When the war had first begun, nobody had imagined it would spread this far and wide.
It bled through the kingdom. Down the valleys and up the hills like an open wound healing in reverse. And when the general had started his campaign up the mountains, he had known it would perhaps be the last of the plains he would ever see. The main stronghold of the enemy was far, far up north. And to get there he would have to brave through bloody battle re-claiming one captured province at a time.
The town with the tea-house was nothing more than a little clearing up the hills, steeped in forests. Existing like an afterthought somewhere between the white clouds and brown stones. A small, untouched piece of the sky, he had decided to make the base as for his further attacks.
From the vales, he had heard tales of the witch who could heal madness with his potions, had magic dancing on his fingertips. And in a world where almost all powerful beings like him had been coerced to join the enemy, he remained a swinging pendulum—the people could only guess where his next blow would land.
He had decided to ignore the man’s ambiguous reputation—it was true that most magical creatures had turned their back against the state. But it was also true, that nearly all of them had been quietly disposed off in some inexplicable accident or another within a few months of their tenure. Some said the evil king who had begun the war used them up and then threw them away when they were no longer required. Some said it was the witch who lived up the blue hills caused their deaths—recruited especially for this purpose as he had no equal.
Well, he was the last witch standing. In a lone tea-house at the edge of the last town still under their rule—there was no one left with him to compare, either way.
The general had expected tricks. Had anticipated the tea-house to be a guise for an enemy camp. Had come prepared with his sword angled and eyes narrowed.
The man who met him at the door had been nothing like the cunning, bloodthirsty creature the rumors had made him out to be. And although he could still find no evidence against the fact that the man must make regular visits to the very stronghold they had plans to capture—and destroy at the very end, there was no evidence to any deviousness either.
The main belief was that the witch had charmed the evil king’s son with his irresistible promiscuity. And such was the power of his spell that no one dared touched him when he walked down the enemy’s halls during his visits. That he had been appointed as their deadly assassin, darkness slid up his sleeves.
The man who had met him at the door had rubbed his eyes and yawned, soft cotton stretching over his broad chest, his voice raspy from lack of sleep. His long lashes had arrested the general’s attention, had made him want to brush his thumb over the moles that dotted his face, tip his chin over and gaze into the sweetness of his doe-eyes until he forgot about everything that the war had taken from him, and take something for himself at last.
He had been charmed.
In the very first meeting, where the witch suggested they take a short hike up to his cottage and he could explain what he would require from the tea-house in full. He had found himself following the man like a lost pup, without knowing where he would take him, the muscles in his body reacting before he weighed an actual decision.
The landscape had grown only more beautiful as they walked upwards, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off the man.
He had always known his life would end in this war, but he had never imagined it might feel this gentle to be conquered.
It wasn’t that the man wasn’t magical, that he wasn’t aware that he could put something in the yellow shine of the tea that could incapacitate him in ways of torture he couldn’t even imagine—no, his power was evident—mynahs teetered at the edge of thin branches and chittered in welcome, leaves swayed towards him, stems curling after each of his footsteps, the forest seemed to give way for them as they walked.
The general had swallowed.
Watching a butterfly with plumbago-wings nestling against his cheek, it’s wings fluttering against his neck—feeling his heart too, do the same. The witch hadn’t seemed to be aware of it, replying to his unabashed attention with a flush rising across his milky skin.
Magic lives in his very walk, the sway of his hips leaving him mesmerized, enticing him to capture them in his hands, feel the movement of his bones under his fingertips.
Magic lives in the curve of his spine, in the bend of if his creamy back that makes him snap his jaw, makes him want to mark him with red bruises so it would be known that he had made his claim, the claim he would never get to make until his dying day.
Magic lives in the flash of white collarbone when he tilts his neck and raised a brow, amused. In the darks of the night, whispering under stars snuffed out by violent rainclouds, halo-bright and hypnotizing, making him yearn in a way he is sure reflects in the lilt of his voice.
He is sure the man hears it, as well, feels it in the fingers lingering over his hair when he falls asleep on the kitchen table, in the quiet affection of the tea that is kept prepared by his bedside when he stays over in the tea-house, alone on the bed without it’s maker.
Days turn into months, their tempers tempered into something more bearable now, less painful than the barbed words that they traded before.
The campaigns grow longer as time passes. And by the time it’s been just around a year since they’d taken residence in the tea-house, he can return only once every two moon-cycles.
He doesn’t know if it’s the distance, or the knowledge that there isn’t much time left in the sandclock of his life, or the shift in the witch’s demeanor that makes him do what he does, but he can’t bring himself to regret it, either.
Every time they meet his shoulders seem a bit more slumped. The healthy color gone form his skin. Dark bags under his eyes, he seems drained from his magic. He is as alluring as the day they’d first met, but his voice is hollowed when he quakes back now, breaking down in a way the general is sure is the beginning of the end.
On the night when they drink too much of a drink that is not tea and slump in the shadows of that sunlit room, trying to wash out the bitterness leftover dregs of tea leave in their mouths, he doesn’t expect anything at all.
Their hands on the table do not touch and their eyes over it do not meet, floating somewhere between the soft sounds the feet over the staircase, the sounds of the teahouse dwindling down into sleep. His leg doesn’t hurt and he isn’t sure if it was a spell the witch used or the man himself, he is still magical, he finds himself watching the tilt of his chin, his slow sips and the shadows of the leaves outside shift over his face.
He doesn’t know what leads him to put his hand out, or call out his name. They’ll be at the main strong-hold within another week, and the witch looks too drained to not tell him something is up. They both keep their secrets, but the greatest of them all is known on both sides, evident in their eyes, evident in the closeness that never is quite enough.
It’s the last time the general sees him without blood over his skin and scars on his back. And he has never looked more beautiful.
“The kids are asleep”, he whispers, “Dance with me?”
His mother’s sword is called Wachira, the strike of lightning. And at the ripe old age of seventeen, he is still not allowed to wield it.
He hides in the shrine. Burying himself under the layers and layers of white mist and incense like he could turn into vapor himself if he should stay there for long enough. The wailing of home-bound mynah echoes across the forest, and he feels rain splatter over his toes, the dents on the wood digging into his shoulder. On the pillar he leans against, they height-marked him and Kao through the years.
Two parallel lines running together, falling behind and catching up but never one without the other. Until they came to a stop one day—at rest, turned and looked each other in the eye, at the same level—together at the same height.
The First Precept of Rule is Duty—towards the kingdom, towards the people—to be guided by a higher sense of responsibility was not something Pete understood when he was young. Back in the day when all he could feel was dread, an old despair twisting in his abdomen like a python coiling into itself. He didn’t understand it then, doesn’t know now either.
But he was forced to look past it over the years—or through it as things turned out to be.
He clenches his fist and closes his eyes trying to be enough, he wrings the cloth of his chong-kraben into fists and tries not to show how nervous he is in front of the court members, feeling himself crumble under the weight of their steely gazes—under expectations, so much of it.
He can’t hate it, because the greatest expectation of all comes from the king himself—he who lost his other half. Who grieved the most when Wachira came home without his master ten years ago. He doesn’t want to disappoint the king, doesn’t want to disappoint his father, he chews his bottom lip between his teeth and feels his ears freeze into fragmented icicles that ache to be warmed by Kao’s kind hands.
His best friend is not in the palace today.
He cannot believe how much he wishes that he was.
Kao is off to a diplomatic visit to Samorn, as court apprentice taking notes and observing the proceedings of splitting the profits they earn with the several rai of rice valley they share with the other kingdom. It is an important event and even he hadn’t nagged Kao about leaving yet again after the eleventh time because this was important—to the kingdom, and to Kao too.
Pete knows he aims to climb up ranks, wants to lead from the front and reach the head of court. He feels pride flutter in his chest. At the way he has grown, the fierce of his want thrills him, the boy gives away his own portion of khanom chak to the kids with a smile on his face, who gives out his time and wisdom and love without asking for anything in return to everyone in the palace wants something now and he couldn’t have been prouder.
Why does it hurt so, then?
He finds himself running his thumb over the marks on the wood, hearing the whisper of leaves and hoot of gibbons. Kao is brilliant, loved, wanted and towards someone else it would’ve been envy but for his best friend all he can feel is admiration.
But admiration shouldn’t feel lie the phantom throb of his shin from last night’s combat practice.
Kao hadn’t been around last night.
He hears the rustle of parchment the scritch of a quill over it with the crunch of leaves in a golden summer over the clash of swords. Over the swell of martial arts chants, he hears Kao, over the scent of perspiration and despair he feels jasmine wrap around his body and cocoon him in such warmth, such belief in himself that he finds that when he is fallen down in even the most hopeless fight picking himself back up again and charging back.
And yet they tell him he is not ready, not ready to lift the burden of Wachira. There is no peace in him, they say, no tether that grounds him, he feels his heart thump in his chest as dread flows through him again at the thought of his weekly holding of court that his coming up.
