Anina pushed herself against another tree and half-stumbled in the dark. She really wasn’t feeling as terrible as she must look. The knife had just nicked her forehead, though the cut did bleed a lot. Even now, she carefully applied some pressure on the strip of skirt she’d wrapped around her head, grimacing against the pain.
The blood had streamed down her face so quickly, she’d been afraid that if she launched herself off the ground, she would be too blind to defend herself from the attackers. They would strike again, and surely wouldn't miss a second time. So despite Sano’s frantic struggling, and her own urge to get up and fight, Anina had remained on the ground, unmoving. After the two men had left with Sano, she had picked herself up. She had staunched the bleeding on her forehead, shouldered her pack and Sano’s, and followed the men.
One of them carried Sano slumped over his shoulder. The other had red welts around his arms and helped very little. Neither of them were particularly quiet. Anina supposed they didn’t really need to be. They believed they were capturing an outlaw, which was true. In any case, it was an advantage for her. She had no trouble following them into the residential area.
This part of Masagan was illuminated by several torches along paths that were mostly deserted. Anina found only a few men who sat by the steps of their huts, drinking some wine. She steered clear of them – though the sight of her bloody face would probably scare them more.
Anina tracked their attackers deeper into the maze of houses. One of them was definitely the enforcer who had worked with Bikon. There was no mistaking that whiny tinge to his voice. The other man was dressed in a warrior’s outfit, with colours distressingly close to the deep red reserved for the king's army. She hoped it was just the night-time ambience skewing her perception.
The two men approached a compound in a clean district of the settlement, and Anina slunk not far behind them. They stalked up to a grand longhouse, and she wedged herself among the shrubberies that bordered the estate. Then the door to the longhouse opened, and another man stepped down the ladder to retrieve Sano. The warrior and the enforcer followed inside, shutting the door.
Alone on a stranger’s property, Anina was at a loss for what to do.
She freed her staffs from their sling and tested her magic. There was a feeble tug from her centre, and a script glowed weakly. Anina swore. It would be foolish for her to engage in a fight with trained warriors while she still hadn’t recovered her magic. But what could she do in the meantime? She had to get Sano out of the house somehow.
Anina was lightheaded from the blood loss, but otherwise, anxiety kept her alert. She looked around. What if she caused a distraction in another part of the compound? It was a lousy plan, but nothing else came to mind.
Anina sneaked out of the shrubs and wandered around the compound. There were three smaller longhouses, as well as four regular huts. The compound was built near a crevice, but that didn’t inspire any ideas. There were torches around the compound – could she start a fire? But servants and slaves came in and out of the huts, and she'd hate to hurt them.
Suddenly, the door to one of the longhouses opened, and out marched a long line of warriors. They muttered under their breaths and wiped sleep from their eyes. A few grumbled about the harried travel the last few days, the total absence of welcome from Masagan, and now, the interrupted sleep. Anina crouched by the corner of a hut and watched the queue of warriors file into the longhouse where Sano had been taken.
Good Karingal, what was she going to do with these many warriors around? Why were they all even here?
Anina should have done something earlier, back in the woods. She shouldn’t have waited for things to get this far. But even if she had attacked the enforcer and the warrior, what could she have done after? Carried a blacked-out Sano on her back like she did in the storm? Go to the river and wait around for a boat like an idle target?
Anina rubbed dried blood from her face. These thoughts weren't helping.
She crept back to the biggest longhouse after the last warrior had entered it. Noises rose from within. Rooms that were dark before now glowed with firelight. Anina followed the hum of activity until she found herself winding her way to the back of the longhouse, where a separately roofed platform was crammed right next to the crevice.
Anina peered through the platform’s railing. Two torches illuminated the platform, and the light confirmed her fears. The man with the enforcer was one of King Bunawi’s warriors. The enforcer himself stood beside him, arms crossed with a smug smile.
To Anina’s shock, she saw Aklin and Danihon, and even Lord Matiban, standing on the platform as well. What in the world were they doing in Masagan? When did they even arrive?
The group of warriors earlier had been complaining about a stressful trip. Anina knew that King Bunawi had a way of quickly deploying and summoning his servants across the kingdom, over distances that would take an average person twice as long to travel. The fact that he had done so for tonight did not bode well for Sano.
The platform door opened, and the warriors arranged themselves in random clusters. Trailing after them was a woman clothed in a shimmering golden tunic. Her straight, silky hair shone against the flickering torches, and her dark eyes possessed a mischievous glint. The sword on her hips, grooved with anto scripts, was a mesmerizing milky gold. A memory caressed the back of Anina’s mind, but it vanished as those on the platform bowed and said, “Good evening, princess.”
