“Aw, come on! You can't hide forever!” Even from the bottom of the hole, Anina heard the princess's voice ringing among the trees. “Tell you what. I'll put my sword away, and we can have a nice little chat.”
Anina remained on the pile of pillows with Sano, unsure of what to do. She was wondering if they should go back up and take their chances with the princess, when the Ghoul lifted a hand and brought its fingers together in a fist. The hole from which Anina and Sano had dropped closed itself, the earth merging until the passageway was fully blocked.
“Is that better?” the Ghoul asked.
Anina didn't know what shocked her more. That the Ghoul was talking to her, or that it sounded completely human?
The Ghoul, Anina realized, wasn't an 'it.' Judging by the voice, the Ghoul was a 'she.'
And she stood in front of Sano and Anina in all her hideous glory. Anina had assumed the Ghoul wouldn't be as horrifying to see after the first time, but she was still repulsed. And while Anina was no longer afraid that this creature would maul her alive, the sight of her still made her skin crawl.
Staring at her now, Anina could see that the stories had taken liberties with her features. First, the Ghoul wasn't entirely covered in bark. Just her right side. And it wasn't even bark, just some strange distortion to the skin. She was still clearly melded from a human form, although the fingers of her right hand did seem like crooked twigs. Her right eye was also wooden – Anina hadn't hallucinated that part during the trial. The Ghoul wasn't that tall, either. Her bushy hair just bumped up a height that might otherwise fall shorter than Anina herself. She also wore a woman's tunic and two overlapping skirts, in the same fashion as the other women in the kingdom.
The moment stretched. Anina couldn't take her eyes off of the Ghoul, couldn't process what she was seeing. Then she remembered herself, and despite the new cut on her leg, she scrambled up from the ground and held her staffs in front of her. Sano, more slowly, also stood up. They cowered against the wall of the hovel.
The Ghoul gave a startled jerk, which made them both jump back, but she just fetched a cloak from a chair. She wrapped the dark fabric around herself, and Anina recognized it as the one she'd worn when she'd appeared in Masagan. It had concealed much of her body then, igniting everyone's imaginations.
“This is better, right?” The Ghoul pulled up a hood over her puffy hair, and pushed some locks to cover the right side of her face. Dressed like that, she might have passed as an ordinary human being.
Still, Sano and Anina didn't move.
The Ghoul held up both her hands in a pacifying gesture, as if they were the ones who would somehow go wild. “It's all right,” she said again. Karingal, her voice was so normal. She sounded mature, but her tone was higher than Anina's own soft, raspy one. “Are you hungry? I have food!”
She flicked a hand up, and a section of the ground next to her sprouted into a short stump that could be a passable table. Anina didn't see any scripts that commanded the ground. The Ghoul scurried to some shelves nearby, pulling out banana leaves and jars and other containers. She settled them all on the stump.
“There you go. I would have more if we were in my real home, but this should do,” the Ghoul explained. She placed a hand – her normal-looking hand – by her mouth as if sharing a secret with them. “I stole these from the king!”
The Ghoul gave them a tentative smile, but when they remained huddled by the wall, her shoulders slumped. “Fine. I at least owe you some thanks for not screaming.” She pointed her lips to a cot at the edge of the room. Anina had been so caught up watching the Ghoul, that she had not noticed there was another person in the hovel.
Covered in fresh, soft blankets on the cot, his shoulder bound neatly, was Matiban. He was sound asleep.
From the table beside the cot, the Ghoul took some folded linen, rolls of clean bandages, and a jug of water, then placed them all on the earthen stump. “If you're not hungry, at least take a moment to tend to yourselves. Don't worry about Angtara, she will not find us here.” The Ghoul hesitated, then added. “My name is Yiling.” She turned and sat at the edge of the cot.
The Ghoul had a name? Anina's mind whirled, but the stinging cut on her leg and the pang in her stomach overruled logic, the way sore bodies usually did. So with wary steps, she padded towards the table. Sano stuck close to her.
Anina chose a spot where she could keep the Ghoul – Yiling – in her periphery. She soaked one of the clean linens in the bucket and washed her fresh cut. It wasn't that deep, but she really didn't want to lose any more blood. She stole glances at Yiling once in a while, but the Ghoul sat quietly, clasping one of Matiban's hands, and paid them no heed.
When Anina finished dressing her cut, she looked at the food laid out before her. It was clear that Yiling had been telling the truth. The containers held freshly steamed rice, savoury stews of pork and beef, spiced crispy anchovies and squid, and no less than three garnishes. There was a strange absence of mangoes, considering the lair was infused with the scent of the fruit. Regardless, the meal was fit for a king.
Anina and Sano piled their banana leaves high with handfuls of rice and meat, and dug in. Luxurious flavours filled Anina's mouth, so delectable she thought she might cry. She usually wasn't so carefree about accepting food, especially since she didn't know Yiling's intentions towards them, but this wasn't anywhere near a usual sort of situation.
With his mouth half-full, Sano cleared his throat and spoke to Yiling. “Um, excuse me, but who are you?”
Yiling regarded them once again, and Anina was grateful that part of her hair still covered her unnatural eye. She wondered if Yiling was blind there. “The stories were close about who I am,” Yiling answered. “The last paramount chief of Katam was my father. I was born mere days before King Bunawi attacked and conquered the chiefdom.”
