A Long Tango across a Canopy of Whispering Leaves
The return of the last Festival King was not mere rumour.
Half a dozen heralds from Marip preceded his return, with a new summons from the Steward. Dusk-skinned youth dressed in flowers and skin-tight fluorescent blue breeches had read the proclamations from east to west. The Steward was returning the last Festival King. A new Festival King would be crowned at the duels. In the summons were also the names of four hopefuls, chosen from amongst the descendants of former Kings.
Melur’s name had been one of them. It was not a surprise to Melur who had been sleeping within the weave of the forests’ consciousness for twenty-five years since the disappearance of her lover. For those years, the Festival had been Kingless. It was a gap that was unprecedented for the Mykologosia. There had been Festivals for as long as there had been humans inhabiting the sentient mushroom dwellings, and there had always been Kings. But now, there was to be another duel. And if Melur was chosen, she would be the one duelling her lover, as they had both promised each other that night.
Melur stared up at the ceiling which she had painted with elaborate scenes from the stories from various hikayat. Gallant and heroic in the garb of a panji, there was the woman warrior of Hikayat Panji Semarang, garbed with flair as a male-presenting warrior on a horse as she rode to rescue her lover, her moustachios smartly positioned against the nut-brown contours of her face. She painted the Princess of Gunung Ledang, dressed in fine songket as she upbraided the Sultan of Malacca who was heartless enough to want to spill his son’s blood for her hand in marriage. She painted Tun Teja, who had been coerced away from her home to marry yet another Sultan of Malacca. In the centre of the ceiling, she painted the holy Jentayu bird, iridescent and white. She had used the luminescent artist’s paints that had been manufactured in the Mishgalaveri Vale and sold by the art supplies shops that crammed together on Eldritch Street.
Post-midnight and ante-sleep, the warrior princesses and holy birds multiplied on the ceiling, dancing across her line of vision with their gestures. They would manifest in the air around her and listen as she whispered to them her secrets, and as she wove into them spells with the aid of their sentient fungi home that had shaped itself in accordance to the dreams and wishes of the family it had allowed to inhabit its part-mechanical, part-organic depths. Melur’s creations watched over her as she slept, as they always had since she had learned that when she painted pictures, they would come to life. Sleep however could not come when the Festival King was returning in the morning, and not even her ethereal companions could distract her from the dragonflies that clustered within her, filling her both with panic and with a long-banked desire. Sleep could not halt the messages the forests wove into her unconscious, nor her battle with those forests – a battle that had continued for a quarter of a century.
Long before the Festival King defeated his opponent and was awarded the living crown of the three sentient forests of Yrejveree, Melur had known him as a quiet bicycle artisan who lived down the street. She worked in the restaurant next door run by their cousins, serving up a mixture of Minangkabau and Nyonya food to various hungry workers who made their living in that quarter. Yorick Lam had never wanted to be a Festival King, but the forests had chosen him. He had won the annual duel for the Kingship with a look of profound surprise. The switch in his hand had transformed the old Festival King into a wizened woodwork creature that crept back into the embrace of the sighing trees of the forests that curved around the Mykologosia. That was unexpected – but it was a season of change for more than one person; the forests also sang their susurrating song inside Melur’s head from that day onwards, haunting her with memories of Yorick and of their last tango together as humans.
“Have I become a murderer?” Yorick Lam had asked Melur when she ran to him, raining kisses and tears upon his brow. He had knelt there in the arena, weeping ichor and tree sap as the living crown wove itself around his brow. He leaned against her form and cried into her belly as she stroked his hair, her fingers entangled every now and then by the writhing crown that filled her head with the susurrus of the three forests. If she could, she thought, she would hold the forests back. If she could, she would be a buffer, seeking to protect him from the remote darkness that banked in his eyes. An alien darkness, one that drove a wedge between them.
“No,” Melur had said then, her voice strained as she pressed against the weight of millions of forestal entities encroaching upon her grief-stricken mind, “You were not to know that the rules had changed again. None of us could have guessed that the forests would claim the festival for itself.”
