by Robert V.S. Redick
© 2018 Talos Books, New York, NY
Part One: Eternity Camp
BY THE THIRD DAY THE RUMOR CAN NO LONGER BE CONTAINED. It is whispered in the black tents, shared like smokes among the men on patrol, murmured in the drill yard before the bellowed morning prayer. It is weird and horrific and yet a curse no one can fail to understand. Someone’s mind has been stolen, and the thief still walks the camp.
The signs are innumerable. The Master of Horses finds two stallions lamed overnight. An armory clerk displays a broadsword twisted into a spiral like a blade of grass. A cook discovers worms thick as men’s fingers writhing in the belly of a well-roasted boar. And the Prophet’s eldest son has a toothache.
These calamities, and others shared over dawn biscuits or evening rubbish-fires or blazing midday marches, point to a single conclusion. The camp is under attack, and the assailant can only be a yatra, a spirit-thief, which as everyone knows can work dark magic from within its victim’s pilfered soul.
Kandri Hinjuman, Distinguished Corporal, smiles at this talk of possession, but the frowns of his fellow soldiers bring him quickly to his senses. The Prophet’s Firstborn! Nothing touching that family is a matter for mirth. The son’s toothache, moreover, has struck just hours after he announced the date of the spring offensive. And isn’t the boar his gift to the soldiers, in honor of the victories ahead?
Kandri tries to drop the matter—sorcery isn’t high on his list of preoccupations; they’re at war—but to his surprise, the hostile looks only multiply, as though he has crossed some threshold of recklessness. Finally, one evening after final prayers, a sergeant beckons him near.
“It’s not you,” he whispers. “It’s that half-brother of yours.”
“Mektu, sir?” Kandri jumps, startling the man. “What the hell has he done now?”
“Talk, that’s what,” says the sergeant. “He won’t shut up about the yatra, and he’s got the men scared to death. It’s the way he tells the stories. It’s the look on his face.”
Kandri understands the sergeant all too well, and that night he barely sleeps. In the morning, anxious and miserable, he prowls the camp until he locates his brother.
“You jackass,” he says. “You’ll get us killed, talking like that.”
They are behind a recreation tent on the camp’s southern perimeter; the air reeks of cane liquor and unwashed men. An impenetrable wall of fishhook-tree branches cuts off the view of the drylands beyond. It is very early: Kandri hears the flat, tireless tolling of goat bells as a herd flows around a corner of the thorn wall, and a child’s laugh, and the rising chord of the fiddler trees, aerial roots rasping one on another, singing home the little brown bats that roost in their arms.
“Us?” says Mektu.
“Of course us,” Kandri snaps. “The Prophet knows who our father is. She knows everything about the Old Man.”
Mektu raises an eyebrow, as if to say, Not everything.
Kandri shakes his head. “What a pig you are,” he says. “I hope they send you off to fight ghouls in the marshes. I'd do a dance, I swear.”
Mektu shakes his head. “You’d miss me. Everyone needs someone they can trust.”
Kandri can’t quite keep the smile off his face. Mektu laughs aloud, throws an arm over his shoulder, kisses his forehead. Kandri is laughing too, but perhaps he tenses at his brother’s touch, for Mektu abruptly releases him and steps back.
“You don’t believe me.”
He is a lean soldier with a spine that is never quite straight. His laugh has something of a horse’s whinny; his eyes meander like gnats. Kandri is shorter but more sound. He has bested Mektu often at wrestling and battle-dance, which are juried sports in the Army of Revelation. But he has also seen his half-brother drunk and brawling, and hopes never to fight him in earnest.
“How do you know it’s a yatra?” Kandri demands. “Bad things happen all the time.”
“That’s the proof,” says Mektu. “Each day’s worse than the one before. Betali thinks it was called out of the desert by a witch.”
“Betali’s a fool. And high before breakfast. Last week he said he was engaged to a goat.”
Mektu’s face darkens. “It’s here, brother,” he says.
“Then whose mind has it taken? No one knows. No one ever knows.”
“What if I told you I did?”
Kandri turns him a wry smile, but the look fades quickly into one of alarm. “You don’t really,” he murmurs. “Do you?”
Among the worst powers ascribed to a yatra is the ability to sense when it has been detected. To look out through stolen eyes, read the faces around it, and know who has guessed the truth. Such persons are doomed; the yatra will not rest until it kills them.
Mektu snaps a branch from the fishhook-tree fence. He draws his thumb over a long, savage thorn.
“You’ve never faced one,” he says.
Kandri bites his lips. He’s heard the stories, from the time before he came to live with Mektu and the rest of the family. Absurd stories, conflicting, intractable as weeds. How a yatra assaulted their little brother, the youngest, who still sleeps with a knife in his hand. Or was the target that spinster aunt, who set the orphanage on fire? Or their father, who rises, dresses, unlocks gates, walks for miles in his sleep? Or Mektu himself?
