The Empress and the Comic
All was well until one day an unexpected visitor arrived. The courtiers gaped as I served him tea in a garden pavilion. I didn’t blame them. My guest’s scuffed leather jacket and fitted canvas trousers were a sharp contrast to their flowing silk garments. Wire spectacles perched on his nose, and an assortment of brass tools hung from the belt at his waist…
Story by S . Q. Eries
Illustration by Stephanie Martin
For as long as I could remember, my days began with meditation. As written in the Sutras of the First Emperor, “Contemplation is the first step on the path to inner tranquility.” Thus, my attendants took care that I was undisturbed during those hours, and I never was–except for one spring day.
I was by the lotus pond, the best place for reflection that season. The scent of jasmine, the twitter of garden fauna, the caress of breeze and sunshine – all combined to give a sense of oneness with the cosmos. I inhaled deeply, my ten-year-old consciousness seeking to harmonize with the timeless rhythm of the universe–
“Ha, ha, ahahahahaha!”
I started at the strange sound. At first I thought it was the call of some new bird the gardeners procured, but it struck me as… human somehow. Intrigued, I followed the noise to a pavilion where I came upon a peculiar sight.
Within, two maids held their sides, gasping and snorting. Yet neither seemed alarmed by the seizure that gripped them. I watched, fascinated, until one glimpsed me and shrieked, “Empress!”
They fell kowtowing, foreheads knocking against jade tile. Their quailing reminded me of the time Fifth Cupbearer dropped my soup at dinner. I never did see him again after that. Not wanting these girls to disappear before my curiosity was sated, I said, “What were you doing?”
Voice trembling, one replied, “Twelfth Garden Maid was telling a joke, and we couldn’t keep from – Forgive us for laughing, Majesty!”
“Joke? Laughing?” My mind strained, but I could not recall those terms. “What is that? Some kind of spell? An infirmity?”
The maids looked uncertainly at one another, and my curiosity redoubled. Drawing to my full height, I said, “Answer, your Empress commands you.”
What followed was enlightening indeed.
Head Counsellor’s features were typically smooth as an egg, but the moment I mentioned the matter, his face contorted so much I thought it might crack. “Laughter?! Put this out of your mind, Empress. I will make certain those maids never –”
“You will not,” I said calmly. “This is something that has till now escaped my notice, and I wish to understand it.”
His eyes bulged as if his collar had suddenly grown too tight. “But Empress, you are the Daughter of Heaven, The Serene One of the Ching Empire.”
Indeed, it was highly unusual for me to pursue anything but serenity, for that was my heritage. A Child of Heaven’s heart resonated with the cosmos in ways ordinary mortals’ did not. Ergo, a troubled emperor would draw gales of disaster to his domain, whereas winds of prosperity would blow for a contented one.
With so much at stake, the empire spared no expense in assisting its liege on the path to inner peace and even created a special haven for the endeavor. Known as Heaven on Earth, this inmost part of the palace blended soothing music, fragrant incense, intricate artwork – all things beautiful and praiseworthy – to inspire those within to bliss. Upon ascension, every sovereign promptly forsook the outside world and entered its walls for a lifelong pursuit of tranquility.
It was the only life I knew.
The youngest ruler in the history of Ching, I assumed the throne the summer of my fourth year. Fortunately, I had a quiet temperament even at that tender age, and once cloistered within Heaven on Earth, I could not help but stay as placid as my name: The Most Precious Serenity That Abounds Through The Celestial Realms and Surpasses All Understanding.
But like a pebble tossed into still waters, my newfound knowledge upset that internal equilibrium, and for the first time, Head Counsellor’s words failed to sway me. “Tenth and Twelfth Garden Maids claim they enjoy jokes and laughter. Apparently many do. Do you enjoy them as well, Head Counsellor?”
“Well, ah… yes.”
“Then why should the Daughter of Heaven, The Serene One of the Ching Empire be deprived of something her subjects cherish?”
Shortly thereafter, a search commenced for Ching’s premier comic. If the Empress wished for an experience, only the best would do. In the ensuing days, imperial officials held a series of competitions throughout the country, and three months after that memorable day in the garden, the Champion of Humor was declared.
My heart beat with unaccustomed speed the day we were to meet. From all accounts, the youth who won far surpassed his rivals. I had maintained a calm demeanor while the search was underway, but with only hours left, my mind was restless as a sparrow.
Unable to concentrate, I left my afternoon study and headed to the throne room, where servants bustled preparing for the comic’s presentation.
“What is that?”