Later, the festivities spilled into the streets, lanes, and the back-lanes of a city-state that had grown around mechanically-augmented sentient fungi the size of houses, of mansions, of castles. Melur and Yorick found themselves back in Clearing Seven, where all of the weekly tango lessons they had attended had been run by an Argentinian woman who supplied beeswax candles and soaps to more than one shop in the Mykologosia. Flowing into the position of the apilado, Melur and the Festival King could hear and feel each other’s breath, and their hearts beat almost in unison. Their eyes locked as their limbs moved with the practiced rhythm of familiarity. Proximity was as natural as the slide of skin over sanguine flesh and ivory-white bone. They had been neighbours, and then dance partners. They had been friends who had slipped easily into the routine of lovers.
They slid into the embrace of the abrazo abierto with the ease of familiarity, his hand around her waist, hers on his upper arm. The relaxed proximity was a familiar one, but it was charged tonight with the frisson of a thousand whispers moving up and down Melur’s bare skin.
As she shivered, Yorick said, “The forests dance with us tonight, and that’s quite an embrace”.
“Yes, I can feel them, with every step we take,” Melur admitted.
“Arboreal chaperones, I’ve never been so curtailed,” Yorick laughed down at her upturned face, the blunt contours of his already weather-beaten features lit up in the enjoyment of the tango. He laughed, but there was a tinge of panic in that laugh. Soon, their shared intimacy lapsed into a watchful silence as the alien awareness that simmered within his irises wove and unwove filaments of what used to be Yorick before Melur’s eyes.
“My father repaired bicycles in Ipoh long before we all moved here,” he said apropos of nothing, this new Yorick who seemed to shift more than one consciousness as they danced. It was almost as though she had never known his family history, but this version of her lover seemed to be untethering himself from the past with every breath, with every syllable dropped. As though they were conversing for the first time. To alleviate her sadness and dim fear, Melur decided to play along with the conversation, hoping the normalcy would turn Yorick back into the man she had loved for so long.
“How many centuries ago was that?” she asked, taunting him ever-so-slightly as though they were at their weekly dance lessons.
“Well, I’m not that old, and you know it!” His laughter curled around them, a rueful note against the music that was their cue for the volcada.
Yorick was still laughing when she rested her weight on him in a half-lean. He twirled slightly further away than recommended for the figure, causing her to almost stumble. It felt deliberate – an unkindness Yorick had never visited upon her in all of their dance classes together.
There was a breathless moment when she wondered if he was going to drop her. His eyes were liquid danger stirred through with seduction, but they were not just his eyes anymore. Thousands upon thousands of tree-spirits crowded brown irises. She felt them pressing against the inner walls of her skull. Melur willed the consciousness of those tree-spirits away. This dance was theirs, and it had to matter. She allowed him to bend her body and sway them left, and then right, in curved precision as they transitioned into the media luna. The tension between their bodies was a familiar tension that would reach across the years they knew each other, the years they had lost each other, and the fateful day when they danced their final duel, twenty-five years later.
Being a Festival King had transformed him, in a way that she desired to be transformed.
“Well, it is a valid question. Kings of the Festival are supposed to be theoretically immortal,” she said even though she had the proof within this abrazo that her lover was now indeed immortal. The proof shivered up and down her arms; it filled them both with an electricity beyond their usual chemistry. She felt her heartbeat recede and then spike in an oddly staccato rhythm. She felt as though air was thickening within her lungs, turning into liquid sap. And yet they danced, even as the Festival King transformed, and even as she herself was being transformed. Still, they carried out the semblance of normalcy.
What else could old lovers do on a night like this?
“It’s all theoretical and only theoretical these days. The crown passes to the next King, so it is the idea of the King that remains immortal, not the human representatives. Before either of us were born, Kings would die at the end of their term. Aila stopped that law, as with other laws she considered barbaric. But what happened just now, oh heavens, Melur. What happened earlier? I…did not expect that.”
Ah. The old Yorick reknit himself into the partner who trembled against her fingers even as they danced, his eyes burning into hers with a desperate intensity that emoted save me. Please save me. If only she knew how, thought Melur then, a thought that would haunt her for a quarter of a century. Melur shivered even as he leaned his forehead against hers.
