Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 1: The Judging Eye
by R. Scott Bakker
The will to conceal and the will to deceive are one and the same. Verily, a secret is naught but a deception that goes unspoken. A lie that only the Gods can hear.
Well, I think we know the big secret for the chapter: that Achamian is leading all these men to their deaths to satisfy his own obsession. But is that the only secret, the only deception, among the Skin eaters? We have who Cleric is and what his arrangement is with Kosoter. And that ties into why an Imperial agent had traveled into the wilderness to find Kosoter at the start of this book.
There are a lot of lies going on in the Skin Eaters.
Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Sakarpus
The Skin-Eaters are taking a reliable rough up the River Rohil up to Ochain Passes to cross the Osthwai Mountains and enter the Meörn Wilderness. Once they’ve passed the Fringe, the edge of “skinny country” things would get deadly. For two nights, Achamian made his own camp and cooked his own meals. On the third night, Sarl invites him to Kosoter’s fire where Kiampas and the Cleric are dining.
Though Achamian was apprehensive, it goes how it could be expected, Sarl babbling on about anything with Kiampas speaking caution and the Nonman giving cryptic and strange observations. Kosoter says nothing. The next night, Achamian has to eat alone, which annoys him because he’s becoming lonely. He didn’t expect “heartsickness” to be one of them. However, he is moping by himself, wanting to belong.
They’re camping in a place often used by scalpers. Achamian can see them all, drifting from men sharing camaraderie. As the night goes on, he starts realizing how precious these interactions are. “They seemed at once precious and imperiled, like jewels mislaid across open ground, something sure to be scooped up by jealous enormities.”
People notice him watching. A Nilnameshi notices Achamian watching. After pointing it out to his friends. Then he heads over to Achamian. He keeps himself clean-shaved like a Nilnameshi caste-noble. He’s a handsome man who “inspired husbands to be more gracious to their wives.” He studies Achamian.
“You’re not one of them,” he said, nodding with raised brows towards the Captain’s fire. “And you certainly aren’t one of the Herd.” He tipped his head to his right, in the direction of three neighboring fire pits, each of them crammed with younger flame-yellowed faces. Most sporting long Galeoth mustaches. “That means you must be one of the Bitten.”
“Yes,” he said, smiling broadly. “One of us.”
“One of you.”
The generous Nilnameshi invites Achamian to join him with the others, using a strange turn of phrase “punch of smoke.” Confused what it means, Achamian follows him. He soon learns that it refers to hashish and he’s handed a pipe. Out of nervousness, he inhales.
The smoke burned like molten lead. They roared with laughter as he hacked himself purple.
“See!” He heard Somandutta cry. “It wasn’t just me!”
“Wizard!” someone growled and cheered. Others took it up—“Wiz-Wiza-Wizard!”—and Achamian found himself smiling and choking and nodding in bleary-eyed acknowledgment. He even waved.
He’s told he’ll get used to it, joking that they have only the best. As the drug sinks in, Soma introduces him to the other. They’re “strangers hammered into families by the privations of the road.” With a newcomer, they’re all showing off, excited to have a new face in the Bitten. Galian is the oldest, an ex-Nansur soldier who fought at Kiyuth. A large man called Ox (Oxwora) is a renegade son of Yalgrota Sranchammer. Xonghis was an Imperial Tracker and prized by the captain and gets special privileges since he keeps them alive in the wilderness. Pox (Pokwas) is a disgraced Zeümi Sword-Dancer. Soot (Sutadra) is a Kianene who won’t talk about his past. He’s a possible Fanim heretic. Last is Moraubon, a former Shrial Priest from Galeoth. They joke he’s half-skinny.
These seven are the original members of the Skin-Eaters formed up by Kosoter ten years ago. After so many slogs, they feel gnawed upon by danger. All of them have literally been bitten by Sranc and have the scars to prove it. (Pox has his on his butt-cheek). The make raucous jokes about it. Achamian matches their humor.
Somandutta was the first to howl. Then all the Bitten joined in, rocking on their mats, trading looks like sips of priceless win, or simply rolling their eyes heavenward, shining beneath the eternal arches of the night.
