In the war I had four names.
At that time the Western imperial army corps was still known throughout the provinces as the Legion of the Duchy. We in the Legion were the coronal, the elite; and among all the standing armies of the empire, there were none that could match us for sheer splendor. In my three years, I saw enlisted men with plumes over four feet high, glass cufflinks, and lapels trimmed in Dalmatian. I’ve seen cavalry ride against the enemy in white velvet and pearl, tasseled from top to toe in streaming golden braids. For minor battles, we wore scarves, or silk rosettes, over the embroidered livery of our patron houses. The gentlemen officers went about in the traditional wig-helmets: great, bowl-shaped iron helms, as wide as an arm-span, and sheathed over on the outer side with fine, curly lambs-wool. It was not then unusual for an officer to possess four such helmets for different occasions, as well as four suits of full battle armor, three suits of dining armor, three suits of ballroom armor, two suits of hunting armor, and a suit of Christmas armor. One would see these brazen giants conferring around a map at the center of the camp, blocking out the sun with their huge curly-haired helmets, in their imposing ruffs and codpieces, their beautiful slippers. Even in those days, however, we were beginning to modernize: and my unit was one of the first to use the new mechanical horses.
I served my three years in the 3rd Battalion of St. Portia, Order of the Bull, 2nd Hippo. Even by the standards of the Legion, it was a decorated unit. The 3rd Battalion was sponsored by the House of Burgess, which spared no expense for uniforms and accessories, and as such we had access to some of the finest fabrics in the entire war. Unlike many combat units, we experienced no shortage of satin, and never wanted for tiepins or hose. All of our unit’s regalia came in the Burgess house colors—maroon, tan, and delicate lavender—and was intricately stitched with the house’s devices and motifs, as well as the titles and epithets of the Burgess lords.
In the army, names are of the highest importance. The first task for any new recruit is to learn his names, and the set of mandatory protocols that each name signifies. Most of the enlisted men had only two or three assigned names, but there were some that had to remember as many as six. When I was in the war, my first name was Van Waal. Typically, this name would be used during tactical briefings, when the whole battalion would gather in the assembly hall. After explaining exhaustively, in great technical detail, all of the maneuvers we would be executing that day on the field, one or other of the buck-sergeants would at last turn to me, sitting quietly in the back row, and ask, in a significant tone, “What do you think of that, Van Waal?” Or sometimes they would say: “How does that plan strike you, Van Waal?” Or: “Any thoughts to add, Van Waal?” Although this may have appeared to be merely an offhand question, I knew that in truth it had been carefully plotted at the highest levels, and represented the strictest adherence to formal procedure. This was my signal to execute the protocol. In a flash, I would clamber up onto my chair, make a pouty face, and start swaying my hips. The buck-sergeant would then respond in the prescribed manner, by saying something like, “Get down off that chair, Van Waal.” At this point, I had to start wagging my finger, and making some high-pitched humming noises. Then I would get up onto the table, pursing my lips, and begin swatting myself on the bottom. By now, the other men in the battalion would be hooting and shouting, with loud exclamations of annoyance or fatigue. The buck-sergeants would turn purple, and sputter with rage, as I minced up and down the row. Swinging my hips, I would sashay down the line, kicking over piles of maps and charts, and tipping the men’s hats over their eyes, to make them fall asleep. “Get off that table this instant, Van Waal!” the buck-sergeants would shout. By this stage, it would be impossible for them to maintain order. Finally, they would give chase, still roaring at me to sit down, while I leaped from table to table, amid wild cheers and groans. Typically, the buck-sergeants would slip and fall on the loose papers, howling with fury, and I would dance on the tabletops, winking and curtseying. After that, the general scramble would soon escalate out of all control, and the briefing would dissolve in total disorder; at which time I had to flee the hall, blowing kisses at the pursuing mob.
