“What does it mean to be a fool? It means to be a learner. A wise man learns more from a foolish question than a fool learns from a wise answer. Respect the fool therefore, more so than the philosopher. The philosopher has questions, the fool has answers. Only fools have answers.”Sri Manushkiwohan, Makinaadmanon of Questions
Sri Batumingaw took after his mother. Sri Hinikut, as she walked into her son’s cottage, was tall, lithe, slender, and narrow-shouldered. Her face was broad and her brow was wide: the moon.
That was the standard of beauty here in the Sword Isles, after all. The moon.
She did not have face paint on, but still wore a large shawl about her and her long tube skirt underneath it. She walked with wooden paruka, which she slipped off of her as she stepped into Batumingaw’s house.
The datu bowed, crossing his arms and covering both cheeks with his palms. “Mother.”
“You are leaving. I’ve heard from the Sarripada.” Her voice was sharp and quick, less like a sword and more like a dagger.
Batumingaw nodded. “I have been commanded to stop a potential bride-gift from the Rajahnate to the Sultanate.”
She thought for a moment, bringing her shawl closer to her. A growing, budding tension threatened to blossom, tense and tender like a flower about become fruit.
She said it anyway, and the tensions was cut like boat lute strings snapped with scissors. “What if you marry her?”
Batumingaw could only sigh. “That would be exceedingly dangerous, mother. And it would mean that Put’wan will become subordinate to Gatusan. We are already part of the Council of Crocodile Lords, the 999 Chiefdoms that recognize the Rajahnate as the Overlord.”
“Yes. But if you did, you would become connected to the divine blood of the Rajah. You could consolidate authority, and whatever son you have will inherit that.” She stepped forward and took Batumingaw’s hands. He was taller than his mother. Of course he was. “You could create your own banwa. A polity more powerful than Put’wan.”
Batumingaw looked at his mother, at Sri Hinikut, concubine of the Sarripada. Thoughts broiled in his head, and the words wouldn’t shape in his mouth. He looked away and pulled away. “Have you been thinking about this since last night, mother?”
“It is exceedingly risky. I still have a chance of inheriting Put’wan from the Sarripada, mother. I can still do it. While Datu Sangamid might have precedence, you know that the Sarripada can still choose in the end who the new Sarripada will be.”
“I am just giving you options.” She leaned close and smiled. Vipers grin less venomous. “I am just letting you know that… whatever power you gain is enough for your little old mother.”
Batumingaw nodded, sighing low. Because that power is mine, Batumingaw knew she wanted to add.
“Remember,” Sri Hinikut continued, bringing Batumingaw close and hugging him tight. “We only have each other. Just you and me.”
Batumingaw nodded. Sri Hinikut closed her eyes in the embrace. Batumingaw kept his eyes open.
When Sri Hinikut pulled away, there was a wooden box in Batumingaw’s hands. “Mother?” He asked, eyes questioning, eyebrows furrowed. “What is this?” He opened it just a peep and saw a writhing, half-dead, black chick. A baby raptor. Sisiw Itim. “Mother? Sisiw Itim?” It was a ghoul’s soul. The granter of power, the creator of liver eaters, of witches, of shapeshifters.
She shut it closed and held a finger to Batumingaw’s lips. “Care and silence, child. Use it only in the direst of times. That is not mine, do not worry. I stole it from a witch that dared curse me. If you have no other options, use it. And you will become immortal.”
Batumingaw did not know what to think from then on. His mother gave him a few more reminders: remember his loyalty! It was to her, not to Put’wan. And never fall in love, never let anyone steal him away from his mother. All those things, and Batumingaw nodded, and nodded, and nodded. But everything felt muted. Everything was underwater.
“Take care, my son. And remember: your sword cleaves royalty.”
“My sword cleaves royalty,” repeated Batumingaw. The great oath, the grand idiom of her father, who gave her her own kalis. “I will take care mother. I will return before long.”