And Drusas Achamian found himself friends with the men he had in all likelihood killed.
Achamian is surprised his old body is not only enduring the march but keeping up with the Skin-Eaters. His hard life for the last twenty years has given him the strength for this march. They march down the trail, passing inbound companies of half-starved men who, despite looking like the living dead, are jubilant to be reaching Marrow. They were trapped on the other side of the mountains by winter snows. Soma tells Achamian the Ochain Passes have been more unpredictable the last few years. The passing scalpers trade jokes, news, gossip, and complaining about skinnies.
Achamian listened without comment, both fascinated and dismayed. Like all Mandate Schoolman, he looked at the world with the arrogance of someone who had survived—fen if only in proxy—the greatest depravities circumstance could offer. But what happened in the Wilds, whatever it was that edged their voices when the Skin Easters spoke of it, was different somehow. They too carried the look and posture of survivors, but of something more mean, more poisonous, than the death of nations. There was the wickedness that cut throats, and there was the wickedness that put whole peoples to the sword. Scalpers, Achamian realized, dwelt somewhere in the lunatic in-between.
And for the first time he understood: He had no real comprehension of what was to come.
Achamian finds one scalper slump to his knees, too weak to continue. Achamian sees he’s starving and goes to help him, but Pokwas stops him and says there is “No pity on the slog, friend.” If you can’t keep going, you die. Achamian asks what sort of soldiers leave their fellows. But scalpers are “soldiers who aren’t soldiers.” Achamian realizes that the Wilds is a place is too deadly for normal human behavior. Achamian accepts this and resumes walking.
Achamian the talker, the asker of questions, had died a long time ago.
Despite his acceptance, the collapsed scalper lingers in Achamian’s mind. It reminds him how easily men can die anonymously. He should know this since he’d seen so much death in his dreams and during the First Holy War, yet that stranger still weighs on him. He wonders if it’s a premonition or if he’s growing soft. He knows that compassion can weaken the elderly as much as their aging body. Will it be his spirit that fails him?
Something always failed him.
He walks the rest of the day in silence despite Soma’s best effort. That night, Achamian sits by Pokwas. Everyone’s in good spirits since Xonghis killed a deer. He asks Pokwas about the Rules of the Slog and if he would have helped Galian if he had fallen on the road. Pokwas interrupts Achamian to say he absolutely is even though Pokwas’s considers Galian his brother. Confused, Achamian asks what about the “rules of brotherhood.” Galian is the one to answer and says only the rules of the slog matter. He says brotherhood’s great so long as it doesn’t cost anything. Survival is all that matters. Achamian comments that it “sounds like something our glorious Aspect-Emperor would say.”
Aside from the vague intuition that discussing the Aspect-Emperor was generally unwise, the old Wizard really didn’t know what to expect.
“I would help,” Soma blurted. “If Galian were dying, that is. I really would…”
The eating paused. The ring of faces turned to the young Nilnameshi, some screwed in mock outrage, others sporting skeptical grins.
With a guileless smile, Soma said, “His boots fit as fine as my own!”
Soma’s jokes are usually bad especially when he’s trying. The others shake heads or roll eyes at this one. Oxwora throws a bone he gnawed at Soma. Soma shouts and Oxwora grins. Then the rest start throwing their bones at Soma and laughter bursts out. Pokwas tells Achamian, “Loot thy brother.” and then welcomes him to the slog.
Achamian laughed and nodded, glanced out beyond the circle of illuminated faces to the night-hooded world. It was no simple or mean thing, the companionship of killers.
Two days later, Xonghis reports that a woman is following the company. Achamian gets alarmed and asks who knows about it. He’s told Moraubon and a few members of the Herd. Achamian sets off in run down the path, preparing to unleash his sorcery. He hears scalpers laughing with “malice and open-mouthed eagerness of men bent on rutting.” A woman cries out with defiance. Achamian climbs into the air and runs across “the echoes of the ground.” He bursts through the canopy and spots Skin Eaters racing down the trail towards where three of them have a hold of Mimara. She’s kicking and thrashing as they pin her down. Moraubon is undoing his breeches, preparing to rape her. Achamian steps into her midst and hits the ex-priest with the Odaini Concussion Cant. It doesn’t kill him but throws him away.
