Brother Takigen knows of my malady though he does not perceive its source. He is often silent, but no pity or repulsion taints his features. I find my perspective shifting. Traitorous thoughts worm into my mind, sending snow-shivers down my back.
I cannot sleep at night. My body refuses, baring me to the torture of doubts. I am boiling away. My tissues dissolve and drain into scum. My affinity to the caterpillar - and what it must endure within its silken chamber of pain - grows with each passing day.
I wonder at my birth world, at the way of things on that far-distant earth, and at the fates or gods that saw me conceived into royalty and Brother Takigen into the wilds of the Kaukasus. What is royalty but a human construct?
This question and its implications repulse me, but I can no longer ignore them. I am not sure, any longer, of my birth-right. When I look into the face of this man, into the scattered brown of his eyes, I cannot believe I am more worthy of honor than he.
It is no good. I cannot hold out.
My respect for Brother Takigen returns. And with it, faint hope that the rest of the crew may disrupt my expectations in a similar manner.
“What does the crew think of this imprisoned prince?” I ask.
Brother Takigen pauses, the empty tray in his hands, muscles rippling from shoulder to wrist. He surveys me for a time, thoughts skimming like shadows behind his eyes. “Why do you ask?”
“Once, a great lion and a fierce tiger were captured and transported by ship to a menagerie. Before the ship arrived at its destination, both escaped, swam a great distance through rough surf, and happened upon the same, small island. The lion wishes to know whether the tiger bears him good or ill will.”
“The tiger also wonders,” says Brother Takigen. “He awaits a sign.”
So. The play is mine. I fall asleep smiling.
The lion and tiger are at an impasse. I fear his claws and he fears my fangs. And as we wait, the wormhole looms nearer and nearer, like storm clouds on the wind.
Red lights flash in the dark. I stumble to my feet and the ship hums beneath me. The back-up lights flicker on and go out. In their brief luminescence I notice that my door stands ajar. Far off, I hear shouting and running feet.
I find my way to the hall, guided by the continued strobing of the emergency lights. Two figures rush by me, and I follow, a pauper-made-khan. Even in the gravest circumstances, freedom tastes sweet.
My eyes sting, and I cough on smoke. A room opens before me and I recognize it by the blueprints as a storage area. The space fills with the shadowy figures of men, back lit in orange. Fire licks up the walls, eating our supplies, swallowing our air. Death lurches one step closer and I understand. He, not the tiger, is the enemy.
I slam the door behind me, trapping myself and fifty others in a crematorium. The sound of the door closing reaches everyone's ears at once, bringing into fierce focus what we must do to survive. The men split into groups, and I join one. Together we work to fight the flames, moving equipment, smothering fire. As we labor together, something happens deep inside me, a fusion between my spirit and theirs.
My vision distorts and I see with clarity: I am one among many - not belittled or made common - but filled with shared strength, unity, and equality. I am a bird in synchronized flight, the bones in a panther’s back.
The only power I have known or desired before this was one of elevation, royalty, separation. But this is breathtaking. These men, though strangers, are a part of me.
I cannot explain it; I do not want to.
The last flames die out and I slip away before I am noticed, recognized, and the magic lost.
The lock clicks into place when I close my door. I wash, change my clothes, and crawl beneath my covers. The darkness swells around me and I inhale the heady smell of smoke, the mingled sweat of fifty men working, breathing, moving, hearts beating, as one.
There is a new look in Brother Takigen's eyes the next day. He smiles as he leaves. “My Prince, the tiger prepares his reply.”
It is the first time he has addressed me by my title. A good omen. So why am I displeased?
There is no worse torture than this: the incremental passage of time.
I woke in the middle of the night last night, staring into the dark, my heart clattering to a beat I could not hear. Disturbed, I paced in the black air, my muscles driving me from one side of my cell to the other. I returned to my bed in exhaustion an hour later, and in that moment I realized that I cannot remember Zuhal’s face. I wonder if she remembers mine.
An expectancy edges the day, a tangible weight hangs in the air. Whatever is to come, it will happen soon.
I hear footsteps passing by my door long before it opens, not a single man’s tread, but countless feet. I am standing, clothed in all the dignity I can muster, when Brother Takigen turns the handle and strides inside my room.
“Prince Tevfik,” he bows and motions toward the hall, “your future nation has demanded your release.” Then he moves aside and allows me to pass.
I step into the hallway and on all sides of me, as far as I can see in either direction, stand the 256 man crew of the Sakha Ata. They snap to attention and their voices thunder in one united salute, “Khan Tevfik.”
Stunned, I look into their faces. For the first time, I see them and know them.
They are me.
It is in this moment, with the sudden, unexpected ripping of a cocoon, that I emerge transformed. I am unrecognizable to myself. And yet this strange creature is me, and my path is clearer than eyesight. The pain and turmoil I have gone through have been preparing me for this, culminating in one act that defies the weight of innumerable centuries.
My voice fills the hallway, “Do not call me prince or khan. We need no titles among equals. For today I declare you my royal brothers.
“From this day on I bind my honor to yours, and yours to mine. No rank, no titles, and no family names shall separate or estrange us. Our wealth and children and future lands shall belong as much to one as to all. From this day on, khan no longer means warrior-lord, but warrior-for-his-brothers. Today I make you all khans.”
The silence following my speech is absolute.
The men stand in a daze, and I see danger sweeping along the walls. If I fail to unite them, there will be nothing to hold them; we will fall into anarchy. Lion and tiger both shall die.
I turn to the only ally I have. “Brother Takigen?”
He strides towards me, grips the back of my head, and thrusts his face into my own. His breath strikes my cheek. “The lion is wiser than I knew.” Then he raises his voice so the men can hear, “I accept your offer of brotherhood.”
The men inhale, a collective breath that buckles the walls.
Brother Takigen turns, addressing us in a voice as deep as the Kaukasus, “We are the chaff of earth, ashes in the wind. Death waits beyond the gate. This is our choice: to forge ourselves into lethal strength or die worthless in the breach. Become brothers, unite, and we’ll make our own honor together.” He glares at us and bellows, What say you?”
We answer as one voice.
Go to Universe Prince Part 5