Lady Yiling and Lord Matiban didn't find an idea better than the duel, so the next night, Lady Yiling decided she would set out for the settlement of Angbun.
It had been relatively easy for Sano to convince Lady Yiling to let him accompany her. Powerful mage or not, Lady Yiling still had almost thirty years of monstrous lore to taint her reputation.
“I could just be a moral supporter,” Sano had told her. “You said you were afraid that they're going to panic if they see you. You'll appear a lot less scary if they see a nice, healthy youth with you.”
Lady Yiling had been reluctant to agree, but in the end, she'd relented.
It was Anina who had almost suffered from apoplexy when Sano had told her he was going to Angbun. “Are you mad?” she'd whisper-yelled. In the days since they had first encountered Lady Yiling, Anina had been relatively polite to the older woman, and she'd kept her reservations about Lady Yiling's plans mostly to herself and to Sano.
“No, I am honestly interested in hearing what the chief of Angbun might say about a duel,” Sano had answered. “You don't have to come with us. You can stay here with Lord Matiban.”
Anina's nostrils had flared and her cheeks had puffed. Her face had been so red, Sano had almost grabbed a rag in case a stream of blood spurted from her nose. But Anina had just paced back and forth for a little while, and when she had faced him again, she had kept a lid on her steam. “No, I’ll go with you. How am I going to meet with the Hermit Mage if anything happens to you?”
“Well, I don't know if I should be flattered or insulted,” Sano had replied.
Angbun was the largest settlement in Katam, though it still paled in comparison to the vastness of Masagan, as well as other populous communities peppering Gila and Little Dayung. Even so, Angbun was a reasonable choice for Lady Yiling's first outing, as it cradled hundreds of households and asserted control over several outlying villages that paid it tribute. And being a relatively affluent area in an otherwise decrepit chiefdom, Angbun was at the forefront of Kataman culture and influence. If Angbun's chief allied with Lady Yiling, that might just help convince other settlements that she was worth supporting.
Sano, Anina and Lady Yiling were weaving their way to the nobility's compound, which according to Lady Yiling lay at the heart of Angbun. The moonlight was muted, and the sky bore heavy clouds. Though it was humid, the Ghoul wore her customary cloak. From afar, it would look like there was nothing odd about her. But nobody else roamed the streets of Angbun, and their footsteps barely made any sounds. Was Lady Yiling manipulating the air to prevent the sounds from carrying? What would such a command look like as an anto script? It must be incredibly convenient to not have words limit what magic should do.
Instead of arriving at the entrance, they’d come at the nobility compound from the side, where three medium-built longhouses and their gardens formed zigzagging alleys. The chief’s longhouse was at the centre of the compound, towering over the others.
Sano’s heartbeat quickened. It was a little hard to believe that they were finally here. He'd been simmering in a messy mix of anticipation and excitement since they had left the lair.
Following Lady Yiling, Sano and Anina trekked through the alleys. Unlike the slumbering parts of Angbun they’d passed, the compound bore signs of wakeful activity. In the light of the torches, Sano noticed flitting shadows. Footsteps echoed around them. But to his amazement, Lady Yiling didn’t break her stride. She took them from one hidden nook to another to the beat of warriors and servants passing by, so that none of them ever noticed anything amiss.
Lady Yiling stopped among a row of tamarind trees that leaned towards the central longhouse like parents looking into a child’s cradle. “I have to find where the chief is at this time of the night,” Lady Yiling whispered. She pushed her unruly hair deeper into the hood of her cloak. “Stay here. I’ll come back and fetch you.”
With that, Lady Yiling strolled to the nearest window. Smoothly and silently, she slipped through it and disappeared into the room beyond. Sano braced for a scream, but none came.
With nothing else to do, he and Anina settled by the tamarind trees, trying to blend in among the shadows. A few times, silhouettes ventured close to them, but did not penetrate the trees and shrubs. Sano’s insides roiled with impatience; he could barely crouch still.
After a long stretch of tense waiting, he heard a soft hiss from the window. “Psst!” Lady Yiling was peeking out and waving them over. “The way is clear. Come along.”
One after the other, Sano and Anina hurried across the garden, clambered inside the window, and landed in a narrow hallway. They tailed Lady Yiling through the hall, flattening themselves against the walls whenever the bustle of servants or slaves emerged from adjacent passageways. They tiptoed through the maze of rooms and corridors, sometimes passing through storage spaces that led to different wings of the house. Finally, Lady Yiling came to an abrupt stop before them, and Sano realized they were not in a bedroom at all, but a receiving room.
