Reread of Prince of Nothing Trilogy
Book 1: The Darkness that Comes Before
by R. Scott Bakker
Welcome to Chapter Five of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Four!
The difference between the strong emperor and the weak is simply this: the former makes the world his arena, while the latter make it his harem.
—Casidas, The Annals of Cenei
What the Men of the Tusk never understood was that the Nansur and the Kianene were old enemies. When two civilized people find themselves at war for centuries, any number of common interests will arise in the midst of their greater antagonism. Ancestral foes share many things: mutual respect, a common history, triumph in stalemate, and a plethora of unspoken truces. The Men of the Tusk were interlopers, an impertinent flood that threatened to wash away the observed channels of a far older enmity.
—Drusas Achamian, Compendium of the First Holy War
Casidas quote has a lot of truth in it from a historical perspective. The problem with hereditary rule is no matter how great the founder, one of his heirs will be an idiot. History abounds with weak rulers who messed up their own countries. Nero comes to mind, Nicholas II, John Lackland, Theodora, etc. And then there are the great kings of history: Julius Cesar, Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, Charlemagne, Cyrus the Great, Justinian. So the question is, what type of emperor is Xerius?
The question is answered by his behavior and self-importance.
I like how Bakker uses Achamian’s quotes to provide background so it won’t have to intrude in the narrative. It explains everything about the relationship between Xerius and Skauras, preparing us for the end of the chapter, and gives a historical perspective of events. Like I’ve said before, the Holy War has a lot in common with the Crusades, with the Nansur Empire standing in for the Byzantium Empire, who in our world had lost the Middle East and North Africa to the Muslims conquests and hoped to use the Crusades to regain their lost territory.
It did not work out well for Byzantium. They managed to linger on for another four hundred years until the Ottomans and their cannons struck down the famed Walls of Constantinople. We’ll see how well it works out for the Nansurs.
Early Summer, 4110 Year-of-the-Tusk, Momemn
Emperor Ikurei Xerius III sits in his audience hall waiting for the arrival of Lord Nersei Calmemunis, Palatine of Kanampurea, and cousin of Prince Nersei Proyas (whom we met in Chapter 3). Months have passed since the Holy War has been called, and thousands have arrived in Momemn to fight. These first arrivals were “low-cast freeman, beggars, and non-hereditary Cultic priest.” Nersei Calmemunis is the first of the Great Names to arrive. The Lords of the Inrithi would be the “keel and rudder of the Holy War.” Xerius intended to be the pilot.
While waiting, Xerius asks his Prime Counsel, Skeaös, if there was word of his nephew, Conphas. Skeaös answers no, but assures Xerius everything is going to be fine. Xerius orders Skeaös to address the court.
With a swish of his silken robes, the wizened Counsel turned tot he other functionaries assembled about the dais. For as long as Xerius could remember, he’d always been surrounded by soldiers, ambassadors, slaves, spies, and astrologers … For as long as he could remember, he’d been the centre of this scuttling herd, the peg from which the tattered mantle of Empire hung. Now it suddenly struck him that he’d never looked into any of their eyes—not once. Matching the Emperor’s gaze was forbidden to those without Imperial Blood. The though horrified.
Save for Skeaös, I know none of these people.
Skeaös instructs the court on how important this audience is. The Nansur Empire is the gateway of the holy war. While Xerius cannot tax or bar the Holy War, he can influence them. Today, Xerius must reveal nothing because the fate of his Empire is at stake.
Nersei Calmemunis enters the court. Xerius is suddenly filled with nerves and looks up at the sparrows that next and fly in the vaults of the court. The sight of the birds always calms his nerves. Grandiosely, Xerius greets Calmemunis. Calmemunis informally greets the emperor (after Conryian fashion) and inquires how Conphas’s war against the Scylvendi to the north is going. Xerius dismiss Calmemunis question, saying it is a simple expedition against the Scylvendi and nothing compared to the Holy War.
Xerius spies revealed that Calmemunis was feuding with Proyas, and the emperor needles Calmemunis with this information (forgetting that he was supposed to seduce Calmemunis, not harrass him, but Xerius’s anger at the informal greeting rules his actions). Calmemunis angrily denies the rumors. Xerius decides Calmemunis is an idiot and will be easily influenced. Finally, Xerius presets Calmemunis with his Indenture.
The Indenture states that the Nansur Empire has long fought the Kiani tribesman and has lost many provinces to them. In exchange for signing the Indenture and agreeing to return imperial land, Xerius will provide provision enough for any lord and his force to march south. Calmemunis is outraged, saying the Shriah said nothing about returning land to the Nansur Empire.