Every person froze as I peered at the two wooden screens positioned between my seat and the audience floor. I had never had anything obstruct my view before.
“Empress!” Head Counsellor scurried over, sweat beading his high forehead. “Ah…that is there to help with the performance!”
I cocked my head. “The performance?”
“Yes! Champion of Humor was concerned he might not do his best if exposed to Your Majesty’s radiance. So to ensure the quality of his performance, we placed these screens that he might better concentrate.” Behind Head Counsellor, other courtiers nodded emphatically.
“Oh.” That was unexpected. “But I will still be able to laugh without seeing him?”
“Most definitely! You will not miss a thing!”
I was disappointed. According to Tenth and Twelfth Garden Maids, visual gestures heightened the experience of laughter. But it could not be helped. The splendor of a Child of Heaven was known to overwhelm those unused to it.
Hence, when I mounted my dais that evening, I could not see Champion of Humor or the press of courtiers assembled for the event. Once the herald announced me, I called out, “Champion of Humor!”
“Yes, my Empress!”
The voice that answered was bouncy and bright, completely unlike the hushed tones to which I was accustomed. My anticipation rose. “Your Empress commands you to make her laugh!”
And he did. Gods in Heaven, he did.
Joking was a remarkable skill, I determined, as I listened to Champion of Humor’s rendition of the Fables of Diep. I knew the stories by heart as my tutors used them to instill a number of moral principles, but the characters had never been so engaging or ridiculous in their illustrations of the Right Path to Life.
“So Dog cried, ‘Oh, Master Bird, I’ll give your feathers back! Just help me out of this swamp. Pleeease!’” Champion of Humor’s voice rose to an impossibly high pitch, and I doubled over gasping.
To be honest, the first peal that bubbled out of me was terrifying. It came completely unbidden, like a cough or sneeze. But once the shock subsided, I discovered the experience was pleasant despite its physical toll, and soon my stomach was aching as I flung reservation aside to laugh with abandon.
I was not the only one.
The throne room, which hitherto held nothing more rousing than a poetry recital, shook from our roaring. The throng was completely under the comic’s spell when –
A horrified silence fell. The courtier tasked to ensure the screens stayed upright had laughed so hard he blundered against one of his charges. The court paled as the man collapsed quivering beside the toppled panel.
I barely noticed. I was too busy staring at Champion of Humor.
He was the most unusual boy I had ever seen. For one, he was the hue of jasmine tea, a stark contrast to my milky-skinned court. Stranger yet, a gap yawned in his mouth where a front tooth should be, and a purplish blotch covered the left side of his face, making him look oddly asymmetric.
Champion of Humor stared back, equally startled. As everyone sat in shock, unease gripped my belly. The assembly was acting as if the cosmos had collapsed, and empress though I was, I did not know what to do –
Champion of Humor sprang and, before anyone could blink, felled the remaining screen with a flying kick. As it crashed, he thrust out his chest, shouting, “What do you know? It is possible for a good show to bring a house down!”
Like a master magician, he broke our trance, and the hall rang with laughter once more.
“My name? Technically I’m the third son of the House of Woo of Bamboo Village, but everyone calls me Fox.”
Champion of Humor bounced on the balls of his feet. “Because I’m so nimble, in my wit and on my feet!”
I giggled as he darted around the chairs of the flower viewing lounge as if pursuing an invisible prey. I was about to ask more about his village when a cough interrupted.
It was Head Counsellor. “Empress, it is time for afternoon prayers.”
I rose reluctantly. Even an empress had duties she could not avoid. “Very well. Champion of Humor, I will see you in the banquet hall tonight.”
Champion of Humor bowed. “I will be there without fail, Empress.”
Halfway to the Imperial Family Shrine, Head Counsellor cleared his throat. “Empress, would you grant your humble servant permission to speak?”
His tone hinted that his words would be unpleasing, but I replied, “You may speak.”
“I have noticed that Your Majesty has been spending much time in Champion of Humor’s company.”
That was an understatement. In addition to his nightly performances before the court, I spent every spare moment at his side. I knew the world beyond was unlike the inner palace, but I had never heard anyone describe it the way Champion of Humor did. Nor had I seen anyone so awestruck by Heaven on Earth. Often he would stare upon a tree, a carving, or some other object I never noticed, and his wonder would awaken me to the beauty there. With him beside me, the birds sang more brightly, the flowers bloomed more vibrantly, and even the breezes blew sweeter.
His coming was a gift from Heaven, but from Head Counsellor’s tone, not everyone thought so.
