A king lies dying in a sunlit room.
It is a small room, paneled in rare wood and hung with weaving. There is a sleeping mat in the center and beside it an unlit lamp. On the mat, half a corpse, sprawled out on his belly: a large man who would render the room tiny if it weren’t for how the flesh has sunk into his bones, carved traitorous furrows down his limbs. The room resounds with his gasping breaths.
Outside stand trees that have grown brittle and gray with the stench of the king’s dying. They whisper together, passing messages of bark and sap. Skeletal leaves strain towards the death rattle, awaiting that dark-glittering moment. They will drink long and deep when the king dies, and they have not drunk well in years.
The king calls himself Kidlat, lord of Namayan. Histories of conquest run intricate linework over his arms and chest: circles overlaid one upon the other, blue constellations marking kills, black spirals bearing witness to the cities he has raised in stone and mahogany and gold. Late afternoon sunlight parts the shadows to gild his tattoos, as if to say: The marks are beginning to fade. The blue has sunk to mere traces on brown skin.
Beside the king, Bai Marikit of Namayan sits and listens to the trees and combs her fingers through his hair. She touches an arm patterned with ink and the symbols of reign, nails scratching lightly over the pale-spined whorls.
“Send another,” she says.
The king stirs. “There are no others to send,” he answers past the stutter in his breath. “I will not burden you with even more loss.”
Marikit smiles briefly. She has lived too long not to recognize a lie when she hears one.
The trees continue to murmur of patience, of the eventual end of drought.
The sickness had come upon him like lightning. All too fitting, in its own way: Lakan Kidlat struck down at the feast that had all of Namayan dancing, afire with the music of silver cymbals and golden bells and the clear strong sound of the city’s flautists. The long war with Ma-i was over; after the rains they would crown its fertile plains with a new city of stone and red-tinted glass.
Then at the very height of the festivities, the king fell between one dance step and another, collapsing athwart poles of bamboo and the handles of long spears. When he opened his eyes they had been swallowed up by red-streaked black.
The albularyo and manghihilot would say nothing of healing. They only reeled back from the king after the briefest of touches, mouthing a single name before fleeing.
Later, the royal guards found that they had hanged themselves in their homes, every single one.