The King of Dayung
Two days after Bikon was expelled from Masagan, Sano had almost earned back the money he'd lost. In addition to daytime work in the market, he also scrubbed the docks and cleared debris from the beach before dawn and after dusk. Manual labour paid less than magery and scripting, but the money still added up. So while Sano was a little short on sleep, at least his coin pouch was gaining weight.
Sano could hardly complain, when Anina spent just as much time working. She didn't even have to. She wasn't the one who'd gotten swindled, yet so long as he wasn't sleeping, she wasn't either. She had also never brought up Bikon or the Gilan scripts again. Sano was grateful for that, although he guessed her silence was born out of caution, more than consideration for his feelings.
On their sixth morning in Masagan, the Great Arbiter caught Sano and Anina coming out of their longhouse, and hired them to manage the communal forges by the metalworking sector.
“This is where we need your magic.” The Great Arbiter pointed to the two scripted pipes that connected to a forge. Instead of bellows, the scripts provided a way to control the wind that fed the fire.
“Looks easy enough,” Sano commented.
“Good. The tricky part is controlling it to the customer's liking.”
The Great Arbiter left Sano, and went to Anina, whom she'd assigned to the cooling pool. There were three forges in the open tent, and two other mages operated the others. From what Sano could tell, blacksmiths didn't actually craft weapons in the market itself; they had their own smithies for that. The communal forge was mostly for other merchants who needed to make quick modifications to weapons or the tools of their trade.
Sano helped a woman who needed to heat the blade of a knife so she could stamp out a faulty anto script engraved there. The one after her was a loquacious old man who wanted to straighten a damaged dagger for a customer. He talked so much, Sano could barely keep the outpour of his magic steady.
“More, more, more air, my boy. Don't be shy! W-wait, no that's too much. Well, fine, I'll just wait until the blade cools a bit. Like my wife's temper, isn't that right? Are you married yet? Ah, young chap like you, you got lots of time. All I’m saying is that a blade and a wife can be oddly similar in a lot of ways...”
Sweat poured from Sano’s forehead. As the morning progressed, the tent had become warmer than the height of summer – and being near the forge, the heat was merciless on his skin. He spared a glance at Anina by the cooling pool, her hands submerged in the chilled water. She gave Sano a cheeky grin.
A wave of shouts and cheers suddenly swept through the crowd outside. People were scrambling towards something Sano couldn’t see. He blocked off the airway of the pipes and, along with everyone else, dashed outside the tent.
A long, slithering shadow fell across them. Sano’s breath stuck in his throat, and his stomach flopped with vertigo. Above, perhaps three men’s height from their heads, was a sea-serpent.
It was enormous, wide enough to span a group of fifty people, and long enough to stretch over three or four sectors of the market. Its scales shone deep turquoise with streaks of purple. Every movement of the sea-serpent caused a cacophony of clicks as the scales rubbed against each other. Sano couldn't see its head, but a rumbling emerged from the west, followed by a fierce growl. The ground seemed to vibrate in return.
The sea-serpent's tail whipped by the tip of the tent, and disappointed grunts rose all around Sano. It must be leaving now.
“Wait, it's coming back!” someone yelled.
The great length of the sea-serpent twisted and reversed direction. It undulated along the market, heading towards the communal forges. The crowd around the tent doubled, and the heat from the press of bodies could rival the warmth in the tent. Coins rattled. People shoved. Voices yelled.
“Throw it high! Hurry, now!”
“Don’t you dare miss. Its mouth is huge, you got a lot of room!”
Money, food, and a myriad of other possessions flew into the air. A sea-serpent wasn't choosy about what it was offered. Sano's mother always said that sea-serpents' heads and tails may live among humans, but their bellies remained in the spirit world, hungry for veneration. They ate human gifts, in whatever form they came, and bestowed good luck in return.
“I think we should give something too,” Anina piped up. Sano hadn’t noticed that she’d sidled up to him. To Sano's surprise, she pulled out five whole beads of copper from her savings. Well, she definitely scrimped on herself, but not on her offerings.
Sano pulled out a few beads from his pouch too, and they threw their money in the air just as the sea-serpent hurtled over their heads. Its huge jaws snapped up the offerings, its teeth – each one as long as Sano’s legs – glinting in the sun.
The sea-serpent meandered over the market, then up the eastern bluffs. It shot into the sky like an arrow released from a bow. For a moment, it disappeared against the bright glare of the sun, and by the time Sano could see its silhouette again, it was plunging into the sea.
