Big Echo

Critical SF

Ruin’s Cure

by Vajra Chandrasekera

Read an interview with the author

The young prince sat astride his war elephant like a mahout, thighs aching, arm stiff from the weight of the spear. His grand army was making slow progress up the northern ridge, the rumble of thousands of feet and hooves and wheels deafening. They had been marching for hours today already, and morning had broken.

Somewhere over that ridge, perhaps another half-day’s march away at most, would be the enemy army, and their legendary old king. The last enemy.

“Final boss coming up. It’ll be a famous victory,” the historian shouted across. “Don’t worry about it.”

The historian said this often. The historian said many confusing things. He drove a two-horse chariot, expertly controlling the reins with one hand and staying close at the prince’s side. He had earned that right, and the trust of the prince and his court besides, through years of sage advice that bordered on the miraculous. Everyone else called him the strategist, especially now with all the tremendous successes of the great campaign of conquest, but he insisted that the prince, at least, call him the historian. It was his rightful title, the historian would say, and laugh in a way that suggested that this was a joke.

The prince humoured him in this, as he did the historian’s many eccentricities. The man was a political and military genius, well worth a little tolerance. His strangeness was widely ascribed to his being foreign, though the exact nature of his foreignness was difficult to pin down. In appearance he was unremarkable; he would pass without notice in this army of southerners just as easily as he would have in the enemy northern army. He didn’t have the look or the accent of the Golden-Landers across the eastern sea, nor those of the traders from Aksum over the western. He was a dark-skinned man darkened further by years in the sun, old enough to have grey in his hair, his beard not as neat and his clothing not as fine as they should have been given his rank. The historian had become more of a sloven over the years, the prince realized, glancing across at the older man again. The change had happened so gradually as to be imperceptible. Perhaps the strain of organizing this war was telling.

“Are you worrying?” the historian called. “Don’t worry. This will go like clockwork.”

The strangest thing about the historian, the prince thought, was not his appearance, which was entirely unremarkable apart from … something indefinable, but his speech. He spoke the language with perfect fluency but had an accent that neither the young prince nor anybody else in the court could place, and the historian delighted in frustrating their guesses at which village he’d grown up in. He didn’t sound like a southerner—he lacked the drawl characteristic of most of the prince’s court—but he didn’t sound like he came from the mountain kingdom or any of the northern kingdoms or from among the hunters or the traders. He didn’t sound like someone who’d learned the language later in life, either. And worse, his speech was full of nonsense that he insisted were actual words, not even in a different language most of the time but in their own, even if nobody else had ever heard them. Like just now. And then, typically, he wouldn’t explain what they meant, or his explanations would be so confusing that people would just stop asking questions.

“What the fuck,” the young prince shouted back, giving it a try despite knowing he wouldn’t get a straight answer, “is an oralosu?”

The historian shrugged. “A sundial at night,” he shouted. “A mechanism of precision. Tick fucking tock. Don’t worry about it. I’m translating an idiom badly and anyway horologes are a long way downstream.”

In his right hand at all times—even now, driving his chariot one-handed—the historian held a squat black object that he claimed had religious significance, though it didn’t resemble the iconography of any known god. Perhaps a lingam, but flattened. The historian was almost never seen without it. If questioned, he claimed to have made a vow, as if this explained anything. It was obviously a blessed divine object, because sometimes the historian would bow his head before it and the smooth blackness would be replaced by the glitter of jewels. Once the young prince—when he was much younger—had asked the historian the names of his gods, and the historian said “More like project managers, but in practice I’m not sure you’d see the difference.”

The young prince hadn’t asked for explanations then, because he’d learned to recognize the historian’s moods, and every moment of apparent openness was accompanied by a surly, mocking undercurrent. There was a clue in the unknown words themselves, though, because they were surely in another language, with their crisp alien consonants. But though the young prince had over the years repeated those words to the most learned monks of the Noble Order, to scholars and travelers from many courts and far lands, to envoys and traders from distant kingdoms, none of them could so much as identify the language.

The sun climbed slowly into the day. They halted for a rest and dismounted to eat and drink. The young prince still held his spear, though his grip was slipping with sweat. The historian insisted he needed to have it at hand, saying that battle would come upon them fast when it happened—very soon, the historian assured—and the young prince would have to make a fateful throw of the spear to defeat the enemy king.

