Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 2: The Warrior Prophet
by R. Scott Bakker
The First March
Duty measures the distance between the animal and the divine.
—EKYANNUS 1, 44 EPISTLES
The days and weeks before battle are a strange thing. All the contingents, the Conriyans, the Galeoth, the Nansur, the Thunyeri, the Tydonni, the Ainoni, and the Scarlet Spires, marched to the fortress of Asgilioch, to the Southron Gates and the heathen frontier. And though many bent their thoughts to Skauras, the heathen Sapatishah who would contest us, he was still woven of the same cloth as a thousand other abstract concerns. One could still confuse war with everyday living…
—DRUSAS ACHAMIAN, COMPENDIUM OF THE FIRST HOLY WAR
Duty is putting something ahead of you own desires. Whether it is the duty to go to your job, the duty to stay faithful to a spouse, the duty to die for your country, you are putting something ahead of yourself. Animals don’t do this. But the divine does. And then in this chapter we have Kellhus equating the Holy War to an animal offering, a sacrifice to the divine to see if their duty is righteous or not, if they are saved or damned.
Again, we have Achamian writing about these events after the fact. They serve the purpose of foreshadowing future events as well as providing historical background for events. This one is a comment on humans adaptability to make a life in all most any circumstance, no matter how extreme or out of the ordinary. We will find ways to have routine, to make it familiar, to trick ourselves into some amount of safety. Even in prison, you see this. At the same time, Bakker’s reminding of us of the players of the war, the nations on the Inrithi side and the general who will be contesting them at the end of the first march.
Late Spring 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, the province of Anserca
The Conriyan host marches south and after a few days, Achamian realizes the host had settled into a pattern, people camping with the same people. Achamian makes camp with Xinemus, his lieutenants—Iryssas, Dinchases, and Zenkappa—Kellhus, Serwë, and Cnaiür Proyas makes the occasional visit, but he usually summons Xinemus, Kellhus, and Cnaiür to for council. One night, during a holy day, Achamian finds himself alone in the camp with Cnaiür. Achamian has many questions for Cnaiür about Kellhus, about his relationship with Serwë (people have noticed how she dotes on Kellhus but goes to bed with Cnaiür), and on the disposition of the Sranc clans who border the Utemot territory, but he’s unnerved by the barbarian and they just ignore each other until Achamian tries to broach the silence with a “I guess we’re the heathens, eh, Scylvendi?”
An uncomfortable silence followed while Cnaiür continued gnawing at the bone he held. Achamian sipped his wine, thought of excuses he might use to withdraw to his tent. What did one say to a Sclyvendi?
“So you teach him,” Cnaiür suddenly said, spitting gristle into the fire. His eyes glittered from the shadow of his heavy brow, studying the flame.
“Yes,” Achamian replied.
“Has he told you why?”
Achamian shrugged. “He seeks knowledge of the Three Seas… Why do you ask?”
Instead of answering, the Sclyvendi marches off into the darkness, leaving Achamian baffled Achamian means to ask Kellhus, but forgets by the time the man returns. Achamian seeks his bed. Like most nights, he is plagued by doubts and recrimination because of Kellhus. He worries about Esmenet and what will happen to the Holy War when it faces Fanim. The nightmares grow worse and he grows unable to sleep. He would pray to the gods who damned them both to keep Esmenet safe and his thoughts turn to Kellhus.
Achamian realizes he can talk to Xinemus about his problem, seek his friend’s advice. But he is scared. He had lied to Xinemus about what had happened in the Emperor’s dungeon, unable to tell the truth in the stunned aftermath.
At the time, the lies simply… happened. The events of that night and the revelation that had followed had been too immediate and far too catastrophic in their implication. Even now, two weeks later, Achamian felt overmatched by their dread significance. Back then, he could only flounder. Stories, on the other hand, were something he could make sense of, something he could speak.
