Anina pointed at Matiban's prone form. “So have you two been conspiring against the king all this time?” she asked.
Yiling sighed. It was such a human reaction. The Ghoul had always been just an 'it' in Anina's head, and she found it jarring to see her act in ways so different from the stories.
“It's hard to explain,” Yiling said, her voice light and contemplative.
“Maybe start from the beginning.” It would certainly help Anina in any case.
Yiling gave a helpless shrug as if she was unsure where that was either. “Well, I grew up with Matiban and my father in the southern forest of Katam. For a long time, we just kept to ourselves. My father forbade us from venturing out of the forest, because he thought that I would be killed if anyone saw me, and that Matiban was too young to keep his mouth shut.
“But I think there was more to his strictness than that. I think my father was too ashamed to go out of hiding. He didn't want to see the consequences of his failure. And I can't say I'm not grateful that he saved my life, but when I look at what Katam has become, sometimes I wish he'd done differently too.”
Yiling finished coating Matiban's wound with the greenish ointment. She took some clean bandages and covered the wound with them. “Bunawi killed all the chiefs who were loyal to my father, then demanded more tributes from the rest than my father ever did. Bunawi favoured those who ingratiated themselves, those who readily adapted Dayungan language and customs, those who severed their alliances with other Katamans and formed new ones with leaders from the other chiefdoms instead. The network of chiefs that had held Katam together for centuries disintegrated, and without it, many of our economic foundations crumbled.”
Sano had shuffled over to stand beside Anina. He still had traces of sleep on his face, but he leaned forward with interest as Yiling continued.
“Things turned worse after the Kataman rebellion. More than half of Katam's mages were killed then, as were our most skilled warriors. The vast majority of the chiefs from each community, even those Bunawi once favoured, were replaced by someone else he had appointed. And then there were the double taxes on top of the already heavy tributes Katamans were paying. The poor became poorer, and the poorer became slaves, and the slaves became slaves of slaves. Those who could afford it moved out of the chiefdom. These were the people of means – the rich merchants, the artisans, the lower nobility. It was so unbearable in Katam they couldn't stay. I don't even blame them. Their potential would be wasted in Katam.
“Another thing changed after the rebellion.” Yiling glanced at Matiban. “My father died. While it was still dangerous for me to be seen, there was nobody to stop Matiban from going out anymore.
“Look, I just wanted to help.” Yiling's shoulders hunched. “A part of me felt like I needed to make up for Father's mistakes. The other part is jealous, of course. The entire kingdom is flourishing except for Katam. Imagine if someone broke into your home and took all of your tools so they could make themselves bigger and better houses, while yours rotted away. That’s what it feels like to me.
“Matiban became my eyes out there in the world. By some ironic twist of fate, he landed a position in Bunawi's army. We laugh about it sometimes. The king boasts that no Kataman could ever pass the tests to enter his army, yet Matiban was there all along.
“We started to help Katam in small ways. Matiban told me which villages were in need of food, and I discreetly provided what I could gather by myself. Then we began to do bolder things. Whenever Bunawi became cranky towards Katamans, we'd sow stories of scandals elsewhere to occupy his attention. For a while, this was all we could juggle.”
“Wait,” Sano interrupted. “My mother said there were already stories of 'The Ghoul' when she was young. If you didn't leave the forest until you were a young woman, how did the legend of 'The Ghoul' come about so early?”
“I don't doubt I was seen by a couple of people every now and then,” Yiling replied. “The southern Kataman forest may be thick and treacherous, but people do venture inside. And as soon as Bunawi heard about these rumours, he fanned it into the story we know today, because it serves him. In a way, that legend served me too. It was never quite clear whether I was real or not, which gave me some freedom.
“Three years ago, a drought hit. Even I couldn't find much food in the forest. That was when Bunawi also planned to attack an island in Gamhana.”
Sano gasped. “So you're the one who spilled the battle plans!”
“Matiban told me about them,” Yiling confirmed. “And I struck up a deal with a Gamhanan contact, one of the very few people who now knows of my existence. In exchange for food and continued trade with them, I released Bunawi's idea of using a tidal wave.”
“Continued trade, you say?” Anina cut in. Images of stolen gongs and sacks of rice under upturned boats flashed in her mind. “Have you been stealing precious items from the nobility and selling them to your contact so you can give out those luck baskets?”
Yiling gave Anina a soft smile. “Luck baskets? Is that what people call them? Yes, that's what I've been doing. To be honest, I would have been content doing just that. The legend protected me so long as I kept to the shadows. I knew what would happen if people discovered that the Ghoul they fear is actually real.”
