Storm from the East – Joanna Hathaway

War is not the story of generals, or even of kings. The sniper learned this long ago, that it is the smallest and most forgotten—by the ink headlines, by the march of history—who comprise its greatest ranks. Which is why she kneels, now, beneath an open window, the cool steel of her rifle wedged between shoulder and collarbone, the world before her partitioned by two perfect cross hairs. There is power in her hands. Feverish morning sun dampens skin, muscles cramped against hard floorboards, curtains drawn to hide her within their shadow. She peers through her glass scope at the military outpost far below, at the sandbag-protected encampment stirring to life with a dozen friendly shouts and foreign cigarettes. These men are lonely, easy. Dull. Festooned with badges that make them believe their story is the most glorious one. They don’t care that their mothers wear stolen diamonds sifted from streams by nameless, bone-tired peasants. They don’t see the rivers stained red by the plundered copper used in their ammunition and aeroplanes, the children and animals left with poisoned water on thirsty tongues. And they’ll never understand how this land once was long ago—fertile with fruit and crops and dreams. Yet still they come. Conscripted, perhaps, or compelled by misplaced patriotism, constructing their reasons along the way. And she has done the same.

The young man behind her mutters, “Which one first?” That’s always the question. Which one. But to determine that, she needs to follow the evidence, find the right path, study their strange rhythms piece by piece. Through her rifle scope, she can see that the commanding officer wears a wedding band, gold flashing in the sun as he writes his reports. Another soldier has shoulders too narrow to be declared old enough for war; his friend, too many grooves in the face to be young enough. Still another is fishing cigarettes from his pocket like they are desperate jewels, oblivious to the deadly streets around him. To the death breathing at his neck. “The one who’s most innocent,” she replies, her index finger warming the curve of the trigger. She hears her comrade grimace. She knows her rules make no sense to him—never have—but he doesn’t understand the meticulous nature of this pitiless job she commands, the way she must study each living corpse, the way she must decide how it will happen.

He only fires and runs. Fires and runs. But she? She inspects death straight in the face, guarantees it even, and so, the most innocent should go first. No time for panic, for fear. Grit cakes her parched throat as she studies the olive-clad figures. They can’t see her. They wouldn’t see her, even if she stood a foot from them. She is, in their eyes, a girl erased. A girl smudged from the map with a single formal decree, then traded—along with two hundred thousand others—for a few invisible border lines, deemed a worthy sacrifice by someone behind a faraway desk. Over the years, she’s been marched through heat, snow, rain.

She’s been ordered to sleep in this tent, then walk to that camp, then to wait only one more year, and always they dangled the hope of “home” before her like a mirage. But at the end of it all, she’s learned she’s only one thing to the men writing the headlines, and that is this: a nameless girl. Only one girl of many, many, many. “Sinora,” her father said to her, the morning he was jailed for simply trying to feed his four children, “your name means ‘ever proud,’ and don’t you think I chose that for a reason?” No. She didn’t think he had, nor did she feel terribly proud. Not for a long time. She remembered, faintly, the little farm they’d once had, the memory of her father very young, bespectacled, leading her through a garden of sage and jasmine, among trees of tender apricots. Her hands touching fieldstone walls bursting with violet capers. But those gentle reflections are long gone, replaced by the day she faced a pair of sweaty, puerile soldiers who stole her favourite horse and threw rocks at her, who kept her father in prison simply because they could, and who reminded her—in every way they knew how—that she was expunged from the only story that mattered. Their story.

The remembered one. But in the end, they failed at their game, because after she left them she was still on her feet, still standing, and she vowed that never again would anyone take from her that which she did not willingly give first. She was above them all—they simply couldn’t see it yet. She is truly above them now, crouched in this window, the sun pressing high, and her comrade shifts closer, his strong arms braced against the peeling wood. Though she doesn’t glance left, she can imagine him leaning there. Perspiration dripping from sleeves rolled to his elbows, across defiant tattoos and fair skin. “Just pick one,” he says, impatient. He is always impatient. With the world, with her, but she remains fixed on her scope. “If the right one is here,” she replies, “I could end this forever.

