The Magnificent Bhajan
The palace was just as it had been forty years ago, just as I’d left it. Her blackstone floors polished to glitter as if they were the midnight sky itself, her white pillars and archways carved with so many six-armed gods they were made of nothing but marble bodies. I had changed, yes, aged in so many ways, my magics faded along with the vigor of my muscles and the color of my beard. But the palace, she had only grown in radiance for the many years I was away.
If only I were good with politics, as good as I used to be with magic, maybe then I never would have had to leave the palace at all. If only I’d been savvy like the courtiers, and whispered hints into the Maharaja’s ear about Ranjeet the Usurper’s conspiracy against him, let him put the final piece of the puzzle together himself instead of unveiling the betrayer in public. I hoped the Maharaja’s golden ceremony would put him in a nostalgic mood, a mood where an old friend might be forgiven a mistake decades old. I hoped that once forgiven I might be welcomed back to the palace, back to the Maharaja’s side, back to the seat of service where I’d spent my finest years. In those days, my talent for magic made me a jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of Nidhu. Every day granted me more opportunities to help our people than there were drops of water in the river Galweesh. Now, I was left searching for any way to be useful to anyone. If things went well here today, maybe that would change.
A troupe of acrobats hurried past me, smiling to one another, the sweat of an audition well-executed beading their foreheads. I hobbled down a few stairs and into the green courtyard, where a clerk sat slumped in a cushioned chair under a canopy just big enough to shade him.
“Ah,” the clerk said, sitting up. “And what delight has the Magnificent Bhajan prepared for us today?”
I placed my palms against one another and bowed, as much as I was able. There had been a time when I’d known the name of every palace official, and was liked and respected by them all. Not anymore.
It took so little effort from me, just a moment of concentration and a caress of my hands around the empty air where I willed shapes and colors to release themselves from the clear sunlight. And then Maharaja Aditya stood before us, glowing with power, noble chin up, a golden river of brocaded silk draped over the panther-sleek muscles of his chest, just as I remembered him from the day he had been crowned fifty years ago.
“An illusion?” the clerk asked. His raised eyebrows were the only part of his face that showed reaction.
Illusions required no altering of matter or bending the will of another, and so they were the first tricks a magician learned as a child. Now it was the sole magic that age had left me with. But I was great at it, and I would win over this clerk.
“Ah yes, young sir, yes it is an illusion, but one I suspect is unlike any you’ve seen before,” I said, and waved my hand behind the image of our ruler. “See how true to life it is? See how little shimmer there is around the edges?”
The clerk picked through figs and honeyed dates on the silver platter that a servant boy held next to him. I squinted into the harsh sun and blinked away the sweat from my eyes, but I did not give up my smile.
“When I heard the Magnificent Bhajan was going to audition for the Maharaja’s golden ceremony, I did not expect him to show me mere illusions,” the clerk said. “Where’s the Bhajan who revived the Viceroy of Pahudesh? Where’s the Bhajan who gentled leopards just by staring into their eyes? Where’s the Bhajan who pulled truth from the lips of Ranjeet the Usurper?”
There was a time I could perform any of those magics, and so many more magics, and so much grander magics, and not even find myself out of breath for the effort. Not anymore.
But could this clerk not see my illusion, see that it was rendered beyond what other magicians were capable of? Who had granted him the authority to reject me? It was only right that I be allowed to present before the Maharaja. I would show this clerk and the entire court that I could still serve a function in the palace. I would show them that I was still valuable to the kingdom.
“I don’t believe any aged man, not even our great Maharaja, will be looked upon favorably when standing side by side with his youthful self,” the clerk said. “Are there any other magics you might be able to perform for the ceremony?”
No. No, there were no other magics I could perform. All I’d done was show this clerk how truly useless I was. Had he allowed me to perform at the ceremony, to create my illusions, the crowd would have applauded politely and whispered to each other behind their hands about how far the Magnificent Bhajan had fallen, how feeble he’d become. This young man had spared me the pain of embarrassing myself.
“Thank you, young sir. Thank you,” I said. “There are no other magics I am prepared to perform today. I’ll leave you to your other auditions, now. Thank you.”
