It’s the beginning.
“Are you a tiger?” the child asks.
“I’m not, ” says Dehlai.
The child frowns. “A Spice Girl?”
“I’m a prince,” Dehlai says. “I’m the seventh prince of this forest land.”
“You’d be easily mistaken for a tiger.”
“Or a Spice Girl. But then you’d have to fight their rival ninja clan.”
Dehlai nods. “Occasionally,” he says, “a shuriken wings by, and I say: ‘Was that really meant for me?’ And it’s probably the resemblance.”
“That’s tough,” the child says.
Dehlai sighs. The child sighs with him. Then the child wanders off.
Dehlai goes to his mirror and peers at his reflection within. “I’m easily mistaken for anything,” he says, unhappily. “Shoes. Socks. A mobile death platform. A princess. Even, that one time, gum. It’s very embarrassing.”
The drum beats. The mirror shows its words:
I liked it when people thought you were a death platform.
It was funny watching them fall over, dead. Then they’d realize they were okay and try to pretend it was all a deliberate jest.
“I should go to the five lords,” Dehlai says. “And make myself unmistakable.”
The drum beats. The mirror shows its words:
Aww. But I love you, Dehlai!
Dehlai picks up the drum. He puts it under his arm. He walks out into the world. He goes in quest of the lord of the taste skandha.
“I want to taste unmistakable,” he says.
The Skandha Lord of Taste looks Dehlai up and down. Then he licks him. That’s how the Skandha Lord of Taste figures things out. He licks them. Even quantum theory! But Dehlai’s a bit of a puzzle.
“Are you an omelette?” he asks.
“Prince,” Dehlai says.
“Ah,” says the Skandha Lord. “You’d be easily mistaken for an omelette. It’s the rich eggy taste of your skin.”
The drum beats. There’s no mirror, but Dehlai thinks it sounds amused.
The tongue flicks out. There’s an annoyed rat-a-tat.
“That,” says the Skandha Lord, “is a drum.”
“I know,” Dehlai agrees.
“You’re already unmistakable,” says the Skandha Lord, “because you taste like an omelette, which has a drum. But I’ll give you a new taste.”
“I’ll make you taste like the sky,” says the Skandha Lord, “and iced raspberries, and the rain. That cold, crisp taste that goes right to the back of the throat. It’s a new blend. It should be irresistible.”
“I didn’t really want to taste irresistible,” Dehlai says. “I mean, it’s all right that you licked me because you’re the Skandha Lord, but I can’t have people stopping me on the street because they want a taste.”
“That’s the advantage of taste,” the Skandha Lord says. “It’s secret. No one will know. Even if word gets around, who’s going to taste the Prince just to see?”
“You have a high opinion of humanity,” says Dehlai.
The Skandha Lord considers. “Well,” he says, “of their desire to avoid being embarrassed. I had a human here once who wouldn’t let me lick it at all!”
The Lord of Taste putters around, brewing up the new taste for Dehlai.
“I still don’t know who it was,” he confides. “I’m thinking Mr. A——-, but it might have been Ms. R—.”
He touches Dehlai again with his tongue, and thinks. “Okay,” he says. “Taste yourself.”
Dehlai tastes himself. “Why,” he said, “I’m unmistakable!”
The drum plays.
Dehlai goes in quest of the lord of the hearing skandha—known here and there as ‘the lord of the terrible ears.’
“I want to sound unmistakable,” he says.
“Record yourself playing kazoo,” the Skandha Lord says. “Play it backwards and keep harmony with yourself; no one will misidentify you.”
“I don’t know the kazoo.”
“You’re not the legendary kazoo master?”
“I’m sorry,” Dehlai says.
“That’s too bad,” says the Skandha Lord. “He’s hot.”
“I’m Dehlai,” the prince explains. “And this is my drum.”
The drum plays a few introductory noises.
“I can make you sound unmistakable,” agrees the Skandha Lord, after a moment. “Like the world’s an old pipe organ, and somewhere far away on a plains, its keys are rattling. And some deepness, and some sharpness, and some darkness, like a burden rising away.”
“That’d be nice,” Dehlai says.
The drum plays, interrogatively.
“I can’t fix the drum,” the Skandha Lord says. “I don’t meddle with the sounds of sentient instruments. But I could give you a magic interpretation stick.”
“It’d be trouble,” answers Dehlai, shaking his head. “Most often, I’m just as glad not to know what it’s saying.”
The drum beats flatly.
The Skandha Lord putters about. “It’s good to have a chance to work on this kind of thing,” he says. “These days, there are people who are quiet as a ghost—they won’t make a noise even if you push them! That’s not a fine way for the world to be.”
“I’m not very quiet,” says Dehlai. “Though I try to practice brevity.”
Then the prince blinks.
“Hey,” he says. “I sound unmistakable. Thanks!”
So Dehlai goes to the Skandha Lord of Sight. In the waiting room, he meets a man.
“You,” he says. “You’re Ninja Maitreya. You’re practically my hero!”
Ninja Maitreya peers at him. “You sound like a prince, but you look like a still life depicting numerous cheeses.”
“I could probably be mistaken for that,” Dehlai agrees. “But I’m a prince.”
“Ah,” Ninja Maitreya says.
“I’m here to get it fixed,” Dehlai says. “More skandhas of sight for me!”
“The Skandha Lord giveth; the Skandha Lord taketh away. I’m here to dump my skandhas on him as part of my long progression towards enlightenment.”
“Well,” Ninja Maitreya says, “part of enlightenment is realizing that, basically, all of our senses are lying to us. What we see—it’s not the world. It’s our own ignorance. So I blind myself to the skandhas of the five senses, and thereby open myself to Ninja Nirvana. A true Buddha is indistinguishable from all things. That’s the simplified version, used in the Ninja Enlightenment Trick.”
“You’d be a good Buddha,” Ninja Maitreya says, “except for that taste of yours. It’s too delicious. You’d be like a Secret Buddha Spice.”
“Like Sporty and Posh?”
Ninja Maitreya sighs and shakes his head.
“Once, they were the best of us,” he says. “but they’ve turned from the way.”