The crowd waited for a long time, inspecting the horizon. Nothing flashed out of the waves again. The gathered crowd dispersed back to their stalls and tents and blankets. But the noise didn’t relent now that the people could focus on talking.
“A lot more of that happening soon, I bet,” the old man with the dagger told Sano as they made their way back to the forge. “The season is just beginning. Last year, sea-serpents flew over the market six times!”
Six times! Sano didn't even know what to make of this first one. For all its sacredness, the sea-serpent still resembled a giant, elongated crocodile. It was amazing, but the kind that struck terror into him as much as it did admiration. His legs were still shaking.
The excitement from the sea-serpent's visit reigned over everyone for most of the day. People from the settlement heard about it, and came to the market in droves to catch some gossip. Many of them stopped by the forge, bringing random utensils to be heated, just so they could take up some time and space in the tent’s shade. They were nice enough to Sano, eager to hear his first-hand account, and just as eager to relate their own previous encounters of sea-serpents.
By the time twilight rolled around, Sano’s magic was almost exhausted. Anina had run out of hers by mid-afternoon, so another mage had taken over the pool. After the Great Arbiter paid them for the day, Sano and Anina bought rice cakes for dinner, and headed back to their longhouse.
“Have you seen sea-serpents that close before?” Sano asked as they trekked up the path to the lodges.
“A few times – always here in Masagan though,” Anina answered. “Sea-serpents rarely fly inland. That's why some chiefs will pay a powerful shaman to summon a sea-serpent directly to their residence.”
“I suppose if they can afford it, it's probably worth it,” Sano said. “Offerings and luck aside, it's a fantastic opportunity to see a sea-serpent up close. I think the only person who wouldn't agree is my mother! She hates sea-serpents.”
Anina chuckled. “Does she think it would eat her? I mean, I suppose it could... if you were somehow made into an offering.” She cringed at Sano. “But that's never happened before.”
“It's not the real sea-serpents that spook my mother. It's really the hilts on the swords of King Bunawi's warriors. She has nightmares about them.”
“I see,” Anina responded quietly. “Did they come for her family? Was it because she practised illegal magic?”
They had reached their longhouse now, standing just before the ladder steps to their room. Anina climbed up to the landing and washed her feet, the water trickling through the slats of wood.
“My mother wasn't always a hermit,” Sano began. Perhaps it was time to tell Anina what his mother had done to make her retreat into isolation. Would she understand?
Anina opened the door, and halted.
“What's wrong?” Sano asked. He climbed up after her, past the jar of water. The sight of their room was enough to knock all other thoughts out of his head.
The curtain that divided the room had been pulled loose from its rope and flung into a corner. Both Sano's and Anina's packs had been opened, their contents scattered around the room. Sano's medicine kit lay open too, the bandages unrolled. The small pot of ointment was shattered, and the precious little they had left was peppered with ceramic shards.
Anina's belongings had received the same fate. Her Likubay figure lay face down on the floor, and the stone symbols for her family were strewn around it. Their clothes and blankets lay in rumpled heaps.
More worrying were Sano's illegal belongings, the one that had come with the emergency pack. His dagger and knife were unsheathed from their deceptive covers, their Kataman scripts lying in the open. His cloak, the one he'd used during the landslide, was laid out on the floor with the Kataman embroidery facing up.
Anina dashed inside and scooped up her figures. She patted the floor, shoving away her clothes and blankets. “One of my stones is missing!” she cried.
She grabbed one of her staffs and shook it. She must be trying to use her magic as a light source, but she had run out of magic and her staff remained dark. Anina tossed it away, then gasped. Lowering her head to the floor, she peered through the space between the bamboo slats. “It fell!”
Anina shot past Sano in the doorway and hopped down the rungs of the ladder. A shuffling beneath the hut told him she was crawling underneath.
Alone in the room, a numbness took hold of Sano. He tiptoed his way around, careful not to stray too close to the broken jar. He gathered his things, overly aware that his hands were somehow steady. He sheathed his blades, folded his cloak, and tucked them all back into his pack.
Was this an attempted burglary? Did the thief get nervous after seeing his Kataman scripts?
Anina re-entered the room. She wiped her stone on her outer skirt and gathered her things with a focused energy. “We have to leave,” she said.
Sano had known that much. He strode to the window and peered outside. Nothing in the area seemed out of the ordinary. A few people walked past, and there was a mundane conversation coming from one of the other rooms. Sano didn't see anyone who looked like they were after him. But perhaps whoever had done this was already reporting him to the Great Arbiter.