He knows no balance, they tell him he should take up those extra hours of meditation and pay a bit more attention to the steady stream of suitors that started early last spring.
But all he can really remember from all those meetings is whining to Kao about which elaborate set-piece of clothing to wear to them. The meetings themselves are not unpleasant, but there is a feeling he craves that sits inside him like his very lungs, feeling like a kite with no string attached whirling in a storm.
The suitors are lovely—beautiful, well-educated, perfect matches to his bitterly earned skills in combat.
And yet, something about it doesn’t feel right. And though mesmerized by their beauty at first glance, he usually forgets them within the week. Something about the way his barbed humor and crass personality is brushed over with sweet smiles and absorbed by the promise of marrying into royalty leaves a bitter taste in his mouth that he still can’t move past.
A proposal had once been discussed about the princess of Chirawan but one gaze exchanged across the court room with a highly amused Sandee had made them unable to hold back their laughter any longer.
They’d howled until the roof of Kiet rose and the walls shook. Even Kao had been found snorting into his knuckles that day, Pon had just nodded, a tired half-smile on his face. A few court elders and scholars may have been offended, he’d seen Teacher Weeraporn glare daggers at them, Elder Pai walk out of the court huffing as the gathering dissolved, but the situation had been too ridiculous to not raise a shitstorm about.
It was so obvious Sandee liked the rising painter of Ambhom dearly—had for several years too that Pete couldn’t imagine how no one saw it—the affection is her eyes was as clear as day, how do you miss something that apparent?
She says that to him sometimes, to open his eyes and look around.
“What the fuck!”, he crows, “I have perfectly healthy vision, thank you very much”
“You don’t have to look very far and wide Pete”, she’d muttered the day he turned down another prized scholar of Chirawan, “Everything is always right there in front of you, you just either choose to see it—or you don’t”
“I don’t like puzzles”, he’d sniffed, “That’s Kao’s territory, go give him your blasted riddles.”
“Oh”, she’d smiled, and he’d wondered why she looked so wistful. She was the sister he never had, the friend he never knew he needed but became important anyway, “But he’s already solved it.”
The problem itself wasn’t clear to him then, but it would become so very soon. For now, he just looks over the shrine and at the blue hills that are his home. Chinthira has given him so much—clear springs, blooming petals in the dawn, a friend—it has taken much from him but as returned so much more.
As he sits he imagines Kao is at the door, holding a steaming bowl of egg noodles in golden chicken broth in his hands and a smile on his face. The chong-kraben clinging to his legs because of the sudden heat of the evening, and there are blemishes over his fair skin from the humidity.
“Eat”, he’d say, sniffing at the cold air. Bumping shoulders. The color of his mouth is pink amarnath like the sunset that surrounds them, “P’Mon was worried about you!”
He wants to ask but he doesn’t have to because the answer is obvious. Even between his busy schedule he always finds Pete the first at the shrine. If he hadn’t known any better, he would swear there was a woman’s laugh in the breeze—his mother would’ve loved Kao.
“Thank you for your service, State Apprentice Phanuwat”, the words still feel strange on his tongue and he sees the Kao in his mind’s eye bow back, jaw ticking from the snort he’s holding back like a sneeze.
“This citizen is honored to help his majesty”, he would wiggle his brows, “In such trying times of this land.”
And he knows what Kao means by trying times.
It is not just the pain of not being allowed to train with his mother’s sword—her last and only belonging they could ever retrieve, but also the struggling kingdom. The faster he gets married and ascends the throne the quicker everyone can breathe easy.
Much rests on the crop dividends with Samorn. There has always been tension between the two lands. And since the conference was there, they had the upper hand, always pushing for a little more to take by bringing some citizens in pitiful situations to court.
And in the fight to make a fair division, someone will always lose.
His address in the coming week is about their financial plans for the upcoming winter—the result of this negotiation is a big portion of it. Since he comes of age in another few months anyway, more and more duties are being made to be performed by him with the king only as a guide by his side.
He doesn’t know which thought is scarier—to never be as carefree as he is today ever again, or feel that old despair slinking around his ribs and squeezing his chest painfully. Feeling trapped in a way he can’t explain.
Why does it feel like he was destined to fail from the start? Why does it feel like they were all made to be doomed, anyway?
He doesn’t know, feeling just a little unbalanced, like some of his weight is outside his body with the phantom taste of lime and shallot on his tongue in the rain.
He hadn’t realized what the feeling was before, but today it comes crashing down on him—
He misses Kao.
So much so, that sometimes it feels more like the reason he’s morose and down and lurking at the temple isn’t really because of his struggles at the palace, but because when he went through them, he had no one by his side.
Behind the blushing persimmons at the gate, he stands under the umbrella. The one with two kittens with their snouts smushed together and paws brushing, he looks over its blue brim and watches his best friend come home.
State Apprentice Phanuwat has longer locks, his bangs parted in the middle and brushing his cheekbones. His ivory bones shine in the sparkling air, the humid weather has made another pimple rise over the cleft of the forced smile plastered to his lips. Mist curls around his ankles, chasing his footsteps like a daydream that refuses to leave. Pete’s hands itch to break out of where he hides and snatch away the burden of records over both his shoulders, wincing as he bows to the other court members.
Thankfully, the party is splitting up so he wouldn’t have to wait for too long.
Which is good too because patience is not his strong suit—the Second Precept of Rule is Endurance, to let cold wind chafe skin and still be standing upright through their long winters. To be gentle in the thunderstorm. And rise as blooming flower the next morning, and not stay submerged in the darkness of the earth.
He has never understood it. Too ready to fight in every situation—
Why endure? He asks P’Waan, when you can end your misery by hunting down those who’ve hurt you?
She has only ever nodded to that, something old and knowing in her eyes, making her look greater than her age. Her title of Head Scholar suddenly very apparent in the shift of her gaze, But what about when that is the best that you can do? What if nothing else works, what if it’s the only way to grow strong, what if you wait—the seedling in your heart takes time to grow, what if you endure the pain instead of killing it—and hope for tomorrow.
He never has an answer for that speech, the words confusing him, her words feeling less like a lesson and more like advice from someone who’s known him all his life.
It’s okay, she smiles, ruffling his hair and moving on to some other subject, as if it’s okay for him to not understand it for now. Like he’s still young and not knowing just yet won’t mean he’ll never wield Wachira.
Like she believes in him, like P’Mon does, and the one who did it before everyone else—Kao.
He looks like the very embodiment of Endurance.
His hands shaking, the awkward angle of his spine as he offers salutations to every court member at the gate. The rims of his eyes are red and he feels his worry churn inside, between them—Kao is never cold.
“Assholes”, snarls P’Ploy—P’Preeda’s sister, and the head assistant of Ritthirong, the woman has kicked his ass more times than he can count. He shivers as they pass him by, “The nerve of her majesty!”
“Hush!”, gasps P’Kitty—the head gardener’s daughter, peonies in her hair, sunflowers in her sleeves, “Someone might hear you!”
“Sun needs to poison her on her next visit—”
Her arm around her friend’s waist tightens, tugging at her so they break into a run. Pete hears P’Ploy’s rage dissolve into giggles in the rain. For a moment he considers throwing the umbrella at the annoying pair of lovebirds. And risk revealing his hiding place.
Do anything, to fight the sudden pang in his chest.
It reminds him of the magpie who nest behind the library every year. Of the day P’Som knocked out the inventory for P’Korn and P’Preeda’s engagement announcement. Of the throne room built for two now halved and empty.
Maybe he should really start paying more attention to all these suitors the court keeps presenting to him.
“Fatty”, he growls, the moment the rest of the party has dispersed, “I missed you.”
“Don’t you have prep?”, snorts the boy, as they jostle under the umbrella, “Hmph, move, my shoulder is wet”.
From the corner of his eyes, he sees him scrunch his nose. Wiggling to hold a sneeze back—cute, Pete concludes, just like everyone in the palace thinks he is. “’M cold”, Kao whines, his words sound clumsy, slurring in exhaustion.
“Where did the rain start?”
“At the fifth pass near Noi Phanom”
No wonder he looks wrung out like a dishcloth. As Pete swiftly grabs his bags, he notices Kao’s fingers are pruning.
“Which fucker forgot his umbrella?”, he snarls.
“It was nothing”, the boy mumbles, looking away. The worry in his eyes scares Pete. He who is always level-headed, always warm, shakes now.
Did something happen? He wants to ask, but he bites back the words, not wanting to impose on Kao all at once.
“Stop being so kind, P’Kao”, he growls instead, for a moment stopping the shoulder-butting to let the boy ease more under the shelter of the umbrella.
A baby mynah cries somewhere in the forest. And when he breaths he finds pine and perspiration, the usual faint jasmine lingering around his best friend nowhere to be found. Kao feels like the ghost of himself, right there and yet not within his reach. He finds an age-old violence rise inside him.
The one who had hurt his best friend would have hell to pay for.
