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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Eight

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Eight

River Rohil

Welcome to Chapter Eight of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Seven!

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.

—MEREMPOMPAS, EPISTEMATA

My Thoughts

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.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

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.”

My Thoughts

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.

The Herd.

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.

Click here to continue on to Chapter 9!

And you have to check out my fantasy novel, Above the Storm!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Seven

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Seven

Sakarpus

Welcome to Chapter Seven of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Six!

…conquered people live and die with the knowledge that survival does not suffer honour. They have chosen shame over the pyre, the slow flame for the quick.

—TRIAMIS 1, JOURNALS AND DIALOGUES

My Thoughts

This is very applicable considering were delving back into Sorweel. He has survived. This was something his father couldn’t do. Harweel had chosen honor over suffering the shame of living with the aftermath. Now Sorweel has to. He faces that slow pain, having to live with it every day. It’s so much, he’s suicidal. He wishes he didn’t survive because it has stripped away his self-delusions about his heroic nature.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Sakarpus

In the aftermath of Sakarpus’s fall, the soldiers of the Ordeal marvel at the large flocks of storks that cover the hills. None could agree with what they meant since every people viewed storks differently. Kellhus merely forbade them from behind hunted because the Sakarpi considered them holy. They guard them against predators while collecting their droppings to use as fuel since wood was scarce. Several soldiers are executed for hunting the birds before the Men of the Ordeal learn to live with them. They even began to see them as holy.

Meetings are held and preparations made for the march, overseen by the “all-seeing eyes of their Aspect-Emperor.” There is some trepidation. They are on the edge of the Lands of Men. From here, only Sranc rule. King Saubon was heard saying, “Men are more lamb than lion.” They had two-thousand miles of wildness to cross and they know the march will be bloodier than fighting the Consult.

That is why the New Empire has prepared for a decade, gathering resources. Even now, a road is being constructed from Sakarpus to Oswenta to allow the fast transportation of the supplies they would need. They would live on amicut, what the Scylvendi survive on while campaigning. With them would travel herds of sheep and cattle. Still, this wouldn’t be enough food. They would have to hunt as they traveled. Legendary Imperial Trackers had scouted these lands at great cost of life to map the terrain they would cross. They would have until Winter to reach Golgotterath. If they failed to do so, they would die in the northern winter.

Then there are the Sranc. Though they’ve had their numbers decimated by the Bounty, there are still unknown thousands, maybe millions, the Ordeal will face. Forced to divide their forces to forage to survive will weaken them against his threat. They can’t anticipate how the Consult will employ the Sranc, if at all. Their odds of surviving are slim.

For all these reasons, Sakarpus was vital. They didn’t just need her Chorae Hoard. They needed the people here to be cooperative. They didn’t crush them with the rod but offered hands of friendship. If the Sakarpi rebelled, it would disrupt their supply lines and delay their departure.

This was how the fateful decision was made to place the young King of Sakarpus, Sorweel, in the care of the Aspect-Emperor’s two eldest sons, Moënghus and Kayûtas.

“When he becomes a brother to them,” his Arcane Holiness explained to his old friends, “he will be as a son to me.”

Moënghus and Kayûtas enter Sorweel’s room without much fanfare. Kayûtas speaks flawless Sakarpic and tells Sorweel that he’s riding in his command tomorrow. Moënghus merely snags leftovers from Sorweel’s plate and fixes “Murderous blue eyes” on Sorweel. The young King makes a joke bringing a growling laugh from Moënghus who answers in Sheyic. Kayûtas turns this into his own joke that makes Sorweel smile, losing his first battle.

They’re hunters, he [Sorweel] told himself, sent to run down my heart.

The weight of the defeat is crushing Sorweel. He has trouble sleeping thinking, “I am a king of widows and orphans.” He replays the defeat in his mind over and over, knowing he’s a prisoner. Despite his sleepless nights, they’re also his reprieve from everything. He can remember his father clearly at night, especially talking about his dead mother. Sorweel’s days are different. He is the puppet king holding court. It’s a theater. He plays at ruling at Kellhus’s command while knowing it’s a betrayal of his people.

He learned that he lacked the ability to do and to believe contradictory things. Where a nobler soul would have found consistency in his acts, he seemed to find it in his beliefs. He simply believed what he needed to believe in order to act as his conquerors wished him to act. While he muddled through the schedule his foreign secretaries arranged for him, while he sat in their perfumed presence, it seemed that things were as the Aspect-Emperor claimed, that the world turned beneath the shadow of the Second Apocalypse, and that all Men must act of one accord to preserve the future, no matter how much it might offend their pride.

All Kings answer to holy writ,” the godlike man had told him. “And so long as that writ is otherworldly, they willingly acknowledge as much. But when it comes to them as I come to them, wearing the flesh of their fellow man, they confuse the sanctity of obeying the Law with the shame of submitting to a rival.” A warm laugh, like a dear uncle admitting a harmless folly. “All men think themselves closer to the God than others. And so they rebel, raise arms against the very thing they claim to serve…

Against me.”

Whenever Sorweel is before Kellhus, he’s overwhelmed by awe for him, he believes that his father’s pride had interfered with his duty to his people. It was all a mistake. But when Sorweel leaves Kellhus’s presence, the memory of his father’s warning that Kellhus is a demon return. He feels like an idiot for succumbing once more and remembers his father’s last words that Kellhus needs Sakarpus and Sorweel. The young king is confused about his father’s words would mean the Great Ordeal is a sham. All these people have been tricked. “It seemed impossible that so many could be so thoroughly deceived.”

When King Proyas’s tells Sorweel of Kellhus’s miracles, it’s so honest. Sorweel wonders if he’s being stubborn like his father, refusing to see the truth. By day, he sees signs of his father’s mistake everywhere. But at night, he is free of it all and his father’s words, his presence, surrounds him. He even pretends to hold conversations with his father.

At night, the young King could simply close his eyes and refuse. This was the secret comfort of orphans: the ability to believe according to want and not world—whatever it took to numb the ache of things lost.

I miss her too, Da…

Almost as much as I miss you.

A slave fetches him the next morning. He’s relieved that the farce of pretending to be king is over. He’s leaving Sakarpus. He pretends it’s a simple outing but knows he’s abdicating, abandoning his people.

More than walls had been overthrown with the coming of the Aspect-Emperor.

Sorweel looks ahead, afraid to meet the gazes of his countrymen, as the slave leads him out the Herder’s Gate. As he leaves the strong walls that had stopped the No-God, he can’t believe his people’s naivety. How could the Aspect-Emperor be stronger? Then he thinks of his father dying on those walls. They reach the camp and pass through the maze of tents. The Men of the Ordeal are getting ready to leave, hardly giving him a glance. Sorweel sees men from every nation as the silent slave leads him on with confidence.

Before meeting the Aspect-Emperor, Sorweel would have thought it impossible that one man could make an instrument of so many disparate souls. The Sakarpi were a sparse people. But even with their meager number, not to mention common language and traditions, King Harweel had found it difficult to overcome their feuds and grudges. The more Sorweel pondered it, the more miraculous it seemed that all the Men of the Three Seas, with their contradictory tongues and ancient animosities, could find common purpose.

Everywhere he looked, he could see it, hanging slack in the windless morning: the Circumfix.

Wasn’t there proof in miracles? Isn’t that what the priest said?

Sorweel realizes he can get lost in the vast numbers of the Great Ordeal and be anonymous. It’s comforting. That’s shattered when he spots Tasweer, the son of a High Boonsmen, being led in chains. This shocks Sorweel and he remembers seeing Tasweer in the battle. The prisoner glares with sullen anger at everyone and Sorweel looks away. Tasweer sees him. He’s at first shocked. Then he begs Sorweel to fight back. To resist. He’s clubbed down by the escorts.

As had happened so many times since the city’s fall, Sorweel found himself divided, struck into two separate soul, one real, the other ethereal. In his soul’s eye, he slipped from his saddle, his boots slapping into wheezing mud, and shouldered his way past the Conryians. He pulled Tasweer to his knees, held his head behind the ear. Blood pulsed from the captive’s nostrils, clotted the coarse growth rising from his jaw. “Did you see?” Sorweel cried to the broken face. “Tasweer! Did you see what happened to my father?”

But the bodily Sorweel simply continued after his guide, his skin porcelain with chill.

“Noooo!” pealed hoarse into air behind him, followed by raucous laughter.

The young King of Sakarpus resumed his study of the nonexistent weather. The true horror of defeat, a kernel of him realized, lay not in the fact of capitulation, but in the way it kenneled in the heart, the way it loitered and bred and bred and bred.

The way it made fate out of falling.

Finally, Sorweel is led to the northern edge of the army where horseman are running drills on horses similar to the small, hearty breeds of Sakarpus. He’s taken to a nearby command tent. Passing soldiers call out in greeting, but Sorweel doesn’t understand their words. Are they insults or greetings? The command tent has the Kidruhil heavy cavalry’s banner. The guard nods and lets Sorweel and the slave enter.

Inside, Anasûrimbor Kayûtas lounges at a table with a secretary writing on papyrus. Kayûtas studies the papers on the table, ignoring Sorweel. The slave kneels and leaves. After a few more moments, Kayûtas says Sorweel is wondering if it was an insult or not to have a slave fetch him. Sorweel says it’s an insult.

A handsome smirk. “I fear no court is so simple.”

Kayûtas drinks water while Sorweel trembles, uncomfortable standing before “the son of a living god.” Kayûtas looks so much like his father down to “the same unnerving manner.” Everything seems deliberate, decided beforehand. However, it’s not quite as over-awing as Kellhus. Kayûtas still feels mortal. He could bleed.

Kayûtas, knowing the Sakarpi hate useless pleasantries, says they’ll dispense with jnan and speak honestly. Sorweel agrees to Kayûtas’s relief. He tells Sorweel that his people’s obedience is needed, so the Great Ordeal needs Sorweel. Kayûtas then speaks Sorweel’s fears that this conversation is just to trick him into betraying his people. He gives a guarded answer.

“Perhaps,” Kayûtas repeated with a snort., “So much for not measuring tongues!”

A dull and resentful glare.

Kayûtas says he’ll keep speaking plain. He says while he’s not a sorcerer, he has Kellhus’s talent at languages and can read people’s souls through their faces. Maybe not as good as Kellhus, but he can see Sorweel’s anguish. Kayûtas thinks Sakarpus’s defiance is idiotic but understands it. He just won’t commiserate, treating Sorweel the way Harweel would. “Men weep to wives and pillows.” That comment makes Sorweel wonder if spies watch him sleep.

Kayûtas then continues he’s not happy having to hold this conversation with Sorweel or has this task, given to him by Kellhus. He hates politics and wishes his and Sorweel’s relationship was an honest one. But Kayûtas will obey his father, who’s a God.

He [Kayûtas] paused as though to leave room for Sorweel to reply, but the young King could scare order his thoughts, let alone speak. Kayûtas had been every bit as direct as he had promised, and yet at the same time his discourse seemed bent to the point of deformity, charged with a too-penetrating intelligence, pleated with an almost obscene self-awareness…

Who were these people?

Kayûtas says he can see sedition and vengeance in Sorweel’s eyes. He also sees that Sorweel struggles with whether Kellhus is a demon or the Savior of Mankind. Kayûtas understands this doubt and asks Sorweel to be open-minded because the proof will come. And, if they survive, their conversations might be different.

Sorweel stood rigid, braced against the sense of futility that whelmed through him. How? was all he could think. How does one war against foes such as this?

Kayûtas then says he has to learn Sheyic, the instructor already chosen, since he’s now a captain of the Kidruhil’s Company of Scions with Kayûtas his general. He asks if Sorweel is okay with this and he asks if he has a choice. Kayûtas says as a son of a warlike people riding into battle will let Sorweel find out what sort of kin he is. Otherwise, he can stay a puppet in Sakarpus.

He scares understood what was happening, so how could he know what he should or shouldn’t do? But there was heart to be found in the sound of resolution. And besides, he was developing a talent for petulant remarks. “As I said,” Sorweel replied, “what choice.”

Anasûrimbor Kayûtas nodded, rather like a field surgeon regarding his handiwork, Sorweel thought.

It is enough that I obey…

Kayûtas says the slave, Porsparian, that brought Sorweel shall be his teacher in Sheyic until a proper instructor can be found. Sorweel is then given the slave’s writ of bondage. This shocks Sorweel while Kayûtas says he knows Sorweel will care for the slave. Sorweel feels numb and retreats, but is stopped.

“Oh, yes, and one final thing,” he [Kayûtas] said to the papyrus. “My elder brother, Moënghus… Beware him.”

The young King tried to reply but came to a stammering halt. He grimaced, breathed past the hammering of his heart, then tried again. “Wh-why is that?”

“Because,” Kayûtas said, his eyes still ranging the inked characters, “he’s quite mad.”

Sorweel leaves confused at what he should do. He feels the full weight of the Great Ordeal and knows Sakarpus is nothing compared to the New Empire’s might. These men saw Sorweel’s people as shit-herders. He feels a blankness reach through him and is beset by loneliness. Porsparian comes up to him. Sorweel starts to speak, but tears cut him off.

The old man gawked in voiceless alarm. He grasped Sorweel’s forearms and gently pressed the writ against the padded fabric of his tunic. And Sorweel could only think, Wool, her stands the King dressed in woolen rags.

I failed him!” he sobbed to the uncomprehending slave. “Don’t you see? I failed!”

The old Shigeki gripped him [Sorweel] by the shoulders, stared long and hard into his anguished eyes. The man’s face, it seemed, was not so different from the writ Sorweel held against his breast: smooth save where scored with lines of unknown script, across the forehead, about the eyes and snout, as dark as any ink, as if god who had carved him had struck too deep with the knife.

Sorweel asks what he’s to do. The man just nods, his eyes fixed on Sorweel. This calms him and “the roaring in his ears fell away.” Porsparian leads Sorweel to his tent. It holds a cot and a mat for the slave. He spends sits in a daze for hours at Porsparian, hardly noticing when his belongings are brought. Then he clutches his father’s torc, a relic of Sorweel’s family.

Near dusk, King Proyas arrives and says some encouraging words in Sheyic that fail to rouse Sorweel. Proyas gazes at Sorweel like he recognizes his past in the young king. The slave stays bowed the entire time. When he leaves, Sorweel sits with his slave in silence, thinking. He can hear the evening bustle outside. The sound of someone pissing outside their tent causes Sorweel to smile at his slave. They share a moment of absurd laughter.

Porsparian lights a lantern and fetches Sorweel dinner after that. While waiting, he just stares at the burning lamp wick, thinking the flame is pure and almost believes that “burning was the most blissful of death of all.” Sorweel has no appetite and gives it to his slave after some convincing.

He thought it strange the way Men did not need to share a language to speak about food.

After accepting, the slave digs at the floor and forms a ritual mouth in the earth in the middle of the tent. He exposes the black soil and places the bread in it. Sorweel thinks it’s a trick of the light when the mouth closed. The slave is satisfied and then eats the meal with the “crude honesty of a Saglander.” It makes Sorweel feel sad. He then realizes how different he is from this slave and yet they share in this, neither talking since they don’t speak the same language.

Nothing needed to be spoken because all could be seen.

A fit of generosity seizes Sorweel, and he pulls out Porsparian’s slave papers. “What did it matter, he thought, when he was already dead?” Sorweel finds freedom in loss, but Sorweel grows nervous. When Sorweel goes to burn it, Porsparian snatches, cursing at Sorweel. For a moment, Sorweel thinks the slave will hit him, but Porsparian just puts out the flames burning the paper. They face each other, the king confused and the slave defiant.

“We are free people,” Sorweel said, warring against a renewed sense of dread and futility. “We don’t trade Men like cattle.”

The yellow-eyed Shigeki shook his head in a slow and deliberate manner. As though relinquishing a knife, he set the writ onto the mussed blankets of Sorweel’s cot.

Then he did something inexplicable.

Covering his finger in soot, he traces sickle over his heart and says “Yatwer” over and over. Sorweel is confused. Porsparian grabs Sorweel’s arm and turns his hand over, forming the king’s hand into a cup. The slave kisses his palm and a tear falls on Sorweel.

It seemed to burn and cut all at once, like something molten falling through snow.

Then the slave uttered a single word in Sakarpic, so sudden and so clear that Sorweel nearly jumped.

War…”

Sorweel is awed that even slaves in the Ordeal have powers. As Porsparian sleeps, Sorweel stares at his blistered palm through the night. The slave snores. As night deepens, the silence outside makes him feel like his tent is all there is. In a moment of absolute silence, he asks death to take him, the closest he’s come to prayer since his father’s death. A sound after that disturbs him. It grows, loud and rippling around him. For a moment, he thinks it’s the Ordeal butchering his people before he realizes its the storks all crying out like they always do every year. His people believe they each sing to a different star, praying for their hatching goslings. This makes him think of his mother and he falls asleep. He thinks about his mother taking him to the Viturnal Nesting. He was awed to see all those storks.

Do you know they come here, Sorwa?”

No, Mama…”

Because our city is the Refuge, the hinge of the Worldly Wheel. They come here as our forefathers once came, Darling…”

Her smile. It had always seemed the world’s most obvious thing.

They come so that their children might be safe.”

He wakes up to his father weeping for Sorweel’s mother. Sorweel tells his dad that she still watches over them. This straightens his father. He turns to face him and Sorweel recoils from the sight.

The ghost of Harweel turned its burned head, revealing a face devoid of hope and eyes. Beetles dropped from the joints of his blasted armour, clicked and scuttled in the dark.

The dead, it grated without sound, cannot see.

At dawn, the Ordeal breaks camp. A large team of ox drags a huge wagon to the top of a hill. It’s a massive construct, reinforced with iron plates. Slaves unfurl the felt covering the frame and reveal a cylinder of iron with the script of the Tusk copied on it. This is the Prayer Hammer. A eunuch strikes it once at the command of the High-Priest, ringing the Interval. Everyone turns to the North. The Thunyeri break the silence with curses to the Sranc and Consult. Then the entire Ordeal is hurtling their defiance at Golgotterath, repeating Thunyeri curses. They all picture the destruction of the dread fortress. They believe their victory is assured.

Hur rutwas matal skee!

Hur rutwas matal skee!

The Interval rings again. Then Kellhus appears walking across the sky shining like the sun. He looks messianic. Cries of adoration rise from the host to him, people raising hands to touch him. He begins speaking to them, telling them to take hold of his light as they head into the shadows. The sun rises as he speaks. Everyone falls to their knees in adoration, crying “for the light had come to them…”

And the sun had followed.

“AMONG ALL PEOPLES, ONLY YOU HAVE TAKEN UP THE YOKE OF APOCALYPSE. AMONG ALL PEOPLES, ONLY YOU…”

The Sakarpi are shocked, realizing that the Great Ordeal really was marching for Golgotterath. That their conquest wasn’t part of Unification Wars. They witnessed the Aspect-Emperor’s majesty. None mocked him. Instead, they listened to him even though he speaks a foreign tongue. They realize they’re witnessing history like something from The Sagas.

The day the Great Ordeal marched beyond the frontiers of Men.

The proudest Sakarpi think the Ordeal are fools and will die, but after watching the massive army march north, many are listening to the sermons of the Judges left behind. Many of them have embraced the Circumfix, full of awe and disdain for those who refuse to believe. “Pride, the Judges had told them, was ever the sin of fools.”

That night they knelt for what seemed the first time, gave voice to the great unanswered ache in their hearts. They held their Circumfixes hot between moist palms, and they prayed. And the chill that pimpled their skin seemed holy.

They knew what they had seemed, what they had felt.

For who could be such a fool as to mistake Truth?

My Thoughts

Denied hunting the birds, the Men of the Ordeal (and I keep wanting to type Men of the Tusk FYI), rationalize their decision not to kill these annoying birds because they must be holy. Their reasons have given shape to their illogical actions so it harmonizes with their sense of self.

Bakker sets out the problems facing the Great Ordeal (NOT the Holy War, which I also want to type), letting us know what dangers and trials they’ll face on the march. Nothing that comes will be surprising save in the level of its brutality.

Kayûtas can speak flawless Sakarpic. I think he’s the closest Dûnyain of all the children, he just didn’t get the magic genes. But he can pull off the charisma, has a gift for language. Serwa is probably the next closets, and she does have some emotions but Kellhus made sure they didn’t develop properly.

We see that Sorweel’s depressing surrender to the events and how he just allows himself to slip into the role of a puppet king. It is a precursor to becoming Yatwer’s Narindar. Her puppet. He’s someone that goes with the flow. Malleable. No wonder Kellhus sees his seduction as something easy to accomplish.

Since we can only know ourselves, it’s easy for us humans to think we’re better than everyone. We know why we’re doing the things we are. Why they are right because they must be right to us. That is the danger for those who don’t have any introspection. They will do so much harm thinking it’s the right thing to do without even realizing they’re pursuing their own selfish greed. Satiating their lusts for power or domination or control.

We see the pressure on Sorweel. The demands to conform. To want to accept the consensus. He thinks that if everyone else believes something is true then it is, but that’s a logical fallacy. The Appeal to Consensus. But it’s a powerful one. It works on you. When you see yourself as the only one plagued with doubts, it’s easy to forget that all those confident people are like you. Their inner turmoil is hidden away. They, too, want to conform. It’s an insidious social pressure that molds humans to act like the in-group.

Sorweel is facing the reality of being a rebel. In defying conquerors. We all believe we would resist, but most of us would adapt. Try to continue our lives without conflict and survive. We might fantasize about it, but when actions are required, we would keep on walking like Sorweel. His imagination is the way the “conquered prince” trope would play out in other fantasies.

We see Kayûtas doing classic Dûnyain tactics. Making Sorweel uncomfortable, asking direct questions to make the king reveal his biases and perceptions, then Kayûtas remarking that he doesn’t like things the way they are. All arranged so perfectly.

Sorweel claims he honest conversation and, of course, almost immediately reveals he doesn’t want that at all by giving a guarded response. He’s nervous here, cagey. He is suspicious of being trapped into betraying his people while Kayûtas is doing the Dûnyain thing of being open and honest, giving real truths to win trust.

Kayûtas laments that the two can’t be friends because of politics, wishing it wasn’t in the way. Words designed to lower Sorweel’s guard. To work to make their friendship a “reality.” Kayûtas even admits to his own weakness, an offering of trust designed to reciprocate an equal action from Sorweel.

I think we are seeing the start of Sorweel’s steps into becoming Narindar here. He’s realizing Kayûtas is acting. It’s a level of sophistication that should be beyond a naïve, young man like Sorweel. He’s being visited by his father weeping about his dead mother, and the slave who is about to introduce Sorweel to the Dread Mother has lead him to this room. In fact, Porsparian guided Sorweel “unerringly” through the camp.

Right before Sorweel breaks down and cries with Porsparian, he feels something reach through him. Then he cries before the follower of Yatwer who guides him on his first steps of the Dread Mother’s plans. As he calms down, the roaring in his ears dwindles. Nannaferi heard roaring in her ears when Yatwer spoke to her.

Fire is such a simple thing. It burns. Sorweel’s life used to be simple, now it’s so complicated. He seems to wish he died with his father on the wall. It would be easier than surviving, which ties in with the epigram for this chapter.

Sharing food with his slave. Something so simple, no language is needed. Sorweel finds comfort in it. Then we see the first overt sign of Yatwer in this storyline with the offering of food. That was no trick of the light, though Bakker is playing with us still, creating the doubt.

“Nothing needed to be spoken because all could be seen.” In other words, language is the source of lies.

We have a contrast between the Dûnyain using words and seeming honesty (though we know you can’t trust Kayûtas’s motivations and reasons for his manipulation). Then we have the slave, not able to speak a word Sorweel can understand, and forges an actual connection between the pair. Open and honest.

Sorweel feels dead. He wishes he was dead. And now he’s going to symbolical sacrifice the writ of bondage to set Porsparian free through the same sort of “loss” that Sorweel is feeling.

I never realized just how suicidal Sorweel is in the beginning. He wants to burn. He begs for death to take him. Surviving and realizing he’s not the strong, heroic man who can defy the evil empire that has conquered his people is too much for him. It’s shattered his illusions of himself and the strength o his people while the actions of Kellhus makes him doubt his father’s courage, seeing it stained with pride and arrogance.

He yearns to be that child with his mother again. He’s having the painful transition into adulthood realizing his parents, or his father, is just as flawed as he is.

Not sure if this is really his father’s ghost or not. I don’t think it is. I think it’s just a nightmare. His fear that his father isn’t what he thought and he’s even being robbed of the comfort of his mother. Perhaps this is Yatwer preparing him for what she needs since he’s now been claimed by her.

“For who could be such a fool as to mistake Truth?” I love the last line of this chapter. Those who believe Kellhus is a god think he must be. That it’s Truth. They think they can recognize it, but humans are terrible at it. The new converts in Sakarpus think those who don’t believe are full of pride even as they take pride in their new religion and use it to elevate their own sense of self-superiority over their neighbors.

Click here for Chapter Eight of the Reread!

And you have to check out my fantasy novel, Above the Storm!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Six

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Six

Marrow

Welcome to Chapter Six of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Five!

Ask the dead and they will tell you. All roads are not equal. Verily, even maps can sin.

—EKYANNUS 1, 44 EPISTLES

What the world merely kills, Men murder.

—SCYLVENDI PROVERB

My Thoughts

The first quote, while talking about how every life is different, also has that last part about maps sinning. Maps are something made by men. And for it to be a sin, then it was made to lead you astray. To take you down the wrong path. It is probably a warning against false teachers of scripture, since it is from one of the holy books, I believe.

Either way, it is telling you that you can’t just trust what others tell us.

Then we come to the Scylvendi proverb that reinforces this. The world is random. It’s chance. Yes, you might die because of a disease or because you got lost in the woods. Exposure can kill you. Even a hungry beast can kill you, but it’s not done out of intent. But men know what they’re doing and still kill. Murder is the act of taking a life when you don’t have the right.

Murder is all about the intent.

Both of these quotes are about how men are different from the world. From the natural chaos of things. They are warnings to be wary. Fitting since we are heading into meeting the Skin Eaters, rejoining them in story after their introduction in the prologue. These are dangerous men. Men who murder.

But it is Achamian who is their map. And it is Achamian who is knowingly leading these men on a trip that will get them all killed.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), the River Rohil

Achamian is hobbling through the forest to Marrow. It is a settlement that Geraus, his slave, goes to buy supplies. It is also the outpost that the Scalpoi use. Here they set out into the wilderness to collect their bounties of Sranc scalps and then return to sell them. He knows of the place from Geraus’s tales, the slave always reveling in talking about what he saw there for days after his return. The man spoke of the place as dangerous, where buying a bag of beans was a dangerous affair. Geraus would boast of his caution. Survival was a great virtue to him and one he passed on to his children. Not attracting attention was important for a slave.

No different than a spy, Achamian could not help reflecting.

Achamian is slipping back into the man who used to wander the three seas. It had been twenty years since he’d settled down at his tower, but he’s already thinking of his journey and reflecting on how nothing had really changed. Then he finds himself missing Geraus and his family. Though Achamian owned them, it’s not the convenience his slaves gave him he misses, but their presence he missed. He will never see them again.