“I have,” I replied. “Champion of Humor is an expert in laughter, but he has shown to be knowledgeable in other subjects as well.”
“Knowledge Your Majesty’s tutors are better equipped to impart.”
I frowned. “It is not the same.”
“No, which is exactly my point. Your Majesty, there are people worthy to serve you, and those who are not. Champion of Humor is a talented young man, but anyone can see that he does not belong here. And he certainly does not deserve the Empress’s special attention–”
“Head Counsellor.” My voice was sharp. “Am I not the Child of Heaven, sent to lead the people of Ching?”
He flinched. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Then if I am to lead, I should know those I am leading. The Sutras do say the attainment of knowledge is a virtue, do they not?”
Head Counsellor’s mouth tightened. My will clearly ill-suited him, but he knew his place and lowered his head. “As you say, Your Majesty.”
I thought no more of the matter until a few days later when Champion of Humor failed to meet me in the flower viewing lounge. Concerned, I headed to his quarters. They were empty. I continued to search, going through the garden, the banquet hall, the galleries, the throne room – all his favorite places– and found no trace of him.
Finally, as I stepped through the dusty aisles of the library, I heard a sneeze, followed by a tremendous crash. I scurried around a corner, and half buried under the fallen contents of a bookshelf was Champion of Humor.
Ridiculous though he looked, I was too annoyed for laughter. “What are you doing?!”
My eyes narrowed at his uncharacteristic hemming and hawing. “Were you avoiding me?”
The comic choked in mid-stammer, but his guilty expression was answer enough. “Why?” I cried.
He looked away. “A lowly person like me doesn’t deserve the Empress’s special attention.”
Head Counsellor instantly flashed to mind. “Did Head Counsellor say something to you?”
“Yes. And he’s right.” His body sagged as if attempting to disappear completely beneath the pile of books. “You’re the Empress. Nothing good can come out of a Child of Heaven seeing my ugly face –”
“Ugly?” I blinked. “Who says your face is ugly?”
He gaped with equal surprise. “Of course it is. I mean…” He indicated his purple patch as if the sight should send me fleeing.
Suddenly, everything made sense. The screens at his first performance, Head Counsellor’s disapproval, the way Champion of Humor’s looks contrasted with my courtiers’. If Heaven on Earth was a haven of beauty, of course ugliness would create dissonance.
Yet if that was the case, why was I so drawn to him?
According to the Sutras, ugliness aroused loathing. But though his appearance struck me as curious, he did not repel me. On the contrary, so much about Champion of Humor delighted me. I scrutinized his face for something I overlooked, something that might trigger my revulsion – and found nothing.
Champion of Humor, however, mistook my staring. “My humblest apologies, Empress. This unsightly subject will remove himself–”
“Why is everyone saying that?” I stamped, squashing a scroll. “You look different. I see that! But everything about you is different, and I like it that way.”
His eyes went wide. “Do you mean it?”
“I do! Why is that so difficult to believe?”
“Because most people think otherwise,” he said, more sober than I had ever seen. “My own mother is ashamed when I go out of the house. When I was growing up, the other children mocked my face– that is, when they weren’t trying to hit it.”
My mouth fell open. “Why would they –?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? But after I lost a tooth in a fight, I decided I needed something better than running away. So I started telling jokes. Half of them were already laughing. If I got the rest to laugh also, they’d be too distracted to fight. As it turned out, it worked – most of the time. The times it didn’t… they motivated me to learn quickly.”
I gasped. “You became a comic so people would stop hurting you?”
Suddenly, Champion of Humor paled. Parchment scattered as he kowtowed at my feet. “Forgive me, Empress! I never meant to upset Your Majesty with my problems. Just forget what I… gods, I’m in so much trouble…”
My jaw clenched, but not for the reasons he feared. In my lessons, I’d memorized many aphorisms about good and evil, but at that moment, I realized how little I knew of good and evil beyond Heaven on Earth.
But what I did know was that I wanted Champion of Humor’s fortunes to change.
“Get up,” I said.
He rose slowly, eyes downcast. “Your supposed ugliness has brought you much shame,” I said, causing his head to hang lower. “However, in a sense, it also brought your talent into being and ultimately brought you to me. That being the case, I hereby declare you an official courtier of Heaven on Earth.”
“As you wish, Majesty, I will—what did you say?”
I grinned at his stunned expression. “I said I want you here. And if the world outside rejects you, all the more reason for you to stay.”
