5

It took a moment before Siddhartha had enough presence of mind to ask, “Who are you? Why did you sneak up on me like that?”

The other boy stared without reply. He wore heavy embroidered clothes that marked him as the favored of some king’s court. Under them, his body was already developing muscles on a lean frame. He must have been at least twelve.

“I didn’t sneak up. You’re just too blind to see.”

“Sorry.”

Siddhartha’s meekness made the other boy draw himself up to his full height and cross his arms. “I came looking for you. Didn’t they tell you?” Siddhartha shook his head, which earned him a pitying look. “You don’t talk much. Do you spend the day under a rock? You look pale enough.”

Each taunt was having less and less effect. Siddhartha knew he wasn’t pale, and though cowed at first, he wasn’t afraid of the stranger. He said, “You must be my cousin. They said you were coming.”

“See? Even you can make sense if you try.”

Siddhartha said nothing. The arrival of this aggressive visitor added one more unwelcome shock to the day. His father limited the number of people who saw his son and limited even further the number who actually had a conversation with him.

“Do you think you can remember a name? Mine’s Devadatta, and I’m just as good as you are. Try and remember that too.”

Siddhartha would have bowed in greeting and was tempted to even after this barrage. He recalled what his father had told him: “You’re getting lonely. We have to do something about that.” The next day an order was sent to summon a suitable companion, and Suddhodana congratulated himself on his choice. Devadatta was born to a branch of the Sakyan royal line and was old enough to travel on a saddle up the steep trails from his home kingdom, where he held the rank of prince.

Devadatta was tired of bantering, so he grabbed the cap Siddhartha was wearing and dangled it out of reach, watching the smaller boy try to jump up and snatch it back.

“We need to have an understanding, just you and me,” he said. “They made me leave home against my will. I’m not old enough to get my way. Not all the time, I mean.” Devadatta smiled, his mouth a narrow, tight line. “I didn’t want to come to this godforsaken place. Or to meet you.” He jammed the cap on Siddhartha’s head again.

Siddhartha took a step backward so he could bolt down the hallway if he had to.

“You’re really scared of the leeches, aren’t you?” Devadatta taunted.

“No.” Siddhartha said, ashamed that he’d been seen but not wanting anyone to think he was afraid.

Devadatta lifted his shirt to expose a dozen fresh scars all over his chest. They were bright pink half-moons against his dark skin.

“I had a fever last month; they leeched me so I wouldn’t die. That’s why they’re in there with your papa. He’ll probably die too.” Devadatta stared the smaller boy down. “I wasn’t a baby about it. Not like you. Go ahead, touch them, if you’re really not scared.”

Unwilling to endure any more, Siddhartha turned and fled down the long hallway. He wanted to get away from everything: his cousin, the physicians with their bucket of bloodsuckers, and most of all the helpless feeling that he was trapped in a nightmare. Deriding laughter burned in his ears as he ran.

SOON SUDDHODANA WAS EXULTING in Devadatta’s presence. “This is a prince of the blood. Treat him like my second son,” he announced in open court. In private he set the usual spies on the newcomer, who was probably acting as a spy himself. In the king’s mind he had accomplished two goals at once. His son, who showed signs of a dangerous passivity, would have a model to follow, someone close to his own age but tougher. In addition, a neighboring kingdom, intimidated by Suddhodana’s wrath if it refused, had given up its heir apparent to his control. Having caught Devadatta in a trap, Suddhodana lavished smiles on the boy and catered to his whims, which promised to be precocious and plentiful.

That year, at the arrival of spring, the king threw a feast to celebrate. Siddhartha was awake before dawn, brightening up at the prospect of what lay ahead. He knew that people lived outside the palace walls, but he could only imagine what that must be like. The most mundane thing-walking along a dusty road through a market town-must be amazing (although he’d never seen a town and only knew about roads to faraway places from books). All he had to do was ask people about themselves, and Siddhartha was certain they would recount wondrous stories.