How can Achamian explain to his friend that he lied, that he betrayed his trust. As he thinks, he gazes at his companions and wonders if they realize the end is coming. He has to share his burden, and if can’t to the Mandate, then he had to someone else. “If only Esmi had come with… No. that way lay more pain.” So Achamian goes to Xinemus, telling his friend they need to talk. And though Kellhus is distracted, Achamian has the impression the man is watching. He brings up the night of the palace, struggling to speak. But just as Achamian starts to speak, Iryssas interrupts, wanting Xinemus to hear Kellhus’s words.
“It’s just a parable,” the Prince of Atrithau said. “Something I learned while among the Scylvendi… It goes like this: A slender young bull and his harem of cows are shocked to discover that their owner has purchased another bull, far deeper of chest, far thicker of horn, and far more violent of temper. Even still, when the owner’s sons drive the mighty newcomer to pasture, the young bull lowers his horns, begins snorting and stamping. ‘No!’ his cows cry. ‘Please, don’t risk your life for us!’ ‘Risk my life?’ the young bull exclaims. ‘I’m just making sure he knows I’m a bull!’”
Everyone laughs after a moment, then Iryssas gives his interpretation that a man’s dignity and honor are worth more than anything “even our wives!” Xinemus dismisses it as a joke, but Cnaiür interrupts, saying, “It is a parable of courage.” Everyone is silent as he explains it is a way to tell youths that “gestures are meaningless, that only death is real.” Achamian asks Kellhus’s interpretation Kellhus speak, his voice hushing those around him as he says that courage, honor, love are “problems, not absolutes. Questions.” Iryssas disagrees, demanding to know what the solutions are. “Cowardice and depravity?”
“No,” Kellhus replied. “Cowardice and depravity are problems as well. As for solutions? You, Iryssas—you’re a solution. In fact, we’re all solutions. Every life lived sketches a different answer, a different way…”
“So are all solutions equal?” Achamian blurted. The bitterness of his tone startled him.
“A philosopher’s question,” Kellhus replied, and his smile swept away all awkwardness “No. Of course not. Some lives are better lived than others—there can be no doubt. Why do you think we sing the lays we do? Why do you think we revere our scripture? Or ponder the life of the Latter Prophet?”
Examples, Achamian realized Examples of lives that enlightened, that solved… He knew this but couldn’t bring himself to say it. He was, after all, a sorcerer, an example of a life that solved nothing. Without a word, he rolled to his feet and strode into the darkness, not caring what the others thoughts. Suddenly, he needed darkness, solitude…
Shelter from Kellhus.
As Achamian leaves, he realizes he didn’t speak to Xinemus. He decides that’s for the best with all that’s going on. “Xinemus would just think him mad.” An angry Serwë confronts Achamian. He wonders if she’s jealous of the time Kellhus spends with Achamian.
“You needn’t fear,” she said.
Achamian swallowed at the sour taste in his mouth. Earlier, Xinemus had passed perrapta around instead of wine—wretched drink.
Achamian’s heart beats faster. He asks if Serwë dislikes him. As he waits for her answer, he longs for her, desires her beauty. “Only because you refuse to see,” is her answer. Then she flees, leaving Achamian wondering what he doesn’t see as he cries.
Later, Achamian is alone at the fire weeping when Kellhus approaches. He asks what’s wrong. “Is it the Dreams.” Achamian agrees but Kellhus sees it is something more, pressing Achamian on his sleepless nights. Achamian answers “I see his blood in your face, and it fills me with both hope and horror.” Kellhus appears disturbed that Achamian is troubled about him. Achamian explains about the dream of the Celmomas Prophecy and its importance to the Mandate. Achamian grows emotional, speaking in the first person, momentarily forgetting that he isn’t Seswatha.
“You don’t understand! J-just listen… He, Celmomas, spoke to me—to Seswatha—before he died. He spoke to all of us—” Achamian shook his head, cackled, pulled fingers through his beard. “In fact he keeps speaking, night after fucking night, dying time and again—and always for the first time! And-and he says…”
Achamian looked up, suddenly so unashamed of his tears. If he couldn’t bare his soul before this man—so like Ajencis, so like Inrau!—then who?
“He says that an Anasûrimbor—an Anasûrimbor, Kellhus!—will return at the end of the world.”