He doesn’t realize when he put an arm around the boy. Or when he started rubbing circles on his skin. It’s almost like his body reacts on his own. Kao is in distress, and he immediately turns into a human-shape comforter. The boy never sounds meek, never needy. So on the rare occasion that he does show weakness, Pete’s already severely dented pride fucks off with the bitter in his voice.
And he is left a squirming mass of pure affection, hungry to just hold Kao.
“You’ll get sick, fatty”, he whispers, “Take care of yourself, please”—something tangles in his chest, making his heart trip.
Duty, he remembers, he feels it rushing through his body and flowing into his soul. It doesn’t feel like an obligation, for a moment, it feels right. Let me take care of you—The words stutter through him before he traps them back inside, shocked by how moved he feels.
The amount of relief he feels on having his best friend around again is almost as if he’s been gone for months, not just a handful of days.
“No”, Kao mumbles, “Can’t be sick, we’ve to pre-plan your address too”
“Fuck the address”
The stumble through the gardens—Aranya and Busaba—the forest-like and floral. And Pete leads them through Kao’s favorite trail, through the red peonies and tall tangerines. It’s not the shortest route from the gate to staff quarters, but in the quiet of the evening, with the sound of their breaths and the squelch of mud under their footsteps he feels Kao slowly calm.
Some part of him registers the boy’s shifting hands. He who holds every answer in them has wandering eyes now. He looks lost, like they haven’t walked this path together a thousand times before. That part screams at him pull away, keeps him from leaning further into the boy’s neck—just a little closer to check if he really can find the sweet smell then.
“Take a warm bath first”, he whispers, “Then we can plan work”
Something sparks in his stomach then, the worry and agitation and resentment that had taken root in his stomach since the day Kao was gone, for all the times he’s not here and all the things that he’s not good enough for. He doesn’t know who he’s angry at, at all the people who take advantage of Kao’s gentle heart or the fact that he can’t protect the boy from them.
“State Apprentice Phanuwat!”, he growls, “This is a direct order from the crown prince of Chinthira—you will not show up for work until you are rested!”
The pain flashing through Kao’s eyes at his harsh words arcs through him too. For a moment he spots in on the boy’s face a kind of devastation that leaves him speechless.
Why does he look so hurt?
He swallows, tightening his grip around Kao, suddenly fearful that he would break free and leave him behind.
But he can’t bring himself to take those words back either—did he take advantage of Kao’s gentle heart too—by hurting him this easily?
The walk ends abruptly, through the Chuenchai up to the fork where the road split between the staff and royal quarters.
He could feel his heart throb in his throat, for the gaze Kao didn’t return and the tired slump of his shoulders. For all the words the boy didn’t say then. For all the problems he was prepared to solve for his best friend. For all of himself he was willing to give.
Understanding—the Third Precept of Rule, but all he can feel is wreckage as he sees the boy take his bags back and toddle back into his quarters without a word, leaving him alone in the rain.
Kao’s gift is a beating heart in his fist, making a whirlwind rise inside him. He feels too much and thinks too little, the boy tells him sometimes.
He hates how right Kao is every time, about him, about the world, about everything.
They meet in Chuenchai, across the long wooden table where they’d grown up throwing pieces of makruk at each other’s faces, slurping on gooey mango in the summer their fingers sticky and joy burning in the bones. Despite Kao’s immaculate organization in other areas of life, he is a somewhat messy eater—too eager, it’s his happy place. Pete sees that now, through the seventeen-year old’s frown, the seven-year-old boy with yellow splashes on his cheeks, the juice dripping down his chin, pouting at him to stop teasing.
“The last quarter yielded so less”, Kao sighs, matching the records for the fifth time for accuracy.
“Didn’t we try out the new fertilizer in the east district in the summer?”
“Yes we did!”, the boy snaps, “But it didn’t work! The new variety of worms came out with the rain, didn’t you revise the records, Pete?”
“I did!”, he growls, suddenly defensive.
This week’s address is a big one, the planning of winter season finances is in order.
It is a decade since Queen Naowarat’s passing, and they still feel the blows to this day.
The infantry is fractured and unstable without her, and with Pete still learning he’s still not able to lead those forces, the duties being passed around a few trusted Generals. P’Preeda’s exhaustion is apparent in the heavy footsteps. Despite being newly married she hardly has time at home, Pete knows she longs to start a family with P’Korn despite her brash words and bright smile.
He scrunches his eyes shut, trying to shake her sad eyes out of his head. There have been more times than one he and P’Ploy have hung back in the practice ground and mourned for her, training for more hours, training harder to become better so they can start shouldering equal responsibility so she can have more time at home.
That day hasn’t come yet.
The air between Kao and him is heavy today. Sluggish. Almost bitter. At his harsh words the boy truly hadn’t turned back up for another hour and Pete had found himself restless in the kitchen. Fiddling with the records they were supposed to review together. He wished the boy was resting, even if just a little, even if the price to pay was feeling this hurt.
“Here”, the boy passes him the fresh report from Samorn, “Have a look”
Pete swallows. Watching him spoon the hot soup he’d made with his own hands.
He’d learned the recipe once, nagging Kaew for it. His version is bland usually, never as creamy as Kao’s, not enough lime, something lacks in it. Kaew calls it immaturity. Chuckling. Says that he will learn with time.
He’d started chopping lemongrass and pounding spice on the counter before realizing it. The kitchen was empty in the rainy afternoon as he waited for the boy. He’d looked like he needed warming up, and as angry as Pete felt inside, something pushed him to do it. Some force that softens his voice when he talks to Kao, makes him want to see him at all hours of the day, wants him to be the one he announces his victories to first, and the one he goes to when he is despairing.
Kao doesn’t react to the soup, however, the lines around his curving in worry. Chewing on the chicken as he skims through the yields from peanuts and potato next.
Pete tries to push the pang of disappointment out of his chest and focus on the report. The land they share with Samorn is some of the more fertile rai of rice they have, and despite revenue coming from other crops there really is no replacement for a good harvest from rice season. But marred by violent weather, they can hardly expect a great result any time.
Chinthira is not called the cursed land without good reason.
Apart from the crops, there is a constant understaffing in state functions. Lacking teachers, warriors and farmers everywhere. Being a land with small population the same person has to perform many roles over the year actively to keep things running smoothly.
Due to this, there isn’t as much propagation of state-sponsored art either, their local form of paintings and folklore and music is practiced only by a very small margin of the population. And that too, as a side-job rather than a main practice.
Even Thada himself, coming from an ancestry of great artists that had now fallen into debt and given up on their practice, who trained on his own because of his passion, despite his family’s protests had to run the press on the side with his cousin to make ends meet.
Their music halls were used only on occasion. when performers from other states came, or when staff members noodled around with instruments on rare free evenings.
Pete knew Kao loved those performances, even postponing work sometimes to go and watch.
wasn’t great either. Most of their main mountain passes had become inaccessible from bad weather and disuse and there wasn’t enough manpower to send for repairs. Building relations with other provinces could be done by promoting events and festivals, helped in creating allies in case of campaigns and getting extra help on the fields. And they could always be relied on during months were yields were especially bad.
But the issue was once again, understaffing, there aren’t enough people that could be delegated to perform those extra functions.
“It looks bad”, Kao croaks, looking up from the papers, “your highness”
He hums. Feeling anxiety in his chest drumming against his ribcage, his heart struggling to escape like a fledgling mynah.
Samorn had once again managed to coerce the deal into their favor.
It would’ve helped to have the negotiation at Chinthira in this cycle. But due to the pre-written agreement, the location fell at their land this time around. Which meant that under the pressure of the open court and their people it was common courtesy to give out shares and benefits to the needy during the day-sitting hours. Which reduced the final total, so that after dividing in half, they ended up receiving less anyway.
He groans. Rubbing his temples.
Most of their people were looking forward to the upcoming Loy Krathong to be a grander event. They had been planning to open it up to other kingdoms instead of making it the usual local affair, so they could promote their wares and crafts, and perhaps attract patrons from other states.
But the bad news from Samorn meant that they would have to tread around finances very carefully now. What would have been an investment has become a risk.
“We may have to hold back this year”, Kao sighs. Running a hand through his hair, arching his back as he leans back into the chair. It wasn’t like Pete hadn’t expected any bad news, but the slump of the boy’s shoulders at the situation further fuels the fire inside him.
“We could risk it”, he swallows.
The rain has started to fall back upon them in earnest again.
All these years, he has never been allowed to make any formal decisions in court. This would be the year he could actually contribute something, the last year before he came of age. And after holding back and being careful all these years, something in him burned to change things.
The Fourth Precept of Rule is Trust—to take a leap of faith in every adversity, the courage to change things. And Pete has never had it less in him.
“I don’t think that’s wise”, the state apprentice pushes the spoon around the bowl. He’s not even halfway through the soup, “Have you checked the records for the last ten years? Some or the other calamity may strike that will require our reserves, your majesty”
“But we’ve never tried this way out before—“
“I don’t think suggesting an alliance in court right now is the best thing—”
“Creating more alliances might mean new opportunities for earning that may not have been possible before!””
