“Care for your heart, lest you accidentally break it in your attempts to safeguard it. Remember, a wound far from the heart is a wound not worth caring for.”Sutla 23 of the Wisdom Psalm of Gahumnon Arbadu
Masuna blinked at the binukot. A thousand thoughts swirled in his mind, so fast that he could not pick out a single thought. He decided instead that he would simply not think about it right now.
Bakong, on the other hand, leaned forward and took the kris with her hand. There it was again, Masuna thought. That demon arm. That arm that she always hid so well. That arm that the Rajah had commissioned for her from the panday known as She Who Forges Vengeful Shrikes. That arm was the reason why she always wore long-sleeved garments and smocks. If she wasn’t, she would be wearing a long shawl that would carry down from it.
When that arm of hers touched the hilt of the blacksteel kris, the sword vibrated for a moment before dissipating into little black flames that sunk into her arm. Masuna watched as Bakong’s surprised expression turned into one of acceptance and understanding.
“Truly, you are the daughter of the Lady of the White River!” said Bangahom, who rose to his feet. “I am your servant, Bayi. Anything you command, I can offer.”
“What can you offer, munting Bangahom?”
“I am a sorcerer in all but name!” Bangahom immediately replied, and then summoned a coruscating ball of smokeless fire. “I have mastered the arts of barang and busali, dark and elemental sorceries. If you need me to call vengeance upon your foes, all you need is ask.”
Bakong smiled. An eye-smile. Masuna looked away. “Very well, little Bangahom. From now on you are bound to me and you are my servant. You will be my chronicler and sorcerer.”
“That I can do! I have perfect memory. Your song will reverberate throughout these isles!” And Bangahom raised his hands in a glorious call, and dipersed the flame.
Bakong chuckled. “Now go with my blessing. Make it so that Kiyam knows you are under my hand, and to feed you food.”
“Oh, man. Food? I haven’t had food in forever.”
Masuna, furrowing his eyebrows, said, “Food. You’re a yawa. You don’t need food.”
Bangahom turned to him. Despite his entire body being covered, his offended look somehow shone through. “While I don’t need food, I most certainly like it.” And with a harrumph, he bowed low to Bakong and walked out of the palanquin, making sure he faced Bakong while doing it. The common gesture of politeness and reverrence to nobles.
Alone, Bakong bundled her hair up and smelled it. Masuna decided that this was probably a private moment. Just as he was about to shuffle away, however, Bakong spoke: “You probably think I am a monster, not worth serving.”
She continued: “I have the blood of demons, an illigetimate bastard child of the Rajah. You, being a kawal… surely it is your duty to slay me. To protect the Rajahnate.”
Masuna inhaled, and then shook his head. “That is not my duty.”
Bakong smiled a small smile. “If that is so, then I am full glad. My sisters, brothers, father… they have all left me. Pray, forgive me for thinking you would do the same.”
Masuna shook his head.
“Masuna,” said Bakong, continuing. “Before you go… may I ask you one thing?”
Masuna waited for her command. He began to smell sampaguitas.
“Your sword is unsheathed. I need you to cut my hair off.” At that, Masuna looked up, partly surprised. When he did, he found Bakong kneeling directly in front of him.
“I grieve, Masuna,” said Bakong, finding it nigh impossible to look into Masuna’s eyes. “I grieve for the Bakong that we have left behind. The spider lily blooms in darkness.”
Masuna watched her eyes for a bit more, before nodding solemnly. “If that is the wish of the Bayi, then it shall be done.”
Without another word, Masuna pulled Bakong to him, and in a swift motion, sliced off her moon-white hair. Chopped off so that the length of her hair fell down to her shoulders.
Then, he stayed there, Bakong pressed up against him. A few moments passed, and the cold sea winds seemed ineffectual against the sudden heat of the palanquin.
Bakong pushed herself off of him and bowed. “I-I thank you, kawal.”
“I only live to serve,” said Masuna, bowing as well. “I will leave you to grieve.”
And with that, he shuffed out of the palanquin, as quickly as he could without ignoring all manners
Outside, his legs shook, almost weak. But he managed to hide it, for a moment. He stood by the sea and let the wind cool his cheeks as Bangahom and Kiyam and the rest of the servants of the merchant barge ate and drank away the night.
Within her palanquin, Bakong sat. With a reflexive thought, she summoned the kris. It coagulated from her demon arm, appearing directly in her hands. This is her birthright? This is what she needs to survive the coming onslaught?