Kellhus’s expression, normally so blessedly devoid of conflict, darkened. “What are you saying, Akka?”
Achamian says he is the harbinger. That he means the world will end. The Second Apocalypse Kellhus points out the absurdity of it. Kellhus has existed since he was born, that “an Anasûrimbor has always been ‘here.’” Achamian realizes it is just a coincidence. Achamian yearns to hug Kellhus as he grapples with this idea. But then he talks about discovering the Consult and what happened, about how Skeaös was the skin spy.
“But how does that make me the Harbinger?”
Because it means the Consult has mastered the Old Science, Bashrags, Dragons, all the abominations of the Inchoroi, are artifacts of the Tekne, the Old Science, created long, long ago, when the Nonmen still ruled Eärwa It was thought destroyed when the Inchoroi were annihilated by Cû‘jara-Cinmoi—before the Tusk was even written, Kellhus! But these, these skin-spies are new. New artifacts of the Old Science. And if the Consult has rediscovered the Old Science, there’s a chance they know how to resurrect Mog-Pharau…”
And that name stole his breath, winded him like a blow to the chest.
“The No-God,” Kellhus said.
Achamian nodded, swallowing as though his throat were sore. “Yes, the No-God…”
“And now that an Anasûrimbor has returned…”
“That chance has become a near certainty.”
After a studious pause, Kellhus asks what Achamian will do. Achamian says his mission, which is to spy on the Holy War. But he has to decide whether or not to tell the Mandate about Achamian, revealing that he betrays not only them but the world for doing so. Kellhus asks why he hasn’t told them.
Achamian took a deep breath. “Because when I do, they’ll come for you, Kellhus.”
“Perhaps they should.”
“You don’t know my brothers.”
Cnaiür crouches over a sleeping Serwë, studying her as he ponders the events that led him here to advising the Holy War as it marched on Shimeh, home of the Cishaurim. “Anasûrimbor Moënghus was Cishaurim.” Cnaiür is amazed that the “deranged scale of its ambition” Kellhus’s plan is working. Cnaiür understands that this is the only way to get his revenge. He ponders the extant of Moënghus’s power, fearing it includes the Holy War and Kellhus.
Send them a son. What better way could a Dûnyain overthrow his enemies.
Already, the nobles fall silent out of respect to Kellhus, deferring to him, “not the way men acceded rank or station, but the way men yield to those who possess something they need.” Kellhus had convinced them he wasn’t ordinary, but special, using their beliefs and preying upon them. Cnaiür reflects on Kellhus using those beliefs to make himself appear special. When Ingiaban, Palatine of Kethantei, claims that “God favors the righteous” as proof they’ll win. Kellhus interrupts, asking if Ingiaban is righteous Ingiaban says they are because they raise arms against the heathens.
[Kellhus]: “So we raise arms against the heathen because we’re righteous?”
“And because they’re wicked.”
Kellhus smiled with stern compassion. “’He who’s righteous is he who’s found wanting in the ways of God…’ Isn’t this what Sejenus himself writes?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“And who finds men wanting in the ways of the God? Other men?”
The Palatine of Kethantei paled. “No,” he said. “Only the God and his Prophets.”
“So we’re not righteous, then?”
“Yes… I mean, no…” Baffled, Ingiaban looked to Kellhus, a horrible frankness revealed in his face. “I mean… I know longer know what I mean!”
Concessions. Always exacting concessions. Accumulating them.
Kellhus explains that man can only hope he is righteous and can never judge himself to be it. He explains that they are the sacrifice on the altar not the priest making it. “We’re the victim.” They won’t know if they’re righteousness until the end. Proyas finds great merit in it.
Cnaiür feels his own shame while watching Kellhus manipulate others, remembering how Moënghus manipulated Cnaiür as a child. Sometimes he wants to give them warning. But he fears having anything in common with these men.
Sometimes crimes seemed crimes, no matter how ludicrous the victim.
But only sometimes. For the most part Cnaiür merely watched with a numb kind of incredulity. He no longer heard Kellhus speak so much as observed him cut and carve, whittle and hew, as though the man had somehow shattered the glass of language and fashioned knives from the pieces. This word to anger to that word might open. This look to embarrass so that smile might reassure. This insight to remind so that truth might injure, heal, or astonish.
