Not Like Others
It was past midnight, and Anina still couldn’t sleep. Pressure had slowly built up inside her as she watched the shadows shift across their room, until finally, she was too full of restlessness for slumber to take hold. She left the longhouse to get some fresh air.
Sano’s story hadn’t exactly rattled her – scammers weren’t that uncommon in the market, even if the Great Arbiter did a decent job of monitoring crime. And it wasn’t even the scammers that frustrated Anina, really. It was Sano. Why didn’t he ask for more information about the vendor? Didn’t he even wonder why there was nobody else in the alcove when it was brimming with mussels? He’d even fallen for the silver gram! There was no dearth of swimmers for the payment to be that inflated. Everyone in the entire archipelago could swim – they lived on islands!
Anina huffed out her irritation, picking her way down the path to the beach. The moon was bright, and its glow gave an eerie tranquility to the empty market. It was odd seeing the market devoid of activity, skeletal in the absence of the bright and colourful crowds.
Small boats bobbed up and down as waves crashed against the docks. The larger vessels were big shadowed masses that stood like guards against the torrent of the sea. Anina planted her feet in the sand, breathing in the cool night air. Staying like that for a long time, with her mind as empty as the market, she didn’t feel a single care in the world.
The twinkle of light near the western bluffs caught her eye. A spark of orange contrasted with the white crests of the waves, almost like the reflection of a fire. Wasn't that where Bikon had taken Sano?
Anina's feet moved faster than her mind, and before she knew it, she was making her way to the bluffs where Sano had dove for mussels. The dark waters gave her pause, but this wouldn't be the first time she'd swum at night. Cool, heavy waves rushed against her legs, and soon she was submerged in them.
When Anina surfaced around the wall, she wasn't surprised to find a campfire ablaze in the small space. There were two people sitting by it. Anina ducked her head and clung to some nearby rocks, where she could conceal herself but still have a good view of the men. They seemed to be having a merry little time.
“You should have seen their faces,” said one of the men. He was broad-shouldered and had two short swords by his hips. He shrunk into himself and widened his eyes in mock fear. The other man, squatting close to the fire and roasting a skewer of fish, fell over in heaving heaps of laughter.
“They were all so scared to see me there!” added the man with the swords. “Well, except for one.”
“Ah, the new boy I told you about?”
“When you said 'new,' I thought you meant he was new to Masagan. I didn't think you meant new to the ways of a market.”
“The boy seems new to everything. Even speaking Dayungan. Did you hear him? When people say that Katamans sound like ducks, he's the kind they think about,” the fish-man said.
They were talking about Sano, Anina was certain. How many other boys had as thick an accent as he did and acted as ignorant?
Sword-man had said 'they' had all looked so scared, so could he be the enforcer that had caught Sano and the swimmers? He wasn't dressed like one now, but it would explain the two swords he carried.
Fish-man continued to mock the way Sano talked. Anina was used to hearing that type of joke and could ignore the dull pang in her chest, focusing instead on the spiteful glee of overhearing this conversation. What were the chances she would catch them talking so brazenly about their scam out here? Their arrogance made them careless.
“That boy was so convinced it was all a misunderstanding!” sword-man said. “He even told me to wait for you. It was touching how much he trusted you. You must have been very believable. Not as much as me though, that's for sure. Served him a mighty-wallop like any righteous enforcer would!”
Ah, so the other man was Bikon, as Anina suspected. Sano had even worried about Bikon, and here was that same man, guffawing as the enforcer mimicked how Sano had fallen from his punch.
Anina's fists curled against the rock, and the heat of anger pulsed beneath her wet skin. She could swim up to that alcove if she dared. She didn't have her staffs with her, but she wouldn't need them. A few quick hits to the knees, and neither one of these men would be able to swim back to the market. Anina could do it. Her brothers had shown her how.
“Oh, boy, that's precious,” Bikon said after he had collected himself. “This is the perfect plan, I'm telling you. They wouldn't talk about it. They were harvesting from a private area. They can't implicate us unless they implicate themselves.”
“Good thing they were all Katamans too,” the enforcer agreed. Anina's hold on the rock tightened, a sharp edge cutting her skin. “Even if one of them talks, nobody will believe them. People will think they're out for pity pay. You know the kind. Too afraid of an honest day's work. It's our word against theirs.”
