Today I am a soldier. Brave, intimidating, ambitious. A general. My tent fills with the oily smoke of our lamps, the captains and strategists arrayed around me, planning dawn's battle. Their voices add to the ones only I can hear, boring into my skull.
A man with a crooked nose and a deferent manner intrudes. "My lord general? My lord, the king wishes to see you." I nod.
"Very well. I'll report to him immediately."
I push back from the table, trying to ignore the bickering of my companions. Too many, too many people talking. Too many thoughts, too many memories. They aren't mine. Mine got lost, abandoned long ago in the morass of voices, obliterated in a brilliant flash of light, tears streaming down my face for the first time in centuries, cracks--
crack, and smash, and a--!
in the morass of voices.
"M-my lord, the king is waiting." His nerves are beginning to show, despite his practice. Years of killing have both hardened and smoothed him, making him like a river-worn stone. But to kill a king is a fearful task, one to give even the greatest killers pause, and he is not the greatest.
I stand and make my way from the crowded tent, the crooked-nosed man close behind me. We have planned this day for months, he and I--a way to reclaim our kingdom. A way to atone for my king's crimes, our mistakes. A way to end this war. A way to power.
Not long now, we whisper, the chorus and I. Their thoughts mingle with mine, confusing what is real. nothing is real, justice is real nothing isjustrev enge isno t h i n g
revenge is justice.
The voices grow louder, screaming, hysterical. My hand snaps to my scabbard, grasps my hilt. The man behind me flinches at the sudden movement, but says nothing. My grip grounds me, pulls me back. Frightens the cacophony into a whisper. For now.
We make our way from the edge of camp--the border of what will soon become a battlefield--into the center. The air tastes cold. The wind is calm.
Breathe. It feels good to breathe.
The nervous laughter of the men around us pierces the night, stirs the chorus. They want revenge. They want justice. They want to die.
I shall grant their wish.
Only a look from me and the men guarding the king's tent let us through. No password--they will be punished for that. That is how the assassin managed to infiltrate us. Laziness. Lax security.
The man with the crooked nose is close next to me as the king turns, smiles, stands.
"Darren! You're here about the battle, I presume? How are the plans coming?"
"Quite well, your grace. Though there does seem to be disagreement as to the advantages of a flanking maneuver."
"Hmm, yes." The king frowns in thought. "On the one hand, a successful maneuver could decimate their forces and cut off their retreat into the mountains. On the other, it would be just like those damn heathens to have some kind of coward's trap prepared."
"My thoughts exactly, your grace. I was wondering if I might borrow your copy of War and Conflict. I think there's a passage in the third chapter that might shed some light on the issue, but I can't remember it for the life of me." The chorus giggles derisively.
"Certainly, I have it here somewhere..."
The king turns his back to us and unlocks the chest at the foot of his bed. I turn to the man beside me and nod.
With a silent whisper of feet and cloth he steps forward, drawing his dagger. In a swift, bold motion, he places his hand on the king's mouth and slits his throat, choking his screams. Not a sound is heard. The act is perfect; a master could not have done it better. It is the assassin's finest moment.
"Thank you, your grace," I will say. "I'll return this tomorrow--after our victory!" The man with the crooked nose, at heart a master not of death but of mimicry, will respond in the king's own voice, loudly enough for the guards outside to hear. We will exit the tent, make our way back to the edge of camp. The assassin will vanish. Just before dawn, when the king's body is discovered, we will call off the attack, negotiate a truce. The assassin will be rich, comfortable. He will retire, make an end of death. The war will be over. We will have peace. I will have the throne. It is what we've both dreamed of. It is what we agreed would happen. "Thank you, your grace," I will say.
I open my mouth wide and scream.
The assassin turns in shock, too late to stop me running him through. My scream, a wordless roar at first, turns to jumbled howls of rage and agony, echoing the mocking cheers of the chorus. The guards rush in, confused. Their lips move, shape sound into words, but they don't say a thing. The man dead on my blade says too much. They are all shouting. Too many voices in this tent, much too much too many.
"The king," I sob. "He's been killed." Pain is etched deep into every line of my face. The king was a good friend of mine. We were close. The pain surprises the guards, scares them. Like all humans, they fear the unknown.
I rip from the assassin and watch his screaming body fall to the floor.
"He killed him!" I say. "Those heathen bastards must have sent him here to kill him! I will make them PAY for this!"
I turn my gaze to the guards, turn my face from agony to fury.
"You--you let him get through. He should have given you the password. He should have been checked for weapons. You let the king die! This is your fault! I'LL KILL YOU!"
The first is down before he can scream, the second flees. I let him.
After a while, I recover my composure. Together, the captains and I decide to continue the attack. I volunteer to lead the first charge, to give courage to our men. To avenge the fallen king. My fallen friend. Tears stream from my face as I ride. My men and I maim and slaughter, wreaking terrible vengeance, and we fall. Vengeance begets vengeance. The assassin is traced, our own is sent. The war doubles, then doubles again. I die, and I die again.
I've heard that death is quiet, peaceful. Perhaps for some it is. When I die, it is only louder. Without sense or self, there are no distractions from the ceaseless noise until I come alive again. No matter--it can't be helped. Now they chatter, as ever, in anticipation. Insistent. Lonely. Eager to welcome me back with the silky, slice-smooth voices of ten thousand tiny shards.
Today I am a soldier. The war rages on, and we are losing.
Tomorrow I am a lover, a cheater, a liar, a killer. I am a pauper and a prince, a jailor and a judge, a sinner and a saint. Tomorrow the war rages on, and we will lose. The enemy will tear down our walls and set fire to our cities, and they will lose. The chorus will jeer and cheer and laugh and shriek, and they will lose. Slowly, with every death, with every loss, with every war...
I am victorious.