Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 2: The Warrior Prophet
by R. Scott Bakker
The First March
Welcome to Chapter Seven of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Six!
Sleep, when deep enough, is indistinguishable from vigilance.
—SORAINAS, THE BOOK OF CIRCLES AND SPIRALS
Reading Bakker makes me think more than any other books I’ve read in years. And doing this reread only makes me work harder. Why did Bakker include this quote at the start of this chapter? We see the title is all about curving thoughts. Nothing straightforward, nothing linear. Sleep and vigilance would be two opposite ends of a line, but if everything moved in circles, eventually you would slip from one side to the other. We have Kellhus pondering if cause and effect works like this. That the future could bend and branch and spiral back to the beginning. That though cause and effect should also be on opposite sides of a line, they can instead circle each other if someone bends the line.
Early Summer 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, near the Plains of Mengedda
The Synthese flew over the Battleplain in the wake of the Holy War’s victory over the Fanim. Dawn approaches as it flies across corpse-strewn fields. As the sun rises, it feels a nostalgic pull towards home out across the “black void.” It was hard not feeling nostalgic after being back in “the place where it had almost happened, where Men and Nonmen had almost flickered out forever.” It feels that it will happen soon.
It searches the dead of the battlefield, studying the patterns their corpses left, and sees symbols prized by his species “back when they could actually be called such.” The vermin called them Inchoroi. Finally, it finds the scent it was searching for an “otherworldly fetor” encoded in the skin-spies in case they died.
So Sarcellus was dead. Unfortunate.
At least the Holy War had prevailed—over the Cishaurim, no less!
Golgotterath would approve.
Smiling, or perhaps scowling, with tiny human lips, the Old Name swooped down to join the vultures in their ancient celebration.
Achamian dreams of the No-God’s defeat. He, as Seswatha, stares at the horizon boiling with Sranc. They gouge themselves blind as the whirlwind of the No-God roars through them. Like a tornado, it picks them up as debris. The Great King of Kyraneas clutches Seswatha, but his words are lost as a hundred thousand Sranc all speak, their throats “flaring like bright-burning coals packed into his skull.”
WHAT DO YOU SEE?
See? What could he…
I MUST KNOW WHAT YOU SEE
The great King turned from him [Seswatha], reached for the Heron Spear.
Secrets… Secrets! Not even the No-God could build walls against what was forgotten! Seswatha glimpsed the unholy Carapace shining in the whirlwind’s heart, a nimil sarcophagus sheathed in choric script, hanging…
Achamian woke with a howl, his hands cramped into claws before him, shaking.
Esmenet is beside him, trying to sooth him. She holds him as he shakes, telling him that she’s been thinking of Kellhus. He asks if she dreamed him, trying to tease her. But as he tries, the No-God’s words intrude on his thoughts like “a shrieking chorus, sharp and brief.” He apologizes, asks what she said. She tries to talk about how Kellhus speaks, but the memory of the No-God’s voice intrudes again. He’s distracted as she talks about Kellhus and his words to Saubon and realizes that Kellhus words are either “near or far.” He asks what she meant, his bladder full.
Esmenet laughed. “I’m not sure… Remember how I told you how he asked me what it was like to be a harlot—you know, to lie with strange men? When he talks that way, he seems near, uncomfortably near, until you realize how utterly honest and unassuming he is… At the time, I thought he was just another rutting dog—”
WHAT AM I?
“The point, Esmi…”
There was an annoyed pause. “Other times, he seems breathtakingly far when he talks, like he stands on some remote mountain and can see everything, or almost everything…” She paused again, and from the length of it, Achamian knew he had bruised her feelings. He could feel her shrug. “The rest of us just talk in the middle somewhere, while he… And now this, seeing what happened yesterday before it happened. With each day—”
I CANNOT SEE
“—he seems to talk a little nearer and a little farther. It makes me—Akka? You’re trembling! Shaking!”
Achamian says he can’t stay here in this place. She hugs and tells him that the army will move away from the dead and the “chance of vapours.” Achamian struggles to hold onto his wits and asks where the army will move. She says something about ruins. He says that’s worse. He has to leave. He’s feeling echoes of the No-God’s death here. The ruins would be the city of Mengedda, where it actually happened. He thinks this place recognizes himself or Seswatha in him. He says they need to leave and wait in the hills for the others.
Five days after the battle, Kellhus muses on a Nilnameshi saying Achamian had told him: “With the accumulation of power comes mystery.” Achamian explained it meant the paradox of power. “The more security one exacted from the world, the more insecure it became.” Kellhus had dismissed it as a “vacant generalization.” Now he was having second thoughts.