Thus, Champion of Humor became part of Heaven on Earth, and where everpresent calm once reigned, ripples of merriment punctuated the stillness.
My counsellors were displeased. For them, ensuring Ching’s fortunes equated to maintaining the quiet status quo that had endured for decades. Any change in Heaven on Earth meant concurrent change for the country, and they braced themselves for the worst.
They were right about a karmic shift. They were wrong about its direction.
As the atmosphere of the inner palace turned gladsome, Ching’s land rejoined, its fields yielding an unprecedented bounty while an explosion of wildflowers blanketed the hillsides. With reports of unparalleled prosperity coming from every province, the counsellors’ grumblings faded, and Champion of Humor remained chief imperial entertainer and, more importantly, my companion.
Years passed. Ching thrived, and all was well until one day an unexpected visitor arrived.
The courtiers gaped as I served him tea in a garden pavilion. I didn’t blame them. My guest’s scuffed leather jacket and fitted canvas trousers were a sharp contrast to their flowing silk garments. Wire spectacles perched on his nose, and an assortment of brass tools hung from the belt at his waist.
Ignoring their stares, I smiled at the Emperor of Nihon. “I am so delighted to see you again.”
“The pleasure’s all mine, little cousin.” He grinned, patting my cheeks. “You could barely hold a teapot last I saw you.”
“And you only had one earring if I remember correctly,” I said, eyeing the gold hoops and gem studs adorning his ears.
He swept his dark mane back to show them off. “Do you like them? They’re all the rage in the southern islands,” he said with a wink.
The relationship between the rulers of Nihon and Ching was akin to that of distant cousins as we were both Children of Heaven. Yet the celestial powers laid for us different destinies that our countries might coexist in harmony. So while I stayed in my courts the way my people were rooted to their fields and pastures, the Emperor of Nihon sailed from one escapade to the next as befitted the ruler of a nation of explorers, merchants, and inventors.
As such, I was not surprised when the Emperor said, “My apologies for the sudden visit, but a storm blew us into your waters, and when we landed, I figured I should give my regards.”
“I am glad that you did. Please stay as long as you like. My home is at your disposal.”
“Thank you, but I’m afraid we put out to sea tomorrow. Lovely as your country is, my crew will get restless if we stay here too long.”
Behind the Emperor, Head Counsellor’s nostrils flared. Apparently, Ching was dull by Nihon standards. During his last visit, my then twelve-year-old cousin yawned through the entertainment Head Counsellor so painstakingly arranged and fell asleep during the banquet held in his honor.
But that was a decade ago, and not one yawn escaped him now as he munched on a lychee confection. Still, I could tell the quiet of Heaven on Earth ill-suited him. Setting my teacup down, I said, “Now that you’ve had some refreshment, how about a little entertainment?”
He coughed. “No, thank you. I’m not one for harp music.”
“Who said anything about harps?” Clapping my hands, I called, “Champion of Humor!”
The Emperor startled as Champion of Humor somersaulted in. “Greetings, Your Majesties!” he cried with a flourish.
“Champion of Humor? Intriguing.” Pushing his spectacles up his nose, the Emperor peered at the comic as if he was an exotic animal. “Very well, then! I’ll try your new amusement!”
Champion of Humor bowed deeply. “Then if you will, Emperor of Nihon, a suggestion! Name an object, say, something you’d find in your own cabin.”
The Emperor blinked. “A… what?”
“Champion of Humor is improvising,” I whispered. “Give him a subject, and he will invent a funny act or story about it.”
Although Champion of Humor’s repertoire of jokes was extensive, his most amazing talent was crafting material on the spot. It was the source of never-ending amusement for the courtiers, who strove (ineffectually) to baffle him with difficult suggestions. Best of all, his improvising material meant we always had something new to enjoy.
The Emperor smiled, leaning forward in his seat. “I think I’m going to like this.”
“And here’s our latest, the Clockwork Nightingale. You wind her up and–”
“Oh!” Champion of Humor ducked as the mechanical bird flew from the Emperor’s hands to land twittering on the lawn. “It sings, too!”
“Yes, our craftsmen have made great strides in sound reproduction.”
Champion of Humor listened eagerly as the Emperor launched into an explanation about something called a “sound cylinder.” I failed to comprehend any of it, but watching my comic and cousin interact was more than diversion enough.
Despite their differences in status, the two men were the same age and equally appreciative of a clever mind. As such, the Emperor was spellbound as Champion of Humor spun his suggestions into rollicking laughter. Only one prompt left the comic at a loss, and that was because he had never heard of a “wind-up toy.” At that, the Emperor sent his men for a trunk, and it was Champion of Humor’s turn to be captivated as the Emperor displayed the best in Nihonese wheelworks.