I can only remember one occasion where this name was used during combat. It was the thick of battle. Myself, and some of the other men from the 2nd Hippo, were huddled in a trench, our capes and ribbons flicking in the wind. Mortars and cannonfire crashed overhead. Gusting smoke rolled over the battlefield. A few of us were wounded; our spirits were low. One of the buck-sergeants was in command of our unit. He was giving a passionate speech, bellowing over the din, to whip us up and steel our nerves enough to mount one last attack on the enemy. For almost twenty minutes he railed at us, huddled and bloody, using every appeal and tool of persuasion at his disposal. At last, his words began to have an effect, and by the conclusion of his speech we had mustered up the courage to go over the trench. With terse directives, the buck-sergeant sketched out an improvised plan of attack, using his bayonet to draw a map in the mud. We bandaged ourselves as best we could, and rallied to his strategy. At the last moment, when all of us had confirmed our orders, and were crouched and ready, awaiting the final command, the buck-sergeant looked at me, his face streaked with sweat and grime, and said, in a taut voice, “Anything to add, Van Waal?” There was a terrible pause. Suddenly, I stood up, put on a dainty face, and started making swishy movements with my hands. The men stared, with frozen expressions. “Get down, Van Waal, you’ll give us away!” the buck-sergeant hissed. I wagged my finger at him, then pranced down the trench, kicking up mud in the wounded men’s faces. Then I climbed out of the trench, and began doing a brassy strut. The buck-sergeant climbed out after me, his eyes bulging. I couldn’t hear what he was bawling over the deafening cannons. With shots whizzing all around, I flounced off into the battle, the buck-sergeant and his men in hot pursuit. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way their capes romped and played in the wind, as they chased me across the field, shaking their fists.
My second name was Farraday. Farraday was deadly. All of my sharpened military instincts, and lethal combat training, were concentrated in this name. The protocol was simple: I had to kill everybody around me, regardless of who they were or what uniform they wore, and I had to do it—and this is the important part—as quickly as possible. I never asked questions. I might be sitting in the dining tent with some other men from the battalion, eating my supper, when one of the buck-sergeants would approach me. “The colonel wants to see you, Farraday,” he might say. Immediately, I would scoop the carving knife off the table, and stab him directly through his ribs. Of course, when the other men at the table heard the buck-sergeant say, “Farraday,” they would usually jump up and try to run away; but I might catch a few of them, and stab them in the back. Or, if they were too busy to notice, I would seize them while they ate and cut open their throats. Then I might charge the cook and stab him in his armpit, kick over the pot, and start killing the men standing in the supper line. Or perhaps I would spring on a table of laughing men, with a mad cry, and thrust my knife into as many as I could. Before long, the other buck-sergeants would spy the commotion, and leap up from their chairs, with furious looks. People would be screaming, with blood in their hair and clothes. Someone outside would start ringing the bell. A few men might run up and try to grapple me; I would jump onto the table, and slash their faces if they got too close. The other men in the hall would be abandoning their meals, and running to take cover, shouting, “Farraday! Farraday!” Sometimes two of the bolder ones would climb onto the table and attempt to overpower me; with two quick stabs, they would fall down dead. By now the buck-sergeants would be boiling with anger, blustering senselessly and pulling out their hair. It was pandemonium. Soon, some janissaries in armored shirts, with pleated ruffles and lace stockings (Order of the Crow, 3rd Lemur), would come dashing into the tent, followed by a troop of drummer boys. The janissaries would surround the table, brandishing bayonets, while the drummer boys rapped out a quickening beat. Men hiding behind tables would start clapping their hands. With sweat breaking over my body, I would dodge and feint, my face wearing a grin of terror. Warding off the bayonets, I would await my chance. Then, when I saw that one of the janissaries was off balance, I would throw myself onto him, using my weight to bring him down. Once on the ground, I would drive the knife into his neck, as many times as I could, before the others fell on me. I would struggle and thrash while they pinned me down, still yanking on the knife, trying to extract it from the windpipe of the choking man. After that, I would be locked in a wooden crate, and kept for a while in the back of the stables. Men would jab sharpened sticks at me through the slats, while I hollered and raved. Sometimes I would be sick. In a couple days, I would calm down, and breathe quietly in the close darkness, listening to the mechanical horses creaking their brows.
