Lunthea Maly, the Fragrant Flower, the Shining Jewel of the East, mourned for its deceased emperor as it never had before.
Not that Molthisok-Khemkhaeng Niran was a particularly well-liked leader (in fact, he had raised taxes to their highest in centuries.) No, Lunthea Maly did not mourn for him. The people mourned for what they viewed as the loss of their powerful status among the Eastern countries and those of the continent. They mourned for their sudden deficit in leadership – for the new emperor was merely nine years old. On top of that, he liked funny clowns and had a pet peacock. Oh, how far the great have fallen!
However, the new emperor, Khemkhaeng-Niran Klahan, was not particularly concerned about his empire. He knew he was too young to rule properly, but his father had taught him more than anyone could suspect, except, perhaps, for the emperor’s pet peacock.
Said peacock had been invited to every meeting between young Klahan and his father. Niran had laughed, but his son had refused to allow the peacock to be sent away. So it stayed. Klahan depended on the peacock to be his constant companion, so therefore, his uncle, Sepertin Naga, had arranged for the peacock to be sent away. He did not believe pets to be a great asset to an emperor’s reign.
But Klahan had stubbornly smuggled his peacock away in his private chambers (which consisted of forty-two rooms, elaborately gilded and decorated in the style of the Far East.) Unfortunately, peacocks do not like being shut up where no one can see their glorious plumage, and this peacock was no exception.
“Klahan,” it complained one day in the voice that none but the emperor could hear, “I can’t bear being stuck here for a single more day. I demand that you let me out!”
The emperor sighed, quite a sad noise for one so young. “I told you, Bangat, my uncle doesn’t even know you’re still here!”
The peacock sniffed, which included a sneeze-like sound and a shake of his magnificent tail. “You’re the only one who can tell me apart from the other peacocks. Just let me go free with them.” Bangat did not add that he detested the other peacocks, vain, mute things that they were.
Klahan shut the book he had been reading with a thump, since it was quite a heavy book. “My uncle knows things that you don’t know he knows,” he said. “I think he might even suspect the location of Ay-Ibunda, the Hidden Temple.”
Bangat squawked. “Impossible!” he cried. “It lies on the Emperor’s Path!”
“Nevertheless,” Klahan replied, his eyes dark and wise, “he might know. And I cannot risk you getting sent away. You have taught me more about what it means to be a leader than even my father.”
Preening his colorful feathers, Bangat pretended that he had not heard this last compliment, which, of course, he had. “I’ll blend in, I promise you. Have I not done so for the last thousand-few years? I have spied on the minions of the Mherking; I have hidden in the shadows of even He Who Walks Before the Night. Do you doubt that I can remain unseen in the gardens of Lunthea Maly?”
Klahan opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment someone knocked on the door.
“Are you in there, O Great One?” a silky voice asked, though its smooth tone was undercut with a sharp, razor edge.
With a gulp, Klahan scooped the peacock up, ignoring his attempts to get away. “It’s my uncle!” he hissed. “Get out the window, hurry!”
Bangat obeyed without protesting, though later he would question this. He obeyed no man save one. Hopping through the window, he spread his useless wings and landed, hard, in the thorny rosebushes, which had not bloomed since before Molthisok-Khemkhaeng Niran’s reign. With a curse of “Dragons’ teeth!” he rolled out of the bush and ruffled his mussed feathers.
Voices drifted through the window. “Was that your voice I heard earlier, dear nephew? Whom, may I ask, were you talking to?”
“I wasn’t talking to anyone,” Klahan responded, his voice once more calm. “I was practicing my dictation out of my book over there.”
Heavy footsteps marched across the floor, and then Sepertin Naga said, “Greatest Sonnets of the Bard Eanrin?”
“Yes. His verses offer a wide scope for different types of speech.” His voice changed to a lilting cadence, made sweet by his childlike soprano. “O Gleamdren fair, I love thee true—”
“I quite understand,” Sepertin Naga interrupted, his voice a snakelike hiss. “Make sure you are prepared for your coronation tomorrow. I believe we have secured a number of funny clowns, as you requested, Glorious One.”
“Excellent,” Klahan said, upset but unruffled by the interruption. “You may go now.”
The emperor’s uncle bowed, but asked one more question: “Why is your window open, nephew?”
For the first time, Klahan’s confidence wavered. “You do not need to know the answer to that.”
“As you command.” Bangat heard the footsteps once more, but they receded soon into the distance.
“Bangat?” Klahan called, though he did not look out the window. His voice trembled a bit as he said, “Perhaps it would be best if you stayed outside for the night. He might come back.”