The Emperor was prying open the nightingale to show its gears when his first mate cleared his throat. “Sir, it’s past midnight, and we leave at daybreak.”
“What do you know!” exclaimed the Emperor, glancing at the timepiece on his belt. “This night just flew! My apologies for keeping you up so late, little one. As for you, Champion of Humor, your title is well-deserved! It’s a shame I can’t stay longer!”
My chest puffed with pride as he thumped the comic heartily on the back. It continued to swell as I escorted the Emperor to the guest chambers. He could not stop raving.
“…and his stork song! I’ve seen musicians improvise tunes before, but he did that and made it funny! A talent like that should tour the world!”
I shook my head. “Out of the question. Champion of Humor is bound to Heaven on Earth.”
The Emperor let out a low whistle. “Someone’s territorial!”
I bristled under his teasing. “I am not territorial. Champion of Humor simply gave his word he would serve me here always.”
“As does the rest of a Child of Heaven’s retinue…”
“He is different!”
The Emperor merely grinned. “It sounds like your comic is extraordinarily devoted in addition to being extraordinarily talented.”
“He is,” I muttered, flustered and unsure why. “And why not? He does not fit in elsewhere. This is the one place he belongs.”
“I disagree,” he said, wagging a finger. “A face like that causes problems, no doubt, but as clever as he is, there are thousands of places he could go. Nihon would gladly welcome him–”
I whirled, fists clenched. “You are not taking him!”
The Emperor laughed, throwing up his hands. “I’m joking! I would never think of stealing him from my dear cousin. I’m just saying you ought to set more store by what you have in him. After all, most oaths are as insubstantial as the air they’re breathed on, but if he’s as true as you say, you’ve something rarer than diamonds.”
My cousin’s words were meant to reassure, but my heart pounded as a new, unwelcome emotion invaded.
I jumped to find Head Counsellor frowning in my face. “Yes!” I cried, snatching up my text. “Which verse was it? I–”
Head Counsellor plucked the book to toss it aside. “It appears my pupil has not heard a word I said.”
I lowered my head for a rebuke. Instead, he sighed. “Empress, are you feeling well? You haven’t been yourself since… since the Nihon Emperor came.”
“It’s nothing,” I mumbled.
“So you say, but you’ve been distracted from your lessons and off your appetite. You don’t even enjoy Champion of Humor’s jokes as much.” Tone softening, he said, “Empress, if something is troubling you, please tell us. We’re here to help.”
I remained silent, staring outside where a vigorous autumn wind buffeted the trees.
Head Counsellor snorted. “This lesson is over.”
My head jerked up. “What? We just started –”
“‘Better a wild monkey for a student than an inattentive child.’” Grabbing his scrolls, Head Counsellor left.
I winced as the door slammed. Not once in twelve years had he stormed out on a lesson. I slumped over my calligraphy desk with a groan, knowing Head Counsellor was right.
As Empress, I was entitled to many things, and I considered Champion of Humor’s unswerving devotion one of them – until the Emperor’s visit last month. He was the first to question it, and doubt had plagued me since, my mind analyzing and re-analyzing the intent behind the comic’s every word and gesture.
Even more baffling was why the matter so preoccupied me.
I shot to my feet. It was unbecoming for an Empress to be flustered, and I hastened to the family shrine to meditate. However, as I passed the banquet hall, I heard:
“Tell another story!”
“No, do an imitation! Do the Foolish Fisherman!”
“Foolish Fisherman? As you wish!”
I stopped short at Champion of Humor’s voice. With bated breath, I stole toward the kitchen and peered in.
Before a rapt semicircle of waiters and scullery maids stood Champion of Humor. With a flourish, he tossed a tablecloth over his head and began pantomiming the antics of the fisherman caught in his own net. His audience roared. “That was even better than last night!” cried a waiter.
I jolted. Champion of Humor had done that selfsame act before my court yesterday, but whereas that performance was excellent, this one was scintillating. In the steam and clatter of the kitchen, Champion of Humor sparkled in a way I never saw in the throne room. Heat flared inside me, and I slammed open the door.
The room gasped. “Empress!”
“Everyone out! Except you.” I jabbed a finger at Champion of Humor.
Within moments the kitchen emptied, leaving me, a few overturned stools, and one trembling Champion of Humor.
He attempted a smile. “Empress, is something –”
“What were you doing?”