The Holy War is whole again. This afternoon, the Nansur and Ainoni host had filed across the plains to join the others camped at the ruins of Mengedda. The first Council of the Great and Lesser Names since Momemn has been called and Kellhus chose to sit with the soldiers watching instead of with the Names.
He studies the soldiers, noticing the startling contrast between their faces. Some are wounded. Others had no injuries. Some are celebratory, and some are suffering from PTSD. “Victory on the Battleplain, it seemed, had carried its own uncanny toll.” People have been having terrible nightmares while camping here, claiming they were fighting in ancient wars and even fighting Sranc and dragons. At the ruins, the nightmares intensified. “It was as though the ground had hoarded the final moments of the doomed, and counted and recounted them each night on the ledger of the living.” Some, like Achamian, fled, others tried to stop sleeping, and one man was found dead. Then relics of past battles appeared “as though slowly vomited from the earth.” People insisted they were fresh, found in spots they had trod over and were no signs of before.
Kellhus had dreamed nothing. But he had seen the relics. Gotian explained to him about how the Battleplain was cursed after imbibing so much death over the millennia. But Gotian believes faith will protect them. Proyas and Gothyelk also suffer no dreams and wanted to stay. Saubon, despite having the nightmares, also wanted to stay for his own motivations.
Somehow, the very ground of battle had become their foe. Such contests, Xinemus had remarked one night about their fire, belonged to philosophers and priests, not warriors and harlots.
Such contest, Kellhus had thought, simply should not be…
Kellhus is beset with “questions, quandaries, and enigmas” once he learned how desperate the battle was and how kind fate had been to Saubon because he had punished the Shrial Knights. That charge saved the Norsirai host from destruction. And it had happened just as Kellhus had predicted. But he hadn’t made a prediction. He had said what was need to “maximize the probability” of Sarcellus dying.
It simply had to be coincidence. At least this was what he’d told himself—at first. Fate was but one more world-born subterfuge, another lie men used to give meaning to their abject helplessness. That was why they thought the future a Whore, something who favored no man over another. Something heartbreakingly indifferent.
What came before determined what came after… This was the basis of the Probability Trance. This was the principle that made mastering circumstance, be it with word or sword, possible. This was what made him Dûnyain.
One of the Conditioned.
But the fact the earth spat out bones makes Kellhus question cause and effect. The ground appeared to answer the “tribulation of men.” And if the earth wasn’t indifferent, what about the future? Kellhus questions if an effect could determine the cause. Could the future violate cause and effect? Could he be the harbinger?
Is this why you’ve summoned me, Father? To save these children?
Kellhus pushes his thoughts on “primary questions” aside. He had more immediate problems to deal with. Such questions will have to wait until he sees his father. He wonders why Moënghus hasn’t contacted him. He concentrates on the council and though he doesn’t sit with them, he knows he has a position among them by the fact they all keep glancing at him. He could read all their faces, giving brief insight into various persons sitting at the council. Of note is General Martemus, Conphas’s confidant and second-in-command, whom has heard of Kellhus but has too many pressing concerns to care about a prophet.
A steady fixed look from among Gotian’s diminished retinue…
One of what seemed a growing number of inscrutable faces. Skin-spies, Achamian had called them.
Why did he stare? Because of the rumors, like the others? Because of the horrific toll his words had exacted on the Shrial Knights? Gotian, Kellhus knew, struggled not to hate him…
Or did he know that Kellhus could see him and tried to kill him?
Kellhus matches Sarcellus’s gaze. Kellhus has grown better at understanding their physiognomy, seeing their faces made of fingers. He had found eleven so far, and expected there to be more. He nods to Sarcellus who keeps watching. Kellhus is certain the Consult suspects him.
Then Earl Athjeari arrives, summoning Kellhus to see Prince Saubon after the meeting. Kellhus knows that Saubon’s growing more anguished and fearful. He had avoided Kellhus for six nights. Something had happened during the fight that disturbed him. Kellhus sees an opportunity.
The council opens with a religious ritual and sermon from Gotian, preaching on the Inrithi’s duty to follow Inri Sejenus to Shimeh. His sermon brings triumphant cheers from the Men of the Tusk. Kellhus is silent, studying Sarcellus, noticing small discrepancies in his features. The Men of the Tusk begin singing a hymn.