It was a rectangular section buried deep in the middle of the longhouse with no direct access from outside. The walls were covered in textiles, entire lengths of bright golden silk and rich burgundy hanging from taut braids of rope. The only light in the room came from several glass jars filled with trapped fireflies. Sano would have mused about how beautiful they were, if not for the stern woman frowning down at them. Which was quite a feat, because they were the ones standing, and she the one sitting by a table.
The woman shifted, but before she could do anything else, Lady Yiling spoke. “To honour the blood that once bound us, let this be a sanctuary of words,” she recited. That pacifying phrase had once been used among Kataman chiefs when they wanted to discuss alliances. It protected both chiefs from harm during the visit.
So this woman was the chief of Angbun. She was past her prime, her greying hair pulled back in a severe bun. Her skin was mostly firm, but wrinkles adorned the sides of her eyes and her mouth. She sat straight-backed, clothed in an exquisitely tailored full-length dress with a shawl draped over her shoulders.
The chief of Angbun regarded them with wariness and curiosity as they waited for her answer. After a breathless moment, she snapped her fingers towards the other side of the table. “Here in Angbun, we speak in Dayungan,” she said in a cutting tone. She stacked away the sheets of bark covered in writing. Not an ideal welcome, but at least she didn't scream or grab a weapon.
Lady Yiling made her way to the opposite side of the table. Sano, feeling awkward by the door, trailed after her. He sat a bit behind her, and Anina did the same.
“Let's cut to the chase,” the woman began, voice strong and commanding. She studied Lady Yiling's features, and the corners of her lips drooped. “Tell me why you're here and why I shouldn't arrest you immediately.”
“Let me introduce myself–”
“No need. There is no mistaking the Ghoul of Katam.”
“And the heir of our previous paramount chief,” Lady Yiling added with emphasis.
The chief raised her brows. At first, Sano thought she was surprised, impressed even. But then she laughed with an edge that discomfited him.
“Unbelievable. What is this? A pathetic attempt at vengeance?” the chief of Angbun asked. “I have heard the news coming out of Masagan, you know. Traders and travellers can barely stop in one place long enough in their excitement to spread it. Apparently, you and that conniving warrior of yours have been undermining King Bunawi for years! So give me a reason why I shouldn't hand you over to him.”
“Katam's sovereignty,” Lady Yiling answered. “If you've heard all the news from Masagan, then you know Bunawi will come and attack. If you vouch for me, I will have the authority to challenge the king's arrival and–”
“King Bunawi is coming because of you,” the chief of Angbun pointed out. “Don't act like he's coming unprovoked.”
“If you think he will stop after he's taken care of me, then you overestimate the king's compassion.” Lady Yiling didn't miss a beat. “You know just as much as I do that he will focus on you and the other nobility left in Katam. All the chiefs will be replaced like they were after the rebellion. You and your family may be demoted to slaves, or worse.”
The chief smiled, but looked at Lady Yiling as if she were a rat. “Then you only have yourself to blame, isn't that right? Why were you committing all those crimes? Why do you continue to defy the king? If you really want to save Katam, then spare the rest of us and sacrifice yourself!” She added in a mockingly soft tone, “Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot bravery and honour don't run in your family.”
Lady Yiling didn't flinch, but Sano did. His skin warmed, and he couldn't stop himself from chiming in. “You have no idea what Lady Yiling has done over the years to help Katam. All those times that she and Lord Matiban went against the king, it was to help our villagers.” The Dayungan words tumbled out of his mouth like pebbles. After a few days of speaking only in Kataman, switching to the official language felt clumsy again.
The chief of Angbun glanced only briefly at Sano, but it was clear she didn't believe him.
“I intend to return Katam back to the hands of those who really care about it,” Lady Yiling persisted. “But in order for me to do that, we need to free ourselves from Bunawi's control.”
“Why in the world would I want a Katam led by you?” the chief sneered.
“It doesn't have to be led by me. But it has to be led by someone who has the best interests of the chiefdom at heart. Ever since we were annexed to the Kingdom of Dayung, Katam is becoming less and less of a place where people live well and thrive. Katam needs to be better.”
“Well, finally we can agree on something,” the chief replied. “Yes, Katam needs to be better. And to achieve that, we must embrace the values of the Kingdom of Dayung. King Bunawi is trying to help us. He has put upon himself the burden of improving Katamans. What you're seeing now in the rest of the chiefdom is just growing pains. Old habits are difficult to break, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try.
“Just look at Angbun! Everyone here might as well be Dayungans. Look at the clothes we wear. Look at how we speak and carry ourselves. We've even integrated the Gilan fighting system into our lifestyle. I wouldn't be surprised if one of my youths here would become the first loyal Kataman to be accepted into the king's army. Such an honour that would be!