Angry, Achamian unleashes his sorcery to teach the Skin Eaters. He revels in the violence, taking enjoyment in them seeing his power. The Skin Eaters retreat from him. He destroys the surrounding trees with the Compass of Noshainrau. This drives the Skin Eaters further back.
Achamian stood over her, bright in the sudden sunlight, showered by the twirling green of innumerable spring-early leaves. A Wizard draped in wolf skins. The bulk of once great trees lay heaped about them. Forked trunks and limbs gouged the ground beneath the shags greenery.
Mimara spat blood from her lips, tried to pull her torn leggings to her hips. She made a noise that might have been a sob or a laugh or both. She fell to her knees before him, her left thigh as bare and pale as a barked sapling. A laughing grimace. A glimpse of teeth soaked in blood.
“Teach me,” she said.
Achamian marches back in a silent rage, Mimara trudging behind him. The Skin Eaters watch their approach, all staring at Mimara. He pulls her into his embrace to shield her. Moraubon races ahead to Lord Kosoter who is watching from a boulder. Cleric isn’t around. As Moraubon talks to Kosoter, Sarl glares at the Skin Eaters. Mimara, sensing the Chorae Kosoter is wearing, asks who he is. Achamian tells her to be quiet.
At first it seemed the Captain had simply reached out and seized Moraubon’s chin—so casual was his movement. Achamian squinted, trying to understand the wrongness of the image: Lord Kosoter holding the man mere inches from his face, not so much looking into his eyes as watching… Achamian only glimpsed the knife jammed beneath the scalper’s mandible when Lord Kosoter withdrew his hand.
Moraubon crumpled as if the Captain had ripped out his bones. Blood sheeted the boulder.
Sarl then demands of the company what’s the rule for peaches is. “The Captain always gets the first bite,” answers Galian. Sarl reminds them that following the rules is what lets them “eat so much skin.” Everyone, including the Bitten, roars their agreement, not caring their friend is dead. Achamian thinks them all mad.
Kosoter wipes his blade clean on Moraubon while studying Achamian and Mimara. Then he rushes to them, suddenly animated, and demands to know who she is. Achamian says his daughter. Achamian does not flinch from the murder in Kosoter’s eyes. Mimara feels too much like Esmenet for him to betray her. Kosoter nods after a moment and heads back up the trail.
“Either she carries her weight like a man,” he shouted as he walked away. “Or she carries our weight like a woman!”
The Skin Eaters lust for Mimara as they resume the marches. He’s most suspicious of those with blank faces and eyes remembering her being pinned down. No one bothers with Moraubon’s body. Mimara asks in a whisper who Kosoter is.
“A Veteran,” he murmured. “The same as me.”
Achamian and Mimara trail behind and then have an argument. He wants her to leave. She refuses to return to her mother. Achamian says Esmenet loves her. “Not so much as she hates what she did to me.” Achamian tries to justify Mimara being sold into slavery as saving her life. She threatens to tell her about her life and claims she can bear the Skin Eaters taking her. Achamian says she wouldn’t survive these men. She says she’s lucky to have him then.
She was nothing like Esmenet, he had come to realize. She tilted her head in the same way, as though literally trying to look around your nonsense, and her voice stiffened into the same reedy bundle of disgust, but aside from these echoes…
“Look. You simply cannot stay. This is a journey…” He paused, his breath yanked short by the sheer factuality of what he was about to say. “This is a journey without any return.”
She sneered and laughed. “So is every life.”
Achamian feels like she is begging, even daring him, to hit her. Nothing like Esmenet. Mimara then asks Achamian if he told the scalper that this is a journey they’ll all die on. He hasn’t and instead promised them the Coffers. She is incredulous that they don’t know they are searching for the origins of the Aspect-Emperor whose bounty feeds them.
“Murderer. That makes you a murderer.”
