The Price of Cowardice
Sano's whole body went cold, his vision swimming with the symbols of the script. If the Ghoul of Katam came out of nowhere to eat him now, he would probably thank it.
Lord Matiban’s eyes narrowed. Gone was the neutral facade he’d worn their entire conversation. “Considering how quickly you were able to read that, I assume you’ve had quite a bit of practice reading in Kataman.”
Sharp guilt slithered down Sano’s chest. He’d been so desperate to act normal, he had crossed the line between deferential and appeasing. So appeasing, in fact, that he’d readily validated Lord Matiban’s script without stopping to even think about the language it was written in.
Excuses flitted through his mind, but all of them were too pathetic to even attempt. Anina’s lips moved, but no sound came out of her either.
Lord Matiban retrieved the slip of bamboo from Sano’s soft hold. “Even if it weren’t for this, I’m afraid your other answers would make anyone suspicious. Sight-seeing, really? And bignay trees don’t yield fruits this time of the year yet. Why would you lie about the reason you got mage-illness, unless there’s something about the real reason that you’d hate for me to know?”
The warrior continued in a tone that made Sano light-headed with fear. “What happened to my fellow warriors who were ordered to take you to King Bunawi? If you’ve killed them–”
“No!” Sano blurted.
“Sano!” Anina gasped, and he knew he’d just admitted what had so far gone unsaid. But it didn’t matter now. Lord Matiban was perceptive, and given the choice to tell the truth or be accused of something they didn’t do, Sano would choose the former.
“Yes, I’m the mage who stopped the landslide,” Sano said, the words grating against his throat as if he was clawing them out. “But Anina had nothing to do with that. And we didn’t kill the warriors sent after me. The Malicious Wind caught them!”
Lord Matiban crossed his arms. His eyes were hard, and he prolonged the unnerving silence until Sano could no longer bear it. He said in defeat, “Sir, I will come with you without any more resistance if you let Anina go.” Sano couldn’t cover his tracks anymore, but he could at least lessen the consequences for Anina. She was only here because of him, and he was ashamed to think that he would repay her kindness with death.
Lord Matiban turned towards the merry villagers. Sano could hear their carefree laughter and easy chatter. Even in a village, he was still so far removed from truly belonging in the world.
Sano stood up from the tree stump, setting aside the banana leaf with his meal, which now looked unappetizing. “Please,” he said, the warrior’s impassiveness unbearable.
Lord Matiban sighed, and pulled out the sword at his hip. Sano jumped back.
But the warrior didn’t strike him. Instead, Lord Matiban placed the tip of the sword to the bamboo sheet, and a sharp blue light sliced through the blade. The sheet went up in flames. Lord Matiban let the fire eat the sheet away until he could drop it to the ground and step on the ashen remains.
Sano stared at the ashes in confusion. Lord Matiban had just destroyed the evidence.
“Don’t speak of this to anyone,” Lord Matiban commanded, voice steely. “I want you out of this village first thing in the morning. Make sure our paths don’t cross again, or things will turn out very differently.”
Dumbstruck, Sano stood immobile as Lord Matiban walked back into the village. Anina sat on the stump, mouth agape in astonishment.
“He’s not going to arrest me,” Sano whispered after Lord Matiban disappeared into the crowd. “I don’t understand. What in Karingal’s name just happened?”
Anina shrugged in bafflement. “He made sure you were the illegal mage, but somehow he wants to keep it a secret.”
Was it a trap somehow? Or were they really free to go?
Of course Sano was relieved that neither he nor Anina were going to die, relieved that he wasn’t even going to face any kind of repercussion from someone so high-ranking. But the impossibility of the situation was difficult to process.
“What are we going to do now?”
“We leave,” Anina stated. “There’s no safer option.”
Sano turned back to the crowd to see what Lord Matiban was up to. As he did, he glimpsed the edge of a skirt disappearing behind Silim’s hut. “Did you see that?”
Anina peered in the dark, but shook her head. “What was it?”
“I thought I saw someone.” Maybe it was just a person passing by. Or perhaps Silim just needed something in her hut. It might not have meant anything.
