By all rights it had been the worst year of Mukkuen’s life. Worse than that stormy spring when swamp fever claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of the capital, including that of his favorite sister. Worse than that disastrous faraway summer when the armies of Sra and Cziens met at the plains of Dranpan. Worse even than the stifling autumn that followed, when lingering demons from those blood-drenched fields claimed his left eye. And yet as Mukkuen gazed out upon the shimmering waters of the river with his remaining vision, all grief and fear seemed as distant and intangible as the familiar landmarks enveloped by morning mist on the far bank.
His older brother Pieh, standing only a few strides away, was not so at ease. The wide set of his shoulders was tense with frustration, and his foot was tapping visibly beneath the layered skirts of his robes. To his credit, he had so far managed to restrain the usual thunder of his voice, but Mukkuen knew that would not last long.
“What did you say?” Pieh roared, startling a flock of wintering geese into the air.
The ragged servant boy they’d brought with them — a eunuch who had been intended as a gift for the Inner Court (no longer, now) — immediately dropped to his knees, bowing and whimpering as if he thought such a display would move his master’s heart. But Pieh was not even looking at the boy. The full power of his fiery gaze was trained instead upon the lithe, tattooed boatman wading knee deep in the water beside the reeds where his craft had been secured.
They’d not expected to come across anyone here. Not so soon. Not with such convenient timing. Ten years ago Mukkuen would have thought such a coincidental encounter to be luck, perhaps. A blessing. A sign that the heavens were indeed still on their side, that the justice of gods and men was still aligned.
Mukkuen was not so sure of that now. A blessing might very well be a curse in disguise. He’d learned long ago that the heavens had more of a sense of humor than any of the great sages of yore ever suggested.
Either way, Pieh’s glare was a force of nature itself. Mukkuen was rather surprised, therefore, when the boatman simply returned his brother’s gaze, lips still curved in the slight, inscrutable smile that had graced his face ever since their initial exchange of greetings.
And even more surprised when Pieh was the one to break away first, turning to his servant boy.
“How dare this lowly barbarian demand payment from us! Does he not realize whom he addresses?”
Mukkuen didn’t bother reminding Pieh of the need for anonymity that had forced them to dispose of chariot and horses for a pittance at the last settlement they’d passed.
“This humble one offers his deepest apologies, my lord,” piped the servant boy in his quavering, childish voice. “But the good sir insists that he cannot serve as our guide without some form of recompense. It would be — it would cause much offense to the lords of the river, otherwise.”
“Cannot? Will not, I’d wager!” Pieh spat, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. “Lords of the river, my ass. And just who is it all the rivers of the south pay tribute to anyway? Why don’t you ask him that, huh?”
The boy bowed again and did so, murmuring softly to the boatman in an awkward, lilting patter.
“He says the rivers run where they will, my lord.”
Evidently it was not the answer Pieh had been expecting, for he muttered, after a brief stunned moment, “Well, he can go to the dogs!”
“Oh, just pay him, won’t you?” Mukkuen snapped, his usual even temper beginning to fray at last despite the haze that had blanketed all his senses for days. “The man’s got a family or a village to care for, no doubt. Think for a moment what you are asking of him!”
“Easy for you to say, Little Muk! Just how much do you think we were able to take with us on such short notice? Just how much do you think we’re going to need in the coming weeks if we are to —”
Pieh broke off, beard trembling, eyes stricken. Whatever anger had been arising in Mukkuen dissipated at once, replaced by cold, aching clarity.
“Brother,” he said quietly. “We are alone. Away from our domains. Separated from our most trusted men. You cannot expect a single stranger to step into their place so easily. He owes us nothing.”
“I’ll just find another damn boatman. Throw a stone and hit one, in these backwater wilds. Won’t take long to find one whose loyalty still holds true!”
True to what or to whom, Mukkuen did not ask. Instead, he said, “Even more than goods and valuables, it is time that we cannot afford now, Brother, no matter how little.” His fingers reached for the familiar comfort of his sword hilt. “Besides, is it not said that the men of Wat know the rivers of the south better even than the heavens themselves?”
Pieh scowled. Mukkuen relaxed, knowing he had won.
Negotiations went as smoothly as one could hope after that, considering their rocky start, and soon enough the two lords and their curious entourage were gliding off into the waters through the mist, like immortals questing for the gods.
* * *
Mukkuen woke gasping from a nightmare of tiny flayed hands and featureless heads bobbing in a lake of blood and maggots. He pulled himself weakly upright and draped his torso over the boat’s edge, heaving.
Ah, the boat. He remembered now. They’d hired a boat. And just in time, too. Though neither he nor his brother would admit it out loud, they had spent the entire day straining for the echo of hoofbeats and the clatter of wheels, the heavy squelching tread of spearmen, the whistling of arrows through the mist.