“What ways?”, Kao scowls, “Define them, do we have an estimate of revenue that we may gain from this source?”
“Patrons from both Chirawan and Sakda have always shown great interest in our artists. The Northern Pride is the only prominent offering from our province but still remains a popular motif in several states!”
“But we can’t be sure! It is a foolish decision until there have been promises made and contracts signed!”
Kao looks irritated. Annoyed. Like this is a simple concept that he is too stupid to understand and sitting down to explain to him would be a waste of his time.
And it hurts because he never looks like that, looks down on him instead of as equal. The very reason he learned to gain confidence in the court, in himself.
Because once upon a time before there were coronations and famines and negotiations there was a spring and there was a library and there was a bird’s nest. There was a sweet voice that warbled him to sleep, who held his hands everywhere he went, who looked him in the eyes and taught him things because he believed.
A little scared boy held out a hand for him to hold, showing him, he was trustworthy. A little disgruntled boy gave him all his time in the day, showing him there was something in him worth fighting for. That boy grew up and saw the king in him before he could.
Pete remembers the night they floated the Krathong lights a year ago. The way Kao looked at him, like his words had meaning. And if they could reassure the smartest, kindest most beautiful boy of their year, they could do so for all of their land and all her people.
Was none of that ever true?
Was it possible that Kao was just like all his other suitors, putting up with his bad temper and notorious habits just because he was the prince?
The little wooden sword in the fist of his palm digs into his skin. The taste of milk tea that Kao had once introduced to him years ago souring. The dark slats of shadow from the window fall through his chest and into his heart, making him open his mouth and say things that he doesn’t really want to say.
“Are you calling my judgement foolish?”, he roars, “I was born and raised in the Kiet, state apprentice Phanuwat, What makes you think you know better than me in these matters?”
The veneer of his cold indifference cracks. And Pete knows the moment the words left his mouth that he’d hit below the belt. Kao’s face crumples and he looks away.
Understanding—he feels the pain crackling in the boy’s eyes like burns on his own skin, and nearly howls at how horrible it feels to hurt Kao. It is only a moment, but all his arguments dissolve in his throat, all his plans, all his calculations and all the words of the address. All that remains is a desperation, as the boy looks down, starting to stack the papers quickly, wordless, pursing his lips in a way Pete knows that he’s trying not to cry.
How could he have been so foolish?
He finds himself blabbering, running around the table to the other side. Kao had flinched away when he’d tried to reach for his wrist from the other side.
“If that is how little you think my opinions, your majesty”, Kao hisses, “Then I do not think you require this lowly apprentice’s consultation”
“Kao, wait”, he jogs to keep up behind the boy who’s started storming towards the door, feeling all his resentment dissolve, “Please—”
The wind from the north blows hard, drenching them the moment they’re outside. Pete feels the cold on Kao’s body, watching the boy whimper as the storm hits him like whiplash. Regret tears at his eyes, the scream in his throat barely held back, surrounded by the hills bearing the thunderstorm, he remembers the old myth, the Seventh Precept of Rule.
He was definitely at fault here, he’d used Kao’s insecurity about joining the court and used it on him. And regretted it bitterly now. But perhaps the boy was too, he knew Pete better than the back of his own hand—why would he hurt him like this then?
“Kao”, he howls, “I’m sorry!”
“I would not want to impose on his majesty any further”, the boy shouts back.
His eyes reddening in the rainwater. In the near-darkness he is a blue silhouette, water flowing down the apples of his cheeks, plastering his shirt to his skin, over his bumps of his chest and down his curve of his hips. He looks like one of those ivory statues down in Ambhom—admired without argument. Alive. Heart-achingly beautiful.
“No”, his voice breaks. He runs the last breadth between them, and catches his wrist, halting him in his jog back to the staff quarters, “You can’t leave me like this”
“What do you mean?”, his mouth curves into a hopeless smile.
It breaks his heart. Pete fights the urge to capture his face between his hands and press his lips against them. And lick it off. Do something anything to make him smile again.
“State Apprentice Phanuwat Chotiwat”, he croaks. Bowing. Dropping his head until his back is curved and all he can see is mud bubbling around Kao’s feet and green grass sparkling in the rain, “This prince formally apologizes to you for his thoughtless words, you are an invaluable asset to this kingdom and your advice and hard work are a gift to us—”
He hadn’t realized when he’d started crying. He can’t remember the sob sitting in his throat until it breaks out in stuttered syllables and out. He hopes that Kao hadn’t seen it. He hopes that it was hidden by the rain.
How could he let himself be so affected?
“You are invaluable”, he chokes out, heaving against the ground, too afraid to stand back up and show his face, “You are precious, You are beloved, to Chinthira, to this palace—”
—And to me.
He realizes it is true just as he bites them back. The fear of losing Kao form his life is greater than any other, more than failing in court, having to enter a loveless marriage, or leading Chinthira to ruin.
This fear trumps all of them.
He feels a wet hand on his shoulder that is still somehow warm, rubbing softly. The warmest hand he has ever known.
The seedling in his chest twists, making him groan.
He had nearly killed it.
Kao doesn’t say anything. And the rest of his words are washed away by the sound of thunder. His hands on his knees he falls to his haunches from the bow, spent. Everything he can’t explain churning inside him, feeling like he’d run several yot, still running, running on empty.
Something is broken between them now. Because there is Understanding—he feels Kao’s ache as a bruise inside his own heart, wishing it wasn’t so. His bones would creak and groan for days now.
When he does finally look up, there’s a dejection in Kao he wishes wasn’t there. As if he’d wished to hear something and hadn’t. Crushed expectations. Raindrops burn his eyes as he blinks up at the sky, at his first friend, his best friend who he never should’ve hurt. The look he had on his face when he picked him from the gates has returned.
Something Pete was sure Kao wasn’t telling him.
Did something happen? Why don’t you say something? Don’t you trust me? Don’t you think we can solve your problem together? Don’t you know that your problems are my problems too? Don’t you know how much you mean to me?
Kao, why do you look so sad?
His rage washes away in the rain, breaking them down.
And when the clouds dissolve all that is left is tears in his eyes. The clear blue sky has never looked more hopeless.
The rest of the week is excruciating.
He sees Kao everywhere.
Across pavilions and gardens of allamanda, talking to someone, anyone—everyone but him. It grates on him, stealing his breath and his attention from whatever he is doing at the moment. Feels himself bristle every time he spots the boy across a building on some different trail, talking to someone else. Flitting away before he could rush forward and take make Kao just look at him, and only him for only a moment. The boy is too far out to just shout at and attract him closer, but he can’t not see him either.
Something lodges in his throat whenever he tries to call out his name.
He hadn’t known how much he’d hoped to spend the rest of the week with Kao when he returned from Samorn. That it was the thought of finally having evenings free to bath in the blue springs with his best friend that kept him going through the long, tedious meetings of day.
They didn’t have many chances to meet during the day, either, so planning for addresses or completing court matters in each other’s company during a few stolen hours from evenings was also one of the only other ways to make sure they didn’t go for too many weeks without actually seeing each other’s faces.
He’d grown used to discussing strategies and hashing out logistics with the boy before the meetings. And it wasn’t just his insight that Pete missed, it was his very presence.
Kao hates chittering when he’s deep in calculations, but gets progressively snackier as they get deeper and deeper into work. One of his fondest memories in the library is slipping peanuts into the boy’s mouth as he’s reading up some books on soil type for a meeting they had with someone proposing a new variety of fertilizer the very next morning.
so engrossed into work, and Pete had watched with wonder in his eyes. The soft pucker of his mouth. Sensing his nearing hand and parting his lips without raising his eyes from the book, the little pleased sound of contentment from his throat as he munched on another peanut.
It had made his heart thump, buzzing with an excitement that made him want to do a few cartwheels around the library the way he used to when he was young. But he could knock down a few bookshelves if he did that as a grown-up, so he stayed put. Vibrating on the spot, no wanting to disturb Kao’s mesmerizing calm.
There are fewer things that look more attractive under the soft amber of Wiriya—there are pretty canvas-bound texts passed down to them through generations, precious paintings and pottery and statues—and then there’s Kao.
At this point, he is a walking version of the library. His tongue wields poetry and economics with the same sharp expertise, a double-edged sword. His addresses are fascinating to watch, his natural empathy and eloquence playing with each other until everyone in the audience is sucked in completely. There’s something unguarded about him, the gentle lilt of his voice, the swing of his hands when he explains things, that makes him approachable.
That is slowly making him an irreplaceable arm of the court.
The glass bead who became a pearl at the bottom of the ocean after years of struggle, the bud that opens in the morning, leaves weeping in the new light of dawn.
The one everyone wants to talk to and include everywhere.
Pete remembers him helping around everywhere when they were young. Carrying bundles of grain-stalks in his little arms to the stables, sneezing loudly from the split husk flying in the air. Serving dishes in Chuenchai, and periodically helping the rearrangement of books in Wiriya.