O, mother. What do I need this for? I am no murderer…
But she did know her way around the sword.
She pondered for a bit on Masuna’s faithfulness. That he would continue to serve her was commendable, yes, but if Masuna only followed her because of her stature, then she would be sorely disappointed.
She wanted to be treated like a person, not a princess. Not an object to be adored.
With another thought, she dematerialized her kris and fell onto her bed. The wind was cold tonight. It helped her to sleep, despite the heat that slowly crept up to her cheeks.
She covered her face. “Ah, what am I to do?” She said, and then screamed softly into her pillow.
As night fell deep and the rowdy noise of the servants and Kiyam and even Bangahom from outside fell away, Bakong resolved in her heart: She would go to Jambangan, and she would find Aunt Puasa exactly like her mother had told her to. Then she will figure out her destiny from there.
Right before she drifted to sleep, she resolved one last thing:
I will not be wed to someone I know not.
The next morning, the servants carried the palanquin over into the barge without waking the princess up. After the servants bathed for a moment in the clear fresh waters of the river, they readied and began rowing. Before long, they caught the trade winds and were sailing once again.
As the servants walked about, many of them making sure that the barge was working well–and they were encouraged to move about as the sun still hasn’t come up completely and it is the season of cold winds–Masuna sat by the prow alongside Kiyam and Bangahom.
“Ah, did we have to wake up so… early?” asked Bangahom, followed by a big yawn. One muffled by their garments.
“We follow what the ancestors and the diwata tell us,” replied Kiyam, chewing again on betel nut. “If not, then surely our voyage will come upon a storm such as last night’s.”
“Perhaps that storm was divinely ordained,” said Masuna as well, spitting out a seed of the betel nut. “We met the yawa there, after all, and they carried inheritances for the Bayi.”
“Maybe so,” said Kiyam. “Whatever it may be, far be it from me from cursing the gods over it.”
Masuna nodded in agreement. The seaspray rose up high today. Masuna turned to Bangahom and said, “Why are you yawning? I didn’t even know yawa needed sleep.”
“I don’t need sleep, but it sure is nice. By the lightning, kawal, what is wrong with you? Do you not like anything?”
“Sure I do,” said Masuna, shrugging. “Water buffalo cuts, fried octopus, crab meat, honey mead.”
“Yes, yes! Exactly. You don’t need those to live, right? But you want them anyway because you like them. That’s how I see things like what you mortals need.”
“It’s just funny, I suppose,” said Masuna, shrugging. “I never thought yawa would be like this.”
“You would be surprised. You know how the diwata have their spirit societies?” said Bangahom, who was positively awake now, sitting on the side of the barge and swinging their legs. The sun’s rising gleam didn’t seem to bother them thanks to their sarok. “We are just as emotive as tawo, you know. Although we still don’t understand some things from you. Our emotions are singular: whatever emotion we feel, that is the whole of our being. You mortals can be sad while loving, or happy while hurting. Strange! That must be the reason why you die so quickly.
“Anyway, the diwata of the land and sea, the Yutanon and Dagatnon, are treated like tuhay here in the realm of mortals. Peasants and carriers of the hard work. The diwata of the sky and underworld, the Langitnon and Dagatnon, are like the nobles of the mortal realm. They get all the nice stuff, the big epics and stories, the lightning bolts and the servants. Then us Yawa, the devils and demons, perversions of nature brought about by atrocities of mankind, we are treated as outlaws and servants. If we are not being used, then we are being shunned and killed.
“You mortals, your priestesses make it a point to purify some of us, wherein we become peaceful spirits once again, usually diwata or ancestor.”
“I appreciate the lesson, scholarly one,” said Masuna. “I will admit, this is new to me.”
“Not a lot of tawo know the truth. Priestsses and counselors make a good effort in relaying the truth of spirit societies, but most of you mortals don’t have time for a lesson.”
“We always have time for a song, though,” Kiyam said, turning around and walking past the two, into the barge. “Come! My hayohay, let us sing a song!”
And the hayohay did sing into the morning sun. A song of safe travels and see-you-agains. Something in Masuna’s heart twisted.
Bakong awoke to the soft melody of sailors and traders wishing to see their loved ones at home once again.
She looked down upon her demon hand. It pulsated, as if greeting her a good morning.
How long until we arrive at Jambangan? Bakong thought to herself. How long have I been asleep…? With these thoughts, her mind drifted to what happened back in that fateful island. It did not register to her back then, but now that they are sailing away from the island, she realized that she had just confirmed her suspicions. Her mother truly was a demon. A demon goddess. The Lady of the White River.