“The cruel young prince defeats the wise old king with a fateful cast of his spear and unites all the kingdoms of the shining land,” the historian said. “That’s what the books say—that’s why I’m here. Don’t worry, we’ll get it just right this time.”

“Am I cruel?” the young prince asked. “I don’t think I’m so cruel.”

“You’re kind of median cruel,” the historian said, making a hand gesture the prince didn’t understand. “I guess you’re normal? Kings are cruel. Don’t worry about it. Some ostentatious piety and infrastructure projects after the war will sort it out. The real aberration in history is the wise old king, our great enemy. It’s the virtuous who are impossible to work with.”

The historian was chattier than he’d ever been, which heightened the sense that things were changing, coming to a crisis. The young prince leaned the spear against his shoulder, squatting. He’d drunk water but he was thirsty again. He felt dried out from the inside. “I’ve heard the stories. The wise old king’s court is perfect and serene, his judgement is always fair, he respects the gods, the law, and the Noble Order. The people love him.”

“That’s why I’m here,” the historian said, reassuringly. “Rest assured, my prince, after we kill him, you will be the greatest king in the history of the shining land. You will be the the first to unite all the kingdoms and make the Noble Order a true power in the realm, for which they will love you forever. They write the first history books, so that’s important. Your name still rings out ninety generations from now. Your name is a big part of how we put a modern nation together after the long European occupation, you know? Rulers are elected by just saying your name enough times. Funding is plentiful for fieldwork, too. The Crosstemporal Grants Commission loved my proposal, did I tell you that? The archaeologists are pissed because it means inconsistencies in the record and the physicists are annoyed about the paradoxes, but everyone else agrees—history is better when we can hold its hand. History is better with a small army of field researchers guiding its grand narratives into the ruts we already wrote for them, rather than whatever inconvenient randomness may have actually happened the first time around. I co-authored the original paper arguing for this policy, so that’s why I get to be the one who works with you.”

“I—what?”

“Never mind. The important part is that you are remembered for ages upon ages to come. Focus on that and don’t let that spear out of your sight. And please don’t miss this time. It takes me years to get us back to this day and I’m too old and too tired to go around again.”

The army was back on the move. The young prince decided not to get back on the elephant. The historian was scandalized.

“Look, you keep saying how important it is not to miss, and you’re the one who knows all the movements and the timing,” the young prince argued. “So I’ll ride with you and you can keep me updated and I have to worry about aiming only. You can be my charioteer. Like in the song. I’m like Arjuna and you can be what’s-his-name.”

The historian groaned. “Fine. This is going to take some explaining in the report. My supervisor is real big on authenticity, you know?”

“Isn’t authenticity whatever I do today?” the young prince said, smugly. Years of listening to the historian ranting had left him armed with some vocabulary after all.

“You—but—fine. Stand there.” The historian fussily placed the young prince to his left so that the spear wouldn’t knock the sacred black lingam out of the historian’s hand—it was glittering with lights again, and the historian must have felt the need for the blessing of his gods and project managers because he kept glancing at it every few moments.

The march resumed. This was, the historian kept saying, definitely going to be the last major battle. After the young prince defeated all the lesser baronies and won the grueling siege of the fortress city, the wise old king had only his capital city left for a stronghold, and soon they would meet his army coming out in its defense. This was what the historian called the climax.

It was easier to talk in the chariot. The young prince switched the spear to his other shoulder—his collarbone was starting to ache from its weight—and brought up something that had been bothering him. “You said the virtuous are impossible to work with.”

The historian laughed. “The virtuous are useless. Too much principle, too unbending. We have a similar problem four hundred years downstream with a saint-king who’d rather sacrifice himself than use violence against anybody else. He keeps cutting his own head off at the slightest moral dilemma. We keep bringing him back, but I think he’s not going to be a fixable part of the narrative. Lost cause. He’ll have to fade into fable.”

“It’s difficult to imagine that a descendant of mine would end up like that,” the young prince said.

“Oh, he’s not yours,” the historian said. “Your dynasty—the House of the Victorious—only lasts another couple of centuries. Then the House of the Long-Ears takes over. The saint-king is one of theirs.”