“Very well. I agree with you,” Bangat replied. “Shall I see you at the coronation?”
“As long as my uncle does not see you, you shall.”
“Good.” Bangat gave his feathers a last preen, then, satisfied with their sheen, strutted off as only a peacock can. He did not hear Klahan’s shuddering breaths, nor did he see the shine of tears upon the boy’s face.
“Be safe, Bangat,” Klahan whispered to the room, which now appeared forlorn to his lonely eyes. “Stay hidden.”
“ELEPHANT!” cried the mad jester, spreading his arms wildly. “My name is Leonard of the Tongue of Lightning! Why are the trees pink and dripping frogs?”
More like Leonard of the Tongue of Nonsense, Klahan thought, but his solemn mouth quirked for a second.
The jester seemed to notice this, with eyes quicker than they should have been, considering that he was a brainless idiot. “The cheese fell!” he shouted. “Cake parties make Eanrin of Rudiobus eat spiders and lizards greet clouds at night!” So saying, he began dancing quite madly and singing in some strange Westerner tongue, which made no sense to even those who spoke that language. And after the jester vowed to eat the crowd, the emperor laughed.
In fact, everyone in the hall laughed, following their emperor’s lead, including Sepertin Naga, who did so with a murderous look on his face. Even Bangat, hidden in the shadows, snorted in a manner that only peacocks can. His snort was cut short, however, when Klahan spoke.
“You have pleased me greatly, Leonard of the Tongue of Lightning. Name any desire of your heart. So long as it is within my power to give, I shall bestow it upon you as a gift.”
The jester seemed to ponder these words for a moment. But when he opened his eyes, they were not the eyes of a madman. “I want…Ay-Ibunda.”
“No,” Bangat whispered.
“No,” Klahan said.
And next to the throne, Sepertin Naga’s smile flickered as he caught sight of a bright feather sticking out from behind a carved column.
The clown was swiftly ejected from the hall as the coronation drew to a close. Bangat watched with trepidation as his young charge accepted the duties of the emperor. Giving his tail feathers a shake, he worried over every possible thought that presented itself to his wearied mind. What if Klahan wasn’t ready to be emperor? Could he manage without his father? Would Sepertin Naga relinquish his hold over the empire?
Of course he wouldn’t, Bangat answered himself. The power-loving fool.
“I’ll go see to him,” Bangat muttered under his breath. “He needs my help, and the help of my Prince.” He began strutting down the halls, passing over the intricately inlaid marble floors without a thought. No one stopped him, for the royal peacocks were treated with almost as much respect as the emperor and his immediate family.
When Bangat reached Klahan’s suite of rooms, he found the boy, still in his imperial robes, seated in front of a mirror and grimacing. “What are you doing?” Bangat asked, bewildered.
Klahan swung his short legs back and forth in the air, since they did not quite reach the ground. “Practicing the faces the clown made.”
“Why?” Bangat said. “It’s not befitting to a young man of your—SQUAAWWK!”
“Bangat?” Klahan swiftly turned around on his cushioned seat, only to meet the blazing eyes of his uncle.
“So…” Sepertin Naga said. He looked more snakelike than ever as he grasped the struggling peacock and smiled thinly at the emperor. “I thought this peacock had left the palace.”
“I’m not under orders from you,” Klahan asserted, before suddenly changing direction. “And that—that’s a different peacock.” He frowned, a hint of panic upon his childish features.
But Sepertin Naga smiled. “We both know you only gave one peacock a name, nephew. Now, it is time for it to leave.”
“No,” Klahan said in desperation. “I’m the emperor; I’m in charge.”
“Not for long,” his uncle said, leering. Then he shouted, “Guards! Make sure he does not leave.” Turning to the boy, who was trembling in anger, he said, “Never cross me. You may be the emperor in name, but I think we both know who will really be in charge.” He stepped smartly across the room and slammed the door, Bangat still throttled in his grasp.
“Don’t try to get away,” Sepertin Naga hissed at the peacock. “I know you’re onto me. Flarn!” he called. “Give this peacock to that jester. He’s still lingering at the gates; tell him the emperor has given him a gift.”
A smartly-dressed servant emerged from the shadows and bowed, taking Bangat, who hung his head low in shame. To be given to the jester!
My Prince, Bangat thought desperately. What should I do?
The response came as soon as he asked the question. Go. I will guide your path, just as I am attempting to guide the path of the jester.