Words uttered through a thousand human throats. The air thrummed with an impossible resonance. The ground itself spoke, or so it seemed… But Kellhus saw only Sarcellus—saw only differences. His stance, his height and build, even the lustre of his black hair. All imperceptibly different.
The original copy had been killed, Kellhus realized, just as he’d hoped. The position of Sarcellus, however, had not. His death had gone unwitnessed, and they’d simply replaced him.
Strange that a man could be a position.
After the rite, the Gilgallic Priests appear to declare the Battle-Celebrant, “the man whom dread War had chosen as his vessel.” It is a matter of a great deal of betting to predict who would get it as though “it were a lottery rather than a divine determination.” But before Cumar, High Cultist Priest of Gilgaöl, Prince Skaiyelt demands they must discuss leaving. To flee. An outrage burst out but is quieted with Skaiyelt uncovers an ancient skull. Kellhus wonders how this could be possible. He pushes that aside, he has to stay focused on “practical mysteries.” A debate is held, some look to Kellhus, then Proyas announce the Holy War would leave Mengedda tomorrow morning. The soldiers are relieved.
Then Saubon is declared the Battle-Celebrant, though he protests saying it should go to Gotian for leading the charge. Silence falls as Saubon is crowned with a circlet of thorns and olive sprigs. People cheer and Saubon is stunned, then looks at Kellhus while crying.
Why? his anguished look said. I don’t deserve this…
Kellhus smiled sadly, and bowed to the precise degree jnan demanded from all men in the presence of a Battle-Celebrant. He’d more than mastered their brute customs by now; he’d learned the subtle flourishes that transformed the seemly into the august. He knew their every cue.
The roaring redoubled. They’d all witnessed their exchanged look; they’d all heard the story of Saubon’s pilgrimage to Kellhus at the ruined shrine.
It happens, Father. It happens.
Conphas calls everyone a fool for praising Saubon since his decision to march almost doomed the Holy War. He reminds everyone that those who die here never leave. Saubon is dumbstruck. And then Cnaiür walks out calling Conphas craven for seeing folly everywhere, equating prudence with cowardice. Kellhus is surprised that Cnaiür had seen the danger of Conphas’s words. A discredited Saubon would be useless. Conphas’s laugh~s at being called a coward.
“Since defeating the People,” the Scylvendi continued, “much glory has been heaped upon your name. Because of this, you begrudge others that same glory. The valour and wisdom of Coithus Saubon have defeated Skauras—no mean thing, if what you said at your Emperor’s knee was to be believed. But since this glory is not yours, you think it false. You call it foolishness, blind lu—”
“It was blind luck!” Conphas cried. “The Gods favour the drunk and the soft-of-head… That’s the only lesson we’ve learned.”
Cnaiür uses his answer to praise the Holy War for learning how to fight the Fanim and the tactics that work well against them, like charges by Inrithi knights, or that their footman can withstand Fanim charges. This brings cheers from the crowds. Conphas stands stunned, realizing he was so easily defeated by the barbarian. Kellhus recounts the problems with dominating Conphas—the man’s pride, his “pathological” disregard of other peoples opinions, and he believed Kellhus connected to the Cishaurim. Kellhus is aware that Conphas plans disaster for the Holy War.
Proyas wants the Holy War to send riders to seize the fields around the city of Hinnereth to keep the Fanim could harvest them and bring them into the field. Conphas argues that the Imperial Fleet can keep the Holy War provisioned. The other Great names decide not to rely on the Empire and agree to seize the grains. Then it turns to the Ainoni and their slow marches. But Proyas supports the Ainoni and says the Holy War needs to travel as separate contingents. But not even Cnaiür’s support stopped the fighting. The arguments go on while the soldiers get more and more drunk on looted wines. Kellhus continues his study of Sarcellus. And Kellhus realizes the Consult know he can see their skin-spies.
I must move more quickly, Father.
The Nilnameshi had it wrong. Mysteries could be killed, if one possessed the power.
Conphas lounges in his pavilion plotting ways to kill Cnaiür with Martemus, how said little. Conphas knows his general secretly admires Cnaiür, but it doesn’t bother Conphas. He knows he has Martemus’s loyalty.
And so, feeling magnanimous, he decided to open a little door and allow Martemus—easily the most competent and trustworthy of his generals—into some rather large halls. In the coming months, he would need confidants. All Emperors needed confidants.
But of course, prudence demanded certain assurances. Though Martemus was loyal by nature, loyalties were, as the Ainoni were fond of saying, like wives. One must always know where they lie—and without absolute certainty.