“All this fighting and my house ends just like that?” The young prince sighed. “And to be replaced by a house with a ridiculous name?” It was because of revelations like this, he remembered now, that he preferred to avoid conversations with the historian.

“Dynasties aren’t important,” the historian chided. “The nation is important.”

The word the historian used meant caste but he seemed to be using it in a different way, and the young prince decided not to ask.

“You said there will be a long occupation,” the young prince said, instead. “You’ve spoken of it before. Kingdoms from the far northwest. Roman? Seleukidon?”

“Further away, further downstream,” the historian said. “The occupation destroys our continuity—our sense of knowing our own history and being a part of it. Centuries go by. Generations grow up knowing nothing of ourselves except what they tell us, and they tell us so many things. So when the occupation ends, we have to make up a new narrative about who we are, and who you were. We know a little bit about you because of the surviving records of the Noble Order, so we make our narrative all about you. One thing we never unlearn from the occupation is the idea that you and the wise old king belong to different nations, and that’s why this battle matters so much to us. It’s the first and most iconic example of a battle between—”

“Are you saying castes?” the young prince asked. “Because we’re both royal caste, so I don’t see—”

“No, the word changes downstream. It means a reason to go to war that doesn’t rely on allegiances to different royal houses. ”

The young prince shrugged. “Warmaking becomes complicated, does it?”

“No,” the historian said. He looked older, suddenly, the strain visible as if every wrinkle on his face were actually a still-unhealed scar. “It becomes easier.” He glanced up at the prince’s red banner flying above his chariot: the raging beast with the sword, underneath the sun and the moon.

Not long after, as promised, battle was suddenly upon them. The front lines clashed and conches boomed over the din to warn the rearguards. The sky thickened with arrows and the day’s first screams of the dying. The young prince thought at first he was mistaken out of eagerness, but the screams stretched on and the clashing of weapons didn’t end when he blinked and shook his head clear of dreams of distant histories and wars yet to come. This was the war he’d come to fight; this was the war the historian had prepared him for. If his role in history was to create a legacy to be remembered for so many generations, the young prince thought, it was a glorious role. He was ready to be proud of it.

When his moment came in the confusion of battle, it had been prophesied so long, and he had imagined it so thoroughly, that the young prince felt deeply unfulfilled as he lifted the spear to a ready position. It was as if the moment’s reality had been long since leeched away by too much talk and dreaming. He struggled to bring himself back into the here and now—to his arms, burning under noonday sun and from the weight of the spear.

The historian swerved the chariot to a halt, shouting instructions, as the field of battle briefly cleared between them and the wise old king in his royal war chariot. The young prince couldn’t make out the old man’s features, but his banner was clear. The historian’s chariot was awkwardly situated on the slope so the young prince leapt to the ground and sprinted a few steps away to get a clear throw. He planted his feet, swiveled his hips and flung the spear with all his strength. It flew uphill directly at the vulnerable throat of the wise old king, but then the historian’s chariot lurched into sudden life and hurled itself into the path of the spear, which plucked the historian from his vehicle and bore him down to earth, the reins snapping as they were torn free from his left hand and his sacred black lingam flying out of his right. The young prince thought of broken vows.

The wise old king had already moved away from them, further down the field and lost to sight. He had not noticed the attack on his life.

When the young prince reached him, the historian lay on the ground, impaled through the stomach with the spear, which rose like a flagpole over the battlefield, where the sounds of battle all around them were more deafening than ever.

“Sorry,” the historian said, bloodily. He waved as if beckoning. “I just—well, we got here to the moment and I thought about all the things we spoke about and I found my mind changing under me. Thought we’ll try it the other way just this one time. Don’t worry about it. Listen carefully—”

The young prince leaned over to hear better and the historian cut his throat with a single slash of a hidden knife. The young prince was dead before he fell.

The historian turned his head, looking around on the battlefield. With the wise old king still alive and directing the course of battle, the tide was turning. Or was it? The historian tried to reach his phone, but he was pinned to the earth. His struggles only dredged wings in the mud around him.

“It hurts less now,” the historian lied, trying to read the future in his entrails.