“I'm not too fond of Kata-mice myself, but if they give us easy money like this, who am I to complain? Lady Tali won't be back for two days yet, so we can run the plan again tomorrow. Bini is willing to pose as a legitimate shaman again.”
“Good, good. We didn't get much from the payments.” The enforcer sneered. “At least the mussels fetched us a good price. Suwari couldn't open her pouch fast enough to claim the barrels.”
Anina swallowed the growing knot of pressure in her belly. These men were expert weavers of lies, and if she showed herself to them, she'd become just another thread. She might even end up looking like the bad guy.
Anina didn't wait to hear more. She sank beneath the water, swimming as hard as she could until she was back on the public beach.
The peace at the beach had vanished. A heaviness hung in the air, and everywhere she looked, something seemed to hem her in. The endless sea ahead, the bluffs on either side, the market behind. She breathed in large gulps of the night air, but even its saltiness scratched her throat.
Anina shook her head. She couldn't afford to lose control of her emotions. That was what had happened during the raid of her village. That magic-lashing she’d released was the result of the tempest of anger and terror she’d felt. Even if magic was not related to emotions, she would never have carelessly lashed her magic if she'd been in the right frame of mind.
Why did Anina even care so much? Sano deserved this for being too gullible. He'd needed to learn a lesson, and now he had. Any Kataman who fell for scams deserved to learn a lesson. Why should Anina be the only one who had to walk on eggshells?
But it didn't matter that she wasn't like other Katamans. Anina would be no better than Bikon and his ilk if she derived a sense of superiority when others suffered.
Anina paced the beach. She had to do something. Go to the Great Arbiter? Bring Bikon and the enforcer to trial for their trickery? But they were right. It was their word against hers and Sano's. They would deny that they were ever in that alcove, talking about their plans. Even if Anina could make a case, she would still be considered a pestering Kataman who was just after money.
Yet if Anina didn't do anything, wouldn't that just prove that she was as cowardly as everyone believed Katamans to be? Bikon and the others relied on this assumption. Even now, they planned to prey on other Katamans, knowing they would never get in trouble for it.
There must be something Anina could do. Something effective, but that would not make matters worse for her, Sano, or their fellow clansmen.
Slowly, an idea began to form in Anina's head. The enforcer had mentioned a vendor. Suwari, wasn't it? Anina was familiar with the woman and her seafood stall. She could give Suwari a little surprise in the morning.
Anina returned to the lodge and moved the curtain aside. Sano was curled up on his side. She knelt by him and woke him gently.
Sano bolted upright. He moaned as the pain from his injuries no doubt flared to attention. “What's going on?”
“Shh.” Anina coaxed him back down. “You told me your mother taught you to read and write in ten languages. Is Gilan one of them?”
“Of course, why?”
This plan was very risky, and Anina should probably forget about it. Who cared if she was a coward?
But the idea of Bikon and the enforcer having a pleasant night, while Sano was hunched in pain and shame, stoked her anger. She needed to pacify her rage. She needed to wrest back control.
“I want you to translate a script for me.”
Anina woke up the next day groggy and sulky. What little sleep she'd had was spent dreaming of the Ghoul of Katam again. In her dream, the Ghoul had waited for her to plant her revenge, and then it ate her in one bite. After it licked its twiggy fingers clean, it grunted out its customary, “You only have yourself to blame.”
Well, maybe so, but Anina didn't see the Ghoul of Katam trying to do anything about the cruelty of other people. No, it just had to remain a figment of the imagination. And where was that Malicious Wind when she needed it? Where were all these righteous entities that supposedly punished bad people, when there actually were bad people in need of punishment?
Fortunately for Anina, she didn't need to socialize much in her grouchy mood. Haraw's stall and tent were open again, and Haraw was able to take them in as scripters for the day. The woman had exclaimed at their appearances, fussing with consternation at Sano's swollen cheek and Anina's deep eyebags. But after they reassured her that they were not in trouble, Haraw ushered them in her tent, repeated her condition for them to remain quiet, and left them to do their job.