It made him feel like a weepy grandfather.

Perhaps it was good, this suicidal turn his life had taken.

He stares down at Marrow as it creeps along the escarpment’s base, hacked out of the woods that surrounded it. It looks like a wound on the earth. It’s dark when Achamian reaches it. He reads graffiti by the light of the Nail of Heaven. The writings are crass like scribbles on a bathroom stall. He passes armed and armored men, drunk and many bloody. They are wild men. The Scalpoi who’ve come from across the world to earn money and redemption by killing Sranc. They stare at him, and he huddles, knowing that these brutal men risk everything, so in town, they have given themselves greater licenses to excessive behavior. As he passes them, he realizes despite their origins, from nobles to slaves, they are all the same here: consumed by their hungers. “What had made these men wild wasn’t the wilderness, or even the mad savagery of the Sranc, it was the inability to trust anything more bestial in one another.”

Fear, he told himself. Fear and lust and fury… Trust in these, old man. It seemed the only commandment a place such as Marrow could countenance.

He passes taverns and opium dens. A man beats another man to death. A prostitute begging for his custom. There is no order here. He clutches his knife handle. There’s an Imperial Custom House, a reminder that this is still, technically, civilization. Kellhus’s civilization. He even finds a temple to Yatwer holding a ceremony. Through it all, he tries not to think of Mimara.

He reaches the Cocked Leg, the inn Geraus mentioned. It’s a loud place and reminds Achamian of a more vicious version of the “great polyglot cities” he visited as a spy. But this place is too small to lose yourself in anonymity, but still holds that promise of licentious freedom.

A night in such a place could have a million endings, Achamian realized. That was its wonder and horror both.

He gets the worst room in the inn, mistaken for a pauper. That amuses him and he feels more and more a spy. He heads down to the common room, hoping to be lucky while ignoring the bloodstains decorating the wall.

Achamian is shocked to find another sorcerer in the common room. And an old one given the “black and blasted depth of his Mark.” There is also a Chorae. Achamian could see the Mark on his own hands or in reflections of his face, but he never really notices it. He’s used to it. The other sorcerer’s mark makes Achamian feel “young with fear.”

He swallows it and goes to the barkeeper, a Tydonni named Haubrezer. Achamian introduces himself and is called old and a pick, a racial slur for a Ketyai. That stings, which surprises Achamian. He then drops Geraus’s name, which Haubrezer recognizes. Coming to Marrow has always been the plan, only Mimara’s news accelerated it. Haubrezer points Achamian towards the group of Scalpoi with the sorcerer and the Chorae. Achamian isn’t happy about it. Asks if there’s another group.

“Ho. No mean Scalpoi, those. They the Veteran’s Men. The Skin Eaters.”

“The Skin Eaters?”

A sour grin, as though the man had been starved of the facial musculature needed to pull his lips from his teeth. “Geraus was right. You hermit, to be sure. Ask anyone here around”—he gestured wide with a scapular hand—“they will tell you, ya, step aside for the Skin Eaters. Famed. The whole River knows. They bring down more bales than rutta—anyone. Ho. Step aside for the Skin Eaters, or they strike you down. Hauza kup. Down but good.”

The three men appear more dangerous than the other. They sit alone from the others. Achamian examines them and asks if he needs an introduction. Haubrezer says not from him.

Achamian is hyperaware of his surroundings as he heads to the men. The mix of nations reminds him of the Holy War. He thinks of Kellhus and his determination increases. Achamian understands that he’s meeting with dangerous men. Mercenaries who killed for coin. Achamian knows how to pretend to be weaker because the thinks he knows how to deal with these men.

His first heartbeat in their presence told him otherwise.

The sorcerer and the older man study Achamian, but their leader keeps staring at his wine. He asks if the main is Kosoter “Ironsoul” and Captain of the Skin Eaters. There is a silence that isn’t from surprise. The Captain drinks then studies Achamian. He has the eyes of a man who’d survived the horrors of the First Holy War.

“I know you,” was all he [Kosoter] said in a voice with a hint of a papyrus rasp.

The older man, acting as a second, tells Achamian to address Kosoter as Veteran before making a joke how that’s the Law. Achamian ignores him and says he would know him from the First Holy War. He gets interrupted by the older man who says he’s Sarl. Achamian interrupts him to tell Kosoter he wishes to hire them. Sarl keeps asking for his attention. Finally, Achamian gives it to him. Sarl says Kosoter isn’t a man for haggling. Sarl will handle the negotiations. Achamian asks if Sarl makes the decisions. Sarl laughs and says he just sings what Kosoter tells him. He bows to Kosoter who is now studying Achamian with “something poised between curiosity and malice.”

Achamian snorted dismissively. This was one thing he didn’t miss about the civilized world: the addiction to all things indirect.

Achamian again says he needs to “contract” their company. Sarl says that’s strange since there are no more wars, save the war against the Consult and the Sranc, so mercenaries don’t exist. Achamian is off-balanced by Kosoter’s scrutiny and Sarl’s gibbering. It’s deliberate to put him off-balance.

Achamian says he needs scalpers not mercenary, for a journey. Sarl understands this means heading into the wastes. He finds this interesting and asks where Achamian needs to go in the North. Achamian has dreaded this question. He sighs and gets over answering it.

“Far…” He [Achamian] swallowed. “To the ruins of Sauglish.”

Another spittle-flecked spasm of laughter, this one carving every vein, every web of wrinkles in succinct shades of purple and red. He [Sarl] even yanked his wrists together as though bound, shook up and down, fingers flicking. He looked to the scowled mas as though seeking confirmation. “Sauglish!” He howled, rolling his face back. “Oh ho, my friend, my poor, poor lunatic friend!” He reclined back in his chair, sucking air. “May the Gods”—he shook his head in a kind of astonished dismissal—“keep your bowls warm and full and whatever.”

Something in his look and tone said, Leave while you still can…

Anger seizes Achamian. He wants to use sorcery to kill the man, but Kosoter’s Chorae and the sorcerer’s deep Mark stops Achamian. Sarl’s mirth faces and Kosoter finally speaks, asking what’s in Sauglish. This shocks Sarl and fear seizes him, clearly misreading what Kosoter wants. Achamian realizes Kosoter’s words always cause this reaction.

Achamian asks Kosoter what he knows of it and realizes that answering a question with another is a mistake. However, he doesn’t flinch away from the man’s hard gaze but matches it. He holds it, sounds echoing around them. It’s a contest not just of dominance, or respect, but of everything.

I am the end of you, the eyes in his [Kosoter’s] eyes whispered. And they seemed a thousand years old.

Achamian could feel himself wilt. Wild-limbed imaginings flickered through his soul, hot with screams and blood. He could feel tremors knock through his knees.

Sarl advises Achamian to just answer Kosoter’s questions. Achamian does, saying he is going for the Coffers. Sarl wants Achamian to explain what that means. Instead, Achamian is unnerved by Kosoter’s gaze which embodies “Scrutiny incarnate.” This doesn’t feel right to Achamian. Next, he realizes he has to make Kosoter think he has other options so he says he’ll find someone else. Feeling sick to his stomach, he goes to leave.

“You’re the Wizard,” Lord Kosoter called out in a growl.

The word hooked Achamian like a wire garrote.

Kosoter says he remembers him from the Holy War. That Achamian had taught Kellhus. Achamian asks why that matters. Kosoter blinks for the first time and says, in flawless Sheyic, that he’s a Mandate Schoolman so he can definitely find the Coffers.

“So much the worse for you,” Achamian said. But all he could think was how… How could a scalper, any scalper, know about the Sohonc Coffers. He found himself glancing at the leather-cowled man to the Captain’s left. The sorcerer. What was his School?

“I think not,” Lord Kosoter said, leaning back. “There’s scalpers aplenty in Marrow, sure. Any number of companies.” He hooked his wine bowl with two calloused fingers. “But none who know who you are…” His grin was curious, frightening. “Which means none will even entertain your request.”

The logic of his claim hung like an iron in the air, indifferent to the swell of background voices. Truth was ever the afterlife of words.

Achamian is shocked. Sarl starts making a joke that makes the hooded sorcerer laugh. Achamian recognizes what the sorcerer is as Sarl continues on with his Anus Leaf joke, which is mocking Achamian for being a charlatan trying to scam them.

The Captain watched him [Achamian] with imperturbable care.

They were right, he [Achamian] realized. Derision was all he could expect here in Marrow—or even worse. The Skin Eaters were his only hope.

And they had already struck him down.

Achamian drinks the wine given him, shaking, while Sarl cows about Achamian wanting to loot the Coffers. Achamian says it was the hooded sorcerer who told Kosoter about the Coffers. But he realizes that this is wrong and that the Captain doesn’t play games of words. Sarl calls the mysterious sorcerer Cleric.

The cowl remained motionless. The Captain resumed staring into his wine.

“You should hear him in the Wilds,” Sarl exclaimed. “Such sweet sermons! And to think I once thought myself eloquent.”

“And yet,” Achamian said carefully, “Nonmen have no priests.”

“Not as Men understand them,” the black pit replied.

Shock. Its voice had been pleasant, melodious, but marbled with intonations alien to the human vocal range. It was as though the tones of a deformed child had been woven into it.

Achamian asks if Cleric’s from Ishterebinth. The Nonman doesn’t remember, but he knows he’s been to Ishterebinth went it was called another name. Next Achamian asks who his Quya Master was. Cleric can’t remember.

Achamian licked his lips in hesitation, then asked the question that had to be asked of all Nonmen. “What can you remember?”

“Things. Friends. Strangers and lovers. All of them heart-breaking. All of them horrific.”

“And the Coffers? You remember them?

An almost imperceptible nod. “I was at the Library of Sauglish when it fell—I think. I remember that terror all too well… But why it should cause me such sorrow, I do not know.”

Achamian remembers Seswatha’s dreams of Sauglish’s fall. He’d fled the destruction weeping. While Mandate Schoolmen like Achamian lived two lives, theirs and Seswatha’s, Nonmen had lived thousands of years. Cleric had been alive when human civilization first arouse. And he’d witnessed all the years that separated Achamian from Seswatha. Achamian almost feels whole.

He asks Cleric’s name, prompting Sarl to curse. Incariol answers Cleric. He says it’s not his own name. Achamian didn’t recognize it and is unnerved. “How could any mortal fathom such a cavernous soul?” Achamian declares him an Erratic.

“Am I? Is that what I am?”

How did you answer such a question? The creature before him [Achamian] had lived so long his very identity had collapsed beneath him, dropping him into the pit of his own lifetime. His was a running-over soul, where every instance of love or hope or joy drained into the void of forgetfulness, displayed by the more viscous passions of terror, anguish, and hate.

He was an Erratic, addicted to atrocity for memory’s sake.

Sarl accuses Achamian of calling Cleric mad, but Cleric agrees. Sarl tries to wave that away, but Cleric says, “Memories make us sane.” Sarl exclaims, “Sermons!” He has a manic smile and gloated over proof of his assertion. He then goes on to talk about how Cleric once told them about the greatest treasure. This was how they learned about the Coffers hidden beneath the Library of Sauglish which were destroyed. The Coffers has become a pseudonym to hope, a way of saying that “unluckiest of words” without saying it.

“And now, here you are, as sure as Fate.”

There was something, Achamian decided, altogether too mobile about the man’s expressions.

Sarl then asks Achamian, as an educated man, what he thinks about coincidence. Does he think things happen for a reason? Achamian can only give a half-hearted smile and a perplexed look. Sarl laughs as if to say Achamian does believe in Fate.

Achamian did his best not to gape. He had forgotten what it was like, the succession of trivial surprises that was part and parcel of joining the company of strangers. In the company of strangers it was so easy to forget the small crablike histories that held others together and set you apart.

But this was no trivial surprise.

Achamian reflects that the journey from Marrow to Sauglish would be months of crossing the Sranc-controlled wilds of Kûniüri. Several times, the Mandate has lost expeditions to reach Sauglish or Golgotterath. Achamian is using the Great Ordeal to draw the Sranc to them but knows there will still be dangers. He’s unnerved how he planned on using the Coffers to induce the scalpers and that these ones already lusted for it. He wonders if this could be coincidence

Sarl says this must be the Whore of Fate’s doing, which means everyone is about to be fucked. He’s trying to deter Kosoter. It’s clear Sarl hasn’t. Achamian realizes then that he’s already struck an agreement Kosoter and how they seemed now to be partners. Achamian wonders if he’s a Skin Eater now.

Should he be grateful? Relieved? Horrified?

“I remember…” the blackness wrapped by the cowl said. “I remember the slaughter of…”

A peculiar sound, like a sob thumbed into the shape of a cackle.

“Of children.”

“A man,” the Captain grimly noted, “has got to remember.”

Achamian has a regular dream of Sauglish that night. The Wracu (dragons) leads the assault, burning. Seswatha and his fellow Sohonc brothers are in the sky singing Gnosis. They’re above their sacred Library. They unleash “psalms of destruction.”

Lines of brilliant white mapped the gaping spaces, striking geometries, confining geometries, light that made smoke of hide and fury. Rearing back to bare claws and spew fire, the dragons plummeted into the arcane glitter, shrieking, screaming. Then they were through, bleeding smoke, some writhing and convulsing, one or two toppling to their deaths. The singing became more frantic. Threads of incandescence boiled against iron scales. Unseen hammers beat against wings and limbs.

Then the Wracu were upon them.

In this moment, Seswatha becomes Achamian and he panics as the dragons rip apart the “antique Schoolmen.” He looks around, seeing the Sranc crossing the plains while the No-God whirls behind them, a monstrous whirlwind dominating the horizon. Around him, the greatest School, the Sohonc, died. It’s more like Achamian is remembering these events then witnessing them. He can see the civilians killing themselves as the Sranc have broken through the walls. Fathers and mothers kill their children to “save them from the fury of the Sranc.” Through it all, they cry out to the “heavens shut against them.” The No-God gets closer.

Their High-King was dead. The wombs of their wives and daughters had become graves. The greatest of their thanes and chieftain-knights, the flower of their armed might, had been struck down. Pillars of smoke scored the distance across the earth’s very curve.

The world was ending.

Like choking. Like drowning. Like a weight without substance, sinking cold through him, a knife driven from the snow, even as he fell slack into its bottomless regions. Friends, brothers, shaken apart in grinning jaws. Strangers flailing in fiery blooms. Towers leaning like drunks before crashing. Sranc encrusting distant walls, like ants on slices of apple, loping into the maze of streets. The cries, shrieks, screams—thousands of them—rising like steam from burning stones. Sauglish dying.

Hopelessness… Futility.

Never, it seemed, had he dreamed a passion with such vehemence.

The Sohonc are driven back to their Library. Ballistae manage to kill a few lesser dragons. Skafra, an ancient Wracu, swoops in to attack. Achamian thinks he’s coming for him, but Skafra attacks the Holy Library. He sets it on fire. Achamian watches in horror as it burns. He’s confused, wondering where Seswatha is. How he’s dreaming without him.

He bolts awake, panting in terror. He hears Mimara’s words echoing in his mind that he’s become a prophet of the past.

The next day, Sarl takes him to join Cleric, Kosoter, and another Skin Eater named Kiampas. He’s the sergeant, using his fists to keep everyone in line. He definitely looks like a soldier. Clean-cut and fit. He’s a planner, and he’s not at all pleased with the current goal. He asks for details, like when Achamian needs to reach them. He lies and says it has to be the end of summer, claiming the Wards are tied to the position of heavenly bodies. Kiampas is dismayed and says it’s impossible. Kosoter overrides him.

Kiampas paled, seemed to glance down in unconscious apology. Though he was cut of different cloth entirely, Achamian wasn’t surprised to see him sharing Sarl’s reaction to the chest-tightening rarity of their Captain’s voice.

Kiampas thinks and says they should follow the Holy War out of Galeoth, but Achamian says they have to go along the other side of the Osthwai Mountains. Kiampas thinks that’s insane since it means moving through Sranc territory. But Achamian is a fugitive. It’s too dangerous to cross Galeoth. He says Kosoter knows why. Kiampas, hearing no objecting from Kosoter, believes Achamian. He then points out that Sakarpus has fallen and, thus, they’ll be crossing the New Empire no matter what. Achamian employs jnanic courtesy to Kiampas to show he respect his opinion.

Something told him [Achamian] he would need allies in the weeks and months to come.

Achamian explains that the Great Ordeal is the only reason this will work. The host clears the way, but they won’t cross the army’s path. The Ordeal will be ahead of their party. Kiampas isn’t convinced. He points out hosts move slowly. Achamian adds that Sauglish is out of the way and he says their odds are good of not encountering anyone.

Kiampas nodded with slow skepticism, then leaned back, as if retreating from some disagreeable scent.

The smell of futility, perhaps.

The next morning, the sixty or so Skin Eaters muster. They have an eclectic collection of armor, weapons, nationalities, and background. Only their fear of Kosoter and a “deep spiritual fatigue” unite them. Sarl tells them what they’re going to be up to while Kosoter studied the horizon with Cleric at his side. The nearby sound of rapids reminds Achamian of the way the Holy War cheered on Kellhus. Sarl tells them this will be a longer slog and will take more than a year in the “pit.” But he talks about the Coffers, and that has some murmuring in hope, others seeming to say it like it’s about time, and others as if it’s a holy place, like Shimeh to the First Holy War, begging to be liberated. Only this one can be split into shares.

A lie carved at the joints.

Sarl keeps talking and the mad discipline of the Skin Eaters keeps them silent. If he hadn’t met Kosoter, Achamian would have been surprised. Sarl then says that they have until tomorrow morning to decide. After that, it’ll be desertion, and Cleric will hunt them down. Sarl calls out the rule of the slog: “The knee that buckles pulls ten man down.”

Achamian realizes that though these Skin Eaters are similar to the battle-hardened men at the end of the First Holy War, but these men are vicious instead of ruthless. Numb instead of hard. And most of all hungry. Not driven. They’re ultimately mercenaries, if ones as fierce as the Sranc. Kosoter seems to have the same opinion of his men. He and Achamian are both Veterans of the First Holy War. It’s almost a kinship between them. That troubles Achamian.

That night, Sarl passes word from Kosoter that the renown of the Skin Eaters is from Kosoter. The men are just Scalpoi. Achamian asks Sarl if he believes that. Sarl says he’s been with Kosoter since the wars against the Orthodox and followed him out here. Kellhus himself named Kosoter Ironsoul. But Sarl says Kosoter’s still mortal, only something “watches through him.” Sarl adds, in a crazed way, Achamian should respect Kosoter.

Achamian looked down to his soaked hand. The wine had run from his fingers as thick as blood.

To think he had worried about the Nonman’s madness.

Not that Cleric doesn’t worry him. However, all these fears were canceling each other out. And he would be useful with his sorcery because “there were few powers in the world that could rank a Nonman Magi.” Kosoter used him for a reason.

Only thirty Skin Eaters show up for muster the following morning. Sarl is thrilled, though Achamian isn’t sure why, and Kosoter impossible to read. After this, they spend the next few days gathering supplies. Achamian surrenders his gold to finance things that impresses the average Skin Eaters. They were hungry to make an even greater fortune. Convincing someone to take the first step was always the hard part, now that they believed they can make it, their eager to set off.

How could they know Achamian had no expectation of return? In a sense, leaving the Three Seas was the real reason. He might no longer be a Mandate Schoolman, but his heart belonged to the Ancient North all the same. To the coiling insinuations of the Dreams…

To Seswatha.

Kiampas, one night, tells Achamian the Skin Eaters always are boisterous and celebratory beforehand. Achamian asks before a slog. No, before anything involving blood. Sorrow fills Kiampas, a regret that he knows this isn’t right. This makes Achamian feel the weight of all those lies he told to trick these men. He wonders how many he’ll get killed to learn the truth of Kellhus.

How many pulses had he [Achamian] sacrificed?

Are you doing this for the sake of vengeance? Is that it?

Achamian is drowning in guilt and is reminded by the innkeeper’s warming. “Stand aside for the Skin Eaters.” They don’t suffer fools.

One night, Achamian dreams as Seswatha. He’s talking with High King Anasûrimbor Celmomas who says he has built a refuge. At the same time, Achamian marvels over how he knows this is a dream and yet is Seswatha unaware of Achamian’s presence.

How could it be? How could he feel all the ferment of a free soul? How could he live a life for the first time over and over?

Celmomas has built it in case the war goes wrong. Seswatha is surprised, not worry which Celmomas is plagued with, but speaking it aloud. This is before Celmomas leads the Great Ordeal to attack Golgotterath. Apocalypse wasn’t happening. Seswatha realizes Celmomas worries on the No-God, saying the name as it no more than a distant fear, not a horror.

How did one relive such ancient ignorance?

Celmomas is worried the No-God is as dangerous as the Quya say and they waited too long. Seswatha is certain they haven’t. Celmomas says he can only trust Seswatha. Achamian remembers making love to the queen. Celmomas makes an unexpected move and changes the rules of Benjuka, clouding the game with uncertainty. This almost relieves Achamian. Celmomas then says he made a place for his family to survive. Ishuäl. Achamian bolts upright, desperate to know where it could be.

The truth of men lay in their origins. He knew this as only a Mandate Schoolman could. Anasûrimbor Kellhus had not come to the Three Seas by accident. He had not found his half-brother waiting as Shriah of the Thousand Temples by accident. He had not conquered the known world by accident!

Below his room, the Skin Eaters sing and cheer their upcoming bloodshed. He sits on the bed, peering down at the men through the gaps in the floorboard. Kosoter isn’t here, but Sarl is. Achamian sees Sarl as the problem, the man refusing to remember he’s an old man, unlike the other Skin Eaters. Young and brash with no thought of their mortality. Eager to “fuck or to kill under the guise of whim.” As he studies them, he knows he will kill hundreds or thousands in his quest.

However many fools it took to find Ishuäl.

They leave the last outpost of civilization the next morning. They are entering a chaotic world as treacherous as the Cleric’s soul. The climb up the escarpment out of Marrow hard for Achamian, but he thinks that’s proper.

All passages into dread should exact come chastising toll.

Mimara watches Marrow from the outskirts, knowing it would be deadly for her to enter. She’d soon be raped, beaten, and turned into a whore who’s dressed up like her mother. She’d service every Scalper for miles. Memories of her slavery are never far from her. She thinks about the other girls like her. She remembers how she was found by her mother’s men dressed as the Holy Empress “emptied save for a sip.” Esmenet had ordered the Worm, a slum in Carythusal, razed and every man in it killed.

But it was never clear just whom Mother was avenging.

Mimara has been waiting for Achamian on the far side of Marrow for him to emerge, abandoning her mule. She watches scalpers come and go as she spies on the town. From the hillside, it looks like a toy. “She watches the coming and going, the ebb and flow of miniature men and their miniature affairs.” She realizes men are the same the world over, but humans forget that. This gives them the illusion that they’re seeing something new. Only now does she realizes this truth she’s always known.

She dares no fire. She hugs herself warm. From lips of high-hanging stone, she watches and waits for him. She has no other place to go. She is, she decides, every bit as rootless as he. Every bit as mad.

Every bit as driven.

My Thoughts

We’re primed for Marrow before we arrive with Geraus’s stories.

Though Achamian had owned Geraus, his wife, and children as slaves, they were also the only companions he had. Their relationship really was more of one of master and servant, or employer and employee. And Achamian doesn’t come off as a bad employer. They had become his surrogate family, and now he leaves them behind. I always wonder what happened to Geraus, Tisthana, and their children, but they pass out of the story. No longer needed. Still, I wonder what became of their lives. Where they went. Will they survive what’s coming?

Do you ever wonder about minor characters like this?

A suicidal turn to Achamian’s thoughts. He doesn’t expect to survive this madness, but he’s obsessed with the truth and this his one chance.

The Nail of Heaven is bright enough to read by. And it’s not the moon. WTF is it!

“What had made these men wild wasn’t the wilderness, or even the mad savagery of the Sranc, it was the inability to trust anything more bestial in one another.” When society breaks down, this is what men become. Who we hang out with has a great deal of influence on who we are. If you hang out with successful people, you’ll find success. Hang out with people who just sit around smoking pot all day, well, don’t be surprised if you do the same. And if you find yourself in a world where you can’t trust anyone, you’ll only feed the problem.

“A moment of silence, far too thick to connotate shock or surprise.” This is what comes after Achamian asks Kosoter if he’s the Captain of the Skin Eaters. It’s Bakker’s subtle clue that there is something else at play here. These men are here for a reason. They met with an Imperial Messenger in the prologue. Now they have not just any nonman with them, but King Nil’giccas. Kellhus has made a deal with Nil’giccas, and Achamian is that payment.

I have speculated before that Kellhus might want Achamian to uncover the truth of his origins, to demystify the Dûnyain after Kellhus accomplishes his goal of defeating the No-God and closing the Outside his way. An end to superstition that he used to accomplish his goal. He puts the pieces in place for Achamian to succeed while also making a deal with Nil’giccas who has gone erratic. This allows Kellhus to put his plan into motion to neutralize Ishterebinth on his flank with his daughter.

Kosoter is letting Sarl speak, probably to see how Achamian handles it. Judging the man, both curious about him and brimming with hatred. Probably because Kosoter is a true believer. That was why he was chosen for this task. It is possible he was sent here years ago by Kellhus, an agent in place for when the time came to activate him.

Achamian tried to be intimidating. Tried to hold Kosoter’s terrible gaze. And while our sorcerer has been through a lot, he’s not someone who is so mired in darkness to be able to hold Kosoter’s gaze. Ironsoul is the Abyss. As we’ll later see, he’s so damned he appears like a living demon. This is a man who’s committed atrocities and sees little hope for salvation, even with Kellhus’s promise to him. In fact, to find that salvation, he’ll have to walk deep into hell to get it.

It’s also here that Sarl has no idea about Kosoter’s mission from Kellhus. Only the Captain, and probably Nil’giccas, know what’s going on here. That’s why Sarl is shocked the captain is entertaining Achamian.

Sometimes in a negotiation, you have to show you’re willing to go elsewhere. Kosoter can’t have that.

Achamian doesn’t want to go with the Skin Eaters, but he’s convinced by their argument. Sarl’s mockery is a counterbalance to Kosoter’s indifference. From them, he is seeing what he’ll get from others. Well, who knows if he would. He didn’t actually try to interview another company, so the sales technique worked. They got the better of Achamian and he knows it.

Kosoter has won their first battle.

Achamian is testing to see if Cleric is an Erratic. He’s already losing memories, a bad sign, and if he can only remember pain, then he can’t be trusted. He’ll lose himself and inflict damage so that he relive that pain. Of course, he has Achamian before him. A stand-in for Seswatha. Someone that will let Nil’giccas remember.

In Cleric, Achamian has found someone who understands, someone that helps him feel intact.

“Memories make us sane.” They are what tether us to the real world. To the continuation of our life and help us make sense of our present circumstances. They give us the context to understand the world around us. If that is severed, we would be confused. Befuddled. We might lash out. We wouldn’t even know it was wrong to lash out. We’d act in ways that would seem insane to those who had their memories.

Achamian is wondering if this is Fate, not realizing that his meeting with Kosoter is part of Kellhus’s plan. It makes sense then why it feels so serendipitous that the barkeeper sent them to Kosoter who just happens to be here when Achamian arrives.

