Anina didn't cry too often, but in the solitude of the forest, the stark silence and the darkness coaxed her to tears. She didn't even know what exactly she was crying about. Was it the frustration of dealing with Sano's unrealistic wishes? Or was it because telling someone her secret confirmed the worst things she believed about herself?
It wasn't like Anina had forgotten that she'd killed her family and the other villagers. She'd never forgotten, but she kept it beneath all the other layers of that tragedy: the sudden loss of community, the changes it had forced upon her life, and most of all, the mysterious glitch in her magic. The last one, in particular, was what Anina used to gloss over the fact that at eleven years old, she had taken more lives than even some seasoned warriors.
“Looks like you got yourself into a bit of trouble there,” a voice said from above the hole. “Do you need help climbing back out?”
Anina wiped her eyes hastily, and she looked up. Now that darkness had enveloped the forest, the walls of the hole were almost indistinguishable from open space. But the man that stood just above her was holding a sword, one of its scripts half-lit with magic. The radiance illuminated his face.
The first thing Anina noticed was that she didn't know him.
The second thing she saw was the hilt of his sword, shaped like a sea-serpent.
Another warrior came into view and peered at Anina. “Look at those staffs... the princess said one of them is a girl, right?” the woman said, addressing her companion. The woman's words didn't sound callous, but the mention of the princess confirmed that Anina was in grave danger.
Her melancholy vanished, stolen by a rush of fearful energy. Anina leapt out of the hole and sprinted into the trees. Hands caught her shoulders, but Anina twisted out of the warriors' grip, and struck at them with her staffs. She hit the man in the sternum and he limped back, struggling to regain his breath. The woman warrior, on the other hand, had deflected Anina's staff with a sword.
Anina raised her staffs again, senses on high alert, prepared for the next attack. But the woman, though she wasn't incapacitated, merely walked a few steps away.
That was when Anina noticed an acute sting on her arms. She found a long nick on both of her forearms, not deep, just enough to cut skin and draw a few drops of blood.
Then the dizziness kicked in. The trees around her teetered. Anina reached out to the nearest tree, but she must have misjudged its distance. Her hand closed on nothing, and she toppled to the ground. Dear Karingal, how had Anina not learned from Sano's mistake when they were attacked in Masagan? Cut with a poisoned knife – that was how their assailants overcame him then too.
Anina stared at the web of branches blurring above her. The warriors appeared in her foggy vision.
“Don't take this personally,” the man said, voice raspy. “It's just orders.”
What else those orders entailed, Anina didn't have time to ponder, as blankness took over her.
Anina drifted in and out of consciousness for the next few days. Sometimes she woke up and recognized that she was in a boat – tied, gagged, and groggy. The two warriors who'd attacked her in the forest were with her in the boat, powering some script that made them speed through a river. Other times, they sailed at normal speed, and one of them would take off her gag and bindings to make her eat.
Sometimes Anina had the urge to throw herself in the river, but she couldn't swim in her current state. Besides, given the choice between drowning or eating the food they gave her, dull though it was, her traitorous body hungered for the meal. And every time she filled her tummy, she drifted back into an empty darkness, unable to contemplate much else.
Finally, Anina woke – really woke – inside a large, dirty tent. She was lying on a ragged blanket. A wooden bucket of water sat next to her, and a low table with jars of concoction stood not far behind it. Rough rope was wrapped around the wrist of her blistered hand, and was secured to a pole that held up the tent.
Anina blinked a few times, and shook away the remaining cloudiness that had settled over her mind for so long. When her head was a little clearer, all the realizations hit her.
Princess Angtara’s warriors had attacked Anina. In the southern forests. Had the princess guessed correctly that the Ghoul might be there? Had there been more warriors, and had they stumbled upon Yiling’s hut? It wasn’t very far from where the two warriors found Anina.
Dear Karingal, were Sano, Yiling, and Matiban all right?
And more importantly, where was Anina now? She tried to get a sense of what lay beyond the tent. It was light outside, probably late morning to early afternoon. From outside, she heard the usual sounds of a village – harried footsteps, loud conversations, the clinks and clangs of tools and instruments.
The entrance to the tent flapped open and in came a young boy, whom Anina assumed was a slave based on his minimal attire. He carried two small bowls, one filled with food, the other with fresh water. He silently settled the bowls beside her and left.
Anina assumed she was supposed to eat, but she couldn’t tell if the food was laced with the same sedative that had kept her asleep the last few days. Instead, she focused on the rope around her wrist. If there was a way she could untie it, she might be able to slip out.
The tent opened again, and it was Princess Angtara who sauntered in this time. She stared at Anina with bright, excited eyes, her lips stretched in a pleased smile. She wore a long, indigo tunic that went to her ankles. Gold jewellery hung from her ears and neck, and her beautiful sword was strapped to her hip. She would look glamorous, if it weren’t for the patch of white bandage over one of her ears.
“Hello,” Princess Angtara said, and knelt beside Anina. “I’m so glad you’re awake. My father is eager to talk to you and to proceed with the duel. In the meantime, let’s have a little chat. Just bear with me if I ask you to repeat some things. My ear, as you can see, has seen better days.”
