Reread of The Aspect-Emperor Series
Book 1: The Judging Eye
by R. Scott Bakker
Welcome to Chapter Fifteen of my reread. Click here if you missed Chapter Fourteen!
If the immutable appears recast, then you yourself have been transformed.
—MEMGOWA, CELESTIAL APHORISMS
This is a Zeumi aphorism. From the name, Memgowa, and Celestial, a word that we hear in regards to their civilization.
It’s talking about how if you see the world differently, if you see something you thought was monolith is something else, then it hasn’t changed, you have. It very much is observation dictates reality. It reminds me how they have that game they play at court where people play out the gossip about themselves to make the lie into Truth.
Postmodernists would love Zeumi.
Then we have Sorweel who appears to have been recast when he wasn’t. He has been transformed in a way Kellhus cannot see.
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), Condia
It’s morning and Sorweel is watching Porsparian make a fire to cook their breakfast. Sorweel is trying to figure out the slave who is now as frightening to Sorweel as Kellhus. The King flinches, expecting to be struck. Porsparian is not “meek nor innocent nor powerless.” Porsparian is delighted to make the fire. Sorweel fakes a grin and brushes where the soil was smeared on his face.
Somehow, simply thinking her name, Yatwer, had become a premonition. And it shamed him. She was the Goddess of the weak, the enslaved, and now she was his.
Eskeles shows up, muttering how he dreamed about the Library of Sauglish again. Sorweel is tired of hearing of his dreams. Then Zsoronga shows up though no Obotegwa, forcing Eskeles to act as translator. Sorweel finds that annoying because Obotegwa has become his friend’s voice. Eskeles’s translation reminds Sorweel that there’s a rift between him and his friend that keeps them from communicating. And, of course, Zsoronga does not trust Eskeles so he doesn’t speak freely. Sorweel feels like it’s the early “dark days when all he could understand were the recriminations of his own voice.”
They go to the Umbilicus where Kellhus holds court. Things are subdued in the camp instead of the normal carnival feel it has. The men are all sleeping in or lounging around breakfast fires because they have nothing to do today.
Sorweel found himself staring at a young Galeoth warrior laying between guy-ropes with his eyes closed, his head propped on the tear-shaped shield he had lain against his pack. He was stripped to his waist, and his skin shone as white as a child’s teeth. A pang of envy struck the young Kin gas deep as a stabbing. After weeks of fear and indecision, he now knew that he, Varalt Sorweel III, was simply an ordinary fool, no wise, no stronger, than the next man. He had been born with the gifts of the mediocre, and yet here he was, stranded in the role of a captive king. He was cursed, cursed with the toil of pretending, endlessly pretending to be more.
Cursed to war, not across plains as heroes do, but within the wells of his soul—to war as cowards do.
Today was but one more example.
No one knows why Kellhus has declared today a day of rest, but Sorweel and Zsoronga, and only them from the Company of Scions, have been called to the Council of Potentates, the senior officers of the Great Ordeal. Eskeles is along to be Sorweel’s interpreter. Sorweel finds himself more excited than afraid to see Kellhus. “It all seemed a gaggle of voices, nagging, warning, accusing, a chorus of contradictions.” He feels pulled by Yatwer and Porsparian, Achamian’s book and Zsoronga, his father, and Kayûtas inhuman perception, Eskeles’s fanaticism. All these ideas are burying his heart. He feels like he’s a dead man going through the motions.
And he was about to face the Aspect-Emperor—Anasûrimbor Kellhus!
He was about to be discovered.
As they head into the Umbilicus, Sorweel notices the Circumfix and realizes how the symbol of “wickedness and revulsion” was now “innocuous and commonplace.” People are flowing into the meeting room. Sorweel wants to tarry, but Eskeles doesn’t let him. Men from every nation of the Tree Seas are here. He feels like a country bumpkin in his Sakarpic clothes while Zsoronga walks with confidence “as a man should, as though what set him apart also set him above.” Everything about his clothes and posture screams out his prestigious heritage while Sorweel feels his communicates “ignorance, poverty, crude manners, and foolish conceits.”
He feels bullied by the strangers, their words insults that he can’t understand. He tries to rally his pride by raising “defensive contempt.” He tells himself that he was better than them. They didn’t even speak his language. They’re animals.