Xerius points out the great cost in supplying the Holy War and that the Nansur Empire needs to be repaid for that service. Calmemunis splutters in the outrage of having to give up whatever heathen lands he conquers.
The stocky officer at his [Calmemunis] side could bear no more. “Sign nothing, Lord Palatine! The Shriah, I wager, has heard nothing of this either.”
“And who would you be?” Xerius snapped.
“Krijates Xinemus,” the man said briskly, “Lord Marshal of Attrempus.”
“Attrempus … Attrempus. Skeaös, please tell me why that name is so familiar?”
“Certainly, God-of-Men. Attrempus is the sister of Atyersus, the fortress that the School of Mandate leases to House Nersei. Lord Xinemus, here, is a close friend of Nersei Proyas”—the old Counsel paused for the briefest of instants, no doubt to allow his Emperor to digest this significance of this—“his childhood sword trainer, if I’m not mistaken.”
Xerius realizes Proyas was not stupid enough to trust Calmemunis and sent Xinemus to babysit. Xerius rebukes Xinemus for breaking protocol. Xinemus ignores Xerius, and reminds Calmemunis they were warned the Emperor would try to play games with the Holy War. Calmemunis is furious when he realizes this. Angrily, Xerius orders Calmemunis to sign his indenture or he and his men will starve.
Calmemunis is incensed that Xerius would twist the Holy War to his own gains. Xerius begins to speak, when bird shit hits his face. Outraged, Xerius orders the Captain of his Eothic Guard, Gaenkelti, to kill the birds. Archers fire at the birds, and arrows and dead sparrows rain down amongst the court. Xerius is delighted to see Calmemunis and his retinue dodging arrows. Soon, all the sparrows are dead or dying.
An impaled sparrow had plopped onto the steps midway between him and the Palatine of Kanampurea. On a whim, Xerius pushed himself from his throne and trotted down the steps. He bent, and scooped up the arrow and its thrashing message. He studied the bird for a moment, watched it convulse and shudder. Was it you, little one? Who bid you do this? Who?
A mere bird would never dare offend an emperor.
He looked up a at Calmemunis and was seized by another whim, this one far darker. Holding shaft and sparrow before him, he approached the dumbstruck Palatine.
“Take this,” Xerius said calmly, “as a token of my esteem.”
Calmemunis and Xinemus storm out of the audience chamber. Xerius rubs at the bird shit on his cheek and wonders aloud what it means. Skeaös thinks he means Calmemunis reaction to the Indenture, and Skeaös reminds Xerius they expected resistance at first. Angrily, Xerius refers to the bird shit on his face.
“Good fortune,” Arithmeas, his favorite augur and astrologer, called out. “Among the lower caste, to be … ah, shat upon by a bird is a great cause of celebration.”
Xerius wanted to laugh, but he could not. “But being shat upon is the only fortune they know, isn’t it?”
“Nevertheless, there’s great wisdom to this belief, God-of-Men. Small misfortunes such as this, the believe, portend good things. Some token blight must always accompany triumph, to remind us of our frailty.”
His cheek tingled, as though it too recognized the truth of the augur’s words. It was an omen! And a good one at that. He could feel it!
Again the Gods have touched me!
Xerius is relieved, and Arithmeas talks about an excellent conjunction between the star Anagke (Xerius star, the Whore of Fate) and the Nail of Heaven. Xerius motions for Arithmeas to follow him out onto the terrace. The palace was built on the Andiamine Heights and all of Momemn is laid out before the Heights. Xerius looks out at the city and asks Arithmeas if he will own the Holy War. Nothing is certain, answers the augur who then gives Xerius instructions on sacrifices to increase the odds. After Arithmeas finishes, Xerius’s mother walks up and dismiss the augur.
As the augur leaves, Xerius asks Arithmeas if he should wash his cheek. The augur says not for three days. Ikurei Istiya, Xerius mother, mocks him for listening to the babbling fool. Xerius notices something odd about her behavior lately and thinks she finally “glimpsed the divinity that dwelt within him.”
Istiya believes Xerius plan is stupid and doomed to failure if he can’t even get Calmemunis, an idiot, to sign it. She believes the Empire will be better off aiding the Holy War.
“Has Maithanet bewitched you as well, Mother? How does one bewitch a witch?”
Laughter. “By offering to destroy her enemies, how else?”
“But the whole world is your enemy, Mother. Or am I mistaken?”
“The whole world is every man’s enemy, Xerius. You’d do well to remember that.”
Istiya turns to Skeaös and asks him what he thinks of Xerius avarice. Xerius protests. Istiya explains it is avarice to try to assassinate Maithanet just because Xerius didn’t own him. And more avarice to try to destroy the Holy War because again Xerius doesn’t own it. Xerius objects, saying he doesn’t mean to destroy the Holy War. Istiya points out that fanatical, hungry, and warlike men are at his doorstep. They may raise arms against the Empire.
