4 – When you spike with your spear, strike true. In the aftermath of the battle, if you win, eat it for it is a delicious meal. If you lose, then you have been eaten. Your combat was not noble enough. Thus does suffering begin: when your combat is not worth anything.From the 58th Sermon of Si Kumikislap, Makinaadmanon of Spears
The chase did not die down, but the sea was calm. They moved through it at a rapid clip. Bangahom let the trade winds do the blowing for them, and they fell into Bakong’s palanquin, immediately falling asleep.
Masuna carried Bakong into the palanquin and down into her bed. When Bakong realized that she was holding on to Masuna, she quickly let go and looked away.
Masuna stood up and moved a respectable distance away.
There was silence. Then, “May the majesty excuse me and forgive me for their servant’s incompetence. I will do better, if given the chance.”
Bakong ran her hand across her hair, remembered that she had chopped it off. She sighed. With a blanket, she reached down and wrapped it around her so that she was covering her demon hand. “No, it’s okay. Thank you for coming to rescue me. I… wish I could’ve protected myself.”
Masuna shook his head. “That’s my job. It’s all right. You don’t have to worry. We’ll see to this job finished and you will no longer be in danger. Being married to a prince of Akai is a huge boon of protection to you, after all.”
Bakong looked down upon her hand and nodded once. With a sigh, she said, “I guess.”
“I will get you some water, maybe food. Your shawl and sarok…?”
“Taken,” replied Bakong.
Masuna watched her for a few more moments, before sighing and nodding. He turned around and left the palanquin.
Bakong was left in silence, framed by the sound of the barge cutting through the sea’s waves.
Outside, Masuna went over to the rattan baskets of food and scooped out a cup of fresh water from one of the clay jars. As he walked over, Kiyam sauntered over, dragging now on an opium pipe. “The binukot?”
“Alive,” said Masuna. “Safe.”
“Datu Tabak is a feisty one, after all,” said Kiyam. “I guess I should’ve mentioned. Fucker’s jovial with his servants.”
“Was. I’ve impaled my kampilan through his heart.”
Kiyam paused at that, cat eyes shaking for a moment, before he shrugged and said, “Getting killed in the islands is a challenge when a Datu has access to multiple balyan.” Then, with a shrug, he turned and walked over to his sailing crew.
“Worry not,” said Masuna as Kiyam walked. “I’ll take care of that when the time comes.”
Kiyam nodded without looking at Masuna.
Back in Bakong’s palanquin, Masuna gave her the water and some rice baked into cakes. “Eat.”
Bakong winced. She was staring off into the walls of her palanquin.
Masuna, brow furrowed, took her chin gently and moved it so that he could see all of her face. Bakong winced again, but didn’t resist. A cut ran down the side of her face, along with various parts of her arms being covered in bruises.
Masuna sighed. “Stay still.”
“Can I eat?”
Masuna nodded as he turned about and eventually found the rattan bag filled with herbal poultices, a bag he had made himself. He opened it and took out a few dried leaves of differing colors and then poured some water upon it. Then he moved over to Bakong and placed the leaves along her bruises, and then against the cut on the left side of her face. She winced as he applied them, but the poultices stuck thanks to the natural adhesive. She kept eating.
“There. Do not take it off for a day, so that it works completely.”
Silent again, Bakong nodded. “Thank you, Masuna.”
Masuna shook his head. “It is my duty, your highness, as your sword.”
Bakong smiled. “Just for this moment, can you treat me as just Bakong?”
Masuna swallowed. He didn’t know it but he pulled away at that moment. “A-Ah, I shall think about it, your highness. Please, enjoy your food.”
Bakong looked down on her food and smiled, sad. Masuna rose to his feet and began walking away. As he was at the edge of the palanquin, Bakong said, “Masuna. Can you answer me a few questions?”
“What would that be, bayi?” He turned around and hovered by the exit.
“This is the world as we see it, yes?” asked Bakong. “This is the world as it has always been? People being treated as objects to trade, blood being spilled across the isles. A few controlling the most. The land the receptacle for all this atrocity…?”
Masuna paused for a moment, and then without a beat he said. “Yes, I’m afraid. It has been like this for as long as I’ve been alive, has been like this since times ancient, and so it shall be until the end of this wretched time.”
“How do people go on? In such a horrible world, in such a blasphemous and unending hell?”
Masuna felt like a spear had been thrust through his chest. He shrugged, and then said, “We choose to.” And then he left the palanquin.
Outside of the palanquin again, Masuna tried to embrace the bright sun and swift sea winds. The spear that pierced through his heart held a single thought: She has finally seen the world.
Bakong ate her rice cakes. Every time she broke off a piece of the rice cake with her teeth, she winced as a warm pain emanated from her wound. Thankfully, the poultices that Masuna had given her cooled it down immediately afterward.