Anina swayed. Her hands and feet had lost all semblance of warmth. Princess Angtara was here, but nobody from the settlement or the market had said a thing. It was likely that King Bunawi was here too, and the general public just wasn’t aware. How could Anina have miscalculated so gravely? To think that she had counted on gossip and rumours to warn her of the king’s arrival. Of course the king could circumvent hearsay!
Not only had Anina’s estimate been off, but she had also orchestrated a petty scheme that put Sano into the hands of exactly the people they were running from. Anina looked at the entrance of the longhouse. Perhaps if everyone was back here, she could sneak in and get Sano.
Just as she was about to turn, the door opened once again, and like a nightmare coming to life, King Bunawi stepped out.
The king was just as stately as Anina remembered. Beside him, like a trapped mouse, was Sano. He looked pale, and was very much in the literal grip of the king.
Dear Karingal and Likubay and all ancestors. Anina needed to leave. This was the king! No interference on her part could result in anything less than a blade through her throat. She had not spent all those years avoiding the king only for her to end up here.
But she couldn’t just leave Sano. Her temper and paranoia had gotten him into this danger, and if he died tonight, that was more innocent blood on her hands. Anina couldn’t let that happen, not again.
King Bunawi’s voice sliced through the night. “I know how exhausted you all must be, answering my summons to Masagan so quickly, so we should get this over with quickly as well.” His tone was rich and smooth. How easily one could think him benevolent. “This boy is Sano. I believe some of you met him before.”
The market enforcer nodded. So did Anina’s brothers. Lord Matiban remained motionless.
The king turned to them. “Care to explain where you met him?”
“Yes, my king,” Aklin replied without hesitation. “Lord Matiban, Danihon and I found him in a village in Katam near the foothills. He was travelling with my sister, and they said they were headed to Gila to see one of his relatives.”
“And do you remember a woman named Silim in that village?”
“Yes, my king. She was the village shaman and healer.”
The king pulled Sano closer to him. “Now, my boy, help me here. I will ask you a series of questions, and I want you to answer very carefully. If I have my story straight, you confessed to one of those three men that you were the mage who stopped the landslide in the forest using illegal scripts. Unfortunately, that man failed to report to me. Does that sound correct to you?”
Danihon was already shaking his head. Aklin was wide-eyed with confusion. Lord Matiban was stone-faced. Each of those expressions could be interpreted as a plea of innocence. But Anina knew which man was guilty.
The king was trying to reveal Lord Matiban's insubordination using Sano as proof. Everyone else was a witness. This trial might not be Sano's at all, but Lord Matiban's.
A cold, vicious fear took hold of Anina's body and blanked her mind. She clasped a hand over her mouth, afraid she'll make a noise. She had no idea what she had to do.
“I...” Sano's voice wavered. He was trembling as much as she was. “I'm not that mage. I would have never made that confession.”
Oh, Sano. He understood what King Bunawi was asking him to do, and he was still choosing to save someone who had helped him.
The king laughed. “You're adorable. Don't worry – I take no offence at your lie. It's what I would expect from a Kataman criminal. No, what really upsets me is that someone who swore he would serve me with all his being would undermine me like this.
“Perhaps you'll change your answer if I tell you how I found out the truth?” King Bunawi glanced at a warrior who stood apart from the rest, a man whose face was all sharp angles. “Pakos and his crew happened to stop by that little village as well, a few days after you were gone. What kind of tidings do you think he brought back to me? Silim, the village shaman, reportedly witnessed one of them–” and here the king pointed to Aklin, Danihon, and Lord Matiban – “questioning you, at which point you admitted that you were the mage I seek.
“But poor Silim trusted that my warriors knew what they were doing, and when they let you go, she assumed they had other plans. Such blind loyalty! I suppose I can't fault Silim for that. It's that same loyalty that made her report what she saw to a second batch of warriors. After that, it really wasn't that hard to track you and your little sweetheart to Masagan. It was just a matter of sifting through hundreds of people to find you. And when you wrote those Gilan scripts, you might as well have just come to my doorstep.”
Anina clenched her eyes. She had already suspected it was her scripts that had led King Bunawi to Sano, but hearing the king confirm it still felt like a blow. How had she ever thought that she could outsmart the king?
If Silim had overheard Sano confess, then she knew it was Lord Matiban who had betrayed King Bunawi. He would know this too, but somehow he hadn't executed Lord Matiban yet. This was his show, and he was making sure everyone knew he ran it. He was just toying with them.
“If it were up to me,” King Bunawi continued in a sweet, wondering tone. “I would think the culprit were Danihon.”
No. Heart in her throat, Anina looked through the railings again. Danihon shook his head. Aklin positioned himself before his brother. The warriors other than Pakos looked like they were caught in a dream, unsure what to make of things.