My sandals scuffed slowly along the hard dirt road, like a street beggar who had no destination. The city center bustled around me, vendor stalls smashed up against one another until they formed an octopus of wood and tarp, arms branching off arms and down into every alleyway. Most days, Jainkot’s marketplace would be filled only with brown faces—noble men and women in their parrot-bright sherwanis and saris, bare-chested servants in plain white dhotis, lugging home sacks of lentils or shimmering bolts of silk their masters had selected. But today the citizens of Nidhu’s capital city politely stayed home, leaving space for the hundreds of foreign nobles who had travelled here to honor the fiftieth year in the reign of his majesty Maharaja Aditya Jai Chandratreya.
And what a wonderful fifty years they had been, yes, wonderful for all. The ghost-pale merchants who sailed for months to bring spice back to the Far West, the ivory traders from the Afrik continent, the horse breeders from the Arabis lands, and the silk weavers from across the Chine Empire—all grew rich from the rivers of trade that flowed in every direction from Jainkot. They were here, happy to be out of their boats and caravans after long trips, eating steaming lamb from banana leaves and selecting wooden animal carvings to return home with.
These past fifty years had been good to me as well. Mostly good. Though the Maharaja had released me from service, there was never a lack of work for a magician who could ward off spirits from a newborn or keep a withering farm alive until the rainy season. I had been useful and needed by my family, my neighbors, and my people. Not anymore.
Though I had no errands or appointments, I did not go home. Nothing waited there for me, save any images I might conjure to keep me company. There was a reason my apparitions were so finely crafted, were more realistic than the sculptures of the greatest sandstone masters. While some men drowned their failures in alcohol, I drowned mine in illusion. And every day there was a new failure that needed drowning. Each time I found I could no longer ease pain in the injured or command animals or pull rain from the sky in real life, I stepped into memories of the days when I could do such things. As my years added up, I was able to do less and less in the solid world, and so did more and more inside my ghost world.
I’d passed countless lonely hours hiding behind my window curtains, talking to the almost-real memories standing full and round on my clay floor. I could nearly touch them, nearly smell them. And one sniff of a cloth doused with dyani seed oil would just about make me believe I was there again—healing a burn on the prince’s arm, ridding a cabbage field of moths, teaching my daughters multiplication. The only people who needed me anymore were the citizens of my hallucinatory kingdom.
When I entered Gopal’s shop, the apothecary, bearded like a bison, smiled wide and was kind enough to pretend he didn’t already know what I had come for.
“Namaste,” I said to Gopal, and he said to me, with a bow of our heads. We chatted, carried a warm, meaningless conversation, until my patience had proven me to not be an addict, and I could casually bring the glass vial from my pocket.
“Dyani seed oil for me today, my friend,” I said.
“Sure,” he said with a smile. A forced smile. Dyani seed oil wasn’t addictive to the body, but it was addictive to the soul. Gopal had seen more than one elderly magician become endlessly thirsty for the hollow embrace of his illusions, and disappear so deeply into them that he was never able to find his way back out again. Gopal was a good enough friend that one of these days he might refuse to sell to me anymore.
He reached behind him and snatched a bottle of tan oil from a shelf full of what appeared to be nearly identical bottles. The apothecary removed a square of parchment from the balance scale between us, then set my empty vial on one side and added weights to the other until the two sides hung even. Residue of a deep red powder lightly ringed the center of the parchment. I knew it, knew the color and shape of the grain, but the powder was rare, and it took my mind a moment to understand what I was seeing.
Having filled the vial, Gopal added a few more weights and looked up. “Two paisa should do it. Unless there’s anything else I can get you?”
“No, no, that is all, that is all, my friend.” I pulled out my coin purse but could not lift my eyes from the parchment. “But tell me, my friend, please tell me, is that bhra yusi root?”
Gopal glanced down, then back up with amusement in his eyes. “You are ever the Magnificent Bhajan. Is there a single ingredient to any potion or tonic that you don’t know?”
“I can’t imagine you normally keep ground bhra yusi.”
“No, it took some doing to procure it.”
“And did the man who requested it also buy wood spirits? Perhaps in a ratio of thrice the woods spirits as bhra yusi?”
“Ha, right again. It’s a recipe that you know, I take it.”
