“Walk forward until your feet are roots, and your eyes are the wind.”Ba-e Proverb
Bakong had chased down where Masuna was heading. Bangahom couldn’t follow reliably after Bakong’s long legs, so they had to improvise by periodically sending gusts of wind behind them to catch up. When they arrived at the longhouse, the jovial air was intoxicating. Bakong couldn’t help but feel a spark of hope. There, within all that joy, there was a bright spot in the darkness she had just gone through. Women laughing with men, sharing drinks and porcelain jars filled with overflowing aclohol. Meat given to friends and allies and even to beloved dogs and pets. To cats and to sarimanok.
Bakong pushed deeper into the balay and eventually arrived at a portion of the longhouse within where a long table was laid out and decked with feast food. There she found Masuna, speaking with the monkey folk that stole her necklace.
And not just that, but standing on the long table behind a veritable feast of food, was Binayaan herself. Her sister, crown princess of the Rajahnate, Invincible Gun Princess of the Kerajaan. Her hair tied up into a wild ponytail, a large silk around one eye as an eyepatch, and wearing her signature high-collared baro.
The woman’s face–which was already pink with intoxication–lit up when she saw Bakong. Her hair lit up in excited surprise. “Bakong!” She leapt over the table, pushing aside those that were trying to get her favor by giving her all these different gifts and all, and picked Bakong up. “O, sister, I told you I’d see you again!”
“Yes, but I didn’t think it would be in this environment!”
“Ah, come, eat and drink with us!”
Masuna came up behind him and coughed. “Bayi, we are actually in Put’wan seeking out a certain person–”
“I’d love to, please show me how you drink,” Bakong immediately interjected, completely ignoring Masuna’s pleas.
Masuna sighed, and watched as Binayaan whisked the princess away to the feast table and began teaching her the different kinds of drink they had prepared. He couldn’t exactly leave Bakong’s side. He was tied to her. And so it was: he sat on the table beside Bakong as Binayaan pointed at the various porcelain jars.
“All right, this is kabarawan. Honey mead. It’s really good, go try it.”
“Isn’t this… not alcohol?” And yet, Bakong drank.
“Mmhmm, good isn’t it?”
Bakong shrugged. “I remember that this is Masuna’s favorite,” she said, and she offered it to Masuna. Masuna bowed low and accepted it. All this teaching was going on in th emidst of throngs of very noisy would-be suitors trying to give Binayaan–and now Bakong as well–gifts and everything. Masuna did his best to swat away any that came too uncomfortably close.
“All right now this is just alak. Just plain old alcohol. This is tuba, from coconut palm. Palm wine! Go drink.”
“There we go. Finally.” Bakong drank it again. Masuna grimaced. This was bound to be a bad idea.
“Good good, yeah?” Asked Binayaan as she took the empty porcelain jarlet and picked up a larger jar. Bakong now was getting ever so slightly pink, and her head wobbled about. She had to be careful not to let her head fall on Masuna’s shoulders.
Masuna was too busy trying to catch her, and prevent her from toppling over.
The royal kawal sighed. Just two jarlets and she was wobbling.
“Okay, now it’s time for the main-er course!”
“O, Binayaan, I’m so glad you’re safe.”
“And so am I, sister!”
“Bayi,” Masuna had to shout over the din because the entire longhouse had spontaneously burst into a chorus led by the resident paraawit. They were singing a popular song of the Rajah, singing about his exploits, his travels to gather wives from earth, heaven, and hell. About his travels and adventures as the conquering king that had to kill diwata to settle in Kangdaya. “Doesn’t the bayi think that they are going too far? Bayi Bakong has barely drunk a drop of spirit in her life.”
Bakong leaned on Masuna’s shoulder. “Hoy, Masuna!” A sudden bravado overcame her. “I’m fine. I told you. Stop babying me, I’m not your baby.”
Binayaan let out a raucous laughter. “Listen to your ward, Masuna!” she replied as she opened a large porcelain jar and put in a reed straw. “Besides, she has you if the need arises!”
Masuna could not say anything more. Who was he to reject the commands of royalty?
“Come, Bakong, this is the real deal. The diwata’s festive drink, the juice of the worshipped! Pangasi, rice wine! Drink this and eat some of the scorched pork!”
Bakong nodded enthusiastically, pushing herself off of Masuna and drinking the pangasi from the jar. The jar itself was large, almost one fourth of Bakong’s entire length. She drank full and well, and Masuna had to stop himself from pulling Bakong away.
After drinking, she nodded, happy. “Ah, hell. This is great.”
A grinning Binayaan barked back: “I told you! Of course you’d love this.”
Bakong nodded enthusiastically. “More!” she growled.
“Eat some of that pork skin first,” said Binayaan as she took another jar. There were piles and piles of these jars, no doubt made in bulk outside of feast times.
“Excuse me,” called out Masuna to Binayaan. “Was it the bayi that arranged this small feast?”
Binayaan nodded enthusiastically. “Most of the men here are my warriors!” called Binayaan. “So you have no need to worry.”
