“We locals of the isles never hunt in the forest or in the sea without an offering to the lord of that forest or that part of that sea before or after the hunt, even if we don’t gather much. We must be thankful that nature itself is even allowing us to participate in its holy struggle.”The Sermons of Balyan Girian
Deeper into the day, Masuna took it upon himself to cook a meal. The Guro had some rice, which denoted that he was some sort of revered person here, for not every person could afford to access rice.
“Whoa, where are you going, little guard,” asked Binayaan as Masuna was heading out with his kampilan in his sheathe.
“I go to hunt a young water buffalo,” said Masuna as he grabbed a few sugob from a row. “I heard a herd of them mooing in the distance just last night. They must not be far.”
“You’re going out hunting?” Binayaan turned and picked up her baril. “Then let me go with you.”
“Does the bayi not think that such a loud weapon would disturb the peace?”
“Nay. There is no peace.”
Masuna did not respond, only smirked. He walked out of the house, and Binayaan followed. There outside, Masuna saw Bakong performing quicker spear drills now with Karakasa. She was getting better, although her stance was still wobbly, and her movements not as exaggerated as they could be. Masuna heard Karakasa mention something about stretching exercises afterward.
“You have an eye for my sister,” noted Binayaan as they made their way into the thick of the forest. They walked through thick underbushes, which eventually evened out as they walked deeper.
“Of course,” replied Masuna. “The bayi is my ward, after all.”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” replied Binayaan, grinning.
Masuna kept silent, raising an eyebrow. The two of them moved through the forest quietly, their footsteps light against the soil and detritus. “Bayi, excuse your servant for saying thus, but what was the reason why the princess Binayaan left Kangdaya?”
Binayaan shrugged. “Oh, you know. Responsibilities. The usual reason for daughters to leave their fathers.”
“Wasn’t the bayi meant to be the next Rajah?”
“Aye. I suppose you can see why I would shirk away from that responsibility.”
Masuna nodded. They eventually spotted a few wild water buffalos, anowang, grazing near a patch of trees. The abundance of grass and the heavy shade of the mature trees offered them a brief glimpse of heaven.
“There,” said Binayaan. “Don’t worry, little Masuna. I’ve got this.” She raised her luthang and fired. Masuna saw her perform a quick hand gesture–waving her hand and raising her pinky finger–and a bullet suffused into the barrel of the luthang.
The shot echoed throughout the entire forest. It missed the water buffalo completely, and he fled deeper into the forest.
“Water buffaloes have thick hide,” said Masuna. “And I think the bayi’s shot went wide just a bit. They can be smaller than we perceive it to be.”
“Come,” said Masuna, moving forward. “Let us make chase.”
“You’re pretty nonchalant about this,” replied Binayaan. “Wasting a bullet has me frustrated.”
“It’s all right, bayi,” said Masuna. “I’ll be patient for the both of us.”
They ventured deeper in the forest. Before long, they stumbled upon the water buffalo hiding behind a thick grove, whereupon berries grew upon brambles.
“There.” Binayaan lifted her gun, but Masuna reached out and held it down.
“Not yet. He expects us. See.” Masuna observed: he saw that the water buffalo would reach down to munch on some grass and then look about, anxious. He kept moving, from patch to patch, deeper and deeper into the forest. “Wait for it. We must kill him here. Being caught out this deep in the forest so close to sunset is not an ideal time.”
“Why don’t you show me how you can kill water buffalo with your kampilan, kawal?”
Masuna looked down at his sheath. He nodded. “Very well, but should I fail, I implore the bayi to be ready at the trigger.”
Binayaan nodded. “Don’t worry. I will.”
With that, Masuna looked about him, up the tree trunks and the branches. Off in the distance, bamboo clacked against each other. After a moment, Masuna leapt up and onto the trees, scaling it with proficiency, using bits in the bark to boost himself up. His skill was so that it looked like he was running up the tree instead of merely climbing it. He reached the part of the tree where the bough split, and then climbed up a branch and leapt from branch to branch. He did this as quietly as he could, and no doubt he’d had a lot of practice.