“Either way you choose, Batumingaw, I will be happy.”
Batumingaw nodded again. Of course she will. He will be not.
He stared for a long time at the wooden box she placed in his fingers. It was unmoving, completely immobile, and so light that it didn’t seem like there was an object of pure darkness and evil and perversion within.
Batumingaw shook it from his mind. He can think about it later. Use all techniques and weapons to win, he would say to himself, as he placed the box into his abaca weave bag, to be carried by his servants into the barge.
Sri Batumingaw walked upon the solid earth, the solid soil, unlike the rest of his brothers. He wore metal paruka, however, to make himself physically taller than everyone else about him. Unfortunately, he was not very tall, but a metal clogs that extended your height by around two inches was bound to improve your presence somewhat.
He walked alongside her personal guard, her kawal, who was named Sug,meaning current or river. While Batumingaw carried with him his dragon-sheathed kalis, alongside his full complement of armor (as he always did), Sug wore simple abaca mail and a sarong over a loose skirt, and then a shawl that wrapped around her shoulders for cover, or perhaps adornment. These battle-skirts have become more common and popular these days, as women were pushed more into violence, and were choosing not to take up the bahag. She carried with her a long and intricately designed and decorated spear: flame patterns made with gold inlaid the blade and the long handle, made of ironwood. She called it The Forking Flame, for that was what it was when used in battle, scorching and razing.
They walked under the boughs of trees, leaves of green and yellow and red fell about them in a swirl. Those same leaves eventually crunched under Batumingaw’s sandals. “My lord, if it not be too forward of me to ask,” Sug began. “Why does the datu wish to seek out the upstart that had showed them such disrespect?” Sug and Batumingaw have been together for so long that Batumingaw had given Sug express permission to speak forwardly and firstly to him, as long as there are no other nobles that would look down on such a faux pas.
“I have been given a particular task, Sug.” He said, without looking at Sug at all. “I have been assigned by the Sarripada to travel to Jambangan with the warrior and to kill the Moon-Haired Princess.”
The winds rustled leaves.
“So the rumors are true.”
Batumingaw nodded. “The daughter of the Rajah m akes for Jambangan. If their marriage is consolidated, Kangdaya will be allied with the Sultanate of Akai.”
“Thus becoming that much harder to overthrow. They are consolidating power.”
Batumingaw nodded. They passed over a small creek, an offshoot of the Inagos River. They’d made a small hardwood bridge over it and painted it crimson. Batumingaw remembered it: he did not help. Only watched. The Sarripada built it with his first sons.
“They are,” replied Batumingaw. The babble of the creek made the silence quieter.
“If Kangdaya consolidates power then Put’wan—“ Sug let the word and thought linger. Every Put’wanon knew what it meant, of course. They had been indoctrinated into that kind of thinking, Batumingaw knew. As they grew, the songs the paraawit would sing in the feasts and in the twilights were about the grand old heroes of Put’wan, how Put’wan still held their old cities to the same grandeur as the gods. How Put’wan had ancient metal sage statues and grand gold pagodas, umbrellas of mirthful aurelian that matched the majesty of Ba-e, which survives to this day.
They sing of Sri Bata Shaja, hallowed be his name in the halls of the ancestor gods and ultraviolent forebears, who traveled to grand Baik Hu and commanded the Emperor to treat them on the same level as their trading partners, the kingdom of Tsampaka, which flourished across the eastern jade seas. How Put’wan was eventually given the same tributary status. How ancient Lakanshah traveled to Baik Hu a year after to offer a slave to the great Earth God Fen Ying, and came back home with the Baikhan title: Cherished Immortal Commander.
They sing of grand Put’wan, ancient trading port to both Baik Hu and to Tsampaka, and to grand Naksuwarga and Barungsai. That golden city where missionaries of the Tranquil Faith and the Enlightenment arrive, wielding nothing but weaponized nirvana, spears and swords of learning and of solipsism. They who brought the great Gods Jamiyun Kulisa, Brother Thunderbolt, wielder of the Vajra of One Thousand Deaths, and Indira Suga, Mother Sun, Brightness Over All, granter of wishes and wife of Batarahari, the Supreme Destruction.