When the festivities began, however, the rush of new sensations was beyond anything he had imagined. Colorful banners emblazoned with pictures of the gods, bright lanterns, and gold-embossed decorations transformed the palace grounds into a mythical place. He ran through flocks of jugglers and acrobats; he listened open-mouthed to wandering storytellers in garish masks who had spent years learning how to keep villagers in suspense as they described Hanuman, king of the monkeys, flying with a mountain in his hands because a rare herb that grew there was needed to heal the battle-wounded Lakshman, brother of the divine Lord Rama. The monkey god couldn’t find the herb, so he ripped up the entire mountain in order to return in time. Would he? The audience gasped, ignoring the fact that they had all heard the tale a hundred times.

But nothing was better than the manic hour when the celebrants ran around the grounds hurling fistfuls of dyed powder at each other. Clouds of red, green, and yellow filled the air. Shrieking ladies ran away from panting pursuers, coyly allowing themselves to be caught, then breaking into peals of laughter as they threw dye in their paramours’ faces. Within minutes everyone was covered in a patchwork of hues.

Two older girls a little ways away suddenly caught his eye. Standing beside one of the tables heavily laden with food, they chattered, pretending not to look in Siddhartha’s direction.

They know I’m a prince, Siddhartha thought, smiling a little. This made him braver, and he approached, concealing the pouches of scarlet powder behind his back. He worked hard to remain innocent looking. When he was within a few feet of them, he sprang his surprise. A red fog hung in the air for a moment before the wind pulled it away. The two girls squealed and laughed, enjoying his unexpected attention considerably more than the prank. When the air cleared there was an awkward pause.

“Hello,” Siddhartha said. The two girls exchanged a look, as if trying to decipher this message. The braver one took a deep breath.

“Hello,” she replied. No guards descended; nothing exploded. So the other one tried saying a word. “You’re the prince?” Not as if she doubted it, but as if she might not have the right to ask.

Siddhartha nodded. “My father is the king.”

The girls lapsed into silence. Siddhartha wasn’t sure how well things were going. He wished he weren’t alone.

“Hey, cousin!”

Siddhartha turned around to see Devadatta a few feet away. He had his fist poised in the air, and a second later he threw with all his might. A green cloud billowed out. Siddhartha was reaching into his own pouch, happy to join in, when he felt a sharp pain in his forehead. He staggered back, then touched the spot. His hand came away stained a warm, sticky crimson. Devadatta had put a rock in with the powder before he threw it.

A new surprise, not the pain, held Siddhartha’s attention. He had yet to see his own blood. His cousin was laughing at him and looking toward the girls, expecting them to appreciate the joke. But they had run away in alarm. Devadatta shrugged and turned his attention back to Siddhartha. “Let’s play again, only try to stay awake this time, okay?” He stooped down to find another sharp rock.

Siddhartha was never far from watchful eyes, and it was only a moment before Suddhodana arrived on the scene as Devadatta threw his second missile, not bothering to disguise it with dye. It hit Siddhartha in the chest and made him cry out. He doubled over with a wince. Devadatta considered this a favorable outcome and had another rock in hand already, but he spied the king and hesitated. There was a small crowd around them now. Suddhodana nodded at Devadatta, “Go on.”

The boy didn’t need any more encouragement. He threw again and hit Siddhartha in the shoulder, hard enough to draw blood again. None of the onlookers came to the rescue; even Prajapati, late to arrive, glanced at the king and knew that she couldn’t interfere. Siddhartha looked around. His face flushed with shame, and he wanted to run, but his father’s voice stopped him.

“No! Stay and fight.”

The courtiers exchanged nervous glances; some of the more tenderhearted ladies clutched their hands to their breasts. Suddhodana kept his eyes on his son, watching stonily for a response. When the boy didn’t move, only gazing vaguely into the distance, his father gave a small, almost indecipherable snort, which Devadatta took as a signal that he had won. He relaxed and dropped the rock in his fist, giving one last look of pity at his victim. He pushed his way through the spectators and was gone.

Suddhodana stepped forward and knelt beside his son. “Listen to me. You can’t let him do that. In this family, we fight.” Siddhartha hung his head, biting his lip. “You’re my only son, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“From now on, there’s not going to be any more ‘papa,’ you understand? From now on it’s ‘sir.’”

Siddhartha felt a rock being put into his hand, and his father’s much larger hand closed it into a fist.

“Go.”

The king stood up, and the courtiers parted the way, making a path in the direction Devadatta had gone. Siddhartha felt the sharp edges of the flinty stone against his palm. He gathered himself to run but had taken only a step when his father’s voice stopped him.

