Sano thundered through the forest, unmindful of the branches that whipped him as he passed. He thrummed with energy, and he felt ready to burst if he didn’t do something soon. All the emotions he’d locked away in those imaginary crates spilled forth. The stress, the guilt, the anxiety; they all fanned his anger. He couldn’t remember ever being so furious.
It wasn’t even Anina’s words that had set him off. It was the fact that they had come from her, of all people.
Sano found himself in front of Lady Yiling’s hut, with Lord Matiban crouching by a fire. Sano didn’t even realize his feet had taken him back there. Lord Matiban gave him an odd look, as though alerted already to his shift in mood.
“What’s wrong?” the warrior asked. “You found something while scouting?”
“Is Lady Yiling around?” Sano asked back. His voice, strained by anger, sounded unfamiliar even to his ears.
Lord Matiban’s expression sealed off, and he stood slowly. After a moment, he answered, “Yiling has gone to Liman.”
“What? Already? And she didn’t take me with her?” Sano didn’t know why that stung, but it stirred the hurt and irritation already brewing in him.
“She didn’t want a repeat of the other night,” Lord Matiban explained in a level tone. “She just wants to make a very quick trip. Besides, you and Anina need the rest–”
“I don’t need rest!” Sano bristled. Just once, Karingal, somebody had to need him. Just once, let somebody think he was capable. He rushed inside the hut, grabbed his cloak and his scripted weapons, and came back out.
“What are you doing?” Lord Matiban demanded.
“Going to Liman.” Sano opened his cloak, clutched its corners, and forced a voluminous wind through it. He floated into the sky, Lord Matiban’s shouts echoing after him.
Sano had never been to Liman, but it had come up a few times during discussions with Lady Yiling. It was a squarish area in the central-east region of Katam that had formed when four large villages merged last decade. The villages collectively appointed a chief, who was now one of the few leaders in Katam not chosen by Bunawi himself.
Sano used his knowledge of Liman to guide him in the correct direction. Night had fallen, and there were times when the clouds obscured the moon, and Sano had to stop, unable to see anything. Only when it was brighter again, did he launch himself toward the sky. Soon enough, Sano glimpsed another figure ahead of him, bounding in inhuman leaps.
He pushed more wind into his cloak. It must have affected Lady Yiling's own flight, because she faltered and glanced back. The next time she landed on the ground, she stayed there, and Sano floated down beside her. They were near Liman now, where the closest rivulet to the settlement ended in a marshy area.
“What’s wrong?” Lady Yiling said as soon as Sano's feet touched the ground. Did she ask because he wasn’t supposed to be here, or because she sensed his leftover anger somehow? His journey across the sky had mostly calmed him, the rushing night air unwinding the bitter knot in his belly.
“I’m coming with you,” Sano answered.
“You’re supposed to be scouting the forest.”
He cringed at Lady Yiling’s disapproval. “I know, but I want to go to Liman with you. This is important.”
Lady Yiling shook her head, her puffy hair swaying at the motion. “Sano, scouting is just as important. We didn’t exactly make a discreet exit from Angbun. There’s a chance somebody might trace us to the southern forest. It was your turn to scout.”
“You want me to go back?” Sano asked.
Lady Yiling stared at him then, her single eye so piercing that Sano felt he was being dissected. “Something happened,” she noticed. “What is it?”
Sano didn't want to talk about Anina just then, but there was no point in withholding the information from Lady Yiling. He told her about Anina’s decision to leave, and their ensuing argument. He couldn’t quite bring himself to convey what Anina believed she’d done to her village, but his explanation seemed to be enough.
Lady Yiling heaved a sigh. “Well, we can’t make Anina stay if she wants to go. I know this upsets you since you're close to her–”
“Ah... all right. Sano, to be honest, I'm relieved that Anina's gone.” Sano was surprised to hear that, but he let Lady Yiling continue. “If you had gone with her, I'd probably be even more relieved. Letting you accompany me, not just to these meetings, but even in my own home, is a risk. There's a reason why Matiban and I worked by ourselves all these years. I would have asked you and Anina to leave myself if it weren't already dangerous for you to be out there on your own. And,” she chuckled. “it might be selfish of me, but I guess it just felt nice to have someone who wanted to stay with me without needing a lot of convincing.”
Warmed by her words, Sano relaxed a little. “I told you about my childhood,” he said. “About my mother and the rebellion. There's nothing out there for us if things don't change in Katam.”