The baylan midwife that delivered Batumingaw, Bayi Salug, had sung even more songs. Songs that the paraawit would not sing. Songs that could only sung under the veil of shadow and whisper. She sang of grand Put’wan, as its glory sank as war intensified, and many of its greatest warriors and nobles traveled northeast, to the more lucrative island of Siga, where they integrated into the burgeoning Sultanate of Akai, led by the great Jaris Akai, The First Sultan, The Moon Cleaver, He Who Brings Stars Their Brightness.
It is all very complicated, Batumingaw thought, sighing. But all things worth doing have never been easy, have they?
“—Put’wan will never rise again,” Batumingaw finished the thought for her. Someone had to. “Of course, that is the reason why I am going to Jambangan in the first place. To make sure that that doesn’t happen. To make sure that Kangdaya does not become an empire for all to fear.”
“Is that the flow that all settlements must take?” asked Sug. Batumingaw wondered at first what she meant, a lulling uncertainty. Has Sug asked something Batumingaw cannot answer? But of course, that wasn’t right. Of course it wasn’t. Batumingaw could answer anything: his faithful guardian warrior was simply asking if all settlements would eventually become Empires, the trajectory of all polities that exalted power over all, something even Kangdaya and Put’wan would fall into.
Batumingaw thought. He had debated statecraft before with sages and other datu, listened to speeches from well learned sages of Kaalamdag Bangsa, the science of states. If he spoke with other nobles, then their answers are always crude, blinded by their own privileges, by their own stature. No class consciousness. The sages had better answers, of course. And questions that he had to ponder upon long after their debates had ended, under bamboo flowers and fragrant hibiscuses.
The best answers were always the most simple ones. Oftentimes these answers he heard from the commonfolk, from the lowest of servants, from slaves sold.
Do all settlements become empires?
“No, it doesn’t have to be,” replied Batumingaw. Nonsensical perhaps, when he first heard it, but it made perfect sense after enlightenment. Such a simple answer, from a servant that he had never caught the name of. That servant was dead now, head lopped off in a noble ritual killing.
“Then what causes it?”
“The past,” replied Batumingaw, and that was the answer he got when he asked an elderly servant of his one time. That servant was similarly killed, poisoned when they sipped a tea to test if it was spiked. “The rushing momentum of the river of events that have happened, will happen, and will ever happen.”
“How do we stop it?”
“One person cannot. Many people can.” Batumingaw looked behind him, and though it was far out of sight, he could see the bridge painted crimson.
They arrived at last at that cottage. The cottage of the spear warrior Karakasa, who learned the elder Ba-e art of Heaven Rending, mastered with a spear or a lance, that allowed one to internalize the truth of anti-ruling.
“Here we are,” Sug said. “Guro Karakasa’s cottage.”
“You trained with him?”
Sug nodded. “No one can defeat his spear technique in all of Put’wan.”
“Where is he now?” Batumingaw noticed that the entire roof of the cottage had been blown off.
“I… am not sure.”
“A messenger told me that the Guro left with the moon-haired one.”
Batumingaw stepped forth and walked up the stairs to the front elevated porch. Sug followed after him. The water jar for washing feet was only half full, though it had become ice cold due to being left outside overnight. Batumingaw exhaled, and then poured some of the cold water over his feet after removing his paruka. He left just enough for Sug to thoroughly clean between her toes. Then, Batumingaw waited for Sug to knock.
There was movement within. Of course there was. Batumingaw stepped back.
The door flung open, and then an axe surged forth in a perfectly straight arc, thrown by a demon. Batumingaw was far enough to avoid it completely. Sug’s spear was forking flame: she stepped to the side and deflected the axe, and the axe buried itself into a pillar holding up the front roof.