“My grandmother lived,” she said.
Melur’s grandmother had been the King long before the last Festival King had absconded with the ceremonial sceptre and the teakwood crown. There were black and white photos of Fatima Salleh dressed in a smart tuxedo, smoking a cigar while wearing the writhing living crown jauntily on her neat head, sporting flapper curls which accentuated her high cheekbones and her kohl-lined eyes. Fatima ruled the Festival every year until the end of her five-year term, and was seen around the Protectorate sporting various smart tuxedos with that crown. When her reign ended, she returned the crown to the Festival Council, but everyone remembered her as the most glamorous and most beloved Festival King who ever lived.
Yorick’s exhalation against her brow was as pensive as the elegant melody that dipped and arced around them as they moved, fluid as nights of repressed desire. “I remember her. Fatima Salleh, our radiant King in tuxedo and tails. Yes, she lived, and none of us will ever understand why. Perhaps she was simply too beautiful to kill. But every deposed Festival King after that lived. Every one of them. Until this afternoon. Until…whatever that was, happened.”
Oh, the hurt, this hurt of always feeling never up to the mark.
Melur flinched against the remembrance of jibes that asserted that she was not as lovely as her grandmother or her mother. But those jibes had not been Yorick’s, had never been his. And he was too contorted by his own grief to notice the pain that wracked her own form, a surprise even to herself. But there were other surprises. Yorick, whether the new Yorick or the one she loved, was not insensitive to her needs.
He said, “You have her eyes. And that jaw. And your beauty is of a different sort. Incandescent with passion and with need. You have always undone me with your fire. You’d make an unforgettable Festival King. Are you duelling to be king next term?”
Even now, he read her so well. Even now, with the forests crowding his eyes as much as they crowded Melur’s own head with their whispered incantations. Or perhaps the deal had already been sealed when she ran towards him as he knelt in that clearing, weeping. A two-for-one kind of deal, one might say.
“No, I don’t think I’ll be ready next term,” Melur had said, doubt laced through her movements in tandem with his, their bodies sliding with ease into the rhythm set by the band that played on the side of the clearing, colourful paper lanterns raining eldritch patterns of light cut by shadows against the serious faces of the musicians.
“But you want to be king, don’t you?”
He read the wish in her eyes so clearly. She wondered if her need was so transparent, or if that was just the forests speaking through him, speaking into her.
“When I’m ready, yes.”
“When you’re ready,” he echoed. “When you’re ready, my Melur, I will be there. God help me, and forests willing, I will be there.”
“And I will be ready to fight for you,” she replied, her tone half-fierce as her hands gripped his upper arms so desperately, that he winced in pain.
Yorick disappeared that night, along with the living wildwood crown that had writhed upon his brow even as he had led Melur into their final embrace, and a kiss that was meant to last a quarter century.
She would be haunted by that dance in her dreams both while asleep and while awake – cooking various Minang and Hainanese dishes in their cafe, serving it, and listening to the susurrus of the wind troubling the trees of Nemorosium Somnium.
Where are you, Yorick?
She would whisper this to herself, even as the trees sang to her about an arboreal surrender.
Kenanga was stirring chicken congee on the stove when Melur entered the kitchen the next morning. Her sister looked up in acknowledgement, her eyes reddened with the tell-tale signs of tears. Her brother was busy slicing spring onions to garnish the congee, a strained look on his usually cheerful face. A small stack of julienned young ginger was arranged at the edge of his wooden chopping board. Melur placed the fresh bunch of coriander she had picked from the vegetable herb garden lot they shared with four other families who lived around Clearing Five-Zero next to Raslan’s chopping board.
A bowl of salted eggs waited for her attention on the opposite end of the long kitchen table. Grabbing a small knife, she halved, and then quartered the eggs in their shells.
“Can’t you run away from this, Kak Melur?” her brother Raslan asked, his face made longer by his grim expression of woe.
“Where would I run?” Melur asked.
“Aila’s estate would be a good idea. She’d know what to do,” said Kenanga.
