Banisu stirred in his sheets, haunted by some half-forgotten nightmare. He sat up in the predawn gloom, blinking as he came to wakefulness, and stifled a yawn. The teenager moved his legs over the side of the bed and stayed seated there for some time. Banisu closed his eyes and concentrated, his monk training taking over as he relaxed, his heartbeat slowing. Of course, he wasn’t really a monk. Not even an initiate, although he could pass for one in his drab tunic, as he moved daily from tutor to tutor. Yet today was to be different, he remembered, a vague sensation tugging at his thoughts. What was happening today?
As Banisu felt himself drifting back to sleep, a sudden knocking at the door drew his attention. After a moment’s pause, the bald head of Abbot Cibu peeked in, the sturdy old monk looking as insufferably alert as ever.
“Good, you’re up,” the abbot said without preamble. “So you remembered today is to be the day of the inspection.”
“I dreamed…” Banisu’s voice caught with hesitation. “Of ships?”
It had seemed so clear earlier, but already the vision seemed to be fading away. He searched for the dream but it was like snatching at smoke.
Abbot Cibu didn’t even feign interest, his lined face unmoving beneath his bushy white eyebrows. He was an honest man in that sense even though he participated in the greatest lie in all the Three Kingdoms. The absurd farce that the boy Emperor had any real power.
“We are to see one ship, anyway. Get ready, we’ll be leaving soon. Don’t forget to wear your traveling clothes.” Traveling clothes. That’s what he called the royal garments.
Banisu sat there, pondering for some time. Even on the rare occasion when he could wear the royal garments that marked him out as the Emperor it wasn’t his choice. He was powerless and didn’t even have control over his own room. Banisu sighed in petulance and remained sitting on his bed, looking with gloom at the small but ornate cell he had been quartered in.
A teak dresser with gilt edgings. Several copies of bound tomes that he was studying. A small ink pot with a writing brush beside it. He might as well have been an imprisoned scholar. Banisu rocked his legs back and forth, thinking of the life he could have had, if he hadn’t been appointed heir after his father had been immolated all those years ago. Then he thought back to his dream. Those were big ships, far bigger than any he had seen before…
After a few minutes, the abbot stuck his head back in and frowned. “Come on now boy, let’s go!”
Banisu grimaced and slid out of bed, donning his clothing in haste. A true Emperor would have a servant to fasten the garment from behind, weaving the intricate embroidered design together and setting his peaked cap on just so. Of course, Banisu was no true Emperor, and so he did the best he could with awkward and hurried motions.
His clothing in place, Banisu splashed cold water over his face and scrubbed his teeth with powder. He made his way out of his modest quarters, pulling his ornate clothing up so it didn’t trail on the ground. Banisu paused midway, turning back to pick up his worn copy of the Saga of the Lotus Prince. In the dim light he made his way through his secluded quarters. The thin paper wall that led to the outside slid open with a soundless motion, and even in the gloom Banisu could see the outlines of the guards through the translucent material.
Bodyguards as well as jailers.
Banisu brushed past the guards, who stood motionless in respectful silence, and walked down the path that led through the walled garden and out toward the open gate. Standing in the open were four muscular men who flanked a palanquin decorated with ornate golden whirls that represented the cycle of life. Farther down the road were gathered about a dozen guardsmen in Kintari armor brandishing a mix of halberds and swords. By their upright bearing and the sheen of their lamellar armor it was clear they were elite soldiers.
The abbot stood motionless next to the cart, giving a benign smile as he gestured inside. Though his robes were the simple one of an ordinary monk, the abbot’s bearing was as straight as could be, and Banisu felt himself unconsciously emulating the old man.
“Shall we depart, Respected Emperor?” the abbot asked with clear courtesy. For the benefit of the audience, of course.
“Yes,” Banisu squeaked, and then coughed. His voice had been doing that a lot lately. “Yes, Abbot Cibu,” he replied in a somewhat deeper voice.
He squeezed his way in, pushing the cloth curtain aside, and made himself comfortable on the hard wooden surface. The silence of early morning was broken only by the soft creaking of armor from the movement of the guards, and the chirruping noise from a pair of birds in the nearby jungle. Banisu knew it would be a long ride.to wherever they were going, and it would grow much warmer as the morning dragged on. Cloth rustled aside as Abbot Cibu stuck his head in, and for a terrible moment Banisu feared that they would be riding along together. Instead, the old monk gave Banisu an appraising look, as if he was staring into the boy’s very soul and was both unimpressed and unsurprised.
“Did you bring your book?”
Banisu produced the Saga of the Lotus Prince from amongst the folds of his robes. He had found that one benefit of the absurd clothing an Emperor was expected to wear was that it allowed him to conceal a great deal. As Banisu’s hand brushed against the bundle of lychees he had stuffed in another pocket, he felt one of them fall to the floor of the palanquin. His heart stopped, anticipating the furious lecture he would receive about staining his clothing with contraband fruits from the gardens, though the abbot seemed distracted and hadn’t noticed. Banisu casually covered the fallen lychee with one foot and kept his expression innocent.
“Good,” the abbot grunted. “I’ll expect you to make some progress with that,” he said, moving his head out of the palanquin and sliding the partition of cloth and bamboo shut. Banisu scowled once he was sure the abbot had left, retrieving his fallen lychee and feeling a small burst of triumph at this most trivial act of defiance.
No rest from studying, even on a trip. The Saga of the Lotus Prince was an exceptionally dull and dry tome, liked only by monks for the numerous parables it contained and for the powerful sleep-inducing effects it had on those unfortunate initiate monks tasked with studying it. And this Lotus Prince is nothing at all like the Prince of the Wastes, Banisu thought, reflecting on the stories he had heard about the legendary mercenary general who roamed the Veldt on his famous war elephant. I bet he wouldn’t let monks boss him around all day...
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