Kosoter’s comment after Cleric talks about the slaughter of children makes me think he massacred Fanim children in the Holy War. He’s after redemption, after all. He knows he went way, way too far in the war. He committed atrocities. It’s turned him into a monster, and yet he still wants redemption.

Not surprising Achamian has a normal dream of Sauglish after all that talk of it. He might even be controlling this to some extent, hoping to spot Cleric in it.

It’s so sad to see parents killing children to spare them pain. We know what’s coming from the Sranc, so I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same. Death is coming. There’s no escaping it. Hope has died in Sauglish. All that’s left is pain and despair.

The connection between Achamian and Seswatha is breaking down. This might explain why he starts dreaming of Nau-Cayûti soon. That, perhaps, Kellhus’s hypnotism to unshackle the restrictions on Achamian to teach him Gnosis have unfettered Seswatha further from Achamian.

Yes, Achamian, you are going to need friends and allies. Things are going to get bad with the Skin Eaters.

The cataracts, rapids on a river, sound like cheering soldiers. Not the Skin Eaters. They’re not cheering, are they?

“In the pit” reminds me of modern soldiers who will describe being deployed in a warzone as being in the suck or the shit.

“A lie carved at the joints.” A lie that bends men to a new path? Or a lie that weakens men, because cutting at the joints would do that.

Kellhus had met Kosoter years ago. Called him Ironsoul. Chose him for this mission years and years ago. That name, Ironsoul, tells us what Kellhus has convinced Kosoter he is. A man who won’t break from his mission.

Thirty Skin Eaters… It’s easy to forget there were that many of them in the beginning.

I think Achamian is doing this to prove to Esmenet that he’s right and she was wrong to say with Kellhus. This is some twisted way to win her back. He just needs to show her what he is, but she already knew and chose to stay with him anyway.

As Achamian dreams, he’s faced with the illusion of free will. While he knows he’s dreaming, Seswatha doesn’t. Seswatha will do the same things over and over again as if he’d never done them. He has no choice in a deterministic world. All his actions are down to biology, culture, how he was raised, how his environment has shaped his thoughts. His reactions will be the same in the exact same set of circumstances every time.

By living Seswatha’s life over and over again, Achamian is experiencing the reality of determinism, of the Darkness that Comes Before.

How interesting for Achamian, a cuckold, to dream of being the seducer. He definitely feels guilt at dreaming of Seswatha and the queen’s affair.

Why would the rules become so convoluted that the outcome could no longer be anticipated almost relieve Achamian? In real life, he’s playing against Kellhus. He hopes he’s made an unexpected move that can’t be predicted.

Only he hasn’t.

“All passages into dread should exact come chastising toll.” Remember this, Achamian, at the end of the trip through Cil-Aujas.

I think it’s clear why Esmenet burned the Worm. It’s both for her daughter’s rapes and her own guilt in selling Mimara. That’s rage she unleashed. True pain she’s trying to expedite from her soul through the inflicting of suffering on others.

We get an interesting contrast with Kelmomas and Mimara as she watches the men like termites moving in and out of their mound. She realizes that men are the same everywhere. Kelmomas, however, realizes that he’s a God and better than them. On is rightfully scared by them, the other thinks he can control them.

And where did Mimara get the food? She was starving before Achamian came down from his tower. Now she’s snuck off after him. Did he give her food to see her home thinking she would go? I can’t believe Achamian didn’t see this move on her part coming.

She sat outside your tower for DAYS, Achamian.

She is the source of conflict coming up. Her presence is temptation to these violent men. It’s not just Achamian, either, that will pay for her actions. Kosoter will, too.

Want to read more, click here for Chapter Seven!

And you have to check out my fantasy novel, Above the Storm!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Five

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Five

Momemn

Welcome to Chapter Five of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Four!

Where luck is the twist of events relative to mortal hope, White-Luck is the Twist of events relative to divine desire. To worship it is to simply will what happens as it happens.

—ARS SIBBUL, SIX ONTONOMIES

My Thoughts

This is a primer on one of the important concepts about how the Hundred Gods perceive the mortal world. They see time in its entirety. Because of that, they can see how all events will happen. If you know which number will come up in roulette, you can always make sure you win big. The White-Luck is how the gods enact their will to shape fate, making sure that all the advantages are exploited.

If you read the first series, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Hundred Gods were a myth. But they are quite real. What are their origins? Are they souls who have devoured so many others they are so powerful none in the Outside can defy them? Hard to say, but there is a principal in economics and even stellar evolution: the more you have, the more you get. Have more money, you can make more money. Have more mass, you attract more matter.

In our galaxy, the really big stars, like Betelgeuse, are rare. These are the stars that will go supernova. Most of the stars are smaller than our own sun. Despite the rarity of less than 1% of stars being supergiants, they still hold 90% or more of the visible mass in our universe. It’s a law that can’t be denied.

The Gods maybe that. They just became the super-massive souls of the outside and gained enough power to influence the world through priests and priestess who prayed to them. Maybe this leads to the first shamans, the Sorcerers who were also priests before the Tusk came along and condemned sorcery as a sin.

I think the Gods were just souls who grew so massive they had vast influence on the Outside. Fane called them Ciphrangs. Demons. They reward their worshipers by eating their souls. Even those who are “saved” are merely those claimed by a god and consumed. This is what Kellhus appears to want to destroy, but not through the Consult’s way, which is through annihilation.

Kellhus wants to preserve mankind. But now he’s dead, but his soul escaped Ajokli. We’ll see if this matters in the next series or not.

Also, Ajokli… His name is A Joke. Is that intentional? It just came to me as I was checking the spelling of his name after writing this entire reread. He’s the god of assassins. A beetle god that has his proxy or symbol killed by Kelmomas in the prologue only for Ajokli’s next avatar, Kellhus, to be similarly killed because of Kelmomas’s unseen presence appearing in the climax. Then Kellhus’s soul even appears to escape him.

Poor Ajokli…

Anyways, back to the rest of the reread.

It is fitting, however, to introduce the Gods and their powers as we see that Yatwer has power. That the Gods are able to affect this world. They are not superstition. They can see the Second Apocalypse coming, but they are blind to its cause.

It really, really shouldn’t have been a shock to us readers when we read who activates the No-God. The clues are there. The Gods could see Kellhus, so he COULD NEVER have done it.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Iothiah

Psatama Nannaferi is begging, knowing not to those who give her coin in the eyes so as not to influence them in their decision to give her coin. The words of Sinyatwa echo in her mind: “From seed to womb, from seed to furrow. The right hand cannot give to the left…”

To give was to lose. It was an arithmetic with only one direction.

This was the miracle of the Ur-Mother, Yatwer, the Goddess of Fertility and Servitude, who moved through the world in the form of more and more and more. Unasked for bounty. Undeserved plenitude. She was the pure Gift, the breaking of tit for tat, the very principle of the birthing world. It was She who made time flesh.

Nannaferi realizes that people have figured out she’s the “Priestess-Mother” of the faith and not a simple beggar. Even in a city as big as Iothiah, people have uncovered her from among the teeming masses of beggars. And even though they know coming to her was a violation of the Beggar’s Sermon, they can’t help but assume that their offering will count. If she accused them of trying to bribe Yatwer, they would lie and say they were just wanting to give.

Such a strange thing, giving, as if the arms of beggars could be the balance of the world.

She has to move because she saves no souls now. Ignorance is the path to redemption in Yatwer’s cult. As she gathers to leave, three fat, silver coins fall before her, proving she’s exposed. “Excess generosity was ever the sign of greed.” She leaves them behind even as she knows other priestesses would take them. But she’s Psatama Nannaferi. She’s not like other ones. Her ecstasy falls upon her a step later.

It began as it always did, with a curious buzzing in the ears, as though dragonflies swarmed about her head. Then the ground bucked and flopped like cloth thrown over fish, and watercolour haloes swung about every living form. And she saw her, though she could not turn to look, a shadow woman, spoked in sun-silver, walking where everything and everyone exploded like clay urns, a silhouette so sharp it cut eyes sideways. A hand reached out and pressed the side of her hooded head, irresistibly gentle, forcing her cheek down to the pungent earth.

She gasps out “Mother” and is called child. She is told that her brother has arrived. “The White-Luck Warrior has come.” Psatama is shocked that it’s already happening. She’s told that it will happen on the “anointed day.”

Her body was but a string tied about an infinite iron nail, woolen tailings that trembled in an otherworldly wind.

And the D-D-Demon?”

“Will be driven to his doom.”

Then the roar vanished, sucked up like smoke from the opium bowl. The blasted streets became a wall of onlookers, peopled by vendors, teamsters, harlots, and soldiers. And the shadow became a man, a Nansur caste-noble by the look of him, with concerned yet gentle eyes. And the hand was his hand, rubbing her poxed cheek the way you might massage a sleeping limb.

He does not fear to touch—

He asks her if she’s okay and how long she’s had the Falling Sickness. She ignores him and everyone else, thinking what did any of them know of giving.

Iothiah is an ancient city, far older than the Thousand Temples. Just like the Cult of Yatwer. Now a new temple to Yatwer has been built in Iothiah, the Chatafet Temple. It is reputed to be one of the most popular in the Three Seas. It teems with new converts from the Fanim. “But for those initiated in the greater mysteries of the Cult, it was little more than a point of administrative pride.” Iothiah’s true significance to Yatwer’s followers is the Ilchara Catacombs. The great Womb-of-the-Dead. Though the temple that stood over it, the famous Temple of Ilchara, had been destroyed by the Fanim, the catacombs survived. Now it’s just a small opening hidden amid tenement buildings. Only the flags with Yatwer’s sacred symbol mark it as important

Nannaferi leads her fellow priestesses into the catacombs, fighting against her aged back to keep her head held high. She feels her vision cloaking her and believes the others can tell she’s been blessed, giving her covetous glances. Though she’s short of stature and scared by pox, she imposes herself among them. As an acolyte, older sisters had her punished to uphold their own superiority, sensing the strength of her personality. They would call her the “Shigeki pox-girl” with disdain to ignore and diminish her. But they couldn’t.

Gravitas, the ancient Ceneians would have called it.

They never could hate her, for that would have been admitting she was better. So they were forced to respect her, which was the only way she would not suffocate them with her presence. It took her twenty years to become the Matriarch, the official leader of the Cult, answerable only to Shriah. Six years later, they declared her Mother-Supreme, the outlawed title of the true leader. The Thousand Temples sought to break the Cult by declaring it heresy, but they held the title in secret.

The priestesses descended single-file into the catacombs, murmuring a ritual invocation. The catacombs had been looted of the treasure, but the Fanim hadn’t done more after than seal it, calling the place the Pit of the She-Demon. Even the Fanim knew to fear Yatwer. The Elder Scriptures, the Hirgarata and The Chronicle of the Tusk didn’t write much on Yatwer because the authors were drunk on masculine virtue. Yatwer is feared because she is the one who aids the poor. The downtrodden. The farmers and slaves. The “toiling multitudes who carried the caste-nobility like a foul slime upon their backs.” Yatwer both celebrates and avenges the poor.

Even her brother War, it was said, feared her. Even Gilgaöl from Yatwer’s bloody gaze.

And well he should.

Planting her cane before her, Psatama Nannaferi strode into the shadows of the ancient sandstone lintels. She entered the worldly womb of the Ur-Mother, descended into the company of her long-dead sisters.

The catacombs wind deep into the earth, the recessed walls packed with urns, some so ancient they couldn’t read the script. Here, Yatwer’s priestesses were brought to “slumber in holy community” in the Womb-of-the-Dead. The other high-priestesses with her feel the awe of this place safe Vethenestra, who “posed” as the Chalfantic Oracle, pretended to be unaffected.

Take-take-take. It was a wickedness, a pollution, that knew no bounds.

It was the very essence of the Demon.

She clutches to her anger as she leads the group to the Charnel Hall. She thought of it as her middle anger, just strong enough o singe. “Everything was sinful, everything was accountable; this was simply the truth of an unruly and disordered world.” The Goddess will cultivate the world, using Nannaferi as her hoe and plow. Her fellow priests would be the remade into the soil for the White-Luck Warrior.

There was no vanity in her task. The Goddess had made her into the rule with which the world would be measured—no more, no less. Who was Nannaferi to take heart or pride in this, let alone question the why and wherefore? The knife, as the Galeoth saying went, was no greater for the skinning.

Only more doused in blood.

They sit around the Struck Table where Yatwer had once chastised her wayward daughters. Nannaferi takes Yatwer’s spot, the cracks in the table running from where she sits to each of the other seats. She lets the others have their banter and conversation since many haven’t seen each other in some time. Friendship is one of Yatwer’s gifts, so Nannaferi tolerates this, especially since these women are rarely among equals. Instead, they are surrounded by subordinates. Soon, the enormity of their meeting silences them. They adopt Nannaferi’s rigid pose. Even the oracle does. All save for Sharacinth who is the Matriarch, the “Official” leader.

This is the second time the Struck Table has been called since the heathens took Iothiah. The last was when the Holy War first started. They were celebrating it, not realizing that a Demon would take it over and become the Aspect-Emperor. Nanneferi smacks her cane in emphasis, startling everyone. Then she pulls out a Chorae, a Holy Tear of God, from beneath her robes. This is different. She is not following the normal rituals and prayers, but going straight to the matter at hand. Comprehension dawns in them.

Their Goddess girded for war.

She says they have to deal with a witch, implying one of them could use Sorcery. They all protest in shock save Vethenestra, who pretends she knew all along. “What kind of Oracle would she be otherwise.” Maharta, the youngest member and a political appointee, asks how Nannaferi could know this. Nannaferi says the Goddess let her know.

Eleva reveals herself to be the witch and begins calling on her sorcerery. Sharhild attacks her with a knife but is thrown against the wall. The other priestesses scramble and ran while “shadows twisted about the hinges of things.”

The thwack of iron on wood. A blinking incandescence. A sucking roar.

The witch is salted, killed by the Chorae hitting her. The others are stunned that Eleva could have been a witch. Nannaferi says Eleva was killed and replaced days ago. The witch’s true form is that of a young and buxom girl. She declares that this is proof Kellhus and his followers are depraved. He unleashed his witches, the School of Sawayal, to hunt them. “Yet another of the Aspect-Emperor’s many blasphemies.”

Sharhild, an old Thunyeri shield-maiden, has survived and is helped to her feet, praised for her courage. Maharta cries in snuffling silence, and Vethenestra looks stunned. Questions and comments explode through the room. Vethenestra claims she dreamed of this while others ask if the Shriah is after them, or if it’s the Empress. Phoracia says Eleva touched a Chorae only three months ago. Which means she was replaced after receiving the secret summons. How could that be possible?

“Yes,” Nannaferi said, her tone filled with a recognition of menace that cleared the room of competing voices. “The Shriah knows of me. He has known of me for quite some time.”

The Shriah. The Holy Father of the Thousand Temples.

The Demon’s brother, Maithanet.

She goes on to say her outlawed post is tolerated because the Demon and his ilk prize secret knowledge and think they can control it. Aethiola says they’re doomed like what happened to the Anagkians. A few months ago, five assassins from the Cult of the Goddess of Fate tried to assassinate Kelmomas at his whelming. The Empress reactions had been predictable. The Matriarch had been murdered in one of several rumored, and gruesome, ways while others were arrested by Shrial Knights and never seen again. Nannaferi says they are a different Cult. This isn’t a vain boast. Only Gilgaöl has as many followers as Yatwer. Most Cults didn’t have strong roots. They could be pulled down easily. Yatwer’s Cult flourished wherever there were the poor and slaves.

Phoracia points out that they are up against the Aspect-Emperor. They never speak the “Demon’s” name. Nannaferi points out his most fanatical followers went with him on his Ordeal, and the Orthodox, though numerous, are not in their council chambers. Maharta adds that even Fanayal is growing bold. Phoracia keeps arguing that they don’t understand how powerful Kellhus is. She has met him. Her ranting is cut off as she realized she’s overstepped her bounds and asks Nannaferi’s forgiveness. Nannaferi agrees that they don’t know his power, but though they don’t know, their Goddess does.

Sharhild realizes that Yatwer has given Nannaferi visions. This sparks excitement as the other asks if it’s true. Phoracia continues harping about Kellhus, the others shutting up out of embarrassment for her. She asks what Yatwer says about him.

And there it was, the fact of their blasphemy, exposed in the honesty of an old woman’s muddled soul. Their fear of the Aspect-Emperor had come to eclipse all other terrors, even those reserved for the Goddess.

One could only worship at angles without fear.

Nannaferi struggles to explain how Yatwer sees time non-linearly and calls Vethenestra a fool and a fake when the seer is brought up. That quiets everyone. Vethenestra grows scared, asking if she’s displeased Nannaferi, She regards the seer as if she’s broken and says Yatwer is displeased. Vethenestra is stripped of her title and told to leave and join her dead sisters.

An image of her own sister came to Nannaferi, her childhood twin, the one who didn’t survive the pox. In a heartbeat it all seemed to pass through her, the whooping laughter, the giggling into shoulders, the teary-eyed shushing. And it ached, somehow, to know that her soul had once sounded such notes of joy. It reminded her of what had been given…

And those few things that remained.

Vethenestra at first moves slowly to the exit like she expects to be called back. She pauses at the dark maw. Everyone can fill that something is occupying it. A menstrual-red smoke winds through the opening. Vethenestra, realizing she’s truly banished, steps out of this world and is swallowed. She vanishes in a heartbeat. Silence filled the halls. Everyone but Nannaferi is stunned by the manifestation of the Goddess, the Blood of Fertility, that’s here with them, “lending her fury to the blood dark.” Maharta is the first to kneel. The rest follow. Nannaferi calls out, “Your daughters are clean, Mother.” The women all stare at Nannaferi with frightened reverence. They crawl to her and kiss her knees, knowing she truly is chosen by Yatwer.

“Tell them,” she [Nannaferi] said to her sisters, her voice hoarse with the passion to dominate. “In whispers, let your congregations know. Tell them the White-Luck turns against their glorious Aspect-Emperor.”

They had to take such gifts that were given. Even those beyond their comprehension…

“Tell them the Mother sends her Son.”

Or that would see them dead.

Momemn…

Kelmomas is pretending that the gardens in the center of the Imperial Apartments are the roof of the world. He can see Momemn stretching out to the west, the Meneanor Sea to the east. Every direction spreads out beneath the blue sky. He’s fascinated by the sycamores waving in the wind, their arrhythmic movement entrancing.

He would very much like to be a tree, Kelmomas decided.

His “secret voice” whispers suggestions to relieve his boredom, but instead, he focuses on his mother speaking. He’s lying on his belly and peering through the gaps in a railing to just see her. She is speaking to Maithanet about the Cult of Yatwer, asking if they should move against them. Maithanet says they’re too populous for that while Theliopa says that six out of ten caste menials attend her rites.

The pause in Mother’s reply said it all. It wasn’t so much that she reviled her own daughter—Mother could never hate her own—only that she could find no reflection of herself, nothing obviously human. There was no warmth whatsoever in Theliopa, only facts piled upon facts and an intense aversion to all the intricacies that seal the intervals between people. The sixteen-year-old could scarce look at another’s face, so deep was her horror of chancing upon a gaze.

Thank you, Thel.”

Kelmomas thinks Theliopa is a dead limb unable to feel the world around her. Mother only uses her because Kellhus ordered it. He listens as Esmenet asks Maithanet if he has an idea on what to do. Kelmomas doesn’t care about the subject of the conversation only the fear it breeds in his mother. His “secret voice” thinks she needs them.

The nursemaid, Porsi, brings Samarmas. Kelmomas gets up and skips along the veranda, delighting his idiot twin. As he does, Porsi asks the boys what games they would like to play. As she prattles on, he reads her face. He often pretends to play her games while actually playing one of his own to test her responses. He’s learned how his tone and expression matter as much as the words. He understands how to manipulate her emotions. Every time she compares him to his father, it makes Kelmomas exult that slaves can recognize him.

Using his knowledge of her, he fakes having the Shudders, something he’s done so well it’s fooled the court physician, Hagitatas. He could make himself feverish, control his body temperature. Even Samarmas could do this. So when he tells her it’s starting, she runs off to get his medicine which he’s hidden. He’ll be alone with Samarmas for a while while she frantically searches for his medicine.

Meanwhile, his mother is asking if the Yatwerians are mad because Kellhus is the only chance of salvation. Maithanet points out the Cultists are like all men: “they see only what they know.” They don’t like change.

Kelmomas contemplates his brother at play. “A toy Prince-Imperial poking toys that were smaller still.”

Only the lazy battle of boredom and awe in his [Samarmas] expression made him [seem] real.

Esmenet asks about the White-Luck. Theliopa explains it’s an ancient folk belief from ancient times. It’s “an extreme form of providence, a Gift of the Gods against worldly tuh-tuh-tyranny.”

Samarmas chants White-Luck as he plays. Kelmomas glares at Samarmas to get him to shut up, knowing Maithanet and even Theliopa could hear that.

Maithanet thinks the White-Luck might be more than a “self-serving fraud.”

Samarmas gathers more toys, even one he calls Mommy and kisses it to a dragon, finding wonder in doing that.

Kelmomas had been born staring into the deluge that was his twin’s face. For a time, he knew, his mother’s physicians had feared for him because it seemed he could do little more than gaze at his brother. All he remembered were the squalls of blowing hurt and wheezing gratification, and a hunger so elemental that it swallowed the space between them, soldered their faces into a single soul. The world was shouldered to the periphery. The tutors and the physicians had droned from the edges, not so much ignored as overlooked by a two-bodied creature who stared endlessly into its own inscrutable eyes.

Only in his third summer, when Hagitatas, with doddering yet implacable patience, made a litany of the differences between beast, man, and god, was Kelmomas able to overcome the tumult that was his brother. “Beasts move,” the old physician would rasp. “Men reflect. Gods make real.” Over and over. “Beasts move. Men reflect. Gods make real. Beasts move…” Perhaps it was simply the repetition. Perhaps it was the palsied tone, the way his breath undid the substance of his words, allowing them to soak into the between places, the gem-cutting lines. “Beasts move…” Over and over, until finally Kelmomas simply turned to him and said, “Men reflect.”

A blink, and what was one had become two.

After that, Samarmas’s bestial face disgusted Kelmomas. He sees Samarmas as a foul thing who fooled their mother. He’s kept back his true feelings and grown used to the fact that his brother is nothing more than dog. Mimicking his mother’s smile, Kelmomas shows off a dangerous feat to his brother, extorting him to watch. Samarmas gurgles in pleasure as Kelmomas says you can’t do this. Samarmas agrees.

Meanwhile, Maithanet explains how the Gods can’t see the No-God because “they are blind to any intelligence without soul.” They didn’t see the First Apocalypse coming and therefore can’t see the Second. Esmenet is still confused why Kellhus, a Prophet, would be hunted by the Gods.

As this goes on, Kelmomas mocks his brother, asking if he can do anything.

Inri Sejenus, as Maithanet explains, saw the Gods as fragments of the God. Kellhus is a prophet of the “Voice-Absolute.” This means the Gods war with the desires of the sum total of their existence. Theliopa adds that there are plenty of scriptures that refer to the Gods as similar to men, fearing the darkness and Waring against what they fear.

Kelmomas has an “idea” of what his brother can do. Samarmas is awed that there is something he can do and asks what.

Maithanet explains how humans are full of conflicting desires that war with each other. “We are not is different from the world we live in, Esmi…” She knows this.

Kelmomas asks Samarmas if he can balance. Samarmas proves he can by perching on banister while Kelmomas watches from the playroom.

Maithanet said just the rumors of the White-Luck Warrior are a “dire threat.” Esmenet agrees, but how do they fight one?

Kelmomas could almost see his uncle’s simulated frown.

How else? With more rumours.”

Samarmas is balancing. He’s having fun.

Maithanet suggests inviting the Yatwerian Matriarch to the Andiamine heights.

Samarmas almost falls and is scared as he fights for balance.

Esmenet points out that the Matriarch doesn’t rule the cult. Maithanet says this can work for them since Sharacinth doesn’t like being a figurehead.

Samarmas catches his balance and giggles nervously. Doesn’t stop.

Esmenet realizes Maithanet means to bribe Sharacinth to be Mother-Superior.

The slender body bent about an invisible point, one which seemed to roll from side to side.

The surrounding air deep with the promise of gravity.

Esmenet adds that as Shriah, he has power over her. He believes for this reason Sharacinth is in the dark about the Cult’s plans.

Samarmas has his balance again. Grinning.

Esmenet and Maithanet plan on using Sharacinth to create a schism in the Yatwerian Cult.

Samarmas tottering. A bare foot, ivory bright in the glare, swinging out from behind the heel of the other, around and forward, sole descending, pressing like damp cloth across the stone. A sound like a sip.

A schism…”

The shadow of a boy foreshortened by the high angle of the sun. Outstretched hands yanked into empty-air clutches. Feet and legs flickering out. A silhouette, loose and tight-bundled, falling through the barred shadow of the baulustrade. A gasp flecked with spittle.

Then nothing.

Kelmomas stood blinking at the empty balcony, oblivious to the uproar rising from below.

Kelmomas thinks of himself like his father, able to see more with his “soul’s eye” than others. Ever since he learned Hagitatas’s lesson. This is why that Kelmomas knew that the “love and worship” Samarmas had for him would let him manipulate his brother. Kelmomas knew where the Pillarian Guards would be. Alarms ring out. Soldiers stare in horror at his brother’s body. Kelmomas fakes being stunned and leans out over the railing to stare down at his brother’s broken form. Then he wipes up the olive oil he left on the railing before crying “the way a little boy should.”

Why? the voice asked. The secret voice.

Why didn’t you kill me sooner?

He saw his mother beat her way through the Pillarian Guards, heard her inconsolable scream. He watched his uncle, the Holy Shriah, grasp her shoulders as she fell upon her beloved son. He saw his sister Theliopa, absurd in her black gowns, approach in fey curiosity. He glimpsed one of his own tears falling, a liquid beat, falling, breaking upon his twin’s slack cheek.

A thing so tragic. SO much love would be required to heal.

“Mommy!” he cried! “Mommeeeeeee!”

Gods make real.

Esmenet finds love in preparing Samarmas for burial, staring down at his body in the funerary room. She hums as she cleans his naked flesh. She sometimes cries. When her weeping passes, she resumes her work, memorizing every bit of him.

She absorbed all of it, traced and daubed and rinsed it, with movements that seemed indistinguishable from devotion.

There was such love in the touch of a son.

Kelmomas pretends to weep as Esmenet holds him tight, crying and begging him to never let go. Her grief is special to him. She is his scripture. His paradise isn’t in heaven, it’s right here in her arms as she comforts him.

“Kel,” she sobbed. “Poor baby.”

He keened, squashed the urge to kick his feet in laughter. Yes! he cried in silent glee, the limb-wagging exultation of a child redeemed. Yes!

And it had been so easy.

You are, the secret voice said, her only love remaining.

My Thoughts

Her saying on begging “From seed to womb, from seed to furrow” is a fertility metaphor. It’s meaning is clear, that for a man to reproduce, he has to give something up. It also applies to those giving coins to beggars. And since she is being a symbolic representative of her goddess, and the coins are symbolic seed, she has to make sure they are giving for their own reasons and not to please her. Not to be influenced by her. This is why she has to leave because giving to achieve something greater, like salvation, isn’t truly giving. Because then you are receiving something, too.

