Dig, if you will, the picture . . .
The king’s son lived to create. By an early age he had mastered botany, chemistry, all the realms of physics. Every moment he could steal from the duties of his father’s house, he built automatons: insects, sea creatures, animals that walked and crawled and flew. No sooner did an idea climb down his brainstem than it found realization in his hands. So as not to waste time debating materials, he created from whatever he had on hand, be it fungus or dirt, even his own dandruff. He built like he had mercury in his blood, like he would die if he stopped, and who knew? Perhaps he would have. Soon he’d filled his father’s house with inventions. Smells as green as spring and blue as winter rose to the forked-beamed rafters, all his creation. Nearly every sound and silence came from him. Foreign dignitaries visited the king’s house, ostensibly on diplomatic missions, in reality to witness the wonders they had heard of.
It came time, his father decided, that the son move into his own house, one built sturdily of palm logs and mud. Before he left, however, father and son decided it best he have companions. The father gifted him a diamond stone and a jade stone, both the size of a fully grown person. For one sleepless, sweaty night, the son’s chisel flashed up and down in the candlelight. Jewel shards glimmered among the rushes and a green mist thickened the air. Once he’d carved two women as beautiful as his eyes had seen, he gave them such biological functions as necessary for their purpose. He gave them advanced AI brains and ruby hearts that sparkled through their translucent breasts, the better to refract light into their cadmium veins. He sewed boots and dresses for them. Sharp in feature, lean in build and bearing the color of their jewels, they lived to serve him. These courtiers he named Diamond and Jade.
Certain tribes of his father’s followed him to the new land. There the son built his house. Sleeping quarters, a kitchen, granary, and stables erected of mud reinforced with straw. Once finished, he mounted his ostrich and rode out to meet the people. He came before them in open-breasted kente robes, a veil below his eyes. The people spoke of drought. He gave them windmills and sewers and aqueducts. Aided by his agricultural innovations, their stores soon overflowed with millet and sorghum. As awed as they were enchanted, chiefs welcomed him as overlord.
The more obstinate ones refused the riches he offered. They called him a devil who offered toys with a silken glove, the better to conceal his clawed hand. These chiefs he challenged to combat, which proved none too difficult, as he’d trained Diamond and Jade in the most lethal martial arts. Champion after champion fell to them.
In time the son had a kingdom. He cooked a feast of yam and rice, goblin liver and suckled unicorn, palm wine and honeyed cider, and invited his newly ordained vassals to his house, where they supped long into the night.
Dressed in the most ostentatious robes, he held court on a teak stool, a cow-tail switch across his lap, his face hidden behind a ruby-beaded veil threaded into his adenla. His court was a beautocracy peopled by only the most splendid subjects, whom he dressed like himself, so that everywhere he looked was like staring in the waters of a clear river. They stayed as drunk on his wonders as any opiate, but to remain in his presence required they create. Art. Music. Films. Babies. Their wonders they laid before his stool, while Diamond and Jade stayed ever at his side, courtesans and bodyguards, sentinels of immaculate fastness.
One day he told the women, “You have been with me a long time. I would make you my protégés. Meet me in my Vault in the morning.”
At sunrise Diamond gathered tools and descended to the tunnels beneath his house, which he called the Vault, a labyrinth carved to resemble the intricacies of his own mind. Before laying foundation on his house, he’d ordered the Vault constructed. She wondered where Jade had gone but had no time to waste in pursuing these thoughts. Diamond’s crystalline legs begrimed on her passage through roughhewn tunnels, through chambers that shamed the grandest pyramid. Every embroidery on the floor and hieroglyph on the wall actualized his dreams, built to his specifications, though no one knew what became of those who’d constructed the place. Her role wasn’t to ask about such things—she knew her lord had as much darkness as any ruler, and more than some.
She found him in his laboratory with a quartz leopard on the table, a panel opened on its back so he could prod the gears. So involved was he in his measuring scale—ground dragon horn weighed against a kirin horn—that he did not notice her at first. When he did, enraged breaths rattled the beads upon his lips.
“Where is Jade?” he growled.
Diamond admitted ignorance. With a brusque gesture, he bade her take jars of crushed herbs off the shelf. They would start with potions.
It so happened that Jade had stepped outside the house during the night, so she might enjoy a durian as she watched the sunrise. Moonlight illumined the pink petal trails that drifted in from the meadows. Grown indulgent with pleasure, the wondering courtesan trekked across zinc dunes to find the source of such aromas.
So it was that Jade forgot the hourglass and arrived late to the laboratory, halfway through his lesson on kinetic animation. The son scowled to see violets at her brow and her ankles. She prostrated on her ferric knees and claimed to have been distracted by a meadow which, from his chemical processes, had bloomed overnight with spring flowers. She had wandered among the yellow violet and hyacinth, seeing no fault in enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“Our labor?” He repeated her daring words with mockery. “You take credit for what is mine? You, who was born from my hand?” He grew furious. Like a sea lion, he bellowed until she ran from his sight.