He flinched as if struck. “We… were taking a break. Just having some fun before returning to work –”
I flung out an arm, sending bowls crashing. “You are my courtier! How dare you give your best to others and not to me!”
Champion of Humor stumbled back, babbling apologies, but I was beyond placating. I never thought about what he did away from my presence, and to discover that he was delivering better performances behind my back…
His body went rigid. “What?”
“I said, get out!”
As the color drained from the comic’s face, Head Counsellor burst through the door. “Empress! What in Heaven’s–”
“Champion of Humor is dismissed. Remove him.” Ignoring their dumbstruck looks, I turned and walked away.
I felt wretched the next day.
My sleep was fitful, and the hailstorm outside exacerbated my restlessness. When morning came, my heart and mind were weary, and as I burrowed beneath my blankets, I wished things could return to the way they once were. Maybe I should bring Champion of Humor back –
I banished that thought. My judgment was logical and right. He hurt me and therefore deserved his punishment.
So why did I feel like I was being punished?
A knock sounded at the door, and Head Handmaid stepped in. “Empress, an envoy from Nihon has arrived bearing a gift. They’re—Empress, wait! Your clothes!”
The servant screeched as I raced out, but I ignored her. I needed a distraction, and I needed it at once.
Mortified courtiers gasped as I burst into the throne room, but I only had eyes for the three men whose leather armor bore the Nihon crest and the crate beside them.
The trio saluted. “Empress of Ching,” said their captain, unperturbed by my dishabille. “Our Emperor sent us to present you with a humble token of his esteem.” He snapped his fingers, and his subordinates opened the crate.
Inside was Champion of Humor.
But not quite.
“Is that a… statue?” I said, unable to believe my eyes.
“We call this the Clockwork Comic, Empress,” said the Nihon captain as his men lifted it out. “It is a machine made in your Champion of Humor’s likeness.”
The resemblance was uncanny. Every feature matched exactly – save one. Where the real comic’s left cheek was stained purple, this one’s skin was unmarred.
“Allow me to demonstrate.” Stepping behind the machine, the Nihon captain twisted the large golden key protruding from its back and let go.
Its arms jerked up, startling the entire room. “Storks! The suggestion is storks!” it cried. “So… how about a musical tribute to storks? Of storks, I’ll sing to you; soaring the heavens blue…”
My attendants marveled as Champion of Humor’s warbling filled the hall. If not for its unblemished face, we would have sworn the comic had returned.
As the court murmured its approval of the Emperor’s gift, the Nihon captain presented me with a letter. It read:
Greetings, little one!
Since Champion of Humor will never be mine, I decided to make myself the next best thing. This copy is yours. I hope you and your comic enjoy it.
– your Nihon cousin
“I hope it pleases you,” said the Nihon captain.
I smiled. “It does,” I said, as the hail outside began to abate. “Very much so.”
“That concludes today’s lesson, Empress.”
“Thank you, Head Counsellor.”
As I put my calligraphy set away, Head Counsellor cleared his throat. “Empress, would you grant your humble servant permission to speak?”
“You may speak,” I replied, not looking up.
“Empress… I am concerned about you.”
“Why?” I said, rolling up my scrolls. “I have been diligent in my lessons, faithful in my duties, and…” I gestured to the window where birds flitted in a mild spring sky. “The world appears to be in order.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I just…”
Head Counsellor faltered at the edge in my voice. “Never mind.” He bowed. “It’s not important.”
Ignoring the worry lining his face, I took my leave and headed for the flower viewing lounge. En route, I passed a crew of chambermaids, who bowed as I strode by. But though they displayed the deference they always did, I sensed the same air of concern as Head Counsellor’s.
I quickened my pace.
The lounge was dim, bathed in the rays of the setting sun. Shutting the door, I knelt beside the solitary figure in the room.
“Hello, Champion of Humor. I’m back.”
Grasping the key, I wound the Clockwork Comic and smiled as it sang the stork song. But whereas the machine’s voice once attracted droves, not a single soul joined me now. No one could be bothered to listen to a song they had heard a thousand times over.
The Clockwork Comic was a marvel, able to replicate every song and joke the Emperor enjoyed during his visit. But there its repertoire ended. As the days passed, the machine’s novelty wore off, and after a month, all had tired of it. All, except me.
Because I missed Champion of Humor.
I shook my head. No, do not think of that traitor! After all, the Clockwork Comic is as good as him—no, better! Not a mark on its face! And it will never betray me!