The arithmetic for giving only goes one way.

Beggars are a good measure of the world. A judging balance. Think Ma’at’s Feather in Egyptian mythology. Your heart is weighed against it. Lighter, you get to survive. Heavy with sin, you’re thrown to Ammit to be devoured. How you treat those lesser than you is a good measure of who you are.

And who is lesser than a beggar?

We come back to the Christian concept of good deeds for the sake of appearing good is disgusting to God. You can’t bribe your way into heaven by works. You should do the good deeds out of love for your fellow men expecting nothing in return. No reward. A true gift. Yatwer’s cult is similar, but because they know every time they give to a beggar it could be a priestess, especially the priestess, is it every truly a gift? Apparently, it’s good enough it if becomes a habit. Something we do out of rote without thought.

Action performed through IGNORANCE.

Bakker is also drawing us to the contention that religion is born out of ignorance and that rational thought is something that leads away from faith. That the Cult survives because its followers do not question but obey. Yatwer is another Darkness that Comes Before.

Nannaferi is having an “ecstasy.” A religious vision. The description is very much in line with historical records of saints and others. Notice how Bakker then has someone comment she has the Falling Disease. This is an old term for having epilepsy. She’s having a seizure, which causes all manner of neurons to misfire. Bakker is making us question if this woman really is getting a message from Yatwer. At this point in the story, if you’re reading this series for the first time, we don’t realize just how powerful and active the gods are. They didn’t seem to do anything in the last trilogy. But here we have Yatwer truly talking to Nannaferi and telling her of future events.

“Your brother has finally arrived,” and, “On the anointed day,” are how Yatwer speaks of the White-Luck Warrior. She says he has arrived and yet he won’t be here until the future. This is our first clue on how Yatwer sees the world. He’s already arrived for her but not for Nannaferi.

The mysteries of the Cult is a phrase that hearkens us back to Greek and Roman times. This is when the Mystery Religions flourished. Cults of various deities, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and even new gods, dominated. You had to be initiated into secret rites, not unlike the Free Masons of modern times (which are often accused of being successors to the mystery religions). In secret places were performed magic and orgies and sacrificial rites. They were for special people. The chosen enlightened to discover and keep that secret. To hoard the truth from the masses.

The harvest sickle that’s at once a pregnant belly is the symbol of Yatwer. Both the harvesting of the bounty of fertility, the wheat’s death to sustain other life, and the symbol for new life about to be born goes along with the fact that Yatwer is both a fertility cult and a death cult, embracing the full breathy of life. That from death is born new life, for the carbon and other elements that make us up need to be recycled so new life can replace us.

Bakker does a good job introducing us to Psatama Nannaferi and who she is and her past. No deep details, but the board strokes to understand this woman and the iron will. She won’t compromise her morals even when it would be beneficial in the short term.

Taking is the very essence of Kellhus (and the other Dûnyain) and stands at odds with Yatwer. Nannaferi has this assessment correct. Dûnyain do nothing without gain. Any gift they give is like the silvers thrown at Nannaferi’s feet: bribes to get you to do their will. Nothing is free from the Dûnyain. They are the very antithesis to Yatwer and her worshipers. It is no wonder that they are the ones who rise up to oppose him.

“Everything was sinful.” Is it no wonder that later on Nannaferi doesn’t flinch from her goddess being accused of punishing even her followers and devouring them. She’s a fanatic who believed it is necessary. The only way for Yatwer to cultivate the world into order.

We see more of Bakker’s thesis that faith comes out of blind devotion. Something to never be questioned. Something to be followed because the Goddess, in Nannaferi’s case, is something better than her. Something that knows right and wrong. Better to follow her will than to be sinful.

Nannaferi says she has no vanity, but her POV is full of her thinking she’s better than the others. She takes pleasure in cowing them and lording over their sins. When one has a strong personality, how can there not be ego?

The witch scene both show us that Nannaferi’s visions are reliable and refresh us on how Chorae work with sorcery. How it turns a person to salt and undoes their magic. It accomplishes both a recap of lord and world-building along with proving Nannaferi’s bonafide. She’s not a fake seer like Vethenestra.

You can see how Kellhus, from the outside perspective, appears to be the evil tyrant. The false leader that the righteous servants of the beaten-down true gods are seeking to destroy. Another fantasy trope here, only their Goddess operates out of fear and jealousy of losing her followers. Not out of any care of how evil he is. The irony is, Kellhus’s is the world’s best hope to stop the Consult.

Life is a gift. But one that can be taken back. Nannaferi is reminded of those few things left to her as she pronounces judgment on Vethenestra who is about to have her life taken back.

And if you want any proof that Yatwer is real, she just devoured Vethenestra. Bakker wants us to have no doubts about the Gods in this series. They are real entities that have agency and shall be utilizing it in this story.

Trees are equated with Dûnyain time and time again. They war in every direction at once, just the way a Dûnyain should. Kelmomas wants to be a Dûnyain. He yearns for it, but he isn’t a tree. He’s not a true Dûnyain. He knows this at some level.

The tree metaphor continues. Theliopa is a dead branch. She can’t understand social niceties because of her autism. She has the intellect, but not the ability to fake being human. She can never war in every direction at once because she can only be one thing.

Kelmomas is still a child. He plays games throughout the entire series. That’s all this is for him. A way to keep himself amused and to have what he selfishly wants: his mother all to himself. He has no morality, no children do but has to learn it. That’s combined with far, far too much intellect. He doesn’t have the morality to leash his intellect and keep from being utterly dominated by his desires. He’s Inchoroi; he just hasn’t developed physically enough to care about other forms of gratification. Notice how he enjoys being compared to his father.

Gratification.

Reading about Samarmas blissfully at play unaware that his twin brother is plotting his murder is heartbreaking. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent several years working with the handicapped including many with severe autism and other mental handicaps that, though they were adults, they had very children-like personalities. They were often happy, playful, taking joy in life that I sometimes envied.

“Beasts move. Men reflect. Gods makes real.” Beasts just react, men think, and gods make changes to the world. Create miracles. This feeds back into sorcery. Why it leaves the Mark because what sorcerry does is an imperfect creation. Only the Psûkhe with their emotion-charged magic, drawing on feelings and belief instead of logic or arguments like with the other types of magic.

We see here that the Outside is based on belief in how Bakker’s sorcery works. The magic that draws on logic and mathematics, or on arguments and metaphors, doesn’t capture the world perfectly. No, it’s imagination. Feelings. Emotions. It’s more than “thinking” and more than “doing” that is the providence of Gods. Creation cannot come from logic, from math, from the statistic, from making perfect geometries. Nature isn’t perfect. It also can’t come from making a good comparison. Creation is an internal act, not an external one.

“They [the Gods] are blind to any intelligence without a soul.” We learn later on that the No-God is actually some form of AI. One that was directing the Arc and was badly damaged in the crash. It appears to need some sort of biological component, a mind, to do its processing and, hence, why it needs a host. We know Nau-Cayûti is one such host, and Kelmomas is the other. Because Kelmomas is destined to become the “intelligence without a soul,” he also can’t be seen by the gods.

Maithanet’s explanation on Esmenet’s soul is interesting. We all have those conflicting desires in ourselves, the war to do one thing over another. To surrender to vice. To strive for virtue. If there was some entity that perceived our various inclinations as a separate entity, our desire to be lazy and skip work would be one god while our desire to keep paying our bills and demanding we go to work is another. Those two impulses battling in us would be seen as those two gods warring. In fact, they would be bitter enemies with sloth probably the evil god who usually gets beaten.

This entity couldn’t understand how they could, in fact, be part of the same whole.

This feeds into the Oversoul idea Kellhus has spoken of. That all souls are just points in the real world where one vast soul is thrusting out little fillers to understand it. None of these souls can remember they’re really one vast soul. This seems to be how the cosmology works in Bakker’s story. By killing enough bits of these souls thrust into the real world, the Consult will slay this Oversoul and free themselves from damnation and only find annihilation when they die. They would, in fact, be vestiges of something already dead. It’s as if the brain has died, but the cells in stomach haven’t gotten the message yet and are still happily digesting your last meal.

Rumors fighting rumors. Isn’t that politics in a nutshell?

Maithanet is wrong about Sharacinth being in the dark. She was there at the unveiling of Nannaferi’s connection to the goddess.

The cutting between Samarmas balancing and about to fall with the conversation is great at building tension. We can see that, though stunted mentally, Samarmas has a control over his body a boy that age shouldn’t. This section builds and builds until that promise of gravity in the air is fulfilled.

Such a tragic end. You can feel Kelmomas’s plan building and building as he lures his brother to his death. We also get to see the extant of Kelmomas’s delusion. It’s not just any voice that’s in his head, it’s the “real” Samarmas. Kelmomas wants to be a mighty tree, but he has a flaw. That voice isn’t his brother. That’s his own madness whispering the words he wants to hear. He thinks his soul was split in half. So he kills his brother. Now he gets his mother’s love all to himself.

And she needs his love so much right now.

The scene where Esmenet readies Samarmas… Bakker really caught the emotions. Puts you in her shoes. What a terrible thing to have to do. And then we transition to Kelmomas’s exultation. He’s ecstatic. He has his mother all to himself.

Or so he thinks.

Want to read more, Click here for Chapter Six!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Four

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Four

Hûnoreal

Welcome to Chapter Four of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Three!

For He sees gold in the wretched and excrement in the exalted. Nay, the world is not equal in the eyes of the God

—SCHOLARS, 7:16, THE TRACTATE

My Thoughts

This is about the subject view on who is and isn’t saved. It echoes the sentiment from Christianity that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven. To Christians, this is a statement that material possessions are a path into sin because you focus on them and not putting God first. Bakker’s scripture is saying that it is better to suffer than to be praised. That pain in this life brings reward in the next while those who take glory in this world are in for a surprise. It echoes another Christian teaching about salvation in that doing good deeds to earn salvation is offensive to God like soiled menstrual rags, I believe, is how the translations often go.

In Bakker’s universe, damnation is something seen and judged. This is our first allusion to the title of the book and Mimara’s ability. Fittingly, it is her POV that starts off the chapter and her first unveiling of this power.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

Mimara has no choice but to camp by Achamian’s tower. Where will she go? The brothel? Her mother’s palace (which is like a brothel)? She doesn’t tether her mule, Foolhardy, hoping he will wander free and escape then fearing that he’ll be eaten by wolves at night because of her carelessness. So far, he’s still there when she wakes up. As the days past, she tends her fire, thinking its “singularity of purpose” is divine.

Flare. Wax. Consume.

Like a human. Only with grace.

The children, learning she’s a witch, spy on her and gives fake screams of fright when she spots them. She is a witch because she can see the Wards that Achamian has put around his tower as well as the bruises to the world his violent defense of the valley against the Sranc had left. “The eyes of the Few were with her always, prodding her onto this path she has chosen, fortifying her resolve.”

But more and more the different eye seems to open, one that has perplexed her for many years—that frightens her like an unwanted yen for perversion. Its lid is drowsy, and indeed it slumbers so deep she often forgets its presence. But when it stirs, the very world is transformed.

For moments at a time, she can see them… Good and evil.

Not buried, not hidden, but writ like another colour or texture across the hide of everything. The way good men shine brighter than good women. Or how serpents glow holy, while pigs seem to wallow in polluting shadow. The world is unequal in the eyes of the God—she understands this with intimate profundity. Master over slaves, men over women, lions over crows: At every turn, the scriptures enumerate the rank of things. But for terrifying moments, the merest of heartbeats, it is unequal in her eyes as well.

She believes this “judging eye” is a madness brought on by what happened to her. “It has to be madness.” She wonders what Achamian will look like. She stares at his tower in the morning sun and thinks it’s not so tall. It’s height an illusion.

The world hates you…

This thought afflicts her when she least expects it. She knows this truth and didn’t need her little brother to remind her: “It hurts Momma to even look at you! She wishes she would have drowned you instead of sold you…” As she starves outside Achamian’s tower, she believes this more and more. She traveled all this way to be a witch and is denied.

There is no other place. So why not cast her life across the Whore’s table? Why not press Fate to the very brink? At least she will die knowing.”

She cries though she feels empty. She sees “the Wizard” pacing in his window. She can’t remember when she had cried and felt the emotion. She thinks maybe as a child. She stays because she has nowhere to go. All her choices are the same. Despair lies in all directions.

A broken tree, as her brothel-master once told her, can never yield.

Two days became three. Three become four. Hunger makes her dizzy, while the rain makes her clay-cold. The world hates you, she thinks, staring at the broken tower. Even here.

The last place.

One night, he appears, haggard like he hadn’t slept because of guilt. He has food and wine. She devours it like a “thankless animal.” He watches her and mentions Dreams like they are an old enemy he’s long fought. As she eats and stares at him, he speaks of his Dreams and what it’s like. She finds herself asking the lame question if they’re bad. In the firelight, she can see that though he’s suffered much, he still remembers how “to be tender and honest.” He answers her with a wink then fills a pipe and lights it. He tells her the dreams used to be. That confuses her. He then asks her why Mandate Schoolmen have the dreams.

She knows the answer. Her mother always resorted to talk of Achamian to salve the abrasions between her and her embittered daughter. Because he was her real father, Mimara had always thought. “To assure the School of Mandate never forgets, to never lose sight of its mission.”

“That’s what they say,” Achamian replies, savoring the smoke. “That the Dreams are the goad to action, a call to arms. That by suffering the First Apocalypse over and over, we had no choice but to war against the possibility of the Second.”

Achamian disagrees and says that her adopted father, Kellhus, is right that every life is a riddle that can be solved. He knows this to be a truth before telling her about the First Holy War and his “forbidden love” for Esmenet. He’d been willing to risk the World to have her. He is open and vulnerable with her, making it compelling. She’s heard this story before, but listens with “childish attentiveness,” letting herself feel his emotions. During it, she realizes that he doesn’t know that his love for Esmenet is a story told around the empire.

The only secret is that he still lives.

With these thoughts her wonder quickly evaporates into embarrassment. He seems over-matched, tragically so, wrestling with words so much larger than himself. It becomes cruel to listen as she does, pretending not to know what she knows so well.

“She was your morning,” she ventures.

This interrupts him, and he gets angry, glaring at her. He asks her to repeat it. And she does, explaining how Esmenet told her about what she meant to him. He then says he no longer fears the night because he doesn’t have the same Dreams as other Mandate Schoolman.

“I no longer pray for the morning.”

She leans back to pluck another log for the fire. It lands with rasping thump, sends a train of sparks twirling up through the smoke. Watching their winking ascent to avoid his gaze, she hugs her shoulders against the chill. Somewhere neither near nor far, wolves howl into the bowl of the night. As though alarmed, he glanced away into the wood, into the wells of blackness between the variant trunks and limbs. He stares with an intensity that makes her think that he listens as much as he hears, to the wolves and to whatever else—that he knows the myriad languages of the deep night.

It is then that he tells his tale in earnest…

As though he has secured permission.

Achamian thinks about how Esmenet, after his capture by the Scarlet Spire, had waited for him like Mimara had. He hadn’t come to see the girl out of anger, not wanting to reward her. He did it out of ear not wanting to be caught with missing Princess-Imperial. That he was doing her a favor because she was too old to learn the Nonman tongue to use magic. He used every excuse to hid from his pain.

Her mother, Esmenet, had waited for him on the banks of the River Semis over twenty years previous. Not even word of his death could turn her from her vigil, so obstinate, so mulish was her love. Not even sense could sway her.

Only Kellhus and the appearance of honesty.

Achamian recognizes Esmenet’s stubbornness in Mimara. How else could the girl have traveled so far alone? He finally realized he had to tell her the truth because she would die and he’d be destroyed by guilt. So he came with compassion and food and told her everything, including how his dreams had started changing. It had been twenty years since he spoke without issue. He explains how while the Mandate dream about Seswatha, they don’t witness the normal, day to day stuff. “‘Seswatha’ the old Mandate joke goes, ‘does not shit,’”

All the things that were forgotten, he realized.

The dreams took on new a character, subtle at first. Achamian merely thought it was his change in perspective. Achamian dreamed of Seswatha stubbing his toe to fetch a scroll. Mimara, as he speaks, stars at him the way Esmenet had. “Another abject listener.” He can’t read her, but she’s letting him speak. He explains how he was flabbergasted upon awakening. It wasn’t anything profound. He brings up how the Mandate have cataloged the variation of all the dreams. They could misfire, playing things out of order or corrupted. More than a few Mandate had become obsessed with them, thinking they found some greater truth. But they never could convince anyone else. So Achamian writes off the dream as his own. For two months, he dreamed the usual things, then he has one of Seswatha reading a scroll.

He trailed, though whether to let the significance settle in or to savour the memory, he did not know. Sometimes words interrupted themselves. He pinched the hem of his cloak, rolled the rough-sewn seam between thumb and forefinger.

Achamian notices how Mimara finishes off her gruel like a slave would before she asks what the scroll was. He says it’s a lost scroll by Gotagga. Parapolis. It’s famous. Mimara asks if Achamian invented it. He doesn’t think so. He wrote down what he remembered and it was far better than he could write. It proved they were real. He remembers that morning and the heady feel or realizing “he had begun dreaming Seswatha’s mundane life.” No other Mandate Schoolman had.

How strange it had been, to find his life’s revelation in the small things; he who had wrestled with dying worlds. But then the greater turned upon the small. He often thought of the men he’d known—the warlike ones, or just the plain obstinate—of their enviable ability to overlook and to ignore. It was like a kind of willful illiteracy, as if all the moments of unmanly passion and doubt, all the frail details that gave substance to their lives, were simply written in a tongue they couldn’t understand and so needed to condemn and belittle. It never occurred to them that to despise the small things was to despise themselves—not to mention the truth.

But then that was the tragedy of all posturing.

She asks why this happened. Why him. He has no idea, maybe Fate is fucking with him or maybe he’s gone mad, “for one cannot endure what I’ve [Achamian has] day and night without going mad.” Maybe since he’s abandoned his life, a new one filled it or Seswatha is reaching out to him. He comports himself and says there is a bigger question. He stares at her, watching her even while knowing he must appear as a bitter, old man.

But if there were judgment in her eyes, he could detect nothing of it.

“My stepfather,” she said. “Kellhus is the question.”

This makes him realize that she’s not ignorant of much of what he’s been talking to. She knew Kellhus personally. She’s his stepdaughter. It hadn’t clicked in his mind and he feels like an idiot for how obvious it was. Then he wonders why she came here. Did Kellhus send her even if she doesn’t know it? Is she a spy? Kellhus had seduced the Holy war. Mimara stood no chance.

How much of her soul was hers, and how much had been replaced?

Achamian asks if Kellhus sent her. She looks confused and bewildered. She says he’d drag her home in chains and return her to her mother. Achamian persists. She’s crying as she protests she’s not lying.

“This is the way it works,” Achamian heard himself rasp in an utterly ruthless voice. “This is the way he rules—from the darkness in our own souls! If you were to feel it, know it, that would simply mean there was some deeper deception.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! He-he’s always been kind—”

“Did he ever tell you to forgive your mother?”

She’s confused by that. He asks if he ever knew her heart better than she did. She says he had, not sure why it matters. He asks her if she felt awe in him. Saw him as more than a man. Did his attention make her feel gratified? Achamian is manic, shaking, frightening her. She calls him Akka, sounding to him like her “whore-mother.”

“When you stood before him!” he roared. “When you knelt in his presence, did you feel it? Hollow and immovable, as if you were at once smoke and yet possessed the bones of the world? Truth. Did you feel Truth?”

“Yes!” she cried. “Everyone does! Everyone! He’s the Aspect-Emperor! He’s the Saviour. He’s come to save us! Come to save the Sons of Men!”

Achamian stared at her aghast, his own vehemence ringing in his ears. Of course she was a believer.

“He sent you.”

Her presence returns him to the mindset of being in the First Holy War. In her eyes, he sees hope dying, like it had to him. When he approached her, she’d weakened, dared to believe finally something good would happen to her, and he’d snatched it from her. He believes she’s not a willing slave now and is reminded of Cnaiür who had “a soul at once strong and yet battered beyond recognition.” He sees Esmenet in her.

She was precisely the kind of slave Kellhus would send him [Achamian]. Part cipher. Part opiate.

Someone Drusas Achamian could come to love.

Achamian talks about the day Kellhus arrived at the Holy War. How Achamian was there. Kellhus had been a beggar claiming to be a prince with a Scylvendi. “It was my back he broke climbing to absolute power,” Achamian tells her. He goes on how Kellhus was his friend, his student, and how Kellhus stole his wife anyways. His morning. He dares her to speak now and she stays silent.

“The only thing,” he continued, his voice wrung ragged with conflicting passions. “The only thing I took with me from my previous life was a simple question: Who is Anasûrimbor Kellhus? Who?”

Achamian stared at the bed of coals pulsing beneath the blackened wood, paused to allow Mimara fair opportunity to respond, or so he told himself. The truth was that the thought of her voice made him wince. The truth was that his story had turned into a confession.

Mimara gives the obvious answer to his question: Kellhus is the Aspect-Emperor. Achamian isn’t surprised. Anyone, let alone Kellhus’s adopted daughter, would give this answer. People wanted things to be simple. They would mock questions “for fear it would make their ignorance plain.” Then they would claim to be open.

This was the iron habit of Men. This was what shackled them to the Aspect-Emperor.

He shook his head in slow deliberation. “The most important question you can ask any man, child, is the question of his origin. Only by knowing what a man has been can you hope to say what he will be.” He paused, brought up short by an old habit of hesitation. How easy it was to hid in his old pedantic ruts, to recite rather than talk. But no matter how woolly his abstractions always became snarled in the very needling particularities he so unwittingly tried to avoid. He had always been a man who wanted to digress, only to find himself bleeding on the nub

She gives the official answer, that Kellhus is “the Son of Heaven” as if it were the only one that could be. Achamian points out he’s a real person with parents born like anyone else. Where did that happen? She brings up Atrithau, but he cuts her off and says that Cnaiür, a dead man, told him. A memory of Cnaiür’s conversation, his warning on how Dûnyain “war against circumstances” and see men as dogs to be tamed. How they use love to control. The Dûnyain are Kellhus’s people.

She asks about his bloodline, and Achamian says he is an Anasûrimbor, the only clue to where he’s from. Where had that kingly family survived? She asks where else besides Atrithau since the North is ruined. The Sranc rule it. He says the Kûniüric High Kings must have created a refugee, something Cnaiür had mentioned in their conversation. Hidden in the mountains. Isolated for a thousand years so they could breed themselves into something better than world-born humans.

As he talks about the sanctuary, Achamian knows he sounds desperate to be believed even as he struggled to control how fast he gives Mimara the information. However, when calling the Aspect-Emperor a liar, their words never could come out slow enough. Mimara has gone blank, hiding her offended beliefs. Achamian thinks she sees him as a bitter cuckold railing against the better man who’d taken his wife and now paints a story with himself as the hero.

He breathed deeply, leaned back from the fire, which suddenly seemed to nip him with its heat. He resolved to refill his pipe, but he could only clench his fists against the tremors.

My hands shake.

Mimara watches Achamian as his voice grows shriller, his gestures wilder. At first, she was excited, but then she realizes he’s not free at all, but bound by the past. He’s not speaking to her, either, but to her mother. The irony that he mistakes her for her mother after she mistook him for her father hurts her. She realizes he’s more her brother, another person hurt and betrayed by Esmenet.

Mimara realizes she’s been wrong about him. Her imagination the opposite of reality. He lives only for vengeance against Kellhus. He’s ranting about how keeping Cnaiür alive was Kellhus’s mistake. The Scylvendi knew too much about Kellhus’s past. So now Achamian is using his mutated Dreams to get his vengeance. He’s spent twenty years sifting through Seswatha’s life to find what he needed.

It’s more than a fool’s errand; it is a madman’s obsession, on par with those ascetics who beat themselves with strings and flint, or who eat nothing but ox-hides covered in religious writings. Twenty years! Anything that could consume so much life simply has to be deranged. The hubris alone…

His hatred of Kellhus she finds understandable, though she herself bears no grudge against her stepfather. She barely knows the Aspect-Emperor, and those fare times she found herself alone with him on the Andiamine Heights—twice—he seemed at once radiant and tragic, perhaps the most immediate and obvious soul she had ever encountered.

You think you hate her,” he once said—referencing her mother, of course.

I know I do.”

There is no knowledge,” he had replied, “in the shadow of hate.”

She ponders those words and sees how Achamian has focused everything in his life towards unmasking Kellhus. His Dreams and his Hatred. If you can’t get your revenge, it devours you which only feeds your outrage at the source. She sees Achamian as the same as her.

She asks if he’s found what he’s been searching for in the dreams. He’s found a name, sounding embarrassed because it sounds so paltry compared to his boasts about his work. She nearly laughs, earning a bitter glare.

She reminds herself to take care. Her instinct, given all that she has endured, is to be impatient with the conceits of others. But she needs this man.

He says the name: Ishuäl. It’s almost a whisper. He explains it means ‘Exalted Grotto’ or ‘High Hidden Place’ in a Nonman dialect. She asks if that’s where Kellhus is from and sees it disturbs him when she speaks Kellhus name with familiarity. He is certain, however. She asks how he can find it. He says he’ll know soon. More and more of Seswatha’s life is opening to him. He’s getting the secrets.

A life spent mining the life of another, pondering glimpses of tedium through the lenses of holy and apocalyptic portent. Twenty years! How can he hope to balance the proportions? Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stones.

“Like he’s yielded,” she forces herself to say.

Achamian says that’s just what it likes. He speaks as if Seswatha knows it and is helping him. She can’t imagine what sort of drive it would take to spend twenty years researching this. She doesn’t think any sane person could have such conviction and perseverance.

Faces. All conduct is a matter of wearing the appropriate faces. The brothel taught her that, and the Andiamine Heights simply confirmed the lesson. It’s as though expressions occupy various positions, a warning here, a greeting there, with the distance between measured by the difficulty of forcing one face from the other. At this moment nothing seems so difficult as squeezing pity into the semblance of avid interest.

She asks him again if no other Mandate’s had this happen. He says no and asks her what it means. She’s shocked and offended that he’s showing weakness. At that point, the Judging Eye opens, though she doesn’t know what this is. She sees more than the Mark on him. She sees the “hue of judgment, as though blessing and condemnation have become a wash visible only in certain kinds of light.” He bleeds evil. Damnation.

He is damned. Somehow she knows this with the certainty with which children know their hands. Thoughtless. Complete.

He is damned.

The Judging Eye closes and he’s just Achamian again. She feels great sorrow for this once strong man who is now a wreck. She knows, thanks to the brothel, that a madman needs to be believed. She tells him he’s a prophet from the past and leans in to kiss. “Her whole life she has punished herself with men.”

The memory of his power is like perfume.

After they have sex, they both regret it. She feels lonely as he sleeps beside her, wondering why that should be. She crawls to the fires, wrapped up in blankets, and tries to forget what they did. When he touches her shoulder, giving her kindness, she starts to cry.