Still, a heaviness permeated the air, and Sano and Anina were much more subdued when they picked up their dinner again.
Even before the first light of dawn shone upon the village, Anina roused Sano to prepare to leave. Most of the villagers were still asleep. Anina even considered fleeing before Aklin and Danihon woke up. Just the thought of bidding them farewell so suddenly, without a proper explanation, made her jittery.
However, while they were busy packing the food that Silim generously offered for their journey, Danihon popped out of nowhere to pull her aside.
“To be honest with you, we weren’t here for an inspection at all,” he whispered to her conspiratorially. Anina hid her mortification behind a face of forced curiosity. “We were looking for a mage who saved a village using Kataman scripts. When Aklin and I saw Sano, we were afraid he might be the rogue we’re after. Good thing Lord Matiban confirmed that he wasn’t.”
“Did he, now?” Anina tried to keep her voice steady. “That’s good. It wouldn’t be very impressive if you brought that bumbling boy back to the king.” She pointed her lips in Sano’s direction, where he was talking to the food he was packing.
Aklin came to bid her goodbye as well. “It’s too bad we didn’t get to catch up, but Lord Matiban thinks we shouldn’t waste any more time here either. We’ll be moving southeast as soon as we’re ready.”
Southeast. That would be in the opposite direction she and Sano were going. Lord Matiban really did seem like he wanted nothing to do with Sano. It unsettled Anina that she couldn’t understand the man's intentions.
“If you’re going to Gila anyway, you should drop by to see Ma and Pa,” Aklin encouraged her. “Shouldn’t be too long of a journey from wherever you’re taking Sano. Gila’s roads and waterways are better maintained than the ones in Katam.”
By that time, Sano had finished wrapping up the food and was waiting for her. Eager to leave without running into Lord Matiban, Anina made a hasty promise to visit the orphanage. Before long, she and Sano were out of the village.
They spent the rest of the day putting as much distance as they could between themselves and the warriors. They did very little talking. Sano didn’t chat about magic, and Anina barely briefed him about the kingdom.
By nightfall they reached the banks of a tributary. They could ride it westward until they reached Kunting River, which marked the border between the chiefdoms of Gila and Katam. Anina estimated it would be another two days’ travel from that point to reach the third village, where Sano said his mother had gone.
They settled on the bank of the tributary for the night. Bodies of water were popular places to make a sacrifice; here, the bank was dotted with signs of old offerings, like naked fruit branches, broken jars, empty winnowers, and sheets of banana leaves.
They ate what was left of the provisions Silim had given them. Anina had hoped they would have lasted longer, but there wasn’t much to begin with, and it was her own fault half her share didn’t end up in her belly. She had offered it to Likubay, praying for better luck on their journey.
After eating and washing up, Sano and Anina laid down to sleep. Anina was staring up at the sky, reflecting on the promise she made to her brothers. She had often planned to visit the orphanage, though she’d always lost her nerve. But maybe after her business with Sano and the Hermit Mage, Anina could finally go back home again.
“I’m sorry,” Sano said, interrupting her thoughts and rolling over to face her. “For almost getting us captured.”
Anina sighed. It was true that she had been irritated with Sano. If he hadn’t forgotten to make a sacrifice, he wouldn’t have caught mage-illness, and they would likely not have crossed paths with her brothers and Lord Matiban. But she couldn’t blame him for everything. She had sought the Hermit Mage on her own. She had agreed to Sano’s bargain. Even now, she chose to remain with Sano to accompany him to Gila.
And she must believe in those choices; believe that she still had some control.
“It’s fine,” Anina responded. “I fouled up Lord Matiban’s interrogation too. We just have to be more careful from here on out. More alert.”
Sano watched her for a moment, then asked, “Have you ever thought about entering the army like your brothers? Or was that completely out of the question, given how you feel about the king?”
“Oh, how I feel about the king would be the least of my problems if I’d considered entering the army. Unless you’re born into the warrior class, you need to pass a test for either combat or magery. No Kataman has ever passed it.”
Anina shrugged. “For various reasons. Not strong enough, not fast enough, scripts not efficient enough. I hear a lot of them go home wounded or crippled.”
