“The cosmos, the sky, the heavens and the earths and the hells: they will pass, fade away, like sand washed away by the waves of time. And our kind, all we do is fight. We engage in such violence that the gods look away, and the devils bow down in the grandeur of our bloodshed. Like a river, it flows. It ever cycles: our violence flows to the sea of time, and then simply returns to the peak of the mountain through the rain. Will there ever be a time that our warring nations will achieve peace? Or is peace simply not a portion of our nature? Who is to dictate our nature?
I bring this spear and shield before you, great Brother Thunderbolt, so that I may slay you, and perhaps I will free my people from this horrible cycle. The river flows, Diwasin Kilat, God of Lightning, but perhaps I can stop it.”The Song of the Rajaraya
They brought Bakong back into her palanquin, and the healer performed quick work.
“Thankfully,” said the asug, who introduced herself as Amuyog. “This is a relatively easy venom to remove. It has subsided for now, thank the diwata.” Bakong, who was awake, had half a mind to blame her demon blood.
“I have placed the proper poultices,” continued Asug Amuyog. “The diwata of the venom are being exorcized as we speak.” She spoke with a clear tone. Practiced. She has had to speak in this way her entire life. “It is a good idea to rest, however. Whatever the bayi’s soul is, it is helping fight off the diwata of disease.”
“We thank you, Asug Amuyog,” said Binayaan, bowing. “You may return to whatever you are doing. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
“Ah! Please no, bayi. The putli need not give me such reverence, it is unbecoming. But I thank the bayi nonetheless.” Putli, the term for princess in Gatusan. A term that Bakong has never been called before. Something Bakong has deeply wished to be called. “Here, this ginger tea should be good to help recovery.” Amuyog pointed to the ginger tea she had poured for Bakong that now sat upon a clay plate. She then stood and bowed low to both Bakong and Binayaan, before leaving the palanquin, with her body bowed and never looking away from them until she was completely out. Bakong marvelled at such a custom, something she had been facing all her life. Out here, in the brink of death, with the enemy’s blade having been lodged into her, as if the world has defiled her forever, she found it charming, if not useless.
“How are you feeling?” Binayaan’s voice was loud and hoarse, snapping Bakong out of her reverie.
Bakong nodded a few times before finding the words. “At least I was able to use the moves that Guro Karakasa has been teaching me.”
Binayaan smiled, nodded. “Did she say what she was?” The Invincible Gun Princess leaned against the walls of her palanquin. “Lawaan had been such a faithful follower to me, though. I can hardly believe she would do something as blasphemous as that. May the ancestors look at her with grace.”
“Lawaan said that she was one of the 87 Swords of the Star.”
Binayaan blinked. “I… see.”
The silence was a confession. Bakong picked up on it: “Do you know what they are, sister?”
Binayaan nodded. “Yes. Just recently, though, from Guro Karakasa. According to Virbanwan folklore, they are the ones that follow after the Hero of Prophecy. As his followers, they are meant to be the Hero of Prophecy’s protectors and warriors. At least, that’s what I remember.”
“Well….” Bakong stared up at the ceiling for a moment. She thought, deep. Then, she said, “I met my mother when we were stranded on an island, before we arrived at Tinubuan,” she admitted. “The Goddess of the White River, she called herself.” Saying it out loud made it sound like she had dreamed up that encounter after listening to too much songtales from a priest-healer.
“So it’s true. You are the daughter of a demon?” Binayaan scoffed. “I mean, I would not put it past Father.”
Bakong smiled at that and said, “What, the demon arm didn’t give it away?”
Binayaan smirked. “Hey, who knows, maybe you’d have gotten that from some sorcerer’s deal or something.” The Gun Princess shrugged. She sat upon the ground with her leg up, in the manner of lax sailors and mercenaries. “What did your demon mother tell you?”
“That I was to travel to Jambangan and to meet with Aunt Puasa.”
“The iyaan?” asked Binayaan, stroking her chin. Iyaan, a local term for aunt. “The iyaan was a warlord general once, if I remember correctly. One who served the grand mountain confederations of Pannai’s datu. Now she has changed allegiances, and is a warlord on command for Datu Gakiskisim, one of the many warlords that serve the Sultana.”
Bakong nodded at the new information. “I simply thought Iyaan Puasa had decided to stay away from Gatusan to ignore going into raids again.”
“Well, no. I met the iyaan a few moons ago. She’s doing well, but I met her during a raid that she was conducting on a nearby settlement. It was one of those kindly raids: all they did was collect workers for the Sultana, killed no one, really. Let them leave. It was par for the course for her, I think.”