How easy it must have been for Moënghus One stripling lad. One chieftain’s wife.
Cnaiür remembers his mother’s execution for giving birth to Moënghus’s son and Cnaiür wonders why he let it happen. He comes to himself, still kneeling over Serwë, and finds him stabbing his knife into the dirt. He realizes he is feeling remorse for Proyas and the others. Which shocks him.
“So long as what comes before remains shrouded,” Kellhus had said on their trek across the Jiünati Steppe, “so long as men are already deceived, what does it matter?” And what did it matter, making fools of fools? What mattered was whether the man made a fool of him [Cnaiür]; this—this!—was the sharp edge upon which his every thought should bleed Did the Dûnyain speak true? Was he truly his father’s assassin?
I walk with the whirlwind.
He could never forget. He had only his hatred to preserve him.
Kellhus enters and realizes Cnaiür overheard the conversation with Achamian. Cnaiür avoids a debate, getting dressed while Serwë comes awake. Kellhus brings up Cnaiür’s Chorae, asking if he still has it. Cnaiür says of course you know I have it. Kellhus asks how he would. “You know.” Cnaiür calls killing sorcerer’s “treacherous work.” And then horns sound outside.
Late Spring 4111 Year-of-the-Tusk, the province of Anserca
As Emperor Xerius steps from the bath, feeling like a god no, he is surprise to find his mother watching. He implies she’s there to stare at his penis. She, however, is there because she has a gift, a young, virgin slave girl, a Galeoth.
Gifts from Mother—they underscored the treachery of gifts from those who were not ones tributaries. Such gifts weren’t gifts at all, in fact. Such gifts always demanded exchange.
His Mother always knew which men or women would please him, and he can’t deny his joy at her gift. She asks about Skeaös, offended she wasn’t told about what happened. Xerius’s attention is split as he confirms it was the Cishaurim who made Skeaös. She is afraid they know of his plans, but he points out they already know of his plans to betray the Holy War, since he made them with the Fanim. She wants him to reconsider his pact with the Heathens. She points out that he’s been a snake in his bosom, hearing all his plans, which reminds Xerius that there could be others. He isn’t convinced, using what she taught him against her. She only grow angry, throwing out a tirade about using the Holy War to destroy the Cishaurim instead of sparing them.
“This isn’t like you, Mother. You were never one to cower before damnation. Is it because you grow old, hmm? Tell me, what’s it like to stand upon the precipice? To feel your womb wither, to watch the eyes of your lovers grow shy with hidden disgust…”
He’d struck from impulse and found vanity—the only way he knew to injure his mother.
But there was no bruise in her reply. “There comes a time, Xerius, when you care nothing for your spectators. The spectacles of beauty are like baubles of ceremony—for the young, the stupid. The act, Xerius. The act makes mere ornaments of all things. You’ll see.”
He tries to wounder her again, but she doesn’t get hurt, instead whispers that he’s a “monstrous son.” He asks what she regrets, and she responds that regret is inevitable. Xerius doesn’t like that. He suddenly feels pity for his mother, remembering when they had been close, intimate. But those times were gone. He comes close to apology but warns her to drop the subject or she will regret it.
Then he turns his attention to the young slave girl. He pulls her to him and she trembles, crying, as she lowers herself on him and loses her virginity. As he enjoys her, he sees his mother about to leave, and asks her to stay and watch. She says no.
“But you will, Mother. The Emperor is difficult to please. You must instruct her.”
There was a pause, filled only by the girl’s whimper.
“But certainly, my son,” Istiya said at length, and walked grandly over to the couch. The rigid girl flinched when she grasped her hand and drew it down to Xerius’s scrotum. “Gently, child,” she cooed. “Shussh. No weeping.”
Xerius groaned and arched into her, laughed when she chirped in pain. He gazed into his mother’s painted face suspended over the girl’s shoulder, whiter even than the porcelain, Galeoth skin, and he burned with that old, illicit thrill. He felt a child again, careless. All was as it should be. The Gods were auspicious indeed.