Sano whistled. “Doesn’t that sound suspicious?”
“It’s the same test given to anyone else,” Anina explained. “Many Gilans and Dayungans pass often enough. Even those from the smaller regions sometimes do too. If you ask me, I just don’t think the Katamans who audition are as prepared. Look at the Gilans. They are proud of their martial skills and many youths outside of the warrior class are taught early. Like Aklin was.”
“Perhaps you're right,” Sano conceded. “Well then, I think the Katamans who failed are brave, in an ironic way. They knew the odds were against them, but they still tried.”
“Or they were stupid,” Anina said with a chuckle.
“Sure, but if nobody tried, then that’s just one more reason for people to say Katamans are cowards, like the last paramount chief of Katam.”
Anina couldn’t argue with that. The last leader who had ruled Katam had escaped to the southern jungles instead of battling King Bunawi honourably. Katamans had inherited a reputation of being as cowardly as that old chief.
“Do you think the paramount chief really turned into the Ghoul of Katam?” Sano asked in a whisper. Anina swallowed a bark of laughter. Just when she thought she’d seen the extent of Sano’s childishness, he would prove her wrong.
Stories said that the paramount chief had been so consumed by guilt for abandoning his people that he’d transformed into an unnatural creature. His cowardice had stooped his back, his selfishness had hardened his skin into bark – and his fickleness had created a hunger so severe, he could only satiate it by gobbling up children. The Ghoul possessed mystical abilities like appearing in two places at once, so all naughty children across the kingdom were in equal danger of being eaten. All the tales about The Ghoul ended with at least one child dying, after which The Ghoul would say its infamous taunt: “You only have yourself to blame.”
Anina shook her head at Sano. “How do you still have time to wonder about the Ghoul of Katam? Look, it’s been thirty years since King Bunawi took over. The paramount chief is most likely dead. And the Ghoul? I think it’s just a silly tale to scare children.”
“Too bad,” Sano said with a smile. “Back there with Lord Matiban, I was hoping the Ghoul would save me by eating me.”
Anina snickered. “I wouldn't consider that saving, to be honest.”
Their conversation ended there, and Anina’s mind drifted into a safe blankness. In her sleep, she dreamt of the orphanage and the games she used to play with the other children. A few times she woke to the scent of mangoes and imagined the Ghoul of Katam standing next to the bank, but Anina was so exhausted that she wasn’t even scared by the tricks of her mind.
Anina and Sano set off down the tributary the next morning on a raft Anina had found abandoned along the bank. While she paddled, Sano babbled away about something called a smoke-bar, one of the most popular requests his mother received from clients.
“I don't have one in my pack, but they're a roll of special leaves and herbs. And when you light them up, the smoke they produce doesn't dissipate immediately. Mages once used smoke-bars when they wanted to write directly in the air!”
“Used to, huh?” Anina said. She had never seen smoke-bars in her entire life. “What made people stop using it?”
“Ah, they were banned by the king when Mother was nine years old,” Sano stated. “He suspected that people wrote with the smoke in different languages, but he could never get any proof.”
Anina supposed that a smoke-bar would be useful for warming or cooling air, but there were already legal ways to do that with a fan. Smoke-bars were fascinating, but they weren't worth breaking the law for. If anything, they might make better distress signals rather than a medium for anto scripts.
When Sano took over the paddling, Anina sat down to rest her muscles. The water was calm, and the breeze gentle. The tribulation with Lord Matiban receded from Anina's memory against the softness of the day. It was hard to believe their encounter was just two nights ago.
Anina's staffs rolled across the surface of the raft and bumped against her thigh. Remembering what it was about Sano that had first piqued her curiosity, she covered the end of one of her staffs with a foot.
“What’s the trick here?” she asked Sano. “Should my foot be in some special position?”
He glanced at her, and realized that she was trying to activate an anto script. “Not at all. Just think about how you push magic out of your hands. Use that same technique, but divert the magic to your feet.”
Anina was used to the trickling of magic down her arms as if she were born with pathways carved in them. She couldn’t feel other routes in her body that she could divert the magic to. Even so, Anina spent some time tapping into her pool of magic, and trying to direct it to her legs. She didn’t succeed, but she kept trying until she got a headache.
