In hindsight, Anina had been careless to think that the trip to Angbun would be quick and easy. Ironically, she had been too pessimistic; Anina had assumed the chief would reject the alliance outright, that Lady Yiling would just apologize, and the three of them would return home. Or worse, the chief would scream and faint, and the three of them would sneak back to Lady Yiling's lair without any further trouble. That the chief of Angbun had entertained Lady Yiling for as long as she had, giving enough time for her people to assemble an ambush, wasn't a possibility that Anina had prepared for.
It had been three days since the disaster in Angbun, and though Anina was back in Lady Yiling's lair, her heart still rattled like it wanted to be free of her own ribs. When she closed her eyes, against the blankness of her lids, she would see the silhouette of the crowd, their angry faces, and their raised weapons. Anina's body was green and purple where rocks had hit her. The magic-lashing she had performed crusted her right hand with blisters, and when she had woken from a full day of unconsciousness, a terrible emptiness in her core indicated severe mage-illness. It had taken sacrificing her precious Likubay figurine for her to feel better, but even now she was still recovering.
The worst part was that sometimes Anina couldn't tell whether her memories were from Angbun or from her own village’s raid. They blurred into each other, bringing the ugly grief and the helplessness of the past to the forefront of her mind.
Now, half-submerged in the pond near Lady Yiling's home, re-bandaging her damaged hand, Anina knew it was time to say goodbye.
She stood up from the pond, wincing at her smarting cuts. She dried herself, got dressed, and picked up the leftover bandages and her staffs with her good hand. She was sore on the outside and on the inside. Every thought that crossed her mind, no matter how innocuous, sent her heart fluttering. She had even jumped from fright after stepping on a twig on her way to the pond.
Anina almost appreciated the events in Angbun. In a way, they had confirmed what she'd believed in all along – that Katamans didn't want anything to do with the Ghoul. That Anina was not meant to be involved in Lady Yiling's plots. Somehow, on her quest to find out what had gone awry with her magic, Anina had ended up doing exactly what she wanted to avoid. It was time to cut her losses.
As Anina walked the path back to Lady Yiling's hut, a familiar figure approached her. In the dimming light of the advanced afternoon, Sano gave her a smile and a wave. He too was a patchwork of bruises and bandages, but his energy hadn't dwindled much. While he had also suffered from mage-illness, he’d been well enough to make offerings earlier and was now completely recovered. His clothes were scrubbed up nicely. He wore a silky beige turban around his forehead, probably borrowed from Lord Matiban.
“How are you feeling?” Sano asked.
Anina huffed. “I'm not too sure.”
“Same. Things have been really wild, haven’t they?” Sano sent her a comforting smile. “Look, Lady Yiling asked me to scout around, just to make sure nobody's loitering too close to us. Would you like to come with me? We can talk about our plans if you’re up for it.”
Anina took a deep breath, unsure if this was the right time to say she already knew what she was going to do. But since she'd already decided, she might as well let Sano know.
“I'm leaving.” There, it was out.
Sano blinked slowly and his smile vanished. “You don't have to decide now. I know that things didn't turn out well in Angbun, but it seemed like the chief was never sympathetic to Katamans outside her own community anyway. Lady Yiling hasn’t given up yet. She will try the settlement of Liman soon.”
Sano sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than her. Anina gave a vague shrug. “It’s not just about Angbun, Sano. It’s about everything we got caught up in. Don’t take this personally, but I just can’t participate in this conflict between Lady Yiling and the king. You can stay here if you want, but I really need to leave.”
“When? To go where?” Sano asked with a growing air of alarm.
“I’m not certain yet,” Anina admitted. “I was thinking of heading to Gamhana. Now that we’re far from Princess Angtara and her warriors, surely it must be safer for me to travel again. I can head to the nearest southern port and take a ship to the closest Gamhanan island.”
“What about my mother? What about getting more magic?”
Anina snorted. “I’m not going to pretend that I will learn anything about that here. To be honest, the more I think about the things I’ve done to get my answer, the more I wonder if it’s really worth finding out.”
The concern on Sano’s face was overshadowed by something more sullen. “I don’t understand. Four days ago when you decided to go to Angbun with me, I really thought you were worried about me. But I was just a means to an end all this time, wasn’t I? Just a link to my mother. And now that you’ve given up trying to meet her, you don’t really care about what happens to me.”
“Sano, I wish you well,” Anina said, her voice hardening. She wouldn’t let him guilt her into staying. “If anything happens to you, it’s only because you insist on putting yourself in dangerous situations.”
“And how about all the other Katamans who are now in danger of being razed over by Bunawi’s army? Or those who have been starving for years? Are they to blame for their situations too?”
Anina laughed, though she hadn’t meant to. But this was becoming ridiculous. She’d expected Sano to be slightly upset about her leaving. After all, she’d been the only constant in his life since he’d lost his home. But of all the excuses she thought he’d use to convince her to stay, Katam wasn’t one of them. After all, if she left the kingdom now, she would never have to think about other Katamans again.