“We have made our first mistake together,” he says, as though it were something significant. “We will not make it again.”

The forest is silent and suddenly she can’t stand it and sobs out, asking if she’s broken. If that’s why she runs. He says everyone carries silent burdens that bend them. She throws that back in his face, even as she hates herself for calling him broken. His hands stay on her in a comforting manner, though. He tells her he needs to find the truth more than for his hatred. She asks what difference does it make, and he’s shocked to learn the Great Ordeal has marched for Golgotterath. In a year, the Consult will be destroyed. Already, Sakarpus has already fallen.

Silence. Remorse comes crashing in.

Can’t you see? Something shrikes in her. Can’t you see the poison I bring? Strike me! Strangle me! Pare me to the core with your questions!

But she laughs instead. “You have shut yourself away for too long. You have found your revelation too late.”

My Thoughts

Why is the palace like a brothel? It’s a place where people are seen as objects. As things to be used and manipulated. As the Empress’s daughter, she would be seen as a valuable piece to be claimed as a wife. As an ear to her mother. As a wedge against a political rival. The brothel is, at least, honest.

Flare. Wax. Consume. Be energetic, get tired, and then eat food before you do it all over again. Life reduced to its most basic and honest form.

Unlike the Judging Eye, seeing sorcery’s mark on the world never goes away.

We get our first description of the Judging Eye and what our opening epigram is about: in this world, things are not equal. Men are seen as better than women. Why? I think it’s belief. The Outside exists so long as enough souls on this planet believe in it. That’s why the Inchoroi and the Consult want to depopulate it. To destroy this extra-dimensional realm that is being fed upon by the psyche of intelligent beings. Nonmen are evil because the majority species on this planet believe it. Whatever effect the Nonmen had on the Outside is gone. They’ve been depopulated. It’s all human now. Men think they’re better than women, which is a common thing we’re shown as a great evil in this series.

Bakker is accused of misogyny, but the whale room is his greatest condemnation of women being used as objects. The Dûnyain, who prized intellect above all others, who wanted to breed themselves into perfect beings, realized that the sex differences between women and men made it necessary to turn their women into better breeders. They destroyed their women because they had no emotions.

They did it through logic.

Then you have the other end. The Inchoroi. They are all about sex but don’t care about its biological purpose. Just the pleasure. They are all just men looking to rut with whatever holes they can find. They have a thousand words for ejaculate. Tells you a lot of their priorities.

Esmenet is the perfect person to show the flaws of these beliefs. An intelligent woman denied any chance to use it, forced to sell her body, even her own child, to survive. Achamian came close to treating her as an equal. Considering their culture, he went far beyond what’s normal. Kellhus used this to seduce her by respecting her and feeding her knowledge. However, his logic still led to the same position: she became a breeder for him.

How can Mimara ever heal and find resolution with her relationship with Esmenet when she has Kelmomas poisoning the well, polluting her thoughts with lies? We’ve seen Esmenet’s POV. We know the greatest mistake she’s ever made was selling her daughter.

A broken tree can never yield. A tree yields to the wind that blows past it, bending and swaying. To the forces of nature until those forces are too much and it breaks. The trunk collapses. Then it just lies there, unable to do anything. Unable to yield because it has collapsed. Is this what Bakker means? Maybe.

Reading this section of Mimara is something I can relate to. That feeling of helplessness. That nothing matters so why do anything. Just like you’re in a pit and will die because no one cares about you to come look for you. No one will miss you. Why even bother trying to escape? It takes too much effort. Just lie there and let it end.

Poisonous thoughts. The loss of hope is crippling.

Achamian says he no longer prays for the morning, and yet he just spent all this time talking about what Esmenet meant to him. What he was willing to give up for her. He would have condemned the world if it meant having the woman he loved. He isn’t over her at all. He is, after all, still trying to prove that Kellhus is not what he says. To find proof that he’s lying about salvation for sorcerers and even for Esmenet. That the Great Ordeal isn’t what he claims.

I don’t know about you, but I have dreamed of invented books before. I once heard you can’t read in dreams, but that’s not true. I have. Usually, it’s on the eve of a book I’m looking forward to reading coming out. The Wheel of Time books caused me to have them a few times. I’d be so excited to read them, but I could never find the same place in the books and sometimes would frantically be flipping through pages to find it.

The small things of life are where your true self comes out. Not the mask you wear around others, the various roles we all shift through like chameleons. The good employee. The patient friend. The polite cashier. Spouse. Confidant. Adviser. We never fully act our real selves around anyone but modify our behavior because it’s expected or to avoid friction.

And a brutal critic on those who pretend it doesn’t happen. Who project themselves as something more than the truth: they’re no better than any other human being.

Dûnyain influence on people is almost like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Only it’s still the person you love who betrays you because of Kellhus. Like what happened with Conphas and Martemus in the last series. Martemus was loyal until Kellhus began whispering. Then he nearly killed Conphas. And Conphas never betrayed Martemus. Conphas never did anything to Martemus that would have prompted a sense of betrayal. It was all Kellhus rewriting his soul.

Making Martemus into a new person.

It’s insidious if you’re trying to war against Kellhus. There’s no test like with the skin-spy. No mark left on the person physically. Not even the Mark.

Mimara, of course, was sent by a Dûnyain. Just not Kellhus. So Achamian is right, but, lucky for him, Kelmomas cares nothing about Achamian. He just needed Mimara to go away. She’s lucky not to be dead.

My theory is that Kellhus expected Achamian to try and find Ishuäl and use the Holy War as cover. I believe that’s why he arranged for the nonman king to be with the Ironsoul and his men. He cut a deal with the nonman erratic to let him relive his past through Seswatha (aka Achamian) in exchange for knowledge. He used that knowledge to send Serwa on an attack on Ishterebinth and secure his flank for the march on Golgotterath. Was Achamian supposed to be killed by the erratic? Was he supposed to find the truth about Kellhus?

I don’t know.

Once Kellhus had achieved his goal of defeating the No-God, he didn’t need to rule everything. Perhaps he was readying for some form of enlightened atheism. To have Achamian began to destroy his own myth after Kellhus achieved his plan. I think Kellhus wanted to close the Outside but not the way the Consult wanted to. Not through genocide. I could be just talking out of my ass here because Kellhus died without giving us any closure on Achamian’s storyline. In the end, Achamian’s journey didn’t change what happened at Golgotterath one bit. It was anticlimactic. Perhaps the point, but it seems like a waste of literary potential.

We’ll have to see how the next series handles it.

Achamian is unburdening himself now. He felt guilty for snatching away Mimara’s hope with his accusation. So even though he fears she is exactly what he dreads, a leash from Kellhus, he can’t help but explain himself. To fall into the Dûnyain trap.

People do not like their beliefs challenged. It causes turmoil. Why go through all that mental effort when you can just get on with your life? Like confronting contradictory information to what is in your core identity. Is it any wonder people hate philosophers. No one likes the status quo being challenged when you’re benefiting from it.

Beyond that, our minds take a lot of energy to operate. Humans burn a lot of calories to have our brains process so much, so our minds focus on important things and don’t like us to waste energy on things that cause it to have to burn more resources.

To understand something, you need to know how it came about. Whether it’s an astronomer studying a new cosmic phenomenon or a farmer trying to eradicate a new weed in his crops. The truth of origin can allow you to both understand something better and then categorize it. Handle it.

To war against it.

“There is no knowledge in the shadow of hate.” Mimara doesn’t hate her mother, she loves her. That is why she’s so hurt. Why she wants to punish her back. She doesn’t want to destroy her mother. Doesn’t despise her. She wants to make her mother bleed so she can find closure on the pain she received from Esmenet. You hate what you don’t know. One of the most successful men in defusing racial hatred is a black man named Daryl Davis. He sat down with members of the KKK, became their friends, and more than two hundred of them gave up their robes. He let them get to know what they hated and find understanding.

Achamian hates Kellhus. Mimara resents her mother.

One of those secrets of Seswatha, like how he’d cuckolded the king and is probably the father of Nau-Cayûti.

“Grub through dirt long enough and you will prize stone.” Value is subjective, after all. What looks like something as common as stone to one person is the material to build something great and vast to another.

Despite her upbringing, Mimara is having trouble hiding her pity for Achamian let alone feeling it. He’s touched her. Reached through her hard, bitter, cynical exterior that she drew around herself to protect her heart from the suffering she received as a child-slave in a brothel.

Interesting that the Judging Eye triggered as she’s judging him for being weak. I’m going to pay attention to its other appearance and see if there’s anything that triggers it, or if it happens at “random.” I put that in quotes because no book has random things in it. An intelligent mind creates a book and while their reasoning may not make sense, an author chooses when to put information in and for a reason.

Mimara has really only learned one way to deal with men. She hates it, but she doesn’t know other ways to get them to give her things. So she once again goes down that path, sensing Achamian’s vulnerability. This is her moment. She could have continued doing this with him, but he does the one thing she can’t take.

He’s kind to her.

Sex is a punishment for her. To willingly do what she’d been forced to do. What she hates. To be the thing she can never escape. He shouldn’t be kind to her, and yet he is.

She feels lonely beside him because she didn’t have sex out of love, out of a desire to truly be with him. She just wanted to get something from him. They had the veneer of intimacy but in fact, it’s not there. So she can’t take any satisfaction from his presence.

Ultimately, Mimara’s problem is that she hates herself. For how she has grown to become exactly what the brothel masters intended: a woman who uses sex to get things from men. And because of that, she wants the world to hate her, too. Her mother. Achamian. She lashes out at them even as she wants to stop. Even as she wants to receive their love. Until she can stop hating herself, she’ll never be able to accept the love of others.

And what Achamian offers her as he holds her face is love. Not sexual love, but that paternal love she came here seeking. He will become her father in truth over their journey, and since we’re in the world of grimdark fantasy, it comes after they had sex and she becomes pregnant with his child.

And with her pronouncement on the Holy War’s march, Achamian is launched into action. He has his quest. His chance to make it to his goal and find the truth. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. They arrive at the Great Ordeal not caring about the results. They don’t confront Kellhus. He’s never even seen with the Judging Eye. Because we, the readers, don’t need to see Kellhus in that eye. In those final moments, we see what Kellhus’s goals are. Whether or not he’s damned, he’s trying to change things his way. A way that doesn’t see humans suffer more than necessary.

Because, ultimately, he fell in love in his stunted way. He forged an emotional bond to Serwë and Esmenet. He let one of them die for his mission. He couldn’t let the other one. The irony is that this led to his fall. If he never went back to save Esmenet, if he hadn’t spared Kelmomas for her sake, what happened at Golgotterath would have played out very differently.

So what is the point of Achamian and Mimara’s journey? I haven’t read this series since the Unholy Consult came out and know how it ends. It sees these two broken figures reunited with Esmenet both transformed by their journey.

Let’s figure this out together and see if we can piece together what Bakker was intending. Is this another fantasy storyline that ends in failure like all the rest? Probably.

Ultimately, all are protagonists fail. Achamian and Mimara never reveal the truth of Kellhus.

Kellhus never defeats the Consult.

Sorweel never stops the evil emperor and live happily ever after with his princess.

Esmenet fails to protect her children.

But scattered through it is lives and passions, events that have meaning. That resonates. Let’s explore those as we march forward through The Aspect-Emperor.

If you enjoyed this, click here for Chapter Five!

And if you want to help support this blurb, check out my fantasy books on Amazon!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Weekly Free Story – Lily’s Kiss

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Lily’s Kiss

Her Royal Highness, Princess Livia Bethany Izzabel Karzinoth, took a deep breath as her new boots crunched on the edge of the crenelation. She did her best not to look down at the plunging drop before her, her rope swaying like a long snake down the side of the tower’s black stone. The knot in her stomach twisted even tighter. Her breath quickened. Frozen air puffed before her, the night’s chill deepening, adding a bite that snapped at her pink cheeks. Already, frost rimed the tower’s edges.

Winter’s chill stole through the structure. On her climb up it, she felt those icy fingers digging through the leather pants and jerkin she wore, rough clothing she’d filched from the laundress and tailored in secret through long nights to fit her shorter, yet curvier, form than the squire who owned them.

Her moleskin gloved hands gripped the rope as she turned around, facing the tower’s center, her back to the vast expanse of air behind her. Her stomach squirmed as the heels of her feet hung off the edge.

I’m going to die,” she whispered to herself.

She could picture it now, her booted foot slipping on the icy stone, the alchemical treatment on the gloves failing, her grip slipping. The rope hissing by her, the tower’s stones streaking past, as she plunged head-first into the outer bailey below.

She stood atop the Raven Donjon, the highest tower of the castle. It was a remnant of the old keep torn down to build the larger, and more impressive, dwelling that housed the royal family. The stonemasons had left behind only the rearing shaft of black, an edifice only a fool would climb.

That’s me, thought the princess. A fool.

But she had no choice. A fortnight ago, she’d discovered love in an unexpected place. Not in the nobles who came from across the known world to court her, the dignitaries from a dozen courts, or the men of power and wealth all looking to forge an alliance with her father’s kingdom. Nor did she find passion in the arms of a rough soldier or a comely servant like many ladies of the court did, reveling in their sordid love behind their lord husbands’ backs.

She’d found love in the face of Lily, her new bedmaid.

It had blossomed so unexpectedly, swelling in her heart until it swallowed her body.

And when discovered abed, the evidence of their sapphic passion found on their flushed bodies and despoiled sheets, Princess Livia lost her Lily. The soldiers had taken the maid away, imprisoning her at the commands of Livia’s horrified parents. Already, the ink upon a betrothal contract dried, signing the princess over to another man who’d carry her away after their affair. Meanwhile, her poor Lily would rot in her cell high up in the Raven Donjon, condemned for loving Livia. Just picturing Lily quivering, freezing in her rags, propelled Princess Livia to step off the battlements and slide down her rope.

I’m going to die, ran over and over through the frightened princess’s thoughts. The rope hissed as it slid through her moleskin gloves. Treated with an alchemical formula she’d filched from the castle apothecary, the gloves gripped the rope in an unnatural way, almost sticking to the gray hemp even as she’d descended down it.

Now, however, she let out a shriek as she slid faster, her heart beating, fearing the treatment’s failure. Flashes of falling shot through her mind again. The darkness rushing up at her, the bone-crunching impact, then nothing. Death. But the idea of her poor Lily wilting away in the cell proved far, far stronger than the terror turning her insides into laundry churned by the fullers’ feet.

Livia was a fool, but her love gave her no choice.

The toes of her boots scraped down the mortared stone of the tower. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look down. Though she had a childhood full of romping through the castle, of climbing trees and smaller towers, never once had she dared the heights of the Raven Donjon. Not even her tomboyish enthusiasm had given the younger her the courage to attempt what she did tonight.

Her toes scraped down the wall until she hit a gap, her feet swinging into nothingness. She let out a squeak of fright as she swung into the opening, fearing a deadly plummet to the courtyard loomed. Then metal rang, her boot striking the barred window of a cell. A heartbeat later, her foot landed on the ledge of the window’s opening. She trembled, realizing she’d reached her destination.

With a sucked in breath, Livia lunged her hand forward and grasped an iron bar. She pulled herself from her rope to perch on the window’s ledge. She had half her feet planted on the stone, the other half hanging off over open air.

Again, she could feel the distance yawning between her and the courtyard’s stones far below.

Lily,” she hissed, peering through the darkness. The chill from the iron bled through her gloves. Her heart thundered in her chest. “Lily, it’s me.”

Nothing answered her.

Did I climb down to the wrong window? Did I misjudge her cell’s location?

A panicked flutter rippled through the princess. She’d carefully planned everything the last fortnight. The moment her parents had stolen Lily from her, she’d launched into her daring rescue. She’d tried to be the model daughter for them when she’d come of age. She’d put away her boys’ clothes. She’d stopped romping through the swampy edges of the moat or playing rough games with the scullion boys. She wore the restraining gowns her mother ordered sewn for her, draped herself in jewels gifted by suitors, wore the unguents and perfumes proffered by servants, allowed the greasy makeup to paint her face, and sat for hours while her hairdresser tamed her dark locks. She would have endured it all if they could have let her have Lily. She would have gladly married any man, done her wifely duty and bore him heirs, so long as she could have her bedmaid with her. To have the woman she loved to keep her company, to share lonely nights, and with whom to enjoy sweet kisses and tender caresses.

But the bitter words her mother spoke to her that night echoed in her head . . .

*

Lady Sun and Father Earth made everything in opposites,” Queen Bethany lectured to the princess.

Livia huddled in the dressing gown stuffed on her after they took Lily from her, hugging her legs as she sat in the middle of her rumpled bed. Candles lit the room, the light dancing upon the stern matron’s face. Tears stained the princess’s cheeks as she ached for her bedmaid’s return.

Day and night,” continued her mother, “white and black, order and chaos, man and woman. They are meant to complement each other. Without opposites, there would only be bland sameness. You were born to be with a man.”

The words struck sparks inside the princess. It offended her that her mother saw only filth in the beauty she made with Lily. Livia bounced onto her knees on the bed, glaring defiance at the queen. “I was born to be with Lily!” the princess raged. “I love her! She loves me! What is so wrong about that? What crime have we committed? It’s not like I bedded a scullion! I just shared something . . . something wonderful with my friend.”

The queen shook her head, lip curling in disgust. “There was nothing wonderful about what we found. It was perversion. We are blessed to rule, Livia. The compliment of those who serve. How can we disrupt the order Mother Sun and Father Sky gave to us? We have to be exemplars!”

Like you and the captain of the guard?” spat the princess. “What part of the natural order is cuckolding my fath—”

The queen’s slap snapped the princess’s head to the side. “You understand nothing about being a woman. I never should have tolerated even a moment of your foolishness as a girl. Look what it has done. Running around like a boy has warped you into thinking you are one.”

I’m a woman,” the princess hissed. “So I do understand just why you bed the captain of the guard. At least I love Lily.”

You are too young to even understand what that word means.” The queen leaned forward, seizing the princess’s chin. “When you’ve brought life into the world through blood and pain, then talk to me about love. Until then, you are my daughter, and you shall never see that little strumpet again! I will find you a husband so you can do your duty to him and to our family.”

The queen whirled, skirts flowing like an angry tide, and marched from the room. Alone, the princess simmered. Thought. Plotted.

*

Memory of that argument gave Princess Livia fire as she peered through the darkened cell. “Lily, are you there?” I’ll crawl across this entire tower. I’ll find you even if I break my neck doing it.

She grabbed her rope and swung out from the alcove, abandoning the empty cell. Anger swelled in her for making such an error. It could ruin everything. She couldn’t afford to die. She had to rescue her sweet Lily. Nothing else mattered.

Swallowing her fear, Livia walked herself along the outer wall of the tower, her feet braced against the stones, the rope creaking as she scurried sideways towards the next window. She spotted it as she walked along the outside of the tower. Above, the rope scraped on stone.

Mother Sun, shine upon me, she prayed, and don’t let my rope fray and break. For Lily. You’ve seen how sweet she is.

The image of her lover swelled in the princess’s mind, that round face framed by cornsilk hair, eyes as blue as the sea, as azure as the sky. Despite her common birth, Lily possessed the natural grace that a princess should embody. Dainty, delicate cheeks paling at the sight of blood, squeamish around mud. Sometimes, Livia imagined a horrible mistake must have happened. That the pair were switched at birth, the universe’s proper order messed up again.

First, you create me to love women, she prayed to Mother Sun, then you give me the personality of a peasant and not a princess. Why would you do that?

She didn’t understand. It confused her why everyone preached the order of creation when she felt so alien from it, so different from what was expected. When she’d met Lily, she finally understood just how flawed she was, how much the Gods had botched the casting of her form into the mold of life.

But she didn’t care about why she was created wrong. It didn’t matter now. Not when she found someone just as flawed, just as alien, just as out of place as her. Someone who understood. As she shuffled across the tower’s rounded exterior, the memory of their first kiss swallowed her thoughts.

*

I’m so sorry,” Lily gasped, jerking her head back from the princess’s. “I didn’t meant to do that. It just . . . You’re just . . . so beautiful.”

Livia blinked in wonder, still feeling the touch of her bedmaid’s lips. Though they’d only known each other for a month—her last bedmaid had married another servant—they’d fast become friends despite the difference in their stations.

As was usual, they shared the princess’s bed tonight so Lily could be on hand to provide for the princess’s any need. As they talked about idle things, they had rolled onto their sides to face each other. The contents of their conversation had utterly evaporated from Livia’s mind by that quick, chaste kiss.

How could she remember anything as she sat their trembling, awakened to her true self? Everything in her mind crystallized who she was. Her eyes widened as she stared at Lily, studying her with new sight, and seeing her as more than her new friend. She saw that opposite she’d searched for to complete her and couldn’t find among the men like she’d expected. All those suitors she’d politely suffered. All those times staring at the guards training and trying to understand why the other courtly girls and servants giggled at their sweaty, shirtless bodies.

It all became clear, Mother Sun’s illumination exposing the truth.

It’s okay,” Livia answered, her words strained by awe. “It wasn’t . . . distasteful. It was . . . rather nice.”

Relief burned across Lily’s face. Her eyes trembled. “Thank Father Earth’s gentle ground. I am truly sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.”

You were afraid I’d be offended?” That hurt Livia. “You never have to be afraid of me.” She took Lily’s hand, scooting a little closer, her nightgown rustling about her skin. “I would never hurt you. Even if you planted a thousand kisses upon my lips.”

Lily squeezed Livia’s hand back. Trembling, the maid asked, “You mean that, Your Highness?”

Livia.” The princess smiled. “Didn’t I tell you to call me that?”

It’s just . . .” Lily scooted closer. “It’s such a dream. Being with you. Every day, I pinch myself.”

Because you’re living in the castle?” frowned Livia.

No. Because of you. That I get to be with you. You make everything so much brighter.”

Me?”

You’re so elegant.”

I’m always tripping over the hem of my skirt.”

You move with such grace.”

So gracefully into a vase or a plinth holding a bust.” The princess grinned. “And then crash.”

Your hair is lustrous.”

If you like horsehair.”

Princess!” Lily said with some heat. “Stop that!”

Livia blinked at the outburst. “What?”

You are so beautiful. You don’t have horsehair. And you’re not so wide that you crash into anything. You walk with wonderful grace. Don’t hate yourself. It’s terrible.”

Livia became even more confused. “Why does it make you so angry?”

Because I don’t like anyone insulting you. Not even yourself. I . . .” She swallowed her words. “I love you, princess. That’s why I kissed you. That’s why I’m so happy and think this is a dream. I know it’s wrong. I shouldn’t say this because it means you’ll hate me, and you’ll send me away from you, but I just had to blurt out what was in my heart. To tell you how I felt even if you—”

Princess Livia kissed her bedmaid. And it wasn’t a quick, chaste kiss.

*

They had two weeks of beautiful nights before that horrid evening when they were caught. Princess Livia wanted them back. So she kept working around the tower, her arms threatening to rip free from her shoulder sockets. She gripped the rope, ignored the cold, and moved with bouncing, swinging steps closer and closer to the next cell window.

She was almost there when her boots slipped on the icy surface as she went to make her next swinging leap. She let out a startled yelp, soles scraping on stone. She found purchase for a heartbeat and made a mad lunge for the window ledge. Her fingers stretched wide. She realized how dumb this was. If she missed . . .

The courtyard was so far below.

With a squeak of relief, she snagged the icy lip of the alcove. Her alchemical gloves gripped. Breath exploded from her lips. Her feet scrabbled against mortared stone. She found purchase and hauled herself into the window’s alcove. She pressed herself against the bars, clutching them, her entire body shaking as she peered inside, praying to see her lover.

That she didn’t risk death for nothing.

Lily!” she hissed, her heart thundering in her chest, threatening to break her ribcage. Her entire body trembled. “Please, are you there, Lily?”

Shadows stirred in the room. “Livia?”

Mother Sun’s blessed light,” gasped Livia, relief flooding through her.

What are you doing?” The shadow rose and darted to the window. Silvery light splashed onto a frail figure, face gaunt and wan, blonde hair lank and swallow, darker than Livia remembered.

She’s so dirty, the princess realized, staring at her lover in the thin nightgown she wore. The same garment that had half-clad her body the night they were caught.

Tears burned Livia’s eyes. “What did they do to you, sweet flower?”

I’m fine,” Lily said, her thin arms reaching through the bars to touch the wool sleeve of the shirt the princess wore beneath her jerkin. “They haven’t done anything to me.”

Did they feed you?”

A crust of bread and a bowl of soup each evening,” she said. “It’s more than enough. But what are you doing? You’ll fall. This is foolish, Your Highness.”

Don’t call me that!” The anger surged through Livia.

Lily flinched.

I’m sorry,” the princess said, grabbing her lover’s thin arm. “I didn’t mean to yell. I had no idea they treated you this poorly.”

She shrugged, looking resigned to her fate. Livia’s heart broke.

They tell me you’re to be married,” the girl continued. “That I’ll be released once you’ve left with your husband.”

Well, I’m releasing you tonight,” the princess said. “You won’t spend another heartbeat in here.”

A sad smile spread on Lily’s face. She leaned forward to the bars, kissing Livia through the gap. “Another sweet dream. I’ll savor it tonight.”

Every night,” Livia insisted. “You’re coming with me.” She shifted around, pulling off the pack slung on her shoulders. From it, she produced a tied bundle of clothing. “Here, for you. Put it on.”

And then what, Liv?” Lily glanced behind her at her cell door. “Am I to break down a stout oak door and overpower my guards? Or am I to shrink and squeeze through the bars?”

The princess winked. “Leave those to me.”

Lily took the bundle from the princess, frowning. “What are you up to?” Then she groaned. “You’re not playing with that alchemical stuff again?”

They cured your pimples,” Livia objected.

And made my skin peel for a week.” But a smile touched Lily’s lips, such radiance in the darkness of the cell.

Livia grinned back, just so happy to see that beauty again on her lover’s face. She could stare at her for eternity, just drinking in that smile, the simple joy in her round face. But you can’t stare at her like a mooncalf all night. They’ll start a search for her come dawn.

Hurry and change,” the princess said, pulling out a glass vial from a pocket. A plug, also glass, stoppered the end, sealed shut by wax. The aqua regal in there could devour through the sternest stone but couldn’t harm fragile glass.

Lily moved deeper into the cells. She turned her back, drawing up the hem of her nightgown, exposing her pale thighs. She paused, throwing a look over her shoulder. “Don’t look, Liv!”

I’ve seen you naked before,” the princess said. “We used to bathe together. And do other things.” A naughty grin spread on her lips.

Just . . . Please.”

Fine, fine,” Livia said. “Just hurry. I’ll focus on getting you out of here. I won’t look. May Mother Sun blind me and Father Earth swallow me if I do.”

As Livia worked the crystal stopper off the vial, breaking the wax seal in the process, she heard the rustle of clothing. She bit her lip, forcing her eyes to stare at the bar. With care, she dribbled the caustic liquid along the bar near the top. It hissed and bubbled, eating into the metal. It ran in hissing lines, etching furrows into the iron. She did the same on the next bar, careful to keep it away from her moleskin gloves.