In everything there are souls, Panday Isbara had said, her sorceress teacher. Everything has a kalag, that genius within us all. Souls of natural objects are known as diwata, and they have never been alive. These diwata interact with other diwata. A sword diwata clashes against a shield diwata. A healing diwata inflicts violence upon diwata of infection and disease.
That was how balyan healing practices worked. Bakong had to be taught this, as she was never given the chance to be like a balyan. Instead, she was the one that chose to become a sorceress. A busalian amongst them.
She reached up and touched the poultice. Wounded. She was wounded. Such deep cuts she has never gotten before. All of her wounds had come from her sparring sessions, and that was never with the intention to kill. For most of her life, her porcelain skin–which was now almost immediately burning brown, as if the sun was burning away that fake sheen of pale from her skin–had been untouched.
The pain that blossomed from her wounds left her numb. Injuring such pain but being able to move on afterwards, able to have it heal. Living with wounds… is this what life was? Walking forward with a pain-changed heart?
She stared at Bangahom, who was sleeping. Sorcery tired out even yawa, she thought. But again she realized, just how much they and Masuna had sacrificed for her. Not just that, but seeing all the blood spilled by Masuna, all the warriors–unarmored and simply doing their job–decapitated by his lightning quick kampilan cuts?
Dark fingers wrapped around Bakong’s heart.
Was this the world she had dreamed of flying through? A world of suffering and vanity? Of violence and want?
Her thoughts roiled about her, like the sea whirling. Like the brine of waves against the rocks at the base of a cliff. She was here now. No longer kept within her bukot. She was now part of this world, finally, and for better or for worse.
She looked down at her hand. Bakong realized, then, that she should have known this was how the world revolved. Her own father treated her as basically an item to be traded for better trade connections and allegiances with other states. She had been in this world for longer than she had known.
She wondered immediately then if anyone had decided to change it in the least. If there was even a hint of remorse, of justice. The epics told to her by singers now were framed in a different light: the people that these heroes ‘saved’ might just be more servants given to the hero’s fellow warriors and nobles.
With a sigh, she finished her water and fell back into her silks.
The merchant barge sailed on until the sun threatened to vanish once again into the horizon, descending into that underworld where the dead toiled for nine lifetimes. As they did, Kiyam noted that there was another settlement that they could settle down on for the night. Far enough from Datu Tabak’s banwa that they could stay there safely.
Masuna, who sat on the outriggers with his servants, nodded. “Put’wan.”
“Aye. That grand ancient city, once the center of these islands.”
“I know the place. It’s potentially much more dangerous than Datu Tabak’s banwa, but it is much easier to vanish there.”
“Good. We’ll dock there, then, and leave at first light. The winds during the night during this season of the taloto flowers blooming is not a good omen, and a tigmamanukan flew across us just before we left. Never a good sign.”
Masuna nodded. “Let us not test the patience of our ancestors.” Masuna sighed and looked off into the horizon. He had been to Put’wan. He had lived there, in times bygone. That was where he learned the secrets of the sword, in conjunction with training in his hometown.
Kiyam nodded, and then he signalled to his servants to follow the trade winds. The winds led directly to Put’wan. All the servants ceased their rowing. Bringing their oars with them, they rested upon the boat.
Masuna went back to Bakong’s palanquin. When he came in, he found that she was fast asleep.
He tried his best to tread lightly, but it seemed that she was primed to notice his presence. She blinked open and pushed herself from the bed. “Masuna? Is it time to remove the leaves?”
“A-ah, no, your highness. Please, keep resting. That’ll let you recover your vitality quicker.”
“Masuna.” She stood up. “I feel sick.”
“That is the poultice doing it’s work. Thus why you must rest.”
Bakong wiped her eyes and then looked at Masuna. “Where are we? Are we close to the islands of Akai?”
Masuna shook his head. “Not yet. We follow the trade currents. We will dock by Put’wan for a night.”
“The City of Gold,” said Bakong. Bakong thought for a moment, and then said, “Masuna, I have an order.”
Masuna raised an eyebrow.
“I… I seek a mentor.”
A beat, then Masuna blinked. “What?”
“I seek a spearmaster that will train me in the arts of combat.”
“Excuse me for my crass wording, bayi, but what? Why?”
“I’ve put a lot of thought into it, you see,” said Bakong, the spryness in her voice slowly creeping back in. Masuna just listened as he crossed his arms across his breastplate. “The heroes in the songs and epics always had some sort of mentor or helper, whether it be a diwata or their ancestors. Through their help, they were able to surmount all odds. I realize, to survive in this world, I must learn how to fight. I must learn to be able to kill. If that is the case, then I would prefer to learn a weapon that will complement my inherent skill at sorcery. I can perform the Hokot easily, striking from afar. So I decided that keeping my distance even in the melee should be my approach. Thus a sibat, a spear. And it’s perfect! We’re going to Put’wan, I’m sure there are weapon masters there–”
“Excuse me for my interruption, bayi,” said Masuna. “But what gave the bayi the impression that they would need to fight? And I have already taught you some of the sword arts!”