Until now, she did now know how to digest it. No angst, no, the time for regrets and worries was far done. Now she only felt longing. Longing for maybe speaking with her mother for just a bit more.
But apparently she had a destiny to fulfill.
She sighed again. As a binukot, veiled princess of her father, her destiny was wound up and threaded the moment she had been born. She was going to be used for marriage, to create trade connections and to strengthen her father’s political alliances.
But now… now she had a different fate. Perhaps she had her demon heritage to thank for that, which was funny, since it had been the cause of so much pain for her. She caressed her hair, short now, tainted by Masuna’s blade.
She needed answers first. Doubts couldn’t grow in her mind now. “Doubts are the forest that choke the temple of your mind,” Panday Isbara, the one who forged her arm, told her once. She held onto that psalm. Truly, old teachings have a strange way of making themselves known in the far future.
For now, her goal was to get to Jambangan and find Aunt Puasa. Come what may, she will accomplish even that.
Eventually, Masuna and Bangahom walked into the palanquin. “Good morning, majesty,” greeted Masuna.
Bangahom walked up right to the edge of Bakong’s bed and sat there. “Ooh, the wind is cold here. I can stay here for a bit.”
Masuna watched Bangahom for a moment as they waddled over, and then smiled and shrugged. “How is the majesty feeling?” Masuna asked. “It is still a few more nights before we arrive at Jambangan.”
“Where are we now?” asked Bakong, removing her shawl to let more of the wind cool her.
Masuna looked up. “We have just passed the island of Sakdul, if I am not mistaken. We pass through Gatusan settlements now.”
“I see. Then the threat of raids ever rises.”
“If that is what the majesty fears, then the majesty need not worry,” said Masuna. “This barge looks like it belongs to a graveyard of boats, and that was by design by Kiyam, who expressly did not want to attract raiders to his merchant barge. It has worked before.”
“Then I will rely on that failsafe,” said Bakong. “Have you all eaten?”
Masuna nodded. Bangahom nodded as well. “I haven’t, but I don’t really need to so I’ll just wait for everyone else to eat.”
“You are like a dog,” said Masuna.
“Dogs are cute!” replied Bangahom.
Bakong chuckled and said, “And so are you,”–Masuna glanced at Bakong–”Bangahom.”
“O, the princess and lady flatters me too much! I am not worthy of such glowering praise.”
“Anyway,” said Masuna. “The travel shall take a few more nights and the morning is long. I suggest the princess finds something else to do with their time for the time being.”
“Where’s our next stop?” asked Bakong. “Perhaps I can buy some palm leaf paper and a writing implement there somewhere. I would love to begin writing again.”
“Our next stop is Tinuboan,” said Masuna. “The city of Datu Tabak Mat-arung. It is a trading center. There will surely be writing implements there, if you so need it.”
“Good. I look forward to it.”
Masuna managed a small smile, and then walked out of the palanquin.
“O, great majesty,” said Bangahom as soon as Masuna left. “I hope it is not a great affront to the princess, but I have taken from word of mouth that you are on your path to be betrothed to a certain prince?”
Bakong nodded, solemn. “I am. To one of the many princes of the Akai Sultanate. No doubt, with this unity, the Rajahnate and the Sultanate will become powerful friends. If their interests will align, The Sword Isles shall be in their grasp.”
“O! And all it takes is for the princess to marry one of their princes.”
“Yes. All it takes.” Bakong pressed her lips together. “His name is Katchil Dasig Pisita, one of the princes of blood. He is said to be quite a charmer, but he has been looking for his sandil, his primary wife, for quite some time now.”
“I see. And… does the lady wish to be married to him?”
“Right now… I do not exactly have a choice.”
“Nonsense! The lady always has a choice!” Bangahom arose and summoned that smokeless fire again.
Bakong smiled and patted Bangahom’s sarok. “Unfortunately, while we technically do, the shackles of our societal order are sometimes too powerful. Unless I can somehow manage to be safe against my father if I should reject the marriage…”
“Ah, yes, the Rajah. The one I have heard many tales about. What the princess says is true, I suppose. The lady would need an entire mandala to be able to reject his influence!”
Bakong nodded, solemn. “I just pray that the person I’m going to in Jambangan may alter my destiny–”
Before Bakong could finish her thought, the entire barge shook. Bangahom was almost knocked off of their feet, and Bakong slammed against the walls of her palanquin.