It took Sano two full days of bed rest to feel somewhat like himself again. The shaman who had been assigned to care for him prescribed at least a month of continuous rest and medicine. For now, he had to wear padded cloth around his feet if he wanted to walk; his left ankle was still sprained, although he was glad that he hadn't broken it fully during the fight. His wounded arm, however, had worsened. Added to the numerous other minor injuries, and it was no wonder why it would take a while for him to heal. Still, Sano was one of the lucky ones, and he tried not to complain too much.
On the third day since their return to Liman, Chief Dulan threw a feast. Sano, bundled in bandages and leaning against his mother for support, went to the newly reconstructed compound. Lady Yiling had fixed the damage that he'd inflicted on the grounds, and the area was now as flat as they had first found it. The sprawling interconnected huts were replaced by a single, sturdy longhouse for the time being.
Chief Dulan and his family stood in front of the longhouse. His warriors lined up beside them, wearing their best clothes, although they too were covered with bandages like Sano. The communal platform to the side held long tables of food. There would be enough for each household in the settlement.
Before the feast began, Chief Dulan made an announcement. People from all over Liman congregated in the area to hear it. “People of Liman,” he called in a loud voice. “To say that the past several days have been stressful and confusing would be a severe understatement. Over the next few days you will hear stories, many of them conflicting. So listen carefully to what I will explain now, because this is the truth that we stand on.”
Chief Dulan began with the story of the Moon Metals and their connection to the Malicious Wind. The legend captured the attention of the crowd and quickly established that the recent conflict was about more than just Bunawi and the Ghoul of Katam. He explained the fraught attempts of the Ghoul to help Katamans, and how these had spiralled into the battle at the border of the chiefdom. He was succinct, and he avoided sugar-coating.
Sano knew this was also the story Lady Nawa, the late king's prime shaman, would relate to the people of Dayung. Before leaving the battlefield, she had demanded they tell her everything so that she might go back to her own chiefdom with the whole story in her hands. Sano was relieved that Lady Nawa had been there, and that she had offered to be the one to bear the terrible news of the king's death to his people. Powerful and honourable shamans commanded respect that few others could aspire to, and their story would be more easily accepted if people heard it from her.
“The fate of our chiefdom is still unknown,” Chief Dulan continued. “King Bunawi's nephew will take over the throne, as Princess Angtara had no children. The duel that took place is considered invalid, and will not determine the status of Katam. King Bunawi held it for his own pride, and Lady Yiling did not acquire enough support from Katamans to legitimize it. There will be a kingdom-wide council shortly to discuss what happens to us. In the meantime, as I'm sure many of you have heard, warriors have been posted along Katam's borders.”
Sano heard varying theories from Lady Yiling and Lord Matiban that either Katam would be expelled from the kingdom, or retained under tighter control. Sano was more curious about what other Katamans wanted. He'd overheard from a conversation that the residents of Angbun were unhappy that the king had been defeated.
On the other hand, there was talk of sympathizers across the kingdom. Some even suggested that the Great Arbiter of Masagan herself had prevented supplies from reaching Bunawi's camp, stalling their advance further into Katam. Others denied it, saying the supplies could not be delivered because Masagan was a wreck after the appearance of the Ghoul.
There were so many different reactions that Sano sometimes wished he was in one of his mother's stories, where the villain had been somebody everybody hated. He could then feel reassured that things would get better now that the villain was gone. It would even be easier for Sano to sympathize with the king if Bunawi had some kind of tragic past or a tortured soul to explain his cruelty towards Katamans. Instead, Sano had the difficult job of reconciling that Bunawi had treated Katamans poorly for his own self-aggrandizement, and that many people in the kingdom had loved the king in spite of it – and maybe even because of it.
Chief Dulan noted the air of worry that suffused the crowd, and he shifted his stance. He rolled his shoulders back, held his chin high, and stretched his lips into a soft smile. “I know it's easy to take this news and feel hopeless. But we must not ignore the favours with which the deities have showered us. Despite the dangers we faced, we're still here, living and breathing. We have avenged our dead. Our village is intact once again. Many things are uncertain, but this does not have to bode poorly for us. Good tidings are still possible, and the feast today honours that possibility.”
The people cheered with heartfelt gratitude. Sano marvelled at how Chief Dulan easily turned the mood around.