“Yes, but I seek to use the spear now. It is only logical! I’m sure you’ve followed my line of reasoning.”
“Your highness… is this what you truly want?”
Bakong nodded. “What if something like with Datu Tabak will happen again? What if you never showed up? I will need to protect myself, Masuna.”
“I… suppose. However–”
“It’s settled. If you will be able to find me a spearmaster in Put’wan, then I will gladly pay for them to ride with us to Akai. They will be part of my entourage, and will be accepted by the prince I marry as an additional marriage benefit.”
Masuna stared at Bakong for a moment, seeing the truth and conviction in her eyes. With a sigh, he simply nodded and then looked at Bangahom, who was finally stirring. “I suppose that can be arranged. I will try my best, bayi. Please, rest for now.”
Bakong sighed. “Right, fine. I hope my command will be honored, Masuna.”
Masuna nodded before he walked out. “Your command will be followed.”
As he stepped back into the barge, he realized, with no small chagrin, that he knew exactly a mentor for what Bakong wanted. And with that, he sighed, shook his head, and went out to drink some alcohol by the prow.
Bakong, in the moment in her sleep before Masuna entered, dreamt about her spear.
She was back in that underworld cave. Before her stood the Azure Flame. Separate from her now. The source of all her power, she knew.
“Mother,” Bakong asked. She hefted her kris. “Tell me. The world is cruel, must I be cruel as well?”
“Indeed,” said the Goddess of the White River. “Lest you be overcome by the tide of blood created by your ancestors and descendants.”
Bakong stared at her kris. “Is that why you gave me this blade?”
“To prepare you,” said the Goddess. “Nothing will be able to defend you completely from the truth of this world.”
A silence. In this other world, the silence felt even quieter, somehow.
“Choose then, daughter,” said the Goddess. “Choose if you will fight or if you will be killed.”
She gripped her kris. “I will… fight. But… there must be a way to remove all this suffering.”
The Goddess sighed. “There is, in a fashion. Hiyang. Harmony. Once you achieve oneness with the world, oneness with the world, then you shall remove yourself from the coil of mortal pain. You wil transcend even the confines of life and death. Your soul will not descend into eternal toil in Sulad, or into eternal rest in Makang. Nay, instead, you will achieve oneness, enlightenment by suffusing your soul into the material. That is what the tawo must learn to observe and fight towards.”
“Mother,” asked Bakong. “What restricts tawo from achieving this oneness? If it can be achieved, why has so little achieved it?”
“To obtain Hiyang, you must perform your task without fail, and without thought. However, due to the teachings of the world, many believe that this is task is connected to your stature in life. Nay. This task instead blossoms from the root of your being, from who you are. The task you must fulfill comes not from your stature in life, not from the hand you were dealt when you were born, not from what stars aligned at the moment of your birth! It comes from your nature as a living creature, separated and at once whole with universal consciousness.”
“Sabi ni BAT-A-LA: One are All and All are One. The great Lie is I. Ako, that cursed word.”
“Then… how do we achieve such oneness with the universal consciousness? You have not answered my question, mother.”
“The great unifying mind has said it thus: there are five things you must fulfill to achieve enlightenment, and through that true Suffusing. These are the Five Wrong Paths: First, burn the sea. Second, sunder the world. Third, break the sky. Fourth, skewer Self upon the altar of All. Fifth, rejoice in the glory of combat.”
“I… have not achieved this enlightenment mother. How must I…?”
“Your kalag wanders away, daughter, no matter how sad I must be to say it. For now, fulfill the first Path to Suffusing. Rejoice in the glory of combat. Struggle in the Wrong Path, for all the Right Paths are made by inutile god-kings who rule the world.”
Bakong looked down upon her blade. “And so I must learn to fight.”
“Remember that the kris is not the only form your birthright may take. It is malleable, answering to the needs of your soul. Should you need a bow, a spear, a lance, a shield… simply will it to be and the strength of your soul shall answer.”
“Before I walk away, I have one last question, if the mother would be so kind.”
“Speak, and I will ponder upon the answer.”
“If I will achieve Suffusing, and completely reach enlightenment… what will happen if I do not wish to leave this world? If I do not wish to become part of the universal soul?”
“Then you stay,” said the Mother, without a second beat. “You stay and become a sage that teaches it. Many of your kind have names for them: bodhisattva, saint, and in the Sword Isles: makinaadmanon.”
“I thank you for your wisdom, Mother,” said Bakong as she raised her hand. She noticed that her fingers were slowly fading away into little petals of light.
“Thank me not for wisdom,” said the Goddess of the White River. “I give none. All wisdom is born from the pyre upon your soul, my words simply catalysts.” And with that, she was gone, and Bakong returned to the waking world.