They didn't own many things, and soon they were out of the longhouse, and then out of the market itself. Anina led Sano through the sparse woods that separated the settlement from the market. There wasn't much moonlight filtering through the treetops, but it wasn't entirely impossible to see.
“You have all of your earnings?” Anina asked Sano. Gone was the frantic girl searching for her stone. She seemed more rooted now, as if it were her figures that tethered her to the world.
Sano patted the pouch by his hip and nodded.
“Good. We'll head for the river where the potter dropped us off. There are always a few boaters willing to travel at night.” Anina's steps faltered. She turned to Sano with an uncertain expression. “I'm sorry,” she whispered. “I think this is my fault.”
“You think this might be because of the scripts you wrote for Bikon?” The idea had come to Sano too. A burglary didn't make any sense. The lodgings would be the last place a thief would think of robbing, especially when there might still be open stalls in the market, or at least, well-off merchants walking home with their wares.
Anina bit her lip and nodded. “When Bikon was taken away, he said he was framed. What if he put the pieces together and realized that one of his victims wanted to get back at him? Surely he knows you're a scripter, since he learned about you through word of mouth. He must have thought you were the one who wrote the Gilan scripts in his barrels.” She rubbed her forehead, agitated. “Good Karingal, I am so sorry.”
“It's fine.” Sano placed a hand on her shoulder. “If you hadn't done anything, they would have tricked more people, remember? You saved others from trouble, and I think–”
A knife whizzed by. Sano stumbled away, and Anina toppled to the ground. The knife embedded itself into the tree trunk beside Sano. Anina lay still by the base of the tree, and Sano's heart plunged when the soil beneath her head grew wet.
“Oh, Karingal.” Sano knelt beside Anina, his hands cold.
Suddenly, burly arms wrapped around Sano and yanked him back. He and his assailant landed on the ground in a heap, the forest canopy spinning above them. Sano thrashed and squirmed against the other person's hold, but his arms were pinned to his sides in an iron grip.
“Help!” Sano yelled, just as someone wrapped a long piece of fabric around his head, muffling his voice. There had to be at least two assailants. The fabric was so tightly woven it was impossible to see anything. Sano’s breaths came out in deafening rasps from within the cover. But how long would it be until he could no longer breathe at all? Frantic with panic, Sano kicked out with his legs, but he hit nothing but thin air and the forest ground.
The ground! Could he write something with his toes? If he was careful, maybe he could form a script even if he couldn’t see.
But then two hands circled his ankles and raised his legs off the ground. Sano grunted in frustration as both men lifted him. The one behind him seemed to be wearing some sort of arm-braces, and they dug into Sano’s skin. Desperate and out of ideas, Sano pushed as much magic as he could through his own arms and into the metal braces.
The sharp twang of bursting metal pierced the air, and a strangled cry came after. Sano’s upper body hit the ground, his head ironically protected by the fabric wrapped around it. Above him, the man cursed and groaned.
“Use the knife!” the man by Sano’s feet ordered. His voice sounded familiar. Could that be... Bikon’s enforcer-friend?
Sano curled in on himself, bracing for the vicious plunge of a blade, but he only felt small, sharp stings on his arms. He tugged at the fabric around his head, only to find that his hands were unable to feel the cloth. All along his arms, Sano lost sensation. He was too warm all of a sudden, his mind hazy, his breaths uneven.
The knife had a sedative.
Within moments, Sano was no longer aware of anything else.
Sano woke to the smell of incense and smoke. Shadows flickered in the small room, thrown by a torch outside of the open window. He was lying on a cot covered by an expensive crimson sheet. His arms were neatly bound in clean bandages – both the areas where he'd been cut and the ones through which he'd lashed his magic. Feeling had returned to his arms, and the injured areas smarted. Sano pulled himself upright, and chains clanked against the floor. He was tied to the cot.
Somebody shuffled outside his door. There were whispers and then footsteps. Sano tensed, waiting for the door to open, but it didn't.
He rested against the wall and looked out the window across the room. It was night-time, but he didn't know if it was the same night as the attack. Sano's mind didn’t seem too addled though, so the poison most likely hadn't knocked him out for very long. He might still be near Masagan. There was a salty tang to the air underneath the incense and smoke.
But what about Anina? The attack had happened so fast he didn't even have time to help her. And as much as he’d love to pretend she was all right, he was certain she'd been bleeding. Had she been taken too?
Sano looked at the chain around his ankle. The end of it looped through the wooden frame of the cot, which was in turn secured by thick, sturdy ropes to the slats of the floor. If he could magic-lash the chains, perhaps he could release himself.