Anina almost spat out the food in her mouth. None of the reports about the paramount chief's cowardly retreat had mentioned a child!
But no, of course they wouldn't. Because that would change everything. Some people might actually start thinking that the paramount chief wasn't entirely a coward, after all. He might have just been a man forced to choose between his chiefdom and his family. And while it didn't excuse his cowardice, it did make it less shameful.
Sano gulped down his food. “But um, how did you... well, how are you like, you know...” He pointed at the right side of his face.
Yiling grinned. “Oh, don't hold your breath – it's anticlimactic. When my mother was pregnant with me, she ate a lot of mangoes from her favourite tree, so I was born like this.”
“That's all?” Anina and Sano exclaimed. It was widely known that a mother's proclivities during pregnancy might affect certain traits of her offspring. However, most of the time these were non-tangible traits, like being quick-minded or well-mannered, or having the ability to see well in the dark. To have physical manifestations was rare.
“Yes, that's all,” Yiling shrugged. “I know, it's a bit disappointing, isn't it?”
“You mean this had nothing to do at all with the Malicious Wind?” Anina asked. It would have made more sense to her had the Ghoul been caught by the Malicious Wind while doing something half-bad.
Yiling's eye widened. “Me? Oh no, I was born long before the Wind started going around. I told you, it's very anticlimactic. And it's not like I'm really wooden, you know. Not like the victims of the Malicious Wind. I can still move my right side, can't I?”
Anina placed her pounding head in her hands. Every time she felt like she was finally catching her breath, something else knocked the wind out of her. The only thing that made sense about that explanation was the scent of mangoes she kept detecting. This hovel was steeped in it, and Anina remembered the strong smell of it when Yiling had saved Matiban from his fall.
“It's all right,” Yiling stated. “I know the idea of me isn't easily digestible. Look, you two seem like you need some rest. I promise no harm will come to you while you're here. There are spare blankets and pillows in the corner there, if you want to get some sleep.”
Anina sighed. Well, she'd already eaten the food. Sleeping couldn't bring any more danger that she hadn't already risked by eating. Besides, she felt like a tattered sail in a shipwreck, and the idea of rest made her lids as heavy as her limbs.
Sano also looked longingly at the corner Yiling indicated. The pile of soft blankets seemed to beckon to them. Compared to the boat in which Anina and Sano had slept the previous night, the cozy corner looked extravagant.
And so, Anina and Sano ate their fill, and when they were finished, they staggered to the warm blankets. Even before she had settled comfortably on the ground, Anina succumbed to a deep, dark slumber.
Anina didn't know how long she slept, but by the time she opened her eyes again, she felt much more refreshed. She knew this because her body had enough energy to fire up her nerves again. Looking at the packed earth overhead and remembering where she was, anxiety pooled in Anina's stomach. She found Sano snoozing beside her, looking like even the end of the world might not wake him.
The stump where she and Sano had eaten their meal was gone. Yiling stood by the table beside Matiban's cot, grinding something in a mortar. Matiban's bandages were undone. Yiling began applying whatever concoction she'd brewed on his wound.
Anina got up and stepped over Sano's prone form, but she didn't stray too close to Yiling. “Will Matiban be all right?” she asked. Whatever trouble Matiban had gotten her and Sano into, he had still spared them during their first meeting. She didn't think he deserved to die.
Yiling turned around. “I believe so,” she answered. She scooped up more of the green-brown salve and spread it around the stitches. She was no longer wearing her cloak, and Anina had to force herself not to cringe at the woman's unnatural features. “He's definitely suffered worse than this before.”
Indeed, Matiban's chest and upper arms were riddled with battle scars.
“How long have I been asleep?” Anina asked. It was difficult to tell the passage of time when they were in completely closed quarters.
“Just a little over a day. I went above ground at dawn to collect more herbs. Angtara is gone, and none of the king's other warriors are in sight. I think they moved on after they couldn't find you.”
Good. Princess Angtara's amused cackles were like the piercing caws of birds of prey. Sometimes Anina thought she could still hear the princess's laugh echoing in the air around her.
Anina understood ruthlessness. She understood mercilessness and even apathy. But she couldn't wrap her head around how someone could enjoy other people's terror.
“What did we ever do to her to make her so haughty?” Anina murmured. “I know that her father ordered her to capture us, but she does she have to act so... entertained.”
Yiling gave Anina a sidelong glance. “You know that the princess grew up in Katam, right?”
“Yes, her father sent her to live there when she was much younger, so she could become his most trusted counsellor when it comes to Kataman affairs. What does that have to do with me and Sano?”
“Well, imagine you're groomed to be an expert on a certain region, and despite all your studying and your observations, a rebellion takes place in your host chiefdom.” Yiling ended with a mock grimace. “Angtara was humiliated.”
Anina crossed her arms. Was the princess now trying to salve her wounded pride by being vicious? “But I've never heard that her father blamed her for not catching the rebellion early. She and the king seem to get on well.”
“Oh, they do. They're very close. It's their relatives who teased Angtara about it, according to Matiban.” Yiling clicked her tongue. “The royals don't seem to take embarrassment in stride.”
Sano stirred in the corner, untangling himself from the blankets. He rubbed his eyes, and blinked at Anina and Yiling. “Hey, you're already having a discussion without me?”
“We're just getting started,” Anina stated. And it was true. Now that Sano was awake too, it was time to get some answers.