Sano’s mother had once said that if it weren’t for Gila’s port settlement of Masagan, the Kingdom of Dayung wouldn’t exist at all.
The chiefdom of Gila was known for its fierce warriors and mages, its wily chiefs, and its culinary excellence. Gold and cotton and rice, everything that was in demand across the islands of the archipelago, grew right out of Gila.
But it was Gila's thriving port at Masagan that had attracted the eye of King Bunawi’s father, who had ruled the chiefdom of Dayung at that time. His name was Taruwid, and with his sharp eyes for mercantilism, he had seen opportunities with Masagan – and Gila at large. He proposed to the chiefs of Gila to unite with Dayung, and when the Gilan chiefs concurred, the two chiefdoms turned into a powerful region.
That region didn’t become a kingdom until Bunawi took over and declared himself king. He doubled down on Taruwid's dreams, annexing adjacent regions with a ruthless efficiency devoid of the niceties his own father was known for.
“That’s why when our paramount chief ran away, Bunawi was so insulted,” Sano’s mother had explained when Sano was younger. “He was a young man then, trying to escape Taruwid's shadow. Katam was to be Bunawi's first conquest. But our paramount chief didn’t give him the duel that would establish his fighting prowess, and Bunawi looked for ways to prove his superiority every since.”
Sano and Anina had travelled two nights and a day on the river and arrived at Masagan just as dawn broke. They had bid the kind potter farewell, and now Anina led Sano through the vast settlement that bordered the port, cutting straight through its centre to exit at the opposite side. She wasn’t interested in the residences so much as the market by the docks.
It was still early morning, yet dozens of people filled the lanes between houses, many of them carrying packs and heading north to the market. Others peddled their wares, heavy bundles bound to long sticks that they slung across their shoulders. A few times when Sano was gawking at the longhouses, he almost ran into those poles, and Anina had to steer him out of the way.
The dwellings they passed were the neatest and sleekest Sano had ever seen. Straight-cut wood and tightly braided panels of rattan formed the walls. The ladder steps that led to the doorways were smooth and sturdy. Not a single straw was out of place on the thatched roofs. Sano’s home had been nice and cozy, but it was definitely shabby compared to these.
And the noise! Anina cringed at it, but Sano basked in it. People chatted and laughed and shouted. They called out each others’ names or titles. Kids cheered in glee, playing games the rules of which Sano couldn’t figure out. Friends clapped each other on the back; older folks gossiped by the entrances of their homes. Everyone seemed so connected, so full of life. Sano had been a little glum since he'd failed to reunite with his mother, but the vigour of this place cheered him plenty.
Was life similar to this in Katam's more populated communities? Sano's mother had once mentioned that compared to other people, Katamans preferred a quieter lifestyle. They spoke in gentler tones, acted with subtler expressions. Even their clothes were simpler. Of course, all of those started to change after Katam was merged into the Kingdom of Dayung. Not only because of the influences from other regions, but also because their simplicity was so easily misconstrued as meekness, and therefore, cowardice. Sano wished he could travel throughout Katam to see what it was really like.
Masagan's settlement was so large that Sano and Anina only managed to finish crossing it in the afternoon. By that time, the paths they left behind were mostly empty as people retreated to spend their time indoors. The sun was at its highest, and the heat was already giving them a taste of the dry season.
When they exited through the north-facing wall, they emerged in a sparsely wooded area, with well-worn paths leading to the market and the port. The trees were thin and did little to obscure the view towards the harbour. There were large vessels docked there, though Sano could only see the tops of them from his vantage point. His heart constricted at the sight of the ships. He’d only seen ships from afar in the foothills. Would he ever get to ride on one?
A cool breeze brought in the salty scent of the sea. Sano followed Anina down the curving path to the entrance of the market, the din becoming louder.
“Stay close,” Anina warned. She gripped his hand, and they plunged into the surging, undulating crowd.
A tide of bodies nudged and pushed against Sano. People yelled the prices of their wares, the quality of their goods, the faults of their competitors, and the merits of their customers. Vivid colours flashed by as people dressed in bright silks and deeply-dyed cotton moved along. The tang of lime juice mingled with the pungency of dried, salted fish. The fresh scent of steamed rice cakes wafted past, among aromas Sano had never smelled before. Good thing Anina was holding onto him. He felt like he was being pulled in all directions at once.
They reached a section of the market that wasn’t as crowded, and it became a little easier to breathe. Sano could at least look around without someone’s head blocking his immediate view.
“Whew, glad we made it out of there,” Anina said. She had not shifted out of Dayungan since they met the potter, and Sano sensed that they were to speak in it from now on. “Should be better from here on out. The market really is more organized that you’d first think. Too many vendors just try to woo customers from the entrance right away, so that spot’s always a bit tight.”
“Where are we going now?” Sano asked.
“We need an audience with the Great Arbiter.”