But he knew these thoughts for what they were: the shallow posturings of a boy. He could feel it in the way his eyes flinched from the glare of others, in the empty bubbles that crept through his bones.
He’s jostled into the Umbilicus and pauses to gape. Men push past him. He hears the Sheyic insult “Shit-herder” directed at him. This is the largest tent he’s ever been in, and he’s used to camping out on the Pale. It was bigger than his father’s hall. Eskeles is ecstatic, saying how he had dreamed of the events like this, but now he’s witnessing it with “living eyes.” Sorweel pretends to be distracted as he hates how he agrees with the sorcerer. It feels seditious to do that. Zsoronga has a guarded expression like Sorweel’s own. “The look of a boy striving to pass unnoticed in the company of men.”
Sorweel feels something is in the air, but isn’t sure what it is. Then he realizes it’s belief. The shared faith in Kellhus has brought this diverse group of men together and united them. It “defined them to their unguessed core.”
Here was belief, rendered sensuous for its intensity, made palpable in lilting voices and shining eyes.
Sorweel had known he marched in the company of fanatics, but until now he had never… touched it. The fever of jubilation. The lunacy of eyes that witnessed without seeing. The smell of commitment, absolute and encompassing. The Men of the Circumfix were capable of anything, he realized. They would weary, but they would never pause. They would fear, but they would not flee. Any atrocity, any sacrifice—nothing lay outside the compass of their possibility. They could burn cities, drown sons, slaughter innocents; they could even, as Zsoronga’s story about the suicides proved, cut their own throats. Through their faith they had outrun their every scruple, animal or otherwise, and they gloried in the stink of it—in the numbing smell of losing oneself in the mastery of another.
He wonders how Kellhus can “command such mad extremes in men.” He remembers that Kellhus makes men children. Sorweel then wonders if the world is about to end. As he ponders these thoughts, he studies the room. He then notices a tapestry that appears strange and he realizes it has sorcery on it to make shapes move in it.
He turns his attention to the two Exalt-Generals sitting on the dais. King Proyas looks refined and King Saubon glares. There’s something miserly about King Saubon “as if he had won his stature at too great a cost.” He’s always remembering what he paid. The Grandmasters of the Major Schools sit at a table. Sorweel spots the beautiful Anasûrimbor Serwa who looks too young.
“Striking, no?” the Mandate Schoolman continued in a lowered voice. “The Aspect-Emperor’s daughter, and the Grandmistress of the Sawayal Compact. Serwa, the Ladywitch herself.”
“A witch…” Sorweel murmured. In Sakarpic, the word for witch was synonymous with many things, all of them wicked. That it could be applied to someone so exquisite in form and feature struck him as yet another Three Seas obscenity. Nevertheless, he found his gaze lingering for the wrong reasons. The word seemed to pry her open, make her image wanton with tugging promise.
“Ware her, my King,” Eskeles said with a soft laugh. “She walks with the Gods.”
That line is a quote from a Sakarpi tale about a king who tried to seduce the god Gilgaöl’s mortal daughter and was cursed, his line ending. It surprises Sorweel that Eskeles knows this. Then he remembers the Schoolman is a spy.
He then notices Serwa’s brothers, Kayûtas and Moënghus, sits on the other side of the table with other Southron generals. According to Zsoronga, Moënghus isn’t really Kellhus’s son but the child of his first wife and a Scylvendi wayfarer.
At first this struck Sorweel as almost laughably obvious. When the seed was strong, women were but vessels; they bore only what men planted in them. If a boy-child was born white-skinned, then his or her father was white-skinned, and so on, down to all the particularities of form and pigment. The Anasûrimbor couldn’t be Moënghus’s true father, and that was that. It had been a revelation of sorts to realize the Men of the Circumfix, without exception, overlooked this plain fact. Eskeles even referred to Moënghus as a “True Son of the Anasûrimbor” forcefully, as though the willful application of a word could undo what the world has wrought.
But another glimpse of the madness that had seized these men.
The Interval is sounded and the stragglers enter, growing loud as the late-comers look for a place to sit. If it wasn’t for Sorweel’s fear of being revealed, this would be like Temple service. Eskeles then asks him what Sorweel sees in the other’s faces. The question is so strange that he feels he’s being mocked, though Eskeles has a friendly expression. Still alarmed, he blurts out, “Gulls and fools!” This just brings a chuckle from someone “too familiar with the ways of the conceit not to be amused.”
