by Ryan Schapals
Waiting is not difficult, I remind myself. It’s the main duty of a soldier. Wait here. Wait for the signal. March there, then wait. This is what a military campaign boils down to. Who can wait longer? Who can wait better? Yet no matter how long you wait, you’re never ready. The killing begins and ends before you know what’s happening and the victor is rewarded with more waiting.
In the mess of battle, the coherency of events is lost as easily as fresh recruits. The mix of fear and exhilaration rejects the comforting confines of language. Like a shattered blade, we can piece these memories and sensations back together. As the story forms and takes shape, it becomes more unlike the original, though better suited for its purpose.
The details of war are filled in later by those far removed. Poets, they’re called. They add feelings, thoughts, and names to those who no longer exist. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong: their words remain.
I can’t recall the eye color of the first man I killed. I hardly looked at him. I only looked for an opening. What was he thinking before I cut his throat? Probably the same thing I was; better hurry up if I don’t want to die. No one ever asks for that story to be repeated.
Those I killed had been prepared to die. I never killed a child, even if they might one day grow up to be my enemy. Wouldn’t my own child deserve as much? There’re no stories of heroes slaughtering the young and the weak, but that doesn’t mean it never happens.
“You’re doing it again,” Dakri says, pulling me from my thoughts. She leans forward on the table between us, cleaning her nails with a dagger. Her eyes avoid looking down at the table or, more accurately, at the worn journal that rests there. She focuses on me alone. I can’t stop glancing down at it. Hoping it won’t be there the next time I look.
“Thinking quietly to myself?” I remove my hand from my warrior’s braid, my knuckles bone white. “You should try it.” Whistling floats down the hallway and my heartbeat quickens. I fight the urge to tug on my braid again. It’s only the wind. The corner of the journal lifts and the pages flutter for a moment. I try not to think about their contents. The detail with which Dhatri described each execution. My blood.
Though they were my half-brothers and half-sisters, they were wholly my responsibility. Daya, face still round with baby fat, did she understand what would happen as she waited? Did she hear her brother’s screams? I remember the first time she heard thunder, she’d been barely old enough to speak. I found her whimpering under her bed, clinging to her pillow. I stayed under that bed with her until she was ready to come out. I told her I’d always protect her, she only needed to call my name. Did she call for me before the blade came down on her neck?
Dakri reaches over and and places her hand on mine.“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you mean to slit my throat.”
Pushing her hand away, I unsheathe the sword and run my finger across the blade as if that had been the intention of my fidgeting all along. I can feel the tension in my hands. “I want to be ready.”
“Nandanna has to answer for these crimes,” Dakri says. “You said it yourself, no one could describe your half-sisters and brothers as clearly as Dhatri. Is it a coincidence they haven’t been seen since Jahnu’s death?” His beacon had blazed bright as a star guiding us along our path. I could still feel the heat of his pyre; it had dried all my tears.
I tap a finger on the journal’s cover. “These are the only accusations that Nandanna murdered our siblings. We found this journal in a Durani outpost. It could be a trap, or one of the of brother Spider’s many lies.” I pause, searching my memory for the opening lines to chapter three in Baya Suh’s Courage in the Hours of Madness. “Remember, ‘if we only look for enemies, we will never see our allies.’”
Dakri snorts. “Easy to pick and choose whose writings to believe when it serves you best.”
“I don’t need to remind you who’s in command here. Under my direction and mine alone, the Charred Reavers will move. On my signal.” I raise my fist and twist my fingers into the Execute signal. “Otherwise, learn to enjoy Nandanna’s company.”
“I hope you make the right decision.”
I nod my head, but say nothing. I have to see my sister. See if she still is my sister.
Dakri rams the knife into the journal between us. I can’t help but stare at the scar on her cheek, a half-crescent that widens with her rage. “Do you think you’d be given the chance to explain if you were accused of betraying Nandanna?”
“She can’t afford to hesitate. She can’t show any signs of weakness. But we can.” I pull the dagger free from the journal and slide the book away from Dakri. The map beneath it is torn, but still legible. It marks the configuration of Nandanna’s camp. “I need to be sure. ”
“Unbelievable,” Dakri says. “You knew Dhatri better than most. She gave you suck. Paddled you when you misbehaved. She raised you more than your mother ever did. More than Jahnu.”
“You didn’t know Father,” I say. “You only knew the Great Khan.”
Exasperated, she opens her mouth to reply, but we are interrupted. The tent flaps fly open, this time not the wind but a Reaver dusted in sand. From within the face of a snarling helm, a parched voice explains that Nandanna is ready to see us. I hold the dagger out to Dakri and close the journal.
It is less than a half day’s ride by Sand Lion to Val Sattra. As we near, the ground shakes with a constant rumble from the Durani artillery bombardment of the ruined citadel. In the underground halls beneath the fortress, the camp bustles like the busiest streets in Kutastha. Passing rows of tents and cook fires, I am greeted by the stench of unwashed bodies and overcooked meals mingling in the air, both foul and familiar. Gudanna warriors pass in a hurry, many tasting battle for the first time. Not all of them look hungry for it. As they rush past, the fall of a smith’s hammer punctuates each step. Dakri urges me through the labyrinth to the heart of Val Sattra. Her fingers brush against my wrist before she takes the lead.