“Do you still want me to go back?”
Lady Yiling looked behind her at the shadowed outline of Liman. They were practically there. “I suppose you might as well stay,” she said, but slowly, like she was still reluctant. “Let me do all the talking this time. I have a bit of history with Liman that I can leverage. Unlike Angbun, I’ve helped this place before. I hate to come like I’m calling in a debt, but if it comes down to it, I will reveal that I diverted water here during the drought three years ago. Might make them more sympathetic and friendly.”
Liman had no walls like Angbun did, but much of its southern side bordered a marsh, and they had to make a few large leaps to surer ground. It was closer to dawn than to midnight by the time they entered the settlement. Sano followed Lady Yiling as she made her way to its centre, both of them keeping to the shadows. They reached the nobility’s compound after a time, in which the worst threat they came across was a large gecko.
Sano didn’t know if he could call this dwelling a compound. It was made of only one longhouse, and even that seemed more like a conjoined series of huts. Composed of multiple square blocks in varying sizes, it was a sprawling structure that must have taken many months to build. The ‘longhouse’ was surrounded by a humble garden of hibiscus, jasmine, and orchids. Behind it were several moringa trees, a banana tree, and a few others Sano couldn’t identify in the dark.
“Do we just do the same thing we did in Angbun?” Sano asked Lady Yiling. “It might take you a while to locate the chief’s room in a house like that.”
“No need,” Lady Yiling answered. “I know where his room is. But before we go in, there’s something I want you to promise me. If things take a bad turn, I want you to leave immediately, understand?”
Sano hesitated – after all, he hadn’t come all this way to be useless. However, Lady Yiling's voice held a tone that sounded too much like his mother’s. A tone that said they knew better, and led him to trust that they did. So he said yes.
It turned out that the chief’s room was in the outer parts of the house, because all Sano and Lady Yiling had to do was go around the longhouse and squeeze in through a window. There was nobody in the room they entered. The only things inside were some rattan lounging chairs, a cozy-looking cot piled high with cushions, and a rack of swords on one wall. Somewhere outside the room, a baby wailed.
The door to the room opened. A man shuffled in, rubbing his eyes. He had shoulder-length hair, and he wore a brown tunic woven with a simple linear pattern.
“Chief Dulan, to honour the blood that once bound us, let this be a sanctuary of words.” Lady Yiling repeated the same invocation of truce she'd given the chief of Angbun.
The man gave a violent start and slammed the door shut. He brandished a sword from the rack, then squinted into the shadows. “It’s you!” Chief Dulan gasped. “I heard a lot of talk about you. I thought everyone had gone raving mad! And yet you're here and – hold on, who are you?” His eyes narrowed, and he tightened his hold on the sword. “You're not the old paramount chief like the tales say, are you?”
“No, he's gone now,” Lady Yiling answered. “I am his daughter.”
“Well, that explains the skirt.” Chief Dulan lowered the sword just a little, but his grip remained firm. “A trader came to me yesterday, bearing news from Angbun. Apparently The Ghoul of Katam tried to subvert its chief against the throne, then burned her home down and destroyed her garden when she wouldn't agree.”
“Those rumours are exaggerated,” Lady Yiling replied. “I went there to ask for her help. The king and I had a confrontation in Masagan–”
“I heard about that too,” Chief Dulan interrupted. He sighed, shaking his head. “All right, I am going to pretend that everything I heard about you in the past few days isn't actually the product of some mass hysteria. Would I then be correct in assuming that you're here to ask for my help? After all, your entreaty in Angbun didn't end so well.”
“More or less,” Lady Yiling agreed.
Chief Dulan's gaze swept back and forth between Lady Yiling and Sano. After a while, he finally brought his sword down, settling it against his hip. “So what’s in it for me?” he asked. His posture had changed. His shoulders straightened, his chin lifted, and he sent them a rather cheeky smile. “Must be something good if you're stirring up all this trouble.”
“Sovereignty,” Lady Yiling answered. “For Katam.”
“And who leads this new Katam? You?” He gave Lady Yiling a skeptical glance.
“Whoever among us in Katam that is most fit to rule,” she replied.
“And how are you going to achieve that sovereignty?”
“I want to duel the king.”