But all was quiet on the river, and in the end both of them had fallen into deep slumber for the first time in days, too exhausted for discussion or conversation.
He rubbed at his face. His fingers were numb with cold. He had forgotten how harsh winter was in the wild, even in these milder climates that were the secret envy of the neighboring states of Tu.
“You are sick?” asked a soft voice.
“No, I’m fine,” Mukkuen responded automatically. “Just a bad dream.”
The voice chuckled. “Same thing. Sickness of spirit.”
Too late, his senses drew back into alertness. He straightened, hand grasping for his sword, and found himself staring straight into the smiling, tattooed face of the boatman of Wat.
“You know the tongue of Tu,” said Mukkuen, unable to keep the accusation entirely out of his voice. The man was cleanshaven, his hair cropped short in the manner of his people. The image was not irreconcilable with this new revelation, and just hours earlier would not even have been startling.
But in the darkness, all turned uncanny.
“A little, only,” the boatman replied after a brief pause.
“Why did you not say so? Why insist on a poor go-between who must struggle to communicate your intent?”
“You greeted me with the river’s words. ‘Twas only proper to respond in like.”
It was a moment before Mukkuen understood. When they’d first seen the boatman wading among the reeds that morning, a ghostly silhouette against the silver waters, it had been Mukkuen who, instead of adhering to appropriate etiquette, called out one of the traditional greetings of the riverfolk: How go the currents this morn? It was the only line Mukkuen knew in their tongue, picked up in the past from an old retainer, a brief snatch of a phrase he’d thought long forgotten. But in that moment the words had come bubbling to his lips, as clear as the day he first heard them spoken, and it had seemed only right, fitting, that he should have chosen them.
Thinking on it now, it all seemed terribly strange. Unnatural. But the natural order had already been upset for months — all the more so now. What difference a humble greeting, a mere handful of words?
Something must have showed in Mukkuen’s face, for the boatman lowered his gaze and backed away. Beyond him, Pieh was snoring lightly at the other end of the boat, his servant boy huddled at his feet. A slight breeze ruffled the grass on the shore.
Mukkuen took a deep breath. “What is your name?”
The boatman crouched down and readjusted the woven hemp coverlet that had slipped from Mukkuen in his waking panic, but still did not look him in the eye.
This, too, struck Mukkuen as odd, after the man’s earlier confrontation with Pieh. He reached up to reassure himself that the patch covering his empty socket had not shifted out of place. It was indeed still there.
“I am called Aoka,” the boatman replied at last, settling back into his own cramped position at the center of the boat.
Aoka. A name typical of the river tribes. The syllables rolled off Mukkuen’s tongue, both familiar and unfamiliar at once, so used was he to the formal speech of the Sra court over the common dialects of his people.
“And how am I to address my lord?”
Mukkuen blinked, unsure he had heard correctly. What did it matter, out here in the wild, how a wetland barbarian should address a man who had lost everything?
Only then did it occur to him to be suspicious. He and his brother were alone. Entirely at the mercy of this stranger. Who had pretended to be a common boatman, one unfamiliar with the ways of the lords of Tu, ways shared only by the elite of their own kingdom.
Had not Mukkuen found the timing of their encounter most peculiar? Had he not wondered if this were not, after all, some cruel trick of fate?
And yet the news should not have traveled so quickly.
And yet the capital’s affairs were hardly the only motive for which a man might choose to act.
Traveler beware. All the more so in times such as these.
“I am no lord,” said Mukkuen, not quite lying, well aware that the quality of his clothes spoke otherwise. “Address me however you wish.”
“Your name, then.”
By the time the words registered, Mukkuen realized that the boatman was looking up at him again, solemn expression enlivened by a hint of playful daring in his clear, bright gaze.
Before he could stop himself, he said, “You are the only one who has ever faced my brother’s fury and…”
“And what? Survived?”
“No,” replied Mukkuen, momentarily perturbed. “Czekar may shout and rage, but in the end it is all bluster. He is not a man overfond of the blade, unlikely as that must seem to a stranger.”
What possessed him to continue, Mukkuen could not say, but continue he did. “Had it been one of my other brothers, it would have been a different story. Had it been one of them, you would not be sitting here before me now.”
This revelation seemed to bother the boatman little, if at all. Perhaps the man hadn’t understood a single word, despite his claims.
If only it were so.
Softly, he said, “Mukkuen is the name my mother gave me.”
“Then Mukkuen I shall call you.”
Hearing his birth name from the lips of a stranger sent a chill down Mukkuen’s back.
Still, he had made his choice.