“Here, let me clean you up first.” Suddhodana bent over and wiped the blood from the boy’s forehead. “You have to see him to fight him. It might get in your eyes.” His father’s tone still had an edge, but Siddhartha instinctively knew that in those few seconds his father had changed, had felt a twinge of remorse or tenderness. The next instant he was being given a rough shove and found himself running hard toward a pavilion beside the pond where Devadatta had disappeared.

SIDDHARTHA ROUNDED THE CORNER of the pavilion by the lotus lake beyond the sight of his father. He ducked into an archway that led inside, then he made an escape near the water’s edge. He didn’t care where his cousin was. He dropped the rock clutched in his fist; the flinty edges had dug red indentations in his palm. His other wounds were throbbing, but Siddhartha ignored the pain. He threw himself down among the tall reeds by the pond. It was almost the only real hiding place he had ever found. Panic distorts time, so he had no idea how long it was before he began to feel better. But his heart eventually stopped racing, and in the aftermath of distress he began to feel drowsy and drained.

Siddhartha was his father’s son, yet he wasn’t. There were no words to express why this was true. The heavy expectations weighing on his shoulders mystified him. The rocks thrown at him, the humiliation that followed-all hurt. But worse was knowing that Devadatta, a cruel stranger, filled his father’s expectations better than he did. Siddhartha watched a hawk circling on motionless wings overhead. Unable to see beyond the palace walls, he could still gaze above them. Then the hawk closed its wings like scissors and dropped toward earth. In less than a second it changed from an emblem of escape to a deadly missile hurtling down upon an innocent prey.

At that moment, although he scarcely suspected it, not Siddhartha but Devadatta was the prey. Devadatta had fled from his victory in high spirits, tinged with the bitterness of knowing that he was still the king’s prisoner. The boy was bored with the childishness of the festival. He slowed his pace, and then noticed that a man, a stranger, had appeared from nowhere. He was tall and cloaked in the coarse hemp of a traveler. Despite the man’s stealth and the difference in their sizes, Devadatta wasn’t afraid; his arrogance protected him. His hand felt for the dagger at his side.

The cloaked stranger raised an admiring eyebrow as if to say, We have a man here after all. He drew his own dagger.

“Come on,” he said. “You deserve to die.”

Devadatta backed away, startled. “Why?” His voice still betrayed no fear, and he unsheathed his own weapon, ready to fight.

“Not for anything you’ve done, but for what I’m going to make you do.” Quicker than the eye could catch, the stranger lunged forward, grabbed Devadatta’s dagger by the blade, and snatched it from his grasp. Then he burst out laughing at the boy’s stunned reaction. The stranger’s hand held the razor-sharp blade tightly, yet not a drop of blood appeared.

“You were unkind to draw on me,” the stranger said calmly, “but Mara is kind enough for two.” He handed Devadatta his knife back. It was as hot as a burning coal, and the boy dropped it with a shriek of pain.

“Damn you, demon!”

Mara bowed ironically at being recognized so quickly. “Not many are brave enough to curse me. Not on first meeting. Usually they’re more occupied with their terror.”

Devadatta glared back defiantly. “Why are you here? I’m not going to die.” He uttered these words with impressive certainty. Mara said nothing in reply. One arm lifted, bringing the edge of his cloak with it. The cloak was lined with black. Devadatta’s gaze fell on it for an instant before the blackness seemed to expand. One moment the cloak was making a small billowy circle around Mara’s head; the next it swelled to enclose the boy before the entire pavilion disappeared, and Devadatta found himself in total darkness, warm and suffocating.

With a shriek he plummeted into a looming void. There was no telling how long he fell, but it was certain that when he landed, it was with a bone-jarring crash. For a moment Devadatta writhed helplessly, the wind knocked out of him, before he became aware of hard, cold stone beneath his body.

“Where am I? Speak!” he shouted.

“Oh, I’ll speak, never you fear.”

Mara’s voice was right beside him. Devadatta reached out to strike, as enraged as he was frightened. Or, to be more precise, he dealt with fear by turning it into rage. His fists struck empty air. Mara admired the boy. It was rare for someone so young to be fearless in peril, no matter how much was empty bravado. Mara needed someone with certain qualities: hotheaded, reckless, unable to judge the limits of his own danger, wily but stupid enough to fall into the lure of arrogance. This one would do.