Thus he ordered Diamond, for her first job as protégé, to shuck pearls from a hundred oysters, a gleaming heap he then tossed in a woman-shaped vat. From there began the process of animation. When they’d finished constructing Pearl, he made certain to program her with loyalty.
In the morning he brought Pearl to his amaranthine court, where Jade, who kept to the shadows, could see her replacement built identical to her in every way save coloring. Her desolate wail was met with indifference from the son, veiled and spiteful on his stool. When Diamond asked to comfort Jade, he denied her, ordered she remained standing to his right while Pearl took her place at his left. The coterie beset Jade with whispers and laughter, causing her to weep emeralds as she ran from the house in shame. A warning to all for the price of disobedience.
His spies told him she fled on her ostrich for the wild western lands, where he figured she would die. This little concerned him, as the great tinkerers and scientists of the age were coming to his house. With him, they made singing nightingales. Rain made of bark. Hills woven from human hair. Alongside alchemists and mathematicians, he rewrote the mysteries of the universe as formulae. He worked with doctors to heal diseases. He built telescopes for astronomers to view distant galaxies as easily as they could their own fingerprints. When he tired of collaborators, he sent them on their way, sometimes with gold and cattle, sometimes with no more than his thanks. Some received not even that. Everything in his land—towns, fields, his house and the caverns beneath—served his pleasure alone.
The son of the king never stayed at court for long, wishing to spend his days inventing new flowers and insects to couple with them. He rode through dream-meadows of white-stemmed and white-petalled roses, of genetically engineered purple hibiscus. People thronged the avenues to sing him songs of greeting. He held audience and listened to their problems. He bred crab-elephants for transportation and neo-trees for lumber. For entertainment he devised festivals. His people loved him.
Still, they knew little of him, because he veiled his face and his personal life. Some claimed that thousands of women had been cowed into submission by his boyish chest and sturdy shoulders, his beckoning fingers and untamed luminescence. Others claimed that he took one lady at a time as his princess (though what he did with them afterwards, no one could tell). They said women loved his touch because he could think like a woman. Some claimed he lay with men. Others said the very concept made him ill. Every story of a sweat-soaked orgy found its counter with reports of the lord’s piety. Something about how he refused to be called a god, though others named him so. They said his work stole from that of a dozen artists before, yet was always something they’d never seen. They said his name was so divine it could not be spoken aloud. A rumor arose that his mother must have pale skin, given the honeyed hue of his fingers.
The parentage rumor amused him the most, because he’d started it.
It delighted him to make them guess. Another kind of creation, these controversies, stories woven until he lived a hundred lives. They were left to wonder: What man lived behind the veil? What truth dwelled within the serpentine eyes that flashed like volcanic embers when a wind shifted the beads? Eyes that caressed you, bewitched you, took all of you and gave you nothing back.
One day, after many hours of hearing petitions, he could take no more. He yearned to return to the clanking and odors of his lab. As he announced court adjourned, Diamond swept through the beads in travel-stained robes. She prostrated herself.
“Long may the crown rest upon your head. Long may the slipper touch your feet.” Without further formality, “The reports are true. The land on our western border is in chaos and disorder.”
This troubled the son. For as long as he remembered, the western lands had no ruler, peopled by fiercely independent nomads. They would not trade with him—not only did they refuse his gifts, they would send his emissaries back with missing appendages. Rumor was a strong and terrible king had wrested control after much bloody conflict.
“Speak,” he told her.
“The crops will not grow,” said the scintillant woman. “The rivers are brown with refuse. Babies are born dead. This new king has brought them famine and despair. The people call out your name! I heard this with my own ears. They pray you will liberate them!”
Her insolence to propose such a thing vexed him, as he cared only for his own realm. It irritated him that his courtiers were staring his way like they expected him to perform a trick. Ever enigmatic, he lifted a hand to raise the veil from over his mouth, a mischievous smile the only answer they would get. Without a word he left for his chambers. The next day he decreed that none were to speak to him about the western lands.
The son of the king made creatures that were half woman, half kiln. One-third goat, one-third worm, one-third vinyl record. Half man, half dragon, half cat, half bat, half velvet. Timidly, an advisor told him he could not do this forever. He had the advisor banished to the west.
He learned of the Mountain Queen and her great beauty. Infatuation sent him into the mountains on a flying carpet, at the head of a caravan bearing such gifts that befit her stature. He seduced her. They married in a ceremony only witnessed by their trusted servants. For half a year he stayed at her court, then for half a year she at his, until their marriage grew volatile because neither could be tamed. The queen returned to her house in the sky and there she remained. For some time afterward, the son cast a brooding figure.
And the people wondered: Was he son or daughter? What lay under the feminine walk like curtains swaying? What lay under the wolfish growl? When he rode through the streets, they genuflected and called, “Omo Oba! Omo Oba!”
A farmer, past the age of holding his tongue for anyone, asked: “When will you refer to yourself as king? After all, kings bow to you.”
Normally he would suffer no such questioning from a commoner, but the musicality in the farmer’s rusty voice compelled him toward diplomacy. His response: “Tell me of one king whose name causes hearts to tremble like mine. Whose name commands fear and love like mine. I will challenge him, slay him, and burn his house to the ground.”