The feast began, and servants doled out servings for each family. Sano and his mother received enough food to share with Lady Yiling and Lord Matiban back at their temporary lodgings. Carrying their basket of rice cakes, fruits, and meat stews, they manoeuvred their way out of the crowd. Sano took one last look at Chief Dulan. There were entertainers dancing in front of the chief, and he was surrounded by an entourage of his best warriors and loyal servants. His wife sat next to him, bouncing their baby on her lap, and the rest of his relatives lounged about. Once in a while a cheer would erupt from his people. Someone was already writing a song about him.
Chief Dulan was probably the person closest to Sano's idea of a hero. The man exuded esteem and power; he was reasonable and practical, and he was handy with both a sword and anto scripts. He was also kind enough to not blame Sano for destroying his home.
Yet there was something missing. Sano couldn't quite place his finger on it until he noticed the small wrinkle between the man's brows, and only then did he understand. What the chief lacked was the polish, the shimmer, the grandeur that Sano had always envisioned heroes to have. And how could Chief Dulan have those, with some of his people dead and their future uncertain? Many things must weigh the chief down, things that Sano had never considered in his daydreams.
Chief Dulan caught Sano's eye and gave him a small nod. Sano bowed, then followed his mother home.
At the edge of the village, there were shabby huts built for people who had lost their homes when Angtara had attacked. One of these was now occupied by Sano and his mother, and they shared it with Lady Yiling and Lord Matiban. Lady Yiling had wanted to return to her lair at first, but decided it might make her look too cowardly.
“Oh good, you brought us some food!” Lady Yiling helped set the makeshift table, which was really nothing more than a sheet in the middle of the room.
“I still think it would have been good if you had made an appearance during the Chief's speech,” Sano's mother said as she placed the basket down. She took out the leaf-wrapped rice cakes, pickled fruits, and the bowls of stew. “The people of Liman need to get used to seeing you.”
“I know,” Lady Yiling replied. “And I have to get used to them. There's plenty of time for that, I'm sure.”
The four of them settled down around the sheet, and dug in. Sano found it delightful to share a delicious meal with his family and friends. The comfort of their company more than made up for the bareness of their hut.
Sano's mother had become quick friends with Lady Yiling, fascinated by her history and her oddness. Lord Matiban remained a man of few words, but he too appeared at ease and was healing well. Sano didn't know if Lord Matiban had had a chance to talk to Aklin and Danihon before the two returned to Little Dayung, but from what Sano had seen during the battle, the two young men didn't seem to bear him any ill will.
Sano looked at his mother and Lady Yiling and Lord Matiban. They smiled as they ate, sharing jokes and funny stories, but they too bore a touch of sombreness like Chief Dulan did. Except unlike the chief, they probably wouldn't have songs written about them any time soon.
When the meal finished, Sano went out to explore the village. His mother had insisted that he rest, but he promised her he would only take a short while. Sano wanted to get to know some of the people nearby, partly as a sign of goodwill – but mostly because for the first time in his life, he could.
When Sano stepped foot in the nearest neighbourhood, several of the villagers stared blankly at him. He gave them tentative smiles, a little nervous. Chief Dulan might not have blamed him for damaging Liman, but perhaps the villagers did in secret. Sano watched the bustle of afternoon activities – the children playing, the older women hanging laundry to dry – and wondered how he should approach them.
Sano took a deep breath to calm his anxiety, and in its place came a sense of rightness. He realized he liked being around others as himself, basking in their shared humanity, even when he was here to make up for his mistakes. He might not yet know who he was or what he was worth, but being a simple human among other humans was a good place to start.
Anina opened her eyes and released a long breath.
It was only after a moment of growing awareness that she realized she shouldn't have been able to breathe anymore. So she took another one.
Anina was in a long, rectangular room, with two rows of sleeping pallets. There were around fifteen other people in the room with her, some of them awake. The scent of herbs and freshly cleaned sheets filled the air.
Anina tried pushing herself up from her pallet. Her muscles were creaky, but otherwise she seemed all right. At least no worse than after Bunawi had thrown her off the ravine. Considering that the last thing she remembered was turning into wood, this was not a bad state to be in at all.