The first several times this name was used, I killed only out of obedience to the protocol. I lost a good many friends because of this name: some because they were afraid to be near me, others because I had killed them. Still I knew that procedures had to be followed. But what was strange, was that, as time passed, the name began to provoke a violent turmoil inside me. After a year or so of following the protocol, I could no longer hear the name “Farraday” without becoming suddenly angry, and I would not be soothed until I had killed a few men. Even today, it is unpleasant for me to hear it spoken; and because of the war, I have lost all fondness for anyone named “Farraday.”
My third name was Lieutenant Nassing. For some reason, this was the only name I had that was favored with any rank; my other names, as a rule, were enlisted men. This name was associated with no habitual circumstances, and as such I had to be prepared for its use at any time, whether alone or in company. Sometimes it would happen when I was standing in line for the post, waiting to see if I had received any letters. One of the buck-sergeants might stroll past me casually, his thumbs hooked in his belt-loops, and tip his hat as he passed by, with a “Good afternoon, Lt. Nassing.” Immediately, a far-away look would come into my eyes, and my features would darken, as if from some grim reflection. Then I would turn on my heel, with a distracted air, and hurry at once back to my tent. There I would languish for the next several weeks, refusing to come out or speak to anyone. I would lay about on my bedroll, staring at nothing, and would not report to the field when the bugle sounded. If someone popped their head in to see what was keeping me, I would simply gaze through them, with deadened eyes. No matter who came to see me, I would appear, at all times, to be gazing at a distant and terrible nothing. Occasionally, someone might pity me, and bring me a meal from the dining tent; I would not acknowledge the food until after they had gone, and even then would only nibble a little, leaving the rest of the plate untouched. I would lose weight, and my splendid, martial appearance would deteriorate. I would no longer deck myself in scarves and lace. My face would become drawn and haggard; my eyes would take on a hollow intensity. Sometimes my hands would tremble, and I would mouth prayers to myself, soundlessly. When the buck-sergeants discovered that I was not reporting to the field, they would fly into a fury, and march directly to my tent. First, they would rage at me, in high color, frothing and fulminating, and when they saw that this had no effect, they would resort to threats and bribery: wheedling and cajoling desperately, until finally they were pleading on their knees. I would not even look at them, but would merely gaze with a weird gleam into the corner of the tent. After a while, they would leave, miserably defeated. And so I would find myself alone once more, and would lie perfectly still on my bedroll with a haunted expression. Days and nights would pass. During the day, I would only break from my listless state to write fevered letters home to my family and intimate friends, filled with incoherent and alarming sentiments, reckless despair and impassable gulfs of silence. These I would tear up later, in a fit of despondency. At night, I would have vivid and inexpressible nightmares. Sometimes I would awake suddenly, choked with dry sobs. Often I wouldn’t sleep at all. I would keep the lamp lit all night, with the flame guttering and the tent walls rippling, and shake, and swallow my saliva, and stare at nothing.
In this way, I was kept occupied for quite some time. Then, one day, after a month or two had past, I would emerge from my tent, groomed and shaven, in my fresh cuffs and lapels, and walk over to the dining tent to have my breakfast. I would nod, and chew, and tip my hat. Nobody would be much surprised to see me, and there would be no mention of Lt. Nassing. The protocol was completed. I would return to the field, and join the men in their maneuvers, exactly as if I had never been gone. The buck-sergeants would watch me with dreamy satisfaction. All would be as it was before. The only discernible difference, in the first couple weeks, was that it would take some time for me to return to my usual weight; and afterwards, perhaps, my eyes, if examined closely, might still betray a kind of hollow gleam.