“And you see.” The chief waved around the room, but Sano was certain that the gesture took in her entire settlement. “It's working. Angbun is prospering. We're the only ones succeeding in this pitiful chiefdom, so it's quite clear to me that the rest of you should just quit being stubborn, and start adapting!”
A bitter, gnawing pressure grew inside Sano at every word that fell from the chief’s lips. “That isn't fair! We are governed by rules that favour the Dayungan way of life. Of course you'll prosper if you mould yourself after them. But that doesn't mean Katamans aren't capable of progress too.”
The chief snorted again. “Nonsense! Katam had autonomy before, and we squandered it. Left to ourselves, our cowardly nature brought the chiefdom not a single drop of prestige. Thirty years ago we were still known only as 'that spot between Kunting River and the mountains.' Where's the glory in that? We're lucky that King Bunawi wanted us in the kingdom at all.”
“Look, we're not saying you're wrong,” Lady Yiling interrupted, bringing the conversation back to the topic. “I'm not saying Katam was perfect the way it was and that we need to revert to the old ways. Nor am I saying that we must shun everything that is not endemic to Katam. Not at all. What I'm fighting for is self-determination – a way of life in which we are not the first to be vulnerable to and the last to benefit from the decisions someone else makes on our behalf. Our successes and failures will be our own.”
“You think Katamans are responsible enough for self-determination? Look at you! You're associating with kids because you know that any adult with a mind of their own won't agree with what you're doing.” The chief's eyes sought Sano's once again. “Don't think I don't know who you are. I have heard the rumours about you too. You're that mage who lived in the foothills and destroyed a small village in the forest. And now you've teamed up with the Ghoul.”
Sano cringed. How could the wrong version of that story persist all this time?
The chief of Angbun went on, revulsion twisting her features. “Who do you think you are? Both of you lived your entire lives secluded in the jungles. What makes you think you know what's best for Katam? What makes you think you even know what it's like to be Kataman? Just because you speak in that clacking excuse of a language? Because your clothes bear those outdated colours and patterns? Please, don't make me laugh! My people and I have lived here our entire lives. We know what kinds of pressure our people are under, and what changes must happen.”
The conviction behind the chief's words struck Sano harder than the punch of the enforcer from Masagan. A heaviness pressed against his chest that made it hard to breathe. Sano couldn't process what he was feeling, but he was rigid with tension, skin burning with either rage or shame. Because in a lot of ways, what the chief said was true. And because despite the truth in it, Sano still found it hard to accept.
“How can you say you want the best for Katam, when you want us to shed everything we are, just to be accepted?” Sano demanded.
“If it will help us survive, then why not? How valuable really is it to be Kataman, if it doesn't make life livable for you?”
That question numbed Sano. Katamans were actually not that different from the people of other regions. Sano's mother had said that was why their few differences became so much more stark in contrast. It would be easy enough for Sano to change his clothes and to master a different language; he'd already learned ten anyway. It would be easy to act a little more flamboyant, to express himself differently, to call his family and friends by different titles, to start martial training.
Sano couldn't argue that the people of Angbun were no less Kataman than he was. Like the chief had said, they lived here. But if that was the case, what did it even mean to be Kataman anymore? And at what point should he start changing himself instead of trying to change the world, stubbornly insisting for it to accept him the way he was? After all, it would be arrogant for Sano to think he didn't need to change. He, who knew so little. Sano's mouth was too dry to respond.
“Look, I'm open to debating what Katamans are supposed to be,” Lady Yiling said, leaning forward on the table. “It's a good discussion, but before we decide what kind of people we are, maybe we should first ensure that we're going to live. And for that to happen, I need your support. We don't know the extent of Bunawi's retaliation, and I am trying to do everything I can to give this chiefdom a chance at survival.”
“From what I can see, there is one obvious way I can save Angbun, isn't there?” The chief smiled at them. “I can just demonstrate my loyalty to the king.”
With a snap of her fingers, the drapes decorating the walls fell away, and they were surrounded by a dozen warriors. All were poised with scripted swords and spears. Nocked arrows pointed at the three of them.
Lady Yiling swore under her breath. “You broke the truce. That's disappointing,” she muttered. She grabbed Sano and Anina in each hand. A violent wind blew outward from her, slamming all the warriors against the walls, and upturning the table against the chief. The next thing Sano knew, his arm was being tugged upward. He, Anina, and Lady Yiling went sailing up to the ceiling, which now bore a large hole.