She shifted on the edge, breathing heavily. Heat washed across her face from the alchemical reaction. A smell, not unlike rust mixed with vinegar, assaulted her nose. She wrinkled it while holding the vial near the bottom of the bar and tipping it over so the contents dribbled out and—

A naked back almost glowed in the dark. Lashes striped it, half-healed, puckered and raw.

Livia froze. Liquid hissed and bubbled, stone groaning as the aqua regal poured out of her vial onto the stone around the bar, forming a caustic puddle. Anger swirled through the princess. Her hand gripped the bar, leather creaking as it rubbed on iron.

Then Lily donned the wool shirt, hiding her injuries.

What did they do to you!” hissed the princess.

I’m fine,” Lily said, her head lowered. “And you promised not to look.”

What did they do? Tell me!”

Lily stiffened. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Her words slapped Livia again. She tried so hard not to be imperious with Lily, to let them be equals, but her upbringing always reared up in her anger. Those barking commands burst from her lips. A lifetime of giving orders to everyone save her parents was not an easy habit to break.

Please, my sweet Lily,” she said, her voice lower. “They hurt you. Why?”

To purify me. A nun came to scourge my sin out of me. But I wouldn’t renounce my love for you.”

Tears fell down Livia’s cheeks. “Why do you love me so much that you would endure such pain for me? I’m not worth it.”

Of course you’re worth it!” Lily whirled around, staring with such shining eyes. “Because it’s you!” She touched above her breast through her wool shirt. “Because you dwell in here. They’d have to cut my heart out to get rid of you.”

You’d die for me?” Livia gasped in awe. How do I ever repay that?

Aren’t you risking death for me?” Lily pulled up the leather britches up her skinny legs. “You’re perched on a window high above the ground. You could slip and fall to your death.”

Don’t remind me.” The princess shuddered, suddenly feeling all that empty air between her and the ground. “If I think about it, I’ll freeze up again and . . .”

The sound of bubbling hisses drew her attention. She gasped, realizing almost all the aqua regal had poured out around the middle bar, eating a smoking depression into the stone. The bar she clutched wobbled in the center of the puddle as she shifted. She looked at her vial and breathed a sigh of relief.

She had enough regal aqua left to eat through the other bar. Or so she hoped. Lily would need two removed for her to squeeze out to freedom despite how slender she’d become. Livia poured the last drops of the hungry liquid onto the other bar. Then she tossed the empty vial over her shoulder. She shuddered, regretting that as it took a dozen heartbeats before it hit the ground with a shattering tinkle.

Just don’t think about how high we are,” she muttered beneath her breath as she jerked on the first bar. She pulled it free with ease, the bottom end popping out of the pool of acid, the top snapping free. Not wanting to make more noise, she thrust it into the cell and reached past the remaining bars to lower it to the floor.

You really are amazing, Liv,” Lily said as she finished lacing up the stout boots. The girl looked almost like a young boy in her men’s clothing. Only her hair was far too long and her face far too feminine for the resemblance to be more than superficial.

If she had my big breasts, she could never pass for a man, thought Livia.

With a twisting jerk, she tried to pull the final bar free. The top came off without any problem, breaking free with a crunching snap. But the bottom only twisted, the metal stretching but staying whole. She took a hard grip on it and tugged hard, heaving with an oxen grunt.

It came free with a clanging pop.

She gasped as she suddenly jerked backward towards the empty air behind her. The soles of her boots slipped on the icy ledge. She felt herself teetering, windmilling her arms to keep from toppling backward. Her heart shot up into her throat as she leaned back.

The ground swam so far below.

Don’t fall,” Lily gasped, rushing to the window. She thrust her arms through the opening and hugged Livia about the waist before hauling her from the precipice.

The princess seized a still-whole bar, arresting her dangerous lean. Her entire body shook. Her blood pounded through her, feeling colder than the air around her. She squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in deep breaths. The back of her heels still stuck out over the lip.

Okay,” Livia said, her voice brittle. She struggled to gather her thoughts. “You need to . . . uh . . . The, uh . . .”

The what?” Lily asked.

Livia took a deep breath, struggling to regather her thoughts scattered like a flock of songbirds fleeing the cat which jumped into their midst. “The rope! You have to tie the rope about your waist.” She spoke swiftly now, trying to mask her fear with activity. “Okay?”

Rope?” Lily asked.

Livia pulled a shorter length of rope out of her pouch and handed Lily one end. The other she wrapped about her waist and knotted it. Then she knotted it a second time. Lily’s fingers fumbled at the rope, clumsy in her moleskin gloves. But she managed to cinch the rope about her, squeezing the baggy clothing tight to her narrow waist.

The princess checked the knot just to make sure. It’s not tying off an embroidery or a seem.

Okay, watch that puddle,” Livia said as she took Lily’s hand. The acid had eaten half a foot into the stone, leaving a pockmarked depression. Little crags riddled it where the aqua regal had eaten deeper into the softer veins in the rock. “It’ll melt through your boots and your gloves.”

Lily gave a tight nod.

With a heave, the princess pulled Lily onto the ledge. It grew crowded with both girls clutching at the bars. The princess thrust the longer rope into Lily’s hand. The girl swallowed and looked down. She let out a squeak of fear.

Oh, no, she’s going to freeze up on me and—

But Lily gripped the rope and slid down it, clutching it with her feet with surprising skill. The cord bound between them played out as the princess followed, hugging the hemp and abandoning the relative safety of the ledge.

The rope swung away from it. She gasped as the tower blurred before her. Lily shrieked beneath her as they swung like the bob dangling at the end of a carpenter’s plumb. Her stomach swam as she gripped the rope with her treated gloves.

She choked on her scream.

The exterior of the tower scraped along her arms. Then she gasped, striking one stone which protruded a little more. She spun about. Lily squeaked in fright beneath her. Livia hit back into the tower, bouncing a second time. Her arm ached. She hugged the rope, her dark hair flying out around her face.

And then they dangled beneath the rope’s anchor point, swaying back and forth like a trembling pendulum. Livia let out an explosive breath, her entire body numb from fright. She hugged the rope, her eyes squeezed shut. Sucking in deep breaths, she vowed to never climb anything again.

Liv!” whimpered Lily. “What just happened?”

Part of the plan,” the princess said. I should have realized we’d swing like that! She forced herself to look down. “Mostly. Are you okay?”

Her lover just nodded, lips sealed tight.

Okay, it should be fine. Just slide down. The gloves should keep you on the rope. But you’re tied to me if you do fall.”

Lily smiled at that. “I know you have me.”

I love you,” Livia added. Just in case.

Then the princess and her lover slid down the rope. It rasped against the gloves and the leather of her trousers. She hugged her legs about the cord. The rope was their life. If she slipped, they would both die. She shuddered as they descended faster and faster.

Lily gasped beneath.

Then Livia crashed into Lily. They fell in a tangle of limbs on the paving stones of the courtyard. The princess lay atop her paramour. Lily squirmed beneath while hysterical giggles burst from Livia’s mouth.

We did it!” Her voice echoed through the courtyard. “Oh, Lily, we did it!”

You’re . . . crushing . . . me . . .” choked Lily.

Gasping, Livia rolled onto her back. Lily sucked in grateful breaths. But she still smiled. With Livia’s help, she stood up, gazing at the Raven Donjon, their rope swaying down the side like a narrow braid descending down a giant’s dark back.

Tears fell down Lily’s cheeks. She shook. Then threw herself at Livia. The princess hugged her trembling lover. Hot lips kissed at her neck, wet tears rubbed on her cheek. She rocked Lily in a tight embrace.

You’re free,” the princess cooed. “You won’t have to go back. My parents will never hurt you again!”

Where will we go?”

Will cross the hills and enter the neighboring kingdom. I have plenty of jewels and coins stashed in my saddlebag. It’ll be money to let us live in comfort and safety out of my parent’s reach. They won’t send soldiers past the Menhirs. Father respects them.”

I—”

A shuddering crack snapped from above, cutting off Lily’s words. Then something boomed and crashed down the tower. An avalanche of falling stone slammed into the courtyard nearby. Shards of stone hissed through the air. Livia gasped, her cheek flaring numb. Dust billowed from the rubble. She touched her face, and felt blood.

What was that?” squeaked Lily.

Livia groaned. “The ledge. The acid ate through the stone and some of the wall came down and—”

A horn blared an alarm from the top of the tower. Torches danced in the opening of Lily’s cell, the guards checking the ruckus. Fear struck the princess. Across the castle, she heard other shouts. She seized her lover’s hand and yanked her towards the nearby stables.

Hurry!” shouted the princess, her insides twisting. She’d expected to have hours and hours of night to ride as far from her parents’ castle as possible.

If we’re swift and get out the postern before anyone realizes it, we still might make it.

Hope kept her running, dragging Lily behind her.

They burst into the stables. Horses whinnied and nickered, nervous hooves stamping. Livia threw open the last two stall doors, the horses in them already saddled before she made her climb. Buttercup, her dun-yellow mare, snorted, tail flicking.

It’s okay,” Livia said, grabbing her bridle. “Come on, Buttercup. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Buttercup reared, jerking reins out of Livia’s grasp. The horse’s dark eyes were wild from the trumpeting horns. The princess stroked her horse’s neck, peering into scared eyes. She felt pulse pounding beneath her hide. But her soothing touched calmed the mare.

How’s Dancer?”

As placid as ever,” Lily said, leading out the roan mount she normally rode when the princess took her morning excursions. “I don’t think anything can spook her.”

Good, we need to get to the postern gate and—”

Well, what do we have here?” a voice growled. “Couple of horse thieves?”

Livia whirled to see the hulking Karson, Captain of the Guard, enter the stable wearing a leather jerkin hastily donned, his muscular legs bare beneath. He marched forward on boots laced tight. A sword glittered in his hand, its point long.

We’re not horse thieves,” Livia objected.

“‘Course you are,” he grinned, his bold nose almost quivering, as sharp as the beak of a hawk about to tear into the rabbit. “You probably purloined the queen’s jewels, didn’t you? Sent me out to find them, she did. Wouldn’t even let me get dressed when she saw them missin’. Then that piece of stone came crashin’ down, and I seen you two runnin’ in here. I knew you two was the thieves.”

Anger boiled through the princess. He came from my mother’s bed! Why can she do what she likes, but I have to be proper? Why can’t I have my lover?

Get out of the way, Captain Karson,” she said in a ringing voice. “Or you shall be in so much trouble if you even harm a hair on my head.”

The man snorted. “And why would that be, thief?”

Livia’s eyes widened in realization. He doesn’t recognize me in the dark. In these clothes.

Her gaze darted around the stable, searching for a weapon. She spotted a farrier’s hammer hanging from the wall. She snagged it up, gripping it in both hands. The small, iron head felt so puny compared to the captain’s sword.

Oh, ho, got a brave thief here,” he growled.

Liv, don’t!” Lily gasped.

I won’t let them hurt you!” the princess snarled, her anger too great to care. She lunged in to strike.

The sword hissed.

Though angry, her instincts of preservation surged through her. She skittered back away from the blade. It cut the air before her, flashing silver bright. A blur that left strands of her black hair severed and dancing through the air.

Livia’s heart hammered. Cold pumped through her veins, dousing her anger. The man snarled, recovering from his swing, and thrust the sword at her guts. She dove to the side, rolled across the hay-strewn ground of the stable, and gained her feet only to crash into a stall door with her shoulder.

A horse neighed in fear as she bounced off, stumbling to keep from falling on her face.

Liv! No!”

Lily’s warning gave the princess a heartbeat to act. She ducked low. The sword crashed into the stall door above her. It splintered the wood, caving in several planks, and lodged in the thick, oak frame. The captain of the guard grunted and planted his left boot on the stall. His naked thigh bulged as he struggled to haul his weapon free.

Livia acted.

She slammed the hammer into the guard captain’s right knee with all the force she could muster. Hardened steel crashed into capping patella. A loud, splintering snap echoed through the stables. The shiver of the blow rattled down her arm.

Karson bellowed in pain. Rage twisted his face. He tottered as his left arm swung like a pendulum. Princess Livia, flushed with the triumph of landing a blow on the loathsome man, gasped as the back of his fist slammed into her face.

She reeled. The world spun around her. Her vision went blurry as she crashed into a pile of sacks of millet. She draped over them, staring at the rush-strewn ground. The entire side of her face throbbed. For a moment, everything doubled as she struggled to think. To move. To do anything with her body.

Lily screamed, drawing Livia’s addled attention. Words poured out of the frightened girl’s mouth, her hand pointing wildly, stabbing the air. Livia tried to parse her lover’s meaning, the sounds all blurring together with the bell ringing in the stable. She shook her head, her brain rattling in her skull. A queasy writhe gripped her stomach.

She looked in the direction Lily pointed.

Karson gripped his sword in both hands. He stood, putting his weight on his left leg, his right knee swelling red. With a mighty heave, he wrenched his sword out of the ruined stall door. He staggered around, sliding on his right foot more than picking it up.

Baleful eyes fixed on the princess.

Oh, no,” she said, words slurred. For the first time in her life, Princess Livia witnessed murder in a man’s eyes.

Her body refused to obey her, as if the blow had severed the connection between mind and flesh. She could feel the tendrils reconnecting, her finger twitching first, her head shaking. But she couldn’t stand. Everything still felt so numb, fuzzed by the blow. Her stomach writhed more. Bile burned the back of her throat.

I’m going to die, she realized as Karson raised his sword high into the air, the blade’s edge gleaned razor bright.

And then the stirrup flew through the air, aimed square at Karson’s face. It crashed across his blunt, masculine features. Blood spurted from a twisted nose. The stirrup bounced to the ground as the brute stumbled back.

Putting all his weight on his right leg.

His cry of agony galvanized Princess Livia. Lily’s desperate throw bought her a few more precious heartbeats of life. She had to capitalize on it. She had to rescue them both. If Karson cut her down, his next stroke would end the life of the fearful blonde girl relying on Livia for protection.

She would not let anything worse happen to her Lily.

Poxed whores!” bellowed the guard captain. Snorting like a wild boar, he drew his blade back for the attack to end Livia’s life.

She acted, hugging the sack of millet to her. She stood up and whirled around, millet cradled to her chest. He snarled, his sword flashing down on a curving arc that would end with her cut in half, bleeding on the floor.

She thrust the sack of grain out before her like a shield.

The sword slammed into her makeshift defense. The burlap rasped against her moleskin gloves. If she grasped them with her bare hands, the force of his swing would have ripped the sack out of her hand. Then the end of his sword would still have hurtled down and found her vulnerable skull.

But the alchemical treatment held. Her gloves kept a hold on the sack, withstanding the force of his blow. The sword cut deep into the millet, but the densely packed grain slowed the impact. The sword embedded only halfway through it. Seeds spilled out around it, pouring like a brown waterfall to puddle between their feet.

Sun-blinded bitch!” he spat. He jerked his sword out of the bag. More grains poured out as he drew back for his next attack.

Liv!” screamed Lily in desperate fear. “No!”

Princess Livia thrust the sack of grains before her. Her arms extended. Spilling millet, the burlap tumbled through the air as Karson raised his sword up high. Though not a powerful throw, it still struck him in the bleeding nose, unbalancing the guard captain worse than Lily’s stirrup had.

This time, when Karson put all his weight on his right knee, his turning body torquing the joint, a sickening tear wrenched the air. Bone popped through the skin. Agony exploded from his mouth. He toppled back, hitting the ground hard, sword falling from his hands. He clutched at his ruined knee, grunting through the obvious pain.

Livia darted forward and kicked his sword across the rush strewn ground and away from his hand. It tumbled into the stall he’d hacked open.

Mount up!” the princess shouted.

You earth-cursed bitch!” spat the guard. “I’ll gut you!” He lunged for her leg. “And strangle the whore-life out of you! Poxed slattern!”

She ignored him, dashing for her horse. He struggled to stand, but agony screamed from his mouth again. Livia savored it, triumphing over the defeat of this horrid man. She swung herself up into her horse’s saddle while Lily mounted hers with ease.

Ride!” the princess screamed, exhilaration beating in her heart.

She felt alive as she heeled her horse. Her steed galloped forward. The guard captain cursed, rolling to the side and out of the way of their escaping mounts. They burst out into the night, Livia guiding her horse to the nearby postern gate she’d left open. A narrow opening, just wide enough for a single rider to duck through.

She threw a glance to ensure Lily followed, then plunged through it, leaned low over the neck of Buttercup. Men shouted behind them as she let out a giddy laugh, bursting out of the castle’s outer walls and to sweet freedom. She wheeled her horse to the right, charging for the road that led from the castle and around the town that lay at its feet. Lily spurred her horse abreast with Livia.

The two young women flashed each other smiles. Lily’s blonde hair streamed behind her. The clouds broke above them. Silver shimmered in Lily’s tresses. Livia shuddered, her heart thudding in triumph.

Hooves drummed on hard-packed dirt. Horns sounded behind them. Torches burned on Karzinoth Castle’s parapet. She knew that guards and knights even now rushed to their horses to give chase. The princess and her lover had to ride as swift as the setting moon.

They had to reach the borders of her father’s kingdom. Once past the marking stone, his soldiers could not follow without risking a war.

Livia!” Lily shouted, looking over her shoulder at the castle’s gray walls. It sat up on the hill they rode down, almost glowing in the moonlight against the blackness of the sky. The drawbridge rattled down across the moat that protected the front of the castle.

Just don’t stop riding!” Livia said, leaning low over her mount. “We can reach the border by morning.”

I won’t stop!” Lily said.

Pursuit sounded horns behind them. Metal clattered. Hooves thundered on the road. Livia’s heart drummed as the night raced by them. Stars wheeled above them. The silvery face of the moon descended towards the horizon. She hardly felt the icy kiss of night on her cheeks against the heat burning inside of her.

Her jaw throbbed, her face swollen and puffy. But she didn’t care. It was a small price to pay to save her Lily. To their right, the horizon pinked. Dawn’s promise gave her hope. They just had to keep going. Their horses didn’t carry men in armor now, but light women. They had the advantage.

So long as they didn’t falter.

As the horizon grew brighter and brighter, the land came into resolution. They tore past fields of winter wheat and barley. Already, the peasants were out working. They paused, leaning on fences to watch the two female fugitives fleeing the company of knights.

A ragged cheer rose from some, waving them on.

They’re celebrating our love, a part of Livia thought even as another, more cynical part of her, said, They’re enjoying the spectacle. I bet they’ll cheer just as loud if we’re caught and hung.

Liv!” Lily shouted, pointing ahead with enthusiasm.

The border stones lay ahead. Two great menhirs rose on either side of the road. They were ancient and said to be the bones of Father Earth himself demarcating the boundaries of the hundred kingdoms, dividing the world of men into neat parcels.

They weren’t always respected, but Livia knew this pair was.

Come on!” she urged her mount, putting heels to flank.

Buttercup snorted and neighed, neck lathered with exertion. Livia’s heart twisted with excitement as their freedom came closer and closer. They flew across the plain. The menhirs, dark stones thrusting three times the height of a man and covered in strange runes, loomed closer.

The knights’ thunder dwindled.

She threw a look over her shoulder, seeing them rein up. Defeated.

The two girls raced across the border, passing through the menhirs’ shadows. Their laughter resounded through the air. Huge grins burst across their lips. Tears fell down both their cheeks as they followed the road winding into a new kingdom, escaping from the oppression of the old.

Out of sight of the knights, not wanting to tempt their pursuers into violating the border by taunting them with their love, the two girls reined up. They threw themselves off their horses. They came together, limbs engulfing the other, lips meeting in sweet love. Despite the swollen pain in her face, Livia treasured each and every kiss seasoned with the salt of their tears. Her heart burst for joy in her chest as they held each other. The sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon, falling golden on the lovers.

They shared their joy, their hearts, their lives. Livia clutched Lily tight. No matter what the priests taught or the kings said, she would love her Lily. She would savor every moment with her. They would forge a life together. A life of their own choosing.

I love you, Lily,” the crying princess said when they broke that sweet kiss.

Lily sniffed, pressing her forehead to Livia’s. “Always.”

The END

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Death rides in the Cyclone!

The demonic Stormriders are the greatest threat…

…to the people whose lives they’ve ruined. Do the riders have a weakness?

Ary knows their danger first-hand. As a child, they broke his family. Now he has a choice to make. Can he find a way to defeat them when so many before him have failed?

When the storm clouds come, what will Ary do?

You’ll be enthralled by this epic fantasy story set in the skies above the Storm because the characters will keep you hooked.

Fans of exciting and adventurous fantasy will fall in love with this story because of the great characters.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Three

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Three

Momemn

Welcome to Chapter Three of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Two!

On my knees, I offer you that which flies in me. My face to earth, I shout your glory to the heavens. In so surrendering do I conquer. In so yielding do I seize.

NEL-SARIPAL, DEDICATION TO MONIUS

My Thoughts

So, as we’re about to see in the first paragraph of the chapter, that this is the dedication to a seditious poem just written. It is a bold statement that is saying that though Nel-Saripal has surrendered to the tyranny of the Anasûrimbor dynasty and their rule over the New Empire, he has found the opposite. He is saying that they have no power over him in truth because he understands just what power is.

It’s not something that can be taken but only given.

No tyrant can rule a nation without being given power. Now, I’m not talking about the subjected people who are held in bondage by physical force. No, it is the instrument of that force that has surrendered to the tyrant. The various functionaries and generals and bureaucrats who have, for one reason or another, given to the tyrant the ability to rule the state.

And what is given, can be taken away.

If one day, all of Hitler’s chief advisers, his Himmlers and Goerings and the like, stopped giving him power, he would have been impotent. This is the dirty secrets of hierarchy. You don’t climb to the top but are lifted there by your peers for a myriad of personal reasons. To believe that you rule by some sort of divine right, as promulgated by the new religion, or because you believe you deserve it, that you’re somehow better than those around you, is a trap.

An easy one to fall in to.

The poet is showing the illusion of it. The contradiction of power and rule. And that’s what we see from Esmenet throughout this chapter.

That she’s a fraud.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

Nel-Saripal had his body slave deliver his newest poem to Empress Anasûrimbor Esmenet the moment it was penned. Within an hour it was on a ship. Seventy-three days later, it’s in her hand. She’s eager to read it as she grasped the scroll “the way a barren woman might grasp a foundling babe.” However, the opening lines strike her “as surely as a husband’s slap.” Already whispers start echoing through the hall at the utterance of first sentence: “Momemn is the first in our breasts, the beating heart.”

She gets mad while the reader, a famed orator named Sarpella, falters at the text. Everyone can tell this is seditious. That it implies Momemn beats its people to maintain power. Her poet was calling the government a thug. As the poem continues, she thinks all “great artists” punish their patrons in some way. She decides Nel-Saripal wasn’t subtle about it. That Nel-Saripal wasn’t as good a poet as Protathis who would have insulted her and gotten away with it. The rest of the poem is moving, so she first decides to forgive him.

But as the days past, that first line stuck with her. Slowly, Momemn became Esmenet. Every day, the poem becomes more and more personal for her. With Kellhus in the field, she was now the government. She was no Momemn. “A tyrant.”

You…” That was how Monius truly began.

You are the fist that beats us.”

Esmenet dreams of Mimara calling to her. She can’t seem to find her but instead finds an apple tree. The apples fall and become shrunken heads that glare at her. She screams as fingers break free of the ground. The dead spill out with their harvest. She’s thinking only of Mimara. She wakes up.

Esmenet wept as though she were her only child. Found, then lost.

The next afternoon finds her sitting bored as she listens to petitions. “The New Empire, she had long since learned, was a kind of enormous mechanism, one that used men as gears, thousands upon thousands of them, their functions determined by the language of the law.” It required upkeep, though she has Ngrau, formerly Ikurei Xerius’s seneschal, who now served hers. She has a comfortable relationship with him, and he knew to only send her the most important decisions. If she suspected any influence peddling or other corruption, she’d send them to the judges. It couldn’t be tolerated.

Mankind was at war.

She has a request for money form Shigek to help deal with Fanayal ab Kascamandri and his renegade army out in the desert. The last Kiani emperor refuses to die and admit defeat. Though her word could destroy any life, she liked to pretend her decisions were trivial.

For twenty years she had been Empress. For almost as long as she could read.

Other times, she’s almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of power she has as the Empress. The horror of what she could do with it. But usually, it’s routine. Even simple, as she just approves the actions of others, leaving them to carry it out. However, crisis would come along that could overwhelm her with confusing details.

Part of her would even laugh, convinced that it was simply too absurd to be real. She, Esmenet, a battered peach from the slums of Sumna, wielding an authority that only Triamis, the greatest of the Ceneian Emperors, had known. Souls in the millions traded coins with her profile. Oh what was that, you say? Thousands are starving in Eumarna. Yes-yes, but I have an insurrection to deal with. Armies, you see, simply must be fed. People? Well, they tend to suffer in silence, sell their children and whatnot. So long as the lies are told well.

At such a remove, so far fro the gutters of living truth, how could she not be a tyrant? Not [No] matter how balanced, thoughtful, or sincerely considered her judgments, how could they not crack like clubs or pierce like spears.

Exactly as Nel-Saripal had implied, the wretch.

Kelmomas bursts in on her latest meeting to shout that her daughter Theliopa had found a skin-spy. As he talks, she feels motherly pride in him. He’s beautiful and perfect. She believes the Gods have spared one of her children the curse of her husband’s blood. Then she stiffens as she realizes what her son had said.

A moment later, Captain Imhailas appears and kneels. She orders the court cleared while demanding how her son could bring her this news. Imhailas has no idea how Kelmomas while Kelmomas begs to see the skin-spy. She says no. He responds that he kneads to know for when he’s older. She asks Imhailas his opinion and he quotes, “Calloused hands suffer no tender eyes, your Glory.” That annoys her because it’s so hackneyed statement. Never ask an idiot for advice. She stares at her son’s innocence. She just wants to protect him, especially after the assassination attempt at his Whelming a few months ago. He keeps begging.

She composed her face and looked back to Imhailas. “I think…” she said with a heavy sigh. “I think you’re quite right, Captain. The time has come. Both my sweet cherries should see Thelli’s latest discovery.”

Another skin-spy in the court. Why now, after so many years?

Both boys, your Glory?”

She ignored this, the way she ignored all the tonal differences that seemed to colour references to Kelmomas’s twin, Samarmas. In this one thing, she would refuse the worlds its inroads.

Kelmomas doesn’t appear nearly as excited since Esmenet mentioned his brother. She drags him along as she searches for Samarmas. Though the galleries weren’t large, they could become labyrinthine. She doesn’t have to look for him herself, but she doesn’t want to delegate too much of her life to others. “Power, she had come to realize, had the insidious habit of inserting others between you and your tasks, rendering your limbs little more than decorative mementos of a more human past.” Sometimes, it was like she was reduced to a devious tongue.

Servants bow as she sweeps through the columns. The palace hasn’t changed much since the Ikurei Dynasty ruled it. Momemn had been smart and surrendered to her husband. It hadn’t needed to be conquered. She remembers the first time she had walked through these walls, seeing the rich.

All it had lacked was power.

She doesn’t immediately pay attention to the screams of her third-youngest child Inrilatas. When she does, she pauses by the door to his room. She touches it, feeling only cold metal. Kelmomas suddenly says that Uncle Maithanet thinks Inrilatas should be sent away. Hearing Maithanet always itched her. It’s almost a worry because he’s so much like Kellhus.