Anina and Sano worked in peace inside the tent with Haraw's children. Anina allowed the meticulous act of scripting to calm her senses, but anticipation kept her alert.
At mid-morning, a commotion came from outside. Anina forced herself to sit still and not bolt out of the tent. People from other stalls made their way east of the market, and there were hushed gasps and amused whispers among the customers.
Haraw peered into the tent. “Something's going on,” she told them. “Perhaps we should see what it's about.”
It would be a lie if Anina said she wasn't excited to see her work from last night unfold. She and Sano followed Haraw with the crowd toward the food sector. In the fishery, among the rows of pungent seafood, one woman shrieked above the hubbub of the bystanders.
“... and I will NOT associate with some lowlife who breaks the law just to make a quick buck!” The woman shook a finger at a man in front of her, cheeks puffed and ruddy with rage. On her table, just as Anina had expected, were black and green shells of mussels and several upturned barrels.
The Great Arbiter stood by the woman’s side, clutching thin boards of wood and strips of bamboo. Even from this distance, Anina could see the uncommon symbols engraved on them.
“I am telling you, I didn’t do this!” Bikon yelled, waving his hand at the boards the Great Arbiter held.
“Oh, you didn’t?” The woman glared at Bikon with wide, frightening eyes, as if she would open her mouth and swallow him whole like a sea-serpent. Or like the Ghoul of Katam. “Then care to explain how you got so many mussels when you claimed the common areas have been over-harvested? When you told me you had found a way of getting more, I didn’t think you meant illegally!”
Bikon stuttered, and she doubled down on him. “Yes, that’s right! You can’t explain, can you? Because now I see you’ve been using Gilan scripts to control the water and the sea floor to uncover more mussels, and that’s how you were able to get so many.”
“That doesn’t even make any sense! Why would the scripts be in Gilan when I can write perfectly in Dayungan?” Bikon retorted, face red and eyes bloodshot. “Even if I had written it in Gilan, why would I leave those scripts inside the barrels?”
The crowd gasped. The woman's face swelled even more. “I don’t know!” she yelled. “How should I know how a criminal thinks? Well, I won’t stand for it! I won’t have anybody thinking I’m involved in this.” The woman threw her hands up in the air, before she turned to the Great Arbiter. “Please, believe me. If I had known this man broke the law, I would never have agreed to buy his catch. I thought he was an honest man!”
The Great Arbiter narrowed her eyes and faced Bikon. “I am afraid that Suwari is correct. Finding these scripts in your barrels is quite incriminating. I will have to send you to the Chief for a trial.”
Two enforcers grabbed Bikon’s arms and dragged him away from the fishery. He struggled and bellowed, desperate to make sure everyone heard his protests. “What would I do with those scripts? I’m not even a mage! I was framed, I tell you. Framed!”
Yet to reveal he was framed, first Bikon would have to explain how he’d really obtained all of those mussels in a single day, and Anina doubted he would admit his scam. Ironically, his enforcer-friend was nowhere in sight. Anina was a little disappointed she could not implicate him as well, but hopefully this rapid turn of events would force him to lay low for a while.
“All right, show is over!” the Great Arbiter announced over the hum of the crowd. “Get back to business.” She tucked the cards into the crook of her arm, shielding them from the people of the market.
The Gilans were proud of their culture, and it had slighted them when King Bunawi had announced no language other than Dayungan could be used to write anto scripts anymore. Some of the Gilans who joined the Kataman Rebellion had done so because of that law. Seeing those scripts might just spark the wrong kind of interest.
Walking back to Haraw’s stall, Anina almost felt bad for what she had gotten Bikon accused of. His punishment would be swift and grave, worse than if he’d been tried for scamming. No, Anina wasn’t proud of what she’d done.
But she was satisfied.
“I didn’t know you could look so smug,” Sano said, leaning towards her ear.
“Do I?” Anina patted her cheeks and relaxed her face. “How about now?”
Sano chuckled. “Perfect. Just as stone-faced as you usually are.” He added with a grin, “Anina, thank you. My idea of getting back at him was to put holes in his boat. Not as effective.”
“No, but I admire your leniency,” Anina replied. “Anyway, thank me by earning back your money. I’m itching to get out of this place.”