Before I know it we’re aboveground again, nearing a courtyard that has been converted into a training ring. There seems to be some sort of problem with our arrival, but Dakri handles the entry guards. I hide a smile behind my hand as I watch. Arms waving and voice rising, Dakri eventually persuades one guard to find his superior officer. We’re forced to wait once again. I don’t think about my siblings: Daya, Zuddhi, or Avadina. I don’t think about the journal in my breast pocket.
Finally, the guards at the entrance of Nandanna’s circle of tents usher us inside. Sweat drips down my brow, stinging my eyes. I try to blink away the perspiration and realize it must look like I am crying. I wipe my brow. They don’t look at me twice, they’re busy offering apologies to Dakri. The training ring is wide and open like a palace but furnished like a barracks. Armaments glint on racks on the walls and soldiers march past two by two.
The guard leads us through the circle. I hear a heavy thwack in the distance, as if a tree is being felled. The guard takes us down another turn and the noise grows louder. We emerge into a sandy courtyard where the sun pours through an opening above. In the center of the courtyard Nandanna slams the edge of a two-handed sword into a straw-filled dummy, causing it to crack. Hay flutters around her and for a moment she almost shimmers as the light filters through the golden cloud. Before the hay can settle, Nandanna roars and the straw bursts into flame, falling to ash at her feet.
She smiles widely. Nandanna thrusts her sword into the ground and rushes to embrace me. “Rataya,” she says. “I thought something terrible had happened.” She is warm and sticky like an unhealed wound, but there is comfort in her arms.
“It has.” From the corner of my eye, I see the uneasy flash of Dakri’s hands signaling caution. The scouts mentioned nothing of this courtyard. Focus, I remind myself, she is not the same Nandanna you remember. Or maybe she is the same, but you never really knew her.
“You’re too dramatic.” Nandanna releases me and gestures to a servant. He scurries over with a wineskin and two glasses. He fills a glass first for Nandanna and then for me. I study his face, but his eyes are cast down. He could not possibly be one of my Reavers. I refuse the drink and Nandanna takes the second glass with a look of disappointment. She tilts her head back and empties both glasses. I sneak a sideways glance at Dakri and she confirms my suspicions with a flick of her fingers. Delay, she signals.
The servant scurries away with the empty glasses. I raise a brow. “I thought we were here to discuss tactics.”
Stretching her arms above her head, Nandanna spins and her robe swirls around her, deep crimson, even darker than the wine. “You must learn to drink battle in.” She grabs me by the arm and pulls me into her dance, twirling me. “You can’t think. You can’t plan. You must let your animal senses overwhelm you. They’re far sharper than our calculating minds.” She spins me faster and faster until my vision quivers and I feel nausea rise in the pit of my stomach.
In the cascading vision of dummies and streamers hanging from the tent walls, I catch glimpses of Dakri, her eyes pleading. Nandanna releases me and I stumble forward. She orders her guards out of the sparring yard, allowing them the chance to stay only if they wantd to end up like the dummy. “The longer this offensive lasts, the more sparring partners I lose. Of course Rudatha continues to refuse my gracious invitations.” She laughs. “But I knew you wouldn’t. Have you learned any new tricks?”
“You’ll see.” A servant appears, holding out a sword. I don’t need to see Dakri’s hands to know what she is thinking. I draw the weapon and steady myself as Nandanna charges forward with the two-handed blade held over her head like an axe. I sidestep the blow, which pelts me with sand, and pivot on my heel.
“Your critics claim you’re reckless, easily goaded into rage, and unwilling to see reason,” I say, nicking the back of her thigh. “I remember thinking the same when you were only eight.” I had gifted her with Szur Nu’s history of warfare on her sixteenth birthday; she showed me how many pieces she could cut it into.
“I consider those strengths.” She pivots and lunges toward me, brushing my sword aside. “Besides, they say much worse.”
“Are they wrong?” I redouble my efforts, pushing her back. I had seen the heads of her most outspoken critics roll. I had helped track them down. When I kill, there is always a plan and the victims are never innocent. Is that the difference between us? Does that difference still matter, when Jahnu’s legacy is at stake?
One of the older boys, Zuddhi, had always been mischievous. He was large for his age, but surprisingly quick. Dhatri’s journal described how he had wriggled free from his guard, but he didn’t run. Zuddhi pulled the guard’s sword free and stabbed him in the thigh. Dhatri said she could not bear to watch as the guard grabbed the boy and slammed his head against the floor. The beating didn’t stop until a crack rang out, not deafening like thunder, but as unremarkable as popping the joints in one’s fingers.
“I am a butcher,” Nandanna roars. She brings the sword across my right and I nearly topple trying to deflect it. “I am cruel. I am a tyrant.” Her blade hammers against my sword as if she is trying to break it. As I recover, she sweeps my feet with a kick and I drop. Before I hit the ground I start rolling but her blade grazes my shoulder. I raise my hand to strike before I realize that I’ve dropped my sword, and in an instant I am gripped in panic as she raises her sword again.