“Tell me, Xerius,” his mother said huskily, “how was it that you discovered Skeaös?”
I like how Bakker describes Achamian interacting with Iryssas, Dinchases, and Zenkappa without Xinemus around. Always weird when you’re hanging out with the friends of your friends, that strange awkward stage. It’s also good to remind us about them and their personalities.
Cnaiür is being Cnaiür, trying to puzzle out Kellhus motions, probably debating whether or not to warn Achamian while debating how that might effect his goal of killing Moënghus Cnaiür knows he’s playing a deadly game with Kellhus, but he has no choice but to play it.
The subtle plants of Kellhus plan to be seen as a prophet are already bearing fruit in Achamian’s mind as he thinks about praying to the gods and his thoughts turn to Kellhus.
Achamian finds comfort in stories over lies. Stories can be so much simpler than real life. It is probably why humans are so fascinated with them. They are ways to make sense of the world, to put the chaos into order and tame them. From the earliest mythological tales are ancestors created to explain the world around them to parables of today trying to explain the events of our world by proxy.
Cnaiür’s version of the parable, that only gestures are real, is shown by the young bull. He has to prove he is a bull by not just saying it, but by fighting the stronger one where he’ll probably die. But he does it anyways.
Iryssas is painted as a person who think their feelings trump logic and grow angry when those feelings are called into question, making him “dull-witted.”
We see some of Kellhus’s Dûnyain philosophy in his talk of solutions. That courage, honor, love and other emotions are not absolutes but questions that have to be solved. The Dûnyain believes they have to be removed from the equation to solve it, to distill everything down to the Absolute, the self-moving soul not bound to the examples of the past, like the Latter Prophet, revered for their solutions. They stop people from finding their own.
Achamian’s bitterness during the exchange with Kellhus probably stems from being interrupted right when he had worked up the nerve to talk to Xinemus. Isn’t that so annoying when you try to talk to someone, and someone else butts in and messes it all up. Then we get into Achamian’s depression, focusing on being damned and sees his life as wasted because Kellhus brought of Inri Sejunes. Now, Kellhus is a smart guy. He had to know his words would sting Achamian, to make him face damnation again. The time will come when Kellhus promises salvation for sorcerers.
And avoiding Damnation, as we know from the Consult, is a powerful motivation.
Serwë believes Kellhus is the God. And like all believers, they want others to believe the same, to reinforce that they have chosen the right belief. We all do this. We all cherry pick the data that confirms and reinforces our biases. It is very hard to recognize in yourself and make different choices.
What must it be like to dream another man’s life every night. No wonder Achamian confuses himself for Seswatha when he grows emotional, when logic is at its weakest as emotion overwhelms thought.
And we see once again how Kellhus manipulates, feigning being troubled over Achamian’s revelation of the prophecy than instantly cutting through the problem of it, casting doubt. It’s enough to snap out Achamian from it until he goes on to talk about the skin spy and the its implication. Despite Kellhus’s attempts, Achamian remains fixated on the harbinger. Kellhus had a good plan, but Achamian is too dedicated to it. But he’s also conflicted because he loves Kellhus. Which is the Dûnyain’s most potent weapon. It’s also good to see that Kellhus doesn’t always succeed even on people who aren’t Cnaiür. But now he has more data, understands more of Achamian’s problem. And emotions, after all, are solutions looking to be solved.
Learn a bit more about the Inchoroi here. Ancient race of sci-fi aliens crash-landed on a fantasy world. But they came for a reason. And though the bulk of the race is dead, two survive and the Consult is helping further their goals of escaping Damnation. No wonder a group of human sorcerers went over to the Inchoroi.
As always, Cnaiür’s drive, revenge on Moënghus, is present in his thoughts. This scene reinforces that while simultaneously reintroducing the character, his motivations, and background to re-familiarize readers with what has happened before.
Cnaiür’s understanding of Kellhus is a great insight for us as readers as he is constantly questioning everything, wondering at Kellhus’s motives, what his true aims are. That is what we need to do. We can’t be lulled into liking or trusting this character. Otherwise we are deceived just like Achamian, Serwë, Proyas, Xinemus, and others are.