I did know it, but few others did, not even apothecaries. Knowledge of it was dangerous. Too dangerous. The only other magician I knew who had knowledge of this combination had fled into the Half Moon Desert forty years ago when I’d exposed his plan to overthrow the Maharaja.
But Ranjeet the Usurper was dead. Yes, he had to be dead. He’d run off into a desert two hundred miles across without water or food or a compass. Messengers on horseback, who carried a dozen waterskins and rode in the cool of night, were known to drop dead trying to cross that dry dirt plain.
But Ranjeet was nothing if not crafty. Had he known of some trick to survive the heat, the tigers and poison vipers? Had he invented some magic that kept him alive and moving for weeks without water or food? It was possible for Ranjeet. Perhaps not for anyone else, but for Ranjeet, yes, it was possible.
“Who ordered these ingredients?” I asked.
“I don’t know. The order was delivered and picked up by a messenger boy.”
“What was his name? The one who picked it up. Do you know the boy?”
“Uh … sorry but so many of those kids come in and out of here I hardly look up from my work. I don’t remember which it was.”
If he was back, if Ranjeet the Usurper had finally returned to take his revenge, only I could stop him. Only I had seen inside his mind, knew how the man thought. Only I could have a hope of guessing what he was planning and when he would strike.
Or was I fooling myself? Was it truly possible that Ranjeet was still alive? Or was I dreaming up an enemy that only I could challenge so that the Magnificent Bhajan could feel useful once again?
“How much for that bit of parchment?” I asked.
“Well I don’t sell parchment here,” Gopal said.
“Yes, yes, my good friend, I know. I’m asking if you would sell me this bit of parchment, here on your table. With the ground bhra yusi remnants still on it.”
Wadded parchment gripped tightly in my fist, eyes closed, I stood motionless outside Gopal’s shop.
Ranjeet would be elderly, and would look nothing like the man who had fled the country all those years ago. It would be simple for him to blend into the crowd of foreigners at the golden celebration, wearing a jacket coated with the light-red resin of bhra yusi mixed with wood spirits. All he’d need is a little flint spark to set the mixture burning. He’d die along with the Maharaja, but that’s a sacrifice a man like Ranjeet would be willing to make now that his magic had faded away with age. Yes, to take his final revenge in front of a thousand guests from around the world, that was perfectly in keeping with Ranjeet’s sense of self-importance and drama.
With no way to identify Ranjeet by the appearance of his face, the only way to capture him would be to track him. The bhra yusi powder that had been carried away by the messenger boy and the powder now pressed against my palm had grown together inside the very same root, and that created a spirit-world tether that a talented magician could follow from one end to the other. There was a time when the connection would have been as obvious to me as a line drawn in the dirt. Not anymore.
Concentration was elusive in the heat and noise outside Gopal’s shop. A rush of voices echoed in my mind, seeming to grow louder the more I tried to shut them out. The smell of fish sizzling in oil and dung on the hoof of an ox tromping past pushed and pulled on my nostrils. The sun scorched my forehead and glowed through my eyelids.
I forced my grip to relax. I inhaled from my belly, slowly expanding my lungs until they ached. I counted fifteen heartbeats as I let the breath out.
I felt it—the essence of the bhra yusi, earthy and pocked and calm and shattered and eternal and solid and slowly, slowly flowing. And I felt the slightly hungry drawing on my soul, urging me toward the missing half of the root’s essence.
Through the crowd I marched, and couldn’t keep a fool’s grin off my face. I was on a mission to save the Maharaja’s life, using my talent and cunning to defeat a powerful and treacherous enemy. I was a man again. I was a magician again. I was Magnificent again.
A tall Afrik man bumped me, and uttered profuse apologies in his own language along with a series of bows. I bounced off of him, my body too relaxed to be thrown off course by the jostle, and continued on my way without glancing back.
I left the commotion of the marketplace behind as I entered an alley between mud brick walls. In the shade for a moment, I slowed, still on my feet but taking time to wipe sweat from my face with the sleeve of my sherwani. I stopped to refocus, get a better grip on the sensation of longing that told me which direction to walk, but found that the sensation was weaker than before.