“There’s never any proof,” Kandri hears himself say. “I don’t believe the damned things exist.”
“Four cases last year.”
Kandri chuckles. Four rumored yatras in the world’s greatest army. All of them elsewhere, naturally: in some mountain division or wilderness fort, never here in Eternity Camp where the question might be settled. But perhaps this time it will be settled. The eldest son has a toothache, after all.
Then he sees the flash of red on Mektu’s finger, bright in the morning sun. “Never laugh at them,” says his half-brother. “They can’t stand it when you laugh.”
* * *
Many nights thereafter, in the wastes and hovels and palaces of Urrath, Kandri will lie brooding on the power of shame. What did he unleash, by laughing at Mektu then? If he had summoned more patience, if he had listened to his half-brother’s ravings a bit more generously, if he had simply kept his silence, everything might have been different. Even the murders, even that catastrophic night. His feet might have carried him elsewhere; he might never have glimpsed the crooked shack or heard the cries from within. He and Mektu might still be as they once were: unnoticed, invisible, far less than a footnote to this war.
Imagine that, he will think. To be ordinary, to be something the world overlooked. No one’s obsession, no one’s idea of evil incarnate, blood traitors, spears hurled with cold precision at the Gods.
* * *
That evening the brothers meet again. Kandri is in their unit’s dinner line, which snakes out of the mess tent and into the yard. The area is crowded with fighting men seated on stumps and makeshift benches, eating from tin plates and calabashes, waving away flies. Boys from the village hover about the edges of the yard, laughing and horsing around, waiting for the peels and bones and gristle their mothers will transform into soup.
Mektu steps from the tent and approaches him, wearing an odd little smile. “Bugger off,” he says.
Kandri scowls. “What the hell is your problem? You walked up to me.”
Mektu shakes his head. “They’re going to throw us at the Ghalsúnay again. Just us, the Eighth Legion, against the same pricks who cut us to ribbons two years ago. I meant Crol kira. Bug over, bugger out. You’re with me, aren’t you?”
His brother is still smiling. Kandri feels his blood run cold. He turns away, furiously composed, and walks straight out of the yard. Mektu is speaking of desertion, of bugging out. He has garbled the phrase in Kasraji, the world’s dying common tongue, but then helpfully repeated himself in the language of their clan, which nearly everyone in the army speaks. It is the act of a lunatic. Only your love, children, can light the way to Heaven’s Path, the Prophet teaches. Without that flame we are lost, all of us, and the world shall wither like a seedling in a cave. Love is compulsory. Even a dispirited sigh can mean punishment. Desertion means death by torture, live coals in the eye sockets, shards of glass down the throat.
Kandri smokes for an hour behind his legion’s stables, hiding from Mektu, squatting low on his heels. Dinner is over; he won’t get a crumb before breakfast. And tonight he will have to avoid the drinking areas. His brother will appear in one of them to play his allotted role in the camp, somewhere between daring eccentric and despised clown. It has always been the same with Mektu: the amusing stories, the elaborate jokes. The poetry committed to memory, lofty or obscene. The brilliant vocal impressions. Kandri’s brother can draw an audience just by opening his mouth.
But only a fool seeks attention in Eternity Camp. Before the yatra panic began, there was talk of a new and horrific loyalty test, conceived by the Prophet’s seers in the bowels of the Palace of Radiance, a means of distinguishing between the faithful and the false. Does such a test truly exist? And if it does, how would each of them fare?
I might pass, Kandri thinks. I might get that lucky. He would not.
For Mektu has a gift for saying the wrong thing. You can take him to a birthday party and count the minutes until he makes a child cry. At weddings, he is apt to mention the last woman the groom has slept with (“You’re a lucky girl, Chelli. Just ask Sukina.”) Kandri once dragged him to the hospital to visit their dying grandmother; Mektu lectured her about the dangers of sunstroke, and propositioned the nurse.
You could only shake your head. And find a way to protect yourself, of course. To help your brother without wearing him like a chain.
They are not close, Kandri reminds himself. They call each other “brother,” dropping the half-, and burn sage for their ancestors, and swap shirts on New Year’s morning like all brothers in the Chiloto clan. Yet what do such courtesies change? Blood means nothing, finally, and a man who pokes tigers with a stick will one day be mauled. You can take the stick away, but he’ll find another. Last week the Prophet’s youngest son, a boy barely into his teens, stabbed the village tailor and set fire to his shop. The old man had mended his vest with the wrong color thread. Sticks are everywhere. You have to walk about with closed fists or they will jump into your hands.
Master Assassins will be published March 6, 2018