They could name no one.
“Every nation has a king,” he said. “I abhor to do as others do.”
On the solstice of the eternal sun-swell (he’d determined the word day boring, and none could utter it under pain of death), he held court. Pearl came before him. “Long may the crown rest upon your head,” said the nacreous woman, “long may the slipper touch your feet. Omo Oba, the western lands are bleeding. Their king’s secret police, called the Green Fourteen, kidnap people in the night. Thousands are tortured and murdered. The people fear even to think thoughts against him, but when they dare speak out, they call for you to annex them! They wail and gnash their teeth to be as happy as we.”
He barely heard her, entranced in his new litter of narwhal-leopards. He would toss lava rocks from a bowl and watch the sharp-toothed kits snap them out the air. To please him, they rolled on their backs and belched fire. This continued until the son had fully amused himself. Hunched on his stool, he fell to tedious business.
“I am not interested in conquest,” he said. “Conquest is for those who have no resources, who can think of nothing better to do than take. I have an abundance. Even as I speak, my aqua-machines make rivers in the southern marches. My neo-trees grow into forests I have gifted to the monkey kings. I wish for no more than I can make with my own bone and dreams, which should be more than enough for any of you.” He gave his robes a flourish. “We are done.”
He brooded on the matter in his chambers. In truth, he feared to spend time on anything other than creation. That it made others happy mattered nothing to him. (The satisfaction of his subjects had always been windfall for his personal happiness.) War meant destruction and, as of yet, he knew not how to make destruction beautiful. To think on it made him feel less like royalty and more like a crustacean, immobilized in a shell. To wage this campaign would depress him, drain him, kill him.
It seemed his courtiers required some response, so he built a machine that echoed his own voice and programmed it to howl in torment all night. The baleful noise found its way through chinks in the wood, filling the compound until neither seer nor servant could rest. None save the son of the king, who slept well.
After all, his greatest creation was the mystery of himself. They knew of his obsessions. They knew him for a princox, a popinjay, a ponce, a prick, a playboy, a putz, a puck, a piece of shit; they knew that his narcissism equaled his talent. The rest was theirs to guess.
He would have nothing to do with death. He didn’t even believe in such a thing.
In a mania, he made wonders no one had conceived of. Purple ladders. Fruit you could wear as a hat. Recipes for starfish. Twenty-three sex positions. Daisies with petals so bright they blinded. Entire cities devoted to the erotic. Lakes that purified. He made the most beautiful girl in the world, so beautiful he nearly abandoned his duties to run away with her. He made so much that he gave it away to others. Thus he built alliances among the kings and queens. And once he’d created to the point of exhaustion, he wasn’t done. Not nearly.
But when he went out among the people, he found them disgruntled. Over the years, they’d grown certain of their superiority to those in the west. Theirs was a civilized land, they said, while those people lived in barbarism, savages ruled by a dictator. Conquest of the west seemed to them a birthright, one that he, as their leader, should supply. So when he supped with his vassals, the seers cast palm nuts in their trays and recited the mysteries, all pointing to a victory that would live in song.
“No song that I will ever sing,” he scoffed.
To compound the outrage, his subjects questioned him to his face. What will you do? chiefs would ask of him, scowling with deferred ambitions.
He cursed himself for his blindness. Of all gifts, he’d neglected to give them enemies. Their nationalism disgusted him. Only he deserved to think so highly of himself.
“The malcontents have a point,” Diamond told him that night in their pavilion. She sat spread-legged on a stool, her naked body mottled with candlelight. Pearl sharpened her spear in the shadows. “The western king is a monster.”
“And I am not a monster?” he asked. “This afternoon, I executed a chief, and his son, for daring to question me.” He swallowed a lump in his throat. “And the three pages. I still smell their burning flesh.”
“They gave you no choice,” said Pearl in a low voice. “They said they would never bow to you.”
“I am not sad I killed them,” he said, though the tightness in his throat remained. “I just don’t understand. They were mere pages. Why die for him? Or any chief?”
The boys had so impressed him with their courage that, when Pearl lit the kindling beneath their soft feet, he’d expected them to burn in silent condemnation. To become lions with manes of flame. But in the end they screamed like chickens being slaughtered. Though he wished to love their memory, he hated those arrogant brats. He’d have killed them a thousand times if he could.
“Too many songs around the fire,” said Diamond with typical calm. “They thought it their time to be warriors. Omo Oba, you are only partly a monster. And I would say your higher nature balances your monstrosity. The western king is all monster. As long as he breathes, he shows the world your way isn’t the only way. How long before he attacks us, as he’s attacked his own people?”
The son poured two cups of wine for them, coconut milk for himself. He passed them the cups and lay on the furs to stretch his naked body. “What do you think?” he asked Pearl.
Grim existentialism coruscated her square-cut features. “We will have to fight. Either the western king, or these malcontents who believe you weak. I will go where you tell me to go. I will kill who you tell me to kill.”
