pains her, forcing her to limp and fall farther and farther behind her group until she is alone.

Esmenet was talking the Karian Way to the Pon Way which lead to Momemn. Despite never looking at a map, Esmenet knew from her customers the best way to Momemn. As a prostitute, she sought out clients that had experienced the world, mostly soldiers, so that she could vicariously live through their experiences. She always questioned them, both flattering them and cajoling them to speak. Only Achamian ever saw the truth behind her questions.

“You do this with all your custom?” he [Achamian] once asked without warning.

She wasn’t shocked. Others had asked as much. “It comforts me to know my men are more than cocks.”

A half-truth. But true to form, Achamian was skeptical. He frowned, saying, “It’s a pity.”

This had stung, even though she had no idea what he meant. “What’s a pity?”

“That you’re not a man,” he replied. “If you were a man, you wouldn’t need to make teachers of everyone who used you.”

She had wept in his arms that night.

Thanks to her studies, she knew it was safest for a lone woman to take the Karian Way to the Pon Way to get to Momemn and that she would need to stay with a group. With her sandal broken, Esmenet could not keep up with her group and was becoming more frightened as she fell farther and farther behind.

Esmenet spies a village and hopes she can get her sandal repaired here. Esmenet hobbles into the village and starts looking for a cobbler. A group of five boys spot her and one walks up to her and asks if she is a whore, spotting the tattoo on her hand that marked her as one from Sumna. Esmenet tries to scare the boy off with soldier curses and strikes the boy when tries to grab her hand.

The boy she struck grabs a stone and throws it at her, and the other four boys follow suit. Esmenet, being pelted by stones, grabs her own and returns fire, hitting a fat boy in the face and drawing blood. The local village priest walks up to her and asks if she’s a whore. Esmenet sees the look in his eyes and realizes she’s in trouble. She lies, saying she’s not, and walks away.

“Do not walk away from me!” the old priest howled. “Do not walk away from me!”

She continued walking with what dignity she could muster.

“Suffer not a whore to live,” the old priest recited, “for she maketh a pit of her womb!”

Esmenet halted.

“Suffer not a whore to breathe,” the priest continued, his tone now gleeful, “for she mocks the seed of the righteous! Stone her so that thy hand shall not be tempt—”

Esmenet whirled. “Enough!” she exploded.

Stunned silence.

“I am damned!” she cried. “Don’t you see? I’m already dead! Isn’t that enough?”

A stone hits her in the back of the head, and a crowd forms around her and begins to stone her. Esmenet curls up, weeping, and tries to protect herself. She cries for help and then realizes the stones have stopped. A Shrial Knight has ridden up, demanding what is going on.

The priest starts to explain and the knight strikes him in the face. The priest protests and the knight begins to beat him. Esmenet struggles to her feat, bruised and bloodied and calms down. Finally, the knight finishes beating the priest and turns to Esmenet, introducing himself as Cutias Sarcellus, First Knight-Commander of the Shrial Knights.

The story jumps to Achamian as he moves through the camp of the Men of the Tusk and is amazed by how many men are gathered. He had climbed hills in the midst of camp and saw their campfire spread across the entire landscape. Achamian finally finds Krijates Xinemus’s camp, his old friend and Marshal of Attrempus. Xinemus and Achamian greet each other, hug, and joke with each other.

Xinemus helps Achamian set up his tent and care for his mule. The two exchange small talk and Achamian is a little embarrassed meeting his friend while on a mission and unsure if his presence in Xinemus camp will be a problem seeing as he’s an unclean sorcerer in the midst of a holy war. Xinemus doesn’t have a problem with it.

Xinemus asks about the Dreams, and Achamian changes the subject to the Scarlet Spire. Xinemus tells Achamian where the Scarlet Spire is camped and asks if he’s worried about them. Achamian explains how they covet the knowledge of Gnosis, saying “the Gnosis is iron to their bronze.”

Xinemus figures out that Achamian is here to spy on the Scarlet Spire and sees the pain in Achamian’s face about Inrau. Achamian wants to tell Xinemus everything, but can’t bring himself to. They return to Xinemus’s fire where three men waited. Two are captains, Dinchases and Zenkappa, and the third is Iryssas, Xinemus’s Majordomo.