She threatens to reveal this to the others. He counters that if he is a murder he could just kill her. She knows he won’t because of who she looks like. He threatens to tell Kosoter who she is. But she reminds him that the captain would get a better reward turning her in than bleeding for the Coffers.
This infuriates Achamian. He thinks her insane and she mocks him, saying he can’t win. That even though he vowed never to teach again (because his teachings lead to disaster), she won’t give up. Threats and reason won’t work. She vows to be a witch or dead, saying she only has the Gift.
“Didn’t you hear me? My teaching is cursed!”
“We’re a fine match then.”
Impudent! Impudent! Was there ever such a despicable slit?
Achamian sets up his camp with Mimara away from the others. It’s silent not only between them but all the Skin Eaters except Sarl. He keeps babbling on like nothing had happened. Achamian feels eyes, even among the Bitten, staring at them. They whisper about her body, speculating about how great it will be to turn her into a whore. Mimara hears it, too. A more innocent woman might be oblivious, but Mimara knew and she seemed at ease, unlike worried Achamian.
She had been raised in the covetous gaze of men, and though she had suffered beneath brutal hands, she had grown strong. She carried herself, Achamian realized, with a kind of coy arrogance, as though she were the sole human in the presence of resentful apes. Let them grunt. Let them abuse themselves. She cared nothing for all the versions of her that danced or moaned or choked behind their primitive eyes—save that they made her, and all the possibilities that her breath and body offered, invaluable.
She was the thing wanted. She would find ways to make them pay.
Achamian is disturbed. Though he doesn’t much like Mimara, she reminds him of Esmenet and he feels like he’s falling in love with her all over again. Memories of the First Holy War assault him. He wants to go back to those times. To bury his memories, he starts teaching her about the Gnosis. He doesn’t mean to, but it’s easier to instruct than thinking about Esmenet.
The trail in the mountains is difficult. As they walk, he teaches her Gilcûnya, the nonman tongue Gnostic Mages yous. She would have to learn an inhuman tongue, something very difficult for an adult. But he doesn’t have the heart to tell her she probably will fail if not take years to master.
Why this should seem a crime was beyond him.
Skin-Eaters are always watching them. If they could, they would walk around them feigning friendliness and proper behavior, but with Achamian, he catches predatory glimpses. They know he’s a threat to them enjoying Mimara. Their chivalrous gestures are all tor prove she doesn’t need Achamian. She can rely on them. She pretends not to notice what they’re up to.
They halt early for the day and Sarl tells Achamian that Kosoter needs to see him. There’s bad news. Achamian follows Sarl up, struggling to maintain his pace up the steep heel. He reaches the ridgeline, the Osthwai Mountains spread out before him. Kosoter and Cleric are watching Kiampas talk with a stranger nicknamed Feathers. Another group of scalpers lounge nearby. After talking with Kiampas, Feather and Kosoter clasp arms, two “storied Scalpoi” sharing respect with each other. The first time Kosoter has done so with anyone Achamian’s seen.
Achamian learns that a spring blizzard has closed the pass. They are stuck for at least two weeks if not longer. This is the end of Achamian’s expedition. It’ll be impossible to reach Sauglish by summer’s end now. Kiampas is relieved.
Cleric suggests the Black Halls. He says there is a way through the mountains. He remembers it. Achamian knows what the Nonman suggests but the shock of hearing his mission is over keeps him from voicing concern. Kosoter asks Cleric if he’s sure. Cleric says he lived there with his cousins before Men came. Kosoter asks if he is sure he remembers.
The cowl bent earthward.
“They were… difficult days.”
The Ainoni nodded in grim deliberation.
Kiampas is shocked. Scalpers who go into the Black Halls never return. But Kosoter cuts off the man’s words with a glance. Sarl cackles and boasts how they’re the Skin Eaters. They’ll do what others haven’t. Kiampas protests about the rumors. Achamian asks about those.
“Bah!” Sarl cackled. “Men just can’t countenance mystery. If companies get eaten, they have to invent a Great Eater, no matter what.” He turned to Achamian, his face wrinkling in incredulity. “He thinks a dragon hides in the Black Halls. A Dragon!” He jerked his gaze back to Kiampas, red face thrust forward, knobbly fists balled at his side. “Dragon, my eye! It’s the shinnies that get them. It’s the shinnies that get us all in the end.”