“The duel?” Anina asked. Had Yiling already challenged the king?
“Oh yes,” Princess Angtara answered. “It’s cute that the Ghoul tried gathering support to justify a duel, but it really shouldn’t have bothered. Father wanted a duel with it anyway. We’re almost ready for it, actually. It should begin soon.”
Anina’s breath hitched. “The Ghoul is here? Where are we?”
“We're in northwest Katam, not far from Kunting River. And yes, that vile creature is here. I had a rather... entertaining time capturing it too. You want to hear about it?”
Something about the princess’s menacing smile told Anina that this would be a dreadful story, but Anina needed to know what had happened to the others.
Princess Angtara didn’t wait for her response. “My warriors and I heard rumours that the Ghoul visited Angbun. Attacked, was the impression I got from the stories. You would know, wouldn’t you? I heard you were in Angbun too. You and your friend, along with the Ghoul, redecorated the chief's home – added a hole in the roof, reduced some walls to ashes, and put up an ugly wall in her yard. Ever thought about calming down a little? For cowards, Katamans can be a little too excitable.
“Anyway, it doesn’t take a genius to guess why the Ghoul, after years of keeping itself a secret, would suddenly be in the largest, most populous place in Katam. Especially after revealing itself to be acquainted with the traitor in my father’s army. I knew then the Ghoul was trying to gather support. And it didn’t exactly get the response it wanted from Angbun, so I knew it would try Liman next. Most of my warriors and I headed to Liman, although I also sent a couple to comb through the southern forest of Katam, just in case. The tales always said that the Ghoul lurked there most often.
“And I was right! On both accounts. The two warriors found you in the forest and brought you here. As for me and my other warriors, several nights ago, we caught the Ghoul sneaking out of the chief's house with your friend. What was his name? I keep forgetting.”
“Sano?” Anina answered, though her mind was spinning. Sano and Yiling had both gone to Liman. “Is he here too?”
Princess Angtara’s smile warped into an upturned mouth of mock pity. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Sano, that foolish boy, did something incredibly stupid in Liman.”
Anina wondered if there was leftover poison in her system; if somehow it was causing her to hallucinate this entire conversation. The world didn’t feel real. The princess couldn’t be here talking to her. The king would have never decided to give Yiling a duel without proper support from the Kataman people. None of this was really happening.
Princess Angtara smiled again. “Should I tell you a secret?”
“Tell me about Sano,” Anina insisted.
“I will, after the secret.” From her belt, Princess Angtara pulled her sword free. Anina flinched, but the princess only angled it towards her so that she could see the flat of the blade and the scripts inscribed there.
“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” Princess Angtara asked, her fingers caressing the metal. Anina was about to shake her head, when a thought stopped her.
The moon. The sword reminded Anina of the moon, on nights when it couldn’t decide whether to shine like silver or gleam like gold. The shimmer of the metal tickled something at the back of Anina’s mind, something she had tried to forget.
The memories came back now. The stack of minerals the men in her village had dug from the graves. The crash of footsteps and the violent mayhem as the raiders came. The terror that had risen within Anina as she had hidden behind the metal slabs, the panic when the raiders found her. The lustre of the mineral beneath her hand, and then the blinding light of her lashing. The awful, mind-numbing pain.
“No,” Anina whispered, unable to accept where her thoughts were heading.
But Princess Angtara misinterpreted her answer. “My father found the metal for this sword in a backwater village in Katam five years ago,” she began, and Anina recoiled. This couldn’t be happening. This just couldn’t be real. Anina was just so desperate for an answer to the mystery of her magic that her mind was conjuring this awful dream, trying to give her any explanation, no matter how horrifying.
Angtara continued, “My father went there to collect overdue tribute, but he and his entourage found that the village had been obliterated, not a single person left alive. He found chunks of this metal lying around. At first my father thought they were gold, and he collected them rather than let them go to waste. But soon, we found out about the metal’s... strange properties.”
“Properties...” Anina echoed, feeling like she was having an out-of-body experience, floating somewhere between past and present.
“You see, this metal can amplify a mage’s power. However much magic you use to activate a script inscribed on this will be magnified by roughly twenty times. It’s a curious little thing. My father took everything that he’d harvested from the village and made it into twin swords for us both.”
Anina couldn’t breathe. This was it. This was the answer she had sacrificed so much for, and now she didn’t know what to make of it. It was hard to think. She was hot and cold at the same time, both relieved and terrified. Because despite the revelation, she knew what Angtara would say next.
“Sano took this sword from me in Liman, probably thinking he could be a nice, little hero. He powered this script right here.” Angtara pointed to one of the lines, but Anina was so overwhelmed she didn’t bother reading it. “And Sano killed himself in the aftermath. Crushed by mountains of rocks, no doubt.”
Anina stared at the princess, knowing the woman was studying her reaction, but there was nothing Anina could think or say. Her mind had blanked, and she was only aware of the sword’s taunting shimmer at the edge of her vision.