He is still the same. And Pete doesn’t realize until it’s too late just how much the boy must have gone out of his way to keep him company, moments snatched from noose-tight schedules—a brisk walk through the gardens, a quick cup of tea in the kitchen, a few minutes during the whirlwind that his days were becoming to ground him.
The rage from their fight in the rain had settled into something quieter, but much harsher, cutting his throat like shards of glass when he tries to open his mouth and ask to meet him.
Pete spends the rest of the week scouring the library for sources of information. Talking to artists in Ambhom and gathering information. He talks to Sarawat’s father—a prolific musician back in his day, visits Thada’s press, spars with P’Ploy and Mork during all his spare hours, holds his breath and tried to be enough.
Not talking to Kao is an open wound festering within. It is true that they hadn’t agreed on their stances for how the address should proceed, but the chance to hash it out with him doesn’t come until the weekend, the night before the actual meeting.
He’d woken up that morning in cold sweat, clutching the gift in his right fist. Sweating bullets from a nightmare he couldn’t remember.
A slice of blood and tears over a silver cheek. Feeling the pain of a stab in his very being from the dream. Feeling the throb spread before he could cry out, face held his hands known to him better than his own.
Making him stagger awake, weak-kneed and drowning in a nameless fear. The absence of Kao in his life the very ache of his bones, dragging his body over the groaning floor, stumbling through the despondent evening eyes half-closed.
And standing outside the golden kitchen, feeling his heart tear apart.
It is so easy to lose people, he thinks, charging in. All his slumber disappearing in the blink of an eye, so easy to be moved by Kao.
How had he never seen it before? And if he hadn’t, then why did it hurt so much?
The sight of Kao standing so close to someone else sunburns under his skin, making sledgehammer-heat pump in his blood. He has all the fire it takes to wield the Wachira, but no flame-holder to light up, no candles leading in the dark.
It is one thing to know that the boy is taken from him for a little time, easier to stomp down the little spitfires popping in his stomach then. It is quite another to know that this might be the end.
That someone could come in Kao’s life who could come before him. It had never felt like a threat before, when the boy used to laugh at all the proposals thrown his way.
It did now. Watching his kind eyes turned towards someone else, full of affection. He’d grown too used to seeing that look when he returned Kao’s gaze all these years.
He knew this day would come one day but he is jealous still.
And it drives him crazy.
They are talking almost nose-to-nose, an easy closeness between them. P’Sun’s hand on Kao’s shoulder. And he can’t look into his mournful eyes without wanting to throw several punches at once. He can see their mouths move, their lips the color of sweetened tangerine extract, their fair skin the surface of soft mooncakes in the sunlight. But they do not see him enter, and he catches the tail-end of their conversation easily.
“The soup was great”, he hears Kao whisper, his doe-eyes blinking slow, “I really needed it that day, P’Sun.”
“It’ll be okay, nong”, the now head-chef squeezes his best-friend’s shoulder, “you’ll find a way somehow”
He trembles behind the wooden closet, pausing for a moment to understand. No Tether, he remembers, an errant leaf in swirling-springwater, snatched around by feelings he doesn’t understand.
Standing beside the man on whom almost half the palace staff had a crush, Kao cuts a clean figure, not as tall, but leaner, with his thin waist and blue veins down his arms. Like the boys in the pictures June has a weekly mailing list for, with soft skin and rosy cheeks. The women that feature there have dusky eyes, greedy hands. He has the shape of their aggressive mouths, the curve of their ample breasts cupped under his fingertips, keeping them handy whenever he used fondle the next girl in town until last year.
But for the first time, he wonders, if he doesn’t just desire their burning lust, but also empathizes.
In his head he changes positions.
Picturing a milky chest, the hook of clean, meticulous fingers on his hips. Instead of pinning her down on the bed, he sees himself do the same to him, the boy in his head.
The heat that twists through him is overwhelming.
The taste of silky skin is already under his tongue, the press of a hot cock in his hands as he fucks the living daylights out of the boy. Nuzzling into his neck, making the boy mewl. And he breaths.
It smells like jasmines.
What the fuck?—
“What the fuck?”
“Pete!?”, Kao whips around, already raising his arms as if to calm him down. He can’t help it. The guilt in the boy’s is a punch in the gut.
Are you hiding something from me, Kao? Is there something going on between you two? Why don’t you just say something?
“Your majesty”, P’Sun bows. And he can’t ask any of the questions inside him. He can feel himself charging towards the man like a bull, blinded in emotion. Who is he angry at this point?
At Kao, whom he misses like a severed limb these days, who has no time to spend with him, his best friend, his prince, but could spare some for P’Sun?
At Sun, for being competent and beautiful and loved. For being worthy enough to interrupt Kao between his work, to be worthy enough for his time of the day?
At himself, for feeling too much and not being able to explain any of it, for whatever the fuck that just happened in his head?
A pair of blanket-warm arms fold him in before he can push into the man. “Calm down”, Kao hisses, “I’m sorry for butting in at work, P’Sun, let’s talk later”
“Is everything alright?”, he doesn’t even look intimidated, merely concerned. “Have I offended his majesty in some way?”
“No!”, Kao yelps, tightening his hold. He can break out if he wants to, he knows that logically. But some part of him wants to remain there. When was the last time they’d been this close? “His majesty is in-session tomorrow, he’s just stressed, we’ll catch up later P’Sun, see you!”
With that the boy yanks him outside. They stumble into the open in front of the temple.
Kao lets him go immediately.
And from all his years of hiding in the shrine, standing before the wasted valley that overlooks it has never felt colder.
“You have time to spend with him and not me?”, he snarls. The tension of the entire week rises in him, spine tightening, a bowstring held too-taut for too-long, ready to snap.
“I haven’t seen him the entire week, either!”, Kao yells back. In his rage, he doesn’t ask himself why his best friend is just as worked up as him. “You don’t have a say in everyone I see in this palace and who I meet, Pete!”
“I missed you!”
He finds himself howling, catching arrows in his throat.
Never has there been a time before when they kept hurting each other for this long. They’ve fought before, of course they have, but it has never lasted this long. Having Kao by his side can turn the grayest day sun-warmed and mangosteen-sweet, but the not having him turns every meal into dust. Mind wandering everywhere. Going haywire. He is still reeling from the fact that Kao assumed that it could never be him who cooked him soup without being asked to, and still couldn’t see how much he was hurting.
The questions in his mouth are bile. His stomach is sick from keeping them all in, begging to be let out.
Didn’t you miss me? Why am I the only one who feels a knife twisting in the chest when we don’t see each other? Is a few hours of your life too much to ask for?
I can’t do this without you, Kao.
“Pete”, the boy draws a long breath. With the falling darkness, the lines on his face harden, growing colder, growing farther and farther away from his reach, “I have work tomorrow, You have to prepare too, I don’t think we can talk now—”
“No!”, it sounds like a hiccup. But he cannot be sure. “We should calm down separately and then talk, okay—”
“Please”, he misses Kao’s arms around him. He misses the boy’s smile. He misses his nagging. He misses everything about him. “I want you to go.”
His eyes sting; he’s never had any pride around the boy. But even he can’t chase Kao after that statement.
Growing pains, he thinks.
Maybe nobody can have this much—this paper-crane, yellow-sunset youth, a life that makes him want to wake up every morning because he knows someone wants to hear his stories and follow him to the ends of the earth—and come of age. To win some, you have to leave something behind, says Teacher Weeraporn. Maybe this is all just growing pains, all the play he left behind in his path to ascend the throne. Maybe this will mean nothing in a few more years.
But if only he can have one more year. He prays face turned towards the temple before he knows it, desperate, just an hour more, even. Just a little closer. Jasmines or no jasmines, duties or no duties. If all he has of breathless happiness is a few stolen hours, he will take them with both his hands and let each other grow in their own separate roads.
But why does walking away still feel like the hardest thing he’d ever done? Why does it feel like he was supposed to say something? He can feel the words taking root in his heart, the seedling turning into itself, ruminating whether it will ever see the light of day, not quite reaching his tongue.
He spends the rest of the night in a daze, going through the motions without thinking.
No one remembers the flowers that never bloom on the valley before the shrine. Pete still wonders, sometimes, what they were.
He probably pisses off every single person he meets the next morning.
In wrestling practice with the newly drafted Mork, he can’t concentrate. There is rage in him, but he can’t channel it.
“Get a grip”, the boy gnashes his teeth, tossing a cloth to wipe down much before practice hour is over. “You’ve never been like this, Pete, what’s wrong?”.
They’ve known each other for more six years now, fighting in the streets of Ambhom all the way up to here. The lack of the respectful addressal and the fact that the usually silent boy actually addressed this was a slap on the face.
Tell your P’Sun to stay the fuck away from Kao.
“Nothing”, he swallows the bitter words on his tongue. It’s not Mork’s fault he likes that old geezer. It’s not Pete’s fault he doesn’t have any time together with Kao anymore.