* * *
“I still think we should have fled east, to my domains rather than to yours,” said Mukkuen after two or three days of following the waters of the Hans north. “It’s not too late to turn back. We would be safer there, better able to prepare our next move.”
“As safe as chickens in a fox den!” retorted Pieh.
“He won’t send men after us if we head east. He cannot afford to split the kingdom’s forces further than they already are. Your domains, on the other hand, are surrounded by the lands of the lesser lineages, whose loyalties are now uncertain.”
“What difference does it make? Our main priority is to regroup with our men. We must act swiftly — before Wei’s had time to establish his authority.”
Mukkuen tilted his head, glancing uneasily toward the boat, where Aoka and the servant boy seemed to be chatting. He had long suspected Pieh’s true motive in heading back north, but simply pretended not to notice. “You mean to raise arms against him.”
Pieh shot him an incredulous look. “Of course. He is a usurper! A traitor! Child murderer! One who has defied the will of Heaven!”
“He is our brother.”
“So was Tau!”
But it was not Tau who had been killed.
Mukkuen clenched his hands at his side, forcing them to still.
“Then you must know that this is our duty. We are the last remaining sons of the line of the great Hegemon, Tsranh the August. We cannot let that monster drag the kingdom down with him!”
“There are those who would favor Hiomwei,” Mukkuen replied reluctantly, ignoring his brother’s hyperbole. “Those who would say that it is a strong king we need now, in these times of turmoil, rather than some dewy youth like Wran.”
“Strong!” Pieh’s voice cracked. He opened his mouth, then shook his head, as if to chase away some unseen fly or mosquito buzzing about his ears.
“Was Hiomtau not strong enough for them?” he whispered at last.
Mukkuen could see his brother’s broad shoulders quivering, and knew that it was not what he had been about to say.
“I mean only that we should not be hasty. Hiomwei may be cunning, but his is the cunning of a wild beast. We don’t know what he might be capable of should we corner him too soon! And if the consequences of our actions spiral out of control, what then? Are you prepared to bear those consequences? Better instead to wait out the winter, gather our strength slowly, observe how the states of Tu react to this development. Brother, we simply can’t afford a civil war, with the kingdom still unstable and outside forces hounding our every move!”
“All the more reason to act now, Little Muk!” growled Pieh. “I don’t know how many of my men will survive the purge that’s sure to come. Or how many have turned on me already for false promises of wealth and glory. And the bulk of your men are still trapped beyond the walls at the Drenh border. Damn it all! Just how long has that bastard been planning this for? Ever since Little Wran fell ill? Ever since Hiomtau’s passing? Or perhaps the rumors were true —”
Their eldest brother, recorded somewhat fallaciously in the bamboo scrolls as King Klanh the Peaceful, had died still in his prime, like their father before him. But unlike their father, Hiomtau had seemed hale and whole at his sudden passing, and even now, four years after the fact, the circumstances of his death remained unclear to all but a select few. This had naturally given rise to a whole mountain of rumors.
Those select few, however, included both Pieh and Mukkuen. The old chief physician had diagnosed it as an apoplexy — the result of too much light energy gathered in his body — but it had been decided to withhold the truth from the general public. It would not do for the court to know of the spiritual imbalance that had plagued their late king, for the legacies of his brilliant grandfather to be further tainted in such an ignoble manner.
This knowledge made Pieh’s suspicions quite unwarranted.
Still, Mukkuen understood the urge. It was all too easy to believe anything of their second brother Wei.
Deciding to head off Pieh before he worked himself into a rage again, Mukkuen said quietly, “There is still Prak Turei.”
“The Prime Minister? He is but one man. And he is no warrior, but a statesman.”
A statesman who had once commanded the vast armies of Sra. But Mukkuen said only, “Even so, he has survived a few purges himself in his lifetime. And you cannot deny the considerable influence he holds. A single word from him would move tens of thousands. Why else do you think Hiomwei sent the Lord Minister away with me to the border?”
“Hmph,” said Pieh, beginning to calm down again. “And I suppose there is Khesjit, too. Lucky for us that he was not at the capital either. But then, the gods have always favored that brat.”
Mukkuen shifted uneasily as he recalled their baby brother as he had last seen him, at young Wran’s coronation: a polite, scrawny youth, no older than than the new king himself, with a fathomless black gaze and a moonlike face marked at all times with the barest hint of a smile. “How much can we rely on him? He’s barely of age.”
“A name, a formality. Who cares?”
“It’s not the name I worry about, but the lack of experience.”
“Brat’s always been too clever for his own good. We can count on him to take care of his own hide, at least!”