“I wonder what Aunt Puasa has for me,” said Bakong, her thoughts wandering. She has never met her Aunt Puasa before. She had no expectations, no presumptions.
“No doubt it might hold answers about this… Hero of Prophecy and the 87 Swords of the Star shit,” Binayaan snarled, with a tiredness that Bakong felt all too well.
“I still do not fully grasp it. What I now understand is that I may have entered into an arena that is much, much larger than me.” In truth, Bakong has been feeling that ever since she left her bukot, her enclosure in the seaside cave. She has felt that ever since she stepped into that village with Masuna.
Masuna. She wondered if she was doing well. She always did. But so far away from him while having things to worry about on her own… it did not make her anxious. It made her worried. Oh how she wished to have Masuna’s firm hand upon hers again.
Binayaan nodded at that. “In that you are right. I’m used to big stages, but I’m still lost as to our place in all this. What a strange time.” A pause. A silence, for all those that must rest. “You do not wish to be wed, do you?”
The question to which Bakong knew the answer to. She shook her head. Not too quickly. She wasn’t sure herself.
“Why?” Binayaan asked. “Do you love someone else?”
Bakong stared at the ceiling. Her answer did not come as easily as she’d like. Doubts filled her mind. “Nay. Not right now. I… I do not know.”
Binayaan breathed, letting the tension in the room loosen. “Very well then. I’ll leave you to heal. The new Bangahom that you have somehow conjured up is riling the crew.”
Bakong laughed, showing her teeth. “Bangahom chose that form herself. She is a girl now, she says.”
Binayaan mopped her face with her hands. “Good for her.” And with that, she left the palanquin.
Alone again. Bakong lay still. The healing fumes that steamed from the clay pot beside her had an aromatic smell, one that helped her mind float. She found that, despite her maelstrom of thoughts— who are the 87 Swords of the Star? How is Masuna? How is the Hero of Prophecy tied to this? Why must I go to Jambangan? Am I being used just as a pawn in a grand schem?–her consciousness drifted away from her. Slowly, slowly, and then, all at once.
The next morning, they readied to leave. Binayaan had asked Bakong to stay in their war barge, with the reasoning that should the merchant barge be attacked by more Swords of the Star or other raiders, Binayaan and her Warband would be there to protect her. Kiyam’s merchant barge became a decoy, essentially. Karakasa stayed behind, so that he could assist in the barge’s protection.
Bakong agreed to the suggestion. She walked with Bangahom, who was being stared at by both crewman and crewlady alike upon Binayaan’s barge. “They stare at you,” whispered Bakong to Bangahom as they walked up the gangplank and onto the barge’s deck.
“As they should,” said Bangahom, flaunting her auburn hair.
Binayaan’s barge was large, larger than Kiyam’s merchant barge. It had one large sail, a large fighting deck in the middle where people could rest and lie down in, expansive outriggers that had large planks upon it so crewpeople could walk up and down upon it, and so that rowers could sit upon them. The underside of the fighting deck was large and spacious, many could sit and rest and drink and store cargo within. There were lantakas, swivel guns, bound to the sides of the ship. The stern of the ship was decorated with a giant rainbow rooster’s plume, while the prow was carved into the likeness of a naga. Both the stern and the prow bent upwards, so that it looked like a miniature moon had been turned into a raiding vessel.
The war barge was large, although not as large as the royal barges that could carry 300 people, as was the point of grandeur of the Akai Sultanate and the Rajahnate itself. Upon the fighting deck sat the trio of Kadungganan that fought alongside Binayaan: Patima, Sam’baha, and Gurang Huna.
“Welcome to the party,” said Sam’baha, downing a porcelain jarlet of what seemed to be alcohol. Patima looked at her with a strangely interested distaste.
Gunang Hura helped Bakong aboard. The rowers of the barge made sure to bow before Bakong’s presence. “A walking, fighting binukot. You know, your kind are more common than people tend to think,” said Gurang Huna.
Bakong smiled at that and nodded. “That is strangely comforting to hear.”
Bakong and Bangahom made their way atop the passenger deck. The passenger deck, which doubled as the fighting deck, was a raised platform above the hull. In the middle of which there was a small flight of stairs that led into a roofed portion of the ship wherein half a dozen people could sit and rest in. It was made of bamboo, and was similar to Kiyam’s merchant barge, although his fighting deck was mostly plain and used for cargo. Kiyam also held a smaller number of people in all: Binayaan’s barge easily fit double the number of rowers and warriors, most of them upon the planks and the undersides of the passenger deck as rowers.