Such confusion! He loathed to show indecision before even his two most trusted, which would look like weakness in a king, let alone the son of a king. To clear his mind, he lay with them. Naked—as clothed—they held no secrets from him. They had served as spymasters, explorers, treasurers, priestesses, champions, and emissaries—now they wished to be his generals. It became clear to him that they chafed at the long peace he’d cultivated; thinking their edges dulled, they sought battle.
Nevertheless, their words plagued him as he lay awake beneath the humid air. Diamond worked her crystal tongue up and down the serrated plane of his ribs. Maybe she could hear his heart ache for those in the west. At last he recognized this foreign sensation as sympathy. To save the helpless on such a grand scale would be a new experience.
In the morning he came before his people naked and unveiled, and it seemed in his nudity they knew less of him than before. “To war!” he said.
He set about building an army such as the world had never seen. He made tanks, siege engines, and swords. Machine guns and racks and iron maidens. Cat-o’-nine-tails and thumbscrews and atom bombs. Hovercrafts that flashed like silver-winged birds in the sky. Chemical bombs that exploded pheromones; they would make the enemy’s cats supremely amorous, to overrun his temples and marketplaces with mongrel felines. He programmed marksmen who could strike a beetle from the air with one shot. Afterward, he bred mermaids born with the lower halves of women and upper halves of trout; having no arms to hold weapons, they would fling themselves at the enemy until his bullets were spent.
He made a suit of quilted armor that would enhance his strength tenfold. He sewed a turban to keep the sun from his eyes and carved a black wooden helm horned like a ram.
On the night before they marched, he took to his room to make his ultimate weapon. His nervous courtiers waited outside as night swelled the belly of the hourglass. In time they slept.
Later, they startled awake at the sound of rattling beads. They saw a shivering hand emerge from the curtain, followed by the dawn-limned visage of their lord, who appeared to have aged ten years overnight. Sweat coated his bare chest. He collapsed into their arms. They fanned his valleyed cheeks with palm leaves and dabbed his dry lips with water. The orange gourd strapped to his back seemed altogether unremarkable, which only emphasized its dread portent.
That morning the son drove in a tank carved from a titanic gourd to greet his army on the grasslands. Foot soldiers and vassals stood in all their panoply, sunlight glinting off their spearheads. His hippo-lions and ostriches wore battle armor. His organic men dressed in robes slit up the side to provide for movement, and each one hailed him with their bronze sword. The admiration of his troops approached fanaticism. For these young men, his slightest wish outweighed every ambition they’d ever had for themselves. They would sacrifice anything and everything. He told himself to love this.
Diamond led the vassals, Pearl led the suicide mermaids, and he personally generaled a thousand thousand automatons, warriors of steel and iron. Their flesh inlaid with jewels, they stretched over the meadows like a rainbow-hued river, and in their thousand thousands appeared more numerous than the blades of grass they flattened on their westward march.
Along the trek he beheld shining cities arisen during his reign, where fat merchants thronged the avenue to soften his tread with chrysanthemums. There rose jade ziggurats where philosophers debated the mysteries. In sun-skewering towers made of quartz, astronomers read the stars. A haze fell upon his senses like the veil he had cast off. Moments had arisen where he would look on his army and see only colorful insects, hear only the militarized drone of bees. His old confidence returned when dazzled by the wonders of his realm.
They traversed swampland. Crocodiles ate his men while others died of airborne pathogens. Around the fires, they said their lord would devise a pump to drain the poisoned water from this bog and turn it to bubbles on which they would float to safety. And though he wept when Diamond gave him the tally of dead, he did nothing.
After the swamp came a mountain range. The narrow passes funneled their army to a train of stumbling and exhausted bodies. Some men died in avalanches, others from fatigue. He’ll turn the rocks into food, they said, but he didn’t, so they starved. Suspicious whispers rose around the fire. They questioned if they followed a cruel lord to their dooms.
Then came the village. The odor of devastation pierced the walls of the tank to lodge in his throat and gag him. Strapping on a gas mask, he opened the lid to survey hovels built in disarray. Above him the vultures made circling dots. Gray peasants clung to their doorways, all bone and eyes and fear. Because Pearl had prepared him with intel, he was unsurprised, yet nonetheless disgusted, to see the villagers had holes in the shape of figs where their noses had been severed. Their king had decreed that only he may smell. The wind belonged to him, as did all dreams, all truth. The villagers stared at the army of liberation like it was a scent in the grass—something they longed for but could never have—and despite his nausea the son pitied them. Such wanton cruelty steeled his resolve to decapitate this villain. On the dismal plod through the village he kept one hand wrapped under the gourd upon his back.
With the village behind them, Diamond reported that urchins were following. Five dozen mangy, potbellied creatures crying out for food. Sustained by the despair in their broken bodies, they showed no sign of quitting pursuit.
“All must earn their keep,” the son said gravely. The children were given machine guns and made soldiers. Diamond had to take each one individually and twist their fingers, gnarled as apple cores, around the triggers.