Masuna, eyebrows still furrowed, nodded in an “I suppose”-like way.
As the feast deepened, a few nobles walked into the throngs of people. For the most part, those sober enough to be able to realize and notice the nobles stepped to the side. Those that weren’t, however, were calmly struck by the noble’s personal guard, and they were caught by others more sober.
Bakong bit her lip, but of course those non-nobles did nothing to fight back. The singing and merry-making, however, kept going. It never stopped.
One of them wore a long-sleeved baro that reached his ankles. He wore golden paruka, or clogs, and his pudong rose up like a flame.
Binayaan smirked. She turned to Bakong and said, “Watch this.”
“Kedatuan Sangamid,” said the man, who stood tall and muscled. “First son of Datu Sri Halowan, ruler of Banwa Put’wan, in alliance with the Rajahnate and recognizer of Batara Ambasi’s paramountship.”
Binayaan leaned forward. “So glad we have men introducing themselves now these days.”
“I am here,” said Laki Sangamid, ignoring Binayaan. “To ask for the hand of the moon-haired one in marriage.”
The entire longhouse gasped. In feign surprise, perhaps? Or genuine investment into the drama? Masuna narrowed his eyes at the prince.
Bakong was, in simple terms, unaffected. She sipped some more pangasi from a reed straw as the Laki watched her. With an almost offended grace, Laki Sangamid walked over to her and bowed low, before offering his hand. “Shall we dance?”
Binayaan watched from the sidelines, eyes wide, waiting for what would happen.
Bakong turned to Laki and raised an eyebrow. Just as she was about to move, however, Masuna’s hand shot out, grabbing Sangamid’s by the wrist.
“With all due respect, Laki,” said Masuna, bowing down at Sangamid, speaking without looking at the Sangamid’s eyes. “The bayi is meant to be wed for another. We are on the way to Akai, where the bayi is to be wed to the crown prince of the Sultanate.”
Masuna’s look was blank, but he made sure not to look at the Laki in the face. Such a thing was an affront to nobles. But the royal kawal knew that the laki would not be able to do anything too rash in the face of the truth.
Another gasp, which was followed by a quick silence. Everyone waited with bated breath for Sangamid’s next move. There were some who had grown bored and had returned to singing and making merry as they drank.
Sangamid ripped his arm from Masuna’s grip. “I see. What a waste, then. A gift now tarnished is no longer a gift. You have failed whatever you were doing,” said Sangamid, looking at Bakong. “And you are less for it.”
With that, Sangamid turned and left, bringing with him a whole jar of pangasi wine. He left just as quick as he came.
Binayaan sighed. “Men and thinking they own the world,” she said, narrowing her single eye. She then turned to Bakong, who was now looking down at the cup. “Hey, ignore what he said. You’re more than just a gift to be given, younger sister.”
Bakong shook her head. “No, no he’s right. I am simply a thing to be used for the wily games of datu and rajahs.”
Masuna spoke: “I would caution the bayi to pay no heed to the Kedatuan’s words. Like an arrow loosed from a bow, they said it to inflict harm upon the binukot.”
Bakong shrugged and then sipped on the reed straw some more. Binayaan grinned and nodded enthusiastically, and the party very quickly returned to its vivacity.
Before long, Masuna got tired of the stuffiness within. He waited outside, Bangahom sitting atop his head. “Don’t you get bored?” asked the yawa sorcerer.
Masuna shook his head. “My patience is longer than my blade, stronger than my steel.”
Bangahom rolled their eyes–as much as a yawa with floating droplets of flame can roll their eyes–and laid down atop Masuna’ s head, feet and hands dangling. “You keep talking about your fucking swords and blades. So boring.”
Even into the wee hours of the night, when the crescent moon showed its horns, the party raged on. Binayaan was adamant on letting it last longer than the interruption, to ward off any bad spirits.
Eventually, at the height of the noise, as different groups of partygoers sang different songs, and the drinking stretched on for two to three houses in every direction, Binayaan helped Bakong out of the house.
“Where are you going to stay?” asked Binayaan, carrying Bakong with both arms. “You do have a place to stay, right?”
Masuna nodded. “We are supposed to go for Guro Karakasa.”
“Ah, that damned old spearmaster. Very well then, let’s go.”
They began walking in the direction of the river, whereupon a swampy area of trees stood upon its riverbanks.
“Why do you seek the Guro?”
“I…” Masuna looked at the unconscious Bakong. “The bayi wished to learn how to fight, and had decided herself that she was going to fight with a spear. It just so happened that I knew Guru Karakasa.”
Binayaan looked down at Bakong. At this point, they had moved far enough from the partying that the singing felt like a background, a strange framing for their silent treading. “I wonder why she wishes to fight.”
“She said that she is not fond of how the world works,” said Masuna. “The bayi Bakong, I mean.”
“Ah, of course. She has always been a dreamer.”
Silence as they walked. Their feet eventually landed upon softer ground. The rush of the river Inagos resounded in the distance.