Conphas asks Martemus if he ever stared at “the Concubine,” the nickname for the Over-Standard. so named because it has to say in the Exalt-General’s quarters. Conphas liked that, and had even ejaculated on it, which he found to be delicious defiling the sacred. Martemus answers yes, he stares at it often. Then Conphas asks if he’s seen the tusk. Another yes, which surprise Conphas. It was back when Martemus was a boy. Conphas asks what he thought. Martemus thinks awe. It was a long time ago. Conphas asks Martemus if had to choose between dying for the Concubine or the Tusk, which would he pick? He doesn’t hesitate: the concubine.
“And why’s that?”
Again the General shrugged. “Habit.”
Conphas fairly howled. Now that was funny. Habit. What more assurance could a man desire?
Dear man! Precious man!
Conphas asks Martemus’s opinion of Kellhus. “Intelligent, well spoken, and utterly impoverished.” Conphas hesitates in telling his plans, but remembers that Martemus cares about impressing him. Which made his opinion priceless. He confides that Skeaös was a Cishaurim spy and that he is connected to Kellhus. Martemus is shocked and Conphas further explains about his skin-spy nature, believing it is caused by Cishaurim sorcery. Martemus wants to know what Conphas has learned of Kellhus’s movements, associations, etc. Conphas tells what he knows, which isn’t much, though finds it disturbing that he’s with Achamian, who was also present at Skeaös’s unveiling.
Martemus doesn’t like a man of such growing power with a connection to the Cishaurim in the Holy War. Conphas thinks his purpose is to destroy the Holy War and that Saubon’s march was an attempt that failed. He plays the prophet to lead the holy war to its doom. But Martemus has heard Kellhus denies being a prophet.
Conphas laughed. “Is there any better way to posture as a prophet? People don’t like the smell of presumption, Martemus. Even the pig castes have noses as keen as wolves when it comes to those who claim to be more. Me,on the other hand, I quite like the savoury stink of gall. I find it honest.”
Martemus asks why Conphas is telling him all this. Conphas believes that Prince Kellhus collects followers, like Saubon, and expects Martemus to be a juicy plum. Martemus is to play disciple. The general asks why not just kill him. Conphas is disappointed in Martemus, who while intelligent isn’t cunning. He is reminded of his time as a hostage in Skauras’s court and remarks that he feels so young.
The Synthese feels nostalgic for its home planet, out there in the void. Achamian talked to Esmenet about this a few chapters ago, explaining space and stars to her, and how the Inchoroi came from space and crashed here. Now the Synthese, one of the last surviving Inchoroi, wishes to go home.
“Soon enough.” Here is confirmation that the no-god’s birth must be approaching. That the Synthese believes the Second apocalypse is coming soon (in the scale of a being millennia old, it’s not happening next week). It’s not a coincidence that an Anasûrimbor has returned.
Inchoroi minds also have pareidolia, the phenomenon that allow us humans to see patterns in chaos, like shapes in clouds. This is something the Nonmen appear to lack. They have difficulty with abstract images as we learn in the sequel series when we delve into Nonmen a lot more.
We also get our first confirmation that the Consult wants the Holy War to defeat the Fanim. And not just the Fanim, but the Cishaurim. We had inferred this from the behavior of the skin-spy posing as Skeaös, Emperor Xerius’s court. Now we have confirmation. The Consult wants the Cishaurim destroyed for a very important reason.
The image of the Sranc clawing out their eyes as the No-God asks what they see. This question “What do you see?” is at the heart of the No-God’s purpose. I believe the No-God is asking a woman with the Judging Eye what she sees. He can’t see what she can. We won’t learn anything about the Judging Eye in this series, but it allows certain people to see if a person is damned. I think that’s what is going on. The No-God’s purpose is to end the cycle of souls and shut out the Outside and the Cycle of Damnation. So it has to know what the woman with the Judging Eye sees. Bakker has this series plotted out well. The Unholy Consult cannot come out fast enough.
WHAT AM I? Am I damned?
And this is what the Consult seeks to do. Why the Inchoroi came to his world. To escape damnation. If you knew you were doomed to suffer an eternity of torment and there was nothing you could do to change it save committing genocide, would you have the courage to face that fate instead of making the choice the Consult has?
Achamian wakes up, hands twisted into claws. What was he about to do? Claw out his own eyes?
Esmenet’s insight is on display here as she talks about Kellhus. She recognizes how he use language, though she doesn’t realize how manipulative it is switching from the remote to the intimate.