Stretching between the border towns and the enemy’s black-walled capital were miles of savannah, monotonous bushes and stunted trees. The corpses of disease-ridden gazelle and starved lions littered the plain, their blood so befouled even the flies avoided them, with scant cover for an army of his size. The son delighted in knowing the enemy would see him coming in all his majesty. His scouts reported burning villages on the road ahead. He called halt. He emerged from his tank with a megaphone.
“Noble warriors,” he addressed his army. “The jackal wants to send us a sign. Are you scared?”
“No!” they roared.
“Will we win?”
“Stake tents. I have led you well these last three years. But do not think you have seen all the gifts I will give. My reign has only begun,” he said to cheers that shook the heavens. “With you at my side we will create a new age. It starts with this victory! Tomorrow we take his city!”
Their cheers continued unabated until their throats were raw. That evening he retired to his tent, relieved to find freedom from their adoration. He’d brought his ostrich mount for companionship, though she did little more than provide witness to his agitation, her feelings of neglect coached in a low squawk as he paced the reeds. Much could go wrong and, though he loathed his own weakness, he knew without Diamond and Pearl he would lack for strategy. He voiced his fear of failure, cursed the enemy to a thousand deaths, and drank liberally from a gourd of goat milk.
Diamond and Pearl arrived to report. Each carried three calabashes of gunpowder atop her head, held with netting like wives bearing water to the village. Their faces bore the white chalk markings of priestesses, a role they acted nightly to get the soldiers’ blood up. Confidently, they said his TV-headed propagandists had infiltrated the villages to seduce the farmers and fishermen with utopian visions of his lands. They told the peasants that the great lord had come from the east to rain freedom. The Creator. The Problem-solver. The Giver of Gifts. It would be only a matter of time before they rose against the tyrant.
During the report, a scout entered to say the enemy had arrived to parlay.
Only a fool would not see the ambush coming, but his scouts reported no soldiers for a league, only villages put to torch. Thus emboldened, he rode out, flanked by Diamond and Pearl, to show the enemy his teeth. He dressed as a warrior in armor, horned helm, two necklaces made of cork, and a hippo-lion’s tooth.
Three women waited for him in the open savannah. By the torchlight he made out their ostrich mounts, their antelope masks painted with long teeth and carved with slits for eyeholes. The one in the center wore silk robes corseted at the waist, a heavy woolen scarf raised to her cheeks, silk breeches and calfskin boots. She lifted her mask and he could hear a choked gasp from Diamond at the green face beneath. That the son shivered to see her did not escape Jade’s notice; nor would much escape her notice, he learned, as she pulled down her scarf to reveal the entirety of her sardonic face. Her new lord had taken her nose but given her new eyes—one in each cheek. The green orbs regarded him with contempt after so many years.
“A sculptor is summoned and the woodpecker shows up,” she said.
“You need a long spoon to dine with the devil,” he proverbed in retort. He moved the gourd from his back to his lap. “Jade, fine clothes will never conceal what a disappointment you are. Tell your master to surrender and I will spare his forces. That is the best he can hope for, as I intend to execute him.”
“Our master is a god,” said Jade.
“It is the great privilege of my life to serve him,” said the woman to her right, her voice hollow behind the mask.
“He has accomplished more than any king in history,” said the woman to her left.
The son shouted, “I will make his head an ornament on my saddle. His heart will be eaten by lizards. His skull will be a home for rats. Tell him that I will kill him piece by piece and the thing I will make of his body will be my masterpiece.”
Jade tapped her fingers on her lips with a theatrical yawn. “It was you who taught me cruelty when you banished me to this place. But my master taught me cruelty as an art. I sat at his feet and read the infernal scrolls. He taught me the ecstasy of murder.”
“Which qualified you to be his errand girl,” Pearl spat.
The eyes on the left of Jade’s face stayed fixed on the son. Those on the right swiveled in Pearl’s direction. The son felt a chill. “And you are his whore,” Jade told Pearl, who snarled and reached for her sword. Immediately Diamond laid a hand atop hers. The son noticed them struggle, a test of strength that the shell-shucked woman quickly lost. With Pearl suppressed, Diamond turned her attention back to Jade.
“I cannot speak for Omo Oba,” she spoke with affection, “but you were my sister once. If you would come back to us, all is long forgiven.”
“I never said that!” the son snapped.
Upon Diamond’s offer he could see the conflict ripple across Jade’s face, before he interrupted and hatred flared once more in her quadrupled gaze. A cold hand of fear squeezed the back of his neck, traveled down his spine to sink fingers in his gut. Worse was the certainty he’d lost Diamond. That poisonous drop of disobedience had infected her and, no matter the outcome of this war, she would never be his again. Incensed, he banged the flat of his sword on his elephant-hide shield.
“Shut up already. Damn.” To Jade, “Those are my terms and you will deliver them.”
In a dispassionate tone, she addressed Diamond: “You were my sister, true. I shall weep when I kill you. And I shall always hate him for the rift he tore between us. The nuts have been cast and we all have our roles. But know until I die you will always be my sister.” With a sudden smile, she cast her green eyes on him, their facets lit with vengeful triumph. “Know this, princeling. In reward for my loyalty, my king has allowed me to witness your shock and terror. Doubtless your scouts told you about the burning villages on the road ahead. Soon your army of ticks will smell the sweet fumes of petals I grew myself. I imagine half of your rabble will die within the hour.”