They neared the trees.
As they did, Masuna felt his hackles rise. With a trained arm, he raised his kampilan and kalasag at the same time, just as something quick and heavy, like a lightning bolt, slammed into his shield. Right on time too. The impact cast glowing motes of blue light from his kalasag, as if lightning had truly struck him.
Bangahom leapt from Masuna’s head and onto Binayaan’s. “Gods smite me!” They cursed, eyes flaring up in anxiety. Binayaan kept Bakong away from the attacker.
But it was not lightning. The thing that struck him leapt off of his shield, flipped in the air, and then landed on the ground. Its frog eyes narrowed.
Masuna, peering over his shield, let out a soft sigh.
“Guro Karakasa,” he said. “Not all entrances need to be so flashy.”
The frog thing raised his salakot–a wide-brimmed hat made of hardwood–and grinned. He spun his spear and then stuck the butt of it–which was sharpened to a spike, as was the custom in these islands–into the swampy soil.
“Masuna Kulisat,” said the frog. “Pestilent devils, what are you doing back here?”
Guro Karakasa apologized soon enough for the flashy entrance as he led them to his house. It was a quaint wood cottage on stilts, with a number of annexes connected for a variety of purposes.
“You’re lucky I was holding Bakong,” said Binayaan. “I could’ve shot you out of the air with my gun.” Binayaan gestured with her head to the luthang hanging from her back, so long that it almost reached her calves. It was decorated with flame-like inlays, made of gold and bronze.”
“The bayi’s gun–oh. I see, well, I will hold it to the bayi that they would’ve been able to do that.”
“And if I had had my wits about me,” added Bangahom. “I would’ve been able to burn you right on the spot, believe it.”
“Of course, little yawa,” grinned Karakasa. “Of course you would have.”
“Be glad I am… tired from all the fun making.”
Binayaan then carried the drunk Bakong into the cottage and laid her down there. Bangahom, who was still upon Binayaan’s head, followed suit.
Outside, Laki Karakasa turned to Masuna, who was busy removing his armor. “It seems your work has taken a turn for the interesting.”
Masuna nodded. “Interesting is apt, I would believe. Unless one wishes their work to be… easy, or not involve much work at all. Then I would call it hard.”
Karakasa laughed. “But you are born to be a guardian. This role fits you well, Masuna, and I am sure this is a role that you would serve for lifetimes.”
Masuna shrugged at that.
A silence followed, and then Karakasa said again: “How is your family?”
“Doing well,” said Masuna. “Of course, they get to stay in the Kangdaya royal palace so.”
“Your sister and mother are all well?”
“I paid my farewells to them,” said Masuna. “And gave them my golden ear ornament, for security that I will return. I hope that is enough for them to understand my love for them.”
Karakasa grinned. “A love so ardent that you would give up your guardianship?”
Masuna paused. He thought, and realizing now that he thought, he felt stange. Of course, he should have always chosen his family. That was what he grew up on. Thinking about choosing his guardianship profession or his family was like a sin, to him. An affront to his virtues. “Of course,” he said, after a telling silence.
Karakasa leaned on his spear, scratched at his frog chin. His skin was a dark green, like most other frogs in the vicinity. The major difference between Guro Karakasa and the other frogs, of course, was the fact that he was a giant, human-sized frog that could walk on both legs and fight better than any man.
“Good, good, I wish them good health for many more years to come. Then, on to the meat of the matter: why are you here? In Put’wan? You know that Rabong is…”
“I know, Guro, I know. Excuse me for my interjection. The truth of the matter is that I am here because my ward, Bakong, wishes to learn the spear arts.”
Karakasa raised a brow in interest. “The binukot wishes to learn violence? But why?”
“I suppoe stepping off and seeing the world for the first time had taken a toll on her,” Masuna replied. “It happens.”
“Ah, then your ward is on her path to becoming a full-fledged Makinaadmanon in that case.”
“However she has resolved in her heart that violence only begets more violence, and thus wishes a way to protect herself,” said Masuna. He removed his breastplate and abaca fiber coat at this point.
Karakasa scratched his back again. “Then your ward has learned the most important lesson of this world.”
“I wish it wasn’t so.”
“Ignorance can only bring you so far,” said Karakasa. “Like any tool, idiocy is only useful in certain cases.”
“I know that,” said Masuna. Of course he did, it was Rabong who had taught him. “But still…, it unnerves me. Displeases me, may the gods excuse my soul. She shouldn’t need to worry about fighting. I am her warden. I can do all the fighting for her.”
“Ah,” Karakasa smiled. “Well you are free to have your feelings, guardian. However those are feelings you yourself feel, and not indicative of the truth of the world. If she would wish to be able to defend herself, then let her. You can never be enough, and that’s okay.”
Masuna became silent. “Then… have I failed in my task?”
“Nay, child,” said Karakasa, and then led Masuna into the house. “Your task has just begun, and it is not your task to coddle the binukot.”