Iryssas is uncomfortable with Achamian’s presence and Xinemus points out that the Scarlet Spire are part of the Holy War. Iryssas drunkenly insults Achamian and Xinemus kicks the fire at the man. The other two men apologize the Achamian for Iryssas behavior.

Iryssas scrambled back to his seat, his hair askew and his black beard streaked with ash. At once smiling and frowning, he leaned forward on his camp stool toward Achamian. He was bowing, Achamian realized, but was too lazy to lift his ass from his seat. “I do apologize,” he said, looking to Achamian with bemused sincerity. “And I do like you, Achamian, even though you are”—he shot a ducking look at his lord and cousin—“a damned sorcerer.”

Zenkappa began howling anew. Despite himself, Achamian smiled and bowed in return. Iryssas, he realized, was one of those men whose hatreds were far too whimsical to become the fixed point of an obsession. He could despise and embrace by guileless turns. Such men, Achamian had learned, inevitably mirrored the integrity or depravity of their lords.

Jokes are shared and for the first time in a while, Achamian laughs.

The next morning, Achamian joins Xinemus in a chess-like game called benjuka. The pair talk about the Holy War and Achamian reveals he was at the Hagerna when it was announced. Xinemus appeared annoyed that Achamian had been in the Hagerna and Achamian remembers how benjuka always causes the pair to bicker like “harem eunuchs.”

Achamian makes a bad move and Xinemus mocks him. Then he brings up Proyas and the disaster of the Vulgar Holy War. Achamian has heard of the march of the Vulgar Holy War but not its disasters end. Xinemus explains how Calmemunis feared Proyas’s arrival, knowing he would just be Proyas’s lapdog. Calmemunis was still angry that Proyas had him whipped for impiety at the Battle of Paremti a few years ago. Achamian is stunned, asking how far Proyas’s fanaticism has gone.

“Too far,” Xinemus said quickly, as though ashamed for his lord. “But for a brief time only. I was sorely disappointed in him, Akka. Heartbroken that the godlike child you and I had taught had grown to be a man of such . . . extremes.”

Proyas had been a godlike child. Over the four years he had spent as court tutor in the Conriyan capital of Aöknyssus, Achamian had fallen in love with the boy—even more than with his legendary mother. Sweet memories. Strolling through sunlit foyers and along murky garden paths, discussing history, logic, and mathematics, and answering a never-ending cataract of questions…

At the time, Xinemus was Proyas’s sword trainer. Achamian and Xinemus became friends through their tutelage of Proyas. Xinemus continues his story, explaining that he left the court in disgust over what Proyas had done. Proyas tracked him done and rebuked him for abandoning him. Proyas was in trouble, Calmemunis had protested his punishment. Achamian points out the Proyas just wanted his approval.

Xinemus continues, saying that after listening to Proyas’s rant, he gave Proyas a training sword and told Proyas to punish him. Proyas fought tenaciously and Xinemus soundly defeated him.

“The following morning he said nothing, avoided me like pestilence. But come afternoon he sought me out, his face bruised like apples. ‘I understand,’ he said. I asked him, ‘Understand what?’ ‘Your lesson,’ he replied. ‘I understand your lesson.’ I said, ‘Oh, and what lesson was that?’ And he said: ‘That I’ve forgotten how to learn. That life is the God’s lesson, and that even if we undertake to teach impious men, we must be ready to learn from them as well.’”

Achamian stared at his friend with candid awe. “Is that what you’d intended to teach him?”

Xinemus frowned and shook his head. “No. I just wanted to pound the arrogant piss out of him. But it sounded good to me, so I simply said, ‘Indeed, my Lord Prince, indeed,’ then nodded the sage way you do when you agree with someone you think isn’t as clever as you.”

Proyas returned to court and before his father, the king, offered to allow Calmemunis to whip him as compensation. Calmemunis agreed, and “lashed away his last shreds of honor.” This is the reason that a hundred thousand men are dead. Achamian makes a good move on benjuka plate and wonders if the death of the Vulgar Holy War was someone’s move.

Xinemus explains how the Emperor is capitalizing on the Vulgar Holy War’s destruction, pointing out the folly of marching without Ikurei Conphas. Achamian asks Xinemus his opinion on the politicking surrounding the Holy War. Xinemus is worried about Proyas’s reaction. All know of Proyas’s close relationship with Maithanet and the pious men are waiting to see how he’ll react. Xinemus fears that the Emperor will provoke Proyas into something rash.

