Chapter 25

Grief and Joy

For a long time, Sano was only aware of darkness. Darkness and the excruciating pain all over his body, especially in his left arm. Breathing was like squeezing water out of mud. Sometimes the darkness faded, replaced by brief flashes of lucidity; a hazy awareness of crumbling rocks, rolling pebbles, dust-filled air. A woman hovered over Sano. His mother?

More darkness, until screaming pierced through Sano’s awareness. His head pounded with the sudden cacophony. Frigid wisps of despair caressed his body, replacing the hot sharpness of his wounds, and he shivered to the cadence of the rising screams.

Blackness again, a mindless and precious reprieve.

Then there came the familiar feeling of riding on water, of being lulled by gentle waves. Sano opened his eyes and saw bright green leaves filtering the sunlight. The scent of moist earth reminded him of home, but he wasn’t sure where that was anymore. He heard his mother’s voice, and then his own, but he didn’t even know what he was saying.

When Sano finally regained full consciousness, he found himself in his room back in Lady Yiling’s lair. His body was heavy and achy, but the threat of fainting didn’t loom over him anymore. His mind was curiously, but thankfully, clear.

“Good, you’re awake.”

Sano’s eyes darted to the side, his neck too stiff to move. His mother knelt by his cot, neat and poised. Even donning old, frequently-mended clothes, she possessed a regality that put to shame all the nobility Sano had seen in the past month. A gentle, hopeful smile played on her lips, and just like that, with a messy influx of emotions that came all too suddenly, Sano began to sob.

Sano’s mother wrapped her arms around him, patting his head. She didn’t say anything, just held him warmly. In her embrace, Sano rode the waves of lingering confusion and fear from the confrontation in Liman; of the stress that had never dissipated since he’d been chased out of his home; and most of all, of the hurt of being unwanted and insufficient in this world.

But beneath all of those rose the immeasurable relief and comfort of being reunited with his mother again. His mother, who didn't care about what he could offer her in return, who had borne the brunt of loneliness and hardships of raising him in isolation just so they could be safe. To know that she was all right, and to be in her presence again, made the tempest of emotions a little easier to bear.

“I'm sorry,” Sano sobbed.

“I know, my silly egg.” His mother brushed his hair with a tenderness Sano didn't feel he deserved.

“What happened?” he asked. “Where is Lady Yiling? What is going on now?”

“Oh, Sano. It's not a pretty story, but for your poor body's sake, try to calm down.” His mother pulled away from him, and tucked the blankets back around him. She wasn't the type to cry openly, but there were wrinkles on her forehead that meant she was upset. And something that upset a woman such as herself must be tantamount to disaster for anyone else. Sano braced himself for her explanation.

“The Ghoul – Lady Yiling, as you call her – is gone. I got separated from the fight in Liman by an ugly wall of thorns and spikes, and by the time I got over it, Angtara and her warriors had fled. They'd taken Lady Yiling with them. I wanted to chase after them, but you were my priority.”

Sano's mother waved at his body. “I found you at the top of the highest tower of rock, quite battered. You have a concussion and two cracked ribs. Your arm was a mess. The bone broke through your skin. I've set it back, and then stitched up your arm. It might not feel so bad right now, because I numbed it, but I don’t think it will recover its full function again. And I’m sure you’re too physically worn out to feel your mage-illness, but considering what you did in Liman, I’m certain you’ll need to make an offering soon. Still, you're lucky you landed high up. If you had fallen to the ground, you wouldn’t be here.”

His mother rubbed her forehead, and blinked watery eyes as if whisking away the memory of finding him on that rock. The tallest one, she'd said. His mother would have had to climb that! Dear Karingal, how long had she searched for him among the rubble, before trying the spikes?

Sano reached out, and squeezed his mother’s hand. She gave him a hesitant smile and said, “We should count our blessings. Not many others were as fortunate as us. Many people died, Sano.”