“Look, I appreciate your concern, but much of the speculation is just that, speculation. There’s no real evidence to suggest that there will be fights to the death. Why would the Steward…,”
“He has a grudge against the Guardian, remember?”
“And she’s been mostly absent these past five years,” Raslan said as he rose up and grabbed the bowl full of deep-fried anchovies and peanuts.
Melur said, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You know I want to become the Festival King.”
“I rather wish you didn’t, Melur. There are other ways to honour our grandmother, sayang,” Kenanga said as she ladled the congee into rice bowls. “Please don’t do this. You’re our eldest sister, you’re all we have.”
“This isn’t about Nenek, Kenanga. I want to be Festival King. For myself,” said Melur who was tight-lipped from trying to keep the constant sussurus in her head at bay. She sounded selfish, she thought to herself. Sounded like she was giving up her family on a whim. But – she had a twenty-five-year-old commitment.
“I just don’t understand why it means so much to you,” Raslan said as he poured steaming milk tea from one enamel mug to another in a long stream of liquid for their morning teh tarik. These familiar acts of morning domesticity, oh how they hurt. They were a reproachful reminder of how these communal acts of making breakfast had bonded them after they had lost their parents.
“None of you ever could. But I don’t blame you. I don’t really understand it myself, but I feel it, the same way I feel the forests thrumming inside me,” said Melur, finally voicing what had been unvoiced for so long.
“The forests? Like what –,” Raslan began, then stopped. His eyes shuttered in dismay and quiet horror.
“It happened when Yorick became Festival King. I’ve known since then. I’m sorry,” said Melur.
Around them the fungi home they lived in seemed to shudder as she said the words, then they were embalmed in the sound of rustling leaves.
“Well,” said Kenanga, sighing. “There’s that. You’ve always been the most attuned to our home, so perhaps this goes beyond either my understanding or Raslan’s. I feel so – helpless. Is there nothing we can do?”
“Yes, there is one thing you can do, Kenanga.”
“What is that?” both her siblings said in unison before they stared at each other.
Melur inhaled, not even pushed to chuckle at the moment. “You can trust me,” she finally said.
Kenanga nodded, even as she pulled Raslan into a half-hug, half-chokehold.
“Owww, that hurts, kakak!”
“Don’t you dare do anything foolhardy next.”
“Sumpah, Kakak, I won’t. I’ve never been particularly adventurous, anyway.”
They sat down to eat the chicken congee with frothy teh tarik, liberally sweetened with condensed milk and with a one-inch froth that gave the siblings identical tea moustaches. As they ate, they were silent. Melur wondered if they were all similarly thinking about their Hainanese mother, long-perished in one of the assassinations that took place thirty years ago. Their father, a stoic Minang Malay man had outlived his wife by only five years before his heart expired on him. Five years was too long a time to outlive the love of his life, he had whispered before he closed his eyes for the last time.
She lifted her head to meet her brother’s eyes. He took a deep breath and nodded at her once before leaning over to grab her hands with a fist. “We can’t lose you too, Melur. We only have each other. Try your best not to—I don’t even know what I am asking. But try. Try. Please!”
Melur nodded, not daring to say more. Within her more secrets than the depth and breadth of the forests. Within her lay the scrolling vistas she had painted on murals and on ceilings. Of Minang and Javanese princesses and panjis. Of the weight and strength of their combined heritages. Of spell-work and of the sheer, desperate need for survival.
Kenanga let out the air she had been holding in. Her exhalation sounded like a sob. She held her siblings’s hands in her large and capable hands.
“I’ll be manning the weapons stall right next to the duel clearing. So, if you’re in need, I’ll be on standby,” said Raslan, clearly not able to give in.
“Don’t do anything foolish, Lan. It’s probably not even necessary,” Kenanga said, clearly not able not to give intgo optimism.
Kenanga had volunteered to be one of the officials at the ceremony, another gesture meant so a rescue could be made, Melur supposed. She stood up and stretched before taking her emptied bowl. She could not destroy whatever it was they needed to cope, to survive this day.
“No, don’t worry, Melur. I’ll wash up, go and get ready,” said Kenanga.
“What would I do without the two of you?” Melur said.