They’re frightened of us, aren’t they, Mommy?”

Them?”

Everybody. They’re all afraid of our family…”

Why would that be?”

Because they think we’re mad. They think father’s seed is too strong.”

Too strong for the vessel. Too strong for me.

She tells Kelmomas the God burns the strongest in Inrilatas which is why he’s mad. She keeps him here because she wouldn’t abandon her children. “Like Mimara?” asks Kelmomas. She’s torn for one moment between listening to Inrilatas madness as he gnawed on the other door to the cherubic face of Kelmomas. She prays he’s not like her other children before admitting she had abandoned Mimara. She hopes Akka will keep her safe.

Inrilatas’s screams turn masturbatory. The animal sounds make her hold tight to Kelmomas, knowing an impressionable child shouldn’t hear these sounds. The jerking noises sound personal, meant only for her. Samarmas crying out “Momma!” frees her from listening to Inrilatas. Samarmas looks like Kelmomas but his face has a slackness to it. His eyes bulge. She scoops him up and realizes he’s getting big while beaming “mother-love into his idiot gaze.”

My broken boy.

The nursemaid, Porsi, had followed in his stomping wake, eyes to the ground. The young Nansur slave knelt, face to floor. Esmenet should have thanked the girl, she knew, but she had wanted to find Sammi herself, perhaps even to spy for a bit, in the way of simpler parents watching through simpler windows.

Inrilatas continued screaming through polished stone—forgotten.

Esmenet heads down endless stairs to reach dungeons, leading her two sons. Samarmas pauses to hug everyone who prostates themselves. “He always was indiscriminate with his loving gestures, particularly when it came to slaves.” Kelmomas keeps reminding Samarmas thy have to be warriors and be strong, like a big brother should. Fears for their futures in this world grows in her.

As they head down the last stairs, Kelmomas starts describing how skin-spies have soft bones like sharks and calls them monsters. This scares Samarmas even though he knows all this. “But it was part of his innocence to respond to everything as though encountering it for the very first time.” He has to be told over and over about things. Esmenet admonishes Kelmomas for scaring him as he protests his brother has to know.

She had to remind herself that his [Kelmomas’s] cleverness was that of a normal child, and not like that of his siblings. Inrilatas, in particular, had possessed his father’s… gifts.

She wished she could these worries to rest. For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.

Not after so many… experiences.

There is a large crowd before the Truth Room. Everyone seems to have found an excuse, even her cook while Biaxi Sankas, a powerful member of the Congregate, shouts at the rabble to move. It disturbs her and reminds her that, while Kellhus is gone, she was the ultimate authority of the Empire. And yet even here, she feels like she doesn’t rule with such completeness. When Kellhus was around they would all line up “moist-eyed with awe and devotion.” But for her, it’s all back-fighting and whispers of plot and innuendo. “The long dance of tongues as knives.” She ignores most of it because it would mean the palace were about to revolt on her every week. Of course, if true foment brewed she would miss it. A monarch’s greatest threat came from those closest.

She cries out her Exalt-Captain’s name, demanding of Imhailas why everyone is here. She orders him to clear them out, and they scurry, hearing her anger before the soldiers can obey her.

They’re more of afraid of Father,” young Kelmomas whispered at her side.

Yes,” Esmenet replied, at a loss as to how to respond otherwise. The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed. “Yes, they are.”

Even a child can see it.

As the various people file out, giving her fawning bows, she feels sickened. She wonders how she can rule when these people carry out her orders. “But she had been too political for too long not to recognize an opportunity when she saw one.” So she asks for Lord Sankas to watch over her boys. He towers over her, reminding her that her short stature marks her caste-menial, to her shame. He agrees, like most, he’s eager to feel important. She finds that unseemly in a man as hold as Sankas. However, when he gives her sons advice on behind men, she smiles knowing it will endear her boys to him. Kellhus often told her to seek advice from men who can benefit her. “Men, he was always saying, liked to see their words proved right.”

Samarmas asks if they are going to see the monster. She’s happy to dote on him. She’d rather be a mother than deal with the politics and finds herself retreating from rule into caring for her twins. She tells him not to fear, “Lord Sankas will protect you.”

The Truth Room, as the torture chamber had been known during the Ikurei Dynasty, had been expanded by Kellhus from a small chamber “every bit as dark and closeted as their peevish souls.” Now it is a sprawling organ of the state. It has cells, places to interrogate prisoners, and a galley for observers to watch. It’s like an upside-down step pyramid. At the highest tier, she meets with Phinersa (Master-of-Spies), Vem-Mithriti (Vizier), Maithanet, and Theliopa. The first two prostrate while the latter two merely bow.

Theliopa, her eldest daughter by Kellhus, bowed in stiff curtsy as they approached. Perhaps she was the strangest of her children, even morose than Inrilatas, but curiously all the more safe for it. Theliopa was a woman with an unearthly hollow where human sentiment should be. Even as an infant she had never cried, never gurgled with laughter, never reached out to finger the image of her mother’s face. Esmenet had once overheard her nursemaids whispering that she would happily starve rather than call out for food, and even now she was thin in the extreme, tall and angular like the God-her-father, but emaciated, to the point where her skin seemed tented over the woodwork of her bones. The clothes she wore were ridiculously elaborate—despite her godlike intellect, the subtleties of style and fashion utterly eluded her—a gold-brocaded gown fairly armoured in black pearls.”

Mother, the sallow blonde girl said in a tone that Esmenet could now recognize for attachment, or the guttering approximation of it. As always the girl flinched at her touch, like a skittish cat or steed, but as always Esmenet refused to draw back, and held Theliopa’s cheeks until she felt the tremors calm.

You’ve done well,” she said, gazing into her pale eyes. “Very well.” It was strange, loving children who could see the movement of her soul through her face. It forced a kind of bitter honesty of her, the resignation of those who know they cannot hide—not ever—from the people they needed to hied from the most.

Theliopa says she lives to please. Esmenet reflects that her children all have bits of Kellhus’s “truth” in him. Except Samarmas. That was obvious to her. Only he could be trusted. She instantly recoils from that thought as Kelmomas squeezes her hand. She greats the others with the customary, “Reap the morrow.” Phinersa stands up with spry ease while Esmenet helps aged Vem-Mithriti, whose not just her vizier but the Grandmaster of the Imperial Saik, to his feet. Phinersa is someone that rarely makes eye contact, but when he does, the Master-of-Spies will have such intensity you feel stripped naked. Vem-Mithriti is more shy, like a scared adolescent. Kellhus chose the man for his weakness. “She often wondered whether old Vem was his [Kellhus’s] Gift to her since Kellhus had no difficulty handling the willful and ambitious.”

Maithanet, her brother-in-law and the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, towered next to the two Exalt-Ministers, dressed in a plain white tunic. The oiled plaits of his beard gleamed like jet in the lantern light. His height and force of presence never failed to remind Esmenet of her husband—the same light, only burning through the sackcloth of a human mother.

Maithanet explains the new skin-spy was found by “Thelli” in a surprise inspection of new slaves. He motions to the skin-spy hung spread eagle on an iron device. It is covered in sweat and has black skin. Its held at all its joints to keep it from flexing. It still is testing out the device by twisting its body. A single pin driven through its skull has forced its face to open. This is Dûnyain Neuropuncture. Its face fingers twitch like crab limbs. It still raises revulsion in Esmenet despite how many times she’d been around them. They violated the natural order of the world. She even keeps a skull of one complete with its face fingers, to remind herself about them. She forced herself to look at it.

It had long since become an argument for suffering her husband.

She asks if this is the first time they’ve made a black-skinned Satyothi before? Maithanet says it’s the first, and Theliopa speculates it’s a test to see if the difference in skin tone and bone structure would make it different enough to slip by. She suspects that making this one is why it’s been 733 days since the last infiltration. Her daughter’s gaze unnerves Esmenet and she doesn’t consider these implications. Instead, she checks on her sons. Kelmomas seems to be judging if the skin-spy lives up to his imagination while Samarmas watches it through his fingers, curious and scared at the same time. When Kelmomas looks at her, it reminds Esmenet that he’s still Kellhus’s son and “it worried her.”

She asks him what he thinks. He says scary. She agrees. Samarmas then throws himself at her and cries into her stomach. She storks him and notices Phinersa and Imhailas watching her. She knows with Theliopa around, she doesn’t have to be afraid of their intent because she sees malice or lust (which are the same) in their eyes. Phinersa asks what she wants to be done with the skin-spy. Only Kellhus can successfully interrogate one. Not even Cants of Compulsion worked on them, they had no souls. Pain just turns them on. She orders a public execution so the people can be reminded. Maithanet calls it wise. Everyone stares at it like they were memorizing it, keeping the threat fresh. Imhailas asks if she’ll be in attendance.

Yes,” she replied absently. “Of course.” The People needed to e reminded of more than what threatened them, they needed to be reminded of the discipline that kept them safe as well. They needed to recall the disciplinarian.

The tyrant.

While holding Samarmas still, she watches Kelmomas staring with fascination at the skin-spy. The mother in her rebels as she does what Kellhus would do. For her sons’ sake, they have to become as ruthless as she’d failed to become because being his children put them in danger. She wants her sons there, too.

After handing over her sons to their nurse, she escorts her brother-in-law Maithanet out of the palace. It had become their custom since Kellhus left for her to do this. It was both political, showing them as equals, and she found him a comfort. He’s more human than Kellhus.

And, of course, his blood made him her closest ally.

He brings up she’s thinking about Nel-Saripal’s poem recited the day before. She asks him what he thinks of the opening line. He says it’s significant, but only a signal “the way birds tell sailors of unseen land.” Maithanet says with Kellhus and his most loyal supporters gone, lingering resentments from the Unification shall flare-up. Nel-Saripal is just the first. She asks if they should prioritize stability over the Consult. Maithanet says they need to increase their efforts. The best way the Consult can demoralize the Great Ordeal is to throw the New Empire into turmoil. “When the hands are strong, attack the feet,” as the Ainoni say. Esmenet asks who would be so foolish to do that after everything Kellhus has done.

The well of fools has no bottom, Esmi. You know that. You can assume for every Fanayal who poses us openly, there are ten who skulk in the shadows.”

She just hopes they aren’t as cunning as Fanayal who has been a thorn in the Empire’s side since the First Holy War. He’d escaped Kian’s fall into Kellhus’s hand and fled into the desert. Folk songs spread his fame no matter how many minstrels are burned. The Bandit Padirajah had made things difficult in Fanim lands.

They walk in silence for a while through the apartments where the functionaries lived. The sounds of normal living affect her, especially a young boy crying. She asks Maithanet what he sees her in her face. He tells her not as much as his brother would see.

Dûnyain. It all came back to this iron ingot of meaning. Maithanet, her children, everyone near to her possessed some measure of Dûnyain blood. Everyone watched with a portion of her husband’s all-seeing eyes. For a heartbeat, she glimpsed Achamian as he stood twenty years earlier, a thousand smoke plumes scoring sky beyond him. “But you’re not thinking! You see only your love for him. You’re not thinking of what he sees when he gazes upon you…”

And with a blink both he and his heretical words were gone

She says that wasn’t her question. And he sees sorrow, confusion, and worry for Mimara. She fears her other children more than she worries about them. She’s afraid she’s not capable of governing in Kellhus’s stead. She asks if the others can see this in her. He says some perhaps will catch glimpses, but he reminds her that Kellhus set things up so their redemption goes through her. He has put people around her to help her. He assures her not to worry. She asks why. Because Kellhus chose her answers Maithanet. It’s why he has no fear.

A Dûnyain. A Dûnyain has chosen you.

She asks why he hesitated, and he says if he saw this fear, then so did Kellhus. So it must be a strength. She blinks back tears and asks if she was chosen for being weak. Maithanet answers, “Is the man who flees to fight anew weak?” He says fear isn’t a good or bad thing but how it’s reacted to.

Then why wouldn’t he tell me as much.[?]”

Because, Esmi[,]” he said, drawing her back down the hall, “sometimes ignorance is the greatest strength of all.”

The next day, Esmenet wakes up thinking of her children as babies and not “instruments of power.” It feels miraculous. She didn’t like thinking about her early years. There was a time when Kellhus was relentless to have children. She’d conceived seven times and six had survived. Plus Mimara and Moënghus, Serwë’s son.

Eight!

The thought never ceased to surprise and to dizzy her, so certain she had been that she would live and die barren.

Kayûtas was born a few months after Moënghus, the pair raised as fraternal twins. Kayûtas had been perfect and it made the Lords of the Holy War weep to see him. “It had been Kayûtas who taught her that love was a kind of imperfection.” Despite his perfection, he felt no love. It broke her heart to hold him. Then she had Theliopa. She’d hoped for this child after Kayûtas, but even before the afterbirth was washed off, knew she had born another child lacking love. Kellhus was gone a lot at war and she grew depressed, even suicidal. Only Moënghus kept her alive. “He at least needed her, even if he was not her own.” That was why she really started looking for Mimara in earnest. She even thought of killing Theliopa and herself if Kellhus didn’t find Mimara.

Fate truly was a whore, to deliver her to such thoughts.

She quickly becomes pregnant with Serwa born in Carythusal right after the conquest. Another perfect child like Kayûtas, but Serwa seemed capable of love. A joy. However, at three, it was discovered she had the Gift and was sent to the Sawayal witches.

There had been a bitterness in that decision, and no few thoughts of heresy and sedition. In lowing Serwa, Esmenet learned that worship could not only survive the loss of love, it possessed room for hatred as well

Her next child was born with “eight arms and no eyes.” It almost killed her. Next was Inrilatas, another son incapable of love. However, she’d know there was something even more wrong, an instinct gained from being a mother so many time. By the time he was two, his nurses were scared, and at three he began “speaking the little treacheries that dwelt in the hearts of those about him.” At five, he unnerved hardened warriors. Once after Esmenet had sung him a lullaby, he said, “Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Only Kellhus could manage him after that. And he didn’t have the time. Not long after, Inrilatas descended into madness.

Esmenet yearned for menopause or “the dry season.” But she kept having periods. She started to find surrogates for Kellhus to breed. “Of the seventeen concubines he impregnated, ten died in childbirth, and the others gave birth to more… nameless ones.”

Esmenet sometimes wondered how many hapless souls had been assassinated to keep this secret. A hundred? A thousand?

They found Mimara after Inrilatas’s madness. It took ten years for the Eothic Guard to find her in a brothel dressed up like the Empress. “They had found her daughter, her only child sired by a man instead of a god.” Mimara hated Esmenet. That sweet child was gone, mad in different ways from her “divine daughters and sons.” She also was the Few, but Kellhus allowed Esmenet to keep Mimara. She had refused, willing to destroy her relationship with Kellhus for her daughter. “She would not sell Mimara a second time—no matter how vicious the young woman’s rantings.” Though Mimara was even too old to go, it didn’t stop her from demanding it. Esmenet assumed this was her final punishment for her sin.

The twins arrived during this time, and with them one final spear throw at Fate

The twins had their own problems. Though they looked perfect, like Kayûtas, if you separated them, they both would not stop crying. Instead, for months they lay side by side staring into each other’s eyes. The physician-priest had warned her of “complications” for having children at her age. The two seemed to share a single sou, which she found poetic. Kellhus had found a famed slave named Hagitatas who specialized in “troubled souls.” He managed to separate the two children and give them their own identity. “Such was her relief that even the subsequent discovery of Samarmas’s idiocy seemed a cause for celebration.”

These sons loved—there could be no question that they loved!

At last the Whore of Fate, treacherous Anagke, who had lifted Esmenet form ignorance and brutality of the Sumni slums to the pitch of more profound torments, had relented. At last Esmenet had found her heart. She was an old mother now, and old mothers knew well the tightfisted ways of the world. They knew how to find largess in its meager capitulations.

How to be greedy with small things.

She feels hope despite her nervousness as she’s dressed. Porsi brings her sons looking like little generals, which delights Esmenet. Then she brings the protesting sons along a passage that ran beneath the Scuäri Campus. The Plate is heard above, summoning the city to witness the skin-spy’s execution. They emerge in the Allosium Forum and are almost deafened by the crowds. They step out atop the height overlooking the campus which is covered in people crying out in adoration to her.

Esmenet was always conscious of her unreality at moments such as this. Everything, even the cosmetics smeared across her skin, possessed the weight of fraud. She was not Esmenet, and nor were her children Kelmomas and Samarmas. They were images, semblances drawn to answer the mob and their anxious fantasies. They were Power. They were Justice. They were mortal flesh draped about the dread intent of God.

Authority in all its myriad incarnations

She pretends to bask in the adoration before being shocked by the sudden silence. She feels hesitant, frozen. Someone coughs. She heads down the stairs, flanked by the Eothic Guard. The lower she gets, she can smell the unwashed masses. As she stares out at the, she wonders how many want to kill her and her children. All eight of them. Theliopa isn’t here, unable to handle so many people, while Moënghus, Kayûtas, and Serwa march in the Great Ordeal. Mimara is with Achamian and Inrilatas in his prison.

Eight. And only these two boys loved.

She leads her sons to their seats, only letting go of their hands to rest them on the golden claws of her throne. She wears various gems and garb to signify different titles and claims to importance. She is facing away from the execution. She can hear the curtains being drawn as the skin-spy is unveiled. The crowd roars, frightening Samarmas. He huddled on his seat. The mother in her wants to order the guards to kill those who scared her child.

But to be sovereign is to be forever, irrevocably, cut into many. To be a matron, simple and uncompromising. To be a spy, probing and hiding. And to be a general, always calculating weakness and advantage.

She fought the mother-clamouring within, ignored his [Samarmas’s] distress. Even Samarmas—who she was certain would be nothing more than a dear fool—even he had to learn the madness that was his Imperial inheritance.

For him, she told herself. I do this for his sake!

The mobs scream at the Consult skin-spy strung up behind her. By tradition, her “eyes were too holy for such a horrific sight.” Lord Sankas, who must have one the lottery among the important nobles, has the honor of bringing her the hand mirror by which she’ll watch the execution behind her. Samarmas leaves his seat to hug her while those in the crowd laughed. She works to get him back to his seat while Sankas looks embarrassed. He holds up the mirror and she’s surprised by how beautiful she looks. She often thinks she’s older and uglier than she looks. Even growing old, it would stay with her.

It also hurts her, so she shifts the mirror to see the skin-spy. Her breath tightens. She watches it thrash against its chains as two of Phinersa’s men are preparing to flay it while another manipulates the Neuropuncture needles controlling it.

Both the twins had climbed into their seats to gaze over the back, Kelmomas pale and expressionless, Samarmas with his shining cheeks pressed to the cushion. She wanted to shout at them to turn away, to look back to the shrieking mob, but her voice failed her. Even though the mirror was meant to protect her, holding it the way she did seemed to make it all the more real, into something that rubbed against the soft-skin of her terror.

Brands burn out its eyes. She watches the torture with a sick, horrific fascination. She wonders how she could have ended up here. She believed in her husband and his mission, she just couldn’t believe it had happened to her. She thinks this is all a dream. Samarmas cries while Kelmomas trembled, not as strong as he usually was. She grabs her sons’ hands to comfort them, unable to stop being a mother. As she does, she feels the comfort it brings. An admission of her weakness.

The masses roared in exultation, becoming in some curious way, the iron that burned, the blade that peeled. And Esmenet sat painted and rigid, gazing out across their furious regions.

Thug. Tyrant. Empress of the Three Seas.

A miracle not quite believed.

My Thoughts

This opening does many things with Esmenet. It instantly reminds us of the thing that had initially seduced her to Kellhus: learning to read. She loves it. I don’t think there is a character in Bakker’s books that loves to read more than she does. It shows how self-conscious she is of her image. She wants to be seen as a loving ruler, but her critic clearly sees her as a thug. Her ego doesn’t like this one bit. It gnaws at her until it becomes more and more personal.

So once a government has power, and has the consent of the majority, it can only impose its will through violence. Every government, even your own, is a thug. Remember this when you lobby a politician to make a law: that law will be enforced by men with guns. At some point in the process, if someone defies it long enough, even in the most civilized country, a law enforcement officer will show up to either force you to comply or arrest you if you don’t. And if you resist, they will use an escalation of force on you.

A government will use force to maintain its order for so long as it can suppress the minority who object. It’s the very nature of government.

It must be terrible to be estranged from your child. I haven’t spoken to my father since June 2003 when my brother graduated from high school. Sometimes I wonder what he thinks about that? Sometimes I think about finding him after waking up from my own surreal dreams.

War. The eternal justification for the expenditure of resources, for marshaling a nation’s engine of economics in a single direction. Sometimes, it’s a necessary exercise to persevere against an aggressor, other times it’s the petty greed of men who want that greener pasture on the other side of the border.

A good discussion on how even someone who can care can be swept up in despotism. She’s reflecting on it thanks to the powers. That’s why his words are gnawing at her. He just stripped away her self-deception about her banality. She oppresses the people because she’s focused on “the big picture” forgetting that it’s made up of individual brush strokes. Or, in modern parlance, all those little dots made by a printer that forms a mosaic so fine it blends into an illusion of a seamless whole to our eyes.

But all those little dots matter when they’re human lives.

I think Theliopa is my favorite of Kellhus’s children. She has this innocence about her and a frailness even as she’s overwhelmed by her intellect and her inability to feel anything.

We get our first clue that Kelmomas knows the palace better than anyone as he beats Imhailas to Esmenet.

Esmenet is in denial that Samarmas isn’t mentally handicapped like he clearly is. She wants both of her youngest children to be perfect. One is faking it. Just like she won’t be able to see what he truly is for a long time.

Why a new skin-spy? We’re seeing an upgrade here. The first hints that the Consult has had another breakthrough and are now probing to see if they infiltrate while Kellhus is gone.

A mark of wealth in ancient times was being able to pay someone to spend their life weaving a carpet. That’s a human being that needs to pay for all of their life needs and are not contributing to the survival of the species. That’s the power that civilization and the diversification of skills gave our species.

Kelmomas is starting to turn her against Maithanet. He senses her worry and he’s going to feed on it through this book. He wants to isolate her. Doesn’t want her to rely on anyone else but him. Notice him then lumping himself and his mother together as one tribe against the rest of the world.

We see Esmenet, despite her intelligence, has a hard time breeding with Kellhus. The first two children came out Dûnyain enough. They’re stable. Able to fake emotions, but the rest of her children, including the stillborn, are not. Theliopa can’t understand fashion and actions. She’s very autistic, but she has a good rationale mind. Inrilatas sees it all for what it is, a joke. He sees the strongest of all of the children, but he doesn’t have the discipline to give a shit. Then we have the twins, one a sociopath and the other mentally handicapped.

We do see that Serwë is probably the most human of them. She does find emotions in the end.

Mimara thinks she’s run, that she escaped, but her mother knows just where she is. Esmenet probably realizes she can’t save her relationship with Mimara by holding tight. Maybe distance, time spent with Achamian, will help her. She has no idea Achamian is about to plan a dangerous journey and her daughter is not going to be safe.

But he does protect her.

It sounds like Samarmas has down syndrome. She had the twins late in life, which increases the risk factor of having a child with down syndrome. I think past the late thirties is when that starts happening. A woman’s eggs form in her in the womb. They’re rather old cells considering the life span for most is only seven years so by time a woman reaches procreation, they’re double if not triple the age of other cells in her body. And over the years, things break down.

Poor Inrilatas. There are limits to every human. He found his mother’s.

I used to work four years driving a paratransit shuttle for Pierce Transit, the local bus agency. A paratransit shuttle picks up those too disabled to ride the regular bus. It’s a requirement of the ADA act. A lot of my passengers were adults with mental handicaps. Down syndrome, extreme autism, other conditions. A lot of them were like Samarmas. Hugging and happy.

I really hate Kelmomas for killing him.

“For all her love, she could never lose herself in Kelmomas the way she could Samarmas, whose idiocy had become a kind of perverse sanctuary for her. For all her love, she could not bring herself to trust the way a mother should.” And here we have why Samarmas had to die. Kelmomas is a jealous god. He only wants one worshiper, and she needs to bend her full attention to him.

It’s only natural that she’s paranoid. She wants to believe Kelmomas is normal, which probably is why his deception is so successful on her. He has just enough sense to fake emotions, unlike his other siblings. So now she’s convincing herself that he must be, suppressing any doubts she might have because she’s desperate to have a child who loves her.

After all, she ruined things so badly with Mimara and the rest of her children are Dûnyain. All save Samarmas.

Biaxi Sankas, I hope your grateful Conphas is dead. Or else you would be. The last Biaxi in the story was the general Conphas sent after Cnaiür. If he didn’t come back with the barbarian’s head, Conphas vowed to exterminate the Biaxi family.

“The insights of children were too immediate, too unfiltered not to be unwelcomed.” This sentence is a double negative. Not unwelcomed? Should be not welcomed. It hurt my brain reading that.

Esmenet’s worried about betrayal. Maybe Ikurei had a point to be paranoid. It probably started out as reasonable concern, knowing about history including how his own father was betrayed by his mother so he could take the throne. But if you’re not careful, it becomes pathological. Kelmomas noticed this, and he starts working on her immediately.

The new rich are always embarrassed that they used to be poor around the old rich. They often try to overcompensate. Rarely does it work. Of course, Esmenet has the power of the Empire behind her so the old rich have to suck up to her.

Sometimes, it’s best to tell a white lie to spare hurt feelings especially trivial. I’m a writer, and when my mom tells me she likes my writing, I’m always like, ‘Are you just saying that because you’re my mom?’ At least Esmenet’s children would know if they’re bad or not.

The moment she thinks only Samarmas can be trusted, Kelmomas reminds her of his presence. She is actually on to him more than I realized and deceiving herself. He is doing everything to feed that delusion. “The lies that flatter us are the ones we most readily believe,” is something similar to a Bakker quote. I probably got it wrong, but that’s the essence of it.

“Reap the morrow.” What a curious greeting. Harvest the future. I have a feeling that Kellhus set this up, a reminder to think about what tomorrow is going to bring. You want a good harvest to reap on the morrow. To build towards it.

Esmenet clearly doesn’t love Kellhus at all. She all but hates him, but tolerates him because the world needs to be saving. She believes in his mission. That’s one of the reasons she’s here. It’s one argument, but also her children and seeing them cared for is another. Of course, if she’d know the sort of children she would be having…

733 days. Nearly two years. Who wants to bet that this is when the Mutilated took over the Consult. It can’t have been too many years before that because of the age of the boy. The Mutilated were clearly tortured for a period of time before they used their Dûnyain skills to win over the Consult and then dominate it. They would understand exactly how the skin-spies were detected. Now that Kellhus is gone, perhaps they thought a new type would work or were testing how good the half-Dûnyain are. It might also be a feint to keep Kellhus from suspecting of their existence.

It’s hard to speculate with Dûnyain in the mix.