Chase them back across the sea in shame.” “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” There’s a grin in his voice, a wry taunt, the familiar way they always push each other—back and forth, back and forth—and she thinks, I have one hundred and eight kills with this rifle. I am far, far closer to my victory than you are to yours, Dakar. Because every single one of her bullets is building a new story, growing bolder, inching her to the top of their high command—these generals and kings and monsters. These arrogant conquerors. It’s only a matter of time, and he’s the only one who understands this relentless strategy she clings to, who knows what it’s like to have the taste of revenge coating your tongue every minute of every day, to despise fate for setting up this world of impossible imbalance, because he, too, has been erased. He, too, has learned how to rewrite himself into the margins of history. Though for him, she suspects the margins are only the beginning. She drags her rifle left, to the low-ranking soldier still fishing in his pocket, his focus distracted, his smile small.

She finally sees it’s not cigarettes at all, but a baby bird tucked away. The young soldier—hardly older than her—feeds the tiny creature faithfully. There’s the first, then. The one deserving the quick, merciful death, and she shifts, nearly imperceptible, sensing her comrade’s familiar smile. It slips across her own lips in reply, the sort of smile that only two survivors can share at the prospect of action, at rebellion in the face of the powerful, a cold relief that billows up from somewhere in the hollowness of their insides. They are equally nameless—but, in the end, they will win. Because she knows the true secret to victory. She learned it the day her father had his little farm of tender apricots stolen out from under him: that if you take a man’s pride, you take his life. Death of a different kind. A quiet draining of the will to live.

Cut by cut by cut. And now she will return the favour, bringing the twin furies of justice and revenge together in the sight of her faithful gun, burning away all guilt, a story which will be told eternally in four sharp flashes. This time I take, Sinora tells the world, and you will remember it. She pulls the trigger. I GOD OF WAR 1 AURELIA ISENDARE Etania Our palace is sharp with autumn’s chill. The boilers in the cellar hiss to life, radiators ticking in every parlour corner, but creeping cold still permeates the arching halls of home. A wintry breath snakes between double doors, jeweled chandeliers, marble alcoves. The high ceilings and endless rooms swallow warmth, hearth fires burning brightly in defiance. My mother is as defiant as the flames. She sits at her mahogany desk, dressed in a wool coat trimmed with ermine, and I stand at her left shoulder, seeing every twitch of breath in the slender expanse of her throat.

It’s the only thing that belies her calm. Beyond the large windows, the faithful mountains rise, their peaks gone brown, spindly leaves clinging in scarlet patches. Lord Jerig places a white paper on the desk. “Your Majesty. Let justice be dealt.” He waits obediently before us, as do the other men of her Royal Council, and even her brother, my uncle Tanek. A little herd of men hungry for retribution. From where I am, the decree is easy to read. A simple paper, with elegant script. Ink words holding death.

“For betraying Etania, the kingdom of our true hearts, and aiding in the coup against Her Majesty, forsaking the honourable legacy of His Late Majesty Boreas Isendare—who, in good faith, crowned Her Majesty to rule until our Prince is of age—the following shall forfeit their life in payment for their shameful crime.” It’s only been two months since that awful night when these men attacked my birthday masquerade, a fragment of our own people revolting against us and claiming my mother murdered my father for the Etanian throne. It’s still fresh, still frightening inside, and sometimes I catch myself counting the steps to each door or window in a room, scouring for an escape—anything to get away from the clatter of bullets, the plumes of smoke rising into the night sky. Something deep within me has been left small and fearful. I want this over. I want this hateful thing ended forever. And yet, I can’t stop reading the names on the paper. Twenty-five names. Elegant, precise, dead. Mother tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.

The raven black is twisted into a regal chignon, but another cut of grey strikes the dark. “Yes, let justice reign.” Her firm voice lilts with its lovely Southern accent. She scrawls her looping signature, the first from our family. My father, the late king, worked hard to ensure the death sentence was a laborious verdict to pass. He didn’t believe in handing out death like God. My mother, in only eight weeks, has undone that. She introduced a new law to the Council—“guilt by absence”—and they voted in quick favour, the entire kingdom left shaken from that night. We don’t have the true culprits who plotted this treason against us, only the secondary men who are either too fiercely loyal to confess where their orders came from, or too fiercely threatened into silence by their superiors. But now they will hang regardless, bearing the guilt of their absent leaders.