Was I faltering in my focus? Or might the object I sought be moving away from me? It was possible that the messenger boy hadn’t delivered it yet, and was still running with it. If the other bhra yusi powder was speeding away at the pace of a running messenger boy, I might lose the guiding sensation altogether. There would be no way to track down Ranjeet. The old trickster could move about without anyone knowing who he was, hidden in a sea of faces at the celebration, free to murder the Maharaja at his whim.
I hurried forward, scurrying as fast as my old muscles would allow. But my heaving breaths and the spikes of pain in my knees told me I could not keep this speed for long. The exertion caused me to all but lose my connection to the bhra yusi.
My mind grasped for it. My vision went dark red, my tongue tasted the root’s bitterness, my nose smelled its potato scent. I was getting lost in the physical reality of the bhra yusi, the superficial, worldly aspects of objects that bogged down undisciplined magicians and kept them from breaking through to the thing’s true essence. Still running, I struggled to clear my mind, to let go of the root’s texture and color and taste, to turn my mind back to its spiritual—
I barely had time to realize I’d tripped before my chin slammed to the hard dirt. Without pause I rose to my hands and knees, pain tearing at my ribs. I had to get up, I had to keep going, I had to find a way.
But the feeling was gone. The pulling sensation that told me where I’d find Ranjeet had fled. I wouldn’t get it back. I slumped to the ground, laying on my stomach, exhausted, face in my hands, hard dirt scratching into my forearms. Sweat dripped down my head and into my clenched eyes.
I was a pathetic fool. Ranjeet the Usurper had to be many decades dead. And the Magnificent Bhajan was an addled-brained shadow of his former self, so lost in his memories of glory that he tripped over his own feet chasing after the fantasies he’d created for himself.
Or, I was a weak old man. Ranjeet the Usurper was going to kill the Maharaja and die in triumph, cackling his way to the next world as he took his final revenge, while the Magnificent Bhajan stood motionless and mute, helpless and impotent.
I’d have nothing remaining, nothing but my beautiful illusions. The only magic I had left. The only companionship I had left. And as senility robbed me of control, I’d slip into a nightmare, again and again conjuring the cracked, laughing face of Ranjeet the …
The face of Ranjeet. With the one magic left to me I might be able to uncloak it, show it to the Maharaja in time to save the man’s life. I would need help. I’d have to visit all my old acquaintances, and they’d think me crazy.
But what did it matter if they thought me an insane old man pursuing ghosts? What did I have left in this world to lose? Not my reputation. Not my livelihood. Not any life worth living.
Maharani Kshema was still elegant as a swan—walking with an upright posture that barely betrayed her age. Her hair was the color of ash, but her brown eyes were almost golden and outshone even the purple silk of her shalwar kameez and the jewels lining the part in her hair. She had perfected that feminine talent of displaying two contradicting emotions at the same time—her face scowling and smiling at me in equal parts.
I placed my palms flat against one another and over my head, bowing as deeply as the strain across my back allowed. “Namaste, Maharani.”
“Namaste, old friend,” the Maharani said. “Now straighten up before you hurt yourself.”
We sat at a small table in her garden—one of the many gardens afforded to her as the Maharaja’s wife—a long rectangle of grass boxed in by every color of flower. A pair of peacocks meandered across the lawn as servants poured us tea.
“I haven’t seen your face in five years, and now my secretary tells me you come banging on the palace gates, covered in dirt, demanding to speak with me and yelling that the Maharaja’s life is in danger. Bhajan… have you cracked?”
“No. Forgive me, forgive me, Maharani. Ranjeet the Usurper has returned.”
The Maharani, proving her dual-expression talent once again, gave me a sympathetic glare. “You have cracked.”
“I know it seems impossible, Maharani, I know it. But if anyone was ever crafty enough to survive the Half Moon Desert, it was Ranjeet. And if anyone was ever enough possessed by madness to spend forty years plotting revenge, it was Ranjeet.”
“The last time you saved the Maharaja’s life he was quite angry with you. And yet you rush to do it again.”
“Perhaps I should not have interfered, Maharani. The Maharaja is wise and would have rooted out the conspiracy soon enough. I needlessly embarrassed him when he surely was clever enough to see through—”
“Oh stop that, Bhajan, really. The Maharaja is a fine ruler, but his pride is really quite ridiculous and I can’t count the number of times that I’ve told him he owes you an apology.”