“Welcome to my karakoa, the Forgotten Crescent,” said Binayaan. “The passenger deck has room, although it might not hold the same spaciousness as Father’s royal barges.”
Bakong shrugged. “I have never been upon the Royal Barge,” she said, smiling. Binayaan nodded, remembering probably that Bakong was the truly hidden one, tucked away in dark caves.
“We sail now for Jambangan,” said Binayaan, with a shout. Her rowers and warrior civilians all cheered and hooted, seemingly filled from their stop at Bahin. They had also stocked up on dried foods, storing them in rattan weave bags in the undersides of the passenger deck, so that they could pop in for a quick meal while rowing. “We sail, we sail! Faster than lightning?”
“Stronger than the hurricane!” Answered Binayaan’s retinue, and they were off. Kiyam and Karakasa waved to Bakong from the stern of Kiyam’s merchant barge.
“So, princess,” began Sam’baha, as they hit their stride and caught the winds. The rowers stayed upon their planks, although they did not row. The helmsman, which Kiyam’s barge did not have, sat on a roofed structure on the backside of the karakoa. He steered the ship with a large oar. “What made the binukot take up the spear?”
Bakong raised her golden arm. “With this, despite not being well versed in sorcery, in the Indigo Arts, I can fire off the hokot mentala. I reasoned that in conjunction with sorcery, I can use the spear to control my positioning, keep myself at a safe range to perform sorcery even in combat.”
Sam’baha nodded, approvingly. “A very tactical approach to such a weapon, I suppose. A strange mind for the binukot. And I suppose that the bayi has also been acclimated to some other martial art?”
“Yes. I have been training in the ubiquitous sword arts with my kawal, Masuna.”
“Ah, your kawal?”
Bakong looked in the direction away from the sun, past Bahin, as they were sailing towards where the sun rose. “He is stuck right now in Put’wan, fighting against an assailant against me. I pray to the ancestors that he is safe.”
“Assailants? Ah, the Bayi told us.” Sam’baha leaned against the bamboo railings of the passenger deck. “The 87 Swords of the Star chase after you, is that right?”
Bakong nodded. “Unfortunately. Perhaps, then, my learning of martial arts will be to my benefit, if the 87 truly do wish to kill me. And I am sure they do.”
“Why do they wish to kill you?”
Bakong shrugged. “I wish I knew.” Her thoughts lingered on Lawaan’s final words: You are to kill the Hero of Prophecy. Could she even do that? She shook her head.
“Well, whatever happens, bayi,” said Sam’baha, and her gaze was intense. “We’ll protect you. You have my word.”
Bakong turned, accidentally meeting Sam’baha’s gaze. She forced herself to look away, “Yes, thank you. You are too kind.”
Binayaan walked over and slapped Sam’baha’s back. She said: “I’ve asked little Sam’baha over here to watch over you, Bakong.”
“She won’t need watching over,” said Bangahom, in her new feminine form. Her eyelashes fluttered. When did she get face paint to make herself even prettier? “I have it all under control.”
“No you do not,” Binayaan retorted, immediately. “And besides, Sam’baha over here is a master of the Martial Arts. Our little warrior-princess here will need all the help they can get.”
Sam’baha smiled and nodded. “You’re practicing the Heaven Rending Style right now, are you not?”
“A-Ah, yes. I am.”
“It’s a tricky style for sure,” said Sam’baha. “To unbind yourself… to control the flow of your own spirit so that you can float lighter on air. I’ve tried it before, but haven’t gone very far.”
Bakong appreciated the intensely casual tone of Sam’baha. She did not even use honorifics or polite speech. “I see. And what Martial Art do you practice, Sam’baha?”
“The Skysea Raiding Style of Mangangayaw, the Sea Raiders.” Her tone was imbued with pride, a little monument. Bakong couldn’t help but smile, as if the style itself was a gift to Sam’baha. “It’s hard to master, you know. That Style. It fully depends on your momentum, and making sure that you always, always, keep moving. If you stop, you have failed the first truth of that Art.”
“If you stop, you are dead. It is an important adage to learn: the Martial Art was developed by premier sea raiders. Both on boat and on shore, if you stop moving, you will be skewered through by some shield-bearing fuck.”
Bakong thought that very interesting, in the sense that she now also wanted to learn that martial art. If she wanted to incise herself upon this world, change it the way it has changed her, then she knew she had to take all the advantages she could get. “Can you teach me that art, Sam’baha?”