“True,” he murmured, still uneasy. “Still, Brother, it is not that I oppose the idea of regrouping with our men as soon as possible. But what comes after that…”
“I know, I know.” Pieh heaved a great sigh. “How different matters would be if only we were stronger! If only our power matched that of our Lord Grandfather’s! If only our kingdom had not dwindled to this state under our father’s guidance!”
It was not the first time his older brother had expressed such a sentiment, nor would it be the last. For Pieh the past held weight. For Mukkuen and their other siblings, it was simply words on bound strips.
Still, Mukkuen humored him. “The power of one acknowledged as Hegemon… I often wonder if we shall ever see their like again. Our glorious Krengsra is not the only nation that has become a mere shadow of its former self in recent years.”
“Pah. Hegemon or not, you’re right, Muk. Even with Minister Prak on our side, we’ve little hope of toppling Wei while keeping those vultures of Tu at bay. Not to mention those upstarts of Nua. If only we held some other piece, some other tool we could use to our advantage —”
“I suppose we could always try summoning a heavenly army to our aid.”
At that, Pieh snorted. “If we could rely on the heavens in times such as these, none of this would have ever…”
He broke off with a shrug. Laughed, for the first time in days.
Mukkuen smiled back, more relieved than he was willing to admit.
* * *
That night he dreamt not of patchwork skins and dripping hearts, but of the river, dark and silvery beneath a gibbous yellow moon. The wind whistled through the trees, drowning out the faint echo of shouting men. The ground trembled with the sound of distant chariots, with the ringing of bronze striking bronze. The scent of smoke tickled his nose, and in the shadows ghostfire danced like so many little arms reaching out for him.
Then all sound evaporated into silence. Under the yellow moon he saw a shadow stirring, and realized it was the boatman Aoka. His tunic lay discarded on the bank, revealing a wiry, compact form. Tattoos swirled along his muscled arms and smooth face, shimmering with an unearthly glow, like a spider’s web caught in the light of dawn.
As Mukkuen watched, he realized it was not entirely silent after all. The boatman was singing. The tune was not one Mukkuen had heard before, nor could he understand the words being sung, if indeed they were words. He was reminded, vaguely, of the wailing dirges of the village shamans he had once heard on a tour of his domains. Only softer, gentler, coaxing. Melancholy, and yet laced with a startling undercurrent of mischief.
The song ended, but the melody echoed on through the empty spaces of the night. The boatman prostrated himself upon the riverbank once, twice, three times in all. Then he straightened and stepped into the water.
Deeper and deeper he waded, until Mukkuen began to fear for the man’s life.
Stop! he cried. You’ll drown!
But no sound seemed to emerge from his throat, and when he reached for his sword, as useless as he knew it to be, he found that his limbs were no longer present.
Like before, no sound emerged, but for a moment he was twelve again: wandering the trampled fields of Dranpan, surrounded by the dead and dying. Shattered chariots, broken banners, horses struggling in the dust. The enemy Cziens soldiers saw him but did not approach, not even to take him hostage. Too young to kill, too worthless to save.
No wind. No company but crows and skulls. Seized with terror and with thirst.
His vision wavered. Overhead, the stars whirled. Among the trees, torchlight flickered. The sound of shouting filled the night once more. Grew nearer.
He could make out words. Names. Condemnation.
Mukkuen reached for his sword again and looked frantically for his brother, meaning to shake him awake before it was too late.
His brother was nowhere to be found.
And the river trembled.
Sinuous forms shot forth from the water in an iridescent spray, twisting and coiling into the dark sky. Glimmers of fang and claw flashed before him, and he stared, transfixed by their frenzied dance. Shouts of anger transformed into cries of confusion, then broke off.
Once more, silence reigned.
Something swooped past him in the darkness, followed by another, then another. His eye tracked their movement back to the center of the river, where he identified the boatman’s sleek figure treading water, distorting the reflection of the moon.
Mukkuen’s breath caught. Three serpentine creatures materialized, their icy multihued scales catching the light as they dove straight at the boatman.
He could not call out. Could not look away.
But his fear was misplaced.
The boatman laughed at the creatures’ approach, his face transported with an achingly wild joy. They looped about his shoulders and arms, nuzzling at his cheeks, jaws snapping playfully at his ears. They had no horns, and their whiskers drifted in the chill air, bearing closer resemblance to tendrils of smoke than to dancers’ ribbons.
Even now Mukkuen could not turn aside, though he felt as if he were a boy again, spying upon some forbidden scene in the Inner Court with Pieh.
The boatman swatted the creatures away and began to swim back to the bank. Still they wove and flitted about him, until he lifted himself from the water and turned, raising both his arms in a gesture of reverence and farewell.
Then, like a deer scenting the air, he tilted his head and looked over his shoulder straight at Mukkuen.
The dream shattered.
Mukkuen fell, and all grew dark.
* * *