“My king, please, I can attest it was not Danihon!” Aklin said. “He was with me the whole time, and nothing of the sort happened.”
But King Bunawi shrugged off the excuse, and pressed, “I've always felt there was a traitor close to me. Who steals from my treasures? Who sabotages my sacrifices? Who sold out my plans to the Gamhanans?” At this last word, he sent a pointed glare at Danihon.
King Bunawi pulled Sano roughly by his hair. “Come now, confess that it's him! A Gamhanan that I should never have allowed inside my ranks! It only makes sense, doesn't it?”
Sano remained silent, face contorted with pain either from his scalp or the wretched choice before him: spare an innocent man, or spare the man who'd helped him. Anina wanted to answer in his place. Her relationship with her brothers might be fraught, but she did care for them.
The princess stood from her seat and drew her sword. Aklin held up both hands. “Please, princess,” he said. “I'm telling the truth.”
“Step away, Aklin,” Princess Angtara ordered. Her voice curled with a chuckle at the end. Anina felt ill. Did the princess find this amusing? “Or I will cut you down too.”
“It's not him!” Sano finally blurted. His head hung in King Bunawi's grasp. The king pulled at his hair again, and Sano hissed. “It's... It's Lord Matiban.”
A heavy pause blanketed the platform. The edges of King Bunawi's lips lifted in a smirk.
“Matiban,” the king repeated as if the name were foreign to him. “That makes less sense to me, but here we are. Good old Matiban, what do you have to say for yourself?”
The man averted his eyes from the king's, and said nothing. The only thing that betrayed his anxieties were his shallow breathing and the sweat trickling from beneath his turban.
“No defence at all? You won't even deny the accusations?” King Bunawi prodded. “The thefts, the spilled battle plans – and who knows how many others?”
But Lord Matiban did not talk. The other warriors had stepped away from him now, and he was left in an empty, ostracizing circle at the back of the platform.
Why wasn't he defending himself? What game was he playing with the king?
“All right, have it your way.” King Bunawi turned to Danihon. “Draw your sword and kill Matiban. If you are truly loyal to me, then prove it.”
Danihon blanched. Despite the tattoos on his body, marks which were meant to make him look invincible, he had the stance of a mouse facing a snake.
“What's the matter?” King Bunawi barked. “That man is a traitor, and you hesitate to give him the punishment he deserves? Kill him!”
Lord Matiban straightened his posture and looked Danihon in the eyes. He didn't even draw his own sword to defend himself.
King Bunawi pulled out a dagger from his belt and held it against Sano's throat. “Should I kill your sister's little darling to give you a bit of motivation?”
Danihon gulped, turning to look at Sano, then at the king. “Oh, I don't mind,” he said. “I never liked the brat.”
Anina was at her wits' end. How could Danihon joke around at a time like this?
“I know where your stupid orphanage is,” the king warned.
Danihon squeezed his eyes shut, and pulled out his sword. He was so pale that the ink on his skin stood out like ash stains on white sails. Anina's heart ached for him. How must Danihon feel learning that his comrade was a traitor? And that he must now kill him?
Danihon surged forward, the tip of his sword pointing straight at Lord Matiban's chest. But before it could hit its mark, a spear flew across the platform and stabbed Lord Matiban's shoulder.
The impact threw Lord Matiban backwards, and he stumbled against the railing, the top cracking beneath his weight. He floundered over the rails and dropped head first over the cliff.
Anina looked to Aklin, his arm still outstretched from throwing his spear. Typical Aklin. Saving Danihon from having to make the hard decisions.
Everyone waited motionless, holding their breaths for the sound of the body hitting the rocks below.
And they waited.
Was it a bottomless pit, or had they all missed Lord Matiban's landing?
Pakos leaned over and squinted into the crevice.
All of a sudden, part of the platform's roof shattered in a shower of wood and thatch. A hole gaped open, and something dropped with a strength that crushed the bamboo floor.
Anina collapsed to the ground, along with the pieces of railing blown out by the force. Most of the floor was destroyed, the slats splintered and scattered on the ground. Straw from the roof rained down on those crouching or lying on the broken platform.
Without the rail to block her view, Anina stared in mind-numbing astonishment at the thing that had fallen through the roof.
It was a creature that Anina had imagined a hundred different ways, none of which prepared her for the horror of seeing the real thing. Its hair was long and untamed, frizzy like the fibre on a mango seed. The skin covering half of the creature's body was brittle and cracked, thick and dark brown like the bark of a tree. One of its eyes was a dull ball of wood that raised the hairs on Anina's neck. It stooped, not with a hump like the stories said, but with the weight of Lord Matiban's limp body slung over its shoulders.
It was the Ghoul of Katam.