The Nature of a Spy
In the stillness of the hut, Lord Matiban's laboured breathing penetrated the wall to the room where Anina lay. She had wanted to get some rest while Sano and Lady Yiling were out in the forest, collecting herbs. Instead, her rebellious mind juggled images of tidal waves and rising hills and laughing royals. It would have probably gone on in its useless musings had it not been for Lord Matiban, who suddenly seemed to be wheezing to death. She had assumed he was doing better, but maybe he'd strained himself during their journey.
Anina rose from her pallet with a sigh. She wouldn't be able to sneak in the nap she wanted if he kept at it, and besides, she didn't want Lady Yiling to come back and find her spy neglected. So Anina walked out of her room and peered through Lord Matiban's doorway. He lay prone on a narrow bamboo cot. His chest rose and fell rapidly, and his skin was coated in sweat, glimmering against the afternoon light.
Anina hesitated, awkwardness seeping into her bones. Even though Lord Matiban was a regular person, it was as uncomfortable to be around him as it was with Lady Yiling.
Finally, Anina pushed away her hesitance and approached his cot. Lord Matiban's head turned in her direction.
“What is it?” he whispered, his voice rough like someone had replaced the back of his throat with sandpaper.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Water would be nice,” Lord Matiban replied. “Some painkiller too.”
Anina returned with a cup of water and a bottle of curumin paste. Lord Matiban took both from her gratefully. After downing a small amount of the paste with water, he settled back against the sheets. The hair framing his face was matted to his sweaty skin.
Anina was about to return to her room, when she was struck by a thought so heavy that it dispersed all lingering uneasiness. “What will happen to my brothers?” she demanded, horrified she had not thought of them sooner.
Lord Matiban took a moment to speak. “The king will watch them closely, but they should be safe enough for now. Bunawi knows they are innocent, considering how my trial turned out.”
The way he answered, so straightforward and devoid of emotion, sparked Anina's hot irritation. It didn't help that she was so tired, the exhaustion like a tangible weight that made her head throb. Lord Matiban was the main reason why King Bunawi had persisted in finding Sano in Masagan. They might have evaded King Bunawi if it weren't for his desperation to sniff out the traitor in his army.
“How could you be so calm about it?” Anina snapped. “When King Bunawi accused Danihon of being the traitor, you didn't even say anything. Princess Angtara almost harmed him.”
Lord Matiban stared back at her with his red-rimmed eyes, and Anina was reminded of his stony silence during the trial. King Bunawi had badgered him with question after question, and yet not a single word emerged from him.
“Why did you even save Sano and me? Why did you sell King Bunawi's plans to the Gamhanans when you knew many of your own comrades would perish in a losing battle? I don't understand you at all.”
“I don't have a simple answer for you, Anina,” Lord Matiban finally replied. Even Lady Yiling's unnatural face betrayed more feelings than his. “I saved Sano because he's a silly little kid. If I hadn't verified his identity in that small village, your brothers would have had to. Think about how that would have played out for them. And for you.
“It's outrageous how low the king has stooped, to execute a person who writes in a language he doesn't understand. Sano saved lives in that landslide. The king could go ahead and educate himself for a change.” Lord Matiban shook his head. “But you're right. I did many things to gain Bunawi's trust. I did them just so I could betray him many times over. I don't pretend to sleep well at night. You don't have to understand me, and I'm not asking you to.”
The heat in Anina dissipated then, banished by the same tiredness that brought it on. She didn't have the energy to sustain her resentment. It wasn't even Lord Matiban she was angry with. It was her own confusion, her own circumstances. “All this time, you've just been doing what Lady Yiling tells you?” she asked.
“Yes, but she has never asked me to do anything I didn't believe in. You would know what that's like, wouldn't you? You're defying Bunawi too. You're here for a reason.”
Funny how Lord Matiban said that, as if Anina had actually planned all of this. “I'm not here on purpose. I just wanted to meet Sano's mother. Things got out of control, and I'm here only because it's the option that might keep me alive the longest. Not because I have deliberate intentions against the king.”
“Sano and his mother dabble in illegal magic, don't they? To actively seek them out is already going against the king's wishes.”
“My reason for seeking Sano's mother is personal,” Anina added defensively. “If I had gotten what I was looking for straight away, King Bunawi would have nothing to worry about.” It was a pathetic excuse. Just because nobody knew she was breaking the law, it didn't make her actions less illegal.
“And what are you looking for?” Lord Matiban asked.