“Ah.” Chief Dulan grinned and nodded, as if finally understanding Lady Yiling's plan. “And you want me to come along with you to vouch for your right to challenge the king.” He whistled. “Now that's risky. Extremely risky. I don't think you've thought this through very well. I don't deny that you seem powerful from all the rumours, but there's still a chance that King Bunawi can defeat you. In that case, if I ally myself with you, my community will be the first he burns to the ground. And there's also the chance that you won't gain enough support – in which case the king won't even accept your challenge. And, suppose you do win, and yet you leave the paramount seat open for 'the most fit,' you'll thrust all of Katam into a messy civil war as various chiefs vie for the position.”
“I have thought about all those points,” Lady Yiling countered. “But surely you must admit that defeating Bunawi is the priority right now. Even if we don't face him, he'll burn villages to the ground anyway. Whatever comes after his defeat, surely we can plan for together, can't we? We might not even need a paramount ruler. Gila didn't have one before it was annexed. We can all just... work together.”
Chief Dulan chuckled. “Work together? Maybe once upon a time during the reign of your father, Katamans all got along. But if you haven't noticed yet, we're fractured now. We're jaded by poverty, and made hostile by competition. We will readily throw a clansman overboard if it means receiving a single grain of the king's approval. After all, if we please the king, we get rewarded. If we merely please each other, we get nothing. We're all poor.
“Look, I hold no great love for King Bunawi, but you must convince me that we can all come out of your duel better off than if we'd continued under King Bunawi's reign. And then I'll consider vouching for you.”
It was not the hearty response Sano had hoped for, but it was also sensible and slightly hopeful. Chief Dulan hadn't turned down their proposal outright. He also hadn't screamed and revealed Lady Yiling, or hadn't sent his warriors after her like Angbun's chief had.
“Now I have to send you away,” Chief Dulan continued. “The baby has been wretched all night, I haven't had a wink of sleep, and you need to leave before those looking for you guess that you would seek me.”
Sano waited to see if Lady Yiling would persist, but she just nodded to the chief and said, “Thank you for your time.”
Lady Yiling gestured for Sano to head out. He climbed out of the window first, trying to land gracefully and soundlessly.
He shouldn't have worried about stealth.
Several men and women emerged from behind the trees. They seemed like poor villagers, dressed as they were in ragged, dirty clothes. However, in their hands were strange scripted staffs – like the ones Anina carried, but made of metal.
Sano's blood turned cold. Were they being ambushed again? Before he could turn to warn Lady Yiling, she stepped out of the window and was immediately surrounded by the peasants.
“What in Karingal's name is going on out there?” Chief Dulan peered out of the window, just as the men and women plunged their staffs into the ground.
With an aggressive pulse of magic, the metals elongated upward and across, intersecting each other so that Lady Yiling stood in the middle of a cage. The formation wrecked the wall of Chief Dulan's room, and entire sections of rattan and wood crumbled away.
The chief, who seemed shocked for only a moment, raised his sword. “What is the meaning of–” he began, but a familiar voice cut him off.
“I would shut up if I were you.” Angtara strode out of the garden, dressed not in the bejewelled garb Sano came to associate with her, but in a set of nondescript working clothes. Not that it mattered; Sano would recognize her voice anywhere. “It's very incriminating to see the Ghoul come out of your room, chief. Don't dig your grave any deeper. You and I both know I could have every single person in this village killed if I wanted to.”
Angtara lifted the hilt of her sword, which was covered by a piece of cloth. She snatched the cover away, revealing the distinct sea-serpent figure. The confusion on Chief Dulan's face melted, replaced by an unhealthy pallor. His expression hardened.
“King Bunawi's warriors,” Chief Dulan muttered.
“On the contrary, my warriors,” Angtara amended. She gave the chief a sharp smile. “Princess Angtara, at your service. My father and his warriors are on their way though, don't you worry.”
“Sano!” Lady Yiling must have been calling for some time. “Sano, go! Now!”
Sano's fingers untied the cloak around his hips. He hated to leave Lady Yiling, but his promise nagged at him. He flapped open his cloak, reached for the corners, and within moments he was up in the air.
But within moments, Sano was back on the ground, falling badly on his almost-healed ankle. He hit his head hard enough that flashing stars danced in his vision. When he recovered, he found a hungry fire devouring his rumpled cloak. A burning arrow had torn a hole in it.
