Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 1: The Judging Eye
by R. Scott Bakker
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
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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