Mother kept only one of Father’s rules. The one that says each royal must agree before life is taken, each royal signature on the warrant. So, here we are. I’m next, and I know what they all see—a seventeen-year-old princess, the perfect reflection of her foreign-born Resyan mother with a flicker of traitorous doubt on her face. I can’t hide it. Guilt slips between the cracks as I read those names. They’re real people, with families and homes and hearts, and while I despise them for what they did, for trying to hurt my mother and shattering the sanctuary of my home forever, I also don’t want to take life again. Once was enough. Mother looks over her shoulder at me, and there’s gentle prodding in her eyes. We’ve discussed this too many times over the past month, the importance, she says, of making this decisive statement, so no one will ever try to steal from us again.

I don’t want to disappoint her. I don’t want to imagine how she would look at me if she knew the truth, what I’ve already done. I reach for the fountain pen and sign. Jerig offers an indulgent smile at me—his tiny moustache spiderlike above thin lips—then slides the paper to Renisala, who stands at my left. My brother’s signature is the one they’re truly waiting for. Their nineteen-year-old prince who is mere months away from his crown. They’ve heard his eloquent speeches denouncing this severe sentence, this abject rejection of everything Boreas Isendare stood for. But my brother has been overruled by fear—and our mother. He had no choice but to surrender to popular opinion, and now he stands on Mother’s other side, the picture of everything noble, uneasy at the prospect of executing men for simply believing an idea. His dark hair is brushed smooth, his hazel eyes fixed on the paper.

His hand rests against his tailored suit, unmoving. Jerig shifts awkwardly, glancing at the Council, and Mother turns to face Reni. The clock has the nerve to tick rather loudly as my brother continues to stare. Somewhere down the hall, a muffled radio address talks of peace, glorious peace, since Savient’s war in Resya has been denied. The Safire Commander’s impossible claims against my mother’s homeland—“the Resya problem” as they call it—were soundly overruled by the Royal League’s verdict this summer, and surely reason and good sense will overcome these trying times, lead everyone to a brighter dawn of trust and reconciliation. Peace for all. Before us, the death warrant still taunts. “Your Highness,” Jerig begins uncomfortably, then stops. What is there to say to a prince who defies his queen? Reni’s eyes lift, but they don’t settle on Jerig, or Uncle, or even Mother. They look beyond the flock of men, to the oil painting hung above the gilded bronze of the crackling hearth.

It’s our royal ancestor, Prince Efan, waging his victorious battle for the North, centuries ago. Kneeling in silver armour, Efan holds his helmet in humble acceptance of his divine victory. His regal face is lit by three rising suns, and his black stallion sprawls on the ground nearby, arrows poking from its chest and hind. Earlier this morning, Renisala looked at me across our breakfast tea, and asked, “Do you think you can dream your own death, Ali?” It was the strangest question he’d ever uttered. One that came, seemingly, from his musings over the history of Efan—a prince who once foresaw his fabled victory, every detail of it envisioned, from the flame-tailed horse to the three suns. Over the past month, my ever-pragmatic brother has developed a habit of waxing philosophical about the nature of fate, and it’s a surprise to everyone, since he’s always been more inclined to simply take what’s his. Perhaps he’s kept this under lock and key for all these years, only now, at last, tapping into the full realm of the deep spirit Father left him. Weighted with responsibility, longing to imbue everything with some shred of nobility. I feel obligated to be firmer. I have no patience left for myth.

I nudge Reni’s foot with my own, behind Mother’s chair where no one can see, and his gaze shifts to mine. The storm of regret churning there mirrors the one I’ve hidden from sight. My sweet, sweet brother. All of his rules and reasons can’t save him from the true weight of taking life. It’s final—it hangs over your soul like a shroud, an endless bruise that throbs with sudden words and thoughts and even the way someone says your name. Cheerful, because they don’t know the blood on your hands. It’s hell, forever. But still I nod at him, because Mother knows best, and today, justice must come. His shoulders straighten. “I’m sorry,” he says regally.

“I simply wanted to read the names again.” “I’m sorry.”

.

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