Chapter 11

Royal Thefts

Anina didn’t sleep well again, which meant she found it hard to get up again the next morning. Her mind felt stuffed with cotton, and her body was drained of strength. She thought about the upcoming day and found absolutely nothing enticing to do.

For many months, Anina had thought about seeking a shaman to see if she was sick, but she kept postponing it. There were always other things to spend her time and money on. Instead, she turned to offerings and prayers, something she could at least do in private.

In the darkness of the predawn, Anina managed to pull out her figurine for the goddess Likubay and the tiny stones that represented her dead family: a grandmother, a father, a mother, and two older brothers. She laid them all in front of her, and then prodded her mind for a prayer.

None came. What could she say? What could she hope for their souls? Wishing their spirits well seemed like a shallow thing to do.

Anina slumped like that for a long time, drifting in and out of light sleep. Then she heard shuffling behind her.

“Good morning!” Sano said, crawling to where Anina sat. She kept her eyes closed. Her mind was too sluggish for prayer, let alone a conversation.

“Hey,” Sano continued. “Are you all right?”

“Hm, fine,” Anina mumbled. How was Sano so perky all the time? If only she knew where he got his energy from, she would steal some for herself.

“Still sleepy? My mother’s like that sometimes. She jokes that her body usually wakes before her spirit, and only a good pampering will rouse it.”

The next thing Anina knew, Sano was running a comb through her hair. Her scalp stung as he worked out the tangles. When all the strands were smooth, he braided her hair, then wrapped it around her head, pinning the end to the base of her neck. “There, now you look nice and pretty!”

Anina touched the hairdo. Though it seemed neat, 'pretty' was the also word Sano had used to describe a carabao when he first saw one, so Anina wasn’t sure how she really looked. He tucked the comb back into his pack, and began putting away her figures. She was about to tell him off for touching them, but he held them reverently enough, so she let him be.

Anina stood up and stretched. Her limbs felt minutely lighter. Not wanting to be a downright grouch, she gave Sano credit where it was due. “Thanks. I do feel better.”

By the time Sano and Anina walked down to the market, large groups of people were already milling about. The crowds looked gnarly and sticky, but Anina thought of her family's stone figures, reminding herself why she was here.

Unfortunately, Haraw didn’t seem to be setting up shop today. The merchant's spot remained empty even as others prepared theirs. After finding no other vendor who could hire them both, Anina reluctantly decided to split up with Sano. It might be easier to find someone who could hire one person. Before they parted ways, she reminded Sano of all her advice the previous day, and he promised he would be extra polite.

Anina found work with a jeweller who hired her to fix tiny golden chains. “Mages are more expensive than fire, but if it gets the work done faster, why not spend a little more, right?” the jeweller said with a grin.

Anina sat by a table behind the man’s stall along with two other mages. Next to the table were three burly, vigilant men who observed not only the people who passed by, but also Anina and the other servants. The jeweller fixed broken accessories, and some of these were extremely precious.

The work was tedious what with the links being so tiny, and Anina only had scripted tweezers to use for heating and twisting the links. Good thing she had spent the whole day yesterday writing. Her hands were nimbler today.

“Honestly, with all of the thefts going on lately, I wasn’t even sure if I could continue with the jewellery business,” the jeweller told them. He had a bald head and a long moustache that he stroked whenever he talked, which was all the time. “I thought about switching to locksmithing. Locks are what people need these days. I already have all these tools and metal lying around; it wouldn’t be that hard to make the switch.”

“I heard even Princess Angtara’s jewelleries got filched,” one of the servants added. He was younger than Anina, and his smaller fingers could deftly shape the wires into intricate shapes.

“We don’t know for sure,” said the mage beside him, an older girl whose eyesight seemed to be going bad. She kept squinting when she looked up from the table. “The rumours just say she threw a fit when she couldn’t find her collars and rings, but she could have just lost them. She throws a fit about anything, I heard.”

“Now, don’t be like that. She’s our princess,” the jeweller warned. “Besides, her suspicion is justified. Remember what happened to the sacrificial gong? The royal family has reason to worry.”

“What’s this about a gong?” Anina asked. It hadn’t been part of the news the Great Arbiter had shared.

There was currently no queue, so the jeweller leaned against his stall. “You know that the king is making sacrifices to the spirits and deities to get rid of the Malicious Wind, right?” he said, curling the edges of his moustache with a finger. “Well, King Bunawi decided to sacrifice one of his golden gongs, an expensive heirloom. It was supposed to top off the boatload of other offerings. When it was time to set the boat adrift and they were going to place the gong on top, nobody could find it! It disappeared moments before the sacrifice!”

Anina whistled. That must have made the king livid. “Did they catch the thief?”

“They caught someone and that person was executed,” the jeweller explained. “But if rumours are anything to go by, the thefts are still happening. And it’s spreading to other nobles.”