“Hey, hey!” A deep voice. Batumingaw recognized it as Masuna.
The datu looked within. There was a young man, covered all over in tattoos in the stylings of the grand Mountain Ranges of Southern Rusunuga. His eyes were burning crimson, defiant rage, defiant wrath. He lunged towards them, but a shadow moved behind him.
Masuna caught him mid-leap, turned, and slammed him into the floor. Then he placed a forearm onto his neck and whispered: “Mito. They are not enemies. Calm down.”
That seemed to do the trick. Mito, squirming under Masuna’s weight, eventually calmed down, sighing, slamming his fists into the wooden slat floorings of the cottage. “They’re here to help us. To kill the Moon Haired One. Stay your rage.”
Mito exhaled one last time, and Batumingaw could see the ghost of wrath leaving him, going through the hole that was once the roof of the cottage. Blasted open, as if someone had been sent through it. Batumingaw raised an eyebrow; what has happened here, exactly?
Masuna turned then, to greet them with a proper bow, hiding the cheeks with palms. “Forgive my companion. He is prone to anger.” His hair was not held back by his pudong: it fell about him, weeping cypresses leaves. His chest was loose, lightly muscled, but his arms were taut like rope. He wore a simple cloth robe about him, without brocade: a cloth hastily bought. He did not have his bahag on.
Batumingaw couldn’t help but notice (of course he couldn’t) the loose and soft wrists of Masuna, wrapped around by tattoos that went up to his fingers, creating intricate gloves of ink.
“All is right Masuna,” said Batumingaw. “Be at ease.”
Masuna nodded, turned and went over to his belongings. “Render your slave a few minutes. We will join the datu and the kawal.”
“You ask us to wait?” Batumingaw said, venom tongued.
Masuna looked up, and there was a moment of hesitation. He thought for a moment, that was for sure. Many thoughts running through his head. He shook his head and turned to Batumingaw. The datu could see the dark circles below his eyes. Bad night of sleep? “The Guro Karakasa’s cottage is not exactly in the best condition to entertain visitors, datu.”
Mito raised an eyebrow at that, and Masuna turned to him and shook his head. “They’re helping, they’re helping,” he said. His voice was tired. Mito, at this moment, was his son, and his son had brought them into one too many dangerous events for Masuna to be comfortable with.
Sug lashed out: “You are bold to speak to the datu like that!”
Masuna turned and glowered, his gaze piercing, his eyes were flying daggers.
Batumingaw sighed and tapped Sug by the shoulder. He gestured a small gesture: let’s wait outside. And so they did.
As they found a boulder to sit on, Sug (who stayed standing) said: “The laki would let a lowly kawal like him to disrespect them?”
Batumingaw shook his head. “Let it go, Sug. You saw that he speaks the truth: the cottage has been rent in half. Let’s just wait for him.”
Eventually Masuna left with Mito. Masuna put on his bahag and breastplate, and Mito put on his bahag as well. Masuna offered him a shawl, since the morning was cold, and Mito took it. He was still a child, after all.
They stepped down from the cottage and Masuna immediately offered a few quids of betel nut. “Forgive us for the treatment.”
“There is no harm done,” Batumingaw said. Masuna nodded low, in another gesture of appreciation and thanks, and then stood. “Why is the datu here?”
“Who is this?” asked Batumingaw, sitting atop the boulder, like a makeshift, natural throne. He gestured to Mito.
“This is Mito. The Datu Slayer. He has also been given the decree by the Ashen Star God to kill Bakong.”
Sug blinked. Batumingaw, on the other hand, nodded. “I see. I understand. If that is the case, then I must share this piece of news: I will be traveling with you to Jambangan.”
Masuna bowed low. Another gesture of reverence. The sword is ever sharp. “I thank the datu for their grace and blessing.”