Raslan laughed. “Now I know you’re not as nonchalant about this as you claim to be. Not like you to be sentimental.”
Melur made a face at him for about a second before he engulfed her in a bear hug.
She squeezed him back, her hands making awkward patting gestures.
“Go put on that killer tux, Kak Melur. And try not to die,” said Raslan.
Kenanga’s face was resolute. “Remember, Melur. Survive, don’t submit.”
Melur said, “Thanks, my loves. And you two – remember the same.”
Melur made her way to the open-air arena where the duels were to be held. She had watched the duels more than once. It did not really require combatants to be proficient, as the switches they were given were magicked. The outcome was rarely dependent on ability, merely on luck. Once, those switches were fatal. And then for many decades, centuries even – they were only for show. Until the afternoon when Yorick had held a switch that turned a man into something eldritch, something irreversible.
Melur walked through the crowd to the Contender’s Row and found her seat. She looked at the other Contenders. The Mykologosia was big but not densely populated so most people knew each other. She sat next to Kieran Lee, who looked morose as he considered the duelling arena.
“Another candidate. I see Marip chose the more well-known amongst us, or the more infamous,” Kieran said, tacitly acknowledging that once upon a time he had been accused of the mass murders that had occurred around the same time that Yorick had disappeared. He had been exonerated by evidence and an iron-clad alibi, but that did nothing to stop the gossip and the speculative, fearful glances.
Melur remembered Yorick telling her that Kieran’s grandfather and his father had been friends in Ipoh – but Kieran had found his own way into Yrejveree.
“When we arrived on Yrejveree, we were often surprised at who else found their way here through one of the apertures from the world that we left,” he’d said one of those evenings after dance class, when they were still pretending they were just friends.
“I suppose it was the same for my great grandparents when they arrived. So many friends and old lovers eventually turned up,” Melur said.
“Perhaps that is a truth about this world we inhabit. Friends and old lovers always turn up,” said Kieran, his voice thoughtful as they sat side by side on a stone bench, watching the flickering lanterns reflect the trunks of the forest that lay just beyond the Mykologosia.
Melur brushed back the memory that lurked at the edges of her consciousness. The candidates were all about the same age, except for Maryani who had been in the Protectorate for far longer than the rest of them. The Javanese businesswoman smoked a thick cheroot, her thickly lined eyes darting to the left and right in apprehension.
“No telling why we’re here, or how the Steward will change the rules,” commented Larkin as he sat down next to her. He pushed back his turban and stretched out his jean-clad long legs, sighing in a despondent manner. Larkin Singh had been their neighbour for many years and had helped the family countless times after their parents had died. He was a poet when he wasn’t running a chai shop for the day-trippers who visited Yrejveree.
(His name, he told people, was what his father had given him at birth, because Phillip Larkin had been a favourite poet, but Melur reckoned it was nobody’s business but his and his parents.)
“I don’t think this is supposed to be an honor,” Melur said with doubt.
“I know it’s not,” Kieran said, cursing under his breath. “This is all a huge bother. I have so much work to do up at Domus Exsuli now that Aila’s gone on one of her trips again.”
Melur asked him curiously, “What’s it like, working for her?”
Kieran grinned. “She’s pretty easy-going on her own estate, actually. And she’s been around less and less these days. I’ve pretty much taken over most of her duties.”
“Is that why you’re here today?”
“No, I have no idea why I was chosen, to be honest.”
Around them flew banners for various stalls.
The arena was bedecked with ribbons and flowers trailing up poles that held up a canopy of sparkling lights, leaves and flower chains. It resembled, or tried to emulate, the Steward’s Bower deep within Nemus Animae, one of the three forests that lay within his domain, Melur thought, remembering her one trip within the Nemus Animae, when she had been a teenager. Was this a compulsion or an attempt at conciliation? The crowd hushed, signifying the arrival of the Steward. Melur was almost afraid to look up, but a strong impulse drew her eyes.
Everyone knew that the summons was a sign that the Steward was displeased with the Mykologosia, but in truth, the fairies, penunggu and other creatures of his domain were as unhappy with the folk of the Mykologosia — nevermind that many of them were not human.