Achamian asks how he can know that it’s Sranc. Sarl says their clans get through the mountains somehow. Especially in Winter. It’s believed they use the Black Halls. Kiampas says he knew two from another scalper band who says their company died in there, but Sarl mocks and says they were just telling stories to get drinks. Their company died on the Long Side. The two men glare at each other. Kiampas seems like the only sane person in the Skin Eaters.
“We take the Low Road,” Lord Kosoter grated. “We enter the Black Halls.”
His tone seemed to condemn all humanity, let alone the petty dispute before him. The Nonman continued to stare off into the east, tall and broad beneath his mottled cowl. The mountain climbed the climbing ground beyond him, a white sentinel whispering with altitude and distance.
“Cleric says he remembers.”
Achamian finds Mimara surrounded by Skin Eaters. Oxwora and Pokwas tower over her like guards. She is not looking at the gathered men. Achamian sees she’s scared but the fear hasn’t disabled her. The two Bitten around her are joking about Kosoter sodomizing Achamian. Their laughter makes Mimara smile.
The laughter was genuine enough to make Mimara smile, but utterly unlike the raucous mirth that was their norm. Soldiers, Achamian had observed, often wore thin skins in the presence of women they could neither buy nor brutalize. A light and careless manner, a gentle concern for the small things, stretched across a sorrow and an anger than no woman could fathom. And these men were more than soldiers, more than scalpers, even. They were Skin Eaters. They were men who led lives of uncompromising viciousness and savagery. Men who could effortlessly forget the dead rapist that had been their bosom friend.
And they would try too what they could not take.
Soma says that Mimara is one of the Bitten in a tone that will brook no disagreement. Achamian realizes that the Bitten have been waiting to claim Mimara and bring her to their fire. Achamian wonders how far they can be trusted even as he says the pass is closed. He sees them realizing that the coffers are lost.
“The decision has been made,” he said, trying hard not to sound satisfied.
“We brave the Black Halls of Cil-Aujas.”
Really can relate to Achamian at being excluded. Watching everyone else bonding and being all alone thinking no one cares about you. All his other problems are more remote, but this lack of human connection is an immediate problem. It’s not important to his mission, but his instincts don’t know that. They just know he’s being excluded from social bonding.
So, Bakker uses Somandutta’s name in the narrative before he tells Achamian his name. It’s used as if Bakker has already introduced him to us. I feel like this is a slight editing error.
Also, Somandutta is the skin spy. Is he one now? Let’s watch out for any clues to his true identity before his reveal. It is interesting that he’s the one who brings a Mandate Schoolman to the Bitten. Is he trying to lull Achamian in with friendship and learn information from him? Is he even a skin-spy yet? I think he is. After all, the Nonman King is with the Skin-Eaters. Of course, a skin-spy would be slipped into them. And then he gets thrust into this surprising situation of Achamian joining the group. He’s on his own with no contact with Golgotterath. And then we’ll get that strange comment about a prophecy involving Mimara.
Lots so strange things going on with this skin-spy.
Achamian has been invited to the cool-kids campfire. Bakker is showing us the important characters to pay attention to. The rest are “the herd.” The background characters who we don’t need to care about. As an author, you only have so much page space, time, and mental energy. Easier to have a reason why Achamian only spends time with the important characters and then have the unimportant ones be grouped in the background.
Also, do the Bitten seem like frat brothers?
“He hunts with both bows strung,” is the comment Pox makes about Moraubon and why he’s half-Sranc. He gets erect while fighting. It’s a dick a joke. Also, this is a character I’m going to be keeping an eye on. I cannot remember who tries to rape Mimara at the end of book two among the Bitten. Going to try and keep their backgrounds more in mind. Soma is the only one that really stands out in my memory.
(Okay, Moraubon tries to rape Mimara in this chapter. This explains why I don’t remember him.)