A woman knelt beside her. At first Anina thought she might be a shaman, but she wasn't dressed like one. The telltale loops of charms around the neck were missing; no dangling crocodile tooth or a feather of an omen-bird.
The woman had a warm, open face. She smiled at Anina, and her cheeks revealed a pair of deep dimples. Anina recognized her then. This woman was the one who had been fighting with Angtara during the battle. She was Sano's mother.
“Oh, good day,” Anina managed to utter. Her voice was raspier than usual. She had wanted to meet the Hermit Mage for so long, that she didn't quite know how to react now that they could talk face-to-face.
“Good day to you. I'm glad to see you awake,” the Hermit Mage said. “Took you a bit longer than the others. How are you feeling?”
“Um, I'm fine, thank you.” Anina looked around her, feeling suddenly self-conscious. She brushed her hair away from her face.
“Glad to hear it. You can call me Kabi.” She gave Anina a small cup of water to drink. After Anina emptied the cup, she asked about what happened.
“You think you have the energy now to endure a long story?” Kabi asked.
Anina nodded. “Please, tell me everything.”
And Kabi did. She began explaining, from the time when she had left Sano more than a month ago in the foothills, and then relayed the events leading up to the tragedy in Liman. She gave a simplistic account of their attack on Bunawi's camp, and then finished off with the king's death and the implosion of the Malicious Wind.
“Those swords must have contained the last of the existing Moon Metals. It's a relief. Otherwise the Malicious Wind would still be here.”
“And my brothers?” Anina asked. “They're warriors in Bunawi's army. Where are they now?”
“Aklin and Danihon, isn't that right?” Kabi confirmed. “They offered to take you back to the orphanage in Gila, which they insisted is your real home, but Lady Nawa, the shaman, was afraid you wouldn't be safe there, considering the part you played in the royals'... demise.”
“Ah.” That was all Anina could say. She looked at her hands. Wrapped in thin bandages, they looked feeble now, but Anina knew these were the hands that had killed Angtara. Somehow, she didn't know how to feel about it.
Kabi opened a pouch hanging from her belt and took out a rough rock with lots of sharp angles. She handed it over to Anina.
“I saw the stone figures you keep in your pack back at Lady Yiling's home,” Kabi said. “Sano told me they were for your family. He said you’d have carried a bag full of rocks for your old village, if you could. Anyway, I found this rock earlier today, and I thought you might appreciate it.”
Anina rolled the rock in her hand. Its edges could cut skin if she wasn't careful. Anina would never choose this rock to symbolize anyone she was fond of. But she had a feeling that Kabi wasn't giving it to her for someone she cared about.
“For Angtara?” Anina asked. For the one life that she had taken with intent. A life was a life; Anina must remember that.
“Thank you.” Anina cleared her throat. “What's happening now?”
“We don't know yet. A council will gather shortly to discuss what needs to be done. The borders of Katam are guarded to prevent hostilities from spilling in or breaking out. So in the meantime, we're all just trying to recover.”
Kabi checked up on the others in the room after that. Before she left the infirmary, she turned back to Anina and told her that she, Sano, Lady Yiling, and Lord Matiban were staying in one of the new huts at the southern edge of Liman.
Some time later, a shaman entered the room and gave some spiced broth and rice cakes to those who were awake. After eating, Anina felt refreshed enough that a walk outside seemed enticing. The afternoon sun blazed brightly, and cool air streamed in from the open windows.
Anina raised the collar of her tunic to her nose. A bath would probably do her some good too.
That was when Anina noticed the small square patch of bandage covering her upper chest. She already knew what it hid, and yet, as she uncovered the spot, her hand shook and she barely dared to breathe. Looking around her, she borrowed a polished dagger lying beside a sleeping woman. Anina stared at her reflection on the blade. The cut was not deep, and it had already started to scar. Some parts were puckered with dried blood.
Anina returned the dagger beside the woman's pallet, throat tight, and she knew that before anything else, there was one thing she had to do first.
It wasn't difficult to find the guest huts at the edge of Liman. Each of them was shabby and tiny, probably not much bigger than the room Anina and Sano had shared in Masagan. Even so, seeing those little huts sent a wave of tenderness through her. There was a coziness in their imperfection that made her feel like she wasn't so out of place there.