Or is it?
In the fitting for the afternoon address, even P’Mon, the legendary pushover in the staff tuts, at his knees tap-tap-tapping away under the silk he’s being dressed in. He can barely feel it on him, staring at circles under his eyes at the looking glass. Only registering the state-suns stitched across the wrists of his golden shirt, clasping and unclasping his palm to look at Kao’s gift—the little wooden sword he brought from Samorn for him. He doesn’t know why he’s carrying it around with him everywhere, when all it reminds him of was his best-friend’s sad-eyes, sad-because-of-him sad-eyes.
It’s something that started a few years ago. Every time Kao visits a different province, he picks up souvenir for back home—and the prince.
He says it’s good courtesy.
“You win favor with hosts”, the boy explained the first time, carrying a heavy specimen of the famed clay vases of Sakda into one of the meeting halls, “And when they visit it makes them feel our care, it’s a nice gesture.” Since they don’t have a lot of resources, the boy meticulously planned the budget for every diplomatic budget to afford a piece.
Which is why it hurt now. He knew Kao cared about this more than anyone else.
Why did they have to fight then?
What was the point of exchanging bitter words if all it resulted in was this—pain writhing wounded bird in his chest, without a way to leave?
Was this the Endurance he has been taught all his life? Because hurting the one who hurt him is recursive, he can feel Kao’s hurt like his own, understanding him without words, beyond words.
Then, he’d only hummed, watching the muscles on his ivory back flex in the sun. He’s never liked the hibiscus and chamomile variety of beverage that is all the rage in the palace. But once Kao gave him a taste of sweet milk-tea one spring evening, he got completely addicted.
It reminded him of that then, his fair skin like the ripple of warm milk. Pete was unable to take his eyes away from the curve of his spine.
“Menace!”, he’d scolded, “Are you listening asshole, come help me get this inside!”
The gifts are mostly local produce from the places he goes to—handicrafts or seasonal fruits, from Chirawan there comes silk, mangosteen from Satra, and the prince’s favorite, Mae Moo’s green curry from Ambhom. The last one isn’t even that far away, but there’s standing instruction in the palace that whoever is out in town is bringing back at least one portion for the prince. It’s not a surprise to anyone that Kao is the most frequent victim of these hunger pangs.
In addition to these presents, however, there is always a trinket for the prince. Pete has never questioned before, just why he gets so excited to receive them. He owns rings in golds and rubies, his earrings are Rachatrakul Silver, the food on his plate is made from the finest crop of any harvest. And yet—
He finds himself carrying it everywhere. Kao handed it to him wordlessly at the gate under that umbrella he had stolen from the stables years ago, like it was of no mention, the excitement burbling inside him too big for his body, too much for a gift as small as this.
It's a pretty thing.
Made of sandalwood, the size of a blooming plumbago at the center of his palm. The details astonish him, it’s carved as a reminiscence of a children’s toy weapon. Reminding him of the one he owned a decade ago. He’s learnt how to wield weapons that can hurt now. And the object on his palm feels fragile, tugging at his heart somehow.
There’s a weight to it he cannot identify, making a familiar protectiveness flare up inside him. He closes it into his fingers, promising himself he will not lose it, despite his legendary clumsiness, despite the smallness of its size.
That when he steps into the court with the sun on his back, feeling the cool floor under toes. The lion of Trust howling from the wounds left by Endurance, and his eyes meet Kao’s across the court, feeling his hurt reflected back in Understanding, he is not empty-handed.
The Kiet rises in his wake, the throne left empty for him as custom, and Pon occupies a chair at the Head of Consultants.
It’s made for two however, and when he sits back down, spine erect, blazing under every set of expectant eye on him, something feels missing. Emptiness feels like sitting as stone at the bottom of the springs, looking up at the sky through susurrating waves, blued and mourning forever.
Pete catches his fingers shake and stops. Takes a deep breath and starts.
Kao is looking at him, after so many days, and the thought is a patch of orange sunlight on his little heart-seedling.
He feels endurance, clutching at his chong-kraben. Crisping the paper in his fist, the proposal is probably the hardest thing he has written in his entire life.
He feels endurance, trying not to turn towards Kao every other second, fighting the wail in his throat that wants to shout for forgiveness and fall upon his knees upon even with every court member watching.
He feels endurance, curling his toes and hiding the hurt in his eyes. Can you hurt the flame that burnt you? He doesn’t think so, when all he wants to do is put his arms around it and protect it from the devastations of the world.
“Respected Elders“, he calls, ”Your majesty, esteemed department heads, valued members”, and meeting a pair of doe-eyes over Kiet, the hall of honor, he breaths, “And dear State Apprentices, I, Phubodin Rachatrakul, crown prince of the kind, the perseverant Chinthira, declare this meeting open!”
They come forward one by one, each minister—representing a different department with their reports, announcing the results of the season he had been revising all over the week. Pete hadn’t realized, just when he’d picked up the habit of slipping reports between bowls of rice and over spoons of salad. He doesn’t have a voice that read them aloud to him anymore, and only as he stands before the court that he has presided over a hundred times before, does he realize just who the voice in his head is.
A flash of white skin. A gust of spring in his pretty laugh.
He shoves the thought aside brutally, snapping his gaze away from the implore in his best-friend’s eyes. It feels like the aftermath of a thunderstorm. He is wreckage and splintered wood, a weeping forest left in the wake of destruction.
It shouldn’t feel like a burden, he thinks, the purple hands of the court members and their haunted eyes, working their hardest and looking upon their prince for the right path to take. He will not be allowed to take any executive decisions until he is crowned, but he has the right to fight. Here, in Kiet, everyone does, he aches to fight and yet should not feel this unmoored—shifting from foot to foot as the last head gives her report—Kaewkarn Chotiwat, from public education.
“Your majesty”, she bows, and when she looks up he finds the gray kindness her eyes he’d been starved for all week. He’s spent much of his childhood crawling the mud of her front garden, following the fat worms that rose from the earth between red peonies. The clasp her daughter’s little hand around his fist, giggling and the never-not-welcome smile on her face was reprieve after an evening of moping in the shrine—still is.
Kao is her son, after all. And the clipped smile on his face chips as she draws back and he takes strength from the set of her mouth, the glint in her eye that tells him he is as much her son as the Head Apprentice of Kiet.
“The land is wet with tears”, Pon rumbles, from his chair as the Head of Advisors, “and the blood, sweat of our people will not go to waste. Blessed harvest will come to us—”, Pete feels something uncoil inside himself, a lion baring teeth, heart racing at the air turning golden from the fire catching in every eye in the hall as their king speaks. “—Chinthira pays for the sins of her ancestors but we will not let the debt hold their guilt in our hearts—”, the now-familiar despair rocks through him, and he shakes untethered, “—we will prosper with our goodwill, we will prosper with our kindness”, and his father turns, with all the power age robbed for him and the heart that still bleeds for his wife—“Crown Prince Phubodin, you may start your address.”
“We run on empty again”, he breaths. His voice feels small, in this large hall, too-small, and all alone. ”We must make a choice”—and raising the list of testimonials he begins, “The proposal of expanding the harvest festival to other lands has been pushed back for six years now. And today we have that choice once again.”
Wind picks up, as feet, surging ahead to take a copy of the proposal he’d made dozens of out with his own hands. A bitter twang in his heart, wanting somehow, in some way to reach Kao, wanting his fingers to brush over the crooked penmanship, just something, anything to be close again.
“Your feedback is a gift”, he chokes out, enduring the distance for all that it’s worth, enduring because there is nothing left to do.
He feels the end in the raised hand over court.
In the words the boy would speak next. They’d argued a thousand times before, had to, with their conflicting attitudes towards life and natural tendency to head-butt for no reason, but never on the opposite sides of the table, never on the day something that meant this much to Pete was at stake. Never disagreeing for the sake of itself.
There was Duty all right, he knew towards, the kingdom, why did it feel so wrong then? Why did he feel so empty?
The first hand of rejection comes from State Apprentice Phanuwat, and before he can blaze to defend it, he feels a pang in his heart. Winning has always meant bowls of clinking chicken broth and ruffles of his hair by warm hands. He’s not sure how it will now, or how much he can want it all alone.
“We cannot chance bankruptcy”, he whispers. Still commanding in the deathly silence in his wake. The youngest member speaks up against the once about to ascend the throne. There raised brows on the sides, and cocks of heads, but he cannot see any of them, gaze fixed finally on the death in Kao’s eyes.
“What do you mean, State Apprentice Phanuwat?”—he remembers being asked by Kao how he could believe so much. Climb to tree-tops without caring if he fell, how he swum down to sandbeds and tried to breath, how he believed no snakes lurked around the pretty seashells he leaped forwards to collect for his best-friend every time he spotted them.