“Don’t think that I’m getting nothing from this, however,” said Batumingaw, shifting on the boulder so that they sat like a lotus. He leaned forward, revealing nothing but collarbone. Bruised. Cut. Masuna’s eyes narrowed. “I am sorry to say, little Masuna, that I will have to join you in your sob quest to kill the one you love so much.”
Masuna paused for a moment. A cold wind passed by them—stray, but it wasn’t like cold winds were new in the mornings. The cold wind, of course, is a poetic way of saying that there was an awkward pause. What is awkwardness but a passing cold? An uncomfortable chill? One that has you second guessing whatever words you just pronounced? All things we do as mortals, as humans, have been accounted for by infinite nature.
Mito looked at Masuna, and Sug turned to Batumingaw. Batumingaw still leaned forward, a sort of smugness radiating off of him. He wasn’t smiling, but he could be if he wanted to.
Masuna nodded. Sharp as a sword, never dulled. Cut bamboo. “Of course. That is what I’ve set out to do as well, after all.”
“Then you have no qualms about it?”
“I cannot,” Masuna replied, and this was the truth. “Let us kill the Moon-Haired One.”
The datu raised an eyebrow. “Say her name.”
An unnecessary cruelty, Masuna knew. But he would not be sheathed. “Bakong han Muyang Kalayo, Spider Lily of the Azure Flame. First of her name, great Azure Spear, Render of Heaven, Demon Daughter of the great Tiger Rajah.”
Batumingaw smiled. Masuna was fraying, and Batumingaw reveled at it. Only a person like Batumingaw could revel at it in this way. Only someone who was so confident in their sword skill—Batumingaw’s kris hung by his waist, dangling, like taut tassels—could afford to revel in tension. “I have been given an order by the Sarripada—ah, and remember that you must not speak of this with your compatriots. I will know if you do.” Of course, a proclamation. Unsheathing the sword without unsheathing.
Batumingaw continued: “On top of having to kill the Moon-Haired One, I have been given the same order by the Sarripada to speak with the Hero of Prophecy, and see if I can get them to side with Put’wan. In short, in a manner of speaking without speaking: this is a Put’wan mission, and I expect you to cooperate.”
Masuna inhaled. He wanted to mop his face with his hands but he knew that that would be a disrespectful gesture. “I will.” He wanted to say more, of course. But Masuna wasn’t sure how much more he could say without forcing Batumingaw’s hand.
He did remember, however, that he had the advantage of knowing… his secret? The truth of his being.
“Good,” Batumingaw said, and he slid down from the boulder. “Be a cooperative little sword. Sug, command my servants to get ready on the barge. We leave by sun zenith.”
Sug bowed low, cheeks covered with palms. “As the datu wishes.”
”Leave us. I’ll be fine.”
Sug did so, though not without a slight hesitation.
“If there’s nothing else, you should come with me,” Batumingaw told Masuna and Mito. “We can wait by my townhouse. Have you yet eaten?”
Masuna raised an eyebrow. Of course, he never mistook kindness for a blunting of edges. He turned to Mito and said, “Go, eat. But no datu slaying yet, all right?”
“You think a child like this will be able to slay me?” asked Batumingaw, with a little scoff, a little smirk.
“Gubat Banwa is not void of surprises.” Gubat Banwa, the warring nations, the poetic name for the middle layer that all mortals lived upon, separated from the realms of spirits and gods and demons and dead. The middle realm, where all things intersect. The middle realm, the Warring Realm, where blood is shed for blood’s sake.
“I have bent Gubat Banwa to my conviction,” Batumingaw said. At that moment, Batumingaw allowed Masuna his eyes, and Masuna saw her, and saw that she spoke the truth. A harsh, harsh truth, like a push dagger slowly buried into the liver.
“I wasn’t saying no anyway,” Mito said, shrugging. “Free food is always a pass for me.” He muttered on.
Masuna said: “I must perform rites for the voyage.”
“You will not perform it in the town, like a true priestess?”