Xerius thinks how few provinces are still under his control, all those lost in the south to the Kian, and those in the north not settled for fear of Scylvendi raids. “Empire was the prize, not the wager.” Xerius explains to Istiya he plans on providing enough food to the Men of the Tusk to keep them from starving, but not enough to provision a march. Istiya asks what if Maithanet orders him to provide provisions. Xerius points out if he provisioned Calmemunis, the idiot would march immediately, certain he could destroy the Fanim. Maithanet will pretend to be angry but will secretly be thankful that Xerius’s plot allows time for the armies to gather. Why else did Maithanet set Momemn and not Sumna as the rally. Istiya asks Xerius if he is being used by Maithanet then.
Xerius no long underestimated Maithanet. The Nansur empire is doomed and Maithanet knows it. He fears the Scylvendi Tribes uniting and riding on the Empire. This was how the Kyraneas Empire and the Ceneian Empire had fallen two and one thousand years ago respectively. Xerius was certain Nansur would fall, and the Sclyvendi would retreat like they always did. Then nothing would stop the Kian from taking over the Nansur lands, including Sumna, the Thousand Temples, and the Tusk.
Istiya changes tactics and points out the lords will ignore you Indenture once they have taken the heathen lands. Xerius agrees but believes the Indenture will be useful. Istiya thinks about it and realizes that Xerius will use the Indenture to protect from Shrial censure when he reconquers land taken from the heathen by lords who signed his agreement. Istiya asks if that is why he sent his nephew, Conphas, to his death against the Scylvendi.
Finally, Xerius sees her true motive. Xerius has long suspected she means for Conphas, Xerius nephew and heir, to be a reformer for the empire. Istiya continues, saying to prosecute a war against the Men of the Tusk, he would need manpower. The Sclyvendi threat must be dealt with to free up the soldiers garrisoned in the north. Istiya calls his plan mad. Xerius says it is daring.
“Daring?” she cried, as though the word had unlatched something deranged within her. “By the Gods, how I wished I’d strangled you in your cradle! Such a foolish son! You’ve doomed us, Xerius. Can’t you see? No one, no High King of Kyraneas, no Aspect-Emperor of Cenei, has ever defeated the Scylvendi on their ground. They are the People of War, Xerius! Conphas is dead! The flower of your army is dead! Xerius! Xerius! You’ve brought catastrophe upon us all!”
“Mother, no! Conphas assured me he could do it! He’s studied the Scylvendi as no other! He knows their weakness!”
“Xerius. Poor sweet fool, can’t you see that Conphas is still a child? Brilliant, fearless, as beautiful as God, but still a child …” She clutched at her cheeks and began clawing. “You’ve killed my child!” she wailed.
Xerius is panicked, and turns to Skeaös for reassurance. Skeaös says that Xerius has made a wager, and only time will tell. Xerius begins to calm himself down, reassuring himself that Conphas knows what he is doing. Xerius turns to his court, and sees fear. He tells them that men are frail and fallible but that he is Emperor, Divine. The court fall to their knees, but Istiya still protests, asking what happens when Conphas fails and the Sclyvendi come.
Xerius calls her old and fearful, her beauty withered away. Istiya, in a rage, tries to strike him but is restrained by her eunuch, Pisathulas. She shrieks that she should have killed him. Xerius orders her taken to her room and physicians to attend her.
After Xerius reassures his court again, Skeaös tells Xerius an emissary from the Fanim has been sent in reply to Xerius request for a parlay. A Cishaurim. Everyone grows fearful at the mention of the heathen Sorcerer-Priest.
The meeting with the Cishaurim emissary is in a small courtyard. Xerius clutches his Chorae in his fist. Cememketri, the Grandmaster of the Imperial Saik, has joined him. Two other Imperial Saik sorcerers and twelve Chorae crossbowmen guard the emperor.
The Cishaurim is escorted in by the Eothic guards, the elite soldiers who guard the palace. Xerius is unnerved by the Cishaurim’s eyeless gaze. A serpent, like stories said, was wrapped around the Cishaurim’s neck. Xerius asks Cememketri if he sees the mark of sorcery on the Cishaurim. Cememketri sees no mark.
The Cishaurim introduces himself as Mallahet. Cememketri breaks protocol and tells the emperor to leave at once because Mallahet is second only to the Heresiarch, and only because a non-Kianene is barred from leading the Cishaurim. Skeaös agrees, saying he will conduct the negotiation. Xerius ignores them, and greets Mallahet. Gaenkelti orders Mallahet to kneel before the Emperor, but Mallahet objects, a Fanim kneels only to the Solitary God. Xerius suspends Protocol for the occasion.