“It is not a calculated risk, your majesty”—Kao used to have soft eyes, wonder in them, as he followed him everywhere, mesmerized, almost, at eight, at twelve, at seventeen. His chest had always warmed when he could enthrall him. Him by whom everyone was enthralled. He who never believed, scolding when he tended his wounds. He looks pained now, as he did whenever he would gaze at him fearing yet another crash or injury or failure.
“We have the people’s words, we must believe in—”
“They are not promises—”
“But they are not nothing, either”, he cries out, unmindful of the little gasp of shock from the backline of elders, “The benefits we could reap from this—”
“Cannot trump our losses! Your majesty”, Kao sounds almost pleading, there in his amber shirt shining in the light, the staid sweep of his hair down to his eyes. The only one standing in a court full of people, who has always retorted insult with insult, fist with fist and anger with anger. “Please consider all the possibilities, this may not—”
The room breaks out in little puddles of chatter then, frowns aplenty. He holds his breath as he watches Kao, waiting, waiting for a verdict from the ministers. For a moment he sees not the worry of the boy who had no faith, but the flash of the seven-year-old boy trembling in the dark, croaking out to him, asking for his hand in the middle of the forest.
For a moment it almost felt like all he had to do was offer was an arm. To mend their burnt bridges.
Kites snapping in the sky and leaf racing. Fair muscles rippling under his fingers, a red mouth heaving. Slippery rocks and lotus floating upon cold water.
“We must begin at root”, Elder Pai barks, “As best as you have attempted in this proposal, your majesty, please explain the motivation behind it.”
Helping hands, he wants to say, lips that never refuse him. Who taught him the world could be trusted, that he was never alone in anything he went through.
“We must gather forces”, the crown prince rumbles, like his father has for a three decades, like his mother too, the clench of his jaw, “And lean on those who want to assist us. We want an alliance—”
He’d been forced to learn, all these years. Tax and law and swordsmanship and he knows he can do it all on his own. He is not afraid to fall. He has Trust in his hands and Endurance chafing at his heart, he wants to be a Dutiful son of their land and tries to be Understanding hearing everyone’s views and concerns.
But he forgets the Fifth Precept of Rule, and just before he stumbles, he realizes, that Kao had always had his best interests at heart—and at times, even more than his own.
“Are you sure”, State Apprentice Phanuwat cries out, “that you want to do this, your majesty?”
The whispers are wildfire left at the wake of his statement.
“Alliance?”, Pon frowns, “Prince Phubodin, are you talking about—”
“Ah, he has it”, Teacher Weeraporn grins, happier than he has ever looked in this court. “Finally doing things the right way for once, eh?”
Kao’s eyes aren’t on him any longer, and the suddenly restless crowd gets on his nerves. Some look elated, most of them look nauseous and he finds his heartbeat raising, his stomach knotting into itself from all the times he hadn’t been able to step into this court in the fear of something of a dread he could not define.
Light catching through a glass window, peanuts thrown in the air and legs knocking under a table.
“Were you thinking of expanding to Samorn?”, another elder smiles, one of those who look fucking thrilled, “to make amendments about the land?”
“I-I mean, yes, they’re one part of it but what I meant—“
“Then you must know the right way of forming an alliance, your majesty”, teacher Weeraporn nods. He watches horror dawn over P’Korn’s eyes at the back of them room. It is only a moment before he realizes exactly what he has just done.
“Marriage”, the man sighs happily, “Princess Fongbeer has already shown interest in your form, your majesty, we can finally bring glory back to this land again!”
The Fifth Precept of Rule is Equality, and he feels it as punch to his gut, watching Kao stumble back into his seat. Lightening has never stuck him, he has never tasted Wachira—hell, he’s never even swung it, but if he did have, it would probably feel like this.
Insult fought with insult, and fist with fist. Anger with anger but so was joy. Crooked smile with crooked smile and wink with wink, late night with late night and piggy-back ride with piggy-back ride.
There is a boy in his head. Shaped like he was meant to be held by him, curled around his body, showered with kisses and felt up with gentle hands. Opened up with soft lips pressed between his legs and chest sucked and licked until he came crying in his arms.
He had been asked once, who he envisioned by his side. On the first step he had failed of the several to come, the one question he could never answer before Wachira was given to him.
“You don’t know yourself”, they would sigh, at his answers that snapped between derisive and made up with generic virtues, “To know what you require in a partner, you must know who you are first.”
But, oh, he already did.
He knew about his knobbly knees and cold hands, the ribs so easy to crack because the heart trapped inside it was never at rest.
Of how nobody would want to know him beyond his sharp-cut jaws and lean thighs, the girls at the town could simper when the occasion called it but he had seen their distaste, in his too-loud sentences when he got excited and the green curry that always clambered up his lips when he was too enthused to eat because when he was tickled he laughed so hard tangerine juice came out of his nose and his socks were never darned.
He had always been less-than-ideal. All he could hope for, at best, was someone who could tolerate him, at best, if not accept. He could have anyone he wanted but lying awake on a cold bed looking up at a blue dawn the fear of being hated by the one closest to himself by simply being who he was scared the hell out of him.
“State Apprentice Phanuwat”, Elder Pai chirps, “you were there at Samorn at the weekend, kindly quote what her majesty has been heard saying to her courtiers all around!”
He watches Kao swallow, his eyes downcast, looking far removed from the Kiet. Far away from him, drifting through some other lifetime where he doesn’t have to remember what snooty princesses of asshole kingdoms have been gossiping about this week.
Pete hadn’t realized Kao was trying to protect him.
But why hadn’t he warned him then, why did he have to hurt all alone?
“’He’s has no spine to raise the sword”, he sounds bitter, almost like he is spitting the words. At least they’re met with horror by most of the court members, “no good at studies, but”, he pauses, scrunching his eyes shut, “what a fine piece of ass, perhaps it will be I who whips it into shape?’, were her majesty’s words, Elder”
Pieces of white clouds shifting through his fingers, hips submerged in a transparent pool of water. Where his splashes were returned with equal vigor, his crooked collar was fussed about with, his growling stomach always fed and his messy hair handled with care.
“Unpleasant”, remarks a minister, shivering, “I know that we have never been able to trust Samorn, but can this be a way of settling peace?”
“She insulted our prince, how dare she be let into this palace?”
“But consider the benefits!—”
The debate rages on without his input and he wonders why is father is so silent. Pete is ashen faced and trembling, because he has no energy to speak about his proposal any longer, no will to defend himself either.
What she had said had been the truth. How could he refute being something he never had been?
He doesn’t know what to say, he realizes, when they ask him—“What do you think, your majesty, of proposing to her?”
He is frozen in place, rooted in the old belief that love conquers all raging against the storm brewing in the court. Perhaps this would mean he failed his address today but his tongue is stuck in his throat, lead-heavy and sawdust.
In Chinthira no one could be left behind, Equality, was the norm, so everyone is allowed to speak.
But there is more to it, he thinks, so much more. As Pon huffs cutting into the awkward silence write after his non-answer that only grows.
But he cannot care about who is looking and him and thinking what. All he can see is Kao, the tired slump his shoulders and Pete has never felt more of an urge to wrap his arms around him and cradle him to his chest.
What has he done?
Dear Lord, how could he have hurt Kao this much?
“We can discuss in private and announce again”, the king declares, waving his hand to dispel the hall, another one on Pete’s shoulder.
It doesn’t feel vice-like or disappointed. Merely supportive like his own bone outside his body, like it always has for him—for him and his parent.
His eyes are at the door till the very end, waiting for Kao to turn just once and look at him.
But the time never comes. And when he turns around and looks at the king.
It feels like he knows.
Something changes after that, between them, and Pete tries not to see it but finds himself doing it anyway. They don’t discuss it, what happened in court in the afternoon. Kao lost in his own thoughts as they take the longer route around the Busaba up to the shrine. The cheek of his half-smile and cotton sleeves that somehow still make him look as dapper as he did in Kiet with his full-uniform on.
The compliment in his mouth splutters, slipping upon itself and falling back on it’s ass, staring. Pete falters.
“Fatty”, he breaths, wondering why he had called out his name at all.
“It is unusual”, Pon had frowned, a hand on his shoulder, “But not unheard of.”
From down their line of sunkissed warriors through eons, there have been a few, he’d said. And told him a story about the prince who fell in love with nomyen-sweet lips and shy gazes, the one who dared love his senior—he who chased the sun.
Pete had been afraid to say it. Not because he didn’t think Pon wouldn’t accept him, but of what this might imply for their future. For him, and for Chinthira. He did know himself better now, even if not all of it, and as the hazy recollections of soft hands on his waist slipped in and out of his thoughts, he breathed easier, gulping down lungfuls of the red evening, of the heady scent of flowers down the trail.
He could do it now.
Start looking for male suitors too.
Something in him didn’t want to start right away however, (or start ever.) He’d wanted an answer from Pon, when he’d confessed after the session in Kiet that the other half of the population might be a possibility for him as well. He’d wanted an affirmation, of his birdcage heart and the sapling that never rose. That was what drove him to speak up so soon.
It was not Fongbeer.
It was not the kingdom’s fate either.
