The first time Jebat notices that something might be a little different is when they first see Raden Wira Nantaja. He and his four (they’re still his, of course, because Tuah may be the leader now but Jebat was the first) haven’t exactly had the most enriching lives, although they wouldn’t admit it even on pain of death. None of them have had much purpose other than following the Bendahara and then the Sultan, cutting down all enemies. Jebat himself is wholly uninterested in palace politics, unlike Tuah and Kasturi who take to it like fish in water. This is why he doesn’t know precisely what he’s feeling when he raises his eyes to the young Javanese prince’s radiant face and sees, as he later tells his Sultan shakily, a scion of Allah. The hot clench of his stomach feels nothing like what he thinks he should feel upon meeting an almost-angel, and it bothers him.
He thinks about it all through the welcoming procession, completely lost in contemplation. Kasturi, disguising a sharp poke as a too-enthusiastic swing of his hand, hisses: “Your posture is awful.” Jebat thinks of harsh replies and doesn’t say them, straightening up to focus on marching. Tuah is glancing at him slightly too often, but he ignores it.
At the ceremony in the palace, Jebat watches how close the Sultan and Raden Inu sit, watches how they share their food, watches and watches and watches until Tuah takes his hand and asks him to dance. Then he doesn’t think for a while, closing his eyes as he slides into the easy steps of zapin. Dancing with Tuah is always nice; everyone looks at him, and Jebat can fade into the background for a while.
“Dance with the candles, after this,” Tuah whispers when they brush past each other. Jebat shivers, just once, and doesn’t answer. He has never performed the tarian lilin in front of the full court, because it feels too intimate to share with anyone other than the Sultan, Bendahara and his four brothers.
Perhaps, Jebat thinks, catching Tuah’s eye - he smiles fondly - perhaps tonight he will.
He never decides one way or another, though, because after Tuah’s trounced Patih Kerma Wijaya at the spear dance he sees his Sultan embrace Raden Inu fondly, and kiss him. Jebat ordinarily wouldn’t take notice of this because kisses are as readily exchanged as water in court- something he found himself having to get used to, stamping down his reticent nature to avoid giving offense. But tonight the Sultan’s kiss is on Raden Inu’s lips, much too deep and too long, too much, and realization crashes down on Jebat all at once. Why he was never anything more than a neutral participant in Lekiu and Lekir’s boyhood schemes to spy on the court ladies bathing, why seeing a woman’s bared breasts at the procession had done nothing except make him avert his eyes. When he instinctively looks at Tuah, seeking comfort, it’s like a fist closes around his heart.
Kasturi shakes him, saying something about honouring the new Ratu Melayu ( Queen? Raden Wira Nantaja is a man, some distant part of him observes). Jebat’s mind is far, far away, and all he can think of is Tuah’s breath on his neck and how he shivered.
Tuah doesn’t hear Kasturi, still staring at the corridor down which Jebat had fair run back to his room after entertaining the new Ratu Melayu to his satisfaction.
“Tuah, my friend, are you listening to me?” This time Tuah looks to where Kasturi is tapping his foot pointedly. Always so impatient. Tuah tilts his head in Kasturi’s direction, makes a vague questioning grunt.
“Did Jebat say anything to you? He didn’t seem well today,” the other man says, fingers plucking absently at the edge of his kain pelikat. Tuah knows all of their moods as well as he knows his own, and it’s obvious that Kasturi is worried. What’s also obvious is that Jebat is -
“Hiding something.” Tuah starts towards Jebat’s room, suddenly determined. “He’s hiding something, and I need to find out what.”
“Are you sure that’s wise? You know how he is - ”
“Yes, which is why I’m going to pry it out of him now before he buries it under everything else he keeps under lock and key,” Tuah interrupts, not bothering to look back. Kasturi doesn’t say anything further, but Tuah can feel the slight disapproval and discomfort heavy at his back all the way down the corridor. He shakes it off and knocks on Jebat’s door, gently.
No answer. It isn’t as though he hadn’t expected that, it’s just. Jebat always answers him. Standing in front of a closed door hearing nothing but silence from Jebat of all people is... unpleasant. Tuah leans his forehead against the cool wood, waiting. If he waits long enough Jebat will relent. And, Tuah thinks, remembering the way Jebat always comes to him first for reassurance, he won’t let Jebat down.
“Jebat, I’m not leaving.” He’s ready for whatever Jebat wants to throw at him.
When the door opens after what feels like centuries, Jebat’s face is smooth and cool and it’s the expression he has when they’re meeting visiting dignitaries: like you matter just as little as the ant he crushes under his heel.
Tuah realizes he isn’t ready at all.
“So, you and Tuah?”
It’s Mandarin, and Jebat has never been gladder of the frantic studying he did so he’d be fluent before the China voyage. He doesn’t look up when he answers Li Po.