As the Interval sounds again, people start turning towards the tiers as though a will seized it. Sorweel doesn’t see the light right away, but then he notices a star that seems to resolve and grow into substance. “Skirts of gloom fell from the tented heights.”
A sloped landscape of faces—bearded, painted, clean-shaven—watched.
Seven heartbeats of soundless thunder.
Blinking brilliance… and there he was.
Kellhus appears sitting cross-legged while floating in the air, his head bowed. He has a halo around his head. Awe passes through the crowd. He tries to remember his father’s face as he reminds himself that Kellhus is a demon.
But the Aspect-Emperor was speaking, his voice so broad, so simple and obvious, that gratitude welled through the young King of Sakarpus. It was a beloved voice, almost but not quite forgotten, here at last to soothe the anxious watchers, to heal the sundered heart. Sorweel understood none of the words, and Eskeles sat slack and dumbstruck, apparently too overawed to translate. But the voice—the voice! Somehow spoken to many, and yet intended only for one, for him, for Sorweel alone, out of the hundreds, the thousands! You, it whispered. Only you… A mother scolding cracked into laughter by love. A father’s coaxing crimped into tears by pride.
And then, just when the music wholly captured him, the assembled Lords of the Ordeal crashed into with a booming chorus. And Sorweel found himself understanding the words, for they belonged to the first thing Eskeles had taught him in Sheyic, the Temple Prayer…
As the prayer is spoken, Anasûrimbor’s voice can still be heard distinct from them. Sorweel finds himself wanting to pray. He feels sinful for not joining them and sees Zsoronga looking as resistant as if they were both the fools “not because they dared stand in the company of kneelers, but because being a fool consisted of no more than being thought so by others.”
The singing ends and one of the Nascenti order everyone to raise their faces and look at Kellhus. Sorweel realizes he has to look at Kellhus and nowhere else. Everyone seems to hold their breaths. It’s intense. Everyone’s hopeful and afraid as they all (except the two demon heads) look at Kellhus. Kellhus begins floating around the room staring into people’s faces, everyone tracking his progress. Sorweel is relieved when Kellhus zooms off to the far side of the room. Though everyone has a slightly different expression, all of them are confessing. “Grown men, warlike men, wept in the wake of their sovereign’s divine passage…”
The Aspect-Emperor paused.
The man beneath his gaze was an Ainoni, or so Sorweel guessed from the styling of his square-cut beard, ringlets about flattened braids. He sat on one of the lower tiers, and rather than descend, the Aspect-Emperor simply tilted in his floating posture to stud him. The rings of light about his head and hands gilded the man’s face and shoulders with a patina of gold. The caste-noble’s dark eyes glittered with tears.
Kellhus speaks to the man, Ezsiru, about how his family is loyal, especially his father Chinjosa. He then says that Ezsiru needs to make up with his father. “You do not understand the difference between the infirmities of youth and the infirmities of age.” Ezsiru is punishing his father the way he had been as a child. Kellhus asks if a father can discipline his son with the rod, which he can. But can a child do the same to the father? No.
“Love him, Ezsiru. Honour him. And always remember that old age is rod enough.”
Kellhus moves on to the next one, going from man to man. “And in each case, nothing more than some human truth was summoned forth, as though the Anasûrimbor need only look into the face of one who stumbled to get every man in attendance upon sure footing.” All Kellhus speaks is Truth, and it baffles how a demon can be miraculous. Sorweel’s heart races and fear clutches about his chest as Kellhus comes closer and closer to Sorweel. When he’s almost on Sorweel, he looks at someone in the level behind him.
“Impalpotas,” Eskeles said with a quaver, “tell me, how long has it been since you were dead?”
Everyone gasps as Impalpotas just smiles like he’s “a rake caught wooing a friend’s daughter.” It’s at odds with the situation. Then Impalpotas explodes at Kellhus before he is caught in lines of sorcery, his sword falling from his hands. Everyone is crying out in outrage. Swords are drawn. Kellhus’s voice cuts through the noise as he reveals that Impalpotas is a skin-spy.