They emerged up on the roof, the night air warm and sticky. Lady Yiling settled Sano and Anina on the thatch, but its slope sent them rolling off the roof and into a crowd of heavily armed people.
Pain bloomed across Sano's body when he hit the ground, but he tried to launch himself up quickly. The world spun as he tried to get his bearings.
The people surrounding Sano and Anina were not yet focused on them. Their gazes were on Lady Yiling, their faces aghast. There must have been at least thirty of them closely clustered around the side of the longhouse, with more people streaming in. These looked like ordinary villagers, but that didn't make Sano feel any better. The chief did say that Angbun's citizens had been trained in combat since childhood.
Up on the roof, a few warriors climbed up to engage Lady Yiling. One came at her with a sword, just as another pulled herself up through the hole in the roof. Lady Yiling pushed away the swordsman with a strong wind, and he careened over the top of the longhouse. The woman who'd just crawled out from the roof brandished a flaming torch towards Lady Yiling.
“Is that the Ghoul of Katam?” a voice emerged from the crowd. Harsh whispers replaced the stunned silence.
“Oh Karingal, it's more horrid than I thought.”
“What a revolting thing...”
“That's who wants to replace King Bunawi? We'll be the laughing stock of the entire archipelago!”
As soon as the insults started, there was no stopping them. Voices overrode one another in their hurry to hurl the meanest remarks. Soon the fight on the roof was accompanied by a chorus of “Ugly, ugly, ugly!”
Sano was knocked out of his daze by a small rock that struck him across the jaw. More rocks came, thumping him against the hips, legs, sides and back. He buried his head in his arms, gritting his teeth against the pain as he tried to think of a way out. From his periphery, he noticed that Anina was receiving the same treatment, but she actively fought back, both her staffs aglow with magic and deflecting the rocks away.
Sano tried to block the incoming assault with one arm, while the other fumbled with the scripted cloak tied around his waist. At least people were throwing rocks, and not knives or spears. He shook his cloak loose, but a bigger rock – almost a boulder – landed on the fabric, pinning it to the ground. Sano groaned. He crouched and hurriedly wrote a script on the loose soil. It was sloppy, the symbols almost illegible, but when he pushed his magic through it, a plane of rock rose from the ground. It was as tall as he was, and it formed a curved wall that separated him and Anina from the enthusiastic crowd.
Sano kicked away the heavy rock from his cloak and ran to Anina. However, before he could reach her, mages from the other side knocked down sections of his wall, their scripted weapons blazing brilliantly with magic.
Anina thrust her staffs toward one of the men, but he caught its end and didn't let go. Instead, the man snatched it out of Anina's hand. He rounded on her, slamming her knee with it, and she buckled in return.
More people poured in. The next thing Sano knew, he was trapped under a pile of them, crushed under their weight. He struggled against the hot press of bodies, kicking with his feet and clawing with his hands. He reached for empty spaces, squirming and shimmying, until by sheer luck, he disentangled himself from the others. Sano scrambled away, lying low and clutching his cloak close. He searched the rabid crowd for Anina.
The man from before was now hovering over her, still gripping one of her staffs. One script was bright with magic, the rattan steaming. Anina seemed to have lost her other staff, and she had only her arms raised in front of her defensively. With a feral growl, the man swung the staff down towards her head. She stumbled away, and reached for one of the remaining sections of the wall.
Rocks exploded around them all. Sano covered his head with his arms, folding into himself. A shower of sharpened debris left prickling cuts on his exposed skin, and he bit his lip against the sting. Cries of pain and agony erupted from the mob.
Tentatively, Sano lowered his arms and peered through the cloud of dust. He found Anina lying on the ground, bits and pieces of the wall scattered around her. The man who had fought her was unconscious. His face and chest were wet with blood.
“Dear Karingal,” Sano muttered. He started towards Anina, when someone suddenly snatched him around his midriff and carried him into the air. Hot panic flashed through him, but when he turned, it was just Lady Yiling holding him. She made one giant leap to where Anina lay, and then released him. Sano dashed over and grabbed Anina's discarded staffs, one of them still overly warm.
With Anina tucked safely in her arms, Lady Yiling jumped to the sky. Sano followed in a heartbeat, chased away by the rising murmurs of the crowd. He poured in so much magic into his cloak that the wind blasted him up, and he almost chucked his last meal. Hanging tightly onto the corners of the fabric, he forced himself to concentrate on the flow of his magic, not on the cuts and bruises on his body, not on the echoes of hateful shouts from the crowd. Sano and Lady Yiling glided across the sky so fast that by the time their feet met ground again, they were already on the outskirts of Angbun.