When we were young she had a way of turning each game into a brawl, and each brawl into a fight for your life. Was this any different? To my surprise, she tosses aside her sword. “I am all these things, if that restores the Uruk Dominion. I am nothing, if I fail.”
I push myself up and study her. Her eyes smolder threateningly. She reminds me of Father. I avert my gaze. She is not Father.
“Nothing’s really changed, has it? Remember the games I invented? Pounce? Oh, that was a good one.” The courtyard fills with Nandanna’s laughter.
“You made us play a different game once I started winning.” I notice behind Nandanna, Dakri signaling to me. Two servants appear to be serving her water. They turn and look me in the eye for a moment before disappearing through the entrance. They’ll be back soon, Dakri signals, then we strike.
Perhaps Nandanna noticed my expression souring. She looks intently at me and yet seems to look through me. “The others always called you Little Rat as if it were an insult, but I never understood why. Rats are not creatures to be feared or loathed. They are meant to be monitored, even controlled ,” Nandanna says. “Father once told me you could measure a ruler’s worth by how many rats infested his cities. The more negligent a ruler becomes, the greater their numbers. They predict the rise and fall of nations more accurately than any scribe’s ledger.”
Does she think she can control me? That I am her plaything? This rat has teeth. I take a deep breath and raise my hand to my chest. This is the first signal. Get into position. My heart starts to pound and I fear Nandanna will hear it echoing in my chest. “Did you kill our half-brothers and sisters? Do you plan to kill me?”
First Nandanna blinks, then her head turns ever so slightly, then she exhales as if she’s heard a distasteful joke. “I thought I taught you better.”
“I learn from my mistakes.” I remember each of their faces. Hopeful eyes, easy smiles.
“It is far easier to swing one sword than thousands.”
“Did you fear that those children would be able to overpower a brute like yourself?” Backing away, I lower my trembling hands. It’s as if the rattling in my chest has extended throughout my entire body.
Nandanna closes the gap between us and thrusts her face so near my own that our lips almost touch. “The Great Khan killed every woman who bore him children and he was beloved. What good will I have done if the unprepared and the untested are allowed to mount the Saddle Throne? They will be thrown from it, and the legacy of the Great Khan will have been squandered.”
“I don’t want philosophical ramblings.” I turn my head. Behind Nandanna, I see the servants return, five of them. Reavers in disguise. Dakri signals for me to move out of the way.
“I want to know what happened to those children,” I say. “Our blood.”
“Surely, someone as well versed in history and tactics as yourself can see that silencing a few future usurpers will save untold thousands of lives who would rush to support our opposition. Do those lives mean less to you?”
“How did you silence them?” It’s different, I remind myself. Those who pick up our enemies’ banners have consigned themselves to death. Zhaddi, Daya, the others—is there a chance they’re still alive? If so, could they one day rise against Nandanna?
“Does it matter? They are silenced.” Nandanna says. “Rataya, I may be the sister who wouldn’t share Father’s lap, but I also taught you how to fight. I was the one who taught you to be proud. I am many things now that I am Raja, but I am still your sister, and the daughter of Jahnu Khan.”
“I’m not sure who you are.”
“If you fancy yourself a warrior-scholar, Rataya, you must learn to not be so trusting of words.”
“You lecture me now?”
There is a flicker of movement at the edges of my vision, figures drawing closer. My Reavers disguised as servants approach, slowly pulling hidden blades free. They wait for my signal.
“Those were Ranqay’s words, not Dhatri’s.”
“What?” My fingers tingle as I raise them. More voices come from the entrance, rising in intensity. My Reavers’ expressions shift from focused to confused.
“I had my Durani spy, Ranqay, carefully plant that journal before I ordered you to raid that outpost.”
“You tricked me?”
“A test, not a trick. There are some lessons that can’t be taught.”
I blink at her, my face growing red. I lower my hand and gesture for the disguised Reavers to disperse. “What if I came here to avenge my siblings?”
“Then you are not the sister that I thought you were.” She speaks quietly, smirking.
“Both you and Ranqay have passed.”
Nandanna must have noticed me visibly slumping because she embraced me then.
I rest my head against her shoulder and she strokes the back of my neck just like Father used to do. I squeeze my eyes shut. Huddled together we are sisters. Something passes between us that requires no words. There is no Raja, no Dominion. Only two sisters.
When I open my eyes, Dakri is our only company in the sparring yard. Her hand reaches for the dagger in the back of her boot. I angrily flash a signal to her from behind Nandanna’s back. Her jaw tightens and the moon-shaped scar on her cheek turns into a tiny slit, but she stops.
I avert my gaze, hold Nandanna closer. The wind begins to pick up, stirring the sand around our feet. The tracks in the sand begin to vanish. Where our weapons once lay, small dunes have formed. Then I realize Dakri too has disappeared.
Illustration: Joel DuQue