Anina steeled herself, and headed straight for the first hut. She didn't even know if that was the right hut, or even if it was, whether Sano would be in it. Knowing him, he was probably out playing with kids or chatting with the villagers.
Anina took her chance anyway. She was quite surprised when she found the door ajar and, peeking inside, saw Sano near the window on the opposite side. The creaking of the door made him turn, and his eyes widened at the sight of her. Now that Anina stood before him, her thoughts dispersed.
It was somewhat reassuring to see Sano open his mouth and close it again, as if he was struggling as much as she was. Except framed by the golden light of the setting sun, washed and draped in well-fitting clothes, he looked ten times more decent than she did. Sano's left arm was still bound in a sling, and he sported both bandages and bruises liberally, but he seemed well on the way to recovery.
Anina tried to speak first, but he did too, and they ended up quiet again.
Sano cleared his throat, and motioned for her to go.
Anina still couldn't get her thoughts in order. “I heard you body-slammed a sea-serpent on its head,” was the only thing that escaped her mouth.
Sano blinked, and then chuckled. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, yes. I don't recommend it. Not a very kind thing to do to the creatures at all. I bet it was cross-eyed all the way back to the sea.”
They laughed. Anina felt a rush at the sight of his smile. There hadn't been much to smile about when they were fighting Angtara. She'd forgotten how contagious it was. “So, are people hailing you a hero now?” she asked. “They should.”
Sano continued to rub his neck, cheeks growing ruddy. “No, they're not. After all the danger I put everyone in, it might be a while before I earn that title. It's fine though. I don't need to be a hero.”
After a few moments of awkwardness, Anina decided to throw all caution to the wind and just spit out what she came here for.
“I'm sorry,” she said, at the same time he also said it.
They both sighed. “No, please, just go first,” Anina told him.
“Thanks, because uh, I've been rehearsing.” Sano cringed. “What I mean is, I just really want this to come out right. I... well – oh Karingal – I forgot my lines.” He scratched his head, agitated. “Look, uh, Anina, I'm sorry I left you in a hole. I'm sorry about the hole in the first place! And all of the things I said when you told me about your village. I didn't understand.”
He breathed slowly and repeated, “I didn't understand at all. I didn't even try, and the worst part was that I didn't want to. All this time, I had chosen to see you as someone who was capable of anything. Don't get me wrong, you are very strong and resourceful, but you were lost too, and I didn't want to see that part. Because it would have meant that my mother was right. That the world could be so cruel, it could break someone like you. I didn't want to accept that hiding and living alone was a better alternative.
“But I should have realized sooner that neither of our lives had been ideal, and we were jealous of each other over nothing but scraps. I had no right to take the pain you showed me and throw it back at you like I did.” Sano lowered his gaze. “I was no friend to you when you really needed one, and I am so, so sorry.”
Anina was at a loss for words, even more so than before. “Oh boy, I should have gone first. How do I even follow that up?” she said with an awkward chuckle.
“Say you forgive me?” Sano looked at her, eyes so dark and deep and full of apology. “But you don't have to. It's up to you.”
“I'm sorry. I was wrong too,” Anina admitted. “Wrong to dismiss your pain because it wasn't the same as mine. You had every right to feel hurt. Sano, you are my greatest friend, and if I ever made you feel like you weren't, that's my fault. I forgive you, and I hope you forgive me, because I think it's well past time for us to start healing.”
Anina had let her grief rule her for so long. Her fingers sought the scar on her chest, the one that instructed her to live. Not just to make it through the day, joyless and dead-eyed, but to truly live in every sense of the word, ka. She had wondered before why that single word could mean three different things, and she understood now that it meant more than those individual words combined.
Anina had been granted too many chances at life, and she felt deep in her soul that no more would come. She couldn't waste this one.
A tear leaked under her lid and dropped down her cheek. Anina didn't even know she had started to cry. She laughed from discomfort, rubbing the tear away. “I hope I'm not embarrassing you.”
“No, not at all.” Sano walked slowly towards her. “Please, won't you let me hold you?”
Anina gave him a sad smile. “I would, but I haven't bathed yet.”
Sano laughed, rolling his eyes, and then pulled Anina to him. She sunk into his embrace. It was a little clumsy with one of his arms in a sling, but they both managed. In Sano's arm, her wet face in his shoulder, Anina began to feel better than she had in a long, long time.