Whether the Holy War fights for Inri Sejenus or Ikurei Xerius III depends on whether Proyas will be able to outmaneuver the Emperor. Achamian realizes how difficult it will be to tell Proyas that his beloved Shriah plays “some dark game.”

The chapter ends with Esmenet, sore from riding, in Sarcellus’s tent, sharing his bed. She sits up and Sarcellus asks if she’s thinking of Achamian.

“What of it?” she asked.

He smiled, and as always she found herself at once thrilled and unsettled. Something about his teeth maybe? Or his lips?

“Exactly,” he said. “Mandate Schoolmen are fools. Everyone in the Three Seas knows this… Do you know what the Nilnameshi say of women who love fools?”

She turned her face to him, fixed him with a languid look.

“No. What do the Nilnameshi say?”

“That when they sleep, they do not dream.”

He pressed her gently to his pillow.

My Thoughts

Not sure what the Nail of Heaven is. I think its a star like the North Star. The point in the sky where the stars seem to rotate about. Like the North Star, it would always be in the same place, I guess like a nail holding in the roof of the heavens. Other times, it is described as shining bright enough to give light. So maybe it’s not a star. The moon? A spaceship in orbit (and that’s not that crazy given the Inchoroi are aliens who crash-landed on the planet and Golgotterath is the ruins of their crashed ship).

Why, Nansur Empire, is it illegal for women to wear boots? To force them to stay home? It also outlaws pants for men to wear.

We see Esmenet’s keen intellect again. As she dissects what happened to her in Sumna (“But where her body groped, her intellect grasped.” She realizes the significance of the Consult syntheses coming to her. It means Achamian was right and Inrau found out something important. He did not kill himself and Achamian could alleviate the guilt of believing he drove Inrau to suicide.

And then there is her selfishness. She hates how she acted and blamed Inrau for Achamian leaving her. We are all selfish creatures. And now, in light of her new knowledge, she feels such guilt for how she acted. Someone I knew online once died and my first thought was, “He promised to do X, how’s that going to happen now.” I felt so guilty the second afterward.

As she walks, Esmenet “styled herself a character from The Sagas, like Ginsil or Ysilka, a wife mortally ensnared in her husband’s machinations.” How true this will be over the course of the series.

Esmenet’s fears of being left alone turn out not to be unfounded. Teenage bullies exist everywhere. It was nice to see Esmenet nail one of the boys with a rock. And then the adult bully wonders out. What a shitty guy.

While I’m not in favor of legal prostitution, stoning a woman for it is really wrong. Especially in this world where women have very few ways to support themselves. If they’re not married, and not a priestess (which apparently just makes you a legal prostitute), how is Esmenet supposed to survive when society denies her any other way to make a living?

Cutias Sarcellus, the Consult abomination, just happens to run into Esmenet the day after her encounter with the syntheses. Coincident, I think not. Why is he rescuing her? The Consult must think they have some use for her still. After all, she was compliant.

The hand gesture Esmenet gives to the boys who started everything, implying the one that bullied her had a small penis was hilarious.

Achamian reunion with his friend was great. Xinemus is one of my favorite characters in the series. A great guy. He doesn’t put up with his men talking shit to Achamian. And the way they all end up laughing afterwards was great.

Benjuka is an interesting game with the rules changing based on the players actions, mimicking life more than other games. I’m not surprised Achamian isn’t good at the game. He’s not that great at life, either.

We learn a lot learned about Proyas. He sounds like a pretty immature guy, but hopefully Xinemus’s lesson has stuck with him. Especially since the fate of the Holy War is now riding on his shoulders. Fanaticism and politics is not a good combination. Fanaticism rarely allows for any sort of comprise and that is at the heart of politics.

The last scene with Esmenet in bed with the abomination Sarcellus is not a story development I liked. Not cool, Consult. Haven’t you done enough to Esmenet?

I do like this little observation Esmenet has of Sarcellus. “He smiled, and as always she found herself once thrilled and unsettled. Something about his teeth maybe? Or his lips?” Yeah, because he’s a skin spy, Esmenet. But good on you for noticing something off.

If you want to keep reading, click here for my reread of Chapter Eleven.

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