Sano closed his eyes, wishing he could shut out reality. He'd known as soon as the giant spikes emerged that he had caused something deadly. But until now he'd desperately, inanely hoped that everyone had somehow managed to avoid death.

“But that’s not all,” his mother added in an even more sombre tone. Dear Karingal, what more could there be? “Residents of Liman came to investigate the destruction. And to help, I assume, but they must have been shocked by what they saw. They panicked – they were angry and confused. So you can imagine what happened when the Malicious Wind passed us.”

The Malicious Wind. That must have been the foreboding terror Sano had felt while drifting in and out of consciousness. And it had arrived when there was absolute chaos. That meant more deaths. On his account.

“Right then, at that spot, nine people turned to wood,” Sano’s mother said. “I don’t know how many others were transformed across Liman as the Wind swept through.”

“Chief Dulan?” Sano croaked. The chief had seemed like a reasonable man, regardless of whether he would have allied with Lady Yiling or not. He didn’t deserve to have something like that happen to his home.

“He was one of the lucky ones, and we’d better be grateful for that. If he’d died, we would have enraged his people even more. As nobility, Chief Dulan did have plenty of mages and combatants in his household, and they were able to help during the upheaval, but he still lost people he cared about. There were a lot of petty fights, and we know the Wind doesn’t understand the complexity of what was happening at that time.”

Beneath his pain, indignation and rage flared within Sano. How could the Malicious Wind turn people into wood when they were trying to do something good? How could something so flawed have so much power?

“Why did the Malicious Wind even come then?” Sano groaned. Everyone said it was rare. He had gone a full month without encountering it again. What were the chances of the Malicious Wind arriving during the biggest disaster he had ever caused?

“I know why,” his mother replied. Sano’s eyes snapped open. “From the moment I first saw the wooden bodies in the Gilan village I visited, I knew what the Malicious Wind is. I know why it’s here.”

Sano’s heart thudded in his chest. For the first time, somebody actually had answers. “How? Why?”

“I promised Matiban I would wait for him to explain the whole story. The short of it is, it’s because of Angtara’s weapon. You remember what happened when you wielded it, didn’t you?”

Of course. Sano still recalled the incongruence of that moment, of seeing an effect that was so out of proportion to what he’d expected. He couldn’t even describe his shock. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing himself ten times taller. Sano had pushed a lot of magic into that sword, but he knew what that amount was capable of. It should never have caused that much damage.

But it had. It defied all expectations, all logic. Just like what Anina had told him about her magic.

“Anina!” Sano gasped. “Have you told her about this? She’s been searching for an explanation for years.”

“Your companion?” his mother asked. “She’s not here. Matiban says he hasn’t seen her for days now.”

Disappointment filled Sano. “She must have left after all.” To think how close she’d been to getting her answer. Anina could have just waited a few more days. They could have parted on good terms. Sano’s fight with her was still so fresh in his mind, her scathing accusations – naive, ungrateful – still echoing in his head as clearly as if she’d scripted them there. But Sano was sure he’d said some awful things too.

“Her belongings are still here,” his mother said, lips pointing to the corner of the room where Anina's pack and fighting staffs lay. “When she didn’t come back from the pond, Matiban searched for her. He discovered several pairs of unfamiliar footprints leading out to the river, and an ominous-looking hole near the pond. I’m not sure that bodes well for your friend.”

Sano was supposed to scout that night. What if enemies had infiltrated the southern forest after all, and they’d come across Anina? Had he condemned her to death too? An ache burned in his chest, a bitter mix of dread and regret. “I made that hole and left her in it, but I can’t account for the footprints.”

“You... left your friend in a hole?”

“We had a fight!” Sano cried.

“Oh dear, we need to work on your social skills.”

His mother's attempt at levity couldn't quite penetrate the dark cloud that settled over Sano. He knew now the horror of the destruction Anina had caused. How terrifying it must have been for her, unable to comprehend what had happened to her magic, to her village. She had tried to explain her anguish during their fight, but Sano had been so caught up in his own past that he had made light of her grief and her fear. Could he really blame Anina now for living the way she did – walking on eggshells, wanting to hide?