There is little to no evidence that the Consult is behind any of the happenings that take down the New Empire. Maybe they were doing stuff, but it’s all Kelmomas, Fanayal and his Cishaurim, Zeüm, and Yatwer that cause the problems and draw Kellhus back to the New Empire. Even in the end, it’s Kelmomas becoming the No God not whom the Consult wanted. No one predicted he would be the No God. The Mutilated wanted Kellhus to reach them. They just couldn’t make it easy. They had to try their hardest to destroy him. Now, maybe they were behind Zeüm giving support to Fanayal, but it’s hard to say. Maybe the next book will elucidate it. after all, Zeüm is about to have a bad time.

The Bandit Padirajah. The perfect, romantic symbol of rebellion to inflame the common folk. If the world survives, he’ll be a legendary figure like Robin Hood in our world. Everyone loves to root for an underdog because, unless you’re one of the .0001% at the top of the social hierarchy, you’re an underdog yourself. And you would hope to win if you had the balls to do what Fanayal does.

A sad thing for a mother to fear her children. Normally, the mother or parents would bring that on themselves, but given her children and her inability to relate to them, to even understand them, it makes sense. They are almost aliens to her save for Mimara and poor Samarmas.

Did I mention I hate Kelmomas?

Fear is an important part of humans. As Maithanet says, it’s necessary. Look at Conphas, the man was so narcissistic that he ignored his fear. He pushed doubt aside. Doubt is merely a type of fear, after all. One that makes us question what we’re doing. Be self-reflective. Since most of us aren’t in a life or death struggle like our fear response was designed for, we can use it to help us with more modern issues. It’s healthy, but too much fear is just as bad. Like with everything in life, it’s balance.

Of course, there is the possibility that it doesn’t matter who was in charge. The New Empire was never intended to survive. Kellhus has his mission. Defeat the Consult and stop the No-God from being activated. The New Empire serves no purpose after that. He might even see the eradication of the Dûnyain like himself can only be a positive given where Dûnyain philosophy leads in a world where Damnation is a true thing and morality matters.

Esmenet felt that emptiness inside of her created when she sold Mimara. She’s desperate to replace it with anything. But Kellhus’s children are like him. They just couldn’t fake it yet. How horrifying to have children who might as well be rocks. Mothers need that emotional connection to bond with them, else you get what she descends into postpartum depression. The thoughts of harming herself and the baby are all symptoms of that.

Serwa seems capable of love. She is definitely the most emotional of Kellhus’s children we see (baring Samarmas). Once Sorweel breaks through her barriers. She even saves her mother life when her mission to destroy the Consult should have been all that mattered.

I hope Serwa survives into the next series. She was badly wounded at the end, though.

“Don’t hate yourself for hating me, Mommy. Hate yourself for who you are.” Inrilatas called his mother a whore to her face. Also, it’s pretty clear that Kellhus pushed the kid into harmless insanity so he would have to be locked up because he did not have time to care for him.

More proof that the Dûnyain are not fully human, they have trouble reproducing. They have strengthened the nonman gene in their bloodlines to a point where they’re verging on a different species from humans. Or so I believe.

Kelmomas certainly loves. He has the jealous love of a child who wants his mother all to himself and the intellect to make it happen combined with not a bit of morality to restrain his actions. We also get another version of this story from Kelmomas about what was going on with him and his brother.

The Plate sounds like a giant symbol used to sound the alarm.

Oh, Esmenet, Mimara loves you. It’s in there. The pain of her hatred wouldn’t be so great otherwise. It might be impossible for them to ever get past that. Mimara was greatly wronged by her mother. If she chooses never to forgive Esmenet, it’s understandable.

She didn’t count Moënghus in her tally of normal children. Yet he’s not Dûnyain, so what happened to him? We’ll see in book 2 and 3.

Notice how many traditions there are around her. Her eyes are too holy to watch an execution. She wears a garnet on her shoulder to signify Kellhus’s blood had passed through her. These are not natural traditions. Not established so fast. They were implemented by Kellhus for he knows the importance of traditions. Most start out as a convenience done by someone who keeps doing it, then others follow until you get a separation between the reason it was done and those who just mimic it because that is how it has always been done.

Esmenet has “impostor syndrome” which is the belief that you don’t deserve where you are. It’s that doubt that can make you question your own skill, your own purpose. It can be a healthy thing, keeping you sharp, or it can destroy you if it becomes a neurosis. She’s not as strong as she thinks she needs to be. Her children are a crutch, an escape, that give her comfort. Hence, why I think she felt it to be an admission that holding their hands soothed her soul.

Our introduction to Esmenet is done. We get her backstory, how she is more a partner to Kellhus than a wife. She believes in him, but she’s long stopped loving him. She hates him now, but she also still trusts him. Worships him.

Click here for Chapter Four of the Reread!

And if you want to help support this blurb, check out my fantasy books on Amazon!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen 5)

by Steven Erikson

Reviewed by JMD Reid

At the end of Book Four, Trull Sengar began to tell the story of how he became chained to the wall in the drowned pocket of Kurald Emurlan.

As the events of Deadhouse Gates and Memory of Ice was happening (sort of, since the Silanah stuff really throws off the timeline) on the other side of the world, the Tiste Edur tribes have been united by the Warlock King. They are facing annexation by the greedy Lether to the south, a nation merchants who want the natural resources in Edur lands. They have destroyed other tribes through shady treaties and deliberate betrayals.

The Warlock King has a new ally. He plans to send the Sengar Brothers (Fear, Trull, Binadas, and young Rulad) on a quest to receive a gift in the arctic wastes north of their lands. Will it prove the salvation of their people or their ruination.

Another set of brothers, Beddicts, have their own goals. Tehol Beddict appears impoverished after his financial collapse, but he had actually discovered the secret to destroying his people’s economy and flinched. However, when those whose people were destroyed by the Lethers want him to try again, will he accept? In the palace, Brice Beddict is the king’s champion. Emroiled in the complex politics of Lether, he vows to protect his king even if the man isn’t worthy of his devotion. Last, Hull Beddict plots his people’s destruction in another way. He wants to save the Edur from the fate of other tribes, weighed down by guilt.

A large cast of characters, both mortal, undead, and immortal, clash and swirl. This is one of Erikson’s best books in the series. Tehol and Bug number among my favorite duo and it was great to read them again. Tragedy and misfortune swirl as no one’s plans quite work out right. The darkest parts of humanity are exposed once more.

This fantasy series continues to be unique and amazing. If you haven’t read any of Malazan Book of the Fallen, you need to. It is worth the journey.

You can buy Midnight Tides from Amazon.

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Reread of The Judging Eye: Chapter Two

Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series

Book 1: The Judging Eye

by R. Scott Bakker

Chapter Two

Hûnoreal

Welcome to Chapter Two of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter One!

We burn like over-fat candles, our centres gouged, our edges curling in, our wick forever outrunning our wax. We resemble what we are: Men who never sleep.

—ANONYMOUS MANDATE SCHOOLMAN, THE HEIROMANTIC PRIMER

My Thoughts

It’s a nice reintroduction to the Mandate Schoolman. They used to be men at the edge of their resources. They are working themselves too hard. They are driven to push themselves to their utter limits. Why?

Because of Seswatha’s dreams.

And since this chapter starts out with Achamian, it’s a fitting introduction.

Early Spring, 19 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), southwestern Galeoth

There would have been nightmares aplenty had Drusas Achamian been able to dream a life that was his own. Nightmares of a long, hard war across deserts and great river deltas. Nightmares of sublimity and savagery held in perfect equipoise, though the cacophony of the latter would make all seem like misery. Nightmares of dead men, feeding like cannibals on their once strong souls, raising the impossible on the back of atrocity.

Nightmares of a city so holy it had become wicked.

And of a man who could peer into souls.

Achamian can’t dream of these things because, even though he renounced being a Mandate Schoolman, he still dreams of Seswatha and the First Apocalypse. He relives the horrors of the past. Tonight, he’s dreaming of a feast that the High King Anasûrimbor Celmomas has thrown. He’s reclining on his Urthrone drunk and almost passed out. His Knight-Chieftains are partying. Toasts are cried out and mead is drunk. Achamian (as Seswatha) is at the end of a table only drinking water. He is watching “the High King—the man he still called his best friend—drink himself into unconsciousness.”

Seswatha slips out. No one notices. He moves through the palace and finds a door open as expected. Candles light the room, illuminating Suriala, a wanton beauty. “He knelt in accordance with the very Laws he was about to break.” He’s overcome with her beauty. He goes to the bed, mounts her.

Made love to his High-King’s wife—

A convulsive gasp.

Achamian bolted forward from his blankets. The darkness buzzed with exertion, moaned and panted with feminine lust—but only for a moment. Within heartbeats the chorus call of morning birdsong ruled his ears. Throwing aside his blankets, he leaned into his knees, rubbed at the ache across his jaw and cheek. He had taken to sleeping on wood as part of the discipline he had adopted since leaving the School of Mandate, and to quicken the transition between his nightmares and wakefulness. Mattress, he had found, made waking a form of suffocation.

It takes him some time to banish his arousal from the dream. If he was still a Mandate, this would have been momentous to dream. He wasn’t one, and he had many such revelations in his dreams to be overawed. He glances at the sun shining through curtains thinking exposing truth to the light is “never a bad thing.”

He can hear the children of his two slaves playing outside. He savors the sound because today it felt like a “profound miracle.” He wished to just stay in this moment, a good way to spend the rest of his life.

He looks at his room in a Galeoth military tower. It’s simple and barbaric compared to his life spent in the “fleshpots of the South.” But it had been his home for twenty years. The place where he studied.

He walked different roads. Deeper roads.

How long had he travelled?

All his life, it seemed, though he had been a Wizard for only twenty.

Breathing deep, drawing fingers from his balding scalp to his shaggy white beard, he walked to the main worktable, braced himself for the concentrated recital to come…

The meticulous labour of mapping Seswatha’s labyrinthine life.

Thanks to writing down Seswatha’s dreams for years, he’d learned the best way to do it. Before his memory could taint the recollection, he had to write it down fresh. The first thing he did upon awakening. However, he could only write: “NAU-CAYÛTI?” He stares at the name of Celmomas’s son who helped steal the Heron Spear. That weapon slew the No-God. Achamian has read dozens of books devoted to him. His military exploits. His heroic deeds. How he was slain by his wife, Iëva. Some have noted how many of Seswatha’s dreams had involved Nau-Cayûti. Achamian is realizing Seswatha had bedded his lover, which is in itself a significant revelation. As much as Achamian wants to jump to the conclusion that Seswatha is Nau-Cayûti’s father, he thinks to the dream, wanting to date it to see if was possible. He’s interrupted by one of the slave children asking a question only for a strange woman to reply.

He’s shocked by the accent of the newcomer. She spoke like a Nansur or Ainoni. Someone from the south, not someone from Hûnoreal, a province in northern Galeoth. He looks out the window across the grounds and doesn’t see where the voices are coming from. He scans past a few outbuildings and spots a mule while the voices “continued to chirp and gaggle somewhere to the left.” The boy cries out for their mother and Achamian spots him moving through the trees on the slope. His mother, Tisthana, comes out to meet the children. There are children talking to the stranger, a woman, asking about her sword and the name of her mule. She’s wearing a fine cloak marking her noble caste, but he can’t see her face. He wonders how long it had been since a visitor had come. Maybe five or six years ago.

He remembers how it had been just him and Geraus in the beginning. He often had to use the Gnosis to kill packs of Sranc, leaving marks of the battle all over the place. Geraus still has nightmares about it. Later, Scalpoi came to win the bounty on Sranc scalps. They often brought their own problems, but his Gnosis took care of that.

No matter, the rule had been simple over the years: Visitors meant grief, the Gods and their laws of hospitality be damned.

The woman appears friendly as she greets Tisthana, and Achamian thinks the woman acts like caste-menial despite her fine clothing. He relaxes when he hears Tisthana laugh, knowing she’s a trustworthy judge of character. The two women now walking side by side to the tower, chatting in the friendly way of women. Tisthana points out Achamian. He tries to put on a dignified pose but the mortar of the windowsill crumbles and he almost falls out the window. The children laugh in delight as he rights himself.

The stranger looked up, her delicate face bemused and open and curious…

And something in Achamian suffered a greater fall.

No matter how surprising an event is, there is a reason for it. Cause and effect rule the world. The newcomer calls him the Great Wizard in a tone “balanced between many things, hope and sarcasm among them.” She reminds him of a child with poor manners. He demands to know what she’s doing here after sending Tisthana and the children away. Despite how short she is, she’s standing on the highest fold of the ground to loom over him out of instinctive. He recognizes her. She’s beautiful, her face that of his wife. This is Mimara, Esmenet’s daughter who she’d sold into slavery during a famine. Achamian wonders if finding Mimara is why Esmenet stayed with Kellhus, choosing the Dûnyain emperor over “a broken-hearted fool.”

Not because of the child she carried, but because of the child she had lost?

The questions were as inevitable as the pain, the questions that had pursued him beyond civilization’s perfumed rim. He could have continued asking them, he could have yielded to madness and made them his life’s refrain. Instead he had packed a new life about them, like clay around a wax figurine, then he had burned them out, growing ever more decrepit, even more old, about their absence—more mould than man. He had lived like some mad trapper, accumulating skins that were furred in ink instead of hair, the lines of every snare anchored to this silent hollow within him, to these questions he dared not ask.

And now here she stood… Mimara.

The answer?

Mimara is glad he recognized her. Memories of Esmenet ripple through Achamian at the sight of her, and he says she looks a lot like her. She doesn’t seem pleased about that. He repeats his question, asking why she is here. She gives a flippant, obvious answer that forces him to ask a third time. Anger glazes through her, startling Achamian. The world that had slowly faded away from his valley now has returned. He’d found peace here and realizes he’s about to lose it as he shouts at her to know why she’s here.

She flinched, looked down to the childish scribble at her feet: a gaping mouth scrawled in black across mineral white, with eyes, nose, and ears spaced across its lipless perimeter.

“B-because I wanted…” Something caught her throat. Her eyes shot up, as though requiring an antagonist to remain focused. “Because I wanted to know if…” Her tongue traced the seam of her lips.

“If you were my father.”

His laughter felt cruel, but if was such, she showed no sign of injury—no outward sign.

He explains he met Esmenet after Mimara was sold into slavery. He should have realized Esmenet would have used all her new power to find the “girl whose name she would never speak.” He tries to explain how Esmenet sold Mimara to save her from starving to death and how it broke her. As he says them, he realizes this is just the “same hollow justifications” she’s heard again and again. It’s clear that though Esmenet found her years ago, it was too late to fix her. She then starts pressing that she remembers that he bought her apples. He claims it wasn’t him and he’s not her father because the daughter of whores “have no fathers.” He tried to say it gently, but it comes out too hard. It hurts her. “You said that I was clever,” she accuses.

He ran a slow hand across his face, exhaled, suddenly feeling ancient with guilt and frustration. Why must everything be too big to wrestle, too muddy to grasp

“I feel sorry for you, child—I truly do. I have some notion of what you must have endured…” A deep breath, warm against the bright cool. “GO home, Mimara. Go back t your mother. We have no connection.”

He turned back towards the tower. The Sun instantly warmed his shoulders.

“But we do,” her voice chimed from behind him—so like her mother’s that chills skittered across his skin.

He reiterates that he’s not her father, but she says it’s something else that brought her. Her tone makes him turn back to face her. She says she’s one of the few. A witch. She continues that she isn’t looking for her father, but for a teacher. She wants to learn the Gnosis.

There is a progression to all things. Lives, encounters, histories, each trailing their own nameless residue, each burrowing into a black, black future, groping for the facts that conjure purpose out of the cruelties of mere coincidence.

And Achamian had his fill of it.

Mimara realizes that her mother “the old whore” is right: Achamian likes to teach. It’s been three months since she’s run away from the Andiamine Heights in search of Achamian. She had to dodge the Judges and survive the hard winter. She can’t believe she made it. She’s dreamed of this place, imagined it so much, it actually fits her fantasy. Everything but Achamian.

He’s the Apostate. The man who cursed the Aspect-Emperor out of love for Esmenet. She’s heard many versions of him. Even her mother talks about him in different ways. It’s the contradictions about this man that left the impression. “In the cycle of historical and scriptural characters that populated her education, he alone seemed real.

Only he isn’t. The man before her seems to mock her soft-bellied imaginings: a wild-haired hermit with limbs like barked branches and eyes that perpetually sort grievances. Bitter. Severe. He bears the Mark, as deep as any sorcerers she has seen glimpse through the halls of the Andiamine Heights, but where they drape silks and perfume about their stain, he wears wool patched with rancid fur.

How could anyone sing songs about such a man?

He asks if it’s true that witches aren’t burned. She says there’s even a School, the Sawayal Compact. That shocks Achamian who then asks why she needs him. Her mother won’t let her and the Sawayali won’t anger Esmenet by taking her. “Socerery, she [Esmenet] says, leaves only scars.” Achamian agrees with that.

“But what if scars are all you have?”

Achamian is taken back by Mimara’s statement then asks if she wants power to “feel the world crumble beneath the weight of your voice.” She sees this as a game and asks isn’t that why he did it and strikes a nerve, but she finds no satisfaction in winning. He tells her he’d rather be her father than teacher.

There is a set manner to the way he turns his back this time, one that tells her that no words can retrieve him. The sun pulls his shadow long and profound. He walks with a stoop that says he has long outlived the age of bargaining. But she hears it all the same, the peculiar pause of legend becoming actuality, the sound of the crazed and disjoint seams of the world falling flush.

He is the Great Teacher, the one who raised the Aspect-Emperor to the heights of godhead.

He is Drusas Achamian.

She builds a bonfire that night wanting to burn down his tower. She pretends the fire is living, a fantasy she often indulges in to put magic into the world. “That she is a witch.” It starts to rain. Lightning flashes. She crouches in the downpour, soaked. It slowly smothers her fire. Her misery grows. She finds herself before the tower hollering for him to teach her.

He simply has to hear, doesn’t he? Her voice cracking the way all voices crack about the soul’s turbulent essentials. He needs only to look down to see her leaning against the slope, wet and pathetic and defiant, the image of the woman he once loved, framed by steam and fire. Pleading. Pleading.

Teeeeeach!”

Meeee!”

Only wolves answer, howling with her. It mocks her, but she’s used to people “who celebrate her pain.” She throws her hurt back at the world, declaring he will teach her. Then she sees him watching her from a doorway. He steps out into the rain, hobbling towards her. She can see the unseen sorcery shielding him from the rain. She trembles when he looks down at her from the stairs while the storm rages around them. She feels embarrassed under his scrutiny and demands he teach her.

Without a word, which she could now see is made not of wood, but of bone. Quite unprepared, she watches him swing it like a mace—

An explosion against the side of her skull. Then sliding palms, knuckles scraped and skinned, arms and legs tangled rolling. She slams to a stop against a molar-shaped rock. Gasps for air.

Stunned, she watches him pick his way back up the shining slope. She tastes blood, bends her face back to let the endless rain rinse her clean. The drops seem to fall out of nowhere.

She begins laughing.

Teeeach meeee!”

My Thoughts

A great way to introduced Achamian and remind us of the Holy War and what happened. We cut right to the most important part of his motivation in this series: finding out the truth of Kellhus. He has to know the truth of who he is, and those keys lie in his dream of Seswatha. A dream about a sorcerer cuckolding a king.

So is Seswatha the father of Nau-Cayûti? This certainly seems to imply it. Why else would Achamian dream this moment.? Or more specifically, why else would Bakker write this passage? My theory on why both Nau-Cayûti and Kelmomas are both able to activate the No-God when no one else can is their bloodline. The Anasûrimbor bloodline. It is implied that the only successful mating between human and Nonman happened when an Anasûrimbor daughter was raped by a Nonman. However, if Nau-Cayûti isn’t Celmomas’s bloodline, how does my theory survive?

Well, as we can see from the appendix of Thousandfold Thought, the Anasûrimbor dynasty was large. It ruled several different kingdoms. The Anasûrimbor that Kellhus is a descendant of is a cousin to Kelmomas. If you know anything about royalty, they like to marry important people. There is often quite a number of close kin marrying amid royal families. It is possible that Suriala is also an Anasûrimbor by blood even if her maiden name was another.

In fact, estimates of human history show that most marriages in the history of our race (hardly dented by the small fraction of the modern era) have been between first and second cousins. So the Anasûrimbor bloodline was spread out wide, it was preserved in the Dûnyain as one of their various lines of descent because of its innate gifts. I also think this is why Kellhus has trouble with children. The Dûnyain have bred the Nonman part of the Anasûrimbor genetics to its limits through their program. The reason for their greater intelligence and reflex might be, partly, accounted by this strengthening of the Nonman genes. I think the Mutilated figured this out, but by then they were the last Dûnyain left alive and none of them wanted to do the activation.

They were trying to save their souls, not sacrifice them, so they needed a replacement. And one was coming. Their enemy. They were certain Kellhus would work. They had to have figured out the Anasûrimbor bloodline was the key. They could take out the greatest threat to their power and turn on the No-God in one step. Leave Kellhus alive, and he’d probably figure out how to destroy the No-God again even if one of them activated it.

There is precedent for it happening. Hope they find that missing Heron Spear.

The sound of children laughing and playing, a simple joy, is what Achamian yearns for. He wants to keep hearing it because it means the Second Apocalypse hasn’t come. That there is still innocence in the world.

We noticed near the end of the last book, that Achamian’s dreams with Seswatha were focused on Nau-Cayûti. Now, he’s dreaming things no other Mandate has. The things that the Seswatha-in-his-Soul didn’t think was relevant to their mission. What’s changed for Achamian. What makes him different.

Kellhus.

I believe when Kellhus hypnotized Achamian in the Thousandfold Thoughts, something changed. Perhaps Kellhus talking with the Seswatha caused him to react and start feeding Achamian more information, or whatever Kellhus did to free Achamian to teach the Gnosis loosened the other restraints on the Seswatha in him, and now he’s dreaming all sorts of things.

On another note, Mandate who get obsessed with dreams invariably fall into the conspiracy theory traps and get lost in them. Achamian, at least, is studying new things. But obsession can do a lot of damage if it consumes him.

Poor Achamian, having to dream about an adulterous wife while missing Esmenet. Twenty years, and it still hurts. He’s like Leweth from the first book. The man who went into the wilderness to preserve memories of his wife. Achamian is obsessed with his quest to unmask Kellhus and prove himself right. Esmenet went back to him without telling him why. She probably thought he was dead, she was pregnant, and she had a chance to find Mimara.

Achamian is always the teacher, even if his only pupils are slave children who’d normally never learn to write. The Turtle Shell rock is a nice and subtle reminder of one of Achamian’s core characteristics.

Why did Esmenet stay? I’ve always said it was for her children: Mimara and Kayûtas, the one she was pregnant with. She had to be a mother before a woman, choosing them over her heart.

I think I’ve mentioned this, but altruism is hard to maintain when you’re starving. The hungrier you get, the more you retreat into instinct. And instinct is selfish. We know from Esmenet’s point of view she sold Mimara to feed herself. In a fit of selfishness, she did it and only regretted it later. Once she’d eaten and could think properly, she wanted to take it back. Ironically, it did save Mimara’s life, but the girl suffered greatly anyways. A wound that being told her suffering was for her own good won’t work to heal.

I’m interested in the next series. Will becoming a mother herself bring Mimara and Esmenet together?

Achamian is lying about never meeting Mimara. He’s not her father, but he did know her as a child. He helped Esmenet to try and get her back after the famine but failed, and that was when Esmenet stopped talking about her. I imagined he’s denying he’s Mimara father out of guilt for that. She would have been sold off when he was away. When he couldn’t help Esmenet. Now he can’t be her father. He’s too old. He wants her to leave, not to bond with him.

Mimara being one of the Few is not a surprising plot twist if you were paying attention to the last series. Esmenet mentioned that her mother could do things that she refused to teach her daughter. She was a witch, but Esmenet didn’t have the ability. It’s a recessive gene or something and skipped her generation. So Mimara being one of the Few is not a clue she’s Achamian’s daughter.

She sees his face slacken, despite the matted wire of his beard. She sees his complexion blanch, despite the sun’s morning glare. And she knows that what her mother once told her is in fact true: Drusas Achamian possesses the soul of a teacher.

This is Mimara’s first POV paragraph. Notice the verbs. They are not in past tense like EVERYTHING else in the series. They’re present tense. It’s a subtle thing Bakker does with her POVs. Whenever we’re in her head, it’s not like the past is being retold to us, but that we’re living in the present with Mimara.

We’re seeing what her Judging Eye sees as the world unfolds before her.

I have to confess, I had read The Judging Eye maybe three or four times before I began seriously pursuing my own writing. The next time I read it after I did, in preparation for The Great Ordeal’s release, this leaped out at me at once and it made me ask, “Why did Bakker do this?”

Remember this lesson: if an author has even a modicum of talent, they write things for a reason. Now, don’t get lost in why they made so-and-so’s dress blue, or why such-and-such person has a wart on their nose. Most of the time, those are just there to paint the world, not for any special reason. But pay attention to which details an author shares and how they convey information. Bakker so far has used 3rd Person Omniscient Past Tense for the historical sections and 3rd Person Limited Past Tense for the character POVs. Now we have a shift to 3rd Person Limited Present Tense for Mimara and only Mimara. Why?

The Judging Eye.

When it opens, we see the world as she does. We experience it as she does. She’s the conduit for the God, the Oversoul, to peer out at the world and witness it the way IT sees the world. Damnation and Salvation. It makes her POVs have an immediacy that other sections can lack.

Like many abused as children, she has a great deal of anger inside of her. She’s lost. Looking for the family she should have had while rejecting the one who sold her into that horror. As we later see when she seduces Achamian, she’s been taught by her abuse that her body only holds value in pleasing a man.

Achamian sees too much of himself in her. He wants to hurt Kellhus and the world that has taken everything away. Mimara cuts too close. To protect himself, he has to drive her away. But she’s determined. She’s come too far to give up. Hitting her on the head won’t work. She thinks she has nothing else but this. She has a driving need to be here, manipulated to come here by her darling little brother Kelmomas.

He wants mommy all to himself.

If you want to read the next part, click here for Chapter 3!

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To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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REVIEW: Born to Darkness

Born to Darkness

by Autumn M Brit

Reviewed by JMD Reid

Raiann is the twin sister of the heir to the Black Throne. And that’s a problem. Rumors persist that she is the firstborn not her brother. Realizing that her father will do something drastic to ensure his son inherits the throne, she has no choice but to flee.

Her flight doesn’t go as plan. She finds herself in trouble. But a wandering mercenary named Orxy comes to her rescue. He’s a satyr, one of the light blood races while she’s a djinn, dark blood. He promises to teach her to fight and to use the magic brimming in her blood. Djinn have passion pumping through their veins, and he’s going to prove it.

Raiann finds a new life that excites her blood. A mercenary.

Born to Darkness was a great read. It’s fast and flows. It has some great twists and turns and goes into some dark places. Raiann has an interesting path that’s powerful to read. Brit has outdone herself with this one. I’m a fan of her previous fantasy series, and this one showed her growing strength as an author.

I want to read more of this interesting world and the character of Raiann. While I wished she’d made a different decision at the end of the novel, she’s not a perfect character. She’s flawed and struggling to find peace in a world that’s cruel and unfair.

If you’re a fan of powerful and character-driven fantasy, you need to check out Born to Darkness!

You can buy Born to Darkness from Amazon!

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