Mallahet summons the image of Skauras, the Sapatishah-Governor of Shigek, to negotiate. Xerius is offended the the Padirajah is not negotiating himself. Skauras replies that Xerius is not important enough to concern the Padirajah. Skauras knows of Xerius schemes to wrest the Holy War and thinks it will fail, that Conphas will lose to the Scylvendi.
Eight years earlier, Skauras lost three sons in an expedition against the Sclyvendi at Zirkirta. Xerius informs Skauras that Conphas won’t lose like he did. Skauras concedes Conphas may succeed, but that won’t change anything. Xerius still will not get control of the Holy War. Xerius will sell Maithanet his Imperial Saik in exchange for his Indenture being signed.
Skauras laughs and reveals that he knows more of Maithanet’s plans then Xerius does. Maithanet has already allied with the Scarlet Spire. Skeaös calls Skauras a liar, but Cememketri points out why would he lie. The Fanim would rather negotiate with us then Maithanet.
Xerius points out the Fanim are doomed regardless of who possess the holy war. Skauras is glad that Xerius understands they both are negotiating from weakness. A new plan begins to form in Xerius head around Calmemunis.
“To Men of the Tusk you and your people are little more than sacrificial victims, Sapatishah. They speak and act as though their triumph is already inked in scripture. Perhaps the time will come when they respect you as we do.”
“Shrai laksara kah.”
“You mean fear.”
Everything now hinged on his nephew, far to the north. More than ever. The omens…
“As I said—respect.”
“Ikurei Xerius III was no fool.”
Xerius believes he is not a fool. He thinks he understands the limits of his intellect and ability, but his actions are another matter. He is a weak ruler, one who will make a “harem of the world.” The problem, though, is he is just smart enough to be dangerous and egotistical to believe he is infallible. Look at the way he rationalizes everything into his own belief in his divinity and how everything will be all right. His Counsel, Skeaös, is intelligent and spends a lot of effort checking Xerius’s impulses, even if he fails. The rest of Xerius court are a bunch of sycophants who would not question Xerius’s decision. Look at the swiftness Gaenkelti obeyed. He didn’t hesitate to have his archers fire arrows in the room. It’s lucky no one was injured or killed. Not that Xerius would have cared.
The Nansur Empire is in a similar position to the Byzantine Empire during the crusades. At the time, they have been holding back the Islamic Caliphate for several hundred years. When the Crusades were called, the Byzantines unsuccessfully tried to get the Crusaders to return their land to them. Of course, this was after the Great Schism, and the Roman Catholic church had named the Eastern church apostate. The Byzantines were actually cutting deals with the Islamic nations because they trusted them over the western Crusaders.
Xerius’s relationship with his mother is very dysfunctional. He is both attracted to her and repulsed by her. She is in her sixties now, but still possess the grace of a younger woman. Xerius and Istiya constantly needle each other, and he is paranoid she is plotting with Conphas. Paranoia is not a good trait in any ruler, nor is an Oedipus complex. As usual, Bakker has to go to the disgusting and/or creepy side of human behavior. As the story unfolds, we see just how incestuous it gets.
Calmemunis stupidity will only continue to grow. But we did get the introduction of Xinemus, one of my favorite characters. Greed motivates Calmemunis. He wants the opportunity to carve out his own lands outside of the future rule of his cousin, Nersei. Nersei, according to rumors, had him whipped for impiety. I don’t blame Calmemunis for not wanting to be under that guy’s thumb. Nothing worse then zealotry and power. But we’ll have time to talk about that later as Proyas takes a larger role in the story.
Bakker’s use of titles are great. He has palatines, which historically was a title granted by a sovereign and were representatives of the king, but in this world seem to act more like dukes. Aspect-Emperor is another great title. And then the Kianene titles Sapatishah and Padirajah sound like a mix of Persian and Indian titles.
The last scene were Xerius spars/negotiates with Skauras is great. Skauras’s loathing of Xerius seeps through, but he has no choice but negotiate with him. The combined might of the Inrithi Nations is more than Kian can face. How terrible it must be to put your fate in the hands of a bitter enemy. The Drusas quote from the start of the chapter works so well here. Everything we need to know about the relationship between Skauras and Xerius is in that quote.
Also, Mallahet is a foreigner. I wonder where he might be from, originally…
Several instances, Xerius notes differences in the attitudes of both his mother and Skeaös. “The old ingrate, Xerius was convinced, we becoming as bad as his [Xerius’s] mother.” In this series, any change in behavior should be noted and observed.
And Xerius has a plan. He thinks he is best when under pressure. For his empire’s sake, Xerius better be right.