“Oh, I'd like for him to stay,” Angtara said as she walked towards Lady Yiling's cage.
Lady Yiling placed her hands on the metal bars and tried to force them apart. The metal bent and wrinkled under her power, but before there was enough space for her to slip through, a force straightened the bars back into position, maintaining the thin gap. All across the bars, tiny thorns sprouted and Lady Yiling yelped, snatching her hands back.
“Do you like that?” Angtara turned to Sano. “I got the idea for the thorns from your friend when she injured my father.”
Sano gulped. His cloak was now a tattered collection of ashy threads, and enough of the scripts were ruined that even if he could put out the fire, he still wouldn't be able to activate the mending script.
Panic rose in Sano's chest like a wave crashing on land.
But just like a wave, the panic receded. It transformed into a cold and heavy righteous rage. Sano's breath slowed. His vision cleared. Something about watching his cloak burn, remembering the time that he and his mother had woven it together, inflamed the anger Anina had stoked earlier that night. He would not be made helpless by this. He would not be dismissed again.
And now that Sano no longer had a way to escape, his promise to Lady Yiling didn't matter anymore.
Sano climbed to his feet, ignoring the pain in his ankle. Those who had set up the cage had lengthened the metal to cover the ground beneath Lady Yiling's feet so she had no access to the earth either. She was still trying to pry the bars apart, despite the thorns, but the bars kept returning to their intended shape.
A new batch of warriors came, and by their shock and confusion, Sano figured they were Chief Dulan's. The chief held up a hand to stop them, and they paused, unsure of what to do. Though it didn't seem like the chief was cooperating with the princess, it appeared Sano and Lady Yiling wouldn't get much help from him either.
The continuous influx of magic from Angtara's mages was what fortified the cage. If Sano was going to save Lady Yiling, he would need to get the mages away. He knelt, inscribing an anto script on the ground, then poured brilliant tides of magic into it until cracks formed beneath his hand. Although he couldn't see it, he knew those cracks dug deep underground, forming a path to the water trapped beneath. Sano's magic drew the water upward, and a geyser shot up from the fractures.
Sano grabbed a dagger from his belt. He split his magic so that some of it flowed out of his foot into the geyser's script, and the rest flowed out of his hand. A script on his dagger flared blue, the brightness of it mixing with the light emanating from the ground. As soon as Sano stabbed the dagger into the geyser, the water bent and blasted towards the warriors surrounding Lady Yiling.
Sano's aim was truer than he'd thought it be. With the torrential surge, several of the mages were swept away, losing contact with the cage.
Ladt Yiling tried the bars again, and this time, one of them gave in. She grimaced, hands pressing against the thorns. The gap widened.
Someone snatched a fistful of Sano's hair, pulling his head back. The chilled blade of a sword pressed against his throat.
“Release your magic,” Angtara demanded. She hauled Sano away from the geyser. Without his magic to reinforce the script, it was washed away by the growing puddle. The geyser trickled into a fountain, and then disappeared. With a heavy heart, Sano watched Angtara's mages go back to supporting the cage.
“I'll tell you what we're going to do,” Angtara announced in a loud voice. “Ghoul, you will drink the draught we're going to give you, or else this boy dies.”
A person carrying a bowl entered the fight.
“Poison?” Sano rasped.
“Oh, please. If I wanted to kill the Ghoul, I'd have had those bars pierce its body instead of trap it. The Ghoul wants a duel, doesn't it? So we'll give it one.” It... Angtara was still calling Lady Yiling an 'it.' “My father is a generous man. Honestly, you made it so much harder on yourselves, prancing all over Katam like this, when you could have just asked my father for a duel directly.”
Lady Yiling didn't move. She didn't even acknowledge the approaching person with the bowl. She was as still as Chief Dulan standing in the middle of his room, visible through the holes of his ruined wall. Was either of them planning something?
The only idea Sano could come up with was possibly driving his dagger through Angtara. It was a gory plan that made his hand tremble. Would Angtara still have time to cut him if he managed to stab her? What if he missed? What if he didn't? Would he really kill the princess of Dayung? Sano's heart raced again. The cool anger that had driven him earlier dwindled, overcome by growing terror.
“I won't repeat myself again! Drink now, or – ah!” Angtara cried out suddenly, and her arm fell limp. Her sword clattered to the ground, the unusual silver-gold metal of it shining in the moonlight.