The Steward himself entered the clearing, followed by a train of nonhuman creatures from more than one region of Terra Cognita. There were nymphs and apsaras, there were faeries from the British Isles and from Brittany. There were the more Persian peri. There were the owl-women of the Malay archipelagos, and the Khinnaree from Thailand and the North of Malaysia. A brightly painted palanquin, carried by six burly men arrested her attention. Yorick sat there. He no longer had his Cantonese pop-star looks, but his face had a leaner, hungrier slant to it. His skin was deeply tanned and his hair fell down to his back in a wild tangle of waves and braids that looked like tangled lianas.
Melur met his startled eyes with an inward clench. She wondered what she looked like to him now, after twenty-five years.
The Steward stopped in the middle of the arena and clapped his hands. His entourage gathered around him. Yorick’s palanquin was lowered to the ground.
“Nearly a century ago today, your Guardian Aila da Silva decreed that no more deaths would be allowed in the duels for each new Festival King,” said Marip as he surveyed the crowd through his deep-set almond eyes, his lips pursed with mild disapproval on a smooth face of mahogany brown.
“I acquiesced at the time because there was no sense in arguing with her. But,” he said as he beckoned to Yorick, “this is no mere crown, and was carved from no mere tree.”
“It requires its rewards,” Marip continued, “and so I plucked the last Festival King from your midst so he could serve in the stead of the spirits who would have been made from those…deaths, as you called them.”
“And were they not deaths indeed, Marip?” asked another voice. A firm, angry voice.
Kieran laughed quietly next to Melur. “I knew it!” he said, “I knew Aila couldn’t keep away.”
“It’s likely that he knew that as well. That is why he chose you. She’d not let anything happen to one she took in as a foster son,” said Maryani, her enunciated syllables as sour as pickled lime. By her side was her teenaged daughter, Vita, dressed in denim dungarees as she loomed over her mother in a gesture of protection.
“So this was an act of provocation?” Melur asked softly, as her eyes met Yorick’s across the clearing. Recognition flashed across his face as he stared at her. Melur breathed slowly, willing herself not to run to him. Memories of all of their conversations, of the times when their tangled limbs mimicked the gestures of the dances that were a mere prelude to their union within the modest covers of his bed.
“They were not deaths, Aila. And you would have known that if you truly understood about us folk of the forests. Look at my court!”
Aila and the rest of the spectators stared at the various figures recognisable as previous Festival Kings, thought to be dead or deposed. The portraits of the Festival Kings lined the Museum of the Elders, and most of them were recognisable from other works of art that were sold on Artists Row. Some of them had wings now, and others had horns growing from their foreheads. All of them had changed. Even Yorick, with his gleaming eyes, and the vines that twirled themselves around his lean, tattooed body.
“They have become something else, not human,” Aila said, her voice soft.
“They were chosen because they wanted to cross over, Aila.”
The Guardian stepped forward into the light, now visible to everyone. She pushed back the head of her cloak, the most solidly human presence in the whole Arena. Her kuning langsat skin gleamed with health while her muscled, stocky body betrayed the strength of someone who trained, and who was poised for action. It was no surprise why this woman was allowed to preside over an entire island, Melur mused. She also mused that most of the gossip in the Protectorate had to be wrong. Marip did not seem enraged at all by Aila.
He seemed concerned, and wryly amused.
“You do know that there was no way Aila would have been Guardian if the different Stewards had not agreed, right?” Kieran whispered in her ear.
“Yes, that much is true. But why did they agree? She’s not even from here,” Melur whispered back to Kieran.
“Most of us are not from here. This island has more exiles on it than indigenes. All of us. Even the…faeries, as they are known on Terra Cognita. Even the dragons. We all came here because we needed to run away from something. As did our parents.”
“Or our great-grandparents,” Melur said softly.
“Ah, I forgot that you’re fourth generation.”
“Some days, even I forget, Kieran.”
“What do you think will happen to us now?” whispered Larkin as he stood closer to them.
“I think we’re about to find out,” said Maryani. “Vita, step back, `nak. I don’t want the Steward noticing you.”