Their ride on the tributary continued without any incident. For food, they caught fish or collected wild berries by the riverbank. A couple of times, a boat passed by them, but the riders didn’t pay them any attention. When night came, they pulled the raft to dry ground, and slept near the water like they had the previous night. Late the next day, they finally arrived at the junction between the tributary and Kunting River.
Kunting was named for the way it cut through the large island that housed the Kingdom of Dayung and the Unconquered Lands. At this part, the island narrowed to a conservative width, with Katam tucked between the river to its west and the mountains to its east.
Anina was not surprised to find almost a dozen boats on the major river. They varied in size, from small passenger boats that held families, to a large trading boat heaped high with crates of merchandise. There were also multiple rafts like the one that she and Sano were riding.
Along the bank on their side of the river were vendors sitting on faded blankets or worn-out mats. They sold rice cakes, fruits, and spiced drinks. There weren’t many vendors, and even their wares looked halfhearted compared to the similar line-up on the Gilan side of the river. On that side, Anina could see sturdy stalls and colourful sheets.
As they prepared to cross Kunting, Anina took over the paddles. She gave Sano both her staffs, and pointed to the anto scripts that could propel water. “Since your magic is stronger than mine, it’s best if you activate those, and I can steer us in the right direction. Our goal is to get to that tributary on the other side.” Anina pointed northwest. “It will take us further west, parallel to the coast, and should pass the village your mother went to.”
They entered Kunting then, and while Anina paddled furiously, Sano gave them the burst of speed they needed to offset the surge of the river. Even as Anina focused on paddling, she scanned the people on the boats and rafts, as well as those who were loitering on the banks. None of them seemed to be the king’s warriors. There were a few enforcers on the Gilan side – men and women who wore warriors’ garb, but not the king’s colours. They stood alert, offered directions, or inspected merchandise. Any trade that occurred on Kataman soil was taxed twice as much as the rest of the kingdom.
Double-taxing was one of King Bunawi’s peacekeeping tactics after the rebellion sixteen years ago. That rebellion actually involved nobility, shamans, warriors, and mages from all across the kingdom who were dissatisfied with the king’s rule. But because the rebellion had brewed in Katam, it became known as the Kataman Rebellion. King Bunawi had then increased taxes and tributes in Katam to ensure its people were kept in line and to make an example of them.
Anina shook her head to clear her thoughts. “Do you see your mother around?” she asked Sano.
He turned to observe the other passengers on the river. “I don’t think so.”
They were now almost to the opposite tributary. An enforcer stood there, waiting to approve them and send them through. As they had very few belongings, the enforcer didn’t spend a lot of time with them and didn’t ask a lot of questions. But just when Anina thought they would be able to pass without any hassle, the enforcer stretched out a hand.
“Toll, please,” he said in Dayungan.
Anina paused. “There wasn’t a toll when I crossed the other way some days ago.”
“There’s a new toll to cross into Gila now. You can't just leave Katam without a toll.” The enforcer wiped sweat from his forehead. He had the indifference of someone who did not do his job with a passion, but he did look like he would call for backup if Anina gave him any trouble. “Come now. It’s one hundred fifty grams of copper.”
“One hundred fifty?” she echoed. What a theft!
A few heads turned their way, and Anina hunkered down to pull money from her pouch.
“Here, I have fifty grams of copper,” Sano said, shaking out his own pouch until it was empty. The beads glinted in his palm as he offered them to her. It was all the money he had in his pack, and she appreciated that he was willing to shoulder some of the fee, but they shouldn’t have had to pay so much in the first place.
After she paid the toll, Anina only had a few beads of copper left, barely adding up to three grams.
The enforcer finally let them pass. Anina tried not to glare at the enforcer. The law didn’t come from him. He probably didn’t even realize – or care – how long it had taken her to earn the one hundred grams of copper she’d handed him in a single moment.
Sano placed a hand on her shoulder. “It's all right. We're almost there, aren't we? We'll meet with my mother soon enough.”
Anina certainly hoped so.