The Great Arbiter was an infamous figure throughout the archipelago. Known for managing Masagan’s port and market, the Great Arbiter was reputed to be as clever, responsible, and fair as a chief. And the Great Arbiter must also possess a sharp memory to remember all four hundred and forty-seven rules that governed the entrepot. Sano’s mother had said it was the highest rank a person could achieve in Gila outside of nobility.
“Why do we need to see the Arbiter?” Sano asked.
“For information. A lot of gossip about the kingdom filters through here, and if we want to be able to search for your mother efficiently, it would be good to know the affairs of the kingdom. Also, the Great Arbiter knows me and may be partial to helping us find a place to stay. It’s not cheap to live here.”
“You are friends with the Great Arbiter?” Sano couldn't imagine that someone like Anina would have friends in ‘high places,’ as his mother would say.
“No, not friends. The Great Arbiter just remembers everyone she talks to, and I used to spend a lot of time in the market. This was where I usually earned money and found leads to shamans and mages who might know the secret to gaining magic.”
Anina wound her way around the market too quickly for Sano to appreciate his surroundings. But she had been telling the truth. Other than the entrance, there were clear delineations between the various groups of vendors. He and Anina hurried through an area that was filled with woodworkers, and another with potters.
After the pottery section, Anina turned abruptly down a narrow path. Up ahead, Sano saw a well-built hut and a queue of around twenty people.
“That is where the Great Arbiter lives.” Anina pointed to the hut. “Why don’t you line up for us, while I get us something to eat? I still have some money left.”
The only meal they'd had in the last day was a steamed taro from the potter, which seemed so little in hindsight after passing all that food in the market. Sano's stomach rumbled.
He waited at the end of the queue, while Anina sprinted back down to the market. When she came back a good while later, she brought with her a package of steaming rice cake topped with coconut shavings. Anina broke the cake in half and handed him his share.
“Thank you,” Sano said, trying not to gobble his half like a wild boar.
The line moved at the pace of a beached turtle, and it was almost sunset when Sano and Anina’s turn finally came.
Sano had expected some lush, expensively furnished home, but the room he entered was small and humble. There was a sturdy table in the middle that took up most of the space, and all around it were cushions covered in shiny silk. A foreign ceramic jar half Sano's height occupied one corner, and there was a low shelf on the wall adjacent to the door. On the far end of the room was a doorway that indicated a split-level to the rest of the house.
On one side of the table sat a woman with long, bushy hair, and a fresh, open face. She was younger than Sano had expected a Great Arbiter to be, but there was no mistaking it was her. There was an air about her that commanded respect; an aura that beckoned to him. The Great Arbiter’s eyes landed on Anina, and she grinned in recognition.
“Anina! I haven’t seen you in the market lately,” the Great Arbiter stated in a full, strong voice. “Come and sit!”
Anina headed straight for the cushions, and Sano hurriedly did the same.
The Great Arbiter turned her smile to him. “I don’t believe I’ve met you before. What’s your name?”
“Sano,” he replied.
“Nice to meet you. I hope the market is to your liking so far.” The Great Arbiter took two clean cups from a shelf and filled them with rice wine. She pushed a basket of prepared betel quids towards them.
Wine and betel were customary refreshments for formal meetings. Sano had tasted rice wine before, but not betel. His mother didn’t receive customers often enough for betel quids to be worth making. More out of curiosity, Sano took one and chewed on it.
Bitter, spicy juice erupted in his mouth, and a sudden need to gag attacked him. Afraid to make a scene, Sano forcibly swallowed the juice. It was a terrible idea. The fire that had lit up his mouth seared his throat. To his horror, he couldn't help but release deep, guttural hacks that sent spittle everywhere.
The Great Arbiter placed a small basin in front of him. Anina’s hand slapped his back. Sano spat the quid into the basin, then grabbed the cup of rice wine and downed the drink in one gulp. Both the Great Arbiter and Anina looked at him with surprise and concern.
“I’m so sorry,” Sano said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Blood rushed to his cheeks and ears.
“It’s all right,” the Great Arbiter assured him, wearing a strained smile as if she were holding back a laugh. However, she just cleared her throat, and turned back to Anina, who had gone pale with what must be second-hand embarrassment.
“What brings you to Masagan again?” the Great Arbiter asked. She kept her face straight, but Sano didn’t miss the quiver in her voice that signalled she was still trying not to laugh.
“Sano and I are searching for a relative of his,” Anina answered.
“I suppose you’re hiring a searcher then?”
“No, we can manage the search ourselves. We’re just here for funds, but we’ll set out again soon enough. Is there any news you think we should know before travelling again?”
The Great Arbiter thought for a moment. She was calmer now, and had regained her air of business. “Most of the interesting rumours are coming from the east. A village not far from Masagan was attacked by the Malicious Wind, which turned thirteen people to wood. You’d know that if you'd taken the Kunting route. There would have been an abandoned village along the path.”