Eventually he arrived at a branch that was basically right above a patch of grass that the carabao was moving towards. He leapt down without hesitation, blade immediately unsheathed. In the next instant the blade was awash in the water buffalo’s blood as it sheared through his hide. However, the beast was strong, and it kicked Masuna into a nearby tree trunk, knocking the wind out of him.
The water buffalo, in his vigor, bucked and turned to run, but Binayaan’s shot rang out, and it struck straight through the carabao’s head. Birds, bees, and butteflies burst into frenzied flight in every direction, like a ritualistic confirmation, or a reflexive grievance.
Masuna got up, wincing. He fought until he got his breath under him once again. And then, he turned to Binayaan and nodded. “I thank the bayi.”
“No need, you’re the one that got it to bleed. Well done. We’ll be eating water buffalo meat tonight!”
Masuna nodded. He grabbed the water buffalo–it was still young, juvenile–and cut off a large chunk of the meat. “For the ritual.” Then he set about to chopping the water buffalo into edible pieces, which he wrapped into banana leaves, and then they made their way back to Karakasa’s house.
As they neared the exit of the tree, Masuna looked around for a tree stump and eventually found one, as he always did when out hunting meat. There, he laid the carabao meat and bowed low. “O, Banwanun, I thank the diwata for their generosity on this day.” Then he held silence for a few more moments, before he rose and walked with Binayaan back into the house.
By the time Guro Karakasa and Bakong finished, the moon had already risen and the food was cooked. It was an easy dish for Masuna. A simple pot of beef in water, mixed in with spices, broth, and vegetables. Served hot, so that it made for a good companion on a cold night.
The five of them, as Bangahom had just returned from whatever weird stygian excursion they went on, sat down about the large square table and ate. They sat on their sitting mats, while Bakong was given a silken pillow pulled from her palanquin.
“O, my sister is ever such a princess,” said Binayaan, grinning.
Bakong shrugged. She was fond of the comfiness of silken pillows, a luxury she does not know just yet if she is capable of living without.
They offered prayers to the ancestors before beginning their eating. They ate mostly in silence. Masuna could feel Bakong’s fatigue.
“How are you feeling, sister?” asked Binayaan, as she shoved a spoonful of rice and carabao beef. The smell was intoxicating. Even Bangahom ate wholly and completely.
“Tired,” replied Bakong, without another word. Binayaan smiled at Masuna, but Masuna was focused on his food. Proper table manners when dining with a noble, after all.
Guro Karakasa shrugged. “Such is the way of training. Tomorrow you will cool down, bathe in the waters of the Inagos to heal your bruises. I will have to apply some traditional healing techniques upon you.”
Bakong raised an eyebrow. “You know healing? You are also a balyan?”
Karakasa shook his head. “All warriors know the healing traditions. It only makes sense, considering our line of duty.”
Bangahom piped up.: “Ah! This food is so good! What a great offering to the gods!”
“I have already offered,” replied Masuna. “Perhaps that is why it tastes so nice.”
“Maybe, but I taste no hint of spiritual tampering upon this. I’m sure this is all your doing, however. This is the only time I’m complimenting you, kawal, so take it well.”
Masuna smirked at that, looked at Binayaan, but didn’t say anything more. The kawal continued to eat.
“The little demon’s right,” added Binayaan. “This food is great. Where did you learn how to cook like this?”
Masuna shrugged. “My mother. She did it so that she didn’t have to cook for me all the time. She was a weaver for Kangdaya’s royal courts, and they are notorious for commissioning and demanding ungodly deadlines.” Masuna caught himself and said, “Of course, that’s not a blow against either of you, mga bayi.”
“Don’t worry,” said Binayaan, sipping some more soup. “I would know all too well the abuses of my family. It’s all right.”
Bakong nodded in agreement as she also sipped the soup. “This is better soup than any of my cooks could’ve made. How did you do this?”
“I travel on my own, bayi,” replied Masuna. “I worked and gathered my own herbs and ingredients, found out the hard way what worked and what didn’t. The herbs I bring in my little healing satchel aren’t only for healing, some of them are good for enhancing the taste.” He pulled out a few black balls and some bay leaves. “Such as these as well as just a few tinges of cinnamon. Just little flakes, as I only have two sticks. Cinnamon is rare in the Gatusan region.”