“What do you want?” Devadatta shouted into the empty blackness. He gradually became aware, however, that this blackness wasn’t total; he could see a faint glimmer in the distance. From that and the stone underneath him, he surmised that he was in a cave and, since the air was frigid, a mountain cave.

Mara could have explained everything, but he preferred to watch and wait. Arrogance and bravado have their limits, so he bided his time-an hour, then two, then six-until he heard Devadatta’s teeth chattering and sensed the despair rising in his chest.

“You are here to learn,” said Mara.

The broken silence made Devadatta jump. He controlled his anger this time; his mind had had time to work, and he knew that he was in a demon’s power. Exactly who or why was still unclear, but he had to be careful of more traps. Two were enough.

“I’m a prince; I can bargain with you,” he said, his eyes moving from side to side in case the demon showed himself. Which Mara did, appearing as he had in the pavilion, a tall stranger in a black cloak.

“You aren’t listening. I said you’re here to learn.”

“Learn what?” Pause. “I’m listening.”

Mara caught the note of defeat in the boy’s voice; he couldn’t pretend to himself any longer that he had the upper hand. “Learn to be king,” said Mara.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the boy flared. “I’m going to be king, anyway. I don’t need you for that, whoever you are.”

“Ridiculous! My dear fool, you gave away your chances the moment you set foot away from home. There is no throne waiting for you back there, not now or ever.”

“Liar!”

This heated outburst made Mara decide to wait again, and so he delayed another few hours while Devadatta grew colder and lonelier and the weight of the demon’s words had sunk in. Then, because he knew that gratitude can be as effective as fear, Mara clapped his hands, and a small campfire appeared in the cave some yards away from the boy. Devadatta rushed over to it and warmed his shivering body. “The only throne you have a hope of capturing is Siddhartha’s,” said Mara. The firelight made Devadatta’s eyes gleam. As always, the demon had grasped an idea that was already in his victim’s mind. “His father is too strong. You cannot overthrow him. But it is through him that you will depose the son.”

Every added word inflamed Devadatta, who forgot the distress and danger he was in. He hadn’t genuinely hated his small cousin; his feelings up to now had been a mixture of pity and jealousy. “It won’t take much to get rid of him,” he said.

The cloaked stranger held up his finger. “More than you think. Much more.”

The boy took this as an insult to his physical strength, the one advantage he knew that he had over his cousin. “You don’t think I can crush him? All it takes is a knife or an arrow when we’re out hunting.”

“Think again. The king would have you killed immediately. He wouldn’t even care if you did it. He’d know it was you.”

Devadatta paused. He and Suddhodana were enough alike that he saw the truth of this. Wouldn’t he kill anyone in the vicinity of the prince if he were the father and his son died mysteriously? After a moment’s deliberation Devadatta said, “If I let you teach me, what will it cost?”

Mara laughed. “You have nothing to give. A prince without a throne is also a prince without a fortune. You must be slow if you didn’t consider that. Too slow to bargain, except with your life. I’m going.”

“Wait, you can’t leave me here!”

The boy sounded agreeably terrified. Mara clapped his hands again, and the sputtering campfire went out. He was satisfied with the opening he’d made. Let the boy rest a night in the cave. He would be afraid of freezing to death, but Mara could keep the spark of life going. He had the minutest control over death, after all.

“Wait!”

The boy called louder, but his sinking heart knew that he was alone now. There was nothing near but the settling blackness and the glimmer of light coming from the mouth of the cave. Devadatta headed for it, creeping with one hand on the stone wall to steady himself. He climbed over rubble, and he felt something-a rat?-scramble over his foot. When he reached the light, the cave opened out into a sizable mouth. Devadatta stepped from the cave onto ice-hardened snow, which extended in all directions. He was near the top of a Himalayan peak, the kind of place that the truly fearless yogis sought out for their solitude. But Devadatta felt no holy presence in this hostile landscape. There was no sign that any human being had ever been there, not the faintest trace of a trail going downslope. All Devadatta could spy was the last wink of the fading sun before it disappeared beneath the horizon. His mind searched for words and failed. Standing between himself and the fast-descending blackness was nothing.

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