When Sano and Anina nodded, the Great Arbiter went on. “King Bunawi is very upset about it. He’s doubling the number of sacrificial feasts. His prime shaman received clues from the deities that the solution to the Wind is related to gold and silver and, surprisingly, the moon. That’s why King Bunawi came up with a monthly strategy. He plans to make a sacrifice to a different god and goddess each month.”
The rest of the Great Arbiter’s news was difficult to keep up with, mostly because the names of the people and places she mentioned went over Sano's head. She told of overflowed rivers, tax evasion schemes, and some petty scandals among the nobility.
“Oh, and there is another thing you might have heard of,” the Great Arbiter added. “Apparently there was a rogue mage from Katam that caused a landslide to fall on a village.”
“What?” Sano and Anina exclaimed.
“You haven’t heard that rumour?”
“I heard another version,” Sano said carefully. “That a mage saved a village from a landslide.”
The Great Arbiter nodded. “It began that way, but after the story cleared up, we found out that the landslide was caused by the mage. The village isn’t there anymore.”
Sano could barely believe his ears. He looked at Anina, but if she felt any horror at the story, she was much better at hiding it than he was.
The Great Arbiter clarified, “Last I heard, the king’s warriors themselves helped the homeless villagers find some new place to live in.”
“What–” Sano was about to protest more, but Anina squeezed his hand under the table to silence him.
“Thank you,” Anina interjected. “Interesting that it turned out like that. Stories change so quickly these days. In any case, are there any vacancies in the lodges here in the market?”
Anina let go of Sano’s hand, and he buzzed with quiet frustration at the way they'd just dropped the issue.
“There might be, but it won’t be very comfortable,” the Great Arbiter said. “I can pull a few strings with that lady who owns the longhouse near the eastern bluff. You know the one I’m talking about, right? You’ve stayed at that longhouse before. The landlady owes me a favour. Seek her out, ask for a room, and tell her I sent you. She’ll give you a discount.”
Anina thanked the Great Arbiter again, and they excused themselves from her abode.
Sano followed Anina toward the lodges the Great Arbiter recommended. “I did save the village from a landslide,” he said in a low voice. “It had been raining heavily some days before then. I’m sure that was the real cause. That village was special to me, and I would never have destroyed it on purpose.”
Anina placed a finger on her lips. “Shh, I believe you. I think I know what’s happening. But first, let’s secure our room.”
The longhouse was at the edge of the market by the base of a bluff. It looked like an elongated hut with multiple doorways. Just like the other homes Sano had seen in the residential area of Masagan, it was sturdy and well-made. Anina found the lady who rented out rooms, and told her exactly what the Great Arbiter had instructed.
When the arrangements were finalized, Sano and Anina found themselves in a small room, barely big enough for two bodies on the floor. Anina requested a wide sheet and a length of rope that she could use to divide the room. When they finished installing it, Sano and Anina huddled in the farthest corner where they could talk quietly.
“About the rumour,” Anina began. “I think someone purposely changed your story. The king probably got frustrated that he hasn’t caught you by now, and wanted to give people an incentive to cooperate. If you’re a wicked mage, people will be more likely to pay attention or give up information.”
Sano groaned, tugging at his hair. Even though he’d become a fugitive because he'd saved that village, he was still proud of what he’d done. He still believed it had been the right thing to do. How could someone just outright lie about it for their own gain? Even worse, although he had saved the villagers, they had still lost their homes in the end.
“Which is why I think we made the right decision to come to Masagan,” Anina continued. “It’ll be easier to blend in here. All we have to do is earn some money and come up with a plan to reunite with your mother. The information that the Great Arbiter gave us is useful, because we know that the king’s more powerful mages will be sent to fix the flooded rivers, and the more wily warriors will be sent to watch the conniving nobles. There will still be warriors reserved to look for you, but we’re less likely to run across other ones now that we know which areas to avoid.”
Oh. Sano hadn’t even thought about that. He’d sat there thinking it was all superficial information. If Anina wasn’t with him, he’d probably be stuck at the end of King Bunawi’s sword by now.
“Thank you, Anina,” Sano said, meaning every word. “I know you’re risking your life just by being with me.”
“It’s fine.” Anina’s cheeks grew ruddy. “Look, I just really need to meet the Hermit Mage. You can thank me by earning lots of money. For now, we should wash up and get a good night’s sleep.”
Anina got up and disappeared behind the curtain to her side of the room. Left alone, Sano leaned against the wall, cherishing a few moments of deep, silent breathing. The last few days had been a blur. It was almost like he’d lived an entire life in such a short span of time. But perhaps he only felt that way because he had never quite considered his life in the forest as truly living.
Overall, there wasn’t much Sano could complain about. After all, he had managed to avoid the worst outcome. He and Anina had slipped through the grasp of King Bunawi’s warriors twice so far. And if Anina could face the challenges ahead, then so could he. He owed it to her. She said they needed a lot of money? Well then, Sano would earn a lot of money.