“Oh, you are kind, Maharani, yes, kind beyond what I deserve, but if I may—”
“Soon, I shall want to hear how you came to the belief that Ranjeet has returned, but since you feel the threat is imminent, tell me first, what must we do to protect the Maharaja?”
“Ranjeet will strike tomorrow at the ceremony, Maharani.”
“Yes, that sounds his style.”
“But we won’t be able to spot him in the crowd. Most men bear little resemblance to the face they wore forty years previously.”
“Hm. Yes.” The Maharani looked away, lost for a moment in concentration. “So how do we…?”
“We must call to your majesty’s audience everyone still alive who knew Ranjeet’s face well. You see, Maharani, in betting parlors, there are men who make odds for rooster fights—”
“This illegal betting is something you’ve seen during your travels outside of Nidhu, of course.” The Maharani made a point of casually sipping her tea, but let a smirk escape.
“Yes, Maharani, yes, of course. And let us say the odds makers write on the wall that a rooster has one chance in two of winning a fight. But when the gamblers bet, they place twice as much money on the other rooster, indicating that as a group, the crowd believes the first rooster actually has only one chance in three. In such circumstances, you will find that rooster wins one time out of three—the crowd as a whole is more accurate than the opinion of any one expert.”
The Maharani smiled. “You want to ask those who knew Ranjeet best to imagine what he would look like today, pull those images from their minds, and combine them into one illusion—one image that will closer resemble his face today than you could create on your own.”
I was amazed at the speed with which the Maharani was able to deduce my plan. But, knowing she was off-put by flattery, I chose to reply simply. “Yes, Maharani, yes, you are right. To do this quickly enough, I will need your help, I will need for you to direct everyone in the palace with memory of Ranjeet to come to me.”
The Maharani picked up her teacup and sat back, gazing off into the sky. Any second now she’d realize I’d lured her into my delusions. Any second now she’d laugh and have me sent away with orders that any further pleas from me be ignored.
Instead, she squinted at me and said, “I think he would have grown a beard, don’t you?”
The crowd agreed that the dancers, acrobats, musicians, and magicians who performed for the Maharaja’s ceremony were some of the finest they’d ever seen. I had taken in little of it, my eyes instead roving across the ballroom from one dignitary to the next, searching for the face I’d created out of the memory and imagination of dozens of elderly palace officials.
The receiving line had been going for an hour now, and would continue on for a few hours more. Over a thousand important men and women had travelled to be part of this day, and each would get their moment with the Maharaja. Though I had to be kept to the side of the dais—more to keep me out of the Maharaja’s line of sight than the guests’—the Maharani was able to position me where I could see each couple as they began their ascent of the dozen steps to greet Maharaja Aditya.
The two hundred royal guards had all been shown my illusion, made to memorize it, and were on the lookout as well. If they had not spotted Ranjeet by now, he was not among the guests.
Or, there was something I hadn’t thought of: a way that Ranjeet could disguise himself beyond a beard. Did he put on makeup to make himself into a black Afrik or white westerner? No, the best makeup artistry in the world only held up at stage distance. Might he have gained excessive weight? It was possible. Maybe he drank tonics that slowed aging? But those tonics had too subtle of an effect to disguise him.
Ranjeet would do what was least expected; that was part of his cunning. I scanned the room full of bearded men and realized that I had been foolish to think Ranjeet would disguise himself with a beard and foreign clothing. That was too obvious for the trickster; it was what his enemy would anticipate. He’d do the opposite of that. And the opposite of that would be …
An old woman started up the stairs to greet the Maharaja. She wore a pink shalwar kameez covered in intricate rose patterns, and hobbled upward with the aid of a cane, but without the aid of a husband.
I held my hands cupped in front of my face and projected a small illusion into it, hidden away where it would not draw attention. It was the image of Ranjeet, aged, the one I’d shown to all the guards. I shaved the beard from it, grew the hair long, placed a red bindi on its forehead, lined the eyes with black collyrium, placed jeweled flowers in its hair. I looked up at the old woman who was now halfway up the stairs. The images were nearly identical.