“But the other night...” Sano began, hinting at Yiling's very public appearance.
Yiling frowned, her face growing uglier. “It was uncalled for. I didn't have to save Matiban. In fact, we knew that one day he might be discovered, and I wasn't supposed to intervene. Even if I did, I didn't have to make a scene. But I was furious with Bunawi, and now all of Katam might pay for my lapse in judgment.”
Up until that point, Anina was actually starting to feel a little relieved. Most of the mysteries from the last few days were clearing up. Did she still feel like the world had suddenly flipped upside-down? Sure, but at least she was learning why. And the more Yiling talked, the less uncomfortable Anina was with her.
However, Yiling was right. Their circumstance was more fraught now than ever. There was no time for relief. While all Yiling wanted was to feed hungry Katamans, King Bunawi would see her actions as treachery. He'd believe that they were all involved in some chiefdom-wide conspiracy.
The sound of Matiban's laboured breathing filled the hovel. It was Sano who found the words that Anina was afraid to voice. “What will you do now?” he asked.
Yiling groaned and slumped her head on Matiban's cot. When she lifted her head and spoke, her voice was decisive. “Fight back, I suppose. It's not like I can ignore the problems I created. No, that was what my father was good at. But I have to be different. I know for certain that Bunawi will retaliate, not only against me, but against all of Katam as well. And I don't want to be the reason we suffer even more.”
“You're going to fight the king?” Anina asked, incredulous.
“Oh, fighting the king is the easy part,” Yiling said, surprising Anina. “Making sure we don't destroy Katam in the process is the hard part.”
Yiling stood up and grabbed a basket from a corner of the hovel. “I will bring Matiban back to our main lair in Katam. I'll come up with a plan there. You can stay in this room if you want, and I'll leave an opening for you to exit through. I don't think I'll come back here again. Or you can come with me, and I can drop you off somewhere, but it would have to be along the way to my lair. I can't make any detours.”
Anina's mind tumbled over the sudden need to make a decision. She spun and looked at Sano, who stared at her with wide, blank eyes.
“Need to make a decision in private?” Yiling said with a knowing smile on her lips. With a flick of her hand, a hole opened up on the ceiling above the pile of cushions they landed on yesterday. Daylight streamed in. Against the wall beneath the hole, there were rungs of tree roots that could be used as a ladder.
Sano and Anina glanced at each other briefly before taking the offered privacy. They clambered up through the hole, and were once again surrounded by the copse of trees. They chose a spot where their voices wouldn't carry down the hole.
For the first time since she met Sano, Anina was the one who asked, “What are we going to do?”
Sano cringed. “I was going to ask you the same thing. I am leaning towards going with her though,” he said in a small voice. He looked at Anina hesitantly, as if he was afraid she would disagree. She didn't know if she would. “Things have changed. The princess and her warriors might not be far away. We're both exhausted and injured, and without Yiling's help yesterday, we would have been caught. And Yiling isn't so bad, is she? Between her and the king, at least she wouldn't kill us.”
“I know you're right, but...” Anina bit her lips. How was it that it came down to these two choices? If she could even call them choices. They seemed like they both might come to a slow, painful end. “Yiling may not murder us outright, but if we go with her, that might get us killed eventually.”
“Is that worse than being captured now?”
Sano had a point. Anina had injured King Bunawi, which meant she'd be executed if she were caught. Unlike Sano, who was at least valuable for his magical prowess and unique knowledge, Anina had nothing of value to prolong her life.
Still, Anina strained against yet another hindrance in their journey. Her goal seemed to drift further and further away from her reach. “What about your mother?” she asked. “How do we regroup with her? You've been apart from her for almost a month now. Aren't you worried?”
“Sure I am!” Sano answered. “But I believe my mother is in a much safer situation than we are. The king is on our heels. It might not even be wise to reunite with my mother now, if it means leading Bunawi to her.”
Frustration mounted within Anina, her chest tightening with it. Wasn't there anything she could do to just meet the Hermit Mage even for a short while? After that, she could slip away, leave all of this behind, and start somewhere new. Once Anina learned how she had destroyed her village, she wouldn't need to involve herself further with these dangerous plots.
Neither of them spoke for some time. Sano looked out to the river, a sliver of it visible among the gaps between the tree trunks.
“I was thinking,” Sano said finally. “Of helping Yiling.”
Anina almost choked. “Have you lost your mind? Confront the king? Do you know how lucky we've been to get away from him and his warriors three times now?”