And now, it might even be too late to help her.

Anina gasped, and her eyes flew open. For a moment, she thought she was blind, but the dark shapes before her resolved themselves into rough stones, gleaming with moisture. Light was coming from somewhere to her side. She tried to turn her head, but she was like a piece of dried-up wood, creaky and brittle. A long, stretched-out groan emerged from her lips. The sound of it echoed all around her. She was in some kind of cave.

“Hey now, take it easy!” a rough voice called out. Footsteps came closer until an old man loomed over her. “You had quite a swim!”

Another set of footsteps pattered about, and a new, much younger voice spoke. “Is she awake?”

“Yes, Uwa, and you'd better fetch her some water. Do you want some water?” The old man looked at Anina, but before she could answer, he turned back to the young boy. “She wants water. Fetch some.”

There was something familiar about the old man, his surly expression, and the way he grumbled his words as if he couldn't believe people had the audacity to bother him. But Anina's head felt like it had been hollowed out, and there was no way she could sift through her memories now. Everything was jumbled, frayed. She had a deep-gutted sense that something severe had happened, and that she was lucky to be alive.

But Anina didn't feel lucky. She felt muted. The aches on her body clamoured for her attention, and there was not much room for anything else.

The boy, Uwa, came back and helped her take a sip of water. It was cool and refreshing and worth every bit of her struggle to drink it. Anina collapsed back on the ground, savouring the small relief, and swiftly drifted back into oblivion.

Anina didn't know how long she was out, but the next time she woke up, she was lucid enough to register the soft pangs of hunger in her stomach, triggered by the savoury smell filling the cave. She blinked a few times, trying to push the drowsiness away. She flexed her fingers, and when no pain came, she wiggled her toes. Those seemed fine too. Now for the hard part. Anina pushed herself up into a sitting position. She groaned. Aside from her extremities, it seemed like she had become one giant bruise.

“Aha, I knew this would wake you, greedy little girl!” the grouchy voice said.

The cave wasn't very big, but there was a narrow passageway on one side. Anina was in a corner of the cave, and at the centre was a small fire with a pot hanging over it. The old man crouched near it, one hand stirring and the other adding some spices. The boy who'd helped her drink was nowhere in sight.

“I suppose you'll want some of this now?” the man asked. There were a couple of bowls stacked beside him, and an assortment of raggedy packs leaned against one wall. “You're a lucky girl, you know that? Lucky! Stumbling across a kindly old man like me who could fish you out of the river and give you food! Well, if Likubay wills I cross your path, then I suppose I must do what I can. Not that it's convenient for me, not at all!”

Anina could barely follow what the old man was saying. However, his passing mention of the river shook her memories loose, and the events with Bunawi and Angtara rushed toward her like pebbles tumbling down a cliff. A false sense of vertigo assaulted Anina, and she leaned against the cave wall.

The old man drawled. “I found you tied-up, tangled in my fishing net. You almost drowned, and you only have me to thank that you didn't.”

“Oh. Thank you, I guess,” Anina whispered.

“Well, what else was I supposed to do? Leave you there? What in Karingal's name did you do anyway to anger the Dayungans camped upstream? I mean, I assume they were the ones who tied you up and dropped you in the river? Though I suppose it could be bandits. Or yourself, but that's a weird thing to do to yourself.”

“Yes, it was the Dayungans,” Anina answered, leaving out that it was specifically the king who had ordered it. “They... weren't pleased with me.”

“Meh, they're all cranky these days,” the old man confirmed. “Drove the lot of us out of Masagan too!”

Masagan... hold on, could this man be the cranky fellow from the market? The one who had given the three young textile merchants a difficult time for their Kataman patterns? Anina knew no other curmudgeon with the same snappish way of talking. He had never been an impressive figure, even when he'd been a snob to other people, but seeing him here in this cave, he seemed so much more... haggard. What a strange coincidence that he was one who'd saved Anina. “Wait, what happened in Masagan?” she asked.