I took a step forward, then stopped myself. Were the face of this woman and the face of my illusion identical because this was Ranjeet? Or did I want to do something important, be useful, so badly that my mind had worked on its own, separate from my will, to place this woman’s face into my illusion?
If I decided it was all my imagination, and was wrong, the Maharaja would die, and it would be the final proof that I was truly worthless. If I decided that the woman was Ranjeet in disguise, and was wrong, I’d humiliate my country and myself and would be forever banished from my homeland.
I took the stairs on the side of the dais as fast as I was able, pain stabbing my knees with each step. The old woman reached the top a moment before I did, and the Maharaja waited patiently as she inched her way toward him. She drew close, closer than necessary, closer than custom allowed. I crested the steps just to the side of the Maharaja, and the old woman’s eyes widened at the sight of me. She clutched the knob of her cane to her chest, and in that moment I felt sure she was truly Ranjeet, a flint device hidden inside the cane’s knob set to spark the deadly mixture of bhra yusi coating her shalwar kameez. Her disguise disappeared from my sight, her makeup and jewelry became invisible to me, and her face became that of Ranjeet the Usurper, appearing just as he had the day he ran from the palace grounds.
The guards could not get to him in time. The Maharaja could not be made to understand before Ranjeet executed his plan. Only I could stop this.
Momentum still carrying me toward Ranjeet, I lifted my foot and planted my sole squarely in his stomach. With a joyous cry of triumph I kicked, pitching him backward. His cane flew off to one side, his body went over the edge of the dais. He crashed and twisted, his body bouncing and skidding in terrible, inhuman contortions as he rolled across every step.
Shocked gasps from the crowd became utter silence as they watched an old woman’s body slide to a halt and lay motionless on the floor.
My idiot grin faded. I’d killed an old woman, a dignitary from a neighboring land. I’d kicked her down a flight of stairs, shattering her bones and stopping her heart. They’d hang me for murder. My children and grandchildren would forever bear the shame of being the descendants of the Mad Bhajan. I’d been so wrong. I’d still had much left to lose, and now I’d lost it all.
The crowd gasped anew as the old woman, like a hunted jackal on the edge of death, climbed off the floor and struggled to her feet. She glared up at me as wisps of pink smoke steamed from the fabric of her clothing. I recognized the gas—it was the poisonous cloud of bhra yusi and wood spirits set to burning.
Ranjeet the Usurper howled in rage, a deep bass growl that left little doubt that the person in the pink shalwar kameez was no woman. He lurched forward, ignoring the separated shoulder that hung useless at his side and the broken leg he trailed behind him. Though the cloud of smoke surrounding Ranjeet would quickly kill anyone within the radius of a tall man’s arm span, the trickster was too far away, and managed to crawl up only a few steps before he gagged and collapsed.
“You still prefer chai, I assume?” the Maharani asked. A servant poured tea for us.
“Yes, Maharani, yes, thank you,” I said. We both sipped, and I took in the tranquility of her garden.
The Maharani scowled and smiled at me. “You will work for me for the remainder of your days.”
I coughed on my tea. I wiped my lips and asked, “To what end? My magics are all but gone. Do you offer me charity work—making illusions to amuse the children of your staff?”
“The Maharaja has more enemies at home and abroad than he likes to admit. Every one of his advisors has spent the last few decades safe inside the palace walls, while you have travelled throughout this land and many others. That experience, and the deductive skill you’ve shown, make you more valuable to the kingdom than all the jewels in the Maharaja’s crown.”
“An advisor? Ha! He despises me now more than ever.”
“You advise me; I advise him.”
Advise the Maharani. Always, she bore the burden of so many matters—food shortages, foreign trade disagreements, threats of civil war. There would be no end to the ways I could help her, could be useful to the kingdom and its people.
“That is …” the Maharani said, and this time there was only the scowl, “if you can give up the dyani seed oil. I don’t employ advisors who prefer dreams to reality.”
“Agreed,” I said without hesitation. I used to need my illusions to get through each day. Not anymore.
“Good,” the Maharani said, a clear smile on her lips. “It will be nice to see you around the palace, Bhajan.”
“It will be nice to be back, my Maharani,” I said.