The Shigeki assassin had sailed out around the Aspect-Emperor and now floated behind his haloed head, a brighter beacon. The light that tattooed his skin and clothes flared, and his limbs were drawn out and away from his body. He hung, a different kind of proof, revolving like a coin in open space. He panted like an animal wrapped in wire, but his eyes betrayed no panic, nothing save glaring hate and laughter. Sorweel glimpsed the curve of his erect phallus through his silk breeches, looked away to his sigil-wrapped face, only to be more appalled…
For it flexed about invisible faults, then opened, drawn apart like interlocking fingers. Articulations were pried back and out, revealing eyes that neither laughed nor hatred, that simply looked, above shining slopes of boneless meat.
“Rishra mei..” the Aspect-Emperor said in a voice that sounded like silk wrapped about a thunderclap. “I see…” Eskeles’s murmured in reedy tones, “I see mothers raise stillborn infants to blinded Gods. The death of birth—I see this! with eyes both ancient and foretold. I see the high towers burn, the innocents broken, the Sranc descend innumerable—innumerable! I see a world shut against Heaven!”
Everyone cries out in fear and fury. They are picturing their families killed and peoples destroyed and scream their defiance. Kellhus continues to talk about cities burning, the Tusk broken, and that the No-God walking. This makes them all groan. He points at the skin-spy and tells them “Behold!” and “See!” He dismembers the skin-spy with Gnosis and “a curtain of slop raining to the ground.” A breathless silence falls on them, things seeming normal again. “It had happened, and it had not happened.”
And then Kellhus continues moving around them like nothing happened. He is close to Sorweel. He fills his vision. The demons “puckered sockets” stare at Sorweel. He hopes that Kellhus picks Zsoronga. But Kellhus tops before Sorweel. His heart pounds, his fears almost overwhelming him. “What would he see?”
How would he punish?
“Sorweel,” a voice more melodious than music said in the tongue of his fathers. “Sad child. Proud King. There is nothing more deserving of compassion than an apologetic heart.”
“Yes.” A noise more kicked out of his lungs than spoken.
Kellhus asks if Sorweel repents his father’s defiance. Sorweel lies that he has while thinking Kellhus is a demon. Kellhus smiles like an old friend and declares Sorweel a Believer-King and departs. Sorweel is confused. He feels like he’s in the open sky as everyone smiles at him. Eskeles good naturally mocks him for calling the others Gulls and Fools. What follows is a council that Sorweel doesn’t care much about. Eskeles is overjoyed that Sorweel is saved.
Against a desolate backdrop, Zsoronga simply watched, speaking not a word.
Sorweel returns to his tent alone. He feels numb but free, no longer beset by fears. He drinks in all the sight and finds himself awed by the Great Ordeal. “There were simply too many warriors from too many nations not to be astonished in some small way.” In this moment, as he sees men looking back at him with hostility, indifference, and friendliness that they’re just Men. What made them believed, how they were all united behind a singular goal, that made them seem different.
It was at once glorious and an abomination. That so many could be folded into the intent of a single man.
The Calm slipped from his heart and limbs, and the mad rondo of questions began batting through his soul. What had happened at the Council? Did he see? Did he not see? Did he see and merely pretend not to see?
How could he, Sorweel, the broken son of a broken people, shout hate beneath the all-seeing eyes of the Aspect-Emperor, and not be… not be…
He touches his cheek where the mud had been smeared and thinks about Yatwer. He finds Porsparian back at camp. He’s been attending to Sorweel’s meager possessions, the tent even washed. He realizes this is “The High Court of the Sakarpic King.” Sorweel asks Porsparian what did he do, addressing him as a servant for the first time. This alarms Porsparian. He shouts at him to tell. He struggles to ask a simple question in Sheyic and manages to spit out, “What you do?” Porsparian is confused and Sorweel repeats it as he rubs at his cheeks in pantomime.
Like a flutter of wings, Porsparian’s confusion flickered into a kind of perverse glee. He grinned, began nodding like a madman confirmed in his delusions. “Yemarte… Yemarte’sus!”
And Sorweel understood. For the first time, it seemed, he actually heard his slave’s voice.
“Blessed… Blessed you.”
It’s interesting how Sorweel flinches from Porsparian much like an abused child fearing his parent’s hand. As near as I can remember, there’s not a hint that Harweel ever abused Sorweel. He comes off as a good father. There’s something skittish about Sorweel, though.