“Yes, and do you know what would be even better? Actually being able to live without having to run away and hide,” Sano returned. There was a tension in him that Anina had never seen before. “Look, I know you have your own goals, but what about my mother and me? Are we just going to remain fugitives our entire lives? There is no future for us if we don't resist the king.”
“I don't know, Sano.” Anina's hands and feet had gone cold with dread. “I was just thinking of travelling with Yiling for a couple of days. Have some time to recuperate, gather our wits and form our own plan. I didn't mean to...”
“Fight for Katam?”
Anina tried not to roll her eyes. Trust Sano to make it sound so noble instead of reckless. “Is this really about Katam for you? Because to me, it seems you just want to be some kind of hero and you're looking for a villain to fight.”
“Don't you think Bunawi is ruthless though?”
“Sure I do. But it doesn't mean I'm the one who's going to humble him. He's the king! I'm... I'm nobody!”
“But don't you think Katam deserves better?”
“I don't know what to think!” Anina threw her hands up in the air. “I just want to get away from all of this. Hole up somewhere and hide. Like what your mother did! Or what Yiling's father did!”
Sano stared at Anina with something like surprise and hurt. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and when he spoke again his voice was so soft she could barely hear him.
“My mother was one of the leaders of the Kataman rebellion.”
And there was the feeling again: the ground swaying beneath Anina's feet, her stomach plunging, the sky and the earth inverting themselves. She felt like a bug caught in a spider's web, and every time she tried untangling herself, she got trapped even more. Anina buried her face in her hands, one moment away from sobbing in despair. How had she allowed herself to get caught up with all these people? Why had the omen bird led her here?
“I'm so sorry,” Sano moved closer to Anina. “I'm sorry I never told you the truth, but you must understand. This is not something I can casually tell anyone.
“I lost my father before I was even born. I lost all of my relatives. My mother was the only survivor from the final battle. So you see, hiding was her last resort, but she spent years fighting before that. Only when she was completely defeated, with nothing left but me, did she hide.”
Sano frowned at the distance. “I can't explain to you how much it galls me that we're here, choosing between two options that might well both lead to our deaths, while Bunawi and Angtara are out there enjoying every moment that we're scared. Do you think I'm unaware of how helpless I've been all this time? How heavy of a burden I've been to you? If there's one thing I could do to help myself, I would do it. Now that we have a chance to team up with someone really powerful, someone who can actually make a difference, I don't think I should just let that go.”
It hit Anina then that to Sano, this might be what he had coveted more than anything else since he'd left his mountain lair. He'd seen his similarities to the Ghoul of Katam – the patterns of their parents' behaviours, and the trajectory of their lives. Now he clung to the very same ideals and goals the Ghoul possessed. The more Anina argued, the more Sano would want to pursue them – precisely because they were dangerous, high-stakes, and they would thrust him out of the banality of his past life. But Anina was unmoved. Sano was trying to see the forest for the trees, even while he was running headlong into a branch about to impale him.
Somewhere above them, wind rustled the leaves. Beyond was the gurgling of the river. Anina wondered if their boat was still there. But was it wise for her to leave? To travel alone now could be just as suicidal as casting her lot in with Yiling.
Anina almost rubbed her head, but remembered that she had a cut there, so she lowered her hand. She was so torn. “I really don't know, Sano,” she said, pained. “If this conflict was between Dayung and Gila, if the person we'd be helping is the Great Arbiter, I would say yes. But this is the Ghoul we're talking about. The stuff of nightmares. We're the ones who are going to look like villains and barbarians.”
The real problem was that the faction they were up against held all the power, authority, and better reputation. It was hard to convince yourself you were doing the right thing when you were against something you'd been taught to revere your entire life.
But what did Anina want anyway? She had always tried to avoid conflicts, avoid anything that might destabilize her magic. Yet Sano was right about one thing. Yiling was powerful. Sano himself was powerful, and despite Matiban’s injury, he might still have better control of his magic than Anina did of hers. She would be surrounded by people who were masters of magic. If safety was her concern, then wasn't she safest among them for now?
As for learning how to get more magic, Anina's chances hadn't disappeared entirely either. So long as she stuck with Sano, she still had a chance to meet the Hermit Mage eventually.
Anina released a breath she didn't know she was holding. “Look, I'm fine going with Yiling for now, but that's the only thing I can guarantee. I have yet to make up my mind about this cause for Katam.”
Sano nodded, his frown easing. “Fair enough.”