Sam’baha turned to her and bit on her cheek. A thinking gesture. Bakong watched her for a time. Then, Sam’baha said, “Well, I’m no Guro, but I can take a shot at it. I’ve learned all I can from three different Guro after all.”
Three? Wasn’t that too much? Or was that the usual amount of masters you must have to master a martial art? “What made you want to learn the art, Sam’baha? If it’s all right to ask.”
Sam’baha grinned. She brandished her kampilan and let the sungleam reflect from it. A challenge to Heaven. “I wish to kill every single damned Pale King there is. My ancestor was Sripulapula, and I intend to finish the job. Maybe then… maybe then we’ll have a better world.”
The Pale Kings. Bakong remembered when she had been told that story. The grand invading force, the ruling class and creators of the parasitic Issohappan Empire. Once fended off by the great datu Sripulapula, but returned to conquer the venerable polity of Tundun, once a grand trading city with constant access to grand Baik Hu. They were said to have been as tall as the trees, with skin stretched taut across steel bones, and performed blood sorceries to craft intimidating structures of conquest and empire. All these things were true for these were the stories that had survived until the time that Bakong has heard them. Their skin was the palest of the pale, their eyes just a tad bit larger than they should be, with ebony hair. They brought the Star Faith into these isles, which the Virbanwans co opted and turned into the Ashen Star Faith.
The Faith in Makagagahum. It was their prophecy—Bakong noted a long time ago that folks in the Sword Isles only dealt in omens, never in prophecy. That was an Issohappan belief—that created the Hero of Prophecy that Bakong must face.
Bakong watched, enraptured, at Sam’baha, with that realization now writ across her face.
Sam’baha noticed. She looked down and said, “Hm? What are you fighting for then, Bakong?”
Her name was like honey, spoken to her in this way, in such a freeing manner. A cold wind refreshing her heart. It filled her with a flame to say the truth of her feelings, no matter how impossible her feelings seemed. “I… wish to change the world. I wish to create a world gentler than this. One where there are no royalties or slaves or servants and commonfolk. One where all are equal, and there is no suffering.”
Sam’baha paused, looking at her with wide eyes. Despite that, Bakong couldn’t exactly pinpoint what Sam’baha was actually feeling. Only when Sam’baha nodded and said, “I like that. You will need strength to achieve that.” Only then did Bakong understand. Sam’baha knew what she felt. Sam’baha had thought in the same way as she had.
Bakong smiled. Such an easy thing to do, but something she hadn’t been able to truly do in a while. “I’m glad. Will you fight for it with me?” The moment it came out of her mouth, Bakong caught herself. What a conviction, what an invitation! It was like letting the flower blossom for a hand coming to pluck it.
Sam’baha’s hand found Bakong’s hair and she ruffled it. “I just might, Bakong.”
Bakong smiled again and nodded. A fluttering feeling from the bottom of her heart. What was this feeling? Excitement? Butterflies beat their wings. She wanted to leap up and conquer the world, establish an empire, rend heaven and earth. What was this feeling?
It felt, in that moment, unfathomably, that everything was going to be okay. The sun was shining down upon their barge. There were no clouds in the sky. Only the vast blue heaven watching down upon them, watching their destinies unravel like gold thread.
It only took a few hours for Mito to regain consciousness. Masuna’s healing knowledge hadn’t left him yet. “Thank the spirits for Dagna,” Masuna found himself mumbling, a babbling crook, letting the healing surge through him like a stream eating through rocks.
“Don’t move too much,” said Masuna. “You’ll knock off the healing poultices. Your bruises are large.”
Mito paused, and then let Masuna heal him. “You are healing your enemy.”
Masuna thought for a moment, and then leaned back. “Tell me: are you trying to kill Bakong because a God told you to do so?”
Mito raised an eyebrow. “Yes…?”
“Then we are not enemies. We have the same goal.”
Mito blinked. He closed his eyes, as his head began to throb at whatever Masuna’s trying to imply. “Then why did you try to fight me off instead of killing the girl when she was right there?”
“Because I cannot.”
“You confuse me.”
“The world is confusing sometimes, child.”
“It does not have to be. I can kill you right now,” said Mito.
“I would like to see you try, in your state.”
Mito scoffed. He winced as Masuna applied pressure into a cut. “Ow! You’re trying to kill me.”
“Pressure helps seal the wound quicker. Now don’t move too much. The purifying diwata dance upon your body. If you wish your wounds to fester with infestation spirits, then you have my full acquiescence to continue moving.”