The surprise must have registered on his face, because she howled with sadistic laughter. Her desire won, she wheeled her ostrich to turn. He saw four eyes in the back of her head as well, all of them hateful. Swift and silent, Diamond threw her spear at Jade, but she easily deflected with her shield. Aiming for the women as they galloped away, Pearl loosed an arrow that took one masked rider through the back of her neck, and had the next arrow nocked when the son stayed her hand.
“To camp,” he said in horror. With a kick to his ostrich’s flanks, he made haste for the fires of his host. On the gallop across the hard land, his creeping distrust of Diamond compelled him to ride at a distance from her. For now he needed her, more than he cared to admit, but after this war he would scrap her. Replace her with a woman of gold.
Jade did not bluff. All through camp his flesh-and-blood men clutched their throats. He wandered among the sick, a hand over his nose, to discover he could still breathe. The antidotes he’d brewed to build tolerance to poison had made him an atom of life in the massacre, the pointlessness of which struck him with melancholy that nearly consumed him, before Pearl’s voice snatched him back from the pit. She was rallying doctors from their tents to administer healing balms.
He had lost many troops, not the half Jade had gloated of. Overcome with relief, he needed his soldiers to hold him up, else he’d faint away. When he crossed paths with Diamond he said nothing to her. Let her know he considered her a broken machine.
The reprieve left him unprepared when the earth trembled, opened, and erupted forth carnivorous snails the size of elephants. The war began.
As bloody as a battle could be, as long as a battle could be, this was. Hippo-lions rammed their catapultian skulls into snails. Hovercraft fighters dueled to the death with bat-winged salamanders. Two evenly matched armies of automatons clashed, the rending of metal a terrible song as night greyed to morning. The son didn’t know by what means he survived; a dozen times he should have died, before some stroke of chance caused an arrow to miss or a mounted foe to fall gurgling on his own blood before he could spear his regal target. Something about this battle seemed familiar, like a memory of the future. He thought only of survival as he slew from atop his mount. Everywhere he looked were acts of heroism from men whose blood and names would dissolve into the soil.
His bodyguards made a perimeter of gunfire to push back the enemy that seemed to spring from the ground like hell-demons. They bought time for Diamond to climb a siege tower. The son looked through a spyglass to where the enemy gathered on the high ground. Dust plumes nearly obscured a figure who must have been their king. Dressed in heavy furs and a leather hood, he reminded the son of a ghost from the underworld, his face hidden by a mesh veil decorated with seashells. He stood on the back of a crocodile, reins in one hand, the other clutching the switch with which he lashed his steed.
The son passed the glass to Pearl and heard her suck her teeth, the sound like two stones clacking. Only now did he see his foolishness for letting someone amass such an army. Glutted on prosperity, stupefied by his own magnificence, he’d failed his people and himself. He looked to the siege tower where Diamond stood shining on the precipice in all her glory. He gave a nod.
A flute to her lips, she blew a long and buzzing note that rang over the battlefield like the last song of a dying god. The doors on the tower burst open and there emerged swarms of murmuring wasps. They unfurled like a great cape toward the enemy lines, in numbers that extinguished the sun.
Exhilarated by the darkness he’d created, the son snatched the spyglass from Pearl to behold his bio-weapon. When it seemed like they might spear the heart of the foot soldiers, the phalanx split in half. As one thrumming unit they stretched to make a V around the army. He rejoiced in watching the masked king jerk his mount back and forth, unable to hide his fear. Noseless foot soldiers sounded horror and confusion, stabbed futilely at the bugs that inexorably closed their two ends together like a shaving razor. The son and Pearl howled gloating laughter. The deadly pincer engulfed his enemy with a cacophony of rending metal and screams that filled the air for minutes. When the wasps cleared, their numbers vastly depleted, they left in their wake a third of the enemy destroyed.
Pearl clapped with joy. “Yes! You are a genius, Omo Oba! The greatest genius this world has seen!”
Diamond appeared at his side, having swiftly descended to mount her ostrich. The son hoisted his spear to catch sunlight on the blade. “Charge!”
The earth thundered. Dust billowed under their mounts. Ancient war-cries sounded from their throats, as if they were possessed by bloody ancestors who had forged empires. Her skin impervious to dust and arrows, Diamond outdistanced the son. Wielding a spear in each hand, the incandescent angel of oblivion, she raised her blades high to bring them down in a scything motion. Her every blow made a cripple, a widow, an orphan. Pearl undid the netting atop her head, lit the bombs, and threw them at the enemy. Explosions blasted the savannah. Flesh rained on the parched earth. Automatons at his back, armor pumping vitality to him, the son hacked limbs and cleaved skulls to the teeth. Made tumultuous with blood and corpses, the terrain grew difficult. Still he pushed his mount past fatigue. He, the son of hate, would redden a kingdom to stab at his enemy’s throat.