The old man ladled some broth into one of the bowls and handed it to her. “What rock have you been hiding under that you don't know what happened in Masagan?”

“I know the bit about the Ghoul.” Anina took the bowl, and inhaled the wonderful aroma. The old man didn't seem to recognize her like she did him. Might as well make it seem like she hadn't been in Masagan, let alone in the very place the Ghoul had appeared.

“What do you think happened next when that thing appeared? Everyone held hands and sang songs? No, there was widespread panic, and most of us Katamans had to flee!”

Us Katamans, he'd said. Anina could still distinctly remember how the man had sneered at those three young weavers and boasted that the blood of a Gilan warrior ran through him. But how could Anina resent his haughtiness, when he was here now, when he had saved her and was helping her? Whatever this man had believed about himself hadn't spared him from the same plight that afflicted other Katamans.

A lump formed in Anina's throat, making it difficult to swallow her first sip of broth. The truth was, she could probably say the same thing about herself. She had been just like that old man, too bitter to empathize with her clansmen, too busy differentiating herself from them.

The man continued to speak. “Many people in Masagan suspect that Katamans knew about the Ghoul all along. Ha! If you ask me, they give us more credit than we deserve, thinking that we're capable of keeping a secret such as the Ghoul to ourselves! Anyway, the citizens of Masagan are paranoid now. If you're a Kataman, or even just friends with a Kataman, the market and the residential areas are no longer safe places for you. The Chief of Masagan and the Great Arbiter couldn't control the growing disturbances, and they started to encourage people to evacuate. That place is in shambles.

“Kunting River is packed with travellers trying to cross over to Katam. Those of us who need to go south would have to bypass that stupid camp upstream. That's why we're in this cold, damp place.” The old man pointed to the passageway. “This is a series of caves near Kunting. There's more of us spread out along it.”

Anina sighed. So many things had happened after she and Sano had fled from Masagan that she hadn't even had time to think about how Lady Yiling's appearance might have affected the settlement.

Anina worked on the soup the old man gave her – Sungid, if she remembered his name correctly. The soup was quite plain, made mostly of leafy vegetables, slices of taro, and some seasoning, but it soothed her empty stomach. When she finished, she set the bowl aside and laid back down.

Out of nowhere, the tears came. Anina hadn't even been ready for them. All that crying after her fight with Sano should have exhausted all her tears, but apparently not. Anina covered her face with her hands, embarrassed that this was happening, and rolled over to the side so that Sungid wouldn't see her.

“What are you crying for?” Sungid barked. “My soup not good enough for you, eh? Well, I told Uwa to come back with some rice cakes, but he hasn't yet, so that's the only thing you're getting.”

Anina ignored him, and curled in on herself. Something within her had cracked, and the pebbles of memories turned into huge chunks of vivid flashbacks, each one summoning another sob. One moment, the terror of falling consumed her. The next, she was overcome with the urge to bathe in the river and rid herself of the grimy feeling of having told Bunawi what he wanted to hear. Anina hated her weakness, hated that she could force herself to feel what he wanted her to feel, say what he wanted her to say. Where was her dignity? She had almost died, and her last days would have been spent boosting Bunawi's pride, while tearing Sano's down. Poor, dear Sano, whose smile she would never see again.

A fresh batch of tears fell just for him. Anina ached for him, ached on his behalf. All Sano had longed for was to live out in the open. Would anybody find him in Liman, beneath those mountains of rocks? Would anyone know what stories to say about him? The right stories; the ones he deserved. That he was a cheerful, caring boy who smiled so wide nobody knew he was hurting. She had thought Sano too naive, but between the two of them, he'd never been the weaker one. Not when he could believe in a better possibility despite the world saying there was none for him. Anina had just been too wrapped up in her own misery to take his joy seriously.