Of course, that would also wreck his ankle, and he wouldn't get very far with a limp.
The door flew open, and a man strode inside. He was wide and well-built with an open, amiable face. A silken turban covered his hair, and he wore a finely embroidered tunic and loincloth. The beauty of the clothing, however, was dwarfed by the man's golden jewellery. The man's earlobes were elongated by the weight of heavy golden hoops. Around his neck were rings of varying sizes, grooved with floral patterns. A golden decorative chain hung across his chest, and his wrists and ankles sported bands of engraved gold. The hilt of his sword was gold too, sculpted in the shape of a sea-serpent. Its scripted blade, though not quite gold, gleamed with the same quality when the firelight hit it just right.
The man was so shiny, Sano almost shielded his eyes.
A string of slaves followed the man. Two of them brought a table in front of Sano's cot, then placed on it a bowl of fruits, a pitcher of wine, two clay cups, and a copper plate of betel quids. Another slave carried in a chair. They all retreated with their heads low and hands on their cheeks.
“Leave the door open,” the man said. His voice was authoritative, but warm.
“Yes, my king,” one of them responded.
If Sano had had any doubts who this man was, that answer vanquished them all. In fact, it vanquished all of his thoughts. He gaped at the king, who gave him a dazzling smile. Dazzling, because his teeth were pegged with gold studs.
“Surprised?” King Bunawi asked. “I do have my own way of getting around. And the Chief of Masagan has always been an accommodating host. Whether I want to be welcomed with a feast or absolute silence, he always delivers. But that's enough about me. Here, have some refreshments.”
Sano eyed the betel quids, his throat burning at the mere memory of the last time he’d tried one. But why was he being offered wine and betel anyway? Was this a business meeting? The king's tone had been friendly, and so was the smile beneath the grey-speckled moustache. Maybe Sano had misjudged the king. Maybe this wouldn't be a terrible night.
No... Anina had almost liked the king too, until she'd seen what he really was. Capable of cordiality and ruthlessness at the same time – that's how she'd described him.
Sano's stomach clenched. All he could do was lower his gaze and place his hands on his cheeks, the way the slaves did. A customary sign of deference.
The king chuckled. “It's a little late for respect, coming from you. At least if you are who I think you are, and I'm rarely wrong.” Sano dared to peek at him. The king rubbed his chin, relaxed against the backrest of his chair. His smile creased the edges of his eyes. “Are you sure you don't want any food? We're going to have a busy night. Come, at least have a plum.”
“A busy night?” Sano echoed.
“Oh yes.” King Bunawi rested his elbows against his knees and clasped his hands together. “You, my boy, are going to help me solve a little mystery in my army. I admit, what first interested me about you was your use of illegal magic, but I've found an additional purpose for you.”
The king's cryptic words only deepened Sano's apprehension. He didn't move to take the cup of wine or any of the fruits. His stomach was not in the mood.
“Suit yourself.” King Bunawi pulled a key from his pocket, and unlocked the chain that held Sano. Without missing a beat, he grabbed Sano's arm in a firm grasp.
King Bunawi dragged Sano out of the room, down a hallway lined with warriors. They breezed through several rooms decorated with brightly coloured tapestries and fine furniture. Stunned, all Sano could do was keep up with the king's pace and avoid tripping. Each time he saw a window, his heart sang with hope – but King Bunawi would probably break his neck before he could escape.
They emerged into an open area at the back of the longhouse. The floor was slightly raised, and thick wooden posts at each corner upheld a low thatched roof. Instead of walls, woven rattan formed railings between the posts. Goosebumps rose on Sano's skin at the touch of the cool night air. According to the king, they were still in Masagan, but they must be on some elevated part of the settlement.
More than a dozen warriors stood on the platform, which overlooked a shadowed ravine. Off to the side, Sano noticed the enforcer who had helped Bikon with his scam. Sano wasn't surprised at all to see him there; he had already suspected that the enforcer was one of his attackers.
On one side of the platform, an elegant lady around Sano's mother's age sat in a chair. Straight black hair framed her face. She had the same eyes and air of confidence as King Bunawi. On her hip hung a sword identical to the king's.
As Sano scanned the others, his gaze caught three familiar figures. There was the tall, curly-haired Aklin, leaning against one of the posts. Beside him was Danihon, unforgettable with all his tattoos. And finally, Sano spotted Lord Matiban, stiff and straight-backed, staring back at him with his signature blank expression.
Dear Karingal, what had Sano gotten himself into?