“Too late, ibu,” said Vita, as Marip ambled over to them. She saluted him smartly.
“Good afternoon, sir!” Vita said, as he turned to her.
“Hullo Vita, when are you coming over to my Grove again? I’ve got some repairs that need attending,” Marip said, giving her a lazy smile.
“I can be there tomorrow if you like,” said Vita. Beside her, Maryani bristled.
“Relax, Maryani. Your daughter’s safe from vying for Kingship. She’s far too useful as she is,” Marip said.
“What do you want from us? What if we don’t want to be King?” Maryani said.
“Are you sure you don’t want to be King, ibu?” Vita asked her mother in a sceptical voice.
“Honey, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m plenty powerful in Mykologosia. I do not, however, have a death wish.”
Melur wondered if her grandmother and Maryani had been friends. Her grandmother, who had been spared “death” as King, and who had died the natural way, surrounded by her grandchildren. That was probably best, Melur thought. She did not think her debonair grandmother would have liked becoming a nonhuman entity. She looked again at Yorick. He remained in the centre of the clearing.
“Well, who would like to do the duel with Yorick, knowing full well what’s ahead?”
“Not death, right?” asked Larkin.
“Not death,” Aila said, her voice firm.
Marip nodded at her. “Not death, but failure will lead to banishment from the Mykologosia. You will be claimed by one of my forests.”
“I’ll do it,” said Melur suddenly.
“Melur, no!” Raslan ran up to her.
“Look, we always knew it was going to be me. I’ve been preparing for this since that night. And if it’s me who’s chosen to be King, the rest of them will be spared.”
“And if it’s not you, Melur?” Marip asked, his eyes intent on her.
“Then the rest get better odds of survival,” Melur said, meeting his intense, inhuman gaze with her calm eyes.
Marip nodded. “Go then. He’s waiting for you. They are waiting for you.”
Melur walked to the center of the clearing in her tuxedo and tails. Her ikal mayang hair was knotted neatly at the nape of her neck as she reached Yorick.
His eyes gleamed at her as his hands claimed hers.
“Dance or duel, my lover?” he asked her as their bodies moved together, poised for one or the other. Or…
“Both,” Melur said.
“Both,” Yorick agreed as they danced a duel that required neither the light armour that her brother had made for her to wear beneath her clothes, nor the eldritch crown that rested on his head. They continued what had been interrupted twenty-five years ago by a summons both of them could hear. All of the voices, all of the intersecting histories dimmed, as the duel was fought by the soon to be deposed Festival King, and the incumbent King. None of them mattered to Melur and Yorick. Not the members of the Steward’s court that clustered around them, not the ethereal heroines of Melur’s painted hikayats, who materialised as Melur pulled out her paintbrush, and threw a handful of paint powder into the air, shimmering with afterimages of her protective spells from her craft.
The bidadaris, the bunian admirals, the panjis from various hikayats crammed the spaces between the couple and the forests, facing outwards with silver spears. The garudas multiplied into fractals of avian warriors poised for battle.
All of the forests of Yrejveree, all of the sentient mushroom dwellings of the Mykologosia trembled in that moment, but all Melur could see was the question and the promise that was in Yorick’s gaze.
“Are you ready for whatever this battle brings?” she asked her lover.
“I trust you to do what is best for the both of us,” he said simply.
The new King defeated the old King, and that was all the stories would tell. The rest of it could only be resolved deep within the groves of spirits and of souls who had strayed away from the confines of humanity. The truth of it was only this: two bodies entwined together, neither human, nor animal, nor plant, just an iridescent weave of souls forever twisting and twining within each other deep within the forests of dreams and nightmares.
There were no more Festival Kings. There could be no more, once the forests had finally collected what was owed to them.
But these trees that rooted themselves in the heart of the forests opened upwards to a firmament of stars, upwards where two shimmering forms tangoed across the tops of trees as though the canopy of leaves that kissed the night sky had been created to be their dance hall. In the world of their dance, that canopy spread from horizon to horizon while garudas and shimmering warriors chased shooting stars and comets above them.
About the Author
Nin Harris is an author, poet, and postcolonial Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romance, and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and The Dark.