“Hah, I bet the real thief is that landslide mage from Katam!” said the boy with a snicker. Anina’s breath caught in her throat, and she just barely managed to keep from coughing.

“Why would you say that?” Anina asked, trying to keep the edge out of her voice.

“Oh, I’m just playing around.” The boy patted her on her shoulder like she was younger than him. “I don’t know, seems like someone who causes landslides wouldn't be above stealing, that’s all. Oh, don’t look at me like that, I’m not saying anything bad about Katamans. It’s just a joke! It doesn't even make sense.”

Anina tried to smooth out her expression. It was better that the boy thought she’d gotten offended because she was Kataman, and not because she was acquainted with that “landslide” mage. But this was bad. If people were speculating like this, it wouldn’t be long until Sano’s reputation blackened even more.

When the stall closed at the end of the day, the jeweller paid Anina and requested that she return the next morning. His wife even gave her a bowl of rice and marinated pork for dinner, which Anina carried eagerly to her meeting place with Sano.

On the way there, Anina sought a fisherman who was willing to lend her a boat for a short time that night. Out in the sea, she and Sano could talk a little more openly.

Sano and Anina had agreed to meet each other by the divider that separated the food sector from the textiles. She found Sano already there, surrounded by a bunch of other youths. They were laughing and goofing around. When Sano saw her, he excused himself from the others.

“Anina, look!” Sano pulled out from his pouch a dozen copper beads. “Did I do well?”

Anina wanted to laugh. She'd been half-worried that Sano would insult another person and end up a slave. She really should have trusted him a little more. “Yes, you did! Sano, this is great. What did you do today?”

“Well, this morning, I helped a man fix his boat, and then he introduced me to his pal who wanted to know why his scripted dagger didn't work. Then I spent the rest of my day getting recommended to people who needed help with various things.”

Anina nodded, impressed. “That sounds like a lot of talking, but you seemed like you enjoyed it. And you made some friends?” Anina pointed her lips to the group of boys and girls by the divider. They were all around Anina’s age, but they were well-groomed and wore fashionable Dayungan clothes. Their postures revealed an easy confidence, and though Anina couldn’t detect any malice behind their friendly smiles, she still felt a wave of unease.

“Oh yes, I met a few other Katamans today,” Sano explained. “Though I couldn't tell at first. They speak Dayungan without an accent! Their families are merchants here and usually let them play at the end of the day. They invited us to join them for dinner.”

Sano’s dimples were so deep from his big smile, that Anina felt almost bad to disappoint him. “Actually, Sano, I found us a boat, and I thought we could row out for a little privacy. We need to discuss something.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” Sano said. He turned around and called to his new friends. “Sorry, guys! I’m going on a boat ride!”

Blood rushed to Anina’s face. There was a moment of stunned silence from the other teens, then cackles and hoots, wishing him good luck.

“Good Karingal, don’t say it like that!” Anina hissed, as she stalked down to the beach, Sano following her. “A boat ride can mean something romantic, you know.” Sano’s flustered apologies trailed after her as she set out to claim the boat she'd reserved.

The sun was just a sliver of light on the horizon by this point, and most of the sky was already dark. They paddled not too far from the beach, but far enough that they weren’t within hearing distance of anyone. Before Anina could begin to relay the rumours about the thefts, Sano surprised her with a strange question of his own.

“Anina, do you not like other Katamans?” Sano faced her, setting his paddle across his lap. “You seem uncomfortable whenever we’re around them.”

Anina’s thoughts drifted to Sano’s new pals, then circled back to the three young weavers from yesterday. The truth was that she didn’t know what to do with other Katamans. If she and Sano hadn’t teamed up to find his mother, she probably wouldn’t know how to act around him either. Should she befriend them? Avoid them?

Anina had once believed she missed the fellowship of her clansmen, the connection she’d had with them in her childhood. But she had tried to forge friendships with other Katamans before, and the comfort of her past had never returned. Perhaps it wasn’t camaraderie with other Katamans she longed for, but the simplicity of being a child. And she’d never get that back.

Besides, if Anina was going to expend valuable energy fraternizing, she might as well do it with Gilans or Dayungans. They were the ones who could better help her.

Anina didn’t know how to explain all of that to Sano, so she took a shortcut. “I think I’m just embarrassed. The weavers from last night stood out too much, and I didn’t really want to get involved. And your fancy new friends seem nice, but I don’t feel like I’ll belong with them.”

Sano bit his lip, then said, “I see. Maybe you’re right. I just feel like even though I grew up in Katam, I never really knew what real life was like there. I thought being with other Katamans might give me an idea.”

Anina smiled. “You didn’t miss much. Nothing really happens in Katam, and the only things that do are usually unpleasant. Petty crimes, natural disasters, raids, tax raises. There’s nothing from Katam that most of us can be proud of.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” Sano retorted, brows low like he was thinking of a counter-example. After a while, he just scratched his head. “Well, I hope one day there will be.”