And Eskeles is dreaming about what Achamian is obsessed about. Makes you wonder how this whole Soul of Seswatha works. The memories are imprinted by the heart of Seswatha held back in their stronghold (I’d love to find more about this).
“He [Sorweel] was cursed, cursed with the toil of pretending, endlessly pretending to be more.” That’s a big theme of Bakker’s work. How people present masks to the world. To change how we behave around others. The curse of humans is that we can only see the mask other people show and they can never see the true us. We are forever sundered from the truth of each other. Sorweel doesn’t realize this is everyone pretending to be what they need to be, pushing down their own impulses to adapt to the expectations of their neighbors or risk ostracization of being different.
“In his heart, words simply accumulated, piled one on top of the other.” The world is overwhelming young Sorweel. He has not had the life experience to withstand this and it is crushing him. It would crush many of us. It’s how he differs from the typical protagonist of other books who would rise to meet them.
Sorweel has the mindset of a loser. If you don’t know this about us humans but when you lose a challenge of dominance, it causes a decrease of serotonin levels in your brain. This leads you to feel lesser than what beat you. Makes you feel ashamed and less likely to challenge again. While winning increases serotonin. This is a very primitive reaction, one that can be found in creatures as ancient as lobsters who have similar serotonin levels that dictate confidence and weakness. Sorweel has been crushed. His people decimated. His father unmade. He has all the signs of low serotonin levels. Thinking he’s worse than his victors, that he can’t compare to them. That they’re better than he is.
Belief is a powerful motivation. I’ve been reading stuff about the Soviet Union and something struck me. It was talking about wedding practices, which were completely secular, and yet the new bride and groom were expected to lay flowers at a memorial to Lenin. Though the Soviet Union professed atheism, they believed in Lenin and his Socialist Paradise. It defined them. On his birthday, I believe, or the nearest Saturday to it, every worker was “encouraged” to work on their day off for no pay to show their support to the State and the Communist Party. The USSR abounded with religious sentiments masked under secular trappings to motivate the people to work hard for their country and not question their leadership. To trust them like the peasants of old trusted their priests and noblemen.
So this is interesting. Gilgaöl has a mortal daughter. That’s rather fascinating. We’re seeing that old, pagan polytheism that Inrithism has all but buried in the Three Seas. And it’s very Indo-European paganism. Greek, Old German, Latin, etc. This is the start of our love story between Sorweel and Serwa. The very classic of falling in love with the evil tyrant’s daughter and winning her heart while defeating her father.
Interesting that Sorweel sees the halo. This implies that at some level, he believes in Kellhus’s divinity. In the last series, people only started seeing the halos when they believed in him. It’s not around his hand, but his head, though. So that is different. Maybe it has to do with Inrithi Sejenus having haloed hands versus the more pagan beliefs of Sakarpi.
Despite how much he fights, Sorweel is caught up in it. He would end up a Believer-King without Yatwer’s intervention. He believes Kellhus is divine. Maybe a demon, but that’s still divine.
“They [Sorweel and Zsoronga] were the fools here, not because they dared stand in the company of kneelers, but because being a fool consisted of no more than being thought so by others.” This is how good people stand by while bad things happen. It might even be a group who all think it’s wrong but don’t realize it and think they are alone. That need to conform to the group is a strong evolutionary pressure on our behavior.
Chinjosa. That name is definitely familiar to me. He must have been one of the Ainoni notables. I do recall a general who was quite skilled and helped hold things together during the disastrous battle at Mengedda, perhaps.
It’s good that Kellhus doesn’t believe in abusing the elderly. I have a feeling poor Chinjosa is suffering from some sort of dementia or Alzheimer. He’s become like a child and, clearly, it sounded like he was a brutal discipline to his son. That’s the effectiveness of Kellhus, he often gives great advice that can lead to positive change.
Kellhus’s speech about what he sees coming if they fail is what we get to look forward to in the next series!
It’s safe to say after reading the rest of this series, Yatwer deceived Kellhus. You can get hints that words were being forced out of Sorweel.
Sorweel is on his first steps of a Narinder. An assassin for Yatwer to kill Kellhus. It’s such a simple story. It’s been played out over and over again, and yet Bakker will turn it on its head as Sorweel is turned into a pawn for a Goddess who is blind to what is going on. His life is destroyed for nothing.
Click here for Chapter Sixteen!
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