Masuna shook his head. “This is not my banwa. I will not presume. A small rite is enough, a minor divination to see if the road ahead is auspicious or not.”
“It will not be,” Batumingaw said.
“We shall see. Please, go with my ward, with Mito. I will meet you shortly. I remember where your townhouse is.”
Batumingaw watched Masuna for a few more moments, no doubt looking for chinks, for holes in his bladed defense. There was none, he spoke the truth, so clean and so unhindered that it felt too easy.
“Very well,” Batumingaw finally said, like a surrender, for now. “Come, Mito. Let us leave the priestess.”
Mito followed, very laxly, more confident than either of them had been. Masuna watched them disappear into the flower path. His eyes lingered on Batumingaw, though he did not exactly know why he did. Before they disappeared, Batumingaw looked over his shoulder, eyes sharp, eyes piercing, and then disappeared into bamboo shadow.
Masuna walked up to that same overlooking promontory by a bay of Inagos, where the spirit house stood beneath the strangler fig, the balete tree. Its dangling roots a priest’s veil.
Had it grown longer since the last time Masuna’s been here? He wasn’t sure. It seemed like it. The boughs and branches and roots all groaned, larger now, like writhing pythons. Is that what happened here? Does it remember the Ashen Star God that violated it?
Kulisat performed a clapping gesture, closed their eyes, muttered something under his breath in Eshwaran, that ancient tongue, that sacred tongue, brought to them by elder missionaries from the Far Far Southeast, in the Empires of Azure Tiger Gods and Whip Swords. Then, he left behind some rice balls wrapped in banana leaf origami, puso, upon the platform jutting out front of the spirit house.
Kulisat stepped back and waited. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. An answer, maybe? Or a questioning? Inquisition? He laughed at himself. Did he expect Jamiyun Kulisa, Brother Thunderbolt, to arrive here and speak with him as well, just like the Ashen Star God did? Did he expect his ancestors to arrive and speak with him, and give him blessings?
Kulisat realized what he was looking for, what he was hoping for, as he prayed. He was hoping for the easy way out. He was hoping for the gods to come down there and save him, tell him that he didn’t have to kill Bakong—her name reverberates with an ache—to save his family.
Unfortunately, something he has understood and will understand again later on, is that the gods revel in the violence.
They disembarked at precisely the zenith sun. Mito and Masuna stood at the fighting deck upon the grand war barge, the karakoa. They disembarked with a noted grandiosity, though the people of Put’wan did not see them off with cheers and glorious chants. They disembarked as if on a revenge ritual. Masuna felt the heaviness.
Sug came with them, but as the captain of the ship, ordering the servants to row and paddle. Along with the currents and the cold wind blowing, they would get to Jambangan in the span of a day. Blazingly fast for them, and Masuna was thankful.
Eventually, as Mito fell to slumber underneath the fighting deck, Masuna Kulisat and Batumingaw were left standing in the front of the fighting deck, the salt sea spray refreshing them, as they stood under the sun in their armor. Both of them armored, heavily clad, in steel and conviction.
“Our task is simple,” Batumingaw said. “I hope your feelings will not complicate it.”
Masuna Kulisat lied: “I am a sword. I cut without emotion.”
“We shall see about that. But you are under my command now. I expect you to understand.”
Masuna looked at Datu Batumingaw in the eye. There was a silent understanding, but an underlying implication: he understands, but he does not know if he can honor it completely. His life and his family were in Kangdaya, and so was his conviction. Who was he to bend it?
But sometimes the sword must bend. “I am yours, for this moment.”
There it was, the edge. The uncertainty. For this moment. Masuna was careful, something he almost never was: he wanted to say his words straight and true, cutting and slashing. What he said was approximation, unsure, unsteady.
He will be parried, he knew this.
Batumingaw did not respond. He did not need to. “I can kill you if you become a traitor.”
“I have no doubt in that, Datu.”
They sailed on, white ripples tailing their barge as it sundered the sea.