Minja walks from the new mushroom god of Sri Raji, shoulders high, wiping the tears from her eyes. Her marriage … annulled? As if none of this had ever happened? But it had happened! She had seen the Maharajah turned to terrible mist, she had seen his skin fall lifelessly to the ground … but before that, she had seen him swat away her husband and his friends as if they were rag dolls, she had heard him say that he preferred to eat his meat raw and still living. Oh, what is life!
Would she return to Pakat? No! She had told grandmum and grandpap that she was leaving with her husband, leaving for a life of adventure! She couldn’t go crawling back, a ruined woman, bound for the rice paddies. Perhaps she would go to Muladi, the big city, where she could find work as … what, a weaver? A ceramic seller? She would most likely wind up on the street, doing who-knows-what for her next meal. She had given up everything for Jongle, and now she had nothing.
Except … she had heard him. Walking up the stairs, quietly chastising that big muscly one for speaking ill of her. He loved her, didn’t he? She had silently prayed to the Maharjah to be pregnant. Now she hoped that she wasn’t. Or, did she? If she was, it would be simple — she would stay with Jongle, she would be his wife.
Or would she? Khalid — or, what used to be Khalid — would need priestesses. Perhaps she could stay here. Things would be different now. Kali was a terrible goddess of birth and destruction. Khalid spoke often of the beauty of life, but never of death. Perhaps things could be good here?
Minja had walked throughout the ruined city absentmindedly, and now she stood on the edge of the jungle. Those terrible snake-women had been driven out when the temple fell, but even with a new lord of the island the jungle was a dangerous place. Would anyone come after her? Should she just wander into the jungle blindly?
Oh, where on Urth was Jongle?
Jongle watched Minja go. He was shocked that she would just run away after everything Khalid had sacrificed. The goblin was ready to abandon his friends and quest just to spare her life, and now she was leaving? Because of some false god? Man, was she really that thick? How could he love someone so dense?
But she was so cute. And honest, and earnest. But not so loyal it seemed. Maybe she would turn around. Maybe she would realize her mistake and come back to him.
No. An hour passed. As the others tried to make sense of what happened to Khalid and his new gigantic, godly form, Jongle set out to find her. Not to win her back, per se, but to talk and to make sure she was safe. Because although he was fond of her, he hated more than anything else the thought that Khalid sacrificed himself to preserve their relationship, whether or not that was exactly true. He grabbed a quill and paper from Bertram and began jotting down a stream-of-consciousness letter on his way to the jungle.
I won’t say I love you. I won’t try to convince you to stay with me. I won’t do any of that romantic stuff. Things are only gonna get harder from here on out. This is a life of adventure we live. A life filled with the highest highs and the lowest lows. This is what you might call the lowest low.
I can’t see my friend Khalid anymore. He’s a big old mushroom now. He’s a god. He’s your god? The fact that my friend can become your god, and that’s supposed to mean something to you… Explain that one to me. He ain’t really a god. He’s just Khalid. Just like the previous Maharaja was simply an evil, sadistic tiger man who manipulated your people. It ain’t your fault you were taught to believe in him. But if you can’t see now that he was just a glorified thug, then I don’t know what to tell you, honey.
Anyway, there’s a lot more I can say, that maybe I’ll explain to you some day, or maybe I won’t. I guess that depends on the choice you make. You can stay here, and live out a perfectly good life without me. You’ll probably find a decent halfling fella, a cobbler, or a fishmonger, who don’t mind looking at you without a mask on. Or you could leave everything you know behind, and embark on a life full of violence and sorrow, triumph and mirth. It ain’t easy. You might die. I might die. But we’d have each other for a time, and that’s something.
All you need to know is I ain’t staying here. I made a promise to Khalid, and I ain’t gonna break it. I’m leaving forever. So do us both a favor and think about it real hard. And I’ll accept whatever decision you make.
With the note crumpled up in his pocket, Jongle marched through the foliage for what seemed like a good two hours, as the sky began to darken, before he came upon Minja curled up in a ball under a small shrub. With a few utterances he made himself invisible and placed the note beside her, then perched himself in a tree.
He figured if she continued heading south towards Muladi, he’d follow her to safety, sight unseen. Or reveal himself if she opted to go back towards the temple.
Minja wakes and blinks her eyes slowly.
Where is she? Sleeping outside? Where is — oh.
She sits up and sighs dejectedly. She sees the note folded beside her, touches it and looks around hopefully — but, no. Jongle is nowhere to be seen.
He wouldn’t be though, would he? The scamp. Leaving her a love poem as a form of apology, letting her read it and return to him on her own terms. So like him.