You are guiding his path? Bangat asked, astonishment flooding his body so that he was petrified, unable to move in the servant’s arm.
He follows another’s guidance, the Prince said in the silver voice of the wood thrush, but I believe he will come to me in the end.
Well, miracles do happen.
The great doors to the palace opened with a clang, and Bangat was jerked out of his thoughts. The jester stood outside, his bright clothing tarnished and an indignant look upon his face.
After the servant, Flarn, managed to convey the message that Bangat was a gift, the jester took Bangat but immediately dropped him on the filthy ground.
“I say! I really don’t want this!”
He, Bangat thought. I’m obviously a male, not a “this.”
“Your humble gratitude will be conveyed to the Imperial Glory,” the servant replied stiffly.
“But…but what am I supposed to do with a dragon-eaten peacock?” the jester asked, clearly mystified.
Dragon-eaten. Interesting choice of words.
“And your wishes for his prosperous and eternal reign. Good night!” the servant said, though he obviously wished the jester anything but.
“If you’re not a stew by the end of the week, it won’t be my fault. Why me?” the jester said, looking at Bangat with a famished look in his eyes. Bangat noticed for the first time how the jester’s ribs stuck out from beneath his colorful garb.
Stew. No. Bangat flapped his small wings and struggled free of the jester’s grasp. “Heelp!” he cried. “HEEEELP!”
Bangat claimed the bed, as was his right as a knight. The jester, who Bangat had decided was not mad at all, grumbled, but must have sensed the peacock’s superiority. Unfortunately, he still seemed to think Bangat was dinner.
Aroused from his restless sleep by a loud knock, Bangat lifted his plumed head and watched as the jester cursed and stumbled his way to the door. Therefore, he did not miss the unmistakable fine clothes of one of Klahan’s personal attendants. It seemed he had come to retrieve Bangat, whom he compared generously to a Firebird.
What a stroke of fortune! Bangat hopped off the bed and strutted to the door of the hovel. “Thanks very kindly,” he said, though he knew both men would only hear squawks. The attendant did, however, bow. Bangat nodded, accepting this as his due.
“The gift of the reverenced bird was offered in a symbolic nature,” the attendant said.
Bangat cocked his head. Hadn’t Sepertin Naga wanted him sent away for good?
“You were not supposed to accept the bird,” continued the man, treating the jester like the madman he appeared, dressed as he was in a dirtied fool’s outfit.
The jester swore, obviously upset by the loss of dinner.
“Your veneration and devotion will be conveyed to the Imperial Glory…”
“Yes! Free!” Bangat cried.
“And your prayers for his eternal and prosperous reign.”
The jester scooped Bangat up in a most undignified manner and thrust him out of the door. Bangat hissed angrily, but the jester had slammed the door. “Follow me, most noble bird,” said the servant, bowing again.
Bangat eyed the servant warily. He wore the garb of the emperor’s attendants, but it was possible he was working for Sepertin Naga.
The man reached down to pick Bangat up, and the peacock made his decision. Squawking wildly, he ran down the dingy hallway, through the sagging door, and into the street. Where a pair of hands promptly picked him up.
“Awk! Let me go!”
“Shh,” a familiar boyish voice said. “It’s me.”
Swiveling his head, Bangat gazed into the dark eyes of his young charge. “Klahan? What are you doing?” He took in the boy’s filthy clothes and dirtied face. Klahan had done a remarkable job with his disguise, Bangat had to admit, but that was no excuse for wandering the dangerous streets alone.
“Giving the clown his reward. Just wait here,” Klahan instructed.
“His reward?” Bangat asked. “You don’t mean…the Hidden Temple?”
“Exactly,” Klahan replied brusquely. He set Bangat gently on the ground, then stepped into the dark building, swiftly vanishing from sight.
“Klahan!” Bangat cried. Muttering darkly to himself, he attempted to follow the boy emperor, but found he could not continue. The wretched child had manipulated the Paths in the city, and Bangat sensed that if he took another step, he would find himself somewhere much less favorable than outside a squalid apartment.
Then Klahan appeared, followed by the jester, who looked as though all his hopes and dreams had come true at that moment. Bangat once more remembered his Prince’s words about guiding the fool, but he sniffed after the manner of peacocks and began covertly shadowing Klahan’s footsteps.
The Path they walked was very dark. Bangat sensed the evil lying at the end and wanted to wrench Klahan away, but the voice of the wood thrush said, Never fear. I am with you.
But are you with them? Bangat asked in response.
Suddenly, the city vanished. They stood, surrounded by swirling mist, before a sinister gate. Bangat shivered at the sight. Something evil lurked here.