My fourth and final name was Dallintober. This name was a secret of the highest security value, and was reserved exclusively for situations of absolute necessity. It was known only to myself, the buck-sergeants, and the lord officers. Though the buck-sergeants knew of this name, they were not allowed to use it: it could be used only by officers of the gentlemen class, and only after they had received the approval of the top levels of command; perhaps even the Imperial Court. When this name was used, it was necessary for me to leave the camp for a time; none of the other men knew what I was doing while I was away. It would begin like this: first, I would receive a summons to the general’s office. Two guards would show me in. The general, Lord Burgess, would be seated behind a desk, in a gargantuan wig-helmet, wearing a full suit of office armor. His desk would be buried under piles of documents, and stacks of dispatches, reports, briefs, and communiqués would carpet the floor. The walls would be papered over with charts, maps, and codes. I would seat myself in a small chair, and glance around slowly at all of these maps and memorandums. Usually it would take quite a while for the general to notice me behind the stacks. Then he would spend a long time shuffling through his papers, opening and closing folders, shifting piles, rooting through drawers, before finally surfacing with a slim folder marked PRIVATE. This he would pass over the desk to me. “We need your help, Dallintober,” he would say. Instantly my palms would begin to sweat. I would glance at the general, and then open the folder. Inside there would be a memo, addressed to Dallintober, which contained plans for an ambush on a nearby enemy encampment. “Be ready to leave at dawn,” the general would say. Gripping the folder in my hand, I would stand up quickly, and turn to go with a mumbled excuse, neglecting to salute. The general would leap up from his seat in shocked outrage, following my departure with piercing eyes. Back at my tent, I would pace back and forth, reading and rereading the memo. My mind would race. Hours would pass; night would fall. When the camp was dark and quiet, I would creep out of my tent. Skulking along in the shadows, I would make my way back to the general’s office. The guards would still be there; I would sneak up behind them and tip their hats over their eyes, to make them fall asleep. Then I would take their keys, and enter the office. Inside, there would be moonlight hovering on the walls. Kneeling in the darkness, I would open the rucksack I had brought along, and begin stuffing it with classified documents, maps, plans, codes, and communications. My heart would be pounding, and my mouth would be dry. When the rucksack was full, I would leave the office, locking the door behind me. Next I would sneak to the stables, and steal one of the mechanical horses. I would walk it quietly to the edge of the camp, and give a final glance over my shoulder, to make sure that I wasn’t being watched. Then I would climb on, and ride away. I would ride at an anxious clip over the dark plain, under the cover of leaden clouds. I would grip the reins tightly, and try to settle my mind into the rhythm of the horse’s gallop, its whirr and click. The plain would be flat, deserted. Sometimes I would see, off in the far distance, the figures of a scouting party (5th Battalion of St. Vastian); I would dismount, and lay the mechanical horse down in the grass, and lie down on my belly, so my silhouette would not be noticed. I would lie still until the party had receded from sight. Then I would ride on. The moon would disappear behind the clouds. After another hour, it would begin to rain. The rain would sweep and lash the plain. I would tuck the rucksack beneath my cloak, and pull the hood up over my head. The velvet would grow heavy with water. Soon, I would be nearly blind with the deluge, and the ground would be all washed out, and treacherous to negotiate. The mechanical horse would list, and groan, emitting small puffs of steam from its nostrils as it struggled for purchase. I would get turned around several times, losing my way, before finally sighting the lights of the enemy encampment. By the time I rode up on the camp, I would be soaked to the bone. Two Hussars with flintlocks would rush out to confront me. They would dash about under the pounding rain, barking incomprehensible commands and shaking their flintlocks at me threateningly, while my horse charged up and down in agitation, and I hollered, and pulled the reins, and waved a white cloth. After several minutes of agonized shuffling and jockeying, they would finally get me down off the horse, and bludgeon me right on the crown of my head, which always left a large goose-egg. Then one of the Hussars would stab his flintlock into my side, holding me prisoner, while the other ran back into the camp to alert his commanders. While he was gone, the first Hussar would search me, and take my rucksack. In a few minutes, the other would return, and they would bring me to a large, well-caparisoned tent.