Anina was about to shut him down, but she remembered what Lady Yiling had said about the king and the princess. Maybe she could pry more information from one of the people who'd been closest to them.
“It might sound strange, but I want to know how to get more magic.”
Lord Matiban's brows rose. “You want to get stronger?”
“That's not what I said. Getting stronger isn't my goal. Knowing how to strengthen my magic is.”
“Interesting... what do you want this knowledge for? You're going to sell that information and get rich?”
“What if I do?”
Lord Matiban's lips curled in a wry smile. “Not a bad plan, I suppose. Was that why you were asking earlier about Bunawi and Angtara gaining magic?”
“Well, Lady Yiling just assumed I was talking about them.”
“In any case, she's right,” Lord Matiban said in a whisper, as if even all the way out here, someone else could hear him betray their secrets. Anina leaned in. “They have gained magic. At least that's what it seems to me. When you've been in battle with certain people, when you live with them and plan with them, you get a feel for what they can really do. For many years, I thought I had a good idea of Bunawi's and Angtara's capabilities. Then suddenly something was different about them. Everyone thought they'd been holding back, saving a part of their abilities for some real surprise, but I got the impression they'd discovered something.”
“Discovered what?” Anina pressed, her heart thumping.
“I don't know. You really think if Bunawi knew something we didn't, he'd tell anyone about it? Look, I don't want to mislead you. All I know is that a few years ago, Bunawi and Angtara changed. They became more extravagant with their magic and they took bolder risks. The tidal wave in Gamhana was proof of those.”
“A few years ago?” Anina was almost breathless now.
“Around four or so. Close to five, maybe? It's hard to tell exactly when.”
Close to five years. That almost coincided with when Anina had blown up her village. What had happened then? What strangeness was at work, and how had it managed to affect the king and the princess too? Anina felt a terrible impatience, like a painful itch she couldn't scratch. She seemed so close, but somehow she couldn't put the pieces together.
“You know something, don't you?” Lord Matiban observed.
Anina stared at him. Despite the fact that she'd intended to extract information from Lord Matiban, it was she who'd ended up revealing more about herself than she had meant to. She could see now how wisely Lord Matiban used his words; how even now, injured and fevered as he was, he still acted like the spy Lady Yiling needed him to be.
“Can you help Katam?” was his next question.
That broke the seriousness of the conversation. “Why is it always Katam with all of you? I'm doing this for myself!” Anina said.
“That's a strange thing to say for a Kataman. You think you're not affected by what's happening in our chiefdom? You don't think things would be different for you if Katam were a more hospitable place to live in?”
Of course things would be different. If King Bunawi hadn't burdened Anina's village with twice the amount of tributes, they wouldn't have been crippled by debt. They wouldn't have been so destitute they resorted to grave-digging. They wouldn't have been so overjoyed to find precious minerals beneath their homes that their excitement attracted violent raiders. Those raiders wouldn't have been so desperate to steal the minerals that they tried to murder every villager. Anina wouldn't have been so terrified she practically did the job for them.
The memory curdled Anina’s mood. She swallowed the lump of grief in her throat. “Katam needs more help than I can give.” She glowered at Lord Matiban, but his expression was indiscernible once again. “Besides, it’s a sorry time to be picking fights. There’s the Malicious Wind to worry about too. You think the king makes it hard to be a Kataman? Well, what are you doing about this arbitrary entity that gets to decide if you deserve to be human at all? You think you can defeat it like the king?”
Lord Matiban gave Anina a one-shouldered shrug. “No, but with or without the Malicious Wind, our choices boil down to either roll over and surely die, or fight and most likely die. Can you blame us for preferring the latter?”
It wasn’t like Anina had forgotten their ridiculous choices. It was only yesterday morning that she and Sano had also weighed such similar options.
Just then, conversational voices wafted from outside, coming closer to the hut. Sano and Lady Yiling must be returning. Anina came back to herself, all too aware that she was having a spat with the Ghoul’s precious spy. She didn’t bother to respond to Lord Matiban. Instead, she stormed out of his room and into the main room.
Lady Yiling opened the door, with a woven winnower piled with leafy plants balanced on her hip. Sano strode inside after the Ghoul and gave Anina a smile. “Everything all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Anina answered, but it was a lie. A cloud of unease hovered in her chest and disturbing thoughts roved like a tempest in her mind. What did it mean that King Bunawi and Princess Angtara had become more powerful around the same time Anina did too? Why could they seemingly continue to use their increased magic, whereas she was left with what she naturally had?
More than ever, Anina reeled with confusion and helplessness.