Calling upon his Prince to protect them all, Bangat hurried through the gate after the jester and his emperor.
If possible, the inside of the temple was even darker than the outside. Shadowy figures moved like wraiths in the corner of Bangat’s eye, but he ignored them as he followed Klahan and the jester.
Then Klahan was alone, the jester having disappeared through a dark and foul-smelling tunnel.
“Klahan!” Bangat said.
The boy turned, his face wide with surprise and even anger. “What are you doing here? I told you to wait!”
“And you thought I would?” answered Bangat.
“Well, no.” Klahan wore a sheepish expression, but his eyes were still sharp and wary as he took in their surroundings. “I don’t like this,” he murmured.
“No more do I,” Bangat said. “What were you thinking, showing this fool the Hidden Temple?”
“I needed to know that I could come here. I needed to know that—Quick! On the floor!”
Bangat dropped to the ground like Klahan, but realized that his large tail would not lie flat against the ground. Cursing himself, for he had sworn he would never show the boy, he assumed his man’s shape, a change so natural that nothing seemed to have changed at all, except for a mortal’s perception.
Klahan stared goggle-eyed, for once at a loss for words. Bangat slapped a hand over his mouth and hissed, “Quiet! Now, what are you afraid of?”
“My uncle,” Klahan said once he had recovered his voice. “He’s here.”
Once upon a time, Bangat would have sworn to the world that such things were impossible, then gotten up and proclaimed his existence to any who might have been watching. But since entering the Prince’s service, he had learned that impossible things frequently happened, and in such a way that he would never doubt possibility again.
When the jester fell out of the passage, he seemed dazed, so much so that he did not even notice Bangat crouching on the floor.
Bangat frowned. How could anyone not notice him? He had blue hair, for goodness’ sake!
But the emperor replaced the blindfold, all the while looking nervously around.
“Leave your uncle to me,” Bangat whispered in his charge’s ear.
Klahan nodded, his face full of fear. “Will you escape from this place?”
Bangat looked down solemnly at the little emperor. “You have a great destiny, one my Prince wants me to protect. If I do not return to you…well, you may be certain that will never happen. Trust me.”
“Okay,” Klahan said in an uncharacteristically small voice. He turned to the jester and began leading him away, though not before glancing back again at Bangat.
But Bangat had already moved on in search of Sepertin Naga.
He did not have to search long. The wraithlike monks moved out of Bangat’s way as he passed, two long, sharp knives in his hands. They were made of a metal the Near World had never seen, and the monks moved fearfully out of the way, paving a clear path to Sepertin Naga.
Klahan’s uncle stood with his hands upraised in the darkest chamber of all. An altar was before him, an altar made of some black stone that gave Bangat the shivers.
Bangat stepped forward, and his foot skidded across the slippery floor. Dragons’ teeth! The floor was designed to hinder any attacker before he even reached his target. Bangat, sheathing his knives, and with the grace of a Faerie, stood upright soon enough, but not before Sepertin Naga tuned in to the fact that someone was behind him.
“Why are you here?” he asked. “How have you come to this hidden place?”
“I come in the name of the Prince of the Farthest Shore,” Bangat said, glad his voice stayed firm, “and under the protection of Khemkhaeng-Niran Klahan, your emperor. He it was who led me here, but it is I who will be disposing of you.”
Sepertin Naga turned around. He took in Bangat’s strange, gaudy dress and shock of blue, feathery hair. “Ah,” he whispered. “I should have known. She warned me that you weren’t what you seemed to be, you know.”
“She?” Bangat was bewildered, but then he stared at the gruesome carvings on the wall. Death was portrayed there, in alarming reality, along with his sister, the Lady Life-in-Death. “I see. Well, she can’t protect you against me.”
“No?” Sepertin Naga smiled his thin smile, then clapped his hands.
Some unseen force pinned Bangat to the ground. He struggled to free himself, but his attacker had no hands, nor, it seemed, any bodily features at all. It was merely a tool to aid in the capture of Sepertin Naga’s enemies.
“Take him to the Mother’s Mouth,” the emperor’s uncle commanded.
Bangat felt himself lifted to his feet. Dragged across the courtyard, he saw the monks jumbling closer to see him, their bodies more solid now that they came out of the mist. The unseen servant pulled Bangat all the way across the courtyard, between the hordes of monks, and beyond, through the dark tunnel the jester had gone down earlier.
“No,” Bangat moaned, but nothing could help him now.
