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author: d.m.jewelle ([livejournal.com profile] dmjewelle)
e-mail: jv.choong [ at ] gmail dot com

Matt might not have been from around here, but he knew what uncooked rice looked like.

The clay bowl was four-fifths full of rice grains; a jolt was all it would take to spill. He looked at the bowl and back to Hilda, who waited.

"Hilda, I can't eat this."

She nodded. "I know."

Under the starlit night, he saw red grains sprinkled in the white rice like tiny colour starbursts. Hilda had waxed lyrical about the health benefits and unique flavour of mountain rice, but one couldn’t eat words. If Matt had been briefed on any rice-cooking ritual earlier, he had definitely missed it.

He had to admit ignorance before it dragged out.

Matt handed Hilda the bowl, "Hilda, I...I don't know what to do. Am I supposed to cook this? Eat it raw?"

Her expression was inscrutable. "Shake it," she replied.

Matt raised an eyebrow. "Shake...? Hilda, the rice will spill."

She shook her head. "It doesn't matter, just mix well."

Matt kept staring at the bowl, damage control his foremost thought. Hilda must have seen the deep furrows on his forehead, or she would not have laughed, "Your ancestor looked exactly like that when he did it too."

He whipped his head back up. "My ancestor? You mean James? Or Charles?"

She nodded sagely. "They all did it before they took the throne."

"A test of worthiness?"

"You could say so." She pointed to the bowl. "Now mix the rice."

Cupping the bowl, Matt tilted it until the rice teetered at the edge, then rotated the bowl clockwise once before finally giving two small shakes and handing it to Hilda.

Hilda declined. "Look up," she said.

The milky way lit up the night, each star a lantern hanging from space's infinite ceiling. Hundreds of thousands of white dots twinkled above them; white bursts of space gases illuminated the darkness, nature's natural torchlight.

Matt's jaw slacked. "It's beautiful."

Hilda inched nearer. "Yes, but look closer."

Matt stared at the sky: Had something exploded? Did it have something to do with the moon? He searched the stars for an anomaly: there was the Big Dipper shining like a beacon for the lost, his eyes automatically headed to Ursa Minor, and to Polaris-

-Except that Polaris was not there.

Matt frowned. He moved on to the warrior Orion, and while tracing the stars with his eyes noticed that Orion’s shield was missing. He stared helplessly at Hilda, who pointed at the rice.

"Mix it with your fingers," she urged, "But don't look away from the sky."

Matt swirled the rice with his finger. Red mingled with white, some grains so red they were almost black sank while more surfaced from the bottom of the bowl. Up above, the sky warped and twisted: Rigel's light snuffed out, while a tinier star shone brightly next to Betelgeuse and Orion’s shield reformed. He gaped as Polaris moved down Ursa Minor's tail and Rigel stood in its stead.

Matt opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before he finally blurted, "The stars are moving!"

Hilda watched the sky intently. "They are, yes."

Matt pulled his fingers out of the grains and stared at the bowl. "Is it caused by the rice? Is some local magic involved? Ground magnets?"

"No, it's you."

Matt was starting to get annoyed at Hilda's cryptic language. "I don't understand."

"Your ancestors ruled Sarawak because the stars favoured them." Villagers trickled out of the longhouse and gathered at the foot of the hill. "Any man can control the land, but a true king bends the stars to his will."

A breeze carried the faint voices up to the grassy knoll. Below, the villagers chanted in an unfamiliar tongue. They brought their arms up, then down, and bowed low till their heads touched the ground. "That's not English. Hilda, what are they saying?"

Hilda bowed deeply to Matt. "They welcome you home, Rajah Brooke."


March 2016

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