It was for once, for himself only.
His father seems to have sensed his enquiry, but he gave no answer. “Oh, and there were those two as well”, he’d smiled, eyes twinkling, “From the play Phanuwat attends every show of in spring, you know, the mage and the something?”
He did know. He knew it beginning to the end, the verses branded over his heart by the voice that had lulled him to sleep for almost a decade now.
“Hmm?”, it said, “What is it, menace?”
He’s missed hearing it, he turns, almost afraid to look at Kao head-on. Nearly half to palace is in love with the boy, any suitor would snap him up in a heartbeat if he said yes. It wasn’t too unnatural then, to be so drawn in, right?
To be this attracted to someone this poised, this beautiful, this scholarly.
Everyone is after all. He cannot blame himself for being unable to look away, heart hurting.
What jewels and diamonds he would give and wars he would fight to always have this peace between them, this warm comfort of brushing shoulders and hearing the croak of evening tree-frogs. To always be allowed to be close enough so there’s always a hint of jasmine in the air.
What he would not do to have Kao always by his side.
What he would not do, indeed.
But what could he, even so?
Sandee’s sharp eyes catch his anguish, frowning over the liquor in her glass. Her long fingers clacker over the rim, deep in thought as they swing their legs over the ledge of the shrine.
The address has been a bust.
Of course, the cool gang had to be here to celebrate.
(Of course, he hadn’t sent out invitations in Chirawan to catch up with this annoying woman. It was to discuss patronship prospects, of course it wasn’t about the head in his lap, the heat in his belly or the tears that burned his eyes for no reason these days.
“Khun mae”, she groans, “Look at your idiot boy!”
June had passed out from the drink. After jumping around the creaking wood for most of the evening, pleased to finally let loose and spread gossip freely after being forced to be prim and proper in court for the several weeks since their last meeting. Sandee was to be crowned shortly as well, and Thada had already taken over the press. Kao had proposed a game of drunken makruk where they’d each have to take a shot on felling the other’s board-piece.
It hadn’t ended well.
He’s still burbling about siege formations at a equally drunk Thada who keeps shouting back—“But your majesty!”, after every other sentence. The words make Kao giggle, slapping the boy across the chest, head lolling over his shoulders. He is clingier than usual, drooling on Thada as they snuggle up against the pillar. He’d looked strangely relieved after Pete had returned from Kiet after talking to his father.
Something on his face must have given away that there was no way in heaven or hell he would ask the princess of Samorn’s hand in marriage.
Kao never had had many words when he nagged him about his suitors, not wanting to give his opinions on the grounds that it wouldn’t be proper of him to make comments on who could potentially be the future queen. He used to whine, pulling away from the loving arms he threw open for a good-luck-embrace as he liked to call it before he went into another blasted dinner-meeting.
But when he did say something he meant it.
Describing his nature, his strengths and weaknesses from the exact point of view of what he might want to look for in a suitor—making him wish he could carry the boy back into the interviews he repeatedly failed for wielding Wachira.
That must have been why he looks so pleased—because he’d helped his best friend dodge a bullet like Fongbeer, happily obliging Thada’s drunken request for singing one of the most famous verses of his favorite play.
“Take me!”, he yowls, “Beloved!”, grinning dopily, his voice broken and cheeks so pink they look like lychees. Pete feels his heart swell, in adoration that so potent he sways forward. Affection brewing in his belly like hibiscus tea, something prodding at the depths of his heart. Mesmerized by the curl brushing over Kao’s left eye, his horrible off-key singing and the unbridled joy.
“Close your mouth”, Sandee’s swat at the back of his neck snapping him out of the half-crouch he’d gotten himself into. Crawling towards Kao across the ledge in the most indecent fashion, “And sit properly.”
She’s always aced deportment, and Pete remembers the dozens of their letters exchanged on the bloody subject, he wouldn’t have passed Teacher Weeraporn’s final exam without her painstakingly spelled out notes on the five hundred and sixty-three ways of placing elbows on tables and covering mouths while laughing.
Her crimson siwalai stays in order, not a hair out of place, as he forces himself to look away from Kao and at her raised chin at the moon, Cherished Beauty of the Mountains, her suitors come from every province around Chirawan, close and far, until where the hills meet the plains and sun kisses the earth, beloved, adored.
“Didn’t piss everyone off too much, I hope?”
“Choked up”, he snorts, “Or they’d have been regaled with some very colorful language about her lovely highness of Samorn”
“That bitch”, she spits, “I put beetlebugs down her mattress that one summer you weren’t there. Ah—”, she sighs as does he, recalling the fond memory, “—if you’re forced onto her I shall be hiding under the wedding bed with spiders”, she cackles, “I have your back, your majesty, do not worry”
He leans back, overwhelmed all of a sudden, at the amount of care he is surrounded by, now. The shrine bubbles with the Kao and Thada’s prattle, with June’s terrible snores, and Sandee’s rough voice telling him about the state of affairs at Chirawan now.
She does not know it, yet. But he awaits her crowning more than his own—her button nose scrunches, arms twined around her knees, she spits a tongue out when he laughs at her horrible hip movement to Kao’s yowling. He doesn’t think he drank that much, waiting for some reason.
Waiting, waiting for an answer nobody gives him.
Afraid to lose himself and do something he might regret someday.
“Did you look around?”, she remarks, throwing a stray splinter into the wind. The overgrown weed and scraggly mud of the valley is ruffled by the rain, in the gentle drizzle, almost as if flowers bloom in the darkness, wild and wayward unlike Busaba.
A purple dream nobody remembers.
“Take a leap of faith”, Pon had said, “Your majesty”, and Pete squints, bludgeoned by the cold despite the liquid sun in his cup burning down his throat. The nightmares that taste like blood and a slice of steel through his back, the tension that coils in his abdomen when he steps into court the instinct that tells him to run, run, run, away before he can be hurt again. Not again his heart says, and he feels it chirping, charmed by the Kao who whines, edging towards him from the other side of the ledge.
“No”, he swallows, hands reaching for the boy. Sandee raises her cup, toasting him, toasting them, when he embraces Kao, pressing him to the chest—gathering up all his dumping-soft giggles for himself, feeling the shiver of his silken hair over the adam’s apple, the breath stolen from his body. The smirk on her red lips sparks a familiar rage in him. Rage at being made fun of—of never being enough but her eyes are paper-bright, broth-warm, caring, loving.
What does she see in him, he wonders, what makes her think he will still make it.
“You’ll find them one day”, she’d assured, at one of his visits to Chirawan, drinking over the throne one night with June.
“Stop bleating about face-moles”, June had barked, “That’s not a very good criteria, Sir Phubodin”
“Too broad”, Sandee had agreed waving the empty cup in the empty hall, “Too many—hic—people with face moles—hic—Pete!”
“It’s the only one!”, he’d whined, barely conscious of the words that left his mouth, barely conscious in any general sense of the word.
It still is.
He had never been ashamed to say that it had begun with Kao. The first person with that attribute he had met at seven-years-old. To the young him, it was pretty—and to the old him, he stumbles, trembling in Kao’s nuzzles that knocked against the birdcage, windchime-heavy, made of feather and light and bright sueng strums—to the old him too, they still are.
“No”, he croaks, “I didn’t look.”
Kao blinks, peering up at him sweetly, pink-cheeked and pouting. The Kao who was sober would never have done this, would never have let himself be held like this, this close, this fiercely. There’s something intimate about being this near, he can’t help but lean in, and nose into the fluff of his hair, feel himself blow a silly breath against Kao’s cheek that makes the boy sneeze.
“Shtoppp”, he slurs, pawing at him blindly. A little closer and he would nearly be on Pete’s lap, a thought so enticing that when it appears he cannot dismiss the heat fizzling through him.
“Make me”, he whispers, blowing a breath on his nose, over the lashes and the mole beside his left eye. Kao squawks, almost duckling in his arms, yellow and loud and loving. “Fatty”, he rumbles, not knowing why he said the word. “Kao—”
“Fuck you”, the boy squeaks, burying face into his chest so he no longer has access to attack. Pete is pinned down by the stars, pinned down by the arms that could never hurt him even if they wanted to, unable to leave, feeling Kao fall asleep in his arms. Ruffles shift into caress, the doodles he draws on Kao’s back are the ones he used to scribble on parchment margins years ago.
A little boy with dumpling cheeks, holding a wooden sword in his hand, holding so many hearts in his hands in his hands he doesn’t even know.
Pete thinks it knows it then, knows every answer he has every prayed for, in the crook of Kao’s whine and the weight of him that had been made for him to carry, had been made to carry him as well, when he needed it.
If only he could keep this forever, the wooden sword safely tucked into the folds of his clothes and the boy in his arms.
One day Kao would belong to someone else, not to Chinthira, not Kiet, and not to him.
What would he do then?
What would I do without you, Kao?
I’m in love in you and I don’t know what to do.
I’m in love with you but the words won’t leave my chest.
How could you ever love me back?