Karakasa grinned. “I remember now what brother Rabong had told me! That training you, Masuna, was never an empty endeavor. It seems you always filled him up with your cooking.”
Masuna nodded, looked down. “I suppose.”
“No need to go all shy on us now, kawal. Bask in the glory of your expertise. You deserve it.”
But Masuna was not exactly used to working with praise, and so he decided not to.
The rest of the night went on as such. Binayaan and Bangahom offered to wash the dishes, as thanks for Masuna cooking the food. Masuna resisted at first–it was no problem to him to wash the dishes, and the quiet routine had become a sort of meditation for him–but eventually he relented, letting Bangahom carry clay plates and wooden spoons with his pohon, his occult power. Bakong had been thoroughly tired out. She asked permission to retire early, and Karakasa gave her that leisure.
Outside, Masuna caught up to the guro as the frog spearmaster was gathering stray wood, planning to carry them into the annex where he stored his natural resources.
“How was the bayi?” asked Masuna as he ran over and helped Karakasa pick up stray pieces of wood and even fragments of broken sugob.
“Competent,” replied Karakasa, grinning. “As you all are. Remember, in martial arts, there is none too green to begin.”
“I understand that, of course I do.”
“And don’t worry about her resolve, Masuna. She is your ward. She exhibits conviction.”
“But is it enough? To let her do what she wants? To let her do what she needs to do?”
Karakasa shrugged. He picked up a fallen branch and threw it in the direction of the forest. “That remains to be seen. I will have to train her for a few more moons. You cannot rush the art.”
Masuna sighed. “Then, would it be too much for the Guro to ask them to come along with us? On the ride to Jambangan?”
At that, Karakasa raised his eyebrow. “Hm? And what would that entail? If I remember correctly, she is to be wed to a prince of Akai. A Katchil, one of the 78 Moon Princes of the Lunar Sultana.”
Masuna nodded at that. “You would be given housing and proper treatement in Jambangan, of course. You know how nobles treat those that train their children.”
Karakasa stopped, began pondering. “Hm… now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem that half bad. Perhaps I will be able to get a house near the Sultan’s Astan, a grand old mini palace all to myself…”
“Perhaps,” replied Masuna. “And you know, with the Sultana’s wealth, that would simply be one of the many things that will be given to you, I’m sure.”
“It is an enticing prospect, and I am sure I will be treated as a vassal.”
Masuna nodded. Karakasa thought for a moment. He leaned on a wooden stick.
The moon was low, showing its horns. The wind was cold tonight, as it always was. In the distance, the sound of embarking boats upon the sullen cold sea waves.
“You know what, let’s do it. I’ve got nothing to shackle me down here anyway,” replied Karakasa. “Not ever since Rabong…”
Another silence. Masuna only nodded. “Perhaps you will be able to keep your mind occupied in Jambangan. Who knows, maybe even begin an entire martial art training temple of your own?”
“An enticing and titillating thought,” replied Karakasa, nodding. “Thank you, Masuna. When do you disembark for Jambangan?”
“I was thinking as soon as possible. On the morrow? The earlier we get to Jambangan the better. Less chance of the binukot falling into the wrong hands.”
“You’ve been given a heavy burden, Masuna,” said Karakasa. “To bring the daughter of a Rajah you serve so faithfully. What a dangerous task.”
“It is not my job to question the difficulty of a task, guro,” replied Masuna. “For better or for worse. I will do everything in my ability to perform the job and finish it faithfully.”
Karakasa looked down in worry at Masuna. He didn’t say anything more. “Do you still have Rabong’s moves?”
Masuna raised an eyebrow. “Of course. Guro Rabong’s teachings have been essential to my success as a kawal.”
Karakasa raised a stick that he carried in a basic swordsman stance. “Show me, then.”
Masuna opened his mouth, wanting to say something about it being too late or too early for this, that maybe they should be resting. But it was the guro that initiated it. Who was he to deny him? Masuna raised a stick as well. “My conviction is iron.”