Mito sighed, and then stopped moving. The cottage that they were in had had its roof collapse, due to the fight. The sun was quickly setting.
“It seems this place is still warded. We can stay here for the night,” said Masuna.
“Are we allies now?”
“Yes, unless you have a better idea of killing the moon-haired one.”
Mito snarled. He had a better idea: it was dealing the killing blow at that moment. But, unfortunately, Masuna rained on that particular idea. But Mito ascertained that this was something Masuna was unwilling to talk about as of the moment. And so, he simply kept quiet.
“Rest here, then,” Masuna continued. He finished placing the herbs and boiled a clay pot, from which aromatic smoke fumed. This left Mito feeling drowsy. “I will travel to the town to get us food before the sun truly disappears.”
Mito was already drifting, the weight of his wounds bearing on him again.
Masuna made his way back to the old city of Put’wan. Its streets glimmered wth palm leaf torchlight reflected from gold. There were still quite a number of people walking about, doing their last tasks for the day, or cooking in outdoor kitchens. Kids stayed out walking with their mothers, carrying clay pots filled with water atop their heads. Some children still played with tops, kasing, as they were called.
The roads, Masuna now noticed, were well trodden here. They were almost flat due to the frequency of walking. Almost smooth. It did not hurt Masuna’s bare feet to walk upon them.
He traveled deeper into Put’wan’s center, where a communal eating area was set up around another large community house, seemingly belonging to another datu.
He still carried his sword by his side. It was not something barred, unlike the stories he had heard of Ananara, the crown city of Virbanwa, wherein walking the streets with a bladed weapon is illegal. Such a constraint Masuna could not wrap his head around, due to the sword being so integral to survival and living in the isles: how else would you cut down trees and bamboo if not with a chopping sword?
Put’wan, despite having only a shimmer of its former luster, still was a major trading center in the isles. For this reason, various freemen have set up food houses that are manned by their servants to serve traders. These foodhouses have become popular across the isles. Masuna walked up to one and ordered a simple meal consisting of rice and raw fish soaked in vinegar. A worksman’s meal. He ordered rice with sun dried fish for Mito, and asked for it to be wrapped in rice palm leaf. He paid with gold pieces as trading barter.
The workers and servants and peasants of Put’wan gathered about. It was a jovial affair: something that Masuna had not been able to dabble in much after he went into service and became fulltime working as a royal kawal. He had friends within the kawal, of course: Amyon, Bantug, and Kahupay, but outside of that he had not been able to enjoy the basic joys of life, of walking amongst the commonfolk, the heart and soul of a settlement.
He watched as they set up a poetic joust. A woman and a man were flirting, so they began doing it in rhyme, rhythm. The woman carried a korlong—a kind of bamboo zither with a single node—and made a continuous tone that the man rhymed to. They did their best, elucidating each other’s best and worst traits, all in the name of kilig and flirting. Those eating would cheer along, laugh rambunctiously, while eating or drinking.
It was a simple life. One that did not contain constant danger.
Masuna was not sure if he wanted it back. If he wanted his peace back, or the fulfillment of his conviction, of his duty.
Bakong was his ward, his binukot. He was entrusted with her, and it was his responsibility to see it through. As someone who owes his life to the Rajah, as well as being someone that does not go back on their word so easily, Masuna is loath to give up on this duty. He wishes to finish what he started.
That means finding Bakong. That means going to her. In Jambangan.
The words of the God resounded again. 87 spikes upon his heart. The judgment of that Jealous God upon his family. His family meant everything to him: his younger brother, his elder sister, and his two parents, who were all working in service for the Rajah, as the Rajah’s servants. They don’t have their own banwa, but they don’t need one at the moment in all honesty. They were happy surviving and thriving in this violent world.
But the spirits, the gods… they have a way of disrupting nature. They are fickle, they are dangerous. And they will surely follow through on their word.
Masuna had to kill Bakong, or his family would suffer for it.
“Ah, iloy,” muttered Masuna, his hand mopping his face as if that would remove any of his stress. Iloy was the term for mother in the Kangdayan region. He ran his finger through his hair. “I am lost, confused, and at a crossroads. May the ancestors guide me to the proper answer.” It was either his family or his conviction. Which will he follow?
A sigh. Not an admission of defeat, but rather, the preparation to begin anew. He ran his fingers through his hair, an old habit of his, ever since he learned never to cut his hair unless he grieved.
Something moved, quicker than lightning but only a quarter as loud. The thunder that followed was the balaraw pressing against his throat.