Just then, the entrance to the tent flapped open again. King Bunawi came in.
“Angtara, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Just chatting, father.”
“Look at Anina – she’s so pale!” the king remarked. “You’ve been scaring her. Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”
“I guess I do now.” Princess Angtara sighed as if she’d been interrupted at her favourite hobby. She stood and waved goodbye to Anina. “I don’t think I’ll see you later, but it was nice talking to you.”
As soon as Princess Angtara had gone, King Bunawi knelt where his daughter had been just a few moments ago. Anina felt all wrung out. She sat up, hoping that would help her get her bearings back. Still, she remembered her manners and kept her gaze low. She would have placed her hands on her cheeks, but one was tied to the post in the corner.
“I apologize for my daughter,” King Bunawi said. “She gets overzealous sometimes. Do you want a drink? You haven't touched your water or your food. Why don't you take a little sip, to collect yourself?”
King Bunawi handed Anina the bowl of water, and she saw the scars on his hand where she had hurt him with her staff. She reached for the bowl slowly, afraid that he might strike her for what she'd done, but he relinquished it without harming her.
“Anina, I hope you can help me with something.”
Anina gulped. That wasn't what she'd thought the king would say to her.
“My confidence in Katam has been shattered,” King Bunawi added. “I'm hoping you can remedy a bit of that for me.”
Anina didn't understand where this was going. Was he asking her to spill secrets about Katam? About Yiling's plans? That would have made sense if he didn't already have Yiling, but according to Princess Angtara, he did. They were going to have the duel now, so what else could Anina possibly do?
“I need to know that I'm a worthwhile king. A king that his people love. I really did try my best for Katam. I pulled this chiefdom out of obscurity, welcomed it as a part of my own. Belonging to a richer, grander kingdom should have satisfied anyone, but I don't know why it seems like nothing I did was ever enough.” The king sighed, as if he were a victim of unrequited love.
“What do you want me to do?” Anina was still lost.
“I want you to thank me,” the king said in his gentle, grandfatherly voice.
That was all? Anina swallowed. She could do that. It was not the worst thing he could ask for. So she said, “Thank you.”
The king's hand struck her across the cheek so hard Anina fell back on her pallet. There was ringing in her ears, and her vision blurred with tears and bright sparks of light.
“Your insincerity wounds me,” King Bunawi said. “I want you to mean it. I am here, on my knees, asking you to feel some gratitude in that wretched Kataman heart of yours – and you have the audacity to lie to me? Say it again, and mean it this time.”
Anina's cheek was numb, and she could taste blood from a cut on her lip, but she paid those no heed. Behind her closed eyes, she summoned the images of the colourful silks of Dayungan fashion, the intricate artistry of their metalwork, the graceful swirls of their scripts, the tapered cadence of their language. Out of fear, Anina mustered the part of herself that loved all of the things that Dayung represented: the grandeur, the opportunities, the luxury. Everything that Katam lacked. Because it was true. She did love a lot of things about Dayung, even when they made her hate herself and feel ashamed of her clansmen.
“Thank you,” Anina tried again through the blood on her lips.
King Bunawi closed his eyes, one hand over his heart as if savouring her words. “All right. I felt it this time.”
He snapped his fingers in the direction of the tent's entrance, and several warriors came inside with loops of rope. “As you know, a king must make sacrifices sometimes,” King Bunawi said.
The warriors came for Anina. Two of them pulled her legs together, binding one length of rope around her ankles. She wrestled her feet away from their clutches, but she didn't know what the point of it would be. She was still tied to the pole, King Bunawi was still right beside her, and two warriors could easily overpower her now. When they finished tying her legs, they cut off the rope that bound her to the post, and wound the other length of rope around her midriff, binding her arms to her body.
“It's always hard to lose servants, especially those who are grateful,” King Bunawi continued. “Believe me, this is as painful for me as it will be for you, but this is for the good of all Dayung.”
The warriors snatched up Anina, hauling and dragging her between themselves. They exited the tent, and after her eyes adjusted to the brightness of the sun, Anina finally saw where they were.
They weren't in a village at all. They were in a camp, and Anina's tent was at its edge. The camp was bordered by a long ravine, much like the one by the king's compound in Masagan. All of a sudden, the king's words made sense to Anina. Looking at the ravine, hearing the crash of the river not far below, she understood why he'd asked her to thank him. She understood what sacrifice he was talking about.
“No,” Anina heard herself say. “No, please.”
“But I must,” King Bunawi replied. “I will be duelling with the Ghoul, and I need an important sacrifice to ensure I don't get mage-illness.”
“Please,” Anina repeated, struggling against the grip of the warriors who were pretty much carrying her now. Her mind groped for something she could do, for some slim chance of escape – but all too soon, they arrived at the lip of the ravine. Anina's aching head spun at the sight of the frothing river and the large boulders that dotted it.
“Don't look so grim,” King Bunawi said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Your sacrifice will ensure that I win, and that order will be restored in Katam.”
Then the king pushed Anina over the cliff.