Good foreshadowing with Achamian realizing that the scalpers are both the perpetrators of genocide in their wholesale slaughter of the Sranc, and the victims of it. They are just as likely to massacre as to do be massacred. They carry both in their souls. The guilt of murder and the guilt of surviving.
The doubts are already happening. Achamian is feeling the weight of it all. He never feels up to the challenges before him. He found his strength in the First Holy War, now it’s being tested again.
It’s sacrilegious to eat pregnant animals, and yet the Skin-Eaters don’t care. These men are beyond any sort of limits of morality. They have peered way, way too long into the abyss. They’re friendly and jocular now, but these are men who don’t care about taboos. Nothing is sacred to them. They are not to be trusted. They seem like they’ll be Achamian’s allies against Kosoter in what’s to come. Ironically, the reverse will bear out.
As you see in the following conversation, the friendship of Brotherhood the Bitten has isn’t true. A facade. They will turn on each other the moment they have to. Surviving the Sranc is all that matters. They have become Sranc. We’ll see this with the Great Ordeal. Those men will become like the Skin-Eaters by the end. To stare into the Abyss is to have it stare back into you. The Consult, the Sranc, and all the other creations of the Inchoroi are so evil, they destroy all who come in contact with it.
The Bitten uses humor to deflect from really bonding with each other. It’s all surface level. The moment Achamian brings up something deep, a joke is made. They don’t really want to bond with each other because they all know they are really a group of individuals looking out only for themselves.
Mimara still wants to be taught Gnosis. She is stubborn. Almost raped, needing to be rescued, and still wants him to teach her. Now she will be the leverage used against Achamian. She is the violation of the Rule of the Slog. The one that not only Achamian breaks but Kosoter.
Because Kosoter isn’t a true Scalper. He’s a fanatic. He’s here for a mission. I’m more and more convinced that Kellhus placed him in the scalper post nearest to where Achamian lived to be in position for when Achamian would try to reach Ishuäl.
Finding out that Moraubon is with Mimara is what sends Achamian into a run. As I mentioned above, that dick joke about Moraubon is a signal this is a man not to be trusted.
Bakker is getting a lot of things done with the Moraubon sequence. He’s showing us the true nature of the Skin Eaters, how ruthless discipline is maintained, and reveals the true motivations of Kosoter. Skin Eaters don’t have a problem eating a pregnant animal. Raping and murdering the Empress’s daughter shouldn’t be an issue for them, either. Who will know out here in the wild? Kosoter protects her because he’s not a real scalper.
I believe Kosoter recognized who Mimara is because he backs down from Achamian.
Oh, Achamian, you and Kosoter might both be Veterans, but you are not the same.
Mimara is like the mother but broken. Esmenet had been worn down by her life as a prostitute, but she didn’t suffer like her daughter. Mimara cracked and she might never be whole. As it is, she sees no value in her life. It had been stolen from her long ago.
We can already see the conflicts Mimara’s presence sparks. She’s confident in the Wizard and thinks she understands these men. That she’s been around men like this for most of her life. She has no idea the abyss these men have bathed in.
I think Achamian believes it’s a crime that Mimara probably will never master Gilcûnya and those never make use of her gift is simple: she’s intelligent. She would probably make a great sorceress. She’s not able to use her talents to their fullest. That despite all her passion, all her drive, she’ll fail at the one thing she thinks she has in her life.
So, if you’ve read Lord of the Rings, this is getting very familiar. Need to cross the mountains, but the snow chokes out the passes. Luckily, there’s an abandoned underground city that you can pass through. Only full of ancient horrors. Like much of The Second Apocalypse, Bakker takes the familiar fantasy elements and twists them to his grimdark world. Cil-Aujas is harrowing in ways Moria is not.
Now we see the Bitten are acting like the guardians to Mimara. They’re pretending to be the good ones. The ones she can trust to protect her from the Herd, never mind that the guy who tried to rape her was one of them. The Bitten have forgotten about Moraubon.
How long before they forget about Achamian? He’s wondering that even as he is pleased that the quest will continue. They’ll be protecting Mimara for awhile. Bakker is setting up the powder keg that bursts at the end of Book 2.
To save the skies, Ary must die!
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