“Dear Minja,” she reads aloud, smiling in spite of herself. “I won’t say I
- I won’t -”
“I won’t say I love you,” she says. Her shoulders slump and she reads the rest, crying silently. She folds it and puts it in a fold of her tunic.
“‘Think about it real hard,’ he says,” she says. “‘Find a decent cobbler,’ he says! As if I’m only fit to be someone’s wife. Well.”
Minja stands and puts on her ceramic mask. She slips into the shadows of the jungle — and disappears.
“We’ll see about that,” she says — and not another sound is heard from her as she disappears into the shadows of the jungle.
Jongle is flabbergasted. That’s not what’s supposed to happen! He hops down from his perch and scans the surroundings.
“Hey,” he cries aloud. “Where’d you go?”
Minja stops at the sound of Jongle’s voice. She hesitates.
Without stepping from the shadows, she responds in a sharp tone: “What.”
She winces at the sound of her own voice.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean
- well, I’m not sorry, I -”
She sighs. “What is it, Jongle? Is it something that wasn’t in your letter?”
The two goblins stand in the jungle invisible to each other.
“I don’t—I don’t know.” He pauses.
“Look, I was ready to run away with you, Minja. I was gonna leave my friends and my quest behind. And now, I don’t know know that I’d do that anymore. And that makes me feel real crummy.”
“I guess we’re pretty different. I don’t see how you can still respect and revere someone like that Maharaja, even though he was clearly a no-good fiend! I mean, it’s preposterous!”
“So yeah…I don’t know where I’m goin’ with this, but? Where are you goin’?”
“Somewhere new,” she says. She is a voice in the dark.
“Maybe the Maharajah was no-good, but — he was still the Maharajah. It does not matter that he was a … a fiend, as you say. He was the Maharajah. One should not need to be convinced of the law. The law is the law. I don’t know if you understand how difficult, how … crummy it feels to not be able to make you understand. It is not up to us to decide what is right.
“I do not believe you had any intention to speak respectfully with him. I believe — like Khalid said — you would honor and abide by his decisions only if they agreed with your own.
“I am afraid that you will only listen to me if I am saying something you already agree with. There was nothing in your letter that belied affection or esteem. Only … disappointment.
“Your friend Khalid is the Maharajah now. That is … strange. He said that our marriage was annulled. That is also strange. It doesn’t feel true to me, or fair, but it is not my place to decide what is. That is a responsibility for others to bear.”
There is a quiet pause, and then she continues:
“Do you … want me with you, Jongle? Or, are you relieved that your friend has given us a new choice?”
“Look, Minja. I didn’t wanna just write romantic poetry, or serenade you with a song, and gloss over everything that just happened. I could do that, and mean it, but somethin’ like this will probably happen again.
“This is gonna sound…intense. But me and my friends kill people. Bad people. And monsters. And we decide what’s bad and what’s good, and when the law matters and when it doesn’t. We ain’t murder hobos or nothin’…But if a sadistic demigod wants to kill us when all we wanna do is get off the island, then we ain’t gonna let it happen.
“We can’t! We’ve got more important stuff to do. I mean, we’re on this big old quest to gather the seven parts of this magical rod. It’s too much to explain, and we don’t even know the half of it, but the fate of civilized world practically depends on us, so…”
“Basically what I’m tryin’ to say is, unless you can accept these things, you ain’t gonna be happy with me. I love you, Minja, I do. But I think I really love the Minja who ain’t yet come out of her shell. The one behind the mask. The girl you keep repressing with all these rules and laws and gods. And I think that’s the only you that could handle this lifestyle of mine.”
Jongle ends his invisibility spell and comes out into the clearing.
“When Khalid anulled our marriage, I think he was tryin’ to do us a favor. To really decide if we wanted to be together. And then you walked. That’s why I ain’t tryin’ to win you back. You gotta decide for yourself. You gotta decide if you wanna be this kinda whacko, crazy person you’re lookin’ at—an adventurer. You gotta decide if you wanna be with Jongle G. Janglemancer.”
“You think you are a god, like your friend,” Minja says, “but you are just a man. I … do not think I will let men tell me what to do anymore.”
Minja speaks no more. She is gone — but her ceramic mask falls from a tree, landing at Jongle’s feet.
Jongle lets out a sigh of sadness and frustration. He picks up Minja’s crude little mask and slumps to his butt, running his fingers across the mask’s lips.
“Control her? I don’t wanna control her. She don’t get it does she? I want her to be free!
“Think I’m a god? Feh! I’m the god of comedy, and what a joke this is!
“My heart… Guess that curse wasn’t lifted after all.”
Jongle dons the mask and sobs. As he lies there on the ground, his nose catches a whiff of a sickly sweet aroma, earthy and pungent, the unmistakable scent of Mushdwarf spores.
“K-Khalid? Is that you?”