“Perhaps. Now, there’s something I learned today.” Anina then told him all about the thefts of the gong and other precious jewellery. “Don’t you find it suspicious? On one hand, somebody’s been stealing from the nobility and the royal family. And on the other hand, poor Kataman villages have been receiving baskets of goods.”

“You think these two things are related?”

Anina couldn’t quite make the pieces add up, but she had a hunch there was a connection. “I don’t know yet. I’m just concerned that the rumours will worsen and they will be added to the list of crimes you never committed. King Bunawi would send more warriors after you, for sure.”

Sano’s shoulders slumped. He ran a hand through his hair and stared at the waves. The sun had completely set. “It sounds like someone’s trying to play the king for a fool, and out of poor luck, I've somehow gotten caught up in everything. I hope people don’t start saying that I’m the secret traitor in the army too. It’s impossible for me to even be in the army, but–”

“What traitor in the army?” Anina demanded. “Where did you hear this?”

“Back home, a couple of years ago. One of my mother’s customers told us. I’m surprised people aren’t whispering about something as big as that here.”

“No, Masagan doesn’t entertain those kinds of rumours,” Anina said, her limbs suddenly cold. After all, if there was a traitor in the army, that meant there could be a rebellion. The word alone made the hair on her arms rise. Ever since the Kataman Rebellion, nobody ever dared to even say the word. “Why did your mother’s client think there’s a traitor?”

“Because King Bunawi tried to conquer one of the Gamhanan Isles three years ago with a really good plan, and he failed.”

“Yes, but King Bunawi has been trying to conquer one of those islands for many years. That’s the third time he tried. That he keeps failing has more to do with the Gamhanans being masterful seafaring warriors.”

“But it was different that third time,” Sano insisted. “Word was, King Bunawi launched a surprise attack with most of the Gamhanan army still at the coast. He had commanded a tidal wave to wash them away.”

Anina knew that bit, of course, because it was all anyone could talk about then. To summon a tidal wave was an incredible feat of magery, and it gave everyone a new perspective on just how strong the king was. Every time they thought they’d seen the extent of his powers, he would do something new to prove he was even stronger.

Sano continued. “Except he failed, because the Gamhanans had placed a wall under the water with a script that nullified the tidal wave. How could they have prepared that if they hadn’t known about the king’s strategy?”

Anina was certain that some people had wondered the same thing, but nobody openly suggested the idea that it was due to an internal spy. People said they just had to make better sacrifices to Digmaran, the god of war, or pick a better season in which to attack, or that the king wasn’t feeling well. It was always something else.

Sano frowned, and there was a heavy hesitance to his next question. “People aren’t suspecting Danihon, are they? Because he's from Gamhana and, according to his tattoos, a warrior of their highest rank?”

Anina gasped. “I hope not! I haven’t heard people talking about him anyway. No matter what he looks on the outside, Danihon would never turn his back on the Dayungan kingdom.” She shook her head, adamant. Back at the orphanage, they had all said that Danihon’s birth mother must have craved coconuts when she was pregnant with him, because he came out tough on the outside, soft on the inside.

“Danihon doesn’t have much initiative,” Anina added. “He just follows Aklin around. And they would never betray the king, because they’re loyal to the orphanage. The money they earn as warriors goes directly to Aklin’s parents and the kids living there now. Besides, my brothers only entered the army a few months before the battle in Gamhana occurred. Not only were King Bunawi’s attacks on Gamhana failing long before then, but a couple of months is not nearly enough time for two new warrior-mages to subvert a king's plans.”

“I guess you’re right,” Sano replied. “I suppose if we have to speculate on a traitor, then there’s one we know who seems to disobey orders easily.”

“Lord Matiban?” Well, if Anina had to point a finger at a potential insurgent, it wouldn’t be her brother. But what would it mean for Sano and Anina to have had an illicit encounter with someone who might be sabotaging the king? Days after Lord Matiban had let her and Sano go, she still couldn’t wrap her head around why he had.

Anina rubbed her temples. The conversation started out with thefts and ended with rebellion. What a nosedive.

“Look, when we go out to search for your mother, we must come up with a better disguise,” Anina suggested. “Nothing too wild. Gilan peasants, probably. And we really have to straighten out our story. Lord Matiban pierced through the old one like a spear, but he’s not the only clever warrior around.”

Sounds good.” Sano smiled at her. “I love making up stories.”

“I mean realistic ones. We’ll have to agree on everything.”

“I hear you.”

All right, then.” Anina pulled out the dinner that the jeweller’s wife gave her. The conversation had subdued them both, and she wasn’t as elated with the free food as she had been. Still, it was one of the few good things that happened today, and she hung onto it to avoid plunging into the apathy that engulfed her sometimes. “I promise I’m not trying to bribe you away from your new friends, but I am very much willing to share this delicious dinner with you.”

Sano looked for a moment at the shore, but he turned back to her with a grin and said, “You know what? Dinner in a boat sounds good.”