“Who are they to me?” Anina said. “I went with Lady Yiling because it was the safest course of action I could have taken at that time. And yes, I’m grateful to her. She saved my life more than once. But I don’t think this is my fight, Sano. Lady Yiling can duel King Bunawi all she wants, and maybe she can even win, but do you really think the next leader of Dayung would be any more sympathetic to Katamans?
“You’ve seen how people treated Lady Yiling in Angbun. Even other Katamans do not want a leader like her. Perhaps the chief of Angbun is right. Perhaps it’s Katam that needs to change. It’s like an unstable hut that needs to be broken down and rebuilt again.”
“Or maybe, what Katam needs is a few people willing to put it on their shoulders and carry it somewhere better.” Sano huffed. “I really can’t understand you, Anina. You’ve been so nice this past month. Why are you being so callous now? Why do you even want stronger magic if you don’t plan to do something good with it?”
“I never wanted stronger magic,” Anina said. “All I wanted was to know how to get it, not to use it.”
Now it was Anina’s turn to huff. “That’s none of your business.”
“Sure it is!” There was now an edge to Sano’s voice she’d never heard before. “You were the person who carried me on your back when I was sick. The one who put Bikon in his place when his victims couldn’t. The one who saved me from Bunawi when you could have just left. And now you expect me to believe that helping other people is actually a burden for you, unless it gets you something you’re never going to use? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Helping?” Anina echoed dubiously. “That’s what you think you’re doing here? Helping? Oh, of course. All you’ve ever wanted were the praises, the thank-yous, the stories about how awesome you are, isn’t that right? You know what I don’t understand? I don't understand why you're so desperate to involve yourself in this fight when you will most likely just end up dead!”
“Because I want to matter!” Sano all but yelled. His eyes widened, and he balked, as if he hadn’t known that was his reason until he’d spoken it. He shut his eyes and leaned away, but the words were already out. “I want to matter. And yet, since I came out of hiding, all anyone can tell me is that the things that make me who I am have no value.
“You have no idea, Anina, no idea what it was like to live alone in that forest. To grow up knowing the world doesn’t want you, that the only way to survive is to be unknown. To see the only person who loves you work herself to the bone, too scared to return to the real world just in case it decides to take you too. You don’t know what it’s like spending countless nights wondering if the rest of your life will be like that, if you’ll die without anyone else ever knowing you even existed.”
Sano was close to tears, but just like that time in the copse, his words failed to move Anina. Resentment burned in her chest. If Sano had been fishing for her sympathy, showing off his life in the forest was the wrong way to do it.
“Oh please, Sano. You’re so naive.” Anina’s low voice was a stark contrast to his impassioned monologue. “You were lucky. You were so lucky you grew up with someone who loves you. I would do anything to have had a life like yours. Quiet and peaceful, away from this mess.
“You want to know why I'm searching for a way to gain magic? Because I once had more! For a single moment during the raid of my village, I might have been the most powerful being in the entire kingdom, and I lashed all that magic at my poor, tiny village. You’re sad because you didn’t have friends and neighbours? Well, try having killed them!”
This was probably the worst way to explain what had happened all those years ago, something that Anina had never told anyone else. She didn’t care. Sano had his own hurts, but she felt like an ugly black abyss that could encompass all his pain and still have infinite room for more.
Sano stepped back, confused. “That’s not right. Even if you were that powerful, the lashing should have killed you too. The rules say–”
“I know what the rules say!” Anina snapped. “Don’t you think I’ve wondered about them before? If everything made sense, I wouldn’t be out here searching for answers, would I? I wouldn’t always be afraid my magic would suddenly flare up like that again. I wouldn’t have to keep wondering whether I’m a danger to everyone around me, if I’m better off with the ground opening up and swallowing me whole. So don’t blame me for wanting to hide as if I have any less right to it than your mother and Lady Yiling’s father did.”
“Right?” Sano repeated in disbelief. “You think hiding was a right we exercised?” He waved a hand as if dismissing her. He turned away, but instead of running off like she expected him to, he scrubbed the forest ground with one foot. Anina realized he’d written a script when he stomped on it, and the ground quaked, opening up a sizable hole beside him.
“You want a hole?” Sano waved an impatient hand at it. “There’s your hole.”
Anina gaped at him. Was Sano really mocking her? He probably thought she’d eat her words if he presented her with a literal version of them. She sent him a rude gesture, and threw herself into the hole he’d made. It was deep enough that, sitting down, the forest ground was just a little higher than her head. She crossed her arms and glared at the wall of deep, brown soil interspersed with rocks and roots.
“I’m sorry for what happened to your family and your village,” Sano said above her. “It must have been terrible. You can leave if you want. You can hide too, if that’s the best aspiration you have for yourself. But remember this. Hiding will not change your life. Everything you fear will remain. They will still haunt you. The only difference is you’ll be isolating yourself from all help, from all resources that can solve the problem you’re avoiding. Will you be happy then?”
Sano retreated from the spot, and Anina burrowed herself deeper in the hole.