Then he fell to the floor. Bangat rushed at the place he knew the doorway to be, but the force was in the way, and Bangat stumbled back.
“So,” a cold voice said, echoing from the back of the chamber, where darkness wreathed the walls and even Bangat’s clear Faerie gaze could not penetrate. “The enemy of my brother has sent a champion. Who are you, little Faerie?”
“I am nothing and nobody,” Bangat said, reaching for his knives.
“Those paltry things will do you no good,” the woman’s voice said, for it was a woman who spoke, but only just. “Not here in my temple. I sense that you attempted to kill my faithful servant, Sepertin Naga. By betraying my purposes, here where I am strongest, you will have to die—unless you swear to me something.”
“What is it?” Bangat asked, more curious than scared.
“Swear to serve me, and me only,” Life-in-Death told him. “Swear it, now!”
“I—” Bangat began, unsure of the words. Then the voice of the wood thrush spoke in his mind.
Do not forget me! he cried. And Bangat knew what to say.
“I will not,” he said, “for I stand under the Prince of the Farthest Shore. No Life-in-Death can take me away from his service!”
Life-in-Death screamed in fury, and Bangat felt the force behind him shudder. Mustering all his paltry strength, he called upon his Prince. Feeling the surety of life flood back into him, Bangat rammed into the force and broke through into the tunnel beyond.
He took his peacock’s form for better maneuverability in the cramped tunnel, then became a man once more after exiting the tunnel, which still reverberated with Life-in-Death’s screams.
Sepertin Naga gaped at him. “You’re alive?” he gasped.
“Yes,” Bangat agreed. “But you won’t be for much longer.” He drew his knives and rushed toward the man, whose mouth was now open, but neither words nor screams issued forth. Raising his right hand, Bangat prepared to strike Sepertin Naga down, but two voices stopped him.
“Bangat! What are you doing?” Klahan cried as he burst through Ay-Ibunda’s gates.
You are not a killer, my dear knight, the Prince told him. Leave him to me.
Are you sure? Bangat replied.
Do you doubt me?
“No,” Bangat muttered, putting his knives away. “But this wretch—”
Is beloved to me, just as you are. Leave him be.
Very well, my Prince.
Bangat cast one last scathing look over his shoulder at Sepertin Naga, who still lay helpless on the ground. Then he strode over to where Klahan waited.
“You almost killed him!” Klahan said, a hint of disbelief coloring his voice, along with an excited undertone. “I thought you were just a peacock!”
“Never base ideas off assumptions,” Bangat growled. “You can make some very serious mistakes.”
“Speaking of serious,” Klahan said as he clanged the gates shut and locked them, obscuring Sepertin Naga from view, “I think maybe I should lighten up a bit. Like that jester, you know?”
His face was so set that Bangat wanted to tell him to put his new resolution into effect as once. But he satisfied himself in saying, “As long as you’re not exactly like that jester. Please, don’t make me a stew.”
Klahan stared for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Can you always stay like this? You’re funnier than when you’re a bird.”
Bangat glared at his young charge, but seeing the expression of mirth on the emperor’s face, decided to smile. “Maybe. But for now, I think lightening up is an excellent idea. Your people may like you better for it, you never know.”
Klahan smiled in return. “Where did you get so wise?”
“My Prince helped me,” said Bangat. He couldn’t resist adding, “Though I came by most of it naturally.”
“Who’s your Prince?” Klahan asked, frowning. “I thought I was your emperor.”
“And so you are. But my Prince is greater than any mortal or immortal ruler.”
“Who is he?” Klahan said in a low, eager voice. “Can you introduce me?”
“I can help you find your way to him,” Bangat said, “but you’ll have to meet him on your own.”
“Then help me!”
They were well away from the Hidden Temple now. The shadows had departed, and Bangat felt safer among the familiar bustle of Lunthea Maly. He crouched and put an arm around Klahan’s shoulder. “I can do that. But first, make me a promise. Never, just because you’re the emperor, think that you know better than me all the time.”
Klahan grinned. “Of course not.” Under his breath he muttered, “Maybe just once in a while.”
“Well, then,” Bangat continued, not hearing the second part. “To start off with, my Prince is the son of the High King of the Farthest Shore…”
He set off walking again, and Klahan hurried to catch up to his long strides, eager to learn as much as he could.
And if any citizen of Lunthea Maly thought it odd that their emperor was wandering around with a stranger with blue hair, then it was none of his business, really. After all, this new emperor looked to be starting a much greater reign than that of his father, may he rest in peace. Maybe things would change. Maybe much for the better.