Soon his mount fell in the tangled bodies and in doing so hurled him down in the morass of gore. He wallowed helplessly like a sow in the slaughterhouse. He rose, fell, crawled, rose, stumbled, retched, and rose, his armor spurring him to stand. Dust swelled his throat. He could see an ostrich decapitated at the base of its neck. Its body was coated in thick black feathers, its scaly legs tangled in a way that resembled a sage sitting crosslegged, and blood spurted from the stump. He found himself marveling at how the head that lay yards away looked like some slithering bird-snake hybrid, how its beak kept opening to try and speak.
As if in a dream he saw Diamond, her robes tattered, calm amidst the horrors. She removed a bomb from her headdress and lit it with her lighter, and it was then he saw the dozen enemy soldiers charging, closing the fifty yards between them. “No!” he yelled, but the incendiary flew from her hand. The earth flowered dirt. The son went airborne. Debris and twisted metal clotted the sky. Heavily, he struck the earth.
Blind. Strangled. For a desperate minute he floundered in airless dark. When he finally knuckled the dirt from his eyes, he found Diamond on her knees, pinioned by half a dozen spears. He knew she was dead, and he wept. Some would have called her an artificial person, but he knew nothing was more real than that which he created.
Bearing a dozen cuts from enemy bronze, Pearl rallied her mermaids in a charge at the king, so close to them the son could hear his seashells rattle as he hollered commands. Five antelope-masked bodyguards surrounded him.
“Follow them!” the son roared to his remaining forces, a clutch of automatons and ostriches and what remained of his vassals. The shout of the battlefield drowned his words. They charged.
By the time he arrived, breathless and hacking up saliva, the mermaids had died to the last. Most perished assaulting a snail that had moved to shield its master. They lay among its shattered shell, green ichor oozing from holes their spears had made. The sight of their delicate legs severed and crushed gave the son pause. More pitiful were the mutilated fish faces already starting to ripen, a dinner for the flies. Among them lay Pearl, who had speared the snail through its throat even as it flattened her under its belly, a smile on her lips.
A spear flew at his face. He dodged to the right. Another moment and the blade would have gored him. He thrust his spear through the antelope-masked woman’s belly, the force of which jarred his arm to the shoulder. Blood spewed from her mouthhole. Even as he jerked the blade free, the rest of them charged, wolf-eyed women bearing spears and cudgels. Behind them he saw their mounted lord, Jade at his side with shield and sword.
Mad with bloodlust, the son met them with bronze. Strength pumped from the armor into his exhausted limbs. For Diamond and Pearl, he hacked and dismembered.
Five lay dead at his feet. Jade vaulted over their bodies. It seemed as if she moved through water, so clearly did he see the blade stab for him. His shield-arm refused to rise. Metal punctured his breast and kept driving until it exited his back. In terror he saw his blood gush down the quilting. Four eyes glimmered down on him, soaking in the kill. With his left hand he gripped the pommel and stopped her from twisting the blade. With his right he squeezed her neck. She had time enough to register shock before he crushed her throat to green shards. Her head landed at the foot of her lord’s scaly mount.
The veiled one regarded the head only a moment before turning his masked visage to the son. Unarmed, he extended both hands with the dusty palms turned upward.
“Come!” said the enemy. “Come!”
The son’s armor was rags. Knees buckled, he cast aside his broken spear and hefted the sword of a fallen soldier. In the din of battle, a hush fell over them. He saw dead bodies everywhere and sorrowed for all he had wrought. He tried to banish this weakness but it grew roots in him. It seemed there would be no end to the bloodshed, that it would sweep them all in a tornado of corpses until the world was dead.
The son let drop the sword. Because he still had his ultimate weapon strapped to his back.
Instead of running for his enemy, he made for a hovercraft that had crashed but remained intact, quickly started the engine. As he flew heavenward, he heard a roar from the veiled one.
The son clung desperately to the handholds as the air grew cold and thin. Below he could see the bodies of his subjects clog the savannah, pieces of jeweled skin blowing like tumbleweeds. His legendary army turned to leaves in a gutter pipe. The shouts of triumph or defeat grew faint. Wind and sorrow brought tears to his eyes. He flew far and away from the battlefield, only to find, when he looked down, the relentless enemy following on his steed.
He was pursued over savannah and field to the murmuring coast, where the ghosts of mermaids sang to fishermen and gulls dreamed of when they were princes. Where the tallest palm in the kingdom grew atop a precipice. The sun had begun its descent as the son angled for a landing. The smell of destruction still clung to his nostrils, the smoky scent of regret. The wound in his chest bled. His vision dimmed.
“You’ll be glad to know you finished me, Jade,” he rasped. “I am left without my kingdom, my stool, my art. I am nothing.” Too weak to operate the controls, he could no longer decelerate. The nose of the machine slammed full force into the earth and sent him airborne. Only the remains of his armor protected him as he rolled several feet. Battered and bruised, he rose unsteadily, stripped off the torn armor so he could move freely in his breeks. Gingerly, he touched the wound in his chest and came away with fresh blood on his fingers. He hugged the tallest palm and began to climb.