Sano wrenched himself out of Angtara's grasp. As he shuffled away, he noticed a knife sticking from the back of her upper arm, blood staining the surrounding sleeve.
Sano's gaze sought the person who had thrown the knife. When he saw who it was, his knees almost buckled, and his heart leapt so high it could have rolled right out of his slack mouth.
Several paces away, with her hair scarf flapping softly in the mild wind, stood Sano's mother.
He blinked a few times, unsure if his eyes were tricking him, if the stress and exhaustion of the last several days had finally addled his mind. But no, the woman really was his mother. She stood straight and steady, brows furrowed in that expression of keen analysis he'd seen his entire life. Sano's throat constricted with the urge to laugh or cry – perhaps both at the same time. Suddenly his fear evaporated, no match for the heat of relief and happiness that brimmed in his chest.
Dear Karingal, his mother was here! But of course she was! If someone like Angtara could deduce Lady Yiling's intended destination, then of course Sano's mother was capable of doing the same.
Sano was possessed by an urge to run to her like a little child, but his mother flashed him a look of exasperation that stopped him short. She held up a finger and mouthed, “Don't move.”
On the ground, Angtara regained her composure. Though her right arm was slack, she managed to pick up her sword with her left.
“Hello,” Sano's mother addressed Angtara, striding towards the princess. “Been a while since we last saw each other. Do you remember me?”
The princess squinted, then laughed. “No, I don't make a habit out of remembering peasants.”
Sano's mother copied the princess's mocking smile. “Ah, that's always been your weakness. Princess Angtara, appointed expert of Katam, couldn't see a rebellion brewing right under her nose.”
Thick, oily smoke rose from a pouch on Sano's mother's belt. She moved a finger through it, but instead of blowing away, the smoke moved along the lines her finger traced. She was using a smoke-bar, delineating a script in the very air.
His mother slapped her hands against the smoky script. Blinding blue glare lit up the symbols, and a thundering sound emanated from them. Sano clapped his hands over his ears, feeling the vibration in his bones. But it was Angtara who absorbed most of the impact. She writhed on the ground, blood trailing from the ear she couldn't cover.
Sano's mother rushed at the princess, pulling out her own sword from her belt. The princess, ever the warrior, lifted her sword just in time to block the attack. She deflected it, getting back to her feet. But with her ruined ear, Angtara's balance was off, and she tilted and stumbled around like a drunkard. Sano's mother charged at her with barely concealed fury. Their swords clanged against each other's, ringing out an off-beat rhythm.
Angtara swung to the side, but lost her footing and fell on her rump. Sano's mother struck at her, and the princess's sword went flying. It landed by Sano's feet. For a moment, he just stared at it, entranced by the sheen of the metal. Then his vision cleared, and one of the scripts on the sword stood out like a lifeline in a sea of endless waves. His eyes sought Lady Yiling, who, along with the warriors, had been watching his mother's fight with uncertainty.
Sano grabbed the sword and ran to the cage.
“No!” Angtara yelled after him, but he heard her grunt and assumed his mother was taking care of her. This was the sword Angtara had used to part the earth when Sano and Anina had run to the copse. With this, he didn't have to keep writing his scripts. He could use it now to help Lady Yiling escape.
A few of the princess's warriors suddenly came to life, running to block his path. Sano pushed himself to run faster, but when it became clear the warriors would intercept him before he could get to Lady Yiling, he didn't wait anymore. He struck the sword into the ground and forced his magic into the earth-splitting script.
Sano had expected a track of knee-high spikes of earth. Instead, a rupture traversed the ground so violently it was as though the gods were ripping the earth apart.
Mountainous shards of rock erupted from the ground. Sano dropped the sword, horrified and confused – but not long before the earth beneath him surged into the air, bringing him with it. Wild vertigo coursed through Sano's body as he clung for dear life. Around him he glimpsed treacherous hills of sharp rocks sprouting into the sky. They carried pieces of thatch, wood and rattan. Loud, terrified screams competed with the shattering all around him. Sano tasted blood in his mouth.
The spike of earth beneath Sano stopped abruptly, but its momentum threw him up in the air. For one weightless moment before he sped back down towards the giant stalagmites below, a clearness pierced through his confusion. His magic had increased. He did not know how, but it had. What had happened to Anina's magic had just happened to his.
That was his last coherent thought before the force of the earth pulled him down and everything went black.