Kellhus’s exchange with Ingiaban is a great strategy when dealing with someone who believes in something, whether it’s religion or philosophy or another belief structure. If you argue outside of their frame of belief, coming at it from the outside, you will have a hard time convincing them. It is better to use their own beliefs to educate them, to show them how they are wrong, to expose any hypocrisy or mistake in it. Kellhus uses this, adopting their beliefs, to appear greater than he is. Notice how Proyas finds merit it in.
Cnaiür thinks himself better than Proyas and the others, his own vanity keeps him from warning them. He doesn’t want to admit he is them.
Bakker, with Cnaiür’s reflection on how Kellhus manipulates, is reintroducing us to him. But first, Bakker showed us Kellhus doing this to Achamian early in the chapter, first driving him away in anger, then later coming and getting the truth from him. And now we see that it wasn’t accidental, but purposeful.
Nothing Kellhus does is accidental.
Cnaiür struggles to focus on the true question—can he trust Kellhus. Nothing else can matter except that. He had to get his revenge, and he needs to keep his hatred to preserve him. But he wonders if Serwë also is enough. He questions it. She is his proof that he is still Scylvendi, his captive bride. But she is Kellhus’s tool.
Cnaiür’s “You know” about the Chorae is an indication he’s made the connection that if Moënghus is a sorcerer, than Kellhus is probably one too.
Serwë’s comments about the horns not having sounded yet has caused some people theorize that she had a premonition about the horns that then sound just a few lines later. Of course, she could just be complaining about being woke up before the Holy War’s equivalent of an alarm clock. And who wants that?
Cnaiür thinks Kellhus wants the Chorae to kill Achamian, but Kellhus, I think, is looking for a way to protect himself against the other Mandate. If he fails to convince Achamian not to tell his colleagues, everything could fail. He knows he can’t stand against sorcerery. Kellhus learned that in the prologue of book 1 against the Nonman.
And now back to the the Emperor and his dysfunctional relationship with his mother. She likes to bring him men and women to please him to get concessions out of him.
So, this is a bit spoilery for book 3, but it’s hard to talk about Xerius’s mother here without touching on this. She is interrogating him about what happened with Skeaös, what he believes he was, and what he plans on doing about it. She tries to manipulate him into seeing this deal with the Fanim to betray the Holy War is a bad idea, trying to frighten him. Why? Because as Xerius fears, there are other skin spies, and the Empress is one of them. His mother was replaced before even the last book started. We see her in The Darkness that Comes Before working with Skeaös to preserve the Holy War and arguing against betraying it. The Consult wants the Holy War to succeed and Xerius’s betrayal could jeopardize all. She’s focused on sparing not the Fanim but the Cishaurim. Our first clue as to why the Consult wants the Holy War to succeed. I think the Empress was replaced when Skeaös failed to be convincing enough. The Consult realized they needed a second person manipulating him, one that he couldn’t ignore like a counselor.
So why didn’t the Consult replace Xerius directly? He is key to their plans. He can make or break the Holy War. Simple. When is he ever alone? He is surrounded by slaves and servants and officials. Even in the bath, he is attended to. Easier to replace his more vulnerable confidants and use them. Of course, they are up against a paranoid, glory-hungry man with delusions of godhood, so it doesn’t go perfectly.
And we end with Xerius finding his happy place, having sex while his mother watches, remembering when they were lovers when he was a child before he became a man (emperor) and could not allow himself to be controlled by his mother. He yearns for those simpler times. She did a really good job fucking him up.
And then she presses again to learn about Skeaös. How in particular Xerius discovered who he was. To the Consult, having a skin spy unveiled is devastating. They are counting on their agents to manipulate events and pass unseen So on the surface, this scene comes off as perverse, Xerius enjoying a young girl, a gift form his mother, but beneath Bakker is advancing the story of the Consult, showing how they manipulate and operate. It’s not much different than Kellhus. Only he’s so much better at it because even us readers can be seduced by him and think he’s a good guy.