Inside the tent there would be three Khans seated at a great table. They would be wearing amulets and tall, pointed cowls. After a moment, one of them would ask the Hussars which army I was from. My head would still be dazed from the blow I had received. I would tell them I had come from the Legion of the Duchy, 3rd Battalion of St. Portia, Order of the Bull, 2nd Hippo. Then I would beg them to open up the rucksack, and see what was there. One of the Hussars would bring it forward, and the Khans would lay it open gravely, and inspect the documents within. Their eyes would glitter as they sifted rapidly through the maps and papers. When they looked up again, they would begin to question me. I would tell them that my name was Dallintober; then I would tell them my other names, and they would listen intently as I described the protocols I had to follow. I would tell them where our base camp was located, and how many units we had. I would tell them the maneuvers we had been executing in the field. I would tell them that there was going to be a raid on their camp in the early hours of the morning, and I would show them the memo with the plans. Finally, I would tell them that I did not want to be in the war anymore, that I wanted to leave the Legion, and not return. I would ask if they could give me safe passage to a neutral territory. After hearing all this, they would look on me kindly, and gesture for the Hussars to release me. They would tell me to remove my soaking uniform, and then one of the Khans would wrap a heavy fur around my shoulders, scented with musk. They would pour me a cup of wine, to steady my nerves. I would weep. They would tell me to sit by the fire, and rest myself. They would call for a meal to be prepared. They would speak gently, and ask the flute boy to play me some music. They would proffer me gifts of powder-flasks, amber, and ceremonial weapons. One of the Khans would offer me his eldest daughter’s hand in marriage; she lived, he would say, in the mountains far to the east, by herself, and needed a husband. I would accept graciously, through my tears. Then we would dine together by the fire, and drink wine, and the Khans would question me further. I would tell them everything that I knew. At the end of the night, when they showed me to the tent where I could sleep, I would remember to remind them to expect an attack at dawn. They would assure me that their defenses were fully prepared, and that they would be waiting for the raiding party when they arrived. With that, they would bow and depart, and I would bed down in soft pelts, and fall immediately asleep, dreaming of distant mountains.
I don’t know how long I would be asleep. After some time, I would awake in confusion. It would still be pitch dark. All would be quiet. I would wonder if I had heard a noise. Then, as my eyes adjusted, I would see the silhouettes of several large figures standing around my bed. They would be wearing bulky armor and broad wig-helmets: it was the general and the lord officers. None of them would speak. I would stare at them, frozen; the silence was total. Suddenly, the officers would begin to hum, in a low, ominous tone. As I stared, they would start to wag their fingers, and do a kind of mincing high-step, prancing around my bed. I would lie perfectly still, my eyes blurring. The humming would get louder. Finally, when the dance had reached its peak, the officers would draw truncheons, and beat me there in my bed. I would roll onto the floor, covering my face, and they would continue to beat me. They would beat me about the head, and the back, and the groin, and the legs, until my mind was black. Then they would drag me out of the tent. I would scream aloud for the Khans, or the Hussars, but no one ever heard, and no one would come. They would load me into a wagon, and take me over the plain, back to our camp. There, I would be locked in a wooden crate, and kept for a while in the back of the stables. Lord Burgess and the other gentlemen officers would come by a couple times a day to jab sharpened sticks at me through the slats, and I would have to rage, and weep, and beg them to set me free. Days would pass. Finally, after a time, they would let me out, and inform me that the protocol had been successfully completed. I would be allowed to wash and bandage myself, and when I was cleaned up, the general would present me with a beautiful uniform of white chiffon, with a lavender sash. I would have been glad indeed to wear it, but I was not allowed to put it on, for I had to wear the livery of my own unit while on duty. None of the other men, of course, could see this white regalia, because then they would start to ask questions. The nature of my secret protocol could never be known. And so I would admire the new uniform in private, and feel the fresh-cut chiffon between my fingers: before folding it delicately, and locking it away in a trunk, with the others.
As I said, I served in the war for three years. During that time, I killed 150 men; all from my own side, I’m afraid. For much of that period, I remained in my tent, refusing to come out, and I regularly disrupted important briefings and strategy sessions. I defected and turned traitor, many times over. For my faithful service, I was awarded numerous medals and honors: including the Badge of the Emperor, the Duchesses’ Lace, the Golden Cuffs, the Wig of Valor, the Imperial Legionnaires’ Buttonhole-Rose (First Class), and the Hose of Hector. I was of that storied generation of Legion men, who were the last to see it at the height of its splendor and pageantry. Many have told me that I had a decorated career, and because of this, they imagine that I was a natural soldier. But to tell the truth, I did not much enjoy being in the army. It was a very confusing, and disorienting, time. Often, I felt estranged, from others and from myself. In the war, my actions were not my own; and I didn’t know who I was.
This story was published in an audio format for issue #24 of InDigest. We are presenting the full text here for the first time.