Every inch he gained drained the strength from him. Not even halfway up, he glanced over his shoulder and saw the dust of the approaching king. He kept climbing.
A deep voice called from below, “Hold!”
The son stopped. “Why should I?” he called to the hooded one. “While I still have my weapon, I can win.”
The enemy stood at the roots. “First you must know who I am.”
He lifted his hood and lowered the seashell veil. In astonishment the son stared upon the same beautiful features he’d first beheld staring into the lake. Unexpectedly, this revelation brought peace to his beleaguered mind.
“Of course,” he said to the enemy, himself. “You were always there. The part of me I rejected.”
The enemy nodded. “When you were born, your father saw the demon in you. He called his priestesses. They shook the calabash rattle and said the prayers until I was exorcized. You were able to pursue greatness without my dark words in your ear. I was expelled to wander the world seeking my place.” He extended his hand. “Give me the weapon. I call a truce.”
“Why did you attack me?” the son demanded to know. “We could have always called truce.”
“Because I wanted an end to it,” said the side of him that hurt and maimed. “There was no other way to exercise my passions but through cruelty. I have crushed all opposition and the people live in fear of my whim, which is capricious. I hate everyone and everything. I chafe at my reign because I know it to be chains. My people despise me.”
“I would say you’ve earned it,” the son rejoined, even as he admired his shadow, for he recognized one who shared his obsessive nature.
“You feel chained too,” said the shadow. “I know because I am you. But unlike you, I never wanted to rule.”
“Neither did I!” snapped the son. The outburst left him lightheaded, and for a heart-stopping moment his hands slipped down the hairy trunk. He dug fingernails into the wood and clung, waiting for his body to stop shaking. He knew, at last, that he spoke the truth. Great as it was, his realm had ever been a byproduct of his artistry, his stool an inheritance he’d grown to loathe with passing years.
His shadow extended a hand. “Let us be brothers.”
The son noticed the trail of blood down the trunk. Cold sweat beaded his brow. He knew that he would never reach the canopy. The effort of lifting the gourd off his back caused his shoulder to throb with pain. “There will be an end,” he panted.
Seeing his intention, the shadow dove to catch the gourd as it fell. It shattered at his feet. From it came the son’s greatest possession: his imagination. His brilliance took wing to fill the downtrodden western lands, then every land. All he’d once hoarded now belonged to the world.
“So you fall,” he told the shadow who, in his haste, tripped and impaled himself on the shards. With a last startled gasp, the king died.
There between heaven and earth a sense of peace came upon the son. Unable to hold on, he plummeted to the waters below.
Blue enveloped him. He watched the light waver above. Was this death? If so, he did not fear. He absorbed the consoling silence. A school of fish braided between his legs, reminder of his poor mermaids. Let the ocean be my pyre, he thought.
From the dark emerged a silhouette that took shape as it grew larger, then coalesced into the image of his father, a giant of a man, faceless after all these years.
“There are worlds beyond this one,” he had said. “Places where the curtain is thin. I won’t see them, but perhaps you will.” A true memory. It had been long since he’d thought of his father, and he knew this would be the last time.
Finally he felt sand through his torn sandals. He had no idea how his body had righted itself, yet he stood on his feet, upright before a cave from which a shadowy figure approached with patient gait. He still bled; in the dark his death was the color of mulberries. The son sank to his knees with no strength left to fight. Not after battling himself.
The stranger was an old man with a beard to his toes. “You come from the sunlit lands,” he said. “You smell of battle.”
“Because I was in a battle,” the son replied shamefully. “Many died, including two women who loved me.”
“I smell jade on your hands.”
“Because today I killed a woman who’d loved me.”
“Yet there is also happiness in you.”
“Because I killed the side of myself I hate.”
“Have you? That seems a hard task. You mourn not for the people who died for you, nor by your hand.”
“I do mourn the dead,” said the son, “but I mourn for myself most of all. I gave my creativity to the world, and because of this I have nothing left to give. I cannot live in a world where I am like everyone else.”
The elder’s thick lips tightened in a smile. “Fish tell me they sing of you in the sunlit lands. They have erected shrines to your memory. They say you descended to the ocean but shall one day return to lead them.”
He shook his head once. “I die. Even if I could return, without my talents it would be worse than death.”
“And if you were able to go elsewhere? Be someone else?”
“I would not have a kingdom. I would be joy itself. I would give the people life and make them dance.”
“I have a feeling,” said the old man, “that you have much left to give. And much battle still to do with your shadow.”
In his mind the son heard his own voice say, Take me with you. Dark crept in from the corners of his eyes. He welcomed it. In darkness there was discovery.
He let go.
When the light returned, he found himself holding some type of weapon. A bludgeon made of rosewood, shiny as a scepter. The moment he put fingers to strings he started experimenting with sounds. He stood on a stage in front of an empty theater. He saw five people, men and women of brown and white hues. Each had an instrument. A breathtaking sight! All the people united. This was the world he wanted to live in. He turned to one of them, a black man in a headband.
“Yo Dez,” he said, “I’ma riff and you throw in when you ready.” And he played.
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