We see in Achamian how time echoes in the topoi of the Battleplain. It’s like a singularity, warping reality around it, pulling things towards the center. Souls who die here are said not to escape. And even those who leave might never truly get away (anyone who’s read The Great Ordeal will know what I speak of). Past and present are bleeding together for Achamian. Poor guy.
The nightmares are an interesting way for Bakker to both show you the effect of time warping the topoi has on reality here but also to showcase the history of the place. We get a glimpse of the various struggles here. Note the stirrup-less Scylvendi from the past. The stirrup revolutionized cavalry warfare. It allowed for heavy lance charges and better horse archery. Stirrups give you a platform to stand on, allowing you to use your body’s weight better in conjunction with the horse.
Kellhus is once again confronted by violations of causality and other strange phenomenon at the Battleplain. His Dûnyain training has not prepared him for a reality where a place could be a topoi or the chain of cause and effect could be twisted. Now he has to deal with this new reality, understand it, and adapt the Logos to it. If he can.
I believe when Kellhus begins wondering if his father summoned him to save these people is the start of his mental break. He doesn’t seem broken to us, but this is the start of the madness that severs him from being a true Dûnyain as we learn in climax of the third book. It starts this early, before even the Circumfix because he is questioning cause and effect, the very foundation of the Logos and Dûnyain philosophy.
Interesting how Kellhus sees tackling a mystery as interrogating it. Interrogation is the most forceful form of questioning. It implies an antagonistic stance, that the subject is resisting giving answers.
I winced at the slaves burning scrolls to feed the bonfire for the Council of Great and Lesser Names. They were pulled from the ruins, so I wonder what knowledge was just lost?
So a new skin-spy has replaced Sarcellus and Kellhus. The Synthese scoured the Battleplain not only to locate Sarcellus’s corpse and ensure it wasn’t discovered, but this also allowed the position of Sarcellus to remain alive so they could simply replace him with another of their creations. (Also, it is implied the Synthese ate Sarcellus.)
Kellhus sees an opportunity in Saubon’s pain. I love Kellhus’s POV’s. I would be interested in having someone read this series without ever once getting one of Kellhus’s POV’s (or Cnaiür). Just to see how they would react to Khellus. He’s so charismatic and warm from others perspectives. And then you get his and its all cold calculation.
Kellhus is one step closer to his plan to fake being a prophet. His gamble has paid off even better than he expected. So much so it is shaken him, as much as a Dûnyain can be shaken. We see thoughts of the supernatural keep intruding on him when he should be focused on more “practical mysteries.”
Love the play between Cnaiür and Conphas. Even Kellhus can underestimate people. An important thing to remember. Conphas makes a great foil to Kellhus. A man so narcissistic that he is immune to Kellhus’s greatest weapon to chain people—shame, guilt, inadequacies. If Kellhus had only Conphas to deal with, he could find the shortest path, but with all the others, Conphas will remain out of reach. Even mocked by all the Holy War, Conphas felt no shame or embarrassment.
Martemus… Got to like a guy who says he would die for his country over his faith because it would be out of habit. Conphas really likes the guy. He’s as close to a friend as Conphas can have.
Martemus’s first questions to Conphas upon learning of Kellhus supposed connection to the Cishaurim is for more information. Intelligence. Who are his allies? Where can he be found? Etc. Great character writing from Bakker. Martemus doesn’t question the justifications behind the war against Kellhus, he just wants the information he would need to fight it, trusting Conphas to have answered those questions already.
Conphas guesses the heart of Kellhus’s plan, if not the motivations behind it. He’s smart enough to recognize that Kellhus is posing as a prophet for gain, but his ego keeps him from examining his own assumptions—that Skeaös was a Cishaurim spy. After all, Skeaös argued against sabotaging the Holy War and allowing the Fanim to survive. If he truly were a Cishaurim spy, wouldn’t he support the Emperor’s plan to sabotage the Holy War? But Conphas has made his decision, and he won’t even consider if he’s wrong. Arrogance and intelligence are dangerous combinations. They often think they are wise, but mistake certainty for truth.
I had to ponder that last line of this chapter. Why would Conphas, a man who is quite young, say he feels young. Because his plotting against Kellhus, this dangerous life-or-death struggle of politics for the control of the Holy War, reminds him of being in Skauras’s court as a hostage. Hence why he felt so young. He’s excited. He has an opponent that will be a challenge to defeat and a victory that will be so sweet.
Conphas plots and schemes. The Consult plots and schemes. Kellhus’s plots and schemes. All three of these storylines, happening in the background for the other characters, will drive The Warrior Prophet to its climax at the Circumfix.