“Yes.” It’s not that he doesn’t want anyone to know, because the five of them are important enough for things like this not to matter. The thing is, Jebat thinks, glancing furtively at Tuah across the room- the thing is, he doesn’t know how important this is to Tuah.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed, you know,” Li Po is saying, and he drags his attention back to their conversation. She’s fiddling with a white Go piece. “This sort of thing happens a lot back home.”
“We’re not in China any more.”
An awkward silence falls after his words. Jebat stares at the Go board.
“If I tell you something,” she starts, tentatively, and he makes a vague sound to show he’s listening, “will you- can I trust you not to tell anyone?”
They haven’t known each other very long at all. Certainly not long enough for trust to come into the equation. But he’s not a loose-lipped person, not like Lekir, and he has no interest in court gossip. So he nods.
“I’m not actually a princess,” she says in a rush. It seems like something she’s been holding in for a very long time, and he isn’t sure what to say to this. He doesn’t even know if he should believe her, or if his Mandarin is suddenly failing him and he’s just misunderstood her.
“The Emperor, he- this kingdom is not important to him. Not really. He sent me so that he wouldn’t have to send someone who meant something.” She pauses, looking conflicted. “I- I’m just a palace maid, Jebat. I know all the customs, everything, but-” Li Po stops.
Jebat waits. Li Po doesn’t finish her sentence.
“I don’t have the blood.” Her voice is quiet, defeated.
There’s a moment in which Jebat is completely blank. Disbelief and anger and the sour bile of long-concealed hatred fight for his attention and it’s hard to sort out which to deal with first. Anger, he decides.
“Do you really think that I have any blood worthy of notice in me? Or, for that matter, Tuah? He’s a baker’s boy, Li Po. The Sultan doesn’t care one way or another where you come from, as long as you’re pretty and docile in bed.” He doesn’t add that he knows that last from experience, because enough of the court pageboys whisper about it already. Whore, they call him. Harlot. Witch, sometimes, and the old cooks call him a strumpet. And there’s only so much leverage she needs over him, now that she knows about Tuah as well.
“But you’re different,” she says plaintively. “You’re Hang Jebat. I’m just one of the Sultan’s wives. It matters that I have royal blood in me- I don’t have anything else.”
Jebat stays silent, puts his black piece down on the board with more force than is necessary. He doesn’t really have anything else either. He’s only here at all because everybody is in love with Tuah, and Tuah is fond of him. The Sultan likes his pretty face, but soon that will be gone- what then?
He looks up at Tuah.
Tuah is looking back.
When Tuah appears at the gates of the palace, Jebat thinks: Ah, what a fool I’ve been.
The fight goes on for seven days only because he can’t bring himself to kill Tuah. He’s killed everyone else the traitor Sultan sent, but Tuah is different. Even with the incontrovertible proof that Tuah will never put him first, he doesn’t want to admit defeat. Fighting hurts, a dull ache in his throat every time he raises the blade of Taming Sari against Tuah. And it must be Taming Sari, because Tuah is far too skilled for Jebat to stand against him for as long as this.
Towards the end, he only stands there as Tuah strikes at him and misses, again and again and again.
He’d been so sure that he would die for Tuah. But this isn’t what Tuah wants, it’s just the Sultan, always the Sultan, always the Allah-cursed Sultan .
Jebat catches Parung Sari in his hand the next time Tuah stabs at him.
“Brother,” Jebat whispers, “I cannot kill you.”
Tuah’s grip on the keris hilt slackens. His expression is terrible, ruined by the stress of fighting his best friend for seven days straight. He shakes his head, not meeting Jebat’s eyes.
“Jebat, my love.” Jebat freezes, shocked, both keris slipping from his grasp. “Forgive me.” Tuah presses forward and Parung Sari (my own blade, Jebat has time to think) slides home in his stomach, cutting him wide open and baring him for Tuah to see.
“I can kill you,” Tuah says, twisting the blade, and Jebat screams.
. before .
It’s been a tiring day, and all Jebat wants to do is collapse in his room and go to sleep. Tuah, though, is buzzing with energy, prancing around like a foal. Jebat can’t find the heart to leave him alone to deal with it.
“Tuah,” he says, in long-suffering tones, “we’ve talked about this. Go through your silat routines, calm down.”
“Can’t,” Tuah replies shortly, “building up courage to do something!”
Jebat thinks of all the times Tuah’s needed courage in the past, and he gets a familiar feeling of foreboding.
“What is it-” Then Jebat can’t talk any more, because Tuah is kissing him.
“That,” the admiral says brightly, when they break apart, and Jebat isn’t sure whether he wants to die or climb to the top of the palace and yell finally.
“Is this alright?” Tuah looks anxious. Jebat slides his fingers into the short hairs at the nape of Tuah’s neck.
“Yes,” Jebat says, smiling, and gently pulls Tuah closer.