It was always there when I wanted it. It spoke with Champion of Humor’s voice. It mimicked his gestures perfectly. When we were alone, I could pretend it was alive, and the ache in my heart would ease.
Yet that feeling of regret never quite went away.
The key wound down, and the machine fell silent. Automatically, I reached to wind–
My blood ran cold. In my trembling hand was the key, snapped off its post.
“No…this can’t…” I shoved the key back, but when I twisted, an enormous spring burst out of the machine’s back. I shrieked as the Clockwork Comic fell with a crash.
“Champion of Humor!” I cried. “Are you –”
My breath caught. A hole gaped in its temple, revealing a jumble of metal cogs.
When I regained my senses, Head Counsellor was looking down at me, his eyes dark with sorrow. My mind felt dull, and my body chilled despite layers of quilts. “Head Counsellor,” I said, my tongue clumsy in my mouth. “What happened?”
“Do you remember anything, Your Majesty?”
“Remember?” Bits of memory swam in my mind. Servants crying out. Thunder rattling the windows. Overwhelming grief –
“Oh…” I moaned, as tears began to flow. “I killed him.”
“Empress, please!” Head Counsellor cried. “The machine’s not dead, merely broken! We will fix it, I swear.”
“No. He is dead. Gone, just like Champion…”
“Empress, don’t cry. I beg you, for the sake of Ching!”
But I was beyond listening, beyond caring. I scarcely noticed when the ground began to quake. Over screams of panic, I heard Head Counsellor say, “Forgive me, Majesty.” A pungent-smelling cloth pressed against my nose, and my surroundings faded.
After that, my world was a fog. I roused to near consciousness a few times, but before I could wake, that sharp scent pulled me back. I could not dwell indefinitely in that haziness, however, and finally the forces numbing my senses plunged me into utter blackness.
As freezing cold penetrated my marrow, I heard, “So, child, is this it? Have you nothing left to live for?”
I recognized Death at once. Despite his dread reputation, his presence was strangely comforting in that emptiness. I sensed him waiting for a response so I pondered a while but could not think of a single reason to refuse him.
“Well then,” rumbled Death, “since you have nothing holding you back–”
My heart lurched at the voice piercing the dark. Champion of Humor…
I looked about wildly but could not see anything. “Where are you?” I screamed.
“I’m right here!”
Desperate, I lunged in the direction of his shout only to be ensnared by unseen bonds. “Wait!” I cried, as Death dragged me back. “I can’t go. I –”
“Too late.” Death sounded bored as he tightened his grip. “You had your chance. Time to go–”
“No!” My hands scrabbled for something, anything to stop the invisible coils choking my breath. “I don’t want to die!”
Suddenly, the void tore asunder, and I gasped as a hand caught mine. At its touch, a dazzling flood of warmth poured into my soul. My will to live surged, and Death howled, snatching his icy fingers away.
As the darkness receded, I heard, “Troublesome child. Next time, don’t bother me until you’re truly ready.”
“I won’t,” I murmured. “I promise.”
The next thing I knew the first light of day was splashing across my face. The fog that had held me captive had lifted, and I looked with clear eyes at the figure slumped over my bed, his hand in mine. “Champion of Humor?”
“Ah, little one. You’re awake.”
Hovering at the foot of my bed was a familiar bespectacled face. “Emperor!” I cried.
The Emperor lifted a finger to his lips. “Hush. He’s had a rough night. Let him sleep.”
“What are you doing here?” I said, feeling as if I was still dreaming.
“Now that’s an interesting story,” he said, folding his arms behind his head. “One that reminds me yet again of the way Heaven moves Earth when all is not well with the cosmos.”
My brow furrowed. “Pardon?”
“Let’s just say that when I weighed anchor, my intended destination was the Spice Islands. Alas, an unseasonable squall practically hurls us into the port of Ching. So we land to weather the storm only to hear reports of more turmoil in your country – lightning strikes, earthquakes, and such. That’s when I realize something greater’s afoot, and Champion of Humor starts–”
“Wait!” My gaze darted from the Emperor to the sleeping man. “Champion of Humor was with you?”
“Has been ever since he left your palace.”
The Emperor chuckled as he handed me a cup of water. “My men chanced to see him after delivering your toy and recognized him. One thing led to another, and suddenly my fleet had its very own comedian. To be sure, he was completely seasick the first week, but the next he was making all sorts of jokes about it.”
“Oh.” Despite the water, my mouth felt like it was full of sand. Swallowing hard, I said, “Then I owe you my thanks, Emperor, for taking him in. I hope he brings you more joy in the years to come–”
“Who said I was keeping him?” The Emperor lowered his glasses to wink at me. “From the looks of it, I think he wants to stay.”
“But… I was horrible. I said things… I threw him out!”
“Well, everyone, even a Child of Heaven, has their irrational moments, especially when someone they deeply care for is concerned.”
I blushed. “Speaking of irrational moments,” said the Emperor, “you should’ve seen him when we arrived last night. Your entire palace was bedlam, and when your court stopped panicking long enough to recognize me, they begged me to save you. Apparently, they’d used too much anesthetic, and when they said you’d stopped breathing, your comic flew like a bolt. He broke through two doors to get here in time to hear your physicians pronounce you dead.”
A chill ran up my spine. “So I was dead. But he…” My eyes lowered to our intertwined fingers. “He called me back.”
The Emperor smiled. “I’ll spare you the details, but once he took your hand, anyone could see neither of you was leaving.”
I felt it, too. His hold was firm as a lifeline, and I would not have let go for anything. My heart swelling with emotion, I leaned to better gaze upon the face I had yearned to see, and he stirred. “Empress…”
Suddenly, he jumped, sending his chair clattering to the floor. “Empress! Forgive me! I–”
“Calm down.” The Emperor thumped Champion of Humor’s head lightly with a fist. “She’s fine, and she’s not mad. But I do believe she has something to say.”
“I do.” My words sent the comic trembling to his knees. I cleared my throat. “Thank you, Champion of Humor, for saving me. And… will you forgive me?”
He looked up with a start. “Forgive you?”
I nodded. “I was unjust sending you away. You never failed to bring me laughter, but I was… jealous because you shared your talent generously with others. That was wrong of me. And selfish –”
“No.” Champion of Humor moaned, shaking his head. “No, you were right. You were right about me.”
I stared, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re the Empress. You’re entitled to the best. But I wasn’t giving you my best, and I knew it even while I was onstage. It’s just… when you were there… I wanted to but couldn’t…”
“What Champion of Hem Haw is trying to say is that he was having trouble performing because he was too aware of you, little one.”
I blinked at the Emperor. “Too aware?”
“He’s in love with you.”
Champion of Humor jolted. “Emperor!”
My cousin tossed his head. “It’s not as if it’s a secret. The whole crew knew how heartsick you got when you thought no one was looking. Not to mention the things you said in your sleep.” The Emperor smirked as Champion of Humor’s face turned completely purple.
“Well, I’ve a Clockwork Comic to ship for repairs,” said the Emperor. “So I’ll leave you youngsters alone.” A careless wave, a few quick strides, and he was gone.
The awkwardness in the room increased a thousandfold. Champion of Humor stared at the door as if about to make good his own escape.
But I was not letting him slip away again. With an effort, I pushed myself out of bed.
“Empress!” he cried, as my legs gave way. Catching me, he lowered me gently to the carpet. “You shouldn’t be moving yet, Empress –”
“Don’t call me that,” I said, savoring his touch.
“Don’t call me Empress. Because I no longer deserve it.”
As his brow knitted, I said, “I banished you. That means you are no longer mine to command, as subject or courtier. Therefore, what I ask now, I ask as a woman.”
Taking his hand, I said, “Will you stay with me? Will you live your life with mine?”
At once, he pulled away. “But… I’m so ugly.”
“Not as ugly as I was to you,” I said, my fingers tilting his face toward mine. “I cast you aside. I convinced myself a machine could take your place. And my foolishness nearly brought me to an end.
“Yet you came back. And you brought me back. Nothing in Ching could save me, but you did. Because you are what makes my life beautiful.
“As I said, you are no longer mine to command,” I murmured, gazing into his astonished eyes. “But believe me when I say… Heaven would never be Heaven without you.”
There was a choked sound, and his arms swept me close. “Then my place is here,” he whispered. “Now and always.”
Once upon a time, S.Q. Eries was an engineer who spent her days writing dry technical reports in passive voice. Then one day she chanced upon anime fanfiction and decided to give it a try. That was her first foray into creative writing, and she’s been writing fiction ever since. Her first short story was published in a Drollerie Press anthology earlier this year, and she’s also working on a couple young adult novels, one based on Greek mythology and the other a historical about the ancient Olympics. She still writes non-fiction, but now most of it is in the form of manga reviews for The Fandom Post. She recently